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The Quilty Reader

Lawyer, mother, avid reader. Game host extraordinaire! Partner in crime to Obsidian Black Plague! My bookish weaknesses include classics, fantasy, YA, and agreeing to read more books than is even remotely possible.

Chapter 2: The Shadow of the Past

The Fellowship of the Ring  - J.R.R. Tolkien

I'm three posts behind for the LOTR read. That is to say, I've read them, but I've not written up any posts. I'm going to make an effort to catch up by the end of February - Chapters 2 & 3 this week, Chapters 4 & 5 next week, and then I'll be on time for Chapter 6. I'm not all that worried about the timing, since I am enjoying the process of reading.


First line: "The talk did not die down in nine or even ninety-nine days."


Tolkien does not compress his timeline here - the passage of time between Bilbo's party and Gandalf's arrival at Bag End - newly aware that the ring is the One Ring - is approximately 17 years. Frodo has aged from 33 to nearly 50. In the way of hobbits, little happens quickly. It has been nearly 70 years since the events in The Hobbit.


This is the chapter where we learn the history of the ring, and how it came to be taken from Sauron, its maker, and found by Smeagol, whom the readers know as Gollum. One of the most interesting parts of this story, to me, relates to the taking by Smeagol, and his effort to legitimize his murder and the robbery of the ring from Deagol, the real finder. The ring usually passes from hand to hand by violence and death. Gollum cannot wield the ring for domination, but it made him invisible, and he used that invisibility for malicious purposes.


It had "given him power according to his stature," which is to say that his stature (and here we are not talking about size or height - it's more abstract than that, encompassing power/authority/greatness) was small, as was his power. The ring in the hands of the powerless is a hampered thing - the holder of the ring is only able to use the ring to the extent he has authority of his own. This is why Gandalf refuses the ring, even when Frodo offers it to him freely. If the ring gave him power according to his stature, that would be a terrible power indeed.


Tolkien begins to make intimations about another power, beyond Sauron, which was involved in Bilbo finding the ring. He does not name that power, merely saying:


"I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring,  and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought."


Encouraging thought how? Well, if the Ring seeks its maker, and its maker seeks the Ring, then by all rights they should already have made their way back together. The fact that they have not is an indication that there is another possible path, one that does not result in Sauron reclaiming the ring, and that there is some other entity that wants that other path to be the one that is taken. And that is what may be an encouraging thought - the the Ring has been subverted from its path, and has been entrusted to Frodo, who will not be easily seduced by the desire to dominate.


"I do really wish to destroy it!’ cried Frodo. ‘Or, well, to have it destroyed. I am not made for perilous quests. I wish I had never seen the Ring! Why did it come to me? Why was I chosen?"


Gandalf's answer to this question makes me laugh a little - he says, basically, I don't know, but "you may be sure that it is not for any merit that others do not possess." Well, thanks, Gandalf. Damned with faint praise? Or just damned? But when you think about it Tolkien is subverting the heroic archetype here a little bit - turning it on its ear. Frodo is no King Arthur, no great knight, no warrior. But in Tolkien's world, only someone who does not possess power on his own might be capable of carrying the ring to its destruction. It gives the possessor power according to his stature. The great hero would have great stature. He can't carry the ring - it will invariably overcome him and he will be capable of wielding it to do great things. Terrible things, but great things.


Only a Frodo will do. Stouthearted to be sure, and possessing goodness in spades, but fundamentally ordinary. And because the hero must be ordinary, ordinary is elevated to heroism.