Book 1, Chap. 2: The Shadow of the Past

The Hall of Fire's extended chapter by chapter discussion of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings
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Book 1, Chap. 2: The Shadow of the Past

Post by Voronwë the Faithful »

This is one of the most important chapters in the whole long saga, so I hope that people really delve into it deeply. In keeping with my originally stated intentions, I'm not going to do any kind of summary of the chapter. In fact, I am going to begin with a brief observation from the middle of the chapter. It is my hope that others will help to fill in the discussion so that this chapter (and each chapter) is fully covered. (And, of course, if anyone has any observations about the previous chapter to add, that thread is still available).

It is often stated that one of the most important concepts of The Lord of the Rings is how the pity that Frodo shows to Gollum leads to him being granted the grace to complete his impossible task, at the very moment when he has apparently failed. Tolkien himself discusses this at length in his letters, and he sets this concept up in this chapter with Gandalfs words about the Pity that Bilbo showed to Gollum, and how he was rewarded for that. But there is a juxtaposition that I had not noticed before, or at least not consciously noted. Just a few pages later, when Gandalf defeats his temptation to take the Ring when Frodo offers it to him, he declares "yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good." I find it very interesting that right after introducing the concept of the importance and value of pity, Tolkien then demonstrates how that positive attribute can be twisted by the evil power of the Ring (which of course is really the evil power or Sauron, or more properly of Morgoth himself, and led Sauron onto the dark path). I am very curious to know what others make of this.
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Post by axordil »

A military helicopter that takes relief supplies to storm victims remains a military helicopter. It is still dependent on the aircraft carrier parked out at sea, the one with the fighters, bombers and nukes on board, the absolute projection of power.

That's the Ring. You can't use it, even for short-term good, without becoming subject to its rules, which are at heart about power and dominion.
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Re: The LOTR Discussion: The Shadow of the Past

Post by Frelga »

Voronwë_the_Faithful wrote:But there is a juxtaposition that I had not noticed before, or at least not consciously noted. Just a few pages later, when Gandalf defeats his temptation to take the Ring when Frodo offers it to him, he declares "yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good." I find it very interesting that right after introducing the concept of the importance and value of pity, Tolkien then demonstrates how that positive attribute can be twisted by the evil power of the Ring (which of course is really the evil power or Sauron, or more properly of Morgoth himself, and led Sauron onto the dark path). I am very curious to know what others make of this.
That's an interesting point, especially considering how often we talk about the Ring in terms of temptation by power. Which makes me wonder, just how powerful was (or was not) Gandalf? The Ring contained only a portion of Sauron's power, although Tolkien has never quite explained exactly how that worked. ;) Gandalf is also a Maia, so what did the Ring have that he didn't, even taking into account the limitations that Istari accepted?
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Post by Teremia »

One line that has always struck me in this chapter, about Sméagol:

"He was interested in roots and beginnings; he dived into deep pools; he burrowed under trees and growing plants; he tunnelled into green mounds; and he ceased to look up at the hill-tops, or the leaves on trees, or the flowers opening in the air: his head and his eyes were downward."

We move from life to death in a sentence -- and that's even before he finds the Ring.

Then, of course, the Ring takes this leaning of his and entombs him alive with it -- always underground, always with his downward-looking eyes.

So it's appropriate that at the very end, Gollum will get the Ring back only to fall into the depths with it.

(And I agree with Jnyusa about the Ring being able to twist everything that seems "good" -- even pity, even gardening [in Sam's case, later] -- into something terrible. In that sense, it "perverts"; it turns things aside from their proper course.)

By the way, Sméagol's interest in roots and beginnings makes him that little bit kin to Sam-the-gardener, doesn't it? But then the twisting begins.
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Post by solicitr »

Of course, multi-layered Tolkien was also having a wry poke at philology with 'roots and beginnings.' Perhaps an extension of his argument in Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, where he castigated some colleagues for letting the quest for ancient bits of language blind them to the poem as poetry.
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Post by Folca »

It is standard fare for some to take advantage of the goodness of others. If any of you are like me, there are plenty of stories in our own lives where our generosity, loyalty and kindness have been or will be taken advantage of. One of my friends once told me, "You are the kind of person who is going to do the right thing one day and get totally (expletive deleted)." And he may very well be right, but I will do the right thing anyway.

For me, the ring is the embodiment of selfishness at its greatest depths of depravity. Very often, acts that harm others can be traced back to the selfish desires of the person who victimized them. Consider Morgoth, he began with simply delighting in adding discord to the songs of creation, but to me the deeper implication is he wanted attention, or a sense of fulfilment through the disruption of the other Valar's work. Morgoth wants to be the leader, but since he cannot outshine the others, he compensates for his limitations by acting maliciously. Morgoth passes this path of percieved success on to Sauron.

Both of these beings understood that those who are good, kind and loyal struggle with understanding how cruel others can be. Instead they are patient and offer pity, something that creates opportunity for cruelty and selfishness to succeed. I DON'T CONSIDER PITY, KINDNESS, OR OTHER NOBLE TRAITS WEAKNESSES, BUT THEY DO HAVE INHERENT RISKS THAT I HAVE BECOME ALL TOO AWARE OF.
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Post by Teremia »

Welcome, Folca!

And solicitr, that's a great point you make about the linguistic side of "roots and beginnings"!

Since the borrowed baby (we're babysitting) is beginning to fuss, I'd better run off now, though . . . .
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Post by Frelga »

Folca wrote: Consider Morgoth, he began with simply delighting in adding discord to the songs of creation, but to me the deeper implication is he wanted attention, or a sense of fulfilment through the disruption of the other Valar's work.
Hullo, Folca! :foryou:

A tangentially related thought struck me on reading this: so much trouble on the messageboards (and off, I am sure) happens because someone craves attention or thrives on disruption.
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Post by River »

Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. The Ring is that old chestnut personified.

What is interesting to me is the desires reflected in the Ring, and how much more vulnerable certain characters are to its offerings. Those who seek power are more likely to lust after the Ring, which is why Hobbits in general cope with the Ring better than any other race. Some, such as Saruman and Denethor, don't even need to see it or know where it is. Just knowing it exists is enough to set them salivating. Others can fight it off so long as they don't handle it. And still others can handle it, even to the point of wearing it, without being affected, at least in the short term. In the long term, the Ring is destructive even to one who has no interest whatsoever in its offerings.

Gollum is a bit of an oddity in this spectrum. He lusts for the Ring, but not out of a pursuit of power. He is not out to rule the world. He's a junkie, for lack of a better term. All he wants is his precious, his precious that turns him invisible so he can sneak and murder and steal, his precious that guided him into the roots of the Misty Mountains. No lust for power, just lust for the Ring.

ETA: Frelga and Folca, you guys got me thinking. Was Morgoth really craving attention or did he just think he was just as good as his boss/teacher and therefore had the right to get cute? Because that also causes a lot of disruption and destruction, especially if the perpetrator is not put in their place quickly.
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Post by Folca »

I don't think Morgoth's initial motivation was arrogance. When the other Valar discover his actions, he is met with disapproval, but not severe repercssions. I think he wanted to be noticed, and he realized the quickest way was to be as great a departure from the norm as possible. When is reward is first censure, then a form of exclusion, he becomes vengeful and develops true malice. To me it seems that the Valar sort of mature over time, especially in the histories that give you a sense of the evolution of the stories.
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Post by Cerin »

Frelga wrote:That's an interesting point, especially considering how often we talk about the Ring in terms of temptation by power. Which makes me wonder, just how powerful was (or was not) Gandalf? The Ring contained only a portion of Sauron's power, although Tolkien has never quite explained exactly how that worked. ;) Gandalf is also a Maia, so what did the Ring have that he didn't, even taking into account the limitations that Istari accepted?
I believe the elven rings were said to be imbued with power through the craft of making them? So Sauron learned that craft from the elves, but also put his own power into his ring. Logically, then, his ring has power imbued as a ring of power through craft, plus power from himself.

Why would he put his own power into a ring that he intended to wear himself? The only reason I can see for him to do that would be if Sauron plus Sauron-imbued ring of power is more powerful than Sauron plus ring traditionally imbued with power only. In other words, if Sauron power is the same whether resident in Sauron or in ring, there would be no reason to put it in a ring he is fashioning for himself; in fact, it would become a vulnerability in that case because of the potential for being separated from it. So the logical conclusion that presents itself to me is, that Sauron (Maiar) power put into ring imbued with power through craft becomes significantly enhanced.

Getting back to your question, then, I'd speculate that what that ring had that Gandalf didn't have is that amplified Maiar power, which is wholly corrupt since the ring was crafted with the intent to control rather than serve, and can't be wrested from Sauron's control because he created it.

I have no idea if that has anything to do with what you were thinking. :D


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Actually, another idea occurs to me. Maybe Sauron put his power into the ring he created because otherwise he wouldn't have been able to control the other rings. That would explain why he would take such a risk in investing his power in something that he could be separated from. I guess that explanation doesn't offer much in the way of an answer to your question.
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Post by axordil »

Maybe Sauron put his power into the ring he created because otherwise he wouldn't have been able to control the other rings.
That's pretty much been my view: one ring to rule them all (referring back to the other rings of power).
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Post by Voronwë the Faithful »

That's actually pretty much exactly what Tolkien said, in "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age":
Now the Elves made many rings; but secretly Sauron made One Ring to rule all the others, and their power was bound up with it, to be subject wholly to it and to last only so long as it too should last. And much of the strength and will of Saruon passed into the that One Ring; for the power of the Elven-rings was very great, and that which would govern them must be a thing of surpassing potency
And before anyone comes in suggests that this text was written "after the fact" by Tolkien to justify some concept that he didn't intend while writing LOTR, it appears that "Of the Rings of Power was mostly written as part of the writing of LOTR, with large sections of the text of that work actually originally intended to be part of the "Counsel of Elrond" chapter.
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Post by Cerin »

Citing some passages for reference, this comes shortly after the beginning of Gandalf's narrative about Gollum:

'Gollum!' crid Frodo. 'Gollum? Do you mean that this is the very Gollum-creature that Biulbo met? How loathsome!'

'I think it is a sad story,' said the wizard, 'and it might have happened to others, even to some hobbits that I have known.'

I can't believe that Gollum was connected with hobbits, however distantly,' said Frodo with some heat. 'What an abominable notion!'

'It is true all the same,' replied Gandalf. <snip>


Then later, as Gandalf concludes the history of Gollum:

(Frodo) 'What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had the chance!'

'Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.'

'I am sorry,' said Frodo, 'But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum.'

'You have not seen him,' Gandalf broke in.

'No, and I don't want to,' said Frodo. 'I can't understand you. Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.'

'Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. <snip>'



Frodo's reaction in these passages strikes me as so typical and true. His disgust and his desire to renounce any kinship with Gollum is like the kind of reaction people have when forced into awareness of a fellow human being acting repulsively. I think this kind of social outrage serves a function, because it would be odd if we didn't react to ostracize certain behaviors. But then I think we often leave out the Gandalf half of the reaction*, and instead, accept the idea even eagerly that the person so unlike us as to be a different species altogether should be disposed of along with their harmful actions. I think I often unconsciously think along those lines. I just don't find myself thinking, with regard to pedophilic priests or serial killers when hearing of such cases -- I wonder if there is yet some corner of their being that is still good. I don't think it either, when hearing of robbery or seemingly less egregious crimes. I tend to think indignantly, when hearing of lesser crimes, 'What is wrong with them!', which again seems to be a roundabout version of Frodo's indignation at the idea Gollum is related to hobbits (in its logical implication, 'they're not like me'). I guess what complicates this comparison is the fact that people in the real world aren't under the influence of a ring of power that magnifies the evil within them.

So what I wonder is, does Gandalf's compassionate reaction relate specifically to the ring's culpability in Gollum's descent into wretchedness, or should that be our model in RL as well, where there are no rings of power working ruin with malice and intent? Or, if we reject that model for real life, what kind of possibilities are we denying, if any, relative to the possibility allowed by compassion being exercised in the story?

*A related thought was, is Gandalf's reaction meant to represent the divine rather than a human reaction? Would we be overstepping, if we were to exercise compassion in this way where we have not been hurt ourselves? Should we be praying (those of us who pray) each time for the redemption of perpetators as well as for the healing of victims?
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Post by Voronwë the Faithful »

Wow, Cerin! A very thought-provoking post! I'm going to have think about this one for a bit before responding.

But respond I will!
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Post by axordil »

where there are no rings of power working ruin with malice and intent?
Other than (from the point of view of JRRT's base theology) the fallen nature of the world we live in, aka Morgoth's Ring.
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Post by River »

Gollum committed murder before he even possessed the Ring, and it sounds like he was an unpleasant person before the Ring ever resurfaced from the Anduin. The Ring is not wholly responsible for Gollum. It may have drawn more of the evil out of him, but that evil was already there. The Ring doesn't so much give as magnify. So I think that Gollum was as deserving of compassion as a criminal in our own world.

In fact, the more I think about your post, Cerin, the more parallels I see between Gollum's relationship with the Ring and, say, a drug addict. Think about it. Gollum killed for the Ring, he became a wretch for the Ring. The Ring ultimately took control. So it is with addicts.

I'm not sure it's an overstep to have compassion for those that are unquestionably guilty. I'm not sure compassion is ever an overstep. Hard to understand, yes. Hard to give, yes. But it is hard for me to believe or even accept that compassion is ever a bad thing. Then again, justice isn't ever a bad thing either...and therein lies the rub. Justice vs. mercy. Frodo looked to one, Gandalf the other.
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Post by Alatar »

Just to take this a step further. Gandalf did not speak out against justice. He spoke against dealing death in judgement. Capital punishment if you will. He had no problem with holding Gollum captive and interrogating him, or even keeping him in prison in Mirkwood. What he objected to was summary execution.
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Post by Cerin »

axordil wrote:
where there are no rings of power working ruin with malice and intent?
Other than (from the point of view of JRRT's base theology) the fallen nature of the world we live in, aka Morgoth's Ring.
This prompted me to wonder, for those here who don't subscribe to a fallen world base theology, do you also see a 'ring' presence in the world, and what is it?
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