From the beginning of the chapter to the end of Gandalf’s story
“I wish it need not have happened in my time.”
Frodo sees little of Gandalf for seventeen years, until Frodo is nearly fifty years old. Odd rumors from the outside world begin to circulate through the Shire—news about an Enemy whose power is again growing in the land of Mordor, as well as tales about Orcs and Trolls and other terrible creatures. Though most Hobbits pay no attention to such gossip, young Sam Gamgee, who tends the garden at Bag End, is very interested.
Gandalf suddenly returns with ominous news. Apparently, the ring that Bilbo left to Frodo is more powerful than Gandalf thought. Gandalf had guessed immediately that it was one of the Rings of Power, made by the Elven-smiths ages ago, but he had not grown alarmed until he saw the strange effects the ring had on Bilbo.
To test the ring, the wizard takes it from Frodo and throws it in the fire. When Gandalf retrieves the ring from the flames, it is cool to the touch. Fiery letters in the language of Mordor appear on the ring, reading, “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, / One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”
Gandalf explains that the ring is the One Ring of Sauron, the Dark Lord. The Ring holds much of Sauron’s power, as it controls the other Great Rings. Long before, three Rings were made for the Elves, seven for the Dwarves, and nine for Men. If Sauron should get hold of the One Ring again, nothing could stop him from enslaving all of Middle-earth. The Ring was taken from Sauron long ago, in a great battle between Sauron’s forces and the allied armies of the Elves and the Men of Westernesse. Gil-galad, the Elven-king, and Elendil, King of Westernesse, were both killed in the battle; however, Elendil’s son, Isildur, cut the Ring from Sauron’s hand and took it for his own. The Ring was soon lost in the Great River, Anduin, when an army of Orcs attacked and killed Isildur.
Many years later, but still ages before Frodo’s time, the Ring resurfaced. Déagol, a young boy of a Hobbit-like race, chanced upon the Ring on the bottom of the river. His friend Sméagol was with him at the time, and Sméagol demanded the Ring as a birthday present. When Déagol refused to hand over the Ring, Sméagol killed him. Sméagol discovered that the Ring made him invisible, and he used it for spying and thievery. Shunned by his family, Sméagol left home and eventually crept into the dark caves under the Misty Mountains, where he slowly became a hunched and miserable creature. That creature was Gollum, who later lost the Ring to Bilbo Baggins. The Ring, according to Gandalf, was trying to get back to its master, Sauron, of its own accord; it betrayed Gollum just as it betrayed Isildur ages earlier. However, the Ring did not count on Bilbo showing up.
Gandalf learned the story of Gollum when he left the Shire after Bilbo’s birthday party. The wizard hunted down Gollum and squeezed much of the information out of him. Then Gandalf made a mistake—he let Gollum go. Gollum made his way back to Mordor, drawn by the power of Sauron. The Dark Lord’s minions captured and questioned Gollum, enabling Sauron to connect the Ring to the Shire, to Hobbits, and even specifically to the name Baggins. Now aware that the Ring still exists, Sauron plans to do everything he can to retrieve it.
The chapter “The Shadow of the Past” is very dense, providing a detailed account of past events that works in tandem with the Prologue to provide historical roots for the action of The Lord of the Rings. Whereas the Prologue focuses primarily on the Shire, “The Shadow of the Past” works on the wider scale of all of Middle-earth. Like the myths and legends and epic poems Tolkien studied as a scholar, The Lord of the Rings is full of prophecies and ancient legacies. In Tolkien’s work, the past is an unavoidable force in the present; events that occur in ancient history end up determining the future in unforeseen ways. We learn that the saga of the Ring is an ageless one: the Rings of Power were forged seemingly before time, and were distributed to the various races of Middle-earth—Elves, Dwarves, and Men. Sauron, the Dark Lord, was corrupted by his desire to wield the Ring’s power—a corruption that has since threatened all those who have come in contact with the Ring, from Isildur to Gollum to Bilbo and, by implication, Frodo himself. More than anything else, the Ring represents power. It gives its wearer not only the magical power of invisibility, but also control over all the other Great Rings. This control is what draws people to the Ring and what makes it so hard for its successive owners to give it up. The Ring’s bearers become entranced by and then addicted to the Ring and the power it offers. Ultimately, however, the Ring’s power corrupts—and as it is absolute power, it eventually corrupts absolutely. As Gandalf points out, it is significant that Bilbo is able to give up the Ring of his own accord. Bilbo’s ability to do so bodes well for his prospects for surviving the aftereffects of owning the Ring.
To Frodo and Gandalf and the other characters we meet, the saga of the Ring is an ancient one. However, we must keep in mind that even the events Tolkien describes in The Lord of the Rings—those involving Frodo, which seemingly occur in the present—are themselves ancient and remote, far removed from us as present-day readers. Tolkien hints from time to time that the modern day is separated from Middle-earth not by distance but by time—indeed, Middle-earth and our world are one and the same place, changed drastically and mysteriously by the intervening flow of time. Hobbits, for instance, though rarer now than in the past, still walk among us, but avoid us “with dismay.” Throughout The Lord of the Rings, we repeatedly get the sense that the world described in the novel is a finer, more magical one that has been replaced by our soulless, mechanized era. In this regard, Tolkien’s novel fits into a tradition that includes Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey—epic elegies for a nobler age that take their power from the contrast with the era in which they are told.