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.