From Frodo’s reaction to Gandalf’s story to the end of the chapter
Summary: Book 1, Chapter 2: The Shadow of the Past (continued)
“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. . . . even the very wise cannot see all ends.”See Important Quotations Explained
Hearing Gandalf’s story, Frodo is frightened and angry, and he wishes aloud that Bilbo had killed Gollum when he had the chance. Gandalf reprimands Frodo, however, saying that it is precisely because Bilbo did not kill Gollum—therefore beginning the hobbit’s ownership of the Ring with an act of mercy—that Bilbo was able to withstand the Ring’s power as long as he did. When Frodo counters that Gollum surely deserved to die, Gandalf agrees. However, the wizard adds that many who die deserve life, and until Frodo can give them that life, he should be less eager to condemn the living to death. Moreover, Gandalf feels that somehow Gollum still has a part to play in the fate of the Ring.
Frodo asks why the Ring cannot simply be destroyed. Gandalf invites Frodo to try. To his surprise, Frodo finds that he is unable to bring himself to destroy it; instead of throwing the Ring away, he unknowingly puts it back in his pocket. Gandalf warns Frodo that he is already falling under the Ring’s power. Frodo asks Gandalf to take the Ring, but the wizard refuses vehemently. With the Ring, Gandalf says, he would become too powerful, and he would inevitably be corrupted like Sauron himself. Even if Gandalf took the Ring simply for safekeeping, the temptation to use it would be too great. Even if he used the Ring out of a desire to do good, it would corrupt him.
Frodo realizes that it is no longer safe for him to stay in the Shire, and that something must be done with the Ring. Gandalf tells Frodo that the Ring can only be destroyed at the Cracks of Doom in Orodruin, the fiery mountain deep inside Mordor itself. Frodo volunteers to keep the Ring and guard it, at least until someone else can be found to destroy it. Frodo quickly realizes, however, that he must take the Ring somewhere else, in order to avoid endangering the Shire. He is terrified of what he has to face, but also somewhat excited to be going on an adventure. Frodo is well aware, though, that the Ring may begin to exert its influence on him just as it did on Bilbo.
Gandalf, impressed by Frodo’s courage, recommends that Frodo take reliable companions along with him. At that moment, the wizard happens to catch Sam Gamgee, who has been eavesdropping through a window. Sam is embarrassed, but clearly well meaning, and he has evidently been entranced by the talk of magic and Elves. Gandalf laughingly decides that Sam should go with Frodo on his journey.
Frodo’s response to Gandalf’s story about Gollum, and his regret that Bilbo had not killed Gollum when he had the chance, introduces us to some of the moral complexities of Tolkien’s work. Gandalf is the moral arbiter throughout The Lord of the Rings, and his views of good and evil are quite stern and inflexible. He firmly acknowledges, for example, that some living creatures actually deserve to die. This view is harsher than the Christian doctrine of forgiveness for even the greatest criminal, as no earthly being can assume the divine role of judging right and wrong or conferring life or death on his fellow creatures. But, on the other hand, Gandalf reprimands Frodo for wishing that Gollum had been killed, approving of Bilbo’s mercy that allowed the monster to escape unharmed. Gandalf feels that some good may come of Gollum someday, that the creature has a role to play in the scheme of fate that Gandalf can dimly glimpse. This notion that even a horrible monster could one day produce something good is closer to the Greek idea of fate than the Christian value of forgiveness.
Gandalf’s attitude toward the Ring also, surprisingly, raises moral questions. We might expect the great figure of good in the novel to be able to rise above the wicked power emanating from the Ring, transcending its ability to seduce its bearer into selfishness and greed. If anyone is superior to the Ring’s evil, it seems, it should be the morally unimpeachable Gandalf. But, in fact, when Frodo offers the Ring to Gandalf, the wizard pulls back sharply, refusing even to touch it. His explanation is candid and revealing. He says that his power makes him too susceptible, and that his great moral goodness could turn to equally great evil under the Ring’s influence. The Ring’s power is greater, he admits, than his own moral strength. Gandalf is not set above the Hobbits or other characters in the work; he does not float over the plot like an otherworldly angel. Instead, he is a creature of flesh and blood like all the rest. He is perhaps stronger and wiser and more skilled than most of the others, but he is not perfect, and has the same weaknesses as the others, the same potential for failure.
The introduction of Sam provides a note of levity to balance the grim seriousness of the Gollum story and the task assigned to Frodo. Sam belongs to a long line of humorous characters from literature known as buffoons or clowns, characters who are always out of place or getting in the way, but whose simplicity of origin and speech belie a hidden wisdom often expressed comically. Sam’s embarrassment at being caught eavesdropping induces Gandalf to smile—something he rarely does—and endears Sam to us as an ordinary fellow, an unimpressive but well-meaning counterpart to the Hobbit hero. Sam highlights the simple virtues and uncomplicated good intentions that make the Hobbits so easy to love. Moreover, he is drawn into the story of Elves and magic just as we are. He listens at the window in much the same way that we flip the pages of the novel, absorbed by the fascinations of the story. In a sense, Sam is a stand-in for ourselves, reminding us that we too, as far from heroic as Sam is, will get drawn into the tale.