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The Shadow of the Past

From Tolkien Gateway
Revision as of 11:05, 24 July 2023 by Sage (talk | contribs) (→‎History)
Chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring
The Shadow of the Past
Date written1938
EventGandalf tells Frodo about the Ring's history; Samwise is appointed Frodo's companion.
DateT.A. 300112/13 April T.A. 3018
LocationBag End
Preceded byA Long-expected Party
Followed byThree is Company

The Shadow of the Past is the second chapter of the first book in The Fellowship of the Ring.

In this chapter we learn what happened immediately after Bilbo's disappearance, and then skip forward many years to Gandalf's return; whereupon we learn much about the One Ring and its history, the story of Gollum, and the decision to take the Ring away from The Shire.


The disappearance of Bilbo Baggins becomes the primary subject of conversation in Hobbiton. The general opinion is that Bilbo has finally gone mad and run off. Some think that he is dead, and there is even a rumour that he was murdered by Frodo and Gandalf for his legendary gold (supposedly earned during his journey to Erebor).

Despite this, things eventually settle down. Like Bilbo, Frodo appears to age unnaturally slowly, which others call "good preservation". He continues to live at Bag End and spends most of his time with his cousins Meriadoc "Merry" Brandybuck and Peregrin "Pippin" Took. Despite Bilbo's absence, Frodo continues to throw him a birthday party every year.

As Frodo's fiftieth birthday approaches, rumours begin spreading throughout the Shire of trouble in distant lands. Dwarves passing through on their way to and from the Grey Havens tell stories of a resurgence of "The Enemy" in the land of "Mordor", far to the east - names that Hobbits now only barely recognize from long-forgotten legends. Samwise Gamgee, sitting at The Green Dragon with Ted Sandyman, shares rumors of strange things happening near the Shire itself, including a story of an overgrown tree-man spotted near the North Moors. He tells Sandyman that Frodo - for whom Sam now works as a gardener - believes that the Elves have been sailing west out of the Grey Havens. Much like his father, Ted Sandyman is incredulous about such rumours; but we are told that Sam is very eager to meet an Elf some day.

That same night, Gandalf reappears at Bag End after several years of absence, and is welcomed in by Frodo. The two have a long, cryptic and ominous conversation regarding Bilbo's ring, but Gandalf insists that the conversation should be paused until daylight.

The next morning is a bright, sunny day in the Shire. After breakfast Gandalf and Frodo sit in front of the hearth, as the sound of Samwise Gamgee gardening outside can be heard through the open window. Gandalf resumes last night's conversation by telling Frodo that Bilbo's ring is in fact one of the Rings of Power, created by the Elves in Eregion long ago. He warns Frodo that his ring is very dangerous: prolonging its bearer's life and bestowing invisibility upon them, but ultimately causing them to fade away and become an unwilling servant of a dark power. Frodo confirms that Bilbo had warned him that the ring is treacherous in his parting letter; he now keeps the ring on a chain, and has never put it on - which Gandalf commends as "very wise".

Gandalf proceeds to explain how he came to be suspicious of Bilbo's ring as early as the Battle of Five Armies, but was inexplicably reluctant to bring the subject up with Saruman the White, the head of his order and a scholar of Elven-Rings lore. Gandalf retells his final conversation with Bilbo before he left the Shire, noting that Bilbo's sudden reluctance to part with the ring aroused his suspicion even further.

Gandalf asks Frodo to give him the ring. He holds it up to demonstrate that it has no markings upon its perfect, smooth surface. He then throws the ring into the fireplace, lets it sit for a few moments, pulls it out of the fire, and finally hands it to the startled Frodo. A glowing Elven script gradually appears on the ring's surface. Gandalf explains that the letters form part of an ancient verse in the dark language of Mordor:

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them

In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

With this revelation, Gandalf finally concludes that Bilbo's ring is in fact The One Ring, belonging to the Dark Lord Sauron himself. He says that Sauron had lost the Ring a long time ago, weakening him greatly; but now that he has arisen again and returned to his Dark Tower in Mordor, he is once again becoming a threat to all the Free Peoples of Middle Earth. Gandalf insists that Sauron must not be allowed to regain the ring under any circumstances; its absence is the only thing now standing between him and complete domination.

Frodo struggles to understand how such a legendary item ended up in his care. Gandalf first explains what happened to the other Great Rings: The Seven Dwarf-rings have all been lost, while the Nine Rings of Men have fully corrupted their owners and turned them into Ringwraiths - the ghostly servants of Sauron. Though the Three Rings of the Elven-kings remain safely hidden in their possession, Gandalf asserts that if Sauron were ever to recapture the One Ring he would have dominion over them, undoing all of their great works and subverting them to his will. According to Gandalf, the Dark Lord did believe that the One Ring was destroyed, but has nevertheless been seeking it relentlessly ever since.

When Frodo asks how Sauron had come to lose his Ring in the first place, Gandalf tells the story of the Battle of Dagorlad: how Elves and Men of Westernesse defeated the Dark Lord and took the Ring from him. He then tells of Isildur, son of Elendil, who was carrying the Ring along the river Anduin when he was waylaid and killed by Orcs. The Ring betrayed Isildur by slipping from his finger when he needed it the most, and thus lay at the bottom of the river for hundreds of years, becoming forgotten to the world.

Gandalf continues with the story of Sméagol, a Hobbit-like creature from a long-gone race that once lived near the Anduin. Sméagol and his friend Déagol had been fishing on the river, when Déagol was suddenly dragged down into the water by a fish he'd caught. Underwater, he spotted the Ring on the river bed and picked it up; but once Sméagol caught sight of the Ring he desired it for himself, and murdered Déagol to acquire it. Sméagol put on the Ring and returned to his village, discovering that it had made him invisible. He abused this newfound power, causing him to quickly become resented and shunned by all his relations. He developed a gurgling cough for which he was nicknamed "Gollum". Eventually he was exiled from his people, wandering the wilderness, lonely and ever more resentful of the world. Finally, he found an entrance into the Misty Mountains where he lived in the tunnels and caves for many hundreds of years, until his fateful meeting with Bilbo.

Frodo balks at the possibility of a connection between Gollum and Hobbit-kind. Gandalf says that this connection might explain how Bilbo and Gollum could find some sort of common ground - which gave Bilbo the chance to escape the creature's vicious hunger. He speculates that some speck of Gollum's mind may have not yet been corrupted, and that a part of him might have been overjoyed or intrigued to meet someone who reminded him of the world outside his lair. Gandalf explains that there is a duality to Gollum - both a deep love and a seething hatred for the Ring - which Gollum cannot reconcile.

Finally, Gandalf explains that it is the Ring itself that has been playing a part in all of these circumstances: First slipping off Isildur's hand at the least opportune time, then finding Sméagol, and finally abandoning him; However he also points out that a greater power must have intervened in order for the Ring to end up in the possession of Bilbo Baggins, of all people.

In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.

Gandalf mentions that he had learned Gollum's history from the mouth of Gollum himself. At Frodo's prompting, he recounts what happened to Gollum after his encounter with Bilbo. Gollum's obsession with the Ring drew him out of the Misty Mountains in trail of Thorin and Company, tracking them all the way to Erebor and back towards the Anduin; however some unknown influence caused Gollum to change directions instead of tracking them back to the Shire. He went through Mirkwood, causing enough of a disturbance to be detected by Wood Elves who alerted Gandalf, but Gollum left the woods to the south and his trail was lost.

Gandalf rues his decision to allow Gollum to escape, instead of pursuing him further. Years afterward, shortly after Bilbo's final birthday party, Gandalf resumed the search alongside his friend Aragorn, whom he describes as "the greatest traveler and hunstman of this age of the world." After a long search Gandalf was willing to give up, but Aragorn came through and captured the creature. To Gandalf's horror, Gollum's interrogation then revealed that in the intervening years he had actually made it all the way to Mordor, where he was captured by Sauron and tortured. During that torture, Gollum revealed Bilbo's name and the name of his homeland - the Shire - to the Dark Lord.

Now that the Dark Lord has nearly all of the information he requires to find the Ring, Gandalf surmises that Sauron's minions must already be searching for the Shire. At this, Frodo curses Gollum and wishes Bilbo had killed him when he had the chance. Gandalf rebukes Frodo, telling him that Bilbo's pity was probably a blessing: it may have shielded him from the negative effects of the Ring he had just acquired. Gandalf expresses some sliver of hope that Sméagol may yet be cured of his affliction, and speculates that Gollum may yet have a part to play in the events to come. He also reveals that Gollum is now being held prisoner by the Elves of Mirkwood.

Frodo chastises Gandalf for not sending him a message earlier to alert him that the Ring must be destroyed. Gandalf dares Frodo to try and destroy the Ring, but Frodo discovers that he is already captured by its charm and wishes it no harm. Gandalf explains that even if Frodo had the will to destroy the Ring, there was no handy method by which to do so; not even the forges of the dwarves or the magic of the elves could undo it. The only method to destroy the Ring is to throw it back into the Cracks of Doom, deep inside the volcano Orodruin in Mordor, where it was made by Sauron himself.

Frodo confesses that he lacks the strength and heart to perform such a monumental task. He offers the Ring to Gandalf, asking him to perform it instead. Gandalf recoils in alarm, refusing to take it. He explains that the Ring would corrupt him, subverting all of his desires to do good deeds and instead turn him into yet another Dark Lord like Sauron himself. Nevertheless, he swears to do whatever is in his power to assist Frodo in the task at hand. He urges Frodo to come to a decision quickly, as the Enemy becomes stronger with every passing moment.

Frodo is hesitant and fearful, but ultimately decides that the Ring must be taken as far from the Shire as possible; though he does ask Gandalf to seek a better Ring-bearer as soon as possible to replace him. Secretly, Frodo also feels a yearning to follow in Bilbo's footsteps and explore the greater world. Gandalf commends Frodo for his courage, and suggests that he leave the name "Baggins" behind, since the servants of the Enemy would be looking for someone of that name. Instead, he suggests Frodo use the surname "Underhill".

Gandalf warns Frodo that traveling alone would be too dangerous, and suggests finding a trustworthy companion. Even with such a companion at hand, he warns Frodo that he should be careful with his words, as the Enemy employs many spies. Just then, Gandalf hears a rustle in the bushes outside the window. Reaching out, he grabs a startled Samwise Gamgee, who had been eavesdropping on the entire conversation (despite protesting desperately to the contrary). Frodo vouches for Sam's innocence, and tries to swear Sam to secrecy about everything he's heard. Gandalf, however, has a different idea: Sam will be Frodo's companion for the journey. Sam is elated to learn that he will finally get to meet elves.


The chapter was written in the book's revision in September-October of 1938, after Tolkien had developed the backstory of the One Ring and had decided the direction of the story, and its first title was "Ancient History". Sam is also first introduced there. [1] Previously, it was Gildor Inglorion who was narrating to "Bingo Baggins" the story of the Ring, until Tolkien decided it should be Gandalf, and created this intermediate chapter (making Three is Company the third chapter).[2]

It has been considered an allegory of the political situation with Nazi Germany, but the declaration of war came in 1939, a year after its writing. Tolkien denied the allegorical nature in the second edition Foreword.[3]