“When Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.”
Chapter One: A Long-Expected Party
Thus begins The Lord of the Rings: with a party like in The Hobbit, only this party was a long-planned one, not the unexpected one that left Bilbo confusticated about thirteen dwarves raiding his pantry. And while all Hobbiton believes it’s so Bilbo can throw himself a big birthday bash, he is really trying to give a bunch of stuff away in the hopes that it will make giving his old ring away easier. This is how Tolkien passed the story on from Bilbo to Frodo and it’s one of the most important acts in the whole of the Third Age of Middle-earth.
But first, a party!
September 22nd marks Bilbo and Frodo’s shared birthday. Bilbo is turning 111, and Frodo has finally reached his majority. He’s 33 at last and is coming into his inheritance, much to the dismay of Otho and Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, his despised, uppity relatives. Gandalf is back in town. He’s brought fantastic toys from Dale and fireworks like the Shire hasn’t seen since the Old Took passed on more than a century earlier. And can I say how happy it makes me to think of Gandalf blowing off whatever responsibilities he had to put together fireworks and head off to the Shire? I can just see him in a meeting of the White Council, “My apologies, Lord Elrond and Lady Galadriel, but I must be going. I have a birthday party to attend”. Then off he goes to party with a bunch of hobbits.
And might I add that, to the inhabitants of the Shire, Gandalf is this weird old man who drops in for visits and sometimes puts on these amazing fireworks displays. That’s how they know him. Not as Mithrandir, the Grey Pilgrim, or Olorin (an angel-like figure) from the First Age. He’s some guy with a funny hat who blows things up for fun. I think that’s why Gandalf likes coming to the Shire. He gets to have some fun while he’s there and eat great food. Also, people aren’t looking for him to Solve The World’s Problems. He can kick back, blow smoke rings, and just be That Weirdo From Far Away.
Meanwhile, the hobbits of Hobbiton are being typical hobbits– they’re gossiping about Bilbo’s money, going on about Frodo’s family history, and otherwise being suspicious of anyone who isn’t from Hobbiton itself– including hobbits from Buckland (where a certain Meriadoc Brandybuck is from). Also, Sandyman is a lousy person. There’s one or more in every small town, and like father like son the lousiness continues. His son Ted will be worse than his father. But more on that later on.
One of the things I find amusing about reading ‘A Long-Expected Party’ is that people pick up The Lord of the Rings because they want to read more about hobbits, but many loathe this first chapter because it’s all about….hobbits. Which is what they picked up this book to read about in the first place. And I can understand it. We get a lot of small town talk in this chapter, and if you’re not from a small town it can be weird. There’s this idea that small town folk are sweet and innocent and pure as the driven snow, but the truth is that small town folk can be as mean and as gossipy as any other. Hobbits aren’t any different, and that’s why they’re so relatable. Because they’re like us. Elves are beautiful and ageless and practically perfect in every way, and while the Men of the Third Age have lost much of their ancient nobility they are still larger than life. Think of Aragorn and Faramir. They’re not the sort of guys you meet at the bus stop. Dwarves aren’t particularly like us either. But Hobbits? They’re prone to laziness, they like eating and drinking, and most of them prefer a quiet life and a comfortable home. They’re ordinary people who want to be left alone to live their lives in peace.
So Bilbo throws a massive party that just about everyone is invited to and while he is giving his famous speech (“...I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve..”), he puts the ring on his finger and disappears! Gandalf adds a flash of light to help explain the disappearance because he knows how hobbits gossip and he doesn’t want the story of Bilbo’s sudden vanishing to reach unfriendly ears. He wants the hobbits to blame him and pass that story around. Word gets out about things like this, and Gandalf has long suspected that something weird is going on with that ring of Bilbo’s. The stories Bilbo made up about how he got it, his lack of aging, his own description of how he’s feeling stretched, “like butter that has been scraped over too much bread”, make Gandalf wonder.
Bilbo’s post-party behavior makes Gandalf suspect even more. As Bilbo is preparing to leave, they realize that Bilbo hasn’t put the ring on the mantle for Frodo. It’s still in his pocket. And why shouldn’t it stay there, Bilbo asks, it’s his ring, after all. Why shouldn’t he keep it? This unnerves Gandalf, and the argument ends in a vague threat until Bilbo decides to put the ring aside of his own accord. He is the first being in the ring’s long history to do so. Then he walks out the door, passing both ring and story onto Frodo.
Chapter Two: The Shadow of the Past
Time passes. Things settle down in Hobbiton. The hobbits decided that old Bilbo Baggins finally cracked up completely, ran off into the wild blue yonder, and drowned in a pond somewhere. As much as they liked his food and gifts, they’re not particularly sorry that he’s gone. Small town hobbits. What can you do? Frodo is the master of Bag-End and Gandalf rarely stops by these days– much to the relief of the people of Hobbiton, who think that Frodo will finally settle down and become a respectable gentle-hobbit. Alas for them, this is not to be.
Seventeen years pass. Frodo remains single, but constantly has younger cousins in and out of Bag-End, particularly Peregrin “Pippin” Took and Meriadoc “Merry” Brandybuck. They blend in with the crowd right now, but Merry stands out a bit by noticing Frodo’s odd behavior. The older hobbit goes wandering under the stars and visits with the Dwarves and Elves passing through, which worries his friends– particularly Merry. His observations come in handy soon enough, and many times after that.
But in the meantime, Frodo is content, his friends are content, and Sam Gamgee can’t help but listen to stories of Dwarves, Elves, and Elm trees that shouldn’t be walking around the Northfarthing and he’s not afraid to voice his opinions at the local pub. But while he gets a bit of an audience, the local wet blanket Ted Sandyman makes fun of Sam and his stories. “…I can hear fireside-tales and children’s stories at home, if I want to”, he says and throws ice water all over Sam’s speculations. Too bad for Ted that these children’s stories are altogether true, and the dark shadow at the edge of their tales and memories is rising again, and it now knows about hobbits.
I find it amusing that the hobbits think of faraway people (orcs, Elves, the Rohirrim) as children’s tales, because those same faraway people think hobbits are creatures out of children’s stories, too. I guess everyone far away is merely a story told to children, no matter who you are.
But I digress. Ted Sandyman is a jerk who likes to make fun of Sam because Sam’s stories sound outlandish. Then everyone goes home, and Sam sees that Gandalf has returned.
This is where the exposition comes in. Not minor, scene-setting exposition, but Major, World-Changing Exposition. We come to the heart of the story. Frodo’s ring, the little golden ring that Bilbo chanced upon in the caves below the Misty Mountains and managed to keep from Gollum isn’t some silly magic ring. It is the One Ring. The Dark Lord Sauron’s ring, forged in the Second Age in secret as a means to control the other rings of power and through them control all the people of Middle-earth. For most of this age, Sauron believed the Ring was destroyed, but now he knows it has been found, and he knows that Baggins of the Shire has it. Now that Sauron’s power is rising again, he is searching for the Ring. His thoughts are solely on finding the Ring, for with it he will rule Middle-earth and cover all the lands in a second darkness.
How will he manage this with a simple gold ring? Well, it’s like this. In the Second Age, the Elves saw that their power was beginning to wane. They were strong and beautiful and shining in the First Age when the Valar (kind of like gods) walked in the forests and rose out of the seas to speak with Elves and Men. Elves like Glorfindel (he’ll show up later) would challenge balrogs to single combat and take on dragons by themselves. But in the Second Age, they weren’t so great anymore. Their power was fading and because Sauron was all sorts of tricksy and deceived pretty much everyone in the Second Age, he talked the great Elven smith Celebrimbor into forging the Rings of Power to help them preserve the status quo. Three for the Elves, seven for the Dwarves, and nine for Men. And secretly, far away, Sauron forged the One Ring to grant him dominion over all the others. But Celebrimbor sensed what Sauron was doing and hid the Elven rings from Sauron, and so they were never under his power. The dwarven rings were taken back by Sauron or destroyed by dragon fire, and the men who claimed the nine rings were brought under his power and became the Nazgul– the Ringwraiths.
Got it? Okay. On we go.
Sauron was bent on wiping out the last bastions of freedom in Middle-earth, but the Last Alliance of Men and Elves rallied together to fight Sauron. Big names like Gil-Galad (an Elf) and the great King Elendil (a Man) fell in this battle. Elrond was there, too. Elrond’s been around for a long time. Isildur, Elendil’s son and heir ended up cutting the Ring from Sauron’s hand, an act that shattered his storied blade, Narsil (this will show up later, too). Isildur could have walked up the slopes of Orodruin (that’s Mount Doom) right then and dropped the ring into the fire, but he declared it a weregild for his father (that is, the money Sauron owed him for killing his father) and took it with him. Years later, Isildur tried to use the Ring to escape from an ambush via the Great River, but it slipped off his finger and orcs shot him with arrows. That was the end of Isildur, but not of the Ring. It sat on the riverbed for a long, long time before a hobbit-like person named Déagol happened upon while he was fishing and was promptly murdered for it by his ‘friend’ Sméagol.
Starting to sound familiar now?
The Ring grants power according to its owner’s station, and Sméagol’s station is pretty darned low. He uses it to steal and find out secrets and finally gets himself banished from town. He wanders for years and years, growing ever thinner and more hate-filled until his loathing of light drives him into the darkness below the Misty Mountains. Five hundred years later, this pathetic little creature now called Gollum has nearly been consumed by the Ring. He hates and loves the Ring, he hates and loves himself, and while there may be some part of him that wants to get rid of the Ring, he can never bring himself to do it. The Ring leaves him.
And here the greatest bit of ‘chance’ gives hope to Middle-earth, because Bilbo Baggins finds the Ring instead of a goblin, and the Ring is kept away from the Shadow. Gandalf states it plainly: “I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker.” Whose hand was behind this? It’s impossible to say, but there are other forces in Middle-earth than the dark ones, though their methods are subtle.
There’s a lot going on here, and most of it factors into the rest of the story. First off, Gandalf mentions some bloke named Aragorn– a great traveler and tracker who helped him find Gollum. Keep that name in mind, it might be important later on. Then we get into the heart of Gollum’s story long before he shows up again for the first time. Frodo wishes that Bilbo had killed Gollum when he had the chance, but Gandalf counsels mercy. There is little hope that Gollum can be cured of his need for the Ring, but little hope is not no hope. Gandalf believes that there is some hidden part of Gollum’s mind that still longs to hear kindly voices and see the sunlight on the grass again. Frodo doesn’t understand. He can’t understand. Not yet. All he knows is that Gollum’s mischief has threatened the peace and happiness of the Shire. He can’t know how the Ring poisons its owner’s mind, takes over, and stretches his life until every moment is misery. He doesn’t understand anything about it. Yet.
But whether or not he understands completely what the Ring is, Frodo realizes that he cannot stay in the Shire. He must leave in to protect his sometimes idiotic, but generally wonderful friends and neighbors. He must leave to save the Shire. “I feel that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable: I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again.” Like many things in Chapter Two, this declaration echoes through The Lord of the Rings, right up to the very end.
At this point, Sam gets caught. He’s been listening in on this secret conversation, and despite his protestations that he can’t be eavesdropping because there aren’t any eaves in Bag-End, Gandalf punishes him by sending him with Frodo. They’re going to take the Ring out of the Shire in search of the Elves. This is Sam’s greatest wish. He is thrilled. Then he bursts into tears. They’re leaving the safety and certainty of the Shire behind and walking into an unknown peril.
Next week: Frodo gets out of town, in a leisurely fashion– ‘Three is Company’, ‘A Short Cut to Mushrooms’, ‘A Conspiracy Unmasked’