When the inexplicable occurs, it’s the nature of people to try to fit what they think they saw into some neat little box within the realm of their knowledge or expectation. So it is with the disappearance of Bilbo. The Shire generally came to the conclusion that Bilbo finally cracked and ran afoul of his end in some river somewhere, and of course, it’s Gandalf’s fault. Frodo, to his credit, picked up the mantle of weirdness right where Bilbo left off, even going so far as to throw a party for Bilbo’s birthday the next year, and for many years after that, claiming that Bilbo was not dead.
By the time Frodo is reaching the age of 50 (yes, it’s been that long since the previous chapter!), the Shire folk are becoming to think it queer that he retains his youthful appearance, claiming him to be “well-preserved.” It should be noted that 50 is close to the age Bilbo was when he started adventuring, and Frodo’s wanderlust is beginning to show in the form of regret for not chasing after Bilbo as well as dreams of mountains and such.
Rumors of the world outside occupy Frodo’s attention. News of elves crossing through Shire lands and not coming back begin to circulate, likewise the ominous name of Mordor has turned up. The White Council had turned away the evils in the forest of Mirkwood, and that power had taken root in Mordor, rebuilding the dark tower. Orcs have begun to multiply in greater number and smarter trolls and things even more foul with no name. Tolkien gives us hobbit gossip about “giant tree men” and “queer folk crossing the Shire,” and conversation comes back around to elves, which establishes Sam’s fascination with them.
Gandalf pops in and out after such a long absence, and then finally turns up again some nine years later. By this point it’s been nearly 80 years since Bilbo started out on his adventure. This brings us back to knowledge of the Ring, which Gandalf finally understands and passes to Frodo. Gandalf’s description of what any of the Great Rings will do to a mortal is sobering, and it’s important to note that it’s not only the One Ring that will do this, hence Gandalf’s need to verify which of the Rings it may be. Even keeping it on a chain as Frodo has, the Rings stretch a person’s life.
Gandalf reveals that he sought council with Saruman but ultimately chose not to confide in him as his pride has grown considerably in the intervening years. Saruman has long studied the lore surrounding the elven rings, but he doesn’t share it, and he doesn’t tolerate meddlers. But Gandalf points out that he alone is the only one of the wise that goes in for hobbit lore, and he’s convinced that the effects of the Ring will fade in time as he was able to give it up willingly — “a very important point” — which contrasts with how it parted from Gollum.
When the time comes for Gandalf to verify the Ring, it becomes heavy for Frodo to even temporarily pass it to the wizard, making him reluctant to do so. Quickly tossing it into the fire, the Ring proves to be indestructible to the flames and cool to the touch. Fine lines of fire appear in elven script on both the inside and outer circumferences of the Ring, bearing the final two lines of the rhyme that fans of this book know so well. Thus confirms for Gandalf that this is the One Ring.
Gandalf confirms that it was Sauron, the Dark Lord, who dwelt in Mirkwood, and it is he who has risen again in Mordor. The One Ring is the final component that he requires for his power and knowledge to become great enough “to beat down all resistance.” We learn that the three elven rings have never been touched by Sauron’s hand. Of the seven rings for the dwarf-lords, he has recovered three, the others having been consumed by dragons. I’ve always wondered if that means they’re in piles of treasure somewhere, or if the dragons literally ate them. The nine rings for mortal men were given to great kings, who have long since fallen to Sauron’s service in the form of Ringwraiths. They’ve not been seen in many years, but it’s feared they will walk again. Even so, Sauron still requires the One to command the power of the rest. Sauron had believed that the elves had destroyed it long ago, but now he knows it’s been found.
World building commences in full at this point as Gandalf tells us of Gil-galad and Elendil, of Isildur, of the path of the Ring, of Smeagol and Deagol, of Smeagol’s transformation into Gollum, and of Bilbo’s eventual acquisition of the Ring. It’s interesting to note that Gandalf talks here of the light that remains in the little corner of Gollum’s mind, that the creature still has memories of light, and trees, and grass, but that would make the evil side of him even angrier. The Ring has always left its bearer of its own will, forging a path back to its master. Bilbo picking up the Ring was not meant to find the Ring by its maker, but he was meant to find it, just as Frodo was meant to have it. Bilbo alone, and with the help of Gandalf, was the only one who has ever willingly abandoned the Ring, partly because pity and mercy played a hand when Bilbo acquired it.
As with The Hobbit, we see Tolkien’s world view here, of there being an over-arching force for good that has an active hand in righting the wrongs of the world, as nasty as that world may be at times. Here in the second chapter, the seeds are sown with this backstory for the idea that the Ring can be destroyed. Even so, the effects of the Ring continue to be seen in the smallest of ideas. Bilbo foolishly gave Gollum his name, and without the Ring, Gollum became strong enough and less timid to go forth in search of his “precious.” He followed Bilbo’s trail through Mirkwood and Dale, and while he set out westward towards the Shire, but he got sidetracked. He was followed out of Mirkwood by the elves, and later tracked south by Gandalf and Aragorn. By the time Aragorn had found him (it’s suggested that maybe Aragorn rescued him?), Gollum had been in Mordor, where he was tortured, and where knowledge of the Ring, the Shire, and the name Baggins has finally reached Sauron. At this point, the wood elves are holding Gollum, treating him with as much kindness as they can in their wisdom. Given what we saw of their hospitality towards dwarves in the previous book, I’m kind of curious as to what they did differently this time.
Frodo suggests that he could have destroyed the Ring previously had Gandalf told him to do so. When Gandalf tells him to try now, Frodo finds that he is unable even to toss it back into the fire, where it previously did no damage. Likewise, Gandalf could not force Frodo to do so without breaking his mind (as happened with Gollum), and the Ring is strong enough to resist destruction by hammer or any fire less than that of a dragon. And since there are no dragons left in Middle-Earth to do the job, the Ring can only be destroyed in the very fires that created it.
While Gandalf is willing to help Frodo bear the burden of the Ring, he once more resists the offer to take it, his fears of how much power the Ring would gain being made plain for Frodo and reader alike. It sounds like overkill, perhaps, but I truly think Tolkien can never stress enough just how powerful the Ring is, especially in relation to the characters we come to know.
Frodo’s wanderlust to follow Bilbo is boosted by his willingness to protect the Shire by going into exile with the Ring. Outside the Shire, he will be known as “Mr. Underhill.” Thanks to Samwise’s eavesdropping outside, he’s recruited as Frodo’s willing travelling companion. There’s nothing quite like a bit of humor to take the edge off an entire chapter of bad news.