A Long-expected Party & The Shadow of the Past
The opening chapters to The Lord of the Rings are long, both in terms of time (each takes over an hour when read aloud) and scale (seventeen years pass over the pages, and even earlier days are referenced throughout). Yet these scenes can also feel long due to seeming lack of activity taking a place during them. Notwithstanding a very detailed birthday party, a very humorous gift distribution, and a very thorough cutting of the grass, there is little action and adventure in our early wanderings through the Shire. Instead, the lot of our time is spent in conversation: the Gaffer and Sandyman, Bilbo and Gandalf, Frodo and his relatives, Sam and Ted, Gandalf and Frodo. You could probably throw in Bilbo’s birthday speech as well, given how clearly it is a witty dialogue between the old hobbit and each of his eccentric relations.
Naturally, there are different types of discourses. The informal banter of older men at the pub; the easy exchange between two old friends; the competitive point-scoring of two public rivals; the exploration of knowledge by teacher and student. Each of these dialogues at its essence has the same components: two individuals, a topic, a sharing of words, a resolution. Yet the context of the setting, the topic, and the relationship shapes the dialogue. This may appear obvious, but its ramifications are profound, for it means that every dialogue is unique: no two sets of speakers can have the same discourse.
The philosopher-economist E.F. Schumacher wrote at length in his book A Guide for the Perplexed about the four fields of knowledge, combinations of relational insights that at their most simplified form appear as 1) I – internally, 2) you – internally, 3) I – externally, and 4) you – externally. The challenge of human conversation is that we do not have direct access to the same fields: I can know what I feel like and you look like, but I cannot directly know what you feel like and what I look like. The importance of dialogue is teasing out these fields of knowledge. As a reader we have an abnormal perspective for the characters of Middle-earth: we know that Gandalf looks externally to be a simple conjurer of fireworks and adventures to the hobbits, but that internally he is weighed by more important charges.
Gandalf has a particular gift of accessing this knowledge in the course of conversation. He draws out Bilbo’s internal feeling – the sense of weariness, of “butter spread over too much bread” – to the external senses of verbal admission because the Ring suppresses Bilbo’s own knowledge of self. Gandalf further advances his external view of Bilbo – a hobbit unlike the one he once knew, not acting like himself – into Bilbo’s internal knowledge to rouse him into letting go of the Ring. Direct action by Gandalf would have done only harm here because, as he notes, it would have broken Bilbo’s will. Instead, it is in conversation that such knowledge can be exchanged.
And so we are left with questions: about who each of us deep down and what we show others, about whether we seek the other’s internal self as much as we wish the other to judge us by the same standard, about the power conversation has at uniquely bringing two persons together. They are questions that will remain with us throughout the chapters ahead.