Some Dialogue is Better Than Others, or, Gandalf the Grey Uncloaked
There is a homely vibe to the prologue and subsequent chapters preluding Frodo’s departure from the Shire. The prose and description is reminiscent to Lord Dunsany—obviously an influence on Tolkien. This is evidenced specifically in the prologue where he goes over the history of Hobbits.
One feels as though Tolkien has just put down a copy of The Sword of Welleran. The first thing to notice about these chapters is the sheer amount of information given in parenthesis, not something usually found in many fictional novels.
This brings adds something on top of the Dunsany-esque prose and adds to the homely feel of the Shire, as Tolkien puts such information as people and who they are in parenthesis so that the histories of Middle Earth read like quaint little asides. Since such information is conveyed relatively quickly, you only need to know as much as is presented.
Some scenes, like Sam Gamgee talking about the Huorns in the Old Forest, seem odd. Considering Samwise Gamgee had little to do with the story so far, his appearance feels like what should have deleted scene. The narrative grinds to a halt to show these two characters That said, with the information given about him and his companions, it does set up Sam’s character and foreshadows events to come.
The strongest point in this selection is the argument had by Bilbo and Gandalf’s over Bilbo’s possession of the One Ring. There’s a buildup to Bilbo letting the Ring go, and the reader is kept in the dark as to why Gandalf is so urgent about this business. Bilbo’s uncharacteristic actions are shown, rather than told. One merely has to contrast him before the argument with how he acts when the Ring is brought up. It seems odd, before the reader knows the full extent of the influence of the Ring, that Bilbo would embrace such erratic behavior.
And here we see Gandalf’s true power. Not in magical ability as in presence. It could even be argued that Gandalf power lies not in magic, but in words. Gandalf doesn’t even need to resort to powerful spells to frighten Bilbo. All it takes it “If you say that word again, it will be my turn to get angry.” to instill fear in both Bilbo and the reader.
Dialogue such as this is used to great effect in this section. Such as when Bilbo calls the Ring his precious. Any amateur writer would jump at the chance to have Bilbo refer to the Ring this way early on in their conversation. What Tolkien does brilliantly is have Bilbo use this word later, as the argument grows more intense. Calling the Ring precious any earlier would take all the surprise and worry the reader feels for this character. Again, there is a buildup. Bilbo is perhaps best characterized—or, arguably, the Ring is best characterized, when there is a reference to Bilbo reaching for Sting when Gandalf gets angry. The thought that a hobbit would think to harm a wizard is downright inconceivable—without some magical interference of some outside source.
Say, the One Ring for example?
It can be argued the Ring has a mind of its own, and wants a powerful wielder. If the Ring could persuade Bilbo to kill Gandalf, Gandalf may have set his hands on the Ring, if only for a moment—but that is all it would take.
Gandalf in turn, does not do much to demonstrate his full power, aside from threaten to “See Gandalf the Grey uncloaked” (a line of dialogue that does not hold up with the passage of time.) The most he does is make his shadow encompass the room, but his prior calm contrasted composure conflicts with Bilbo’s angry protests and serves to make Gandalf’s eventual reaction all the more frightening. This scene establishes Gandalf’s character for the rest of the book—as an old man who will not use magic unless heavily provoked, and even then he will not use it to his full extent. It is shown he does not wish to harm Bilbo, only to scare him.
Even after the resolve, the Ring is still in his pocket, leading to anticipation of the reader as to whether or not he will actually let it go. That alone foreshadows holding of the denouement in Return of the King with the Scouring of the Shire. Even this one scene parallels the rest of these three books. You think the story is over–the tension goes slack only to tighten again a few moments later.
And when Bilbo does relinquish the Ring there is all the more relief from the reader. Even the prose seems sighs in and of itself, as Bilbo dons Balin’s cloak that was given to him in The Hobbit and goes on the Road with two other Dwarves and sings his walking song. The tension of the scene is lifted, and the reader is shifted to the next day, and back to the homely side of Hobbiton.
Additionally, the passage of the Ring from Bilbo to Frodo serves an allegorical purpose. Gollum repeatedly referred to the Ring as his “birthday present” and it is established that it is both Bilbo and Frodo’s birthday, as well as the fact that Hobbits give other people presents on their birthdays, making Frodo’s inheritance of the Ring a “birthday present” of its own, foreshadowing his descent into darkness as he holds onto the Ring. It establishes a similarity between him and Gollum that will be seen in later books when the two finally meet. The two both inherited the Ring as a birthday present, though in entirely different circumstances. Gollum strangled his cousin to get it, because he wanted it. Frodo got the Ring from his Uncle, despite not wanting it. In this, the two take on a metafictional Gollum-Sméagol duality to their relationship.