Yes, I've already posted about "The Shadow of the Past," but I didn't talk about how the (really remarkably long) info-dump works—both in the sense of its mechanics and in the sense that it doesn't stop me-the-reader dead in my tracks. (With the usual caveat that I've been reading this book since forever, so familiarity helps too; yet when I try to look at it now with a fresh and critical eye, it still seems to work.)
Quite a lot of this is going to be me talking out loud to myself, trying to figure this out. And yes, I resort to a table.
I think structure is the place to start: there are nine sections, and my tentative thesis, looking at my quick notes, is that they're arranged in a circle. Let's see if that's borne out by looking at them in more detail.
(Nb.: I'm using "cliff-hanger" below very loosely.)
|1||Danger to a mortal possessor of a Great Ring||Outside, peaceful:
"Next morning after a late breakfast, the wizard was sitting with Frodo by the open window of the study."
|Dialogue, reaction, contrasting with outside, peaceful:
"'How terrifying!' said Frodo. There was another long silence. The sound of Sam Gamgee cutting the lawn came in from the garden."
|Gandalf is remembering Bilbo running out of Bag End in the second paragraph.|
|2||When Gandalf became concerned for Bilbo and the Shire||Dialogue, follow-up:
"'How long have you known this?' asked Frodo at length. 'And how much did Bilbo know?'"
"You do not know the real peril yet; but you shall. I was not sure of it myself when I was last here; but the time has come to speak. Give me the ring for a moment."
|No references to outside.|
|3||Revealing the Ring's fiery letters||Action, follow-up:
"Frodo took it from his breeches-pocket, where it was clasped to a chain that hung from his belt."
"Frodo sat silent and motionless. Fear seemed to stretch out a vast hand, like a dark cloud rising in the East and looming up to engulf him. 'This ring!' he stammered. 'How, how on earth did it come to me?'"
|Shutters closed and curtains drawn partway through, though can still hear Sam's shears.|
|4||History of Ring from forging through Isildur||Dialogue, follow-up:
"'Ah!' said Gandalf. 'That is a very long story."
"But at last I can carry on the story, I think."
|"Time that is given to us." No references to outside.|
|5||History of Ring with Sméagol||Narrative continuation:
"Long after, but still very long ago, there lived by the banks of the Great River on the edge of Wilderland a clever-handed and quiet-footed little people."
"The Ring went into the shadows with him, and even the maker, when his power had begun to grow again, could learn nothing of it."
|Only Gandalf's narration; no references to outside.|
|6||Gollum after the Ring; Gandalf getting information from Gollum||Dialogue, follow-up:
"'Gollum!' cried Frodo. 'Gollum? Do you mean that this is the very Gollum-creature that Bilbo met? How loathsome!'"
|Dialogue, cliff-hanger / narrative conclusion:
"But I am afraid there is no possible doubt: he had made his slow, sneaking way, step by step, mile by mile, south, down at last to the Land of Mordor."
|Longest sub-section. Possibly not realistic that Frodo waits until now to interject about Gollum, when he's referred to as such four paragraphs ago. "Meant." No references to outside.|
|7||The Enemy getting information from Gollum; danger to the Shire||Outside, ominous:
"A heavy silence fell in the room. Frodo could hear his heart beating. Even outside everything seemed still. No sound of Sam's shears could now be heard."
"'No. But I suppose one could hammer it or melt it.' 'Try!' said Gandalf. 'Try now!'"
|8||Destroying the Ring||Action, follow-up:
"Frodo drew the Ring out of his pocket again and looked at it. It now appeared plain and smooth, without mark or device that he could see."
"I will help you bear this burden, as long as it is yours to bear. But we must do something, soon. The Enemy is moving."
—preceded by reference to peaceful outside.
|Gandalf refuses the Ring.|
|9||Frodo chooses to try to save the Shire||Inaction, follow-up:
"There was a long silence. Gandalf . . . was watching Frodo intently. Frodo gazed fixedly at the red embers on the hearth, until they filled all his vision, and he seemed to be looking down into profound wells of fire. He was thinking of the fabled Cracks of Doom and the terror of the Fiery Mountain."
|end of chapter, Sam reaction||Contains a reference to outside and tension-breaking reversal: mention of spies, silence, and then catching Sam.|
It seems to me that this chapter circles around. It starts (section 1) with the danger just past, to Bilbo, and then (section 2) asserts that there is danger to the Shire. The Ring is definitively identified (section 3), which lets the furthest points of the circle (sections 4-6) be the furthest points in time, the Ring's history. The history then circles back to the present and why there's danger to the Shire (section 7); the last two sections look forward, to what needs to be done (destroy the Ring, section 8) and who's going to do it (Frodo and Sam, at the start, section 9). The levels of tension are reinforced by the references to the environment, as the chapter circles around from light and outside, to dark and inside, and back again (and ends with a slightly-comic gardener, where possibly both parts of the description are equally relevant).
(Le Guin would probably call this "there and back again," which didn't occur to me until just before posting.)
This is a logical progression: the primary concerns of Frodo and the reader, after chapter 1, are Bilbo and the Shire. The chapter draws readers in through these familiar things, hooks them with talk of danger, and then leads them through as much information as they need to know to understand the danger. (I'm struck, on looking at this now, post-Silmarillion and even the Appendices to Return of the King, by section 4's brevity.) With the exception of section 5, the end of each intermediate section draws readers on through cliff-hangers, though small ones; section 5 is the mid-point of the circle, a resting-point, and thus it ends with Gandalf finishing his revelation of the Ring's history.
The final thing that caught my eye, though probably not the final thing that makes this chapter work, is the mixing of narrative techniques. For instance, sections 4 and 5 are both history. In section 4, Gandalf tells the story from a quite remote distance, much abridged and with little color; but in section 5, Gandalf tells the tale from much closer, recounting dialogue and individual thoughts without intrusion. Like Gandalf, the omniscient narrator also varies its distance, providing a view on the internal thoughts of the characters on a few key occasions: to set up parallels to Bilbo, when Gandalf remembers him (section 1) or Frodo wants to follow (section 8); to foreshadow Frodo's relationship with the Ring, when Frodo thinks how precious it is (section 8) or looks into the embers and thinks of the Cracks of Doom (section 9), and also to emphasize the importance and unexpectedness of Frodo's choice.
Which leads me to another little unsatisfactory bit about Sam: Gandalf gives Frodo the opportunity to decide what he's going to do, and it's very important that Frodo chooses to take the Ring and leave the Shire. Sam's never given a choice; and though in some ways it's irrelevant because this is what he would have chosen, it's something that contributed to my negative reaction to the end. (Note to self: see if Sam ever explicitly chooses to keep going.)