Chapter III: Three is Company
In Peter Jackson’s 2001 film adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring, Ian McKellan’s Gandalf returns to the Shire a few weeks or months after Bilbo leaves and sends Frodo (played by a seventeen-year-old Elijah Wood) on his journey that same night. This works for a movie but not for the Shire Tolkien actually wrote.
Gandalf returned with his terrible news the spring after Frodo turned fifty, and while he knows he must flee the Shire or bring dark forces down upon his neighbors’ heads, it takes him all summer to make his preparations. He can’t disappear overnight or word could reach unfriendly ears that Baggins is leaving. Hobbits are gossip-mongers, after all, and when the news that Frodo Baggins is selling Bag-End and moving to Crickhollow, it’s all anyone talks about. This is more important to them than reports of giants and other portents on the border. They spend the rest of the summer sticking their collective nose into every last bit of Frodo’s business while Frodo is trying to prepare to leave forever even as he realizes he doesn’t want to go. Though he once said he thought an earthquake or dragon invasion would be good for the hobbits, he’s changed his mind. It’s been the best summer that anyone can remember, and faced with the thought of leaving his doltish neighbors, he realizes that they really can be lovely people. For the most part. When September 22nd arrives and Frodo is finally ready to go (having finalized the sale to the loathsome Sackville-Bagginses), he leaves at night to avoid notice. This works in his favor in more than one way, because on his way out he hears his neighbor, Gaffer Gamgee (Sam’s father), talking to a stranger about Frodo’s business. Assuming that it’s yet another hobbit poking around, Frodo hurries on. It’s not until later that he discovers the Gaffer was, in fact, talking to a black rider. The enemy agents are already in the Shire. Frodo barely escaped them.
Frodo, Sam, and Pippin have few issues on the road, but after another near-encounter with a black rider, they leave the road and cut across country. This throws the riders off the trail for a while, but they nearly catch up in the forest near the village of Woodhall. Frodo doesn’t yet know what these riders are, only that they frighten him and whenever they are near he has a strange urge to put the Ring on. Out in the woods, with one of the riders close on their trail he nearly succumbs to that urge but is saved at the last moment by the singing of Elves. Chance, if chance it is, has them crossing paths with a group of Noldor Elves led by Gildor Inglorion of the House of Finrod.
If you haven’t read The Silmarillion, ‘Noldor’ and ‘Finrod’ won’t mean very much to you. To put it shortly, Gildor and his company are Elves of the First Age who once dwelt in Valinor (the Undying Lands) but came to Middle-earth and never returned to their original home. They will soon sail away to the Undying Lands, though. Their role in Middle-earth is nearing its end. They have been here for long ages, since the time of Finrod, an Elvish king and brother to Galadriel who aided Beren in his quest for the Silmaril. Gildor was possibly a member of Finrod’s court, if not a member of the family. Gildor’s been around for a long time. So why is he hanging out in this part of the Shire, and not in Rivendell or Lothlorien? Who knows? Gildor is a thread Tolkien never quite tied off, but in recent readings, I’ve begun to wonder if Gildor and his Elvish company among the trees– oak and hazel, which figure in Irish and Welsh lore– are representatives of the realm of Faërie.
The Fae are currently having a moment in fantasy novels, but it seems that most of the current Fae characters are portrayed as magical beings who live a long time, but otherwise have very human concerns and capriciousness. This idea does not take into account the utter weirdness immortal beings would have, given the scale of their lives. Tolkien’s Elves do not die as we do– their spirits linger for a time in the Halls of Mandos until they are returned to new bodies. This is not reincarnation, but a re-housing of the spirit. They keep their memories and go back to their previous relationships like their previous bodies hadn’t been killed at all. Time means little to them, and indeed it doesn’t always flow at the same pace around them as it does everyone else. There is power in their words and songs; the black rider was scared off by the mere sound of the Elves’ singing. Faërie is a perilous realm to those from outside its borders, filled with wonders and dangers beyond mortal imagination. Assuming you survive it, you don’t come back the same as when you went in. We’ll see this more when we reach Lothlorien, but even this overnight encounter with Gildor and his people has changed Sam, to Frodo’s eye. Frodo has met Elves before, and others describe him as ‘having an Elvish air about him’. To encounter Faërie or Elves is to be changed forever, but you go there at your own peril.*
It makes me wonder what the hobbits of Woodhall are like, with all these Elves hanging out nearby…
But anyway. Gildor gives Frodo, Sam, and Pippin shelter for the night. Frodo shows the Elves he’s not an average hobbit by speaking a little of their language (Quenya), and he and Gildor discuss the matter at hand. Frodo says nothing of the Ring, though, and Gildor does not press the issue, telling Frodo that he can leave the Shire or stay. The choice is his. Elves are not the best people to ask for advice because, says Frodo, they will tell you both yes and no. Gildor’s been around for a while, though, and he knows the perils of advice. People will take it the wrong way, or ignore you to their detriment. For the sake of their friendship, he offers Frodo a word of advice: to go without delay and take what friends he can trust. Then he bids Frodo good-night and by morning all the Elves are gone. We never hear from Gildor again.
Chapter IV: A Short Cut to Mushrooms
With the departure of the Elves, the hobbits are on their own again. Frodo asks Sam what he thinks of the Elves now that’s he’s met a few. Sam says, “They seem a bit above my likes and dislikes, so to speak…. It don’t seem to matter what I think about them. They are quite different from what I expected- so old and young, and so gay and sad, as it were.” He goes on to say that he sees his road a little more clearly now- it’s going to be a long, dark road, but he cannot turn aside, “…I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire.” Samwise Gamgee, the product of a xenophobic, home-going people can see that he isn’t meant to stay at home. He must travel far, far away to do something important. He’s already been changed by his encounter with the wide world, and he hasn’t even left the Shire yet.
The hobbits set out. Pippin, the youngest and most irresponsible of them, wants to stick to the road and stop at the Golden Perch in Stock, which has the best beer in the Eastfarthing. Frodo vetoes this plan, saying, “Short cuts make delays, but inns make longer ones.” He wants to reach Buckleberry Ferry before dark, and stopping at the Golden Perch will keep that from happening. They cut across country again, and when it starts to rain they take shelter and discover that the Elves gave them a sweet-smelling drink of some kind. They drink it, and soon are laughing, singing, and snapping at the rain. I want to know what on Middle-earth the Elves gave them to make them snap at the rain… Anyway. They head out again and narrowly avoid another black rider. As they head back into the bush, they get turned around for a while before Pippin realizes that he knows where they are. The stream they’ve come across heads right to Farmer Maggot’s fields. Though Frodo is wary of Farmer Maggot (he stole a lot of mushrooms from this farm as a child), facing his past is better than being lost, so they head to the Maggots’ house. There, the old farmer listens to their tale and invites them in, though he gives Frodo an odd look.
At first, Frodo thinks Maggot has held a grudge for years over the theft of the mushrooms, but it turns out that earlier that day, a black rider came to Maggot’s door and asked him about a Baggins. Maggot, being made of sterner stuff than most hobbits, told the rider to go away or he’d set the dogs on him. When Frodo shows up at his door a few hours later, Maggot knows something strange is afoot. He doesn’t ask Frodo what’s going on, but he does offer shelter, food, and later on, a ride to the ferry. It turns out that Maggot is one of the Really Good Guys. Later on, he’ll be described as having “…earth under his old feet, and clay on his fingers; wisdom in his bones, and both his eyes are wide open”. Farmer Maggot isn’t a myopic hobbit who ignores what’s going on down the way because it’s a little different. After inviting Frodo to dinner (and presumably offering him the protection of his household an invitation to a meal often entailed in the medieval period), he prepares the wagon, hides Frodo, Sam, and Pippin in back of it, and drives them to the ferry. There, they see an ominous figure in the fog, but it turns out to be someone they know: Merry Brandybuck, who’s been out looking for them.
Chapter V: A Conspiracy Unmasked
After all their delays and close encounters, the hobbits finally reach Frodo’s new house in Crickhollow. It’s a proper house, not a hole, but it was built by hobbits, for hobbits, so it has just one storey and a proper round door. That door also has a lock on it because here in Buckland, on the borders of the Shire with the Old Forest looming over them, life is not quite as carefree as it is in Hobbiton. But Merry and Fredegar (Fatty) Bolger, another of Frodo’s cousins, have been doing their best to make the little house homey for Frodo’s arrival.
Having dodged another black figure who was on the far side of the Brandywine River after they crossed, the hobbits are glad to be somewhere warm, cozy, and indoors for the night. But Frodo can’t fully enjoy this comfortable evening. He still has to leave the Shire, he’s still being pursued by black riders, and he still doesn’t know how to tell the others he’s leaving.
Pippin tells Merry and Fatty about the journey from Hobbiton, including why Farmer Maggot sounded scared when they met up near the Buckleberry Ferry. His reaction was unsettling, since Merry tells the others that Farmer Maggot used to go into the creepy Old Forest and has a reputation for knowing all sorts of strange things. It’s not very hobbit-like, but the old guy knows more than he lets on. I guess he gets away with it because he grows amazing mushrooms, and hobbits are crazy about mushrooms. It’s best not to be mean to the person who grows your favorite food.
Frodo is quiet through the conversation. He’s been looking around the cozy room and at his friends, trying to figure out how to say good-bye. Unbeknownst to him, the others have been giving each other knowing looks all night. They already know what’s bothering Frodo. The Shire is made up of small towns, after all, and it’s hard to keep any sort of secret, especially from clever cousins and neighborhood friends. It turns out that Sam, Merry, Pippin, and Fatty have known about Frodo’s plans all along and Merry has known about the Ring since before Bilbo left town twenty years earlier. Until Gandalf caught him, Sam was the chief information-gatherer. So they all know about the Ring and that Frodo is leaving. Though they are all frightened, they’re set on their plan. Sam, Merry, and Pippin will journey to Rivendell with Frodo, and Fatty (the homebody) will stay behind to keep up the ruse that Frodo is settling into the little house at Crickhollow. Merry states it plainly: “We know most of what Gandalf has told you. We know a good deal about the Ring. We are horribly afraid- but we are coming with you; or following you like hounds.”
Frodo is initially angry that they’ve been keeping this from him, but is later relieved. It’s one thing to go into danger alone. It’s another to have friends with you to watch your back. And so it is settled. Four hobbits are leaving for Rivendell before daybreak.
*I didn’t mention the sentient fox. For one paragraph, Tolkien switches the point of view from the hobbits to a passing fox that wonders at the appearance of the three hobbits in the woods. The fox leaves and you never hear from it or any other animal again. I’d always wondered why the fox was there, but now I wonder if its presence is another sign of Faërie .
Next Week: Our fearful heroes encounter angry trees, some odd folks in the woods, and the haunted hills in “The Old Forest”, “In the House of Tom Bombadil”, and “Fog on the Barrow-Downs”.