A few weeks have passed “in-universe” but we start pretty much where we left off, with Frodo and Gandalf discussing the more delicate details of the coming quest. “The Shadow Of The Past” was for grand pronouncements but you really need some firmer directions before things can kick off properly. But even now, with Gandalf pushing Frodo out the door, it’s still very vague. The Elvish sanctuary of Rivendell, well-remembered from Bilbo’s time there in The Hobbit, is the set target: but that’s essentially on the other side of the continent as far as Middle-Earth is concerned, and marking that as the destination without further detail is as pointless as Google Maps telling me to ”just walk” to Ankara.
The opening stages of the chapter see Frodo put off leaving for as long as he can. This demonstrates a degree of irresponsibility and hypocrisy for the character: he spent the last 17 years waiting for an adventure, and now that he has one, he can’t leave slow enough, filled as he is with melancholy. He seemed so resolute just a few pages ago, but now dawdles as much as he can. But it is a believable aspect of the Frodo character I think, that he finds it difficult to leave the Shire he has never been outside of. He has no idea what he is getting into, no idea of the perils ahead. It’s easy to claim a desire for adventure, and a willingness to take that big leap, but reality can strike very fast. I wouldn’t be in a rush to get out the door either. The Shire is home, stable, comfortable, safe. The outside world and the road are foreign places, unpredictable, perilous, deadly. And Frodo is doom-laden about what he’s about to do, stating openly a belief that he will “not return”.
The character of Merry gets a bit more time in these sections, along with some other minor hobbits that will play a part in the next few chapters, especially “Fatty” Bolger, his only character trait so far being that he’s, well, fat. We’ll get more on Merry in a few chapters, but for now he’s barely indistinguishable from Fatty. It’s a far cry from the hobbit who’ll be charging with the Rohirrim at the Pelennor Fields, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. We get a nice scene of Frodo having his last meal/party in Bag End with his closer friends, among them Pippin, who also gets his proper introduction in this scene, having been namedropped and little more in the last chapter.
The early part of this chapter very much carries a sombre feeling, a deep breath before the storm, as Frodo takes in his last bit of comfort and peace before he sets out. This effect is maximised by Frodo’s general depression and maudlin attitude –“I wonder if I shall ever look down into that valley again” – in comparison to his more jovial and supposedly clueless friends. On that score, Tolkien does his job, and ensures that we never suspect Sam and Pippin know more than they are letting on, while leaving enough waymarkers that the coming revelation isn’t a complete surprise.
Gandalf’s absence is though, and vague reasons for his departure combined with the lack of communication with him helps to create a sombre mood with a touch of desperation. We may still see Frodo largely as a child, with Gandalf as his guardian and protector. That the wizard has, apparently, vanished, and isn’t turning up where he says he will, is concerning to say the least, and brings to mind the likes of “Flies And Spiders”, where his absence from a group he was basically leading caused disaster. Tolkien is starting a process of making Frodo, and the reader, see Gandalf as someone he can’t go on without, to ensure that the events of “The Bridge Of Khazad-Dum” carry that extra emotional impact.
The actual excuse for Frodo taking off is clever enough, indicating a degree of slyness in the Ring-bearer. Certainly nothing really out of the ordinary, him moving back to his birthplace, and given the way that he is placed in the popular consciousness of Hobbiton, with all of the connections to “Mad Baggins” and the implications that Frodo too is “cracking”, it is easily believed that Frodo, who later in the chapter says bluntly “I am sick of my doings being noticed or discussed”, might simply have had enough and decided to head back to more friendly surroundings. You can well imagine some of the Hobbiton residents expressing delight about the prospect, after the initial shock of the news had reached the gossip-filled inns, still wondering if Gandalf is involved in some nefarious way.
We also get our last bit of the Sackville-Bagginses for a while as we are introduced, very briefly, to Lotho, Lobelia’s son. Lotho will be important much later, but for now it is enough that he is a Sackville-Baggins. That means trouble, because the family is nothing but trouble, arrogantly claiming Bag End before it is legally theirs. This is further emphasised, almost to a ridiculous extent, by their rude behaviour and derogatory opinions of the Gamgee family next door. It is a rare moment when you want to tell Tolkien “Yes, we get it”. But, as with some of the dialogue given to them in “A Long Expected Party”, the intended effect is to make their sudden transformation into Quisling types all the more believable 60 chapters from here. For now, it’s enough to see Frodo give them the worst kind of treatment he can give: he “did not offer her any tea”.
On all of that, I used to wonder, reading this book in my younger years, just what it was the Bagginses, Bilbo and Frodo, did with their lives. Bilbo you could say was living off his Erebor wealth after The Hobbit, but what was he doing before that? And what has Frodo been living on, to the extent that he can just up and buy a house? Neither of them appear to work, but live plentifully. Such things filled my mind, a plot-hole that needed paving over. The truth within the story, probably anyway, is that Bilbo and Frodo are just country gentlemen, lords of the manor, “old money” as they say, living off family inheritance and maybe the rent of tenants on their land (like maybe the Gamgee’s, with Sam perceived outright as a servant of Frodo’s). The Shire has that kind of implied class structure, without any pesky feelings of outright superiority (mostly) to make the reader feel queasy, with the Bagginses (and the Sackville-Bagginses, and I suppose the Tooks and Brandybucks as well) at the top and families like the Gamgees, a labourer class but happy with their lot, below them. It might not be quite Downton Abbey, but it isn’t far off.
Frodo finally does bite the bullet and leave Bag End, described as looking a bit like a dwarf as he does, a clear nod to The Hobbit. The setting of on the quest and the jump from safety to danger is brilliantly set-up by the appearance of probably some of the most terrifying and chilling antagonists in the history of fantasy: the Ringwraiths. Of course, the reader doesn’t know they are the Ringwraiths, our only knowledge of them being Gandalf’s brief description of “the nine” who fell into the thrall of Sauron ages ago and now serve him as some of his most terrible weapons. I surmise it would take a clever reader to guess who the rider who turns up in Hobbiton actually is: on my first reading, I certainly didn’t twig it, thought I could obviously tell the figure had nothing but bad intentions. This uncertainty speaks to their sudden arrival in the story, as can be told through Christopher Tolkien’s monstrous collection of analytical texts and his father’s notes, where a meeting with Gandalf on a white horse was struck through and replaced with a dark rider and a dark horse, for no other reason than Tolkien wanted to change tack suddenly. While he didn’t make-up the entirety of his story as he went along, Tolkien did have a tendency to alter significant details on the fly, and the introduction of the Ringwraiths is one of the end products of this.
As it is, they are just the “Black Riders” for the moment and that is disconcerting enough. “Big Folk” turning up this far into the Shire is obviously odd, but the Gothic appearance of these guys– Black horses, black capes, the odd language, the threatening tone and demeanour – are accentuated by the fact that they are very out of place in the land of the Hobbits. Tolkien was sure to note a hobbit “stranger” who turned up in a Hobbiton pub one night in “A Long Expected Party”, just so the reader would understand that this was an unlikely occurrence. In comparison, the Black Riders are like figures from another planet. This makes them an even more effective villain, a shadowy threat that we know straight away are after Frodo, and that will easily take the hobbits down if they get a chance. The jump in stature of antagonists, from the Sackville-Bagginses to these guys, is notable. Having set out on his quest, Frodo is almost immediately beyond the looking glass.
The introduction of the Ringwraiths also coincides with the first spelled out instance of the Ring’s increased pull on Frodo. This is the first proper clue as to the true identity of the Black Riders. The two short sequences where Frodo is tempted to put on the Ring for no clear reason demonstrate obviously for the first time that the Ring is a force unto itself. It can sense when allies are near and affect Frodo to its advantage. Combined with the “sniffing” Riders, it all creates a very suspenseful set of sequences. The hobbits are no match for these guys, and hiding is their only option. But along with the direct danger of the Ringwraiths, there is the more subtle problem of the Ring’s pull on Frodo’s mind, which leaves him moments from disaster before the group of elves arrives.
“Three Is Company” sees our little fellowship set off properly. A common criticism of The Lord of the Rings is that they are books (and films) about walking: tedious and boring. I disagree. These bits, where Tolkien describes the course, the surrounding environment, the flora and the fauna, are among my favourite parts. It fleshes out the world, makes it more real, without going too overboard like Robert Jordan does/did. This place has a proper geography and I’m happy for some expansion on it.
Moreover, these scenes provide a way for Tolkien to better discuss the general tone of the story so far, in describing just how the characters are walking along. Here they sing and hum but when danger rears its head, they turn silent and walk ever fearful or arousing notice. It’s an effective way of keeping the suspense up, reminding us of the typical nature of Hobbits and how they are unsuited to the adventure that Frodo has found himself taking up. It also allows for some wonderful prose. One notable example: “Away eastward the sun was rising red out of the mists that lay thick on the world. Touched with gold and red the autumn trees seemed to be sailing rootless in a shadowy sea.”
Pippin is with Frodo and Sam as they set out. In this chapter, we see him as almost the archetypical hobbit: cheerful, with a song in his heart and a spring in his step, his “Walking Song” one of the first original verses in the book (notably altered in tone for its use in Jackson’s trilogy). He calls Frodo on his suspicious behaviour almost as soon as it becomes obvious – continuing to set up some important stuff for later – but is shown to take some things, such as the Black Riders, seriously enough. But my favourite Pippin bit, which I think describes his character better than any other, is his sarcastic banter with Frodo at one of their first campsites, when asking the Ring-bearer if he brought back any water from the river. It’s witty, and it’s the kind of thing friends – especially male friends – will say to each other. It re-enforces the tone of camaraderie that has been so far presented, and gives the hobbits the chance to be, well, human. Later, his memory of the Elvish encounter will be all food and drink related, typically.
A following paragraph, that seems more like The Hobbit than The Lord of the Rings really, sees a fox wonder up to the sleeping hobbits and pass comment before disappearing. Kind of a random thing for Tolkien to throw in, a bit that does nothing but simply remind the reader that in Middle-Earth, animals have fully fledged personalities as well. I suppose there’s a bit of a nudge wink sentiment in that the fox never knows how close he/she got to the epic quest, but it doesn’t really add anything to the chapter.
Sam is cast in what will become his familiar role as the loyal batman to Frodo as the trio set out: taking on most of the weight with the packs, and using his local knowledge to aid the group. I liked that about Sam: he is adventurous and obsessed with the outside of the Shire, but still a hobbit. He doesn’t go too far, but knows every nook and cranny for a certain radius around Hobbiton. It’s a nice little bit of character background, and helps endear him further to the audience, even if, from a modern perspective, his subservient status compared to Frodo (and others) might be somewhat jarring. His reaction to the elves the group bump into is charming enough, struggling to enunciate his appreciation for the experience: “...it was the singing that went to my heart, if you know what I mean.”
We also see one of my favourite quotations in this chapter, “the road” speech from Bilbo, where Frodo reminisces on Bilbo’s past eccentricities: talking about how the road outside Bag End leads as far as the Lonely Mountain:
“You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
It’s a recitation that reinforces the epic-ness and sense of growing adventure: stuff that is sorely lacking as three hobbits march around a few woods on their own. Still, it’s good to see a humorous retort from Pippin: “Well, the Road won’t sweep me anywhere for an hour at least”.
Frodo, aside from his previous dithering, does get shown up as naive and green in this chapter a few times. He barely manages to avoid detection by the Black Riders on several occasions, and doesn’t seem to quite get his situation just yet. The fact that Gandalf is apparently missing still doesn’t drill it into him. He’ll grow into a more responsible character in that regard, but for now, he is a bog-standard hobbit, very much out of his depth, and I think that does add something to the story, and may even draw a comparison in the readers mind with Bilbo 80 years before. He will grow in bits and pieces, as we go on, such as when he is declared an “elf-friend” at the end of this chapter, but it will not be until much later that he grows enormously, to the point where he eventually outgrows the Shire itself.
The Elves get their first appearance, with the trio bumping into a group of them heading towards Rivendell. They are cast in a way that shows up the more mystical parts of their reputation: the way they walk, the apparent glow, the music, the fact that some of the characters can’t rightly remember what even happened later on, like it was some sort of strange dream (“Think but this and all is mended” springs to mind). The difference between them and the clearly evil Black Riders couldn’t be starker, emphasising that The Lord of the Rings will never really trouble the reader too much when it comes to distinguishing “good” and “bad” characters (save maybe Gollum). This sequence seems intended to flesh out the actual “fantasy” part of Middle-Earth and remind us that the Elves are not going to be saving the day this time: they aren’t even aware of what Frodo is doing and their main concern, for many of them anyway, is getting the hell out of Middle-Earth as soon as they can. This whole idea is what is dubbed the “long defeat”, and I’ll talk about it more in a later entry.
One thing the sudden appearance of the Elves does do is inform the reader of just how scary the Black Riders are. The Elves are shocked and appalled at the mention of them, and when the Elder race of Middle-Earth is worried, then you know that everyone else should be as well.
The Elvish depiction also goes into the seeming paradox about them, in that they are a wondrous, but very annoying, race who don’t give clear advice or opinions on anything if they can help it, and certainly not to a few hobbits they happened to bump into. Every race has to have its faults I suppose, but the elves choosing not to actually tell Frodo what the Black Riders are seems a tad stupid on their part, and the excuse – “lest terror keep you from your journey” – rings very hollow. Gildor comes off as needlessly uncaring here, like he’s already checked out of Middle-Earth affairs. But he is right to point out that, when it comes right down to it, the choices of how to proceed are Frodo’s to make, and no matter what his own advice, “all courses may run ill”. There’s also a prescient warning for the Shire and the trouble to come: “The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourself in, but you cannot forever fence it out.”
You can start to see a pattern with the latter part of chapters, in that there is also some sort of major discussion, perhaps as a substitute for more traditional action (that will come, eventually). In the first it was Gandalf and Bilbo, and then Gandalf and Frodo. In the second it was Gandalf and Frodo again, with Sam throw in right at the end. And now, Frodo and Gildor. It’s like Tolkien is working up to these conversations, which are the big chapter pay-offs, serving both to conclude their sections of the story and set up the next. This one is chiefly about making the Black Riders more terrifying, to Frodo and the reader, as well as pointing out how helpful/unhelpful the Elves can be and further making clear the magnitude of the task ahead of Frodo. Our closing sentence this time, notes Frodo’s “dreamless slumber”, which will soon be an increasingly rare occurrence.
I did like the way that the extended edition of Jackson’s film approached this moment, cutting it mostly out but retaining the central point. Elijah Wood’s Frodo and Sean Astin’s Sam observe them from afar, walking towards the Havens. It’s done in a very sad and affecting way, with Sam mourning their passing even though he finds it hard to enunciate why he feels as he does.
“Three Is Company” needs to demonstrate some plot progression after the exposition dump of the last chapter, it needs to flesh out the three hobbit characters that share most of the pages, it needs to introduce some mystery and suspense over the absence of Ganadalf, and it needs to introduce some very dangerous obstacles for our heroes. It does all of that, though in the first instance you could well argue that the pace is set at a crawling speed. But we’re getting there. This is the first of three chapters that are largely Shire-based and about the very beginnings of the quest, so no real lethargy is evident just yet.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.