(Updated on 26/07/2022)
Chapter Four opens from “Three Is Company” with a bit more being added to the air of mystery that surrounded Gildor’s elves: they’re gone, leaving behind just a bit of food. This is going to be typical of them for the rest of the story, the sort of thing that kind of makes the reader not like them a little. They couldn’t have said good-bye? They left these three hobbits on their own, asleep, with the worst servants of Sauron in the area? But perhaps I am nit-picking, and I suppose one of the largest themes of The Lord of the Rings is how the elves can no longer be relied upon as they once did, but this is a fairly drastic example.
Pippin is all full of cheer, for most of the chapter, no longer even concerned about the Black Riders: “Under the morning sun the prospect of seeing a whole troop of them did not seem very alarming to him“. This is going to be a common trait of his for the story, which is his (occasionally mindless) optimism. Frodo is being the morose one and Sam isn’t saying much at all: it has been left to Pippin to remind us that hobbits are generally carefree and happy, even good naturedly quipping in response to Frodo’s desire to be left to think: “‘Good heavens!’ said Pippin. ‘At breakfast?’”. A nice blend of outlooks then, with one more yet to be added to the mix.
As for Frodo, this chapter starts piling on the negative aspects of his character, which are coming out in spades. We’ve already seen his indecision and lapses into melancholy: even here he views the pleasant morning as “treacherously bright“. Now, he snaps at Pippin for no good reason, insists on a dodgy shortcut despite the warnings of, again, Pippin, contemplates abandoning all of his companions, and we learn that he was a bit of a problem in his youth later on. The shortcut thing gets kind of justified, as the trio narrowly avoid another Black Rider, which isn’t something I like: it’s a very plot convenient way to cover up the fact that Frodo, apparently beginning to realise the weight and the danger of the task, is letting the stress get to him and is making mistakes because of it. Unexpected rewards await at the end of this shortcut, but bad attitudes are bad attitudes.
To expand on one of those points, we learn that, in his youth, he used to trespass on private property, steal produce and that on one occasion he got a beating for his trouble. Tolkien doesn’t really explore the larger realities of Frodo’s life pre-Bilbo in any great detail, other than the fact that he was orphaned due to a tragic boating accident at a young age. It’s easy to imagine that Frodo might actually have had a troubled upbringing, and mushroom pilfering was only part of it. On the surface, Frodo’s activities might seem like mostly harmless pranks any person would have performed as a child, but then again, maybe not. One of the “worst young rascals” and a “reckless lad” is how Maggot dubs Frodo later, terms that could be both dismissed as a long time ago, or held up for more troubling scrutiny.
This is all in the eye of the beholder of course, but I think it does add something to the Frodo character and might explain his general depression, cynicism and need to get out of the Shire: maybe he’s always been trying to get away, ever since he lost the parents he never mentions. Such a loss would drastically affect any person, and I suppose it’s almost strange that no more is really said about it in the course of the story. Certainly we might understand better now how the kind of person that Frodo was as a boy – adventurous, bold, even if it was recklessly so – might have appealed to Bilbo.
The hobbits crash into the underbrush, “the bushes and brambles…reluctant to let them through…cut off from the wind by the ridge behind, and the air….still and stuffy.” They are getting their first proper taste of the wilds, away from the comforts of home or even the road now, and the experience is not an enjoyable one, but a thing of difficulty and bother. Worse places await, and the struggle here emphasises the lack of experience with travel that the three have. Over river and into woods, the three leave civilisation behind for a few pages.
On Sam, this chapter resolutely backs up his loyalty to Frodo, though you do get further signs of inequality: Frodo is “Sir” and “master”. The relationship here is often compared to that of an officer and his enlisted batman, something Tolkien would have had experience of in the First World War. Of course, no kind of similar situation exists in the Shire: Frodo is Sam’s employer and neighbour, but this seems to translate into a more regimented style of address, backing up the idea of Frodo being a sort of landed gentry class, with Sam in the role of a tenant/labourer (related, notice how Maggot is careful to give Pippin and Merry a “Mr” honorific after incorrectly dubbing Pippin “Master”. He largely ignores Sam, who is suspicious of him). No derogatory meaning should be taken from the terms in this specific context, but it is to be noted that Sam is often treated, even by people you wouldn’t think it of, as below Frodo on the social scale.
But we are also witness to his commitment and non-complaining attitude, when questioned by Frodo as to whether he feels the need to go on. Sam’s clumsy with his words in a way, with no flowing speech about the wonders ahead, but his down to earth declaration of willingness to keep going – “I don’t rightly know what I want: but I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire” – is impressive enough in showing the kind of inner character Sam has, with his sentiments to be repeated in darker and more dangerous places far ahead (with that specific example showcasing a degree of premonition that might be connected to the elves). And he is totally loyal to Frodo, his friend apart from his master and is actually willing to stand up to a possible Black Rider for him towards the end of the chapter: “I am going with him, if he climbs to the moon”. This is something we will address again towards the end of Book Four but for now, it is enough to know that Sam is the Lancer to Frodo’s Hero, if we’re going by the Five Man Band analogy.
This chapter also gives us a look at another common trope/plot device throughout the book: magic food and drink. The elves have left the hobbits a liquid that gives them an unlikely boost in energy and temperament. This is something that we will see repeated again and again in The Lord of the Rings, from lambas, to cram, to the Uruk drink in Book Three’s “The Uruk-Hai“. It’s a convenient device for the author to use, to explain how the characters can go trooping off throughout an entire continent without having to bring a wagon-load of supplies along with them. Moreover, this particular elvish drink has properties beyond the physical, generating in the trio a mental refreshment: “Very soon they were laughing, and snapping their fingers at rain, and at Black Riders. The last few miles, they felt, would soon be behind them.”
Very quickly, Tolkien turns all of that on its head. The Black Riders get an added dimension of fear, as we first hear their cry, a high pitched wail. The movie does a brilliant job with this, giving the sound that horrifying ear-splitting dimension, “the cry of some evil and lonely creature… chilling to the blood”. They remain a mysterious, but imminently scary, menace, even if the reader might already be starting to get a little impatient to know something more solid about them. Near brushes in the dark and whispered murmurs from the elves won’t suffice forever. The film adaptation did a great job of altering things to make them more visually exciting on that score.
Onto the character of Maggot, your typical country farmer, a man big on his independence, disliking outsiders (which includes people from other parts of the Shire, whom he openly disdains, perhaps justifying Sam’s “natural mistrust”) and very protective of his property. I like Maggot’s portrayal as a thoughtful person and storyteller that takes his damn time and doesn’t give way for young people: “It seemed plain that the farmer would tell them more, if allowed to do it in his own time and fashion“. I am particularly reminded of the character of Michaleen O’ Flynn from The Quiet Man. Maggot’s a guy who loves being the centre of attention, even if he claims otherwise.
In terms of plot-important issues, Maggot is able to relate a bit more on the Black Riders, telling the trio and the reader that they’re actually offering gold for info on Frodo. Interesting stuff, something that is entirely alien to the culture of the Shire, and treated as such. I note with delight that we still aren’t at a stage where we know for sure that there is more than one Black Rider, though it is implausible to think otherwise right now. It all adds to the uncertainty and the fear. The recitation of the encounter between Maggot and the Black Rider is really interesting, a sort of extension of the one-sided conversation Frodo overheard between Gaffer Gamgee and the Black Rider back in Hobbiton in “A Long-Expected Party“.
Maggot is also another example of the “friend in unlikely places” archetype that will show up time and again in the story. Aragorn, Glorfindel, Eomer, Treebeard, Gandalf the White, Faramir, even Gollum, they all fit this description and it goes back to this repeated idea of how characters should never give in to despair or hopelessness, because a change in fortune is probably right around the corner. In a later chapter, it will be noted that Maggot occasionally wonders into the Old Forest for whatever reason, and is known to Tom Bombadil (at one point Maggot notes his distrust of a nearby river, but doesn’t say if he means the local Brandywine or the more magical Withywindle). Numerous characters speak highly of him in a manner that goes beyond the ordinary, and it is interesting to posit as to why: in a later chapter Tom Bombadil will make the cryptic remark that “both his eyes are open” regards Maggot, indicating a willingness to accept more than just the ordinary hobbit world view. There’s more to him than meets the eye, which is impressive enough: a steadfast country farmer, full of welcome and wisdom, a negative memory turned into a positive present.
The meal at Maggot’s house also gives us another example of “the feast” as a major part of social etiquette in Middle-Earth. You want friendship, exposition, a bit of safety? Well, you’ve got to eat first and eat well. Every chapter so far has included this: Bilbo’s gigantic birthday feast in “A Long-Expected Party”, Gandalf and Frodo discussing things after breakfast in “The Shadow Of The Past“, Frodo’s last get together in Bag End in “Three Is Company”. I’m reminded again of the idea of “xenia”, the laws of hospitality of Ancient Greece and how they governed society. Guest-friendship is a vital part of this world, with the way guests are treated being an indicator of just how good things are in any part of Middle-Earth. Violations of it are a serious matter (more so in Ancient Greece, where the concept arose from the idea that the God’s could be walking among people). Maggot openly invites the trio into his home with no reservations, making them comfortable and safe, asking little in return. For that, he’s marked out as one of the most decent people in the Shire.
This chapter continues the run of ending with a major conversation of importance, this time between Frodo and Maggot. Frodo’s suspicious nature has backfired a little here, as he realises that his continuing dread of Maggot down through the years has cost him “a good friend”. Ironically, his distrust of those he considered potentially dangerous will serve him better in the travels ahead. For now, he faces down a childhood fear properly and with courage, which is not worth nothing.
The chapter concludes with a nice bit of tension, as an apparent Black Rider, asking for Frodo Baggins, turns out to be Merry, the last in a series of seemingly bad things that turn out to be good. It’s a great passage for emphasising the paranoia that’s suddenly engulfing the party, thinking that there is danger in every shadow, especially in the thought that the figure of Merry seems to shrink from a more intimidating size once he reveals himself: “…he seemed suddenly to diminish to ordinary hobbit-size“. Is it possible that the insidious power of the Ring is infecting minds and causing unnecessary fear? The chapter’s last line is a more joyous one than before, but still one that sticks in the mind, a reminder about allies met: “Suddenly Frodo laughed: from the covered basket he held, the scent of mushrooms was rising.”
“A Shortcut To Mushrooms” needs to keep things rolling along, flesh out the trio a bit more and show them getting into some proper difficulty. While it does all that, the lack of momentum is starting to show more evidently now, and it’s still a while before we get to the next truly critical part of the text in “The Old Forest”. That being said, there are still things to keep the reader intrigued here: a shadow from Frodo’s past set up, who is flipped into an ally, the growing threat of the Black Riders, now confirmed as being plural, and the ending, where Tolkien keeps things ticking over with the introduction (or re-introduction) of another member of the party. “A Shortcut To Mushrooms” is one of the shortest chapters in the entire epic and contains a little mini-narrative surrounding Frodo and Maggot in it – began with Frodo’s first recollection of those fearsome dogs and ended with the gift of mushrooms – so it has its strengths. In fact, every chapter so far as had a mini-story in it to some extent: Bilbo’s status and eventual vanishing in the first, the epic tale of the Ring in the second and Frodo’s hesitant first steps into the wider world in the third, all of them with a defined beginning, middle and end. But the plot is going to get slower.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.