(Updated on 29/07/2022)
The chapter starts with a firm favourite trope of Tolkien’s – brief titbits of local history. We get the brief outline of the history of Buckland, Merry’s country, and the impression that they are considered somewhat strange by the rest of the Shire. Such sentiments are pretty much in keeping with the rural atmosphere of the Shire of course, as we have come to see repeatedly : only in the last chapter was Farmer Maggot talking about nearby other parts of the land as “queer”. Buckland is less than a hard day’s walk from Hobbiton, yet it’s still considered foreign territory – indeed, Bucklanders are thought of “half-foreigners” – , with their boating and proximity to the borders of the Shire. It’s not the last time Tolkien will interrupt the narrative with an encyclopaedia like description of the plot’s location, and while some find it jarring, I think it works for the realm of fantasy. Sometimes, these details help, and at the start of the chapter is the best place to put them. Two key things of interest: the hierarchy of families in the Shire is reinforced, with local farmers willing to cede authority to the head of the Brandybucks, and Tolkien also notes that, due to Buckland’s proximity to the borders, it is a place where people lock their doors at night, something alarmingly unlike most of the Shire.
Sam, when crossing the Brandywine, has another wobbly moment and briefly feels the need to go home: “his old life lay behind in the mists, dark adventure lay in front.” It isn’t the last time geography is going to be used in this context, as a sort of threshold in the minds of characters. It is somewhat of a cliché – in fact we’ll see another example of it in the very next chapter – but it’s useful enough in telling us a bit more about Sam. He’s already feeling homesick and it’s only going to get worse. It isn’t a terribly negative trait, and it serves to make Sam appear more human (if you follow). He’s just a gardener, with little idea of the big wide world. But he does keep going.
The sight of a Black Rider on the opposite bank reminds us that, despite the apparent safety of Crickhollow and Buckland, the party is living with an ever present danger. Tolkien is doing a good job here of making sure that we know that, that these guys aren’t going to be playing by Shire rules and that Frodo could be attacked at any moment. At several points already the travellers have been a hairs breath away from discovery, and the nemesis that chases them remains just around the corner.
The individual story of the chapter is Frodo and his growing dread at having to reveal that he isn’t staying at Crickhollow. I think this sort of squirming guilt/unease is described very well by the author here: “he looked round at the windows and walls, as if they were afraid they would suddenly give way”. Frodo waits as long as he can before he actually has to say anything. One wonders whether, if he has the chance, he would just leave with Sam without telling anyone, as he thought about in “A Shortcut To Mushrooms”. This pretence doesn’t need to be held much longer after all.
Before Frodo can properly elaborate on the true situation lying before them, Merry and Pippin reveal that they know everything, thanks largely to Sam (see below). It becomes clear that Frodo (and I suppose, by extension, Gandalf and Bilbo) have actually been terrible at keeping secrets: his repeated refrain of “Good heavens!” in this chapter as more and more is revealed about his lack of propriety is quite amusing. This ties into my previous points on Frodo being very “green” and inexperienced in regards to all this stuff, though he hardly had good teachers. He was unable to hide his apparent glumness and melancholy at leaving – “We have constantly heard you muttering: “Shall I ever look down into that valley again, I wonder”, and things like that” – and it seems clear that his actions were too extraordinary: handing Bag End over to the Sackville-Bagginses of all people was certainly an alarm bell. It isn’t helped by the fact that Bilbo was being far from careful in the use of the Ring – it’s actually possible that Merry knew about the Ring before Frodo, which is a troubling thought.
Poor Frodo’s first reaction is one of anger, naturally. I’d be a little annoyed too, especially at Sam, to find out that my friends have been scheming like this behind my back. “…it does not seem like I can trust anyone.” Of course it’s hypocrisy, since Frodo has been doing the exact same thing, just with less success. Still, I think Frodo’s reaction is an honest, realistic one. Anger, incredulity, acceptance, happiness at the new state of affairs. It’s good to get such an emotional burden off his back, since there will be so many more weighing him down before too long. There’s been a sense of guilt hanging on him in terms of how he has to maintain this charade ahead of leaving his friends high-and-dry, and now that guilt is banished: ‘You are a set of deceitful scoundrels!’ he said, turning to the others. ‘But bless you!’ he laughed, getting up and waving his arms, “‘I give in…If the danger were not so dark, I should dance for joy. Even so, I cannot help feeling happy; happier than I have felt for a long time. I had dreaded this evening.’”
Just on Merry, he comes out of the chapter looking the best in my eyes, displaying traits and characteristics that will come up again in the story. His inquisitive nature finds out about the Ring, beyond just seeing Bilbo disappear. He’s resourceful in getting the conspiracy together. He understands Frodo’s concerns over how much he can trust the others, and gets to the point. Furthermore, he’s simply prepared: he has supplies and ponies ready to go, and even has a hobbit, Fatty, in place to complete the “Frodo’s moving to Crickhollow” deception. It’s impressive from the Brandybuck, someone we haven’t seen much of so far, and the kind of level-headed thinking this party needs. Though Frodo remains the centrepiece of the narrative, it’s Merry who is suddenly impressing upon the reader the most. But will it last? Pippin, though given a positive description as a character who is smarter than he looks (or acts) at times, has little to mark him out in this chapter, save his youthful exuberance (and ignorance) in getting the floor soaked, and a slightly odd dig at Sam in the course of the later conspiracy talk: “Sam is an excellent fellow, and would jump down a dragon’s throat to save you, if he did not trip over his own feet”. He’s also still funny, such as his reaction when Frodo determines to leave at the time indicated in a recently sung song: “‘Oh! That was poetry!’ said Pippin. ‘Do you really mean to start before the break of day?’”
And Sam? What’s the term to use…anti-loyal (as in anti-hero)? In that, he apparently betrays the trust of Frodo, but for positive reasons. It does seem a tad out of character for Sam, at least the character we’ve come to know so far, so movingly dedicated to the Baggins family. One begins to think that the guy is a little overly-impressionable: he falls in love with the idea of everything outside the Shire by listening to Bilbo, he follows Frodo around like a puppy, and Merry convinces him to spy on Bag End. We won’t see many other examples of this – maybe Frodo’s reaction knocks a bit of sense into him – and it’s possible this was used simply to advance the plot. Sam does what he does for the right reasons, but the reader just can’t help but feel that maybe Tolkien is writing him against his established nature in this chapter. But that being said, the elaboration of Sam’s role in the conspiracy is one of the first instances when he appears as an equal in comparison to the other three, in fact taking on the lead role in reporting on the nature of the Ring and Frodo’s coming journey.
Of course, it seems somewhat extreme for Merry and Pippin to go to all the trouble of sneaking around when they could have just come out with all this after the events of “The Shadow Of The Past”. I mean, they were always going to tell Frodo anyway, and that would have allowed them to be an even greater help to him in the early stages of the quest. Were they worried that, before his journey had properly begun, Frodo would have been in a stronger position to refuse? Or was it just a simple case of less people knowing meaning less possibilities of others finding out (as we’ll see, Pippin isn’t great at keeping his mouth shut)?
Either way, their actions all demonstrate a resolute friendship with Frodo and a willingness to follow him into the unknown. The truth is that we haven’t seen all that much of Frodo so far in the story – enough to form an impression certainly, but not much beyond that yet – but what we have seen is a number of hobbits who seem willing, more than willing, to risk their lives with him. This is also seen in the general perspective of the narration, which is no longer as Frodo-centric as it has been. I suppose that, looking at the authors’ background, it is not so difficult to see the memories of World War One, and the enlistment of friends together before facing a deadly peril, bleeding through. Tolkien was a man whose life was impacted hugely by the circle of friends he gathered around him in the pre-World War One days, and that kind of longing for male friendships, for fellowship, is very evident in these pages. Frodo, perhaps, becomes something of an authors substitute, reliving Tolkien’s own memories in how he makes good choices in friends. These is darkness ahead, but these friends will face it together: “We are horribly afraid – but we are coming with you“. The pact is sealed with the recitation of a song that carries deliberate echo’s to that sung by the dwarven fellowship in “An Unexpected Party“, with these four hobbits now embarking on their own adventure “Far over wood and mountain tall, To Rivendell, where Elves yet dwell“.
Our four man band of Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin, decide to head into the Old Forest. Without being too explicitly clear, Tolkien does a decent job of giving us a foreboding feeling about the place – Buckland actually grows a hedge wall to keep it from expanding into its territory and it’s described as dangerous for some other unspecified reasons, containing trees that are more than just trees – and we’ll learn more very soon. No viable third option here: it’s go by road and risk the Black Riders or go by forest. That doesn’t make the choice all that appealing though: “I am more afraid of the Old Forest than of anything I know about: the stories about it are a nightmare“.
And poor Fatty. He’s the fifth Beatle I’m afraid. After this he gets one more appearance until near the very end of the story. But, as is pointed out, he still gets an incredibly dangerous job, really more dangerous than the party themselves. The Black Riders are after Frodo and the information they are getting says he is in Crickhollow. I wonder why Fatty is still going ahead with the plan to disguise himself as Frodo then, which was previously about stopping any wagging tongues among the Shire population. It is a gigantic risk and it, as we’ll see, will nearly cost him his life for very little gain to the overall plan. But that simple hobbit trait of naiveté about the outside world might hold the answer: what are the Black Riders to Fatty at this point, but a strange and implausible story coming out of his friends’ mouths?
The chapter ends (after yet another vital closing conversation) with a brief description of a dream Frodo has, which is worth recording here in full:
“…he seemed to be looking out of a high window over a dark sea of tangled trees. Down below among the roots there was the sound of creatures crawling and snuffling. He felt sure they would smell him out sooner or later.
“Then he heard a noise in the distance. At first he thought it was a great wind coming over the leaves of the forest. Then he knew that it was not leaves, but the sound of the Sea far-off; a sound he had never heard in waking life, though it had often troubled his dreams. Suddenly he found he was out in the open. There were no trees after all. He was on a dark heath, and there was a strange salt smell in the air. Looking up he saw before him a tall white tower, standing alone on a high ridge. A great desire came over him to climb the tower and see the Sea. He started to struggle up the ridge towards the tower: but suddenly a light came in the sky, and there was a noise of thunder.”
This is the first of three in Book One and they can be interpreted many ways. The “creatures” are probably the Black Riders. For the rest, suffice to say that Tolkien is drawing early ties between Frodo and the sea, something the character has never even seen. The imagery of the Havens, to the west, begins here, a thread that we will reach the end of in the very last pages of the book. I’m not sure at all what Tolkien intended with this dream: maybe the Ring gives some sort of magical, warped precognition, or some other mystical force is involved, perhaps the same one that Gandalf alluded to in “The Shadow Of The Past”. Either way it has that kind of Lost style feel to it: a random bunch of nonsense that is supposed to mean something, but doesn’t really. The third dream, in a few chapters time, will clear it up a bit more.
It is fair to say though that it is with “A Conspiracy Unmasked” that the momentum of the story takes a noticeable swing into less palatable regions. Things have been moving slowly enough for a couple of chapters now, but Tolkien still needs “A Conspiracy Unmasked” to round off his initial formation of the company, explain some things about the nature of the quest, and to introduce the last of the four hobbits that so much of the story will revolve around as we move forward. But you can’t help but notice how slow things are moving now, with the lack of danger, the baths, conferences and lots of talk of adventure to come, not happening right now. Thankfully, we’ll be getting some more exciting stuff in the next chapter, but it will be just a temporary reprieve. Possibly Tolkien could have merged “Three Is Company”, “A Shortcut To Mushrooms” and “ A Conspiracy Unmasked” into two or one tightened and polished chapters, since they all cover the same basic ground – Frodo’s initial foray out of Hobbiton and the coming together of the four hobbits – without ever really standing out from the others in a grand way. I feel as if the more positive aspects of “A Conspiracy Unmasked” can only really be found and appreciated in a re-read, when the allusions, foreshadowing, casual banter and friendly dialogue between the foursome can be appreciated in the larger context of the overall story. First time readers may not be able to grasp all of that.
“A Conspiracy Unmasked” needs to finish off this series of chapters about the initial journey, re-introduce Merry properly and get this party of four together and ready to head off into a larger adventure. It does all that, just with a sense of the plot’s excitement winding down, regrettably. It also serves as the last point of the Shire and the hobbits’ familiar place of civilisation: Buckland is right at the edge, between the world of routine and logic, and the dark, scary dangerous outside, which is already looking over the party in the form of the Old Forest’s borders. Many fantasy stories – hell, many stories in general, as Buckland serves as the “threshold” of Joseph Campbell in many respects – contain such a place or moment, and from this point on the hobbits will be far outside of their comfort zone.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.