(Updated on 1/3/16)
“At last the hobbits had their faces turned towards home” but Frodo is in very obvious pain as we move forward, suffering under a shadow that he is unable to even elaborate on. This manifests itself in physical and mental ways, and both of these aspects have a hint of magic to them, in the way they flare up on specific dates and near specific locations.
Frodo is “wounded”, as previously stated, and it is clear that he has ants under his skin. Withdrawal symptoms of a sort, which are revealing themselves more and more. The Ring’s influence lingers, as insidious in its destruction as it was in its existence.
“‘Alas! there are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured,’ said Gandalf.
‘I fear it may be so with mine,’ said Frodo. ‘There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?’
Gandalf did not answer.”
It is extremely telling that Gandalf, the wisest of them all, has literally no answer for Frodo when the question of whether he will ever find healing is put to him. The wizard either really has no idea, which is scary enough in its own right, or he does not want to air a negative answer. The signs of PTSD type behaviour continues, as Frodo slips into dark and troubled moods one day, only to come out cheering and smiling the next. Perhaps he is pushing the pain deep down inside. A return to the Shire will help, but not fix the problem.
It is a quick journey from Rivendell to the borders of hobbit territory, quicker even then the time it took Bilbo to travel the opposite direction in The Hobbit. There is nothing interesting, bar Frodo’s malaise, to talk about in between, and Tolkien seems eager to be getting on with his finale in the Shire itself, hence this rather short and perhaps unnecessary chapter. “Homeward Bound” seems made just to bridge that last gap to the Shire and leave us on an ominous note heading into the “scouring” of the next chapter.
The hinting and foreboding about the Shire, which goes all the way back I suppose to the talk of “outsiders” appearing in the area in greater and greater numbers recently in “A Long-Expected Party”, continues big time, as Bree seems to have turned into a more suspicious and sceptical place. The new gatekeeper seems incredibly nervous to see the party, people stare, and the whole atmosphere is one of concern and dark times.
This continues when the group reach another of the journey’s greatest hits, the Prancing Pony inn, which is unusually deserted. The five travellers are greeted by a confused, violent reaction from Butterbur, who seems convinced that the group are trouble makers of a kind. The bad signs continue, not helped by the very overly-enthusiastic reaction that he has to seeing genuine customers.
Butterbur takes on the role of a troubled businessman, delighted to have some actual clients that he can roll out the red carpet for, letting slip only in small details how bad things have gotten in Bree over the last while. The influx of “foreigners” and “outsiders” came to a head at some point in the last year, with actual fighting and death in Bree itself, mixed in with some good old fashioned treachery from the likes of Bill Ferny and the old gatekeeper, all too willing to let these “ruffians” into the town. The plot thickens. Just where have these bad guys come from, and just what are they doing in the area? As stated before, all of the signs for the solution to these questions are there, just yet to be actually revealed.
For now, Bree, much to the readers disquiet I’m sure, has become a town under siege, adrift in a sea of lawlessness and banditry outside its walls. The absence of the Rangers has been keenly felt, and in typically “don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” fashion, Butterbur now laments the disappearance of this group of men, whom he has previously only described in the grimmest and arguably insulting of terms. The Rangers had to choose between protecting the north or flocking to their leaders banner to the south. They made the right call of course, but what was once Arnor has been left pitifully unprotected, and dark forces have swamped over this area as a result.
And Barliman, talking in a near empty common room, lets slip that news out of the Shire has been essentially non-existent, indicating that the hobbit homeland has been just as shut up as Bree. Things are in a state clearly, though Butterbur’s words carry with him a hidden thread of concern and menace that he does not air openly: something is going on in the Shire that is more than just a shutdown of travel or news: “…all’s not well in the Shire neither, if what we hear is true. Funny goings on, they say.”
All of that can be left for another time. For now, the hobbits, and Gandalf, can be left to delight in the look on Butterbur’s face as they reveal just who the King “down south” is, and how he will soon be sending forces to secure his realm to the north, taking back all of his claimed lands and ruined cities in what was once Arnor. Butterbur takes all of this with a typically rural wink and a nod, willing to go along with what he must view, with the lack of real evidence, as a bit of hearsay and nonsense. The reader knows better of course, giving these passages a much needed bit of humour.
And added to all of that is the re-appearance of Bill the pony, lost outside the Mines of Moria way back in Book Two. Tolkien really is obsessed with tying off every loose thread that he can and here is one that gives some much deserved joy to Sam, re-united with the animal that got him so far, and was abandoned in such horrible circumstances. More wishes come true.
But it isn’t long before the darkness returns, as the topic changes to the fortunes of the inn, which have nosedived since the events in Bree when the hobbits were last there. Bree, cut off from the rest of civilisation and having to deal with a dark threat all around, is not a town in the mood for revelry, and so Butterbur’s business has suffered. The appearance of these four hobbits attracts some faces that were staying away of course, and Butterbur’s desperate attempts to keep that atmosphere going is a very real representation of a man who is scared for his livelihood.
Country memories are long, and Frodo’s previous disappearance has not been forgotten by this lot, who reek of nervousness and apprehension whenever anything close to the topic is broached. And the Breelanders, when it comes to discussion topics, have little time for events “down south”, a sure sign that we have re-entered proper rural territory. These people just want to focus on local issues, and couldn’t care less about what’s been happening far, far away.
The hobbits set out on their last bit of the journey before they reach home, this time by the main roads. Butterbur adds one last cryptic warning about the Shire, rumours that things aren’t going so great there. He could hardly be less specific even if he wanted to. He is content that the four hobbits and Gandalf will be able to sort it out, and the mood of optimism that sweeps the town as the party leaves seems to be some evidence of the magnitude of this feeling. Butterbur doesn’t actually come off as caring much about the Shire at all, so wrapped up in his own troubles as he is, but things do appear to be changing for the better at any rate: “Even those who had laughed at all the talk about the King began to think there might be some truth in it.”
That being said, the narrative is filled with some foreboding as they leave Bree. Sam remembers his vision from Galadriel of things going wrong in the Shire: “…trees cut down and all, and my old gaffer turned out of the Row”. At the time it was implied that this was just a possible state of affairs, but the reality is becoming clear. While the four hobbits have been walkabout, their homeland has gone to the dogs.
And while they may be determined to put things right, Gandalf won’t be coming along, the last of many partings. As he pointedly makes clear, the hobbits no longer need him. His time and works are done, and the rest is just tidy up that isn’t really his concern. His guidance and wisdom have seen these four hobbits through a lot, and the following chapter is the proof that they are more than capable of great deeds of their own accord. His words are filled with warmth on that topic: “…my dear friends, you will need no help. You are grown up now. Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.”
At the same time, he knows, as usual, more than he is saying, indicating the real force behind the trouble in the Shire, while the hobbits guess that the Sackville-Bagginses must also been involved, a bit of country rumour-mongering that happens to be true. Gandalf only hints that Saruman had “an interest in the Shire, before Mordor did”, and we’ll see more of what’s going on shortly. Tolkien has done a good enough job of deflecting attention away from Saruman in the previous chapter, having him wander away in the opposite direction as a worthless beggar, for the coming revelation to be enough of a surprise to the first time reader.
Gandalf is off to see Bombadil, the nature of that being still eluding us, this being his last mention. Bombadil and Gandalf are of a kind, so it is somewhat fitting that this is the time that the wizard chooses to depart from the main story.
So, on the edges of the Shire it is just the four hobbits that set out, come full circle back to their homeland. There is an element of unreality to the whole affair, the four of them having returned from great adventures, dressed grandly, coming back to their homeland they may never have expected to see again. But there is work still to be done, and one last part of the adventure to settle. The last thoughts are interesting: Merry remarks it feels like they are waking up from a dream, while Frodo has the exact opposite sentiment. When he says “To me it feels more like falling asleep again”, he seems to be referencing his pain and trauma, and how far removed from all of that the Shire will be to him, like a dreamland he will be unable to take true comfort in.
This chapter ends the journey home section, and it is here that it really begins to break down in terms of narrative drive. This chapter, one of the shortest in the entire story, could easily have been merged into “Many Partings”. The central plot-relevant point is Frodo’s state, but that is set-up well in the previous chapters, and resolved effectively without unneeded elaboration in “The Grey Havens”. The rest – the return to Bree, Butterbur’s fortunes and what have you – is alright padding and universe fleshing out, but doesn’t feel very vital. It could be forgiven if this wasn’t the fourth in a series of transitionary chapters. As it is, “Homeward Bound” is just a step too far in this drawn out finale. If it wasn’t for what is about to happen, it would seem as if The Lord Of The Rings is ending in a really elongated damp squib.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.