Frodo begins his wandering by trekking across the Shire, but danger is already following.
‘I have been so taken up with thoughts of leaving Bag End, and of saying farewell, that I have never even considered the direction,’ said Frodo. ‘For where am I to go? And by what shall I steer? What is to be my quest? Bilbo went to find a treasure, there and back again; but I go to lose one, and not return, as far as I can see,’
‘But you cannot see very far,’ said Gandalf. ‘Neither can I. It may be your task to find the Cracks of Doom; but that quest may be for others: I do not know. At any rate you are not ready for that long road yet.’
‘No indeed!’ said Frodo. ‘But in the meantime what course am I to take?’
‘Towards danger; but not too rashly, nor too straight,’ answered the wizard.
This chapter, Frodo is just beginning to reckon with the long road ahead of him. At one point he even recites Bilbo’s poem “The Road goes ever on”, but the line about “eager feet” is replaced with “weary feet”. Despite having the body of a younger hobbit, Frodo has a much older soul than Bilbo ever did.
Gandalf advises him to make for Rivendell, and in the interest of not rousing too much suspicion, Frodo decides to move to Buckland (or pretend to), his childhood hometown which happens to be on the eastern border of the Shire. And so he sells Bag End. To the Sackville-Bagginses. And nothing he can imply about reaching the end of his money will make anyone believe there’s not something fishy about that.
Then Gandalf suddenly takes leave, saying he’s heard something that makes him anxious and needs checking into. He promises to return to see Frodo off (in a few months), but he doesn’t. Frodo doesn’t hear anything more from him after that, and thus is left largely to his own council, with only Sam sharing his secret.
But he’s not totally without help, since he is still in the Shire. Several of his friends help him move out of Bag End, and Merry and Fatty go on ahead to his “new home” in Buckland while Frodo lingers awhile with Pippin and Sam, not wanting to set off without Gandalf. Then, just before he finally sets out, he overhears a stranger asking about his whereabouts.
Footsteps went away down the Hill. Frodo wondered vaguely why the fact that they did not come on up the Hill seemed such a great relief. ‘I am sick of questions about my doings, I suppose,’ he thought. ‘What an inquisitive lot they all are!’
Tolkien makes a point to show how people rationalize fears and evil influences that they don’t understand – because you just don’t want to believe that something else is controlling your thoughts and actions. And so Frodo forgets about the encounter, until a strange rider catches up to them on the road.
Round the corner came a black horse, no hobbit-pony but a full-sized horse; and on it sat a large man, who seemed to crouch in the saddle, wrapped in a great black cloak and hood, so that only his boots in the high stirrups showed below; his face was shadowed and invisible.
[…] A sudden unreasoning fear of discovery laid hold of Frodo, and he thought of his Ring. He hardly dared to breathe, and yet the desire to get it out of his pocket became so strong that he slowly began to move his hand. He felt he had only to slip it on, and then he would be safe. The advice of Gandalf seemed absurd. Bilbo had used the Ring. ‘And I am still in the Shire,’ he thought, as his hand touched the chain on which it hung.
He’s only spared by “chance”, it would seem, as the Rider suddenly moves on. They all find the encounter suspicious (although Sam and Pippin didn’t actually see the rider), and Sam brings up the stranger from Hobbiton (who learned that Mr. Baggins was relocating to Buckland).
‘I wish I had waited for Gandalf,’ Frodo muttered. ‘But perhaps it would only have made it worse.’
‘Then you know or guess something about this rider?’ said Pippin, who had caught the muttered words.
‘I don’t know, and I would rather not guess,’ said Frodo.
‘All right, cousin Frodo! You can keep your secret for the present, if you want to be mysterious. In the meanwhile what are we to do?’
One thing that I didn’t notice when I first read the series is the vast difference in social status between Sam and the rest of the hobbits (and particularly Frodo). There’s a reason he refers to everyone else as “Mr.” and jumps whenever someone even jokingly orders him around. He comes from a poor family, and he owes Bilbo and Frodo for all of his education (little as hobbits care about such things).
Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
And though we pass them by today,
Tomorrow we may come this way
And take the hidden paths that run
Towards the Moon or to the Sun.
Apple, thorn, and nut and sloe,
Let them go! Let them go!
Sand and stone and pool and dell,
Fare you well! Fare you well!
Home is behind, the world ahead,
And there are many paths to tread
Through shadows to the edge of night,
Until the stars are all alight.
Then world behind and home ahead,
we’ll wander back to home and bed.
Mist and twilight, cloud and shade,
Away shall fade! Away shall fade!
Fire and lamp, and meat and bread,
And then to bed! And then to bed!
This is a nice example of Tolkien’s poetry, blending a strong and simple meter with lyrics both poetical and mundane. And if you’re familiar with the films, you may recognize that last verse as the inspiration behind Pippin’s song in Return of the King.
And then the Black Rider returns.
As Frodo watched he saw something dark pass across the lighter space between two trees, and then halt. It looked like the black shade of a horse led by a smaller black shadow. The black shadow stood close to the point where they had left the path, and it swayed from side to side. Frodo thought he heard the sound of snuffling. The shadow bent to the ground, and then began to crawl towards him.
Once more the desire to slip on the Ring came over Frodo; but this time it was stronger than before. […] But at that moment there came a sound like mingled song and laughter. Clear voices rose and fell in the starlit air. The black shadow straightened up and retreated.
This contrast between light and dark, this battle between evil and beauty – that’s what this series is about, and Tolkien excels at exposing it.
It’s a band of High Elves passing through the Shire. Frodo’s naturally a little coy with his errand, and Sam is positively dumbfounded, but it turns out it’s helpful to have someone around who isn’t trying to guard a secret.
‘Come now, Frodo, tell us what you are doing? for we see that there is some shadow of fear on you.’
‘O Wise People!’ interrupted Pippin eagerly. ‘Tell us about the Black Riders!’
While they don’t actually reveal anything about the Black Riders, the elves suddenly decide to let the hobbits come with them to their “hall”. Frodo earns quite a bit of respect by speaking to them in their own language.
‘You do not ask me or tell me much that concerns yourself, Frodo,’ said Gildor. ‘But I already know a little, and I can read more in your face and in the thought behind your questions. You are leaving the Shire, and yet you doubt that you will find what you seek, or accomplish what you intend, or that you will ever return.’
Gildor refuses to tell him anything more about the Black Riders, but he does (reluctantly) advise him not to wait any longer for Gandalf, and not to go alone (reiterating Gandalf’s advice).
‘But where shall I find courage?’ asked Frodo. ‘That is what I chiefly need.’
‘Courage is found in unlikely places,’ said Gildor. ‘Be of good hope! Sleep now! In the morning we shall have gone; but we will send our messages through the lands. The Wandering Companies shall know of your journey, and those that have power for good shall be on the watch. I name you Elf-friend; and may the stars shine upon the end of your road! Seldom have we had such delight in strangers, and it is fair to hear words of the Ancient Speech from the lips of other wanderers in the world.’
Until next time…