Next in the Lord of the Rings re-read, chapter 5 of Fellowship, “A Conspiracy Unmasked.” This is about the point in my prior re-read where I started getting impatient with the pace of the opening. However, this post is a little later in the week than usual because I came down with a stomach bug on Friday, not because I didn’t feel like talking about this chapter.
Merry brings the other three hobbits across the Brandywine by ferry and to Crickhollow; as they reach the other side of the river, they see a Black Rider snuffling on the far bank.
After a bath and a meal, Frodo decides to confess to his companions, but Merry forestalls him. He, Pippin, and Sam have known for quite a while about the Ring and Frodo’s need to leave the Shire, and are determined to come with him. Frodo gives in after a brief resistance, and resolves to leave the next morning by an unexpected direction, heading into the Old Forest. Fredegar “Fatty” Bolger is going to stay behind at Crickhollow, to impersonate Frodo and give a message to Gandalf.
That night, Frodo dreams of the sound of the Sea.
After a brief scene setting the context, we get an omniscient historical interlude about Buckland. The conversation where the conspiracy is revealed is also more exterior, describing Frodo as looking around “as if he was afraid” and so forth. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the POV has pulled back to encompass the entire conspiracy, rather than just Frodo.
* * *
I think the most significant thing about this chapter is that it starts the characterization of Merry, who seems to me the cool head and rather the leader of the conspiracy. At one point Frodo rather thoughtlessly comments that “it does not seem that I can trust anyone”; Sam looks hurt, but Merry gets at what Frodo’s really saying, degrees of trust. He takes the lead in talking about the conspiracy and has very efficiently organized materials for their getaway.
I initially read Pippin in this chapter as young and a bit thoughtless; he’s the one who soaks the floor while bathing, and he’s making jokes at Sam’s expense: “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; but you will need more than one companion in your dangerous adventure.” He doesn’t have a whole lot else in this chapter, so there’s not as much for me to reconsider his personality here as in chapter 3.
Sam is still provincial but game:
Sam was the only member of the party who had not been over the river before. He had a strange feeling as the slow gurgling stream slipped by: his old life lay behind in the mists, dark adventure lay in front. He scratched his head, and for a moment had a passing wish that Mr. Frodo could have gone on living quietly at Bag End.
There’s a nice mythic resonance with the crossed river here, besides the mundane matters of boundaries and hobbits generally being afraid of water.
* * *
Sam . . . was a Very Useful Spy until he got caught, after which he viewed himself as on parole and no more information was forthcoming. All of which is lovely, but impossible: because Sam gets caught right at the very beginning, just when Gandalf is explaining to Frodo what the Ring means and that he will have to leave the Shire. Until that point there can have been no conspiracy, because Frodo has no notion that he might have to leave, he knows nothing; after that point there can have been no conspiracy, because Sam has been caught already…
Specifically, what Merry says is, “I kept my knowledge to myself, till this Spring when things got serious. Then we formed our conspiracy . . . . You are not a very easy nut to crack, and Gandalf is worse . . . . Here’s our collector of information! And he collected a lot, I can tell you, before he was finally caught.” (“The Shadow of the Past” takes place in April.) Odd that this should have got by Tolkien, with his meticulous calendar-keeping as revealed by Appendix B. On the other hand, it took desperance to point it out to me, and I’ve been reading the book for how long?
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Generally speaking, this is a domestic interlude of relative peace. There’s only a faint glimpse of a Black Rider, the dark reasons for Frodo’s flight are alluded to but not re-hashed, there are civilized things like the furniture from Bag End, baths (while I agree with Pippin that hot water is a wonderful thing—though I’d amend it to hot running water—I don’t know that I’d sing songs in its favor), and food. To me, the chapter reads like a faint and less-weighty echo of “The Shadow of the Past.”
(In my first post, I asked whether it was practical that they could have enough hot water for three baths at once, and was gently reminded that, you know, the hobbits aren’t that big . . . Which just goes to show, I suppose, that they’re effective reader stand-ins.)
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And then there’s the hints of danger and non-domesticity at the end, through the (unnecessary) authorial foreshadowing of danger to Fatty, and through Frodo’s dream:
Eventually he fell into a vague dream, in which 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.
I suspect that the full significance of this is not comprehensible on the first time through, and just the ominous reversal and pending obstacles comes through.