Thu
Jan 15 2009 3:35pm

LotR re-read: Fellowship I.5, “A Conspiracy Unmasked”

cover of The Fellowship of the Ring 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.

What Happens

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.

Comments

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.

* * *

In comments to my initial post, desperance pointed out a major continuity error:

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?

* * *

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.)

* * *

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.


« Fellowship I.4 | Index | Fellowship I.6 »

20 comments
Eric Braddock
1. EricBraddock
Hey everyone! Sorry I've been missing for the past couple weeks. The Holiday has set me back a bit, but I've been following along with your posts, loving everyone's input on the text and their thoughts about certain aspects of the story thus far. I couldn't contain my eagerness to draw another character in action, and though this character portrait isn't aligned with the current chapter everyone is on, I hope you still enjoy it! Happy reading, the story is just starting to get good :x



More work and sketches on my blog here.
cofax
2. cofax
On the other hand, it took desperance to point it out to me, and I’ve been reading the book for how long?

I noted it, thought it was odd, but never thought too much about it. Perhaps an earlier draft had Sam caught later in the planning process, and Tolkein neglected to correct the reference in this chapter?
cofax
3. Jason-L
I hadn't thought much about it either... I had always assumed Sam had been "spying" for years, not just a few days, even if the conspiracy hadn't gotten underway until recently.
rick gregory
4. rickg
I guess I read that has 'Sam's been keeping an eye on you for a while, knows about the Ring (that it does something strange, etc though not what it was until the end) and has known Frodo was a bit restless'. But if Merry meant to say 'We've known about the Ring including its nature' well, yeah, that's just an inconsistency. Like you, I'd never noticed it.
cofax
5. clovis
Doubtless you're all ahead of me on this one, but I just thought I'd mention with reference to the crossing of the river that crossing a river was often used as a sign in medievel literature that the hero had left the mundane world and entered fairyland where danger and inversions of the natural law awaited , something I am sure Tolkien would have been aware of and was probably drawing on.

No I'd never noticed the discrepancy about Sam's spying either.
Kelly McCullough
6. KellyMcCullough
So, I missed the last round of the conversation and have only just read it now. I have a thought applicable to that segement in terms of the relative power of the black riders as the story moves along that I am going to drop in here as this is where the conversation is currently running.

If you posit that the black rider are to some extent fear-vampires (an idea with more than a little support in the text) it would explain much about their lack of strength in the Shire. They are unidentified and little-feared in the Shire and thus weakest there. As they get closer to home and access to the great fear of the armies of Sauron (who are clearly terrified of them) they grow in power. Likewise, they grow in power against the hobbits as the hobbits fear of them grows and are stronger against Gandalf who knows and thus fears them on some level--even if it is only fear for the safety of those in his care.

Alternatively, one could argue that in the Shire the wraiths are functioning mainly as hunters and trackers, and that it is a task for which they are supremely ill suited because of limited sensory range, etc. In that case, you could posit that while Sauron may have much better hunters available to him, none of them are creatures he actually trusts to bring him the ring if they get their hands on it. That might also get Gildor off the hook, as he knows that his presence with the hobbits would make them much more visible to the riders and also that giving deeper knowledge of them to the hobbits would make the hobbits more vulnerable.

Or, you could go for a combination of the two and get a very plausible explanation, and one that would be hard for Tolkien to make explicit given the way he structured his POV.
Kate Nepveu
7. katenepveu
All: glad it wasn't just me.

clovis, I'd had a vague recollection of that, but thanks for bringing out the specifics.

KellyMcCullough, that is extremely interesting speculation and I will be on the lookout for support for it.
cofax
8. mikeda
One note is that Frodo and Gandalf DID have a fairly long conversation the night before Sam was caught.

(One commenter to the original thread also suggested that Merry might have managed to get at least some information from Sam about the morning's conversation.)
Kelly McCullough
9. KellyMcCullough
Glad it piques your interest, KateNepavu.

Oh, and my apologies for the typos. I'm not sure if it's the format of online conversation, or the fact that I generally hit the web in the morning before I start working on word count, or what, but there's something about a web forum that brings out the sloppy in my writing. I promise that the stuff my copyeditors get from me is in a much cleaner state.
Linda Frear
10. tanguera
Tolkien might have set the reader up to believe that the shape sniffing on the other shore is a black rider. However, I always thought it was Gollum partly because of the behaviour.

I wonder how Frodo came to the conclusion that there were at least two black riders and not that he saw the same rider again and again?

The dream could possibly be foreshadowing Sauron's eye looking for Frodo.
Kate Nepveu
11. katenepveu
mikeda, yes, they did, but Gandalf only started to tell Frodo about the Ring while it was dark, so it can't have had a lot about the subject of the conspiracy.

KellyMcCullough. no worries.

(I also hereby give everyone here permission to address me as Kate, that being so much easier to spell.)

tanguera, judging by the timeline in Appendix B I think the author intended us to conclude that Gollum had hid out in Moria after escaping the elves, but since the text isn't conclusive and authorial intent doesn't rule, sure, why not? =>
cofax
12. Kinsley
My reading of the conspiracy is that it probably started immediately after Bilbo left the shire -- an extraordinary event that would certainly have caught the attention of his closest friends.

The conspirators, after all, were the closest people to Bilbo (and subsequently, Frodo). They knew for a fact that there weren't pots of treasure buried under Bag End -- that the ring was pretty much it. They had plenty of opportunity to observe at first hand what the ring did, and the effect it had on the ring barers.

They would have noticed Bilbo's touchiness about the ring, and especially, his dissembling when people asked how he had come by it. They would have observed how secretive he was of it, and jealous of it. They certainly knew how Bilbo would use the ring to turn invisible. But I bet they also wondered about Gollum -- what sort of creature he was, what happened to him, whether the ring had anything to do with it, and whether Bilbo was turning into the next Gollum.

They would have guessed (correctly) that Bilbo's leaving the shire was down to the ring. They would have watched Frodo quite closely, worried that their friend would also fall under the ring's malevolent influence, and looking for the signs they had seen in Bilbo. In fact, I'd say the conspirators understood the ring much better than Frodo, and even Gandalf right up until Gandalf's return. Not the history of it, but its power.

On the night Sam was caught, he was after that final explanation -- the proof of the conspirators theories and observations about the ring. Sam heard it, but was caught, and so refused to pass the information on the Merry.

In short, I think there was plenty of things for the conspirators to go on with, even without Gandalf's information. And having been first hand observers of how the ring's malevolence had changed Bilbo, they were not about to just sit around, blithely thinking that everything was going to be all right.
Kate Nepveu
13. katenepveu
Kinsley, unfortunately Merry says that he kept his knowledge about the Ring to himself until "this Spring" when they formed their conspiracy, so your reconstruction, sensible as it is, doesn't seem to match the text.
cofax
14. birgit
I wonder how Frodo came to the conclusion that there were at least two black riders and not that he saw the same rider again and again?

They heard the cries of the Riders communicating with each other, so there had to be at least two.
cofax
15. Gandalf the Grey
I still dont really understand the full significance of the dream frodo has. Is his obsession with the sea and his traveling to the white towers in his dreams meant to foreshadow his eventual departure from Middle Earth or am i reading to far into it.
cofax
16. Lavender Took
Hi Kate,

I'm going to join ya'll an dump in here:

Heh--I never noticed that continuity error of Sam stopping reporting as soon as there was a plan to report--wow!

Gandalf the Grey: my guess is that the tower is Elostirion-- the tallest of the Elf Towers on the hills northwest of the Shire or the Tower in Avallone--both of which are connected by palantiri connecting the Elves in Arda with Valinor, so Frodo is tapping into that magical message line. I think the smell of the sea signifies Valinor, and the Valar who are sending him a message. And the lightening could be Manwe's warning of impending danger, in lieu of Frodo having an alarm clock to get him up and on the road. (-:

Also the towers and sea scent signifiying the Valar stand in contrast to the snuffling of the Nazgul looking for him, establishing that Frodo has the Valar of Aman's influence upon him opposing Sauron's hold on him through the ring. It touches on the epic-scope of the journey Frodo is embarking on.

I've always loved this chapter--the whole conspiracy and Frodo's reaction to his friends' love--from suspicious sarcasm to melted puddle. I live for hobbit dialog.

The dream is quite an epic contrast to the domestic warmth central to this chapter. Like in the last chapter when the hobbits start relaxing and singing only to be interrupted by the chilling calls between the Nazgul, Tolkien likes to keep shifting the mood--wrapping us in warm, cozy blankets, then suddenly pulling them away--mean bastard. ;-P
Kate Nepveu
17. katenepveu
Hi Lavender!

I hadn't ever thought of the palantir as a way to explain Frodo's dreams. Interesting.
cofax
18. Viviannn
Eric, your artwork is fabulous, although personally I wish your version of Gandalf didn't look so much like Ian McKellen.
cofax
19. DavidF
I just discovered this reread of my all time favorite book and though it's been up for years, I do have a comment on the Sam issue. When I have at received a big chunk of complex bad news, it takes a while to sink in, I might go into overwhelm and need to have it repeated and re-explained. It is possible this happened with Frodo but as that wouldn't make a smooth read, it what were originally several disjointed conversations were reported as one smooth conversation.
If so, Sam may have heard a lot of the background, reported that to Merry, returned for another listen, a final converation where, Frodo now understanding, made his decison to leave which upset Sam, leading to his getting caught and sworn to secrecy.
In other words, when he had promised to keep silent, he had already told Merry most of the info. Merry knew Frodo very well, and could predict what he'd decide and the conspiracy could make plans.
cofax
20. DavidF
I just discovered this reread of my all time favorite book and though it's been up for years, I do have a comment on the Sam issue. I think that the inconsistency comes from a difference between how things happen in real life and how they are presented in books.
I mean that when I have at received a big chunk of complex bad news, it takes a while to sink in, I might go into overwhelm and need to have it repeated and re-explained. It is possible this happened with Frodo but as that wouldn't make a smooth read, what were originally several disjointed conversations were reported as one smooth conversation when (a year or more later) he wrote down his story.
If so, Sam may have heard a lot of the background, reported that to Merry, returned for another listen, a final converation where, Frodo now understanding things, made his decison to leave which upset Sam, leading to his getting caught and sworn to secrecy.
In other words, when he had promised to keep silent, he had already told Merry most of the info. Merry knew Frodo very well, and could predict what he'd decide and the conspiracy could make plans.

On another issue, I've wondered why, in the last chapters when we either meet again or at least are told what happened to all characters from the beginning of the story, the final chapters don't mention Farmer Maggot. While he probably was just overlooked by JRRT and had he remembered him, he'd say Maggot was safe, taking refuge with Bombadil during the troubles or something like that.
Still I can't help fearing that he came to a bad end, having defied the Ringwraith who the hobbits see on the landing shortly after he'd delivered them to the ferry. Maggot wasn't too far away, the angered Nazgul could have hunted him down and unleashed his terror. Hope not, as I liked the old guy but I still worry.

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