Jan 5 2009 12:28pm

LotR re-read: Fellowship I.4, “A Short Cut to Mushrooms”

cover of The Fellowship of the Ring The Lord of the Rings re-read continues with Chapter 4 of Fellowship, “A Short Cut to Mushrooms.” I confess that for some reason I had, and still have, a hard time thinking of much to say about this chapter, so while I always am very excited to hear other people’s thoughts, I’m even more so this time.

What Happens

Frodo wakes up; the elves are gone. Frodo fails to tell his companions about the danger they’re currently in, and resolves to leave the Shire immediately. Sam vows to go with him.

Frodo decides to go across country, avoiding both a loop in the road and the Golden Perch inn. They get muddy and scratched, lose their way, and see and hear Black Riders. They find themselves on Farmer Maggot’s land. Maggot welcomes them, tells them that a Black Rider had just been asking after Mr. Baggins, feeds them dinner, and gives them a ride to the ferry, where they are met by Merry.


Farmer Maggot puzzled me at first, because I’d been sensitized to the whole insular = bad thing in the earlier chapters, and he’s just as insular, except that he’s clearly also supposed to be admirably shrewd. So, I have A Theory:

Farmer Maggot prefigures Tom Bombadil.

There. What do you think?

(And is the first example of “seem fairer and feel fouler.”)

* * *

Jo Walton has pointed out that avoiding the inn is a deliberate break in the pattern established in the first three chapters. The text says that at Farmer Maggot’s table, “Pippin found himself more than compensated for missing the Golden Perch,” which in prior discussion LJ user teckelvik noted as a part of a pattern: “they get their first taste of the danger of the uncultivated world, and their first unexpected feast, both within the Shire as they start out. A late afternoon and mushrooms, but it will get both worse and better before they are done.” rushthatspeaks also saw a similiar pattern: “‘Short cuts make long delays—but that’s not always a bad thing’. . . . The shortcut/twisty route/forgotten passage is weirder and dangerous and probably takes longer, but is also both actually passable and unexpectedly rewarding.”

* * *

I’d said in the chapter two post that I was unhappy that Sam was not given a choice whether to leave the Shire. This gets revisited here:

“Do you feel any need to leave the Shire now—now that your wish to see them has come true already?” [Frodo] asked.
“Yes, sir. I don’t know how to say it, but after last night I feel different. I seem to see ahead, in a kind of way. I know we are going to take a very long road, into darkness; but I know I can’t turn back. It isn’t to see Elves now, nor dragons, nor mountains, that I want —I don’t rightly know what I want: but I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire. I must see it through, sir, if you understand me.”

That’s at the very least is a non-complaining assumption of duty, and maybe more depending on how one interprets “can’t turn back.”

Also, now I wonder about the hint of foresight here. It’s something I expect much more in relation to Frodo, and can’t remember if Sam gets visions or unexplained promptings to action as Frodo does throughout the book.

* * *

As my summary may have suggested, I disapprove of Frodo not telling Sam and Pippin about the Black Riders. Yes, it’s one thing to take your young friends into danger—but they’re in danger now, you’re just not telling them.

Granted, the Riders are still relatively non-scary as judged by their actions as opposed to Gildor’s comments, but still.

* * *

Finally, the chapter ends on a comforting reversal, as also befits its structural function: “Suddenly Frodo laughed: from the covered basket he held, the scent of mushrooms was rising.”

That’s all I’ve got: what do you all think?

« Fellowship I.3 | Index | Fellowship I.5 »

1. JoeNotCharles
I think Tolkien wrote himself into a bit of a corner with the Black Riders. The overall structure of Lord of the Rings - which works extremely well - is that the danger and strangeness constantly increase as they get farther from home. But that means the first hint of danger they get has to be fairly small and easy to bypass compared to what comes later, which is why the Black Riders are so neutered in their first appearance.

On the other hand, in character it makes no sense for Sauron to send anyone but his most powerful servants after the Ring, so saving the Black Riders later would have been a plot hole. This could be fixed by saying that without the Ring, they can't range too far from him, so they're only effective east of about the Misty Mountains - but then, if whatever servant he sends for the ring is too weak, you have to ask, "is this the best he's got?" Stripping Sauron of any servants that can be really scary in the Shire neuters his entire threat, and if he has servants of that power, failing to send them makes him seem like a bumbler. Tolkien's solution is to have him send his most powerful servants, but make them strangely ineffectual, which isn't very satisfying.

I wonder if it would have been better to have Gandalf catch the Ring's plot earlier, when Sauron is just beginning to stir, and doesn't want to reveal himself yet, and have the servants he sends explicitly be sneaky but not powerful. Then the Ring, along with the hobbits, could be held up at Rivendell for several years (skipped over in the same way Frodo's lengthy dawdling in the Shire is in the current book) while Sauron's power grows and the Wise argue about what to do with the Ring. It makes some sense that they wouldn't be convinced that taking it to Mount Doom is a good plan until Sauron finally reveals himself with enough power to potentially conquer Rivendell and they still haven't found another good option.
Linda Frear
2. tanguera
The first thing I noticed is Pippin's curiosity regarding the riders. He wanted to question the elves in the previous chapter, but fell asleep without asking. Now it is the first thing out of his mouth. It almost seems strange that he'd forget, so I wonder if Gildor induced sleep so Pippin couldn't ask any probing questions and draw the rider's attention.

In this chapter, the interweaving of the weather with the threat of the riders is very well done. It is sunny and the hobbits think they are safe, the weather turns and riders show up (or vise versa). Frodo is the only that thinks the day dawns "treacherously bright" and distrusts the safety of the shire.

As to the black riders not having enough power, I think the riders are trying to sense the ring, but probably haven't got enough information or even a grasp of how to find it yet. If Sauron knew exactly where it was, Frodo would be dead before he even started.
3. josh314
I don't know why this hadn't dawned on me before, maybe I'm just thick. But it wasn't until this rereading that I realized that Maggot's dogs are probably about as tall as the hobbits, if not taller. Talk about a scary encounter!
Kate Nepveu
4. katenepveu
JoeNotCharles, I like the idea of starting the hobbits' journey earlier, while Sauron is sending sneaky (or maybe investigatory) servants--and, hey, maybe we can just cut out several years' worth of dawdling while we're at it . . .

tanguera, for some reason that seems unlikely in Gildor, but I can't put a finger on why.

josh314, gosh, you're right--huge & wolvish dogs *would* be a pretty substantial fraction of the size of a hobbit, wouldn't they?
5. josh314
Yeah, that explains the terror Frodo has of the dogs much better, especially since he had had them sicked on him when he was just a kid.

An another note, I never thought that the Riders were depicted as very weak. They have a pretty big battle with Gandalf on Weathertop, after all. But evil is always shown as somewhat of a lazy coward in LotR. The Riders avoid confrontations since they are biding their time and want to do things the easy way. IIRC, they only make a frontal assault for the Ring at two points: at Weathertop where they get scared off by the courage shown by the party, and the fact that they are not at their full number; and at the Ford, when they have no other choice and are at their full number.
Charles Dunkley
6. cedunkley
My thoughts on Farmer Maggot and the Black Riders in this chapter:

I've always viewed the Farmer Maggot chapter as a character establishing chapter for Frodo. We are seeing Frodo confronting the very thing he is most afraid of. This accomplishes a couple of things:

1. It shows Frodo has the inherent courage to face his fears.

2. It also provides a: "you haven't seen anything yet" context. The dangers that face Frodo out there go far beyond this. It helps Frodo put his fears in perspective and in a way prepares him for the deeper fears and dangers to come.

As for the Black Riders, one has to keep in mind they crossed the river in stealth. They are cloaked and diminished intentionally as their mission is secret. Since they need to be able to enter the Shire and ask questions they could never accomplish this fully unmasked as they are later on. First of all, the Rangers would instantly be wise to their presence and the whole Shire would explode emotionally in reaction.

Later on, once open war is upon everyone, we see the Ringwraiths in their full powers. Sauron might have been smarter to forgo secrecy and unleash the Black Riders fully, but he was too wary of Elrond and others at this point.
Andrew Foss
7. alfoss1540
I was particularly disturbed during this reread at Gildor - It is plain he knows about the the Rings of Power, its potential association with Frodo/Gandalf/Elrond and the ringwraiths - yet still leves the Hobbits to their own devices.

He names Frodo Elf Friend (like to know more about the extent of what that means to the elves and how they can tell - is it like a tracking chip in dogs?) and sends "word" through birds - Bombadil can even detect it)? that reaches Rivendell far before the Hobbits.

12 hours later the agonizing screams are ringing out over the Eastfarthing - and no one comes to the Hobbits aid.

If you are worried about the lack of organization on the part of the Black Riders, it is obvious that the White side had just as much trouble with organizing. Gandalf is at this point at Meduseld - or being carried there by the Eagles - and elves throughout Eriador are as indifferent to the world around them as ever.

Book 1 was always hardest for me (read it 3 times before I ever made it past Rivendell). I think that the lack of details may have been part of the cause. Remember, we have just been introduced to the History of the rings and the world 3 chapters prior, none of which the first time reader will ever remember.

As far as Maggot, he grows on you later, and through subsequest readings. I often wonder where Tolkien plucked this farmer from - Old countryside England, France, Germany??? Maggot is salt of the Earth. Just how much of him was "Tolkien-hobbit" and how much of him was based off modern archtypes is something to be considered.
Soon Lee
8. SoonLee
Farmer Maggot prefigures Tom Bombadil.

That works. Both are masters of their own domain out of which they don't/rarely venture. Both provide assistance to the hobbits.

alfoss1540 @7:
For me, this chapter conveyed a sense of the hobbits wandering unguided (not quite lost), the sense of being adrift. Add to that the presence of the Black Riders, there is a sense of unease.

JoeNotCharles @1:
I don't think the Black Riders were neutered. In the Shire, all Black Rider encounters were during daylight. It was later stated that they are less powerful during the day. All their attacks save at the Ford of Bruinen were at night - Buckland, Bree & Weathertop.

Also, my read is that the nine range in power, with the Witch-King by far the most potent. I assumed the one(s) encountered in the Shire were the lesser Black Riders.

I got the sense the whole way through the trilogy that the High Elves like Gildor were only tenuously concerned with Middle Earth. They might condescend to provide aid but they don't seem to care (enough) and for most part, remain aloof.

Glorfindel goes looking for Frodo but only at the behest of Elrond. Elrond & Galadriel do not ever leave their demesnes. The only elf that did was Legolas, a Wood Elf.
Mary Kay Kare
9. MaryKay
Another thing about Maggot was that he gave help where they had no reason to expect it. Which prefigures a number of things to come.

It seems to me that the Black Riders and their Master were hoping to avoid notice by the powers of good in the world and so were reining in their might and terror.

Kate Nepveu
10. katenepveu
Everyone has better ideas than I do about what's up with the Riders . . .

josh314: "evil is always shown as something of a lazy coward"

I don't know if I agree with this, or if the movies are messing with my perceptions. I will have to be on the lookout for it.

cedunkley and Mary Kay suggest that the Riders are trying to keep from being noticed. I'll provisionally accept that, though I suspect that I'll be coming back to their relative strength at Weathertop.

alfoss1540, would you believe that until now it never occured to me to analyze Gildor's actions? I don't know if it's SoonLee's point about detachment or just story-familiarity, but for some reason I didn't expect him to do more.
11. JoeNotCharles
Maybe I should clarify - I don't think the Black Riders were neutered in the Shire, actually - I can completely buy them being secretive in this context. I was thinking more about the encounters afterward, between Bree and the ford. Maybe I should have saved my comment until after Weathertop.
12. josh314
Maybe I am pushing it too far, kate, but the depiction of evil as cowardly, or fear-dominated, seems recurrent to me in LotR. Orcs generally are portrayed as ready to abandon any battle they are starting to lose, unless spurred on by the fear instilled in them by some captain. Sauron's main fear is that the good forces will use the Ring against him; Gandalf urges destruction of the Ring, partly because Sauron would not expect it. We can go back further and see that Melkor/Morgoth is the only Valar to know fear since only he can actually die, having tied to his power to a physical body. The lazy aspect is perhaps not there as much.
13. Shumble
I've always wondered. Could Gandalf or Aragorn have actually killed one of the Black Riders? If not, why wouldn't the Black Riders just charge all 9 at once, since they really couldn't die.

Just wondering?
Kate Nepveu
14. katenepveu
Shumble, I don't know, and I think it's a good question. I'm sure we'll talk more about it when we get to Weathertop and the Ford.
15. Will Belegon

I believe it is without question that Gandalf could take a single Nazgul. He bests a Balrog, a more fearsome foe. And I have no doubt that the Witch King's death on the Pelennor is a permanent end.

I think that there is no single answer here, but it makes sense to me that the need for secrecy still exists in the eyes of the enemy. We know that Rangers are watching the Shire, and if they reveal themselves there seems little doubt that the Dunedain will intervene.
16. SimonB
At this stage the Black Riders do not know very much about Hobbits and the Shire.

Given that the Ring magnifies its bearer they may well be nervous of encountering a puisssant individual who has embraced the Ring.

Further, if I remember correctly, such a person could potentially even command them.
Tyler Sliwkanich
17. slikz21
This is the third time I've read LotR, and I think it's simply the familiarity with the story that's making me think twice about the weakness of the riders.

My theory as to why this is so is that Frodo has yet to put on the ring and thus the riders are literally blind. I imagine that the more Frodo uses the ring, the more he "takes shape" in the rider's world (or how they see/smell the world), and when he takes it off there is some sort of a residue left that they can track. This seems to make sense with Weathertop where is stabbing is more like electronically tagging something than anything else - at least to me.

One thing that you got me thinking about is the way that Pippin is portrayed. His comment in the previous chapter about Sam making breakfast for him as well as jokingly not saving any breakfast for Frodo in this one, comes off as really childish to me. The mere fact that the sunny weather drives any fear of the riders out of Pippins mind evokes a child being scared of the monsters in his/her closet at night but not during the day. Maybe I'm taking this one too far...

I've just started this re-read a couple of days ago, but I hope to catch up soon. At any rate, thanks for doing this - the comments and supplementary readings really get me thinking of things I completely missed before.
Kate Nepveu
18. katenepveu
slikz21, it might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it's a useful one--it really does point out how young Pippin is here.

And thanks! Glad to see you here.
Andrew Foss
19. alfoss1540
slikz21 -Good to see a new face - Thanks for that thought. It hadn't been noted before.
20. jerome248
Sorry for being late in posting this as I just started to follow this re-read, and I'm new to this web site(Tor's). Anyway here's my 2 cents...

Wasn't there some confusion in the start of the book 1 between the Black Riders as either being the Rangers or the Nazguls as stated later on in Bree? Or am I being mislead by the movie?
21. J.G.
I came over from All Booked Up and WOW! So happy to have found this kind of careful reading and thoughtful discussion. Meanwhile, a few thoughts:

Farmer Maggot is an example of what they are saving the Shire FOR, in the end; he's salt of the earth indeed. And without tough old roots like him, they wouldn't have much help putting things right. He's a bit Entish, too: close to the earth, keeps to himself, but a tough customer when roused.

Doesn't Gildor say somewhere that if Gandalf hasn't told them the whole story, he doesn't think he should either? That would explain his silence. (I could be misremembering this.)

I would say the Black Riders make 3 direct assaults: the 2 mentioned, plus the one where they knock on the front door of Frodo's new home, just before dawn.

Again, this discusion is great! I'll be back to read more!
Soon Lee
22. SoonLee
jerome248 @20:

The movie was a tad misleading. In "Three is Company", Sam overhears the Gaffer talking to a rider whose voice sounds weird & later in the chapter when Sam tells Frodo about it, says "I reckon it was one of the Big Folk from foreign parts." No indication that the Black Rider was mistaken for a Ranger.
Kate Nepveu
23. katenepveu
Hi and welcome J.G.,

Gildor's comment is limited to the Black Riders: "Then I think it is not for me to say more – lest terror should keep you from your journey."

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment