The Lord of the Rings Reread

LotR re-read: Fellowship I.3, “Three Is Company”

Another week, another chapter in the Lord of the Rings re-read, this time Fellowship book I, chapter 3, “Three Is Company.”

First, a non-spoiler question: is “four’s a crowd” also the conclusion of that saying in British English?

What Happens: Around the end of April, Gandalf tells Frodo he should leave soon. Frodo suggests by September 22, his and Bilbo’s birthday; Gandalf reluctantly agrees, and suggests that he head for Rivendell. At the end of June, Gandalf leaves to look into some worrying news, and says he’ll be back by the birthday/farewell party; he thinks he’ll be needed on the road.

Frodo sells Bag End to the Sackville-Bagginses, and arranges to move to Buckland. Gandalf doesn’t show for the party, and Frodo sets off without him and with Pippin and Sam (Merry and Fatty Bolger having gone on ahead). As Frodo is leaving, a sinister black rider, Man-sized, asks the Gaffer next-door where Frodo’s gone; the Gaffer thinks that they’ve already left and says so. The (or a) black rider comes along the road the next day, and seems to sniff after the hidden hobbits; Frodo feels an urge to put on the Ring but does not.

That night, a black rider comes near their camp, but retreats when Elves are heard singing nearby. The Elves, upon hearing of the black riders, take the hobbits to their lodgings for the night. Their leader, Gildor, is concerned that Gandalf is late, and earnestly counsels Frodo to flee the deadly Black Riders, who are servants of the Enemy. After this conversation, Frodo falls asleep.


Logistics first. I understand why Frodo was reluctant to leave the Shire right away, I do—I procrastinate even when life-changing events aren’t at stake, after all. But I like to be practical, and if someone told me that evil was searching for me in a particular place and was coming ever closer to finding that place, I hope I would overcome my reluctance and leave the place that evil was searching for as soon as possible. Yes, even if Gandalf claimed to be okay with my delay.

I do give Frodo credit for not waiting for Gandalf, however.

* * *

This chapter also has a inn scene after the opening scene, though this one is at a further remove, not at one inn and not with named participants other than Frodo:

One summer’s evening an astonishing piece of news reached the Ivy Bush and Green Dragon. Giants and other portents on the borders of the Shire were forgotten for more important matters: Mr. Frodo was selling Bag End, indeed he had already sold it—to the Sackville-Bagginses!

This pattern will be broken with the next chapter, when the hobbits are still on the road.

* * *

Even before the black rider questions the Gaffer, the journey is ominous through Gandalf’s mysterious absence and the melancholy of leaving a beloved home. However, I think it’s not just my familiarity that makes the black rider not very scary yet. This may have benefits in terms of increasing the story’s tension gradually, but does give me a bit of a problem later when it’s revealed how deadly they are: if they’re that deadly, how have they so often managed to miss what’s almost literally under their noses?

Another thing about this conversation: the language used makes clear to me what a different place Tolkien was writing from. The Gaffer calls the rider “black-like,” and Sam interprets this as “a black chap.” Yet as becomes clear later, they’re referring strictly to the Riders’ clothes. In my idiom, of course, this use of “black” would refer to the rider’s perceived race, not to clothing. And even in the very different environment of Tolkien’s, I still find it odd that someone would describe a person overall by the color of their clothes, without specifying what they were doing.

Finally, there’s an interpretive narrative intrusion in this scene:

He had half a mind to go and ask the Gaffer who the inquirer was; but he thought better (or worse) of it, and turned and walked quickly back to Bag End.

(Emphasis added.) I found this slightly jarring on this re-read, though it is a small thing.

Later on, there’s a much-remarked-on POV shift with bonus narrative intrusion:

A few creatures came and looked at them when the fire had died away. A fox passing through the wood on business of his own stopped several minutes and sniffed.

Hobbits! he thought. Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Three of them! There’s something mighty queer behind this. He was quite right, but he never found out any more about it.

I’m less sure what I think about this. It’s also is the first indication in LotR proper that animals in Middle-earth are sentient. (In comments to a prior post, MerryArwen suggests that this is a very Bilbo kind of comment, which makes sense to me even if I still don’t believe, in my gut, in the narrative framing device.)

* * *

More echoes of the past: Sam is said to look like a dwarf as they prepare to leave Bag End.

* * *

Reading this closely makes me appreciate the descriptions of the landscape, which provide a good deal of atmosphere that reinforces the story’s tone: for instance, safety as they make camp the first night (“deep resin-scented darkness of the trees”), or waking up into the unknown the next morning (“Away eastward the sun was rising red out of the mists that lay thick on the world. Touched with gold and red the autumn trees seemed to be sailing rootless in a shadowy sea.”).

* * *

Elves, never in need of flashlights?

They bore no lights, yet as they walked a shimmer, like the light of the moon above the rim of the hills before it rises, seemed to fall about their feet.

It wouldn’t surprise me if this were limited to High Elves, given the associations with light and the West. However, I don’t remember noticing this before, so I can’t say.

* * *

The famous exchange:

Gildor was silent for a moment. “I do not like this news,” he said at last. “That Gandalf should be late, does not bode well. But it is said: Do not meddle in the affairs of Wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger. The choice is yours: to go or wait.”

“And it is also said,” answered Frodo: “Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.

“Is it indeed?” laughed Gildor. “Elves seldom give unguarded advice, for advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill. But what would you? You have not told me all concerning yourself; and how then shall I choose better than you?”

In comments to the original version of this post, Calimac reported that the “both no and yes” statement is literally true, thanks to Tolkien’s constant revisions of Elvish languages. And people contributed their own favorite variants on that (e.g., “Do not ask a Librarian for advice, for she will say both No and Yes, and Have you checked this source?”) and the “Do not meddle” saying. Feel free to add yours here.

And more seriously, of course, the conversation is another underlining of the importance of choice in the moral universe of LotR.

* * *

This is the first chapter in which we get significant poetry: Frodo’s “road goes ever on” fragment, which is nearly the same as what Bilbo recited when he left the Shire (thanks again to Calimac for pointing that out); the hobbits’ walking song; and the Elves’ hymn to Elbereth. I am not very good at poetry, so I’ll just note that they are all obviously different forms, and that the Elves’ song is an example of Tolkien’s belief that sound alone can convey meaning: “Yet the sound blending with the melody seemed to shape itself in their thought into words which they only partly understood.” Tom Shippey suggests that this is not a mainstream opinion in linguistics.

* * *

Character roundup:

I had a hard time getting a handle on Pippin in my first pass through the re-read, thinking maybe he was a bit high-handed in ordering Sam around when they wake up the first morning, or maybe he was joking. I’m leaning now toward “joking,” since later he’s shown setting out food and dishes himself.

Sam is associated with more dog imagery, curled up and sleeping at Frodo’s feet.

Frodo seems to me a bit introspective and unworldly, with all his not-so-unnoticed muttering about ever looking down on that valley again, being out of shape, and so forth; it feels like there’s more emphasis on his learning than his experience.

I was interested in the summary we’re given of the three hobbits’ reactions to the Elves:

Pippin afterwards recalled little of either food or drink, for his mind was filled with the light upon the elf-faces, and the sound of voices so various and so beautiful that he felt in a waking dream. But he remembered that there was bread, surpassing the savour of a fair white loaf to one who is starving; and fruits sweet as wildberries and richer than the tended fruits of gardens; he drained a cup that was filled with a fragrant draught, cool as a clear fountain, golden as a summer afternoon.

Sam could never describe in words, nor picture clearly to himself, what he felt or thought that night, though it remained in his memory as one of the chief events of his life. The nearest he ever got was to say: “Well, sir, if I could grow apples like that, I would call myself a gardener. But it was the singing that went to my heart, if you know what I mean.”

Frodo sat, eating, drinking, and talking with delight; but his mind was chiefly on the words spoken. He knew a little of the elf-speech and listened eagerly. Now and again he spoke to those that served him and thanked them in their own language. They smiled at him and said laughing: “Here is a jewel among hobbits!”

Pippin and Sam both are described as having much more sensory and much less articulate reactions; though to be fair they don’t know the language and it would be harder for them to focus on words as Frodo does.

* * *

I think overall this chapter also does pretty well in terms of things happening and information being revealed, but I seem to be unable to read it when I’m not having upper respiratory problems, so it’s hard for me to be sure whether I’m giving it sufficient credit.

« Flieger, “Tolkien and the Idea of the Book” | Index | Fellowship I.4 »


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