Aug 1, 2016

Let's Read Tolkien 23: A Short Cut to Mushrooms

In the morning Frodo woke refreshed.

When Frodo wakes up, the elves are gone. As the hobbits set up breakfast, Pippin is bouncing around and singing, all thoughts of Black Riders gone from his mind. This prompts some soul-searching from Frodo on the morality of taking his young friends with him, and when Pippin bounces off for some water, he has a little chat with Sam.

The Sam we were introduced to in the second chapter was a figure of rustic comedy, with his lor-bless-you-sir, there-ain't-no-eaves-at-Bag-End lines, alternating between cringing fear of Gandalf, childish excitement at elves and open weeping at the prospect of leaving. In the third chapter, he curls up to sleep at his master's feet while Frodo has A Serious Conversation with a high-elf, effectively appearing as an occasionally talking dog. Now, though, when Frodo somewhat patronizingly asks him what he thinks of elves, it's Sam who gives a serious, adult answer, and also articulates his reasons for wanting to go with Frodo in a way that Frodo himself doesn't quite understand. So far, then, the treatment of Sam has been twofold: he's been treated as a child, if not a pet, and now suddenly as an adult. Frodo realizes this sudden change in Sam, even looking for a physical manifestation of it. The reader is left wondering if the actual change is in Frodo; Sam is no longer his clearly lower-class gardener, but a traveling companion and confidant. If you want to read this trajectory subversively, Sam's truckling in front of Frodo and Gandalf was a performance that tells us a lot about the class society that is the Shire, and nothing at all about Sam himself, except that he knows how to play the part expected of him. I'm inclined to think that Tolkien's treatment of Sam reflects the typically ambivalent attitude of a right-wing intellectual to the lower classes; on the one hand they're idealized as steadfast and reliable salt-of-the-earth types, on the other hand infantilized and patronized as children in adult bodies. Throughout the story, Sam vacillates between the two; this is our first encounter with, dare I say it, serious Sam.

It's a hot day, with rain-threatening clouds on the horizon. After breakfast, Frodo and Pippin debate their route. As evidenced by his previous bounciness, Pippin has firmly put the terror of the Black Riders behind him, and is now arguing that they should continue on the road, rather than cut cross-country as Frodo wants to do. Frodo's argument that the direct way is in fact considerably shorter eventually wins the day, and Pippin is forced to admit he'd been planning on getting to the Golden Perch inn and its famous ale by nightfall. Much to his and Sam's regret, they set off into the bush.

The three hobbits descend a steep bank into a thicket, where they soon find a stream blocking their path. As they're considering crossing it, Sam looks back, and spots a black cloaked figure and a horse atop the same bank. The hobbits quickly hide, and now there's no alternative but to keep going. They beat their way through the bush and find a place to ford the stream. Soon enough, the rain starts. After midday, they stop for lunch, and find the elves had filled their water-bottles with some kind of elven mead, which apparently immediately goes to the hobbits' heads, because they start up a drinking-song. As they're starting up the second verse, the song is cut short by a blood-chilling wail on the wind. It freezes the hobbits right in their tracks, and is soon answered by another one further away. Eventually Pippin tries to make light of it, but Frodo maintains he heard words in the cry, but that no hobbit could have produced it. The Black Riders obviously spring to mind, and soon enough, the hobbits get underway again.

In the afternoon, they come out of the woods into the open lands by the Brandywine. Initially this makes Frodo and company quite nervous, but as they trek through the orderly Shire countryside, the memory of the Black Riders seems to fall behind. Eventually they come to a gate, which Pippin recognizes as an entrance to Farmer Maggot's lands. This fairly terrifies Frodo, who used to steal mushrooms from Maggot when he was young, but Pippin persuades him to go and meet Maggot, as he'll be good to know now that Frodo is coming to live in Buckland again.

Maggot's ferocious dogs intercept the hobbits, but don't hurt them, and Maggot, recognizing Pippin, meets the trio and invites them in. He reacts sharply to the name Baggins, and not just because he remembers Frodo's mushroom-related escapades. With the slow relish of a person for whom unexpected events are rare, he takes his time telling his guests about a creepy visitor he had who spooked his dogs, asked for Baggins and offered gold. Maggot sent him packing, and offers Frodo his guess that this all has something to do with "those strange doings of Mr. Bilbo's". The provincial Sam mistrusts Maggot because he isn't from Hobbiton, and Maggot tells Frodo that no doubt all this trouble is caused by his living among queer and unhobbitlike folk in Hobbiton. Slightly incomfortable with the farmer's guesses, Frodo tries to make his excuses and leave, but Maggot offers to drive them to the Brandywine ferry himself if they'll stay for dinner; an invitation that Frodo graciously accepts.

After a hearty dinner, they set off in Maggot's cart. Night is falling and a mist is rising from the river, and the pony-cart makes its slow way toward the ferry. Just as they're getting there, they hear the sound of hooves on the road ahead. Maggot parks the cart and goes forward to confront the rider, who turns out to be Merry, out looking for Frodo. Maggot leaves Frodo and company there, handing them a basket from Mrs. Maggot as he goes. It contains a parting joke: mushrooms.


This is among the shortest chapters in the whole book, clocking in at just about ten pages. It continues the theme of Frodo's alienation from the Shire, from his gloomy musing on the ethics of taking his friends along to his silence at Farmer Maggot's. The whole encounter with Maggot underlines how Frodo is leaving his old world behind: Pippin's casual reference to Frodo getting to know Maggot is a reminder that he's operating under false pretenses, and even if the farmer's guesses are called shrewd, in the end he still has no idea of what's at stake. Even if Maggot correctly guesses that the trouble involves Bilbo's treasure, he still thinks of it in terms of gold and jewels, and his simple solution of living in Buckland among sensible people is hopelessly naïve. To him, the Shire is still the world, and problems happen because other people won't be reasonable and hobbitlike; it's a simple but effective commentary on hobbit parochialism that Maggot repeats essentially the exactly same doubts about the proper-hobbitness of Hobbiton people that they voiced about Buckland. Incredibly, his wife gets a line in, meaning we're already up to two talking female characters.

Another major theme is the weight of Frodo's task. One of the often-repeated accusations against Tolkien is that he writes carefree Boys' Own adventures, which is again difficult to understand when actually reading the text. Even the Hobbit at times subverted the notion of "adventure" as a rollicking good time, but the Lord of the Rings sets up Frodo's mission to Mount Doom as an explicit antithesis, an adventure not to win treasure but to destroy it, driven not by any real hope in success but rather a necessity to flee from the Enemy. If the second chapter effectively set up the story, the next two have involved confronting peril, in the form of the Black Riders, and running away from it. Here, Frodo and company go from the safety of the elven feast to a harrowing cross-country escape from Ringwraiths. They end up at Farmer Maggot's place, a temporary haven in some sense, but even if we haven't yet been told what the Black Riders are, exactly, it's hard to think that Maggot and his dogs could possibly defend Frodo and the Ring from them. So as formidable as Maggot may have appeared to a young mushroom-stealing Frodo, even this haven of safety is an illusion. This journey really is "a flight from danger into danger", as Frodo puts it in the second chapter.

I continue to enjoy Tolkien's travel prose, and the Black Riders are presented very effectively. We don't really know anything about them yet, but I remember reading this stuff when I was younger and finding them very believably frightening. In the previous chapter, they were more sedate figures, sitting on trotting horses and sniffing around; now they're on the hunt, communicating with unearthly screams. The tension of a desperate escape is built very well, especially in contrast to the rustic environment it happens in. Even the tense encounter at the ferry that turns out to be Merry is played out quite well, and doesn't feel cheap the second time around.

Next time, baths and singing.


Leon said...

I really like your idea about the two Sams and that his first reaction was playing to the stereotype Frodo would expect of him.

Michael Halila said...

Thanks! This is another one of those things where I wish I understood English class society better, to fully grasp what's going on here.