The chapter starts with the hobbits and their basket of mushrooms taking the ferry across the Brandywine river. As Merry punts them through the gradually lifting evening mist, we're given our first taste of Tolkien's metaphorical river crossings:
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.
This is the first of what will be many symbolic river-crossings in the Lord of the Rings. Here it follows a brief description of Buckland, the easternmost part of the Shire that the hobbits are now entering, and underlines the way in which Hobbiton and their previous lives in it are falling behind.
The mood of the opening paragraphs is relaxed, even idyllic: a quiet river crossing on a dark night, the lights of Brandy Hall peeping through the mist ahead. However, as the hobbits reach the eastern shore, Sam looks back and sees a Black Rider searching the western landing. Merry now gets his first look at Frodo's pursuers, and the four hobbits flee quickly down the lane. Yes, in other words, it's the old horror movie trick where just when you think you've gotten away, the monster shows up again, but it works quite well here as a sudden reminder that the danger isn't past, and also as a way of bringing Merry into the loop, so to speak.
For now, though, Merry rides ahead to prepare Frodo's new digs for their arrival. Said digs are a small hobbit-house in Crickhollow, an out-of-the-way corner of Buckland a couple of miles from the ferry. Merry and Fatty Bolger have been busy furnishing the house to look as much like Bag End as possible, and Frodo, beset by the thought that he has to leave soon, is forced to pretend he's very happy with it. Frodo and company bathe, and Pippin sings a bath-song. I seem to recall there's a bit in Tolkien's Letters, which I couldn't find again just now, where someone reading the Lord of the Rings prior to publication had complained about too much hobbit-stuff, and I imagine this must be where that would happen. Luckily, though, things move on quickly through a supper of mushrooms to the centerpiece of the chapter: Frodo's dramatic revelation to his friends.
As Frodo fumbles his way toward his undoubtedly grand speech, Merry undercuts him by stating outright that they all know he's leaving. Frodo is shocked, and Pippin rubs salt in the wound:
"Dear old Frodo!" said Pippin. "Did you really think you had thrown dust in all our eyes? You have not been nearly careful or clever enough for that! You have obviously been planning to go and saying farewell to all your old haunts since April. We have constantly heard you muttering: "Shall I ever look down into that valley again, I wonder", and things like that. And pretending that you had come to the end of your money, and actually selling your beloved Bag End to those Sackville-Bagginses!"
Frodo is then thoroughly dumbfounded by the revelation that his friends know about the Ring. The source of the information, in a way, is the Sackville-Bagginses: Merry had once happened to see Bilbo use the Ring to hide from them in plain sight. Merry had concealed himself more conventionally, and spotted Bilbo's reappearance and the Ring.
I want to pause here for a moment to emphasize the fact that a crucial plot point of the early part of the Lord of the Rings is premised on the fact that the Sackville-Bagginses are such awful people that their fellow hobbits will literally hide in hedges and bushes if they see them coming down the road.
Merry's inquisitiveness, however, only got the conspirators started. Most of what they know comes from their chief undercover informant: Sam. As Frodo wavers between feeling betrayed and being touched by his friends' concern, Sam reminds him that both Gandalf and Gildor did tell him to not go alone, and eventually Frodo is won over. There's an impromptu celebration and a song, and then the hobbits get down to practicalities. Fredegar "Fatty" Bolger will stay behind to keep the house and maintain the illusion that Frodo is staying there for as long as possible, while the four others set off for Rivendell. There's a disagreement over how to get there, though. Frodo thinks the only option is to avoid the main road and head out through the Old Forest, an idea supported by Merry and strongly opposed by Fredegar, who's horrified by the very idea. Since he's staying behind, though, his opposition loses out, and the four hobbits decide to hit the woods the very next morning. The chapter closes on Frodo dreaming of a tower overlooking the sea.
This, then, is our last chapter in the Shire. I know there are people who can't stand hobbits, and it's easy to see where they're coming from: at worst, they're insufferably cutesy with their little songs and folksy ways. As the awful prologue demonstrates, Tolkien had a particular love for the minutiae of hobbit lives that doesn't exactly translate into gripping prose. At the same time, though, it's impossible to ignore the ways in which the Shire is also a meditation on parochial small-mindedness, provincialism and even xenophobia, unless you're wearing the kind of blinkers far too many Tolkien critics seem to find necessary. Because he also includes this side of the Shire, and after the way in which the story alienates both Frodo and the reader from it, it's quite clear to me that Tolkien never intended the Shire to be a pure utopia. Because I think that authorial intent in general can go take a hike, and furthermore having never been much of a fan of the rural idylls in the first place, I've always seen the Shire less as a paradise to be protected and more as a place to escape from. Personally, I'd take a tenement in Minas Tirith over a hobbit-hole any day of the week, no matter how pleasant the pastures or clouded the hills. Et in Arcadia blecch.
Hobbit bath-songs notwithstanding, this is a pretty efficient transition chapter, taking us over the symbolic river to a momentary haven, where the adventure can pause for a moment so we can work out some tensions and get our bearings. This is a pattern that will repeat itself. I like the way in which the dramatic revelation of Frodo's imminent departure is built up and then immediately subverted by letting us know that Merry and Pippin know exactly what he's going to say. On the whole, there's a nice feeling of camaraderie and detetmination that closes out the Shire chapters of the first book on a positive note. Next time, the hobbits tackle their first Forest.