Reading Middle-earth — Chapter 4: A Shortcut to Mushrooms
We’re back with Frodo, Sam, and Pippin after a night with Gildor and the elves (and a description of bread that always makes me hungry), and they’re feeling good. It doesn’t take long to remember the crawling, sniffing Black Rider(s) lurking about, though. The hobbits are still deep in the Shire, but anxiety is never far behind as brushes with danger become a dogged pursuit.
From danger into danger, but first: lunch!
The hobbits are making their way to Frodo’s new home in Crickhollow which is little more than an alibi for his journey out of the Shire. However, now there’s the added urgency (for Frodo, anyway) of knowing their mysterious pursuers are servants of the Enemy.
What stands out to me in this chapter is the consistent move from the anxiety of danger following close behind to the respite offered by some simple, good thing. It’s as if the hobbits are reluctant to acknowledge—or are still ignorant of, in Frodo’s case—the danger of the shadow gathering around them. They’re nervous; they’re afraid and not sure why. So, maybe quite naturally, they take solace in the common graces around them: a meal and a song, familiar terrain, generous hospitality, and finally a fortuitous reunion.
Song and Drink
The first contrast comes when Frodo decides to go off-road to avoid the Black Riders. Soon after descending a steep ravine, Sam spots a horse and rider black against the sky where they left the road. Spurred on, they push their way through thick brush and trudge through heavy rain, but hunger soon takes the place of fear.
The hobbits have an especially enjoyable lunch because of a surprise from the elves: a light, mead-like drink that eases their anxiety and refreshes them; “very soon they [are] laughing, and snapping their fingers at rain, and at Black Riders.” Fear and danger feel far away (though the reader doesn’t forget) as they sing a drinking song inspired by the elvish draught, until a wailing call carried by the wind reminds them they have cares as practical as their pleasures.
They move on driven by fear, but again the dichotomy presents itself and they find respite from the threatening shadow. The hobbits take comfort in finding their way to familiar terrain and “the Black Riders [begin] to seem like phantoms of the woods.”
Hospitality & Friendship
Again, at Farmer Maggot’s, the contrast comes up. Frodo is almost as afraid of Maggot’s and his dogs as he is of his pursuers, but quickly finds he has more fear than Grip, Fang, and Wolf. A Black Rider has already been here, and again the shadow of fear falls on them, but before they can move on from this danger Maggot offers his hospitality and protection. The good drink they expected on the road, forsaken in their fearful shortcut, is compensated for by the ale and hearty food of the farmer’s table, and even the worry of nightfall is lessened by the promise of a ride to Bucklebury Ferry.
When they set out after dinner, even the very night around them recalls the crawling, sniffing riders close at hand: “…nothing could be seen in the darkness, and there was not a sound in the still air. Thin strands of river-mist were hanging above the dikes, and crawling over the fields.” So the tension is high when the clip-clop of hooves approaches on the road. In yet another sudden turn from fear to delight, Merry Brandybuck reveals himself!
In typical hobbit fashion the last small, good thing to help keep the darkness at bay is a basket of mushrooms. A basket of mushrooms for a mushroom thief; and Frodo doesn’t deserve a single one.
This chapter presents Tolkien’s notion of the eucatastrophe in miniature. Small flashes of delight pierce my heart at every sudden turn towards goodness and beauty. It’s just a meal, a song, or a familiar field; it’s also so much more. It’s the hope that even though the shadow of fear and death falls heavy all about us, a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Next up: Chapter 5: A Conspiracy Unmasked.