Chapter 3: Three is Company
The quest finally gets underway with the dangerous business of Frodo stepping out his front door. Although the ultimate quest hangs in the distant shadow, Frodo consoles himself with a smaller quest: getting to Rivendell, which isn’t such a bad place to visit. Frodo will take same to see the elves and get to see Bilbo again, but there are other forces at work in this chapter.
A Tale of Two Hobbits
This chapter cleverly makes use many parallels between Bilbo’s adventure in The Hobbit and the beginning of Frodo’s quest. At this point no one expects Frodo to carry the Ring to Mount Doom, but it’s clear this journey will be nothing like Bilbo’s: he “went to find a treasure, there and back again; but [Frodo] goes to lose one.”
Gandalf offers the wise reminder than none of us can see very far. We can look back though, and there are lots of comparisons and contrasts to be drawn.
Saying farewell to the Shire
One difference I noticed between the adventures were the characterizations of the Shire. In The Hobbit, you get the sense it’s a very good thing for Bilbo to go on his adventure. He is stuck in his ways after all, in a rut; he’s too predictable! And so we cheer his unexpected adventure and the change it represents from his humdrum life.
But in Chapter 3 the Shire is exceptionally good and desirable. We’re told it had “seldom seen so fair a summer,” and are treated to images of trees heavy with apples, honey bursting its combs, and corn begging to be boiled. Indeed Frodo’s going means to lose a treasure in more ways than one.
In both stories the Shire is a place to appreciate and long for, especially in the darkest moments of the each journey, but I would certainly find Frodo’s Shire an easy place to say “not yet…” if asked to leave.
Brief Personal Note
Book One of The Fellowship of the Ring would be one of my favourite stories even without the rest of the tale. Obviously it’s surpassingly better as a whole, but there is something about the beginning of this journey, and beginnings in general, that I just love. It’s a small quest for small hands, away from home but not too far, where ignorance of greater dangers makes for thrilling travel. If this is all there was the charge of unhealthy escapism would stick, but there so much more; it has to start somewhere though.
From danger into danger
There’s no question The Lord of the Rings is a darker tale than The Hobbit. The stakes are set in The Shadow of the Past and there’s a lot less dwarvish humour. Recent of The Hobbit have reminded me it isn’t some children’s romp devoid of danger, in fact, in the tradition of fairy tales the comic relief present through The Hobbit serves to soften the violence and terror in the story.
Nevertheless, the grave dangers the hobbits begin to encounter in Three is Company are of a different order than those of the early stages of Bilbo’s journey, especially in tone.
Unlike Bilbo, Frodo is forced to go from “danger into danger” without Gandalf as a guide. The Black riders on the road are shadowy and veiled, and I would say they’re more frightening on the page than on the screen. I’m a big fan of Peter Jackson’s black riders, but their introduction in Chapter 3 go in for more sinister dread than screeching.
The First Encounter:
“Round the corner came a black horse, no hobbit-pony but a full-sized horse; and on it sat a large man, who seemed to crouch in the saddle, wrapped in a great black cloak and hood, so that only his boots in the high stirrups showed below; his face was shadowed and invisible. When it reached the tree and was level with Frodo the horse stopped. The riding figure sat quite still with its head bowed, as if listening. From inside the hood came a noise as of someone sniffing to catch an elusive scent; the head turned from side to side of the road.”
The Second Encounter:
“The sound of hoofs stopped. As Frodo watched he saw something dark pass across the lighter space between two trees, and then halt. It looked like the black shade of a horse led by a smaller black shadow. The black shadow stood close to the point where they had left the path, and it swayed from side to side. Frodo thought he heard the sound of snuffling. The shadow bent to the ground, and then began to crawl towards him.”
Old Walking Songs
The last point of comparison I’d like to highlight. It’s small, but I love it. Over time I’ve grown into a major fan of the songs and poetry in Tolkien’s work, and one of my favourites is the Old Walking Song.
Bilbo and Frodo both recite this song with one small variation—here’s Bilbo’s version:
The Road goes ever on and on Down from the door where it began. Now far ahead the Road has gone, And I must follow, if I can, Pursuing it with eager feet, Until it joins some larger way Where many paths and errands meet. And whither then? I cannot say.
When Frodo recites it he makes it his own. In fact, he thinks he’s making it up on the spot. In his version, Bilbo’s “eager” feet become “weary” feet. This is such a small detail, but it perfectly illustrates how both stories exist in the same universe but are told with very different purposes in mind.
Bilbo’s journey in The Hobbit could be characterized as a life-altering adventure; Frodo’s is more of a life-consuming quest, and I think the small but meaningful different in these two songs reveal that distinction perfectly.
Wither now? Mushrooms, I hope! Next up is Chapter 4: A Shortcut to Mushrooms.