Saturday, June 15, 2024

Lord of the Rings Re-Read: A Short Cut to Mushrooms

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It is one thing to take my young friends walking over the Shire with me, until we are hungry and weary, and food and bed are sweet. To take them into exile, where hunger and weariness may have no cure, is quite another – even if they are willing to come. The inheritance is mine alone. I don’t think I ought even to take Sam. – “A Short Cut to Mushrooms”

“A Short Cut to Mushrooms” has a distinctly different feel than the first three chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring: not only is it quite a bit shorter (clocking in at only half as long as each of those preceding it) but it also lacks an obvious thematic momentum of its own. “A Long-Expected Party” transitions the story from Bilbo to Frodo, “The Shadow of the Past” introduces the moral complexities and plot mechanics of what’s to come, and “Three is Company” delves into the difficulties of leaving home for new adventures. “A Short Cut to Mushrooms” is less obvious than any of these, and it’s easy to feel like the plot is slowing down or treading water. And it is, in some ways: unlike the first three chapters, this one is not strictly “necessary” to the plot. We have more talk of elves, more walking across the Shire, and more Black Riders. But despite that, I still think it’s a nice little chapter and it lays the groundwork for one of the most important themes going forward – the balance between individual responsibility and reliance on others.

“The Inheritance is Mine Alone”

Right at the start of the chapter, Pippin starts to pepper Frodo with questions: the plan for the day, whether Frodo expects to see any more Black Riders, what Gildor may have said about them. Frodo just brushes him off, rather gruffly saying that he simply wants to sit and think to himself (Pippin, naturally, is horrified that Frodo would want to spend his breakfast thinking in silence).

Frodo, eating quietly on a bank above Woodhall, starts a mental process familiar to pretty much any introvert: the more he thinks the more he starts to doubt himself, and he starts to spiral down into his fears and concerns about the future. Frodo starts to see the world through all kinds of contradictions: the morning is bright and beautiful, but “treacherously” so, he sees a well-rested and well-fed Pippin singing and dancing on the grass, and he starts to envision a world where food and rest are nearly impossible to find. The world is suddenly precarious to Frodo, out of his control, and so he reasonably enough tries to section off the small portion that he can. There’s very little that he can do, he seems to think to himself, but at least he can save the Shire, and at least he can minimize the damage to those around him.

He’s pulled out of this, of course, by Sam. And it happens in such an important, interesting way: if this were a modern fantasy novel, or a modern movie or TV show, you can bet that we’d have a long period of Frodo stoically trying to distance himself from his friends. For their own good, naturally. But instead, here, Frodo simply asks Sam if he wants to go along. That’s it. There’s no pride, no emotionally-stunted attempts at self-sacrifice. And of course Sam wants to go along. He relates what he told to the Elves the night before: “I am going with him, if he climbs to the Moon.” And then this is capped off by a realization that makes the scene even better:

Frodo looked at Sam rather startled, half expecting to see some outward sign of the odd change that seemed to have come over him. It did not sound like the voice of the old Sam Gamgee that he thought he knew. But it looked like the old Sam Gamgee sitting there, except that his face was unusually thoughtful.

When I first read this, I was struck by its importance for Sam’s character – that there are layers and depth there, that he’s not just the Bumbling Loyal Friend. But on re-read, I think it says just as much about Frodo. It’s amazing how quickly he gets to this point: not only does he drop any attempt to talk Sam out of coming, but he immediately sees that it may be necessary to reevaluate all of his initial assumptions. Sam isn’t necessarily the person that he “thought he knew.” His reasons for coming aren’t necessarily the ones that Frodo would have thought. So he allows him to make his own decision. That he is willing to do that – to trust, and to allow the people around him their own choices and their own agency – is what makes Frodo Baggins a hero.

(One of the most interesting things about all of this is that it’s unclear whether this attitude is a result of the Ring, or if it is just a natural result of Frodo’s fear and his love for his friends. Is the Ring already causing him to isolate himself? Or is he simply starting to grasp the scale of what he’s undertaken, and feels an understandable need to keep his friends out of harm’s way? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. I’m also excited to see how this plays out in comparison to the events of “The Breaking of the Fellowship”).

"Bamfurlong," Andy Smith, A Short Cut to Mushrooms

A Short Cut to Mushrooms

This mental struggle and Frodo’s ability to overcome it gets nicely echoed at the close of the chapter as well. Frodo remains closed-off, hesitant to share any information about his journey. Understandable, and probably smart. But when he does open up to Farmer Maggot, at least a little bit, he’s warmly rewarded for it. Not only does the farmer give him a ride to Buckleberry Ferry, but he invites Frodo & Co. to dinner:

The sun was already behind the western hills, and the light was failing. Two of Maggot’s sons and his three daughters came in, and a generous supper was laid on the large table. The kitchen was lit with candles and the fire was mended. Mrs. Maggot bustled in and out. One or two other hobbits belonging to the farm-household came in. In a short while fourteen sat down to eat.

It’s warm, homey, almost idyllic: there’s the sense hanging over this whole chapter, beginning and end, that while caution has its place, strength is found in community. It feels like such a relief after the rest of the chapter, which ping-pongs back and forth between comfort and tension. A bright, beautiful morning is interrupted by a Black Rider silhouetted atop the hill near their camp and then a deluge of rain. Some elven cordial and a drinking song is interrupted by the “long, drawn-out wail… it rose and fell, and ended on a high, piercing, note.” There’s a sense throughout the chapter that safety is an illusion, and the warmth of the farmhouse is a really nice (if temporary!) anecdote.

While we’re on the topic, the visit to Farmer Maggot’s farm adds a really nice layering to Frodo’s character overall. We get a nice sense of his sweetness, and how far in over his head he is. When Maggot gives him a weird look he assumes it’s because he stole mushrooms as a kid, and not because of the fact that he’s carrying a Ring of Power and screaming horsemen are scouring the countryside and asking for him by name. Oh, Frodo. His fear of Farmer Maggot’s dogs is cute as well, and perhaps more understandable given the fact that he is hobbit-sized. Do hobbits have hobbit-sized dogs? Or is being chased by a dog the equivalent of being chased by a bear? Their names are also Grip, Fang, and Wolf, which, yikes.

The Black Riders

I was a bit hard on poor Gandalf last time, with his questionable long-term planning skills. Let it never be said that I play favorites, though, because this week I have a bone to pick with Sauron. Both are powerful guys, both have trouble delegating power. Let’s take a look at how the Black Riders are going about their jobs in the Shire, courtesy of Farmer Maggot:

“’I come from yonder,’ he said, slow and stiff-like, pointing back west, over my field if you please. ‘Have you seen Baggins?’ he asked in a queer voice, and bent down towards me. I could not see any face, for his hood fell down so low; I felt a sort of shiver down my back.”

Sauron. Buddy. Send some cheerful guys with beer and pipe weed and food next time. Frodo would never have had a chance.

This works thematically: it makes sense that Sauron would expect the Ring to be held (or protected) by someone powerful or threatening, and then it makes sense to send out your more powerful minions. There’s a nice satisfaction in Sauron’s plans getting messed up because he literally couldn’t imagine the Ring being carried around by a bunch of back-country nobodies whose greatest asset is that their neighbors wouldn’t dream of ratting on them to outsiders. But at the same time, I think it does serve to undermine the threat at this point in the story. The Black Riders, if very ominous at this point, also seem rather stupid. It’s not a big problem, but at this point the world of the Shire and the world of the larger forces at play is still somewhat hard to bridge.

Final Comments

  • “I don’t want to answer a string of questions while I am eating. I want to think!”
    “Good heavens!” said Pippin. “At breakfast?”
    Pippin remains delightful in this chapter.
  • How are we feeling about the name Farmer Maggot? Part of me thinks it’s a cute, fairy-tale-esque sort of name. A bigger part of me doesn’t like it.
  • Sam on the Elves: “They seem a bit above my likes and dislikes, so to speak… It don’t seem to matter what I think about them. They are quite different from what I expected – so old and young, so gay and sad, as it were.” I like that these contradictions aren’t just shorthand for “ineffable.” The elves, so far, often seem like a funny mix of ageless and childish.
  • “Short cuts make delays, but inns make longer ones.” Wise words.
  • Prose Prize: I like the very start of the chapter, which sounds like the best way in the world to wake up. He was lying in a bower made by a living tree with branches laced and drooping to the ground; his bed was of fern and grass, deep and soft and strangely fragrant. The sun was shining through the fluttering leaves.
  • Would there be any interest in talking about book covers? There are so many different covers to Tolkien’s works, and so many different ways of depicting it, it could be fun to discuss. That’s a very particular shade of nerdiness, though, so I thought I’d run it by all of you first! The cover image above is not a published cover, but a design by Jian Guo. I love it, and desperately want an English-language version. The other image this week, of Farmer Maggot and the Black Rider, is entitled “Bamfurlong” and was created by Andy Smith

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