Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Reading along with the Lord of the Rings: A Short Cut to Mushrooms

Chapter 4 of The Fellowship of the Ring

Delay is one of the great themes in The Lord of the Rings. The forces of good are constantly struggling against the consequences of their own procrastination. This idea first comes to the fore in A Short Cut to Mushrooms, as the hobbits race to avoid the Black Riders chasing them across the Shire. After 17 years of delay (in between Chapter 1 and 2), followed by months of further dithering by Gandalf and then Frodo (in Chapter 2 and 3), the hobbits now find they don't have a moment to spare:
When they had struggled to the bottom of the bank, they found a stream running down from the hills behind in a deeply dug bank with steep slippery sides overhung with brambles...
Sam Gamgee looked back. Through an opening in the trees he caught a glimpse of the top of the green bank from which they had climbed down.
‘Look!’ he said, clutching Frodo by the arm. They all looked, and on the edge high above them they saw against the sky a horse standing. Beside it stooped a black figure.
This breathless chase just highlights the foolishness and waste of Frodo's delay throughout the long summer. But he, of course, is not the only one: throughout the book, we will learn that Gondor, Rohan, the Elves and the Ents have all squandered much needed hours and opportunities. The fact that at least some of their peril was avoidable lends to the entire trilogy a sense of tragedy. Although I generally like to avoid overly historical interpretations of Tolkien, I can't help but think that the high cost of delay would be particularly vivid for anyone who lived through the 1930's, when Britain wasted many chances in the lead up and initial stages of World War II.

In any case, I think the theme of delay is a powerful one because it's something that everyone can identify with. Not all of us have been chased by Black Riders, but we've all experienced the awful feeling of rushing to catch up after fruitless procrastination. In other words, this theme is another way that Tolkien bridges the gap between his world of high fantasy and the reader.

There's another aspect of Chapter 4 that I have to comment on: the remarkable character of Farmer Maggot. Just as this chapter introduces the theme of delay, it also introduces a pattern about how the Fellowship will acquire allies -- allies starting with Farmer Maggot. Such allies first appear hostile or at least dangerous (Maggot, for example, used to "beat" a young Frodo Baggins) until they are won over with diplomacy and goodwill. Once befriended, of course, these allies prove invaluable, usually ushering the heroes through their territory and on to the next adventure.

Maggot is one of my favourite characters because Tolkien merely hints at his hidden depths, leaving much to the reader's imagination:
‘Old Maggot is a shrewd fellow,’ said Merry. ‘A lot goes on behind his round face that does not come out in his talk. I’ve heard that he used to go into the Old Forest at one time, and he has the reputation of knowing a good many strange things...’
The best illustration of Maggot's strength of will is the fact that he's the only character in The Lord of the Rings who carries on anything like an actual conversation with a Ringwraith. And not just conversation -- Maggot virtually sasses Sauron's agent of terror when it comes looking for Frodo. The passage (as narrated by Maggot himself) is so rich, I can't help but quote it at length:
‘‘Good-day to you!’’ I says, going out to him. ‘‘This lane don’t lead anywhere, and wherever you may be going, your quickest way will be back to the road.’’ ... The black fellow sat quite still. 
‘ ‘‘I come from yonder,’’ he said, slow and stiff-like, pointing back west, over my fields, 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; and I felt a sort of shiver down my back. But I did not see why he should come riding over my land so bold. 
‘ ‘‘Be off!’’ I said. ‘‘There are no Bagginses here. You’re in the wrong part of the Shire. You had better go back west to Hobbiton – but you can go by road this time.’’ ‘ ‘‘Baggins has left,’’ he answered in a whisper. ‘‘He is coming. He is not far away. I wish to find him. If he passes will you tell me? I will come back with gold.’’  
‘ ‘‘No you won’t,’’ I said. ‘‘You’ll go back where you belong, double quick. I give you one minute before I call all my dogs.’’  
‘He gave a sort of hiss. It might have been laughing, and it might not. Then he spurred his great horse right at me, and I jumped out of the way only just in time. I called the dogs, but he swung off, and rode through the gate and up the lane towards the causeway like a bolt of thunder. What do you think of that?’
Well, I think pretty highly of it myself, Farmer Maggot. It sounds like you might be the bravest character in the whole trilogy.

To read on, here is my commentary on Chapter 5. Or you can find my commentary on Chapter 3 here.

[Image credit: The Brothers Hildebrandt "Farmer Maggot's Hospitality" Acrylic on Board (1978).]


  1. I don't have a strong memory of the passage above and its context, but are we really meant to take Farmer Maggot's account of his own bravery seriously?

    1. Great question. For me, it's an open question whether Tolkien goes in for the whole unreliable-narrator shtick. I suspect not, but I'll keep my eye out for it as I continue to read.

      In any case, I'm inclined to think that Farmer M. has balls of brass. After all, later on in the chapter, he's willing to venture out into the night with Frodo and co. in his wagon -- this is hardly the action of a hobbit who's terrified of the Black Riders who are prowling around his farm.

  2. Of course Tolkien has already warned us about "the unreliable narrator" - we already know Bilbo lies, and that the text has been redacted. It's one of the fundamental underpinnings of the books found manuscript device - the Redbook of Westmarch and all that. But yes, there is more to Old Maggot than meets the eye, but no reason to consider him a braggard.

    Another interesting aspect is the story-within-a story regarding the black riders. First we got Gaffer Gamgees version, and now we get Farmer Maggots, each in their own tone of voice, and revealing something of their own unique perspectives of a nearly identical episode. In both this and Chapter 3, we see the hobbits creating the story and character of these sniffing figures out of the scraps of evidence they have witnessed and the verbal accounts of others, weaving a postmodern metanarrative about how folk-lore develops as these strange figures emerge fully in the Hobbits imagination as proper-noun Black Riders.

    A Short Cut to Mushrooms certainly does hold much in terms of delay - it is a complete diversion from the main plot, and not for the last time! It's almost as if the stated direction of the story is an inconvenience to just meandering around describing life of the worthies of the Shire!

  3. I forgot about Gaffer's conversation with the Black Rider! It is interesting to compare the two dialogues. Although the Gaffer doesn't exactly threaten to sick his dogs on the Rider, he does hold up pretty well. It's interesting because we know from Unfinished Tales (I think? My memory is foggy) that the Nazgul's chief weapon is fear, and that they scared the shit out of other people on their hunt for the ring (the main one being Saruman's spy, whom they flip to Sauron's service, and who later appears in The Prancing Pony). So the fact that neither Maggot nor Gamgee crumples may have something to do with the inherent bravery of hobbits.

    And your thoughts on the unreliable narrator got me thinking... a related note is that I love the way that Tolkien shies away from showing the Black Riders directly (at least up close). Instead, we usually hear about them second-hand, like from Maggot. It's s reflection of how he deals with Sauron too -- never showing him directly. It's a great technique, and certainly adds to their dread.