“[Bilbo] used to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary.”
Two months later, Gandalf leaves the Shire to look into some troubling news he has heard. Frodo prepares to leave, though not quickly. On the wizard’s advice, Frodo plans to head toward Rivendell, the home of the wise Elrond Halfelven. To that end, he sells Bag End to Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, a disagreeable relative of Bilbo who has always wanted to get her hands on the house. With the help of Sam and his other friends Peregrin Took (called Pippin) and Meriadoc Brandybuck (called Merry), Frodo packs up and moves out that autumn. Just before he leaves, he throws a small party, as he does every year, for his and Bilbo’s shared birthday on September 22nd.
Merry, along with another friend, Fredegar (Fatty) Bolger, go on ahead to Frodo’s new house, across the Brandywine River in Buckland, with a cartful of luggage. Frodo, Sam, and Pippin plan to follow on foot, taking a few days and camping in the woods at night. Just as they are on their way, Frodo hears a strange voice talking to Sam’s father, Ham Gamgee (known as the Gaffer), who lives next door. The voice asks for Mr. Baggins, but the Gaffer responds that Mr. Baggins has already left. Frodo feels that people are getting too inquisitive, and he leaves as quietly as possible.
The second day out, the hobbits hear the sound of hooves on the road behind them. Frodo feels a strange desire to hide, so he leads Sam and Pippin off into the trees. The rider is a tall figure on a large, black horse. He is shrouded in a black cloak and his face cannot be seen. He stops near the spot where the hobbits are hiding and seems to sniff the air for a scent. Frodo feels a sudden desire to put the Ring on his finger. Then, the rider suddenly rides off again. Sam informs Frodo that it appeared to be the same Black Rider who was questioning the Gaffer the other night.
The hobbits proceed more cautiously, constantly listening for the sound of hooves. As night falls, they hear a horse approaching. Hiding in the trees, they see that it is again a Black Rider. The Black Rider stops and starts to approach Frodo, when suddenly it hears the singing voices of Elves, mounts its horse, and rides off.
The elves approach, and their song ends. One of them, Gildor, greets Frodo. When Pippin asks about the Black Riders, the elves suddenly look worried, and they take the hobbits under their protection for the night. Later that night, the party stops in what seems to be an enchanted glade, and they have a feast. Frodo, who is known by Elves and who knows some of their language, questions Gildor about the Black Riders. All the elf will say is that the Riders are servants of the Enemy and therefore must be avoided at all costs. The party settles down to sleep for the night.
When the hobbits awake the next morning, the elves are gone, but they have sent word of the hobbits’ journey to friendly ears along the way to Rivendell. Frodo decides to take a shortcut across the fields between Woody End and the Brandywine River ferry, because he is now in haste and does not wish to stay on the road where they can easily be seen. Indeed, not long after leaving the road, the party sees a Black Rider traveling on it. The underbrush is dense, however, and the hobbits make slow progress. Later, they hear two terrible cries, which they assume to be the Black Riders communicating to each other.
Scrambling through bog and briar, the hobbits eventually come upon the fields of Farmer Maggot, of whom Frodo has been afraid ever since Maggot caught the young Frodo stealing his mushrooms. Farmer Maggot welcomes the hobbits and gives them dinner. He then tells them of a strange, dark man who came by earlier asking for a Mr. Baggins. The hobbits, now quite scared, are grateful when Maggot offers to carry them to the Brandywine River ferry in a covered wagon. On the way, they hear hooves approaching, but it turns out to be only Merry, ready to take them across the river and over to Buckland.
Like many epics, The Lord of the Rings is the story of a quest, and by these chapters the quest has begun. Having firmly grounded his hobbits in the Shire, Tolkien takes them on the road. The contrast between home and the road forms one of the central tensions of the novel. If the Shire means stasis, predictability, self-satisfied boredom, and the comforts of home, the road means movement, unpredictability, and vulnerability. Throughout the novel, the hobbits think back to the Shire in the midst of the alternately strange, perilous, or awe-inspiring sights they encounter. The road also means excitement, and—as we already see in the encounter with the group of elves—wonder. Early in his journey, Frodo recalls how Bilbo always used to say that there is only one road, “that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary.” The same road that leads through Hobbiton leads on eventually through Mirkwood, to the Lonely Mountain, and beyond. Despite the fact that the Shire has an atmosphere of safety and remove, it is connected by the road to all the terrors and magic of the outside world. As the hobbits take to the road and make their way out of the Shire, they are almost immediately exposed to unfamiliar elements. Whereas the worst thing Frodo faced in Hobbiton was the greedy Sackville-Bagginses, once on the road, he and his companions are exposed to the much more potent evil of the Black Riders.
Indeed, in these chapters—and in The Lord of the Rings as a whole—it is not difficult to figure out who is good and who is evil. The Black Riders, with their shrouded figures, hissing voices, and dread-inspiring demeanor, have evil written all over them. By the same token, the Elves, with their light and clear voices, laughter, “shimmer,” and wisdom, immediately appear fundamentally good. As we see later in the novel, the Elves, especially the High Elves, have great power, and they serve as a counterbalance to the evil power of Sauron. If Sauron and his Ring represent corruption, the Elves represent purity. Everything about them, from their voices to the food they eat, is repeatedly characterized as natural and pure. On the whole, good and evil are rarely difficult to discern in the novel.
There is, however, one great complicating factor in the distinction between good and evil—the Ring. As we already know, the Ring has the power to corrupt even the best-intentioned. The Black Riders have some connection to the Ring, as we can infer from Frodo’s overwhelming desire to put the Ring on his finger when the Riders are nearby. In this impulse, we see Frodo already falling under the power of the Ring. In Chapter 2, even Gandalf refuses to take stewardship of the Ring, not believing himself able to resist the Ring’s seductive power. In a fictional universe of moral absolutes, the Ring is the one subversive element—the one thing that bridges the gap between good and evil.
Many critics have interpreted Tolkien’s exploration of good and evil as a conflict between the natural world and industrialization. Sauron’s power is tied up in his Ring, an item that is not naturally occurring, but forged in fire. Elves, on the other hand, a clear force of good, are intimately linked to the forest. The bower where the elves and hobbits stop for the night is an enchanted place and—perhaps more important—an organic one. The great hall in the middle is made of living trees, as are the beds in which the hobbits sleep. Though Tolkien resisted overly allegorical readings of The Lord of the Rings, it is hard not to notice his repeated characterizations of the natural as good and the industrial or artificial as evil. Sauron, with his despoiling armies and dark forges, is not unlike the forces of industrialization that overtook the English countryside of Tolkien’s childhood—a place for which Tolkien felt immense fondness, as we see in his loving depiction of the Shire. The Elves, who take their power from that natural world, represent the sort of purity and mysticism Tolkien saw in it.
Such a reading of the novel is further reinforced by the fact that Gildor and his company, like many of his fellow Elves, are leaving Middle-earth, going away over the sea to the West. Elves are immortal (unless killed unnaturally), but as their age is passing, they are going into a sort of self-imposed exile. With the Elves goes the fine, glimmering magic they possess. Considering the evident esteem in which Tolkien holds the Elves, it is no surprise that—as Tolkien himself hints from time to time—whatever ultimately replaces the Elves will represent decline more than progress.