Merry leads the other three hobbits to Crickhollow, where Frodo has bought a small house under the pretense of moving there permanently, in order to disguise his departure from the Shire. Crickhollow is in Buckland, which, though populated by Hobbits, is very different from Hobbiton or Bag End. Buckland is surrounded by the Brandywine River and the Old Forest, both of which are somewhat perilous. Hobbits from Hobbiton fear water, as none of them can swim, and the Old Forest is strange and frightening, its trees seeming almost predatory. To protect against these dangers, the Bucklanders built a hedge and keep their doors locked at night, which is unheard of in Hobbiton.
The weary travelers are given a bath and supper. Frodo decides that he must finally tell Merry and Pippin that he is, in fact, leaving the Shire for good—a fact that Frodo thought was a complete secret thus far. Frodo is highly surprised when Merry reveals that they have known for some time—not only about Frodo’s plans to leave, but also about the Ring and the great peril. With Sam as eavesdropper, the other hobbits have pieced together a good bit of Frodo’s situation. Frodo does not want to subject his friends to such dangerous circumstances, but Merry and Pippin both insist on coming along. They are his friends and they understand the danger at least as well as he does—which is to say, not very well at all.
Despite his surprise, Frodo is happy to hear that his friends wish to join him. Because of the Black Riders, Frodo decides that the next day they must set out away from the road, cutting through the Old Forest that borders on Buckland. Though the Forest is ominous, at the moment it seems safer than an encounter with the Riders. The other hobbits agree to Frodo’s plan. Their friend Fatty Bolger will stay behind to keep up the pretense that Frodo is living at Crickhollow.
That night, Frodo dreams he is looking out a window over a dark forest, in which he hears the sounds of animals sniffing around, looking for him. Then he is on a barren field. He hears the sound of the Great Sea, which he has never heard in real life, and he smells the smell of salt. He sees a tall white tower before him and he struggles toward it to climb it. Then there is a light in the sky and the sound of thunder.
The next morning, the group sets off early, through a heavy mist. Merry leads them to the main path into the forest. They plan to head northeast and follow the road at a distance. They enter the Old Forest, but immediately lose the path. The Forest is hot and stuffy, and it seems as if the trees are listening to the hobbits and even moving to block their progress. The hobbits find the path eventually, but it begins to turn in the wrong direction, toward the heart of the Forest. Leaving the path, they find that every time they head north, the trees seem to block their way, only permitting them to go southeast, deeper into the forest.
The hobbits reach the River Withywindle in the middle of the Old Forest. Passing under an enormous, old willow tree, they suddenly feel so hot and sleepy that they sit down. All except Sam fall asleep with their backs against the tree. Sam fights off drowsiness and goes to find the hobbits’ ponies, which have wandered off. Sam hears two noises—a splash and a click like a lock fastening. When he returns to the others, he sees that Frodo has fallen into the river at the foot of the tree and is seemingly pinned down by one of its roots. Sam hauls Frodo out, and Frodo says he is certain that the old tree pushed him into the river. Turning around, Frodo and Sam see that Merry and Pippin are caught inside the cracks of the trunk of the tree, which has closed around them. The hobbits smack the tree and then try lighting a fire near it. However, the tree begins to squeeze Merry, who yells that the tree is telling him it will crush him if the hobbits do not put the fire out. Frodo, panicking, runs down the river yelling for help. He is surprised to hear an answer—the sound of nonsensical, jolly singing.
A plump man in a blue coat and yellow boots comes dancing down the path. He calls himself Tom Bombadil, and, seeing the hobbits’ situation, appears to be familiar with the tricks of “Old Man Willow.” Going up to the tree, Tom sings into the crack and orders the tree to release Merry and Pippin. Old Man Willow promptly obeys. In answer to the hobbits’ thanks, Tom tells them to join him and his bride, Goldberry, for dinner. The hobbits, somewhat bewildered, follow Tom along the river as he sings. They come out of the Old Forest into a pleasant clearing, and then go up to a hill where Bombadil’s house stands. A woman’s voice sings out to them.
In these chapters, Tolkien gives us the opportunity to get to know Frodo’s companions a little better. They prove to be typical Hobbits in some regards: their love of a bath, their love of food (especially mushrooms), and their stubbornness. But Frodo’s companions also seem a bit more adventurous than most Hobbits, less convinced that the Shire is the center of the universe. Merry, especially, seems clever beyond his years, having taken it upon himself to organize the conspiracy to make sure that Frodo does not leave the Shire without them. Though perhaps a bit underhanded, the other hobbits’ determination to pry into Frodo’s affairs and do what they can to help him is admirable, hinting at the loyalty they display throughout the journey toward Mordor.
Buckland is still within the Shire, but it is not as safe as the comfortable confines of Hobbiton and Bag End. In Buckland, the hobbits are at the edge of the sheltered Shire and therefore closer to the dangers of the wider world. We again see the recurring motif of the road appear in this episode in Buckland: the presence of the road passing through the area is a constant reminder of the nearness of danger and the vulnerability of the Shire. Indeed, the natural world around Buckland is not like the domesticated countryside that surrounds Bag End, but is a more sinister place, with the Old Forest on one side and the Brandywine River—in which, we learn, Frodo’s parents drowned—on the other. Buckland, unlike Hobbiton, has need of a protective hedge around it, with guards and gates. This distinction between domesticated nature in the Shire and untamed nature in the outside world is one that resurfaces again and again throughout the novel, notably in the upcoming chapters at the home of Tom Bombadil. Tolkien clearly appreciates the beauty of the natural world, but implies that he favors a more domesticated form of nature to untamed nature, which has the potential to be dangerous and unpredictable.
As the hobbits make their way into the Old Forest, we see that Middle-earth is in many ways an enchanted place. Sauron and the Elves are not the only forces at work, and there are clearly powers in Middle-earth that are not directly concerned with the battle for the Ring. These forces are usually represented by some aspect of the natural world. In Tolkien’s world, nature is not usually concerned with the affairs of Men—or Hobbits—and yet nature is almost always distinctly “good” or “evil,” only rarely neutral. Even trees seemingly have a will and an influence. Later in The Lord of the Rings, we see that trees, perhaps more than any other living thing, represent nature itself for Tolkien. The trees of Middle-earth act upon, control, and even prey upon the people and animals that move among them. As such, nature in The Lord of the Rings is not merely a backdrop for the actions of Men and Hobbits, but a powerful, active force in its own right.
Frodo’s dream has a powerful symbolic importance. It is a prophetic dream, as it foresees the Great Sea upon which a group of Frodo’s friends later sails off westward, as well as presents the white tower that is important in The Two Towers, the second volume of the novel. The climbing that Frodo does in the dream prefigures his fatiguing climb to the top of Cirith Ungol, led by the treacherous Gollum. Furthermore, the light in the sky and the thunder foreshadow the spectacle in the heavens over Minas Tirith that signals the end of Sauron’s reign of evil in The Return of the King. This foreshadowing has the effect of creating an overarching unity in the three volumes of the novel, as events at the beginning refer to and prefigure events at the end. Such foreshadowing also enhances the atmosphere of magic and wizardry that dominates the world of Middle-earth. But perhaps equally important, the mention of Frodo’s dream places us squarely inside Frodo’s consciousness, showing us the importance of his psychology and mindset throughout the story. His mission will not just be a series of steps he must take, but a personal growth and a psychological expansion as well. The inward focus of Frodo’s dreams prepares us to think about his inner state more seriously later in the novel.