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.