Book I, Chapter One: A Long Expected Party
The story begins with the eleventy-first birthday party of Mr. Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit who has been a bit of a celebrity in the shire for many years. He is a wealthy hobbit and he has many friends and admirers. One of his younger cousins is Frodo Baggins who Bilbo has adopted as an heir. Since Frodo and Bilbo have the same birthday (September 22) they plan to share a party and a lot of excited gossip precedes the party. The fireworks of the wizard, Gandalf, who has carts of his equipment and magic stuff sent in advance, provide entertainment. As a social event, the party is successful.
Bilbo makes an announcement to the crowd, saying that he is "immensely fond of you all" but "this is the END. I am going. I am leaving NOW. GOOD-BYE!" After saying this, Bilbo vanishes. This is on account of a magic ring that he has obtained in an adventure (that is described in detail in Tolkien's book, The Hobbit). Bilbo then reappears inside of his home, well away from the party. Bilbo is leaving for the city of the elves, which is known as Rivendell and he has left everything to his heir, Frodo. It is the wise wizard Gandalf who convinces Bilbo that he should also turn over the magical ring that he had won from a creature called Gollum. By this time, however, Bilbo is already a little attached to the ring (mainly for the powers of invisibility that it offers). Throughout the novel, we will find that this ring holds a special power over the bearer.
Bilbo offers the ring to Gandalf but in the end Gandalf suggests that the ring be given to Frodo. Some of the other belongings are distributed to neighbors, friends and relatives. Gandalf remains with Frodo and Bilbo heads off on his new adventure. This is really not a permanent farewell and three will be reunited quite a while later.
Bilbo's somewhat callous disregard for his invitees is a foreshadowing of the more serious evil and disregard for others that will overwhelm a regular wearer of the ring. Indeed, the reader should be well aware of Bilbo's uncharacteristic aggression in regards to the ring. Basically, the ring has begun to taint him in an evil way. The contrast between Bilbo and Frodo can be seen in Frodo's silence and contemplative attitude and Bilbo's fascination with the humor and potential for suspense that the ring offers. The characterization of the wizard, Gandalf, shows the more common unity of age and symbolic wisdom.
One of the allusions to Christian traditional narratives is in Frodo's age and the understanding that hobbits do not reach the "coming of age" until 33 - the age at which Christ was crucified. We can expect Frodo to mature along his voyage in the trilogy, as he is now 33 years old. It is ironic, that Frodo is younger and more modest than Bilbo, his elder. Gandalf is both wise and old and he demonstrates his wisdom in his refusal to take the ring for himself. In a sense, the tension between possession of the ring and actually wearing it can be seen as a metaphor for will power to overcome temptation. Gandalf knows too much about the ring's power and so he knows not to tempt temptation, or to tempt fate as it would be.
On a thematic level, we can see how the story's humble beginnings are entirely based upon chance details - the "back-story" of The Hobbit is certainly important, but the ring was only a minor detail of that story. Moreover, there is a heavy-handed use of fate throughout Tolkien's trilogy. Frodo is the heir who receives Bilbo's belongings, but he certainly inherits his destiny in the transaction. There is an element of dramatic irony involved in the fact that the readers will come to learn far more about Frodo's journey, the ring's history and the nature of the Middle Earth, well before young Frodo does. This also serves to increase the level of suspense - a necessary ingredient in a good science fiction/fantasy work.
Book I, Chapter Two: The Shadow of the Past
The story continues quite some time after the birthday party featured in Chapter One, though Frodo, as he ages and Bilbo remains unseen, continues to celebrate the feast. Gandalf has another meeting with Frodo and to be sure, the wizard is not entirely welcome in the shire. Gandalf is benevolent and well-meaning, but the hobbits want Frodo to settle down and cultivate some "hobbit-sense" as opposed to the magic of Gandalf and whatever caused Bilbo to disappear. (Indeed, Bilbo had always been in troubles of a magical nonsensical variety).
Gandalf does not have very good news for Frodo, as is overheard by a hobbit named San Gamgee - and of course, the news involves the ring that has been left to Frodo. When Gandalf informs Frodo that the ring is incredibly powerful, Frodo replies that he had been warned in a letter and that he has worn the ring on his neck and not actually worn it on his finger. Gandalf replies that this is very wise and he then proceeds to explain the history of the ring and the imminent danger that looms over Frodo. Frodo's interjection: "How terrifying" is a good indicator of how out of the ordinary the ring's history is - as opposed to the humble, peaceable life of a hobbit.
The history of Frodo's ring is as follows: After Gandalf saw the negative effects on Bilbo, he suspected that they had a Great Ring of elfish creation, on their hands. With Frodo, Gandalf tosses the ring into a fire and ancient runes in the language of Mordor appear on the ring. These confirm the ring's great and evil power: "One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them." Frodo's ring belongs, in fact, to Sauron, the Dark Lord who desires to claim the ring.
Of course, the ring's history contains a fair share of battle, bloodshed and changing of hands. Isildur stole it from the Dark Lord and it was lost after Isildur's death - only to be found by Deagol, who was murdered by his brother Smeagol, who metamorphosed into Gollum - the creature that Bilbo stole the ring from in The Hobbit. Gollum then went down into the land of evil, called Mordor, and joined forces with Sauron, notifying him that Bilbo Baggins has possession of the ring. Armed with this information, Sauron and his henchmen are on their way to the shire to get the ring. Gandalf advises that Frodo make haste and escape with the help of Sam Gamgee. The ring has to be destroyed or else the Middle Earth remains in perpetual peril of Sauron - for he can do great evil with the power of the ring and basically enslave the Free People, hobbits and elves included. Unfortunately, Orodruin, a fiery mountainous fortress, is the only place where the ring can be destroyed. And of course, Orodruin is in the evil land of Mordor. Hence, the story begins in earnest. Frodo must avoid the evil contaminating power of the ring, escape the henchmen out to apprehend him, and see that the ring is destroyed. At least he has Gandalf on his side, and more help is sure to come.
The tone of the novel becomes immediately bleak as the battle lines are drawn and the very existence of war is presented. Just as Frodo's continuation of the birthday celebrations is to be a symbol of his steadfastness and the depth of his character (something that the hobbits are known for), the allegory of Bilbo's ascension/vanishing act certainly parallels the Christian narrative of Christ's ascension. This is not so much in the technical details as in the subsequent gossip, philosophizing and debate over whether the subject in question is dead or alive. Nonetheless, the juxtaposition between Bilbo's elder jollity and Frodo's younger burdened position remains at the center of the story.
The narrative of the ring is important in establishing the fact that as far as characterization is concerned, Frodo is the hero of this epic - not Bilbo. Without reading into Tolkien's mind too much, it does seem reasonable to question whether the erasure of Bilbo is a strategy designed to take the older, already famous character (from the previously published novel, The Hobbit) and squarely put him in the background. The narrative structure of the novel is all the more interesting within this context because "The Shadow of the Past" is one of the key passages that "builds" the world of the Middle Earth. The larger novel is part of a trilogy, but that trilogy is part of a larger literary world. With the novel's copious references to characters, venues and classifications of beings (living nature, races of elves, hobbits, etc.), the reader should be well aware that Tolkien has created another world to parallel the world that we know. One consequence of writing science-fiction or fantasy is that no detail is random because nothing is taken for granted (for example: gravity, permanence of visibility, numerical sequence, cause and effect).
Tolkien was an Oxford professor, among other things, and in fact his work is considered by some literary critics to be a modern mythology rather than mere science-fiction. This is mostly because Tolkien intended a "moral" to his story, or at least, he wrote his story with the human condition as a constant philosophical concern. Reading about the hobbits offers an insight into human struggles - Tolkien's battles are not fantasy battles without moral relevance to everyday life.
Again, we are presented with the argument that the past heavily determines and foreshadows the future. Certainly, Tolkien's division of the Middle Earth's history into different "ages" of civilization forces the reader to confront these ideas. The story can only proceed by taking minute details of the past and expanding them. Tolkien's overriding philosophy, a heady mixture of Christianity and post WW2 trauma, presents a world where good and evil are painted in starkly archetypal forms, light and dark with high contrast and hardly anything morally gray to speak of. Indeed, the "gray" is only a symbol of indecision or a lack of steadfastness - a negative, to be sure. By the end of Chapter 2, the reader should have a sense that the unfolding trilogy will launch a war between good and evil; Frodo's role is not precisely certain, but good will win out in the end. The matter of the story is in discovering exactly how good will win. The ring, a symbol for the power of evil, an image of power and an archetypal gift that represents both hope and fate (inheritance) remains at the center of our attention.
Book I, Chapter Three: Three is Company
Gandalf is rather direct in the warning that he issues to Frodo at the start of the chapter: "You ought to go quietly, and you ought to go soon." Frodo takes quite a while to get ready for his departure though as he was very comfortable living at Bag End, Bilbo's house in the shire. Frodo does not know precisely where he is going to go and Gandalf explains a good deal to him about the necessary for secrecy. Frodo sells Bag End and he heads for Rivendell, which is the elf-town in the east. Apparently, this is where Bilbo was headed when he departed town.
As is expected, Frodo's sale of Bag End is a subject of gossip and most of the hobbits believe that when Frodo moved in with the help of a friend named Merry Brandybuck, he intended to stay in the little house in a place called Crickhollow. Meanwhile, Gandalf remains in the shire for about two months and in his next encounter with Frodo, he reiterates the warning concerning the ring: "don't use it!" Frodo still seems to be more concerned about his relatives, the Sackville-Bagginses and the inheritance of the belongings that he has left at Bag End. Packing continues with the help of Merry and Fredegar "Fatty" Bolger.
Frodo is now surrounded by a small company of compatriots: Sam, his father (who is a gaffer), Merry and Pippin. Frodo makes his way to Crickhollow, which is in Buckland, and not a moment too soon, for as they are leaving he overhears a voice asking questions about his location and departure. On the road, Frodo and the group hear hoof steps coming behind them and Frodo is overwhelmed with fear. The group goes into the shrubbery on the side of the road. The mysterious rider is dark and black, the face is obscured but the intent seems clearly ominous. Sam identifies the figure as the person who was asking questions earlier. The dark rider is scared away by the elves that arrive on the scene, singing. They keep the hobbits for the night and protect them, but they are gone in the morning.
One of the leading contributors to the ominous tone of the chapter is Gandalf's hushed warnings to Frodo. Indeed, the repetition of unknown danger is both an open-door to foreshadowing and a way to keep the tone largely negative despite the largely positive outlook and lifestyle of the shire. The contrast between the road ahead and the idyllic life at home could not be anymore severe. This traveler's burden is part of the archetypal quest story.
It is well worth knowing that Tolkien studied the ancient and medieval stories of knights and in fact edited a version of the classic work Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, famous for its overlaying of Anglo-Saxon pagan images and newer Christian ones. (The pubs that are called "Ivy Bush and Green Dragon" are puns that refer to English landscape and mythology as a way of slightly lightening the mood.) The stark images of good and evil, light and dark seem to have an opposite effect in the scenes describing Frodo's departure from the shire en route to the "Cracks of Doom." The portrayal of Bag End as "sad and gloomy and disheveled" is a foreshadowing of the high cost of war for the Hobbit village but it also signals that Frodo's old life is over.
Time is an important issue, plot-wise and symbolically as well, for Frodo has aged and matured; he is ready for the quest. Ironically, it is the pleasant summer time and the joviality and slack pace of hobbit-life further bolster the idea that this is the wrong time to be doing anything strenuous or dangerous. Frodo's desire to throw another birthday party is perhaps a strain of this same Hobbit simplicity that seems to resist acknowledging the troubles ahead. The descent of the story into the night and night imagery reflects the inevitability of the dark and looming voyage ahead. Frodo cannot avoid his fate, which seems to be advancing like clockwork. Gandalf has the role of offering history to the reader and guidance to Frodo. As a narrative device, Gandalf tends to plainly state the overriding urgencies of the plot line and the guiding philosophies of the writer. Frodo, in contrast, says little. His actions are a response to the urgencies of the story and from them, we can infer a broader sense of how Tolkien views life.
Book I, Chapter Four: A Short Cut to Mushrooms
Frodo has been protected by the elves, which are among the Free People, opposed to the evil Sauron. He wakes up from his sleep in the ferns and feels quite refreshed. Sam and Pippin are with him and they enjoy the food that the elves have left. Frodo announces that the plan for the day is to walk to Bucklebury as soon as possible. Unfortunately, there are bound to be more Black Riders ahead. After offering his perspective on the dangers ahead, Frodo asks Sam if he is still willing to accompany him on the journey. Sam eagerly swears his loyalty, saying, "if any of those Black Riders try to stop [Frodo], they'll have Sam Gamgee to reckon with." This lightens the scene a bit.
Understandably, Frodo does not want to risk being seen on the road and so the company takes several detours into the countryside rather than traveling on the road. Even with this precaution, they cannot avoid coming across Black Riders, though they successful navigate their way through the scene. As the chapter comes to a close, Frodo adjusts the course yet again and the company arrives at the mushroom plantation of Farmer Maggot. Frodo knows Maggot from his youth and the farmer transports them in a covered wagon. They are heading to the ferry of the Brandywine river and soon enough, Merry is present on the scene to ferry them into Buckland.
The phrase "short cuts make long delays" is indicative of the suspense that Tolkien employs in the chapter. The Black Riders are certainly a symbol of evil, but there is still the persistent contrast offered by the hobbit's imagery of leisure and enjoyment. They engage in singing, drinking and even the names "Brandywine" and "Merry" seem positive - though Brandywine is, of course, the site of a historical battle. In short, the story seems to be as circuitous as Frodo's journey. Things that seem negative are suddenly positive and vice versa. In archetypal terms, day and night are opposed to one another and it is no surprise that chapter four's day journey is safer and more protected than the bleaker night journey of the previous chapter.
The characterization of Frodo reflects a certain level of depth that hadn't been present before. In the not too distant past, Frodo was tempted to put the ring on - he is already susceptible to this temptation. At the same time, his inner sense is molding him into a leader, for he has managed to navigate safely and seek help despite his innate inability. For some reason, fate is guided Frodo despite himself and he is even able to assert a bit of nobility in the scene where he parallels a sacrificial hero who seeks to turn away his companions so that they are not endangered. This foreshadows the conclusion of Part One, when Frodo will decide to journey alone.