When I first read The Lord of the Rings many years ago, I remember this chapter being one of the most frightening chapters of the novel. Even now, so many years later, I still feel a thrill of fear when the hobbits first encounter the Black Riders, so terrifying because the reader, like the hobbits, knows nothing of who these creatures are, though we have already begun to guess. All we know at this point is that they are clearly in pursuit of our heroes.
What also strikes me as I read this chapter is the way in which it consistently holds out the hope that, after all, Gandalf might actually come along. We do not yet know, as we will in later chapters, that they will not see the wizard again until they are all reunited in Rivendell, but the ever-present hope that he may come galloping along the road does help to dispel at least a bit of the aura of menace that hangs over this entire chapter.
While Gandalf remains elusive, the Elves at least do give us, and the hobbits, some relief from the menace of the pursuing Black Rides (however fleeting). Furthermore, the conversation between Gildor and Frodo also tells us much about the Elves of this period. We learn that, for all that they are unequivocally “good” in the sense that they would never ally themselves with the Enemy, they do not care much for the the events of these fallen lands, that Men and others will have to fend for themselves. They are beautiful and otherworldly, but also irretrievably distant from the humdrum world that the hobbits inhabit, reminders of an era that even now is slowly passing away into oblivion.
At the same time, we also get the sense that they possess a wisdom that goes far beyond that of the mortals with whom they (however briefly) share the world. However, they remain unwilling (or at least reluctant) to interfere with the events that are now transpiring. They are thus benevolent but not interfering forces in Tolkien’s world. As readers, w are now aware that, for all that we might want the Elves to lend their power to the battle that we now get a feeling is coming, we also know that they will not do so. The fight to come must be undertaken by those who will remain here in this fallen world.
There are a few less serious moments, of course, and one of my favourites is the one in which the fox stumbles upon the sleeping hobbits. I can’t really say why I love this moment so much, other than that it is rather narratively strange. The narrator (whoever it is), even goes so far as to tell the reader that the fox never found out anything about what had led three hobbits to camp out in the wild. So many questions remain: who is this fox? Why do foxes in this world seem to have the ability to think in these abstract terms? Why does the narrator choose to give us this perspective at all, when it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the plot as a whole? Perhaps (and this is purely speculative) it is one last vestige of the innocent, rather whimsical tone of The Hobbit, before we move into the decidedly darker and more menacing narrative to come.
As the first of several chapters that focus on the forward momentum, this chapter serves an important function, setting the pattern that will continue to develop and become ever more complex and compelling as the novel continues.