During last night’s reading session, we made it as far as Buckleberry Ferry, meeting Merry Brandybuck as he approached ominously through the dark and mist.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, of course, we stopped at Bamfurlong and paid a visit to Farmer Maggot and his family. We aren’t entirely certain what to make of Maggot before we encounter him, for we get conflicting emotions from Frodo and Pippin.
Frodo admits he has held a long-gestating fear following some less-than-pleasant run-ins with Maggot during Frodo’s youth. And whilst we may not expect it of Pippin, considering the somewhat immature character he turns out to be throughout much of the adventure, he nevertheless defends the old farmer. This is all the more telling of the farmer’s character when we consider Frodo’s rather extreme description of his last encounter with Maggot, which included both physical violence and a threat of death through the rather grim means of being eaten alive by a pack of large and ferocious dogs (Ramsay Bolton, anyone?).
‘What’s wrong with old Maggot?’ asked Pippin. ‘He’s a good friend to all the Brandybucks. Of course he’s a terror to trespassers, and keeps ferocious dogs — but after all, folk down here are near the border and have to be more on their guard.’
‘I know’, said Frodo. ‘But all the same,’ he added with a shamefaced laugh, ‘I am terrified of him and his dogs. I have avoided his farm for years and years. He caught me several times trespassing after mushrooms, when I was a youngster at Brandy Hall. On the last occasion he beat me, and then took me and showed me to his dogs. “See, lads,” he said, “next time this young varmint sets foot on my land, you can eat him. Now see him off!” They chased me all the way to the Ferry. I have never got over the fright — though I daresay the beasts knew their business and would not really have touched me.’
Pippin laughed. ‘Well, it’s time you made it up. Especially if you are coming back to live in Buckland. Old Maggot is really a stout fellow — if you leave his mushrooms alone. Let’s get into the lane and then we shan’t be trespassing. If we meet him, I’ll do the talking. He is a friend of Merry’s, and I used to come here with him a good deal at one time.’
[The Lord of the Rings, I, 4, ‘A Short Cut to Mushrooms’]
I asked Lucy (10yrs) what she thought of Farmer Maggot before we proceeded further. She proclaimed him to be “good and bad”. Like Sam, I think she was inclined to “sip her beer suspiciously” until she knew more.
Whilst we may argue the justification of Maggot’s treatment of Frodo in his youth¹,
nevertheless we quickly learn that Pippin was right to defend the farmer. Not only does Maggot warmly welcome the three hobbits, including the once-threatened Frodo (once he learns who they are), he also brings them inside, gives them refreshment, provides them with information about their pursuers, invites them to stay to supper, and drives them (at significant risk to himself) to the Ferry in order to save them the effort and ‘trouble of another sort’ (to say nothing of the large basket of mushrooms Mrs Maggot provides Frodo).
As Pippin declares with seemingly perfect truth, Maggot is a stout fellow. But he is also, we discover, not above being suspicious of strangers. We would, of course, expect him to be suspicious of strangers, particularly of one such as the Black Rider who visited him, and who gave him plenty of reason to be not only suspicious but downright unfriendly towards such a stranger.
‘Of course, we do get queer folk wandering in these parts at times. Too near the River,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘But this fellow was the most outlandish I have ever set eyes on.’
‘He was a funny customer and asking funny questions.’
‘What do you think that funny customer asked me?’
‘”Now what in the shire can he want?” I thought to myself. We don’t see many of the Big Folk over the border; and anyway I had never heard of any like this black fellow.’²
‘I didn’t like the looks of him.’
“Have you seen Baggins?” he asked in a queer voice…’
‘I felt a sort of shiver down my back.’³
‘He gave a sort of hiss. It might have been laughing, and it might not. Then he spurred his great horse right at me, and I jumped out of the way only just in time.’
However, Maggot’s mistrust is not limited to Black Riders or even to the Big Folk from over the border (cited above). He mentions ‘queer folk’ that he may be likely to encounter ‘at times’, which he attributes to being so near the River. Naturally, if any are likely to travel abroad, the waterways will be a likely hotspot. But these travellers are not just unknown, they are queer4. And Maggot’s suspicions are not reserved for those who live outside the Shire. As he says to Frodo:
‘You should never have gone mixing yourself up with Hobbiton folk, Mr Frodo. Folk are queer up there.’ Sam stirred in his chair, and looked at the farmer with an unfriendly eye. ‘But you were always a reckless lad. When I heard you had left the Brandybucks and gone off to that old Mr. Bilbo, I said that you were going to find trouble. Mark my words, this all comes of those strange doings of Mr Bilbo’s.
We already know that Maggot thinks of people from ‘over the border’ as queer. We can also see that, in comparison with the relatively nearby Bucklanders, Maggot considers folk from the much further off Hobbiton as queerer still, as he would much rather (for Frodo’s own sake) that Frodo had stayed in Buckland. This is perhaps understandable when we consider that it is a mere 5 miles or so from Bamfurlong to the Ferry, but around 50 miles from the Brandywine to Hobbiton. You can clearly see the Brandywine River on the Eastern edge of the map below, and Bamfurlong will be in extremely close proximity at this scale; Hobbiton, on the other hand, is just East of the centre of the Shire, marked by a brown blob.
Or, to put it into more tangible terms, Maggot drove the three hobbits to the Ferry and got back home in a single evening, probably no more than a couple of hours. Whereas Merry did not expect to see Frodo at Crickhollow in fewer than two days.5 And that was when Frodo had no particular reason to not go by the main road.
The distrust, of course, works both ways. Only a few paragraphs earlier in this same chapter, we are told that Sam had a natural distrust of the inhabitants of other parts of the Shire; that is, of parts outside of Hobbiton. In fact, you need go no further than the very first pages of the tale for indications of the distrust that folk of Hobbiton have for folk from elsewhere.
‘But what about this Frodo that lives with [Bilbo]?’ asked Old Noakes of Bywater. ‘Baggins is his name, but he’s more than half a Brandybuck, they say. It beats me why any Baggins of Hobbiton should go looking for a wife away there in Buckland, where folks are so queer.’
‘And no wonder they’re queer, put in Daddy Twofoot (the Gaffer’s next-door neighbour), ‘if they live on the wrong side of the Brandywine River, and right agin the Old Forest. That’s a dark bad place, if half the tales be true.’
‘You’re right, Dad!’ said the Gaffer. ‘Not that the Brandybucks of Buckland live in the Old Forest; but they’re a queer breed, seemingly.’
[The Lord of the Rings, I, 1, ‘A Long-Expected Party’]
And Sam and Ted Sandyman discuss strangers as well:
‘All the same’, said Sam, ‘you can’t deny that others besides our Halfast have seen queer folk crossing the Shire — crossing it, mind you: there are more that are turned back at the borders. The Bounders have never been so busy before.’
[The Lord of the RIngs, I, 2, ‘The Shadow of the Past’]
This theme of hobbits viewing outsiders in a negative light is a theme which runs throughout The Lord of the Rings. Indeed their isolation seems to be supremely effective. In Gondor and Rohan, the halflings/holbytlan (respectively) view the hobbits as merely elements of myths or legends out of the distant past. Saruman only recently became aware of them (cf. Gandalf, ‘Hobbits are, or were, no concern of [Saruman’s]. Yet he is great among the Wise.’ [ibid.].) And Sauron himself was, seemingly, blissfully ignorant of their existence until he managed to torture the information from Gollum (cf. Gandalf, ‘He knows that it is the One. And he has at last heard, I think, of hobbits and the Shire.’ [ibid.])
Yet for all that, the hobbits, or at least Frodo (and Sam, by way of eavesdropping whilst pretending to sleep), is warned by Gildor about trying to shut yourself off from the world outside your local familiarity.
‘The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot forever fence it out.’ [The Lord of the Rings, I, 3, ‘Three is Company’]
And in ‘The Scouring of The Shire’, we learn what sort of danger may lie in such parochial views. But that post can wait for another time.
¹This rather vicious behaviour towards Frodo is likely a relic of an earlier draft of the story in which Farmer Maggot is not the benevolent character we know and admire but a threatening villain. More on this in The History of Middle-earth VI: ‘The Return of the Shadow’. However, discussion of that matter is worthy of a separate post.
²”Black” here is a reference to the Ringwraith’s clothing/horse/general appearance only. Despite some arguments which wish to make this a racial debate, the Ringwraiths themselves are, in fact, invisible. Their skin cannot be seen nor described.
³Possibly a very mild effect upon Farmer Maggot akin to the ‘Black Breath’.
4Meaning ‘strange, odd’; doubtful early 16th c. origin from German quer, meaning ‘oblique, perverse’; (Source: Oxford English Dictionary)
5The Lord of the Rings, I, 3, ‘Three is Company’