Bilbo’s disappearance endures as a favorite talking point in Hobbiton for approximately a year, and eventually “Mad Baggins” becomes a character of legend who vanishes with a flash before reappearing laden with jewels and gold. In the meantime, Frodo deals with the gossip surrounding his associations with the “unnatural” characters of Bilbo and Gandalf, whose reputations are tarnished due to their associations with adventure, magic, and dealings with outsiders. Frodo’s determined resolve to continue celebrating Bilbo’s birthday each year also sparks rumors of madness. However, Frodo lives happily at Bag End throughout the following years, and begins adventuring further afield in the Shire, sometimes alone, sometimes with his close friends Merry and Pippin. As time progresses, people begin to notice that just like Bilbo, Frodo seems to barely age—as he nears his fiftieth birthday, he still appears an energetic and youthful hobbit barely into adulthood.
The narrator has already described the way that Bilbo’s discovery of the Ring made him famous in the wider Middle-earth world. Bilbo’s exploits are so unusual for a hobbit that he also becomes a beloved character of myth in the Shire, where his fellow hobbits are mostly unaware of his actual adventures. Like all myths, the legend of “Mad Baggins” is based on elements of truth and preserves some of the hobbits’ cultural history. The narrator also acknowledges Frodo’s anti-aging qualities that are later revealed to be a direct influence of the Ring. This directly doubles Frodo with Bilbo, and the younger hobbit also begins to show a yearning for adventure, although at this stage his wandering is safely confined to the security of the Shire.
As he nears the age of fifty, Frodo is also becoming restless for adventure. Shire locals observe him interacting with strange travelers that are becoming more common in the Shire; Frodo is trying to learn about the rumors of outside troubles that are starting to reach even Hobbiton. These odd rumors about the outside world begin to circulate among common hobbits, and Frodo’s gardener, Sam, is particularly interested in stories of magical creatures that are interwoven with the rumors.
Despite the Shire’s comfortable existence, trouble abroad signals that some problems—even evils—exist in the world at large and are beginning to encroach on the Shire’s borders. Rumors of magical beings begin to infringe on the narrative; the usually pragmatic Sam is fixated on these fantastical tales.
Gandalf, who has barely visited the Shire in the seventeen years since Bilbo’s departure and has not been seen at all there in the past nine years, suddenly calls on Frodo at Bag End. They stay up late into the night discussing worldly news.
Gandalf is an agent of action and his appearance suggests that Frodo may be pushed into adventure sooner than desired. Such episodes again echo the original relationship between Gandalf and Bilbo, when the wizard appeared on the doorstep and inspired Bilbo into departing the Shire.
The next morning Frodo and Gandalf sit by the open window of the study, where they can hear Sam cutting the hedges in the garden. Frodo presses the wizard to tell him information about the ring that Gandalf had refused to comment on in the darkness of the previous night. Gandalf reveals the magic ring’s true nature—it is none other than the One Ring, a powerful weapon created by the Dark Lord Sauron to dominate all of Middle-earth. The wizard began to suspect its true nature after observing its unusual effects on Bilbo.
Gandalf says that he has spent these last seventeen years searching for information about the Ring, which Sauron lost during his defeat in the War of the Last Alliance in the Second Age. Gandalf can now tell Frodo a detailed history of the Ring, which is master of the nineteen rings of power that Sauron gave to humans, elves, and dwarves in a bygone era. Like the rings of power, over time the One Ring corrupts its wearer to evil. It also actively seeks to return its creator, Sauron.
Through Gandalf’s accounts of the Ring, The Fellowship’s storytelling suddenly broadens in scope from a history of hobbits to a history of the great happenings of Middle-earth. Historic events of bygone eras rise to confront the naïve Frodo, and the Ring is revealed as possessing an evil agency of its own.
The Ring’s true nature is confirmed when Gandalf casts it in the fireplace. The flames reveal script in the Black Speech on the Ring’s surface: “One Ring to rule them all, One ring to find them / One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.” Finally, Gandalf tells Frodo that Sauron has risen again and is searching for the Ring in the Shire—for the Dark Lord caught the wretched creature Gollum and tortured him for information about Bilbo.
The Ring’s prophetic inscription is the fabric of myth and legend, and Frodo now finds himself caught up in a legendary story. Gandalf reveals that the Ring is an inherently evil weapon that can enslave beings and represents power, ambition, and control. Even worse is the fact that Sauron is actively seeking his Ring in the Shire—this is the first instance that Frodo is confronted by an ominous threat.
After being momentarily frozen in terror at this new knowledge of the Ring, Frodo seeks advice from Gandalf about what to do in response to the threat of Sauron and his evil servants (the Black Riders) who are closing in on the Shire. When Frodo laments that Bilbo did not kill Gollum in the Misty Mountains—therefore allowing news of the Ring to reach Sauron—Gandalf remarks that he is thankful that pity stayed Bilbo’s hand from murder. The wizard suggests that Gollum still has some part to play in the saga of the Ring, although what that part is, he does not know.
Gandalf highlights the importance of Bilbo’s decision not to harm Gollum in the Misty Mountains. Pity stayed his hand, and it is likely Bilbo’s decent and morally nature that has prevented the Ring from corrupting him to its evil. Gandalf approves of Bilbo’s mercy, suggesting that a moral compass is more important than strength of arms. Gandalf also reveals himself as a character with the gift of foresight, as he correctly predicts that Gollum still has a part to play in the fate of the Ring. Readers learn just how important Gollum’s part is at the conclusion of The Lord of the Rings series, although the devious creature begins to show his face in the events of The Fellowship.
Gandalf reveals that the only way to destroy the Ring is to cast it into the fires of Mount Doom in Mordor, which is where the Ring was created. Frodo shrinks at the idea of such a dangerous journey, and offers the Ring to Gandalf to take care of. The wizard jumps to his feet, alarmed by the offer; he wisely recognizes that if he takes the Ring—even for noble purposes—it will corrupt him and use its great power to distort him into an evil entity like Sauron. After calming himself, Gandalf reassures Frodo that although the wizard cannot take the burden of the Ring, he will always be there to help Frodo bear it for as long as the hobbit has it in his possession.
Gandalf demonstrates a complex self-awareness when he tells Frodo why he cannot take the Ring. This is the first sign that Frodo’s mentor Gandalf is fallible. Readers can acknowledge Gandalf’s strength in revealing this vulnerability—no one, not even the great wizard, is perfect. Through Gandalf, Tolkien also suggests that evil occurs when a person succumbs to the desire to wield power for personal or collective gain—even when when that person has honorable intentions.
The two friends take time to sit and reflect on the options before them. At last, Gandalf asks Frodo what he is thinking. The hobbit admits that he is frightened, but he knows it is his responsibility to carry the Ring away from the Shire so that he doesn’t endanger his homeland. Despite his terror, Frodo also feels a small sense of excitement at the thought of adventuring beyond the Shire. The hobbit also recognizes the grave reality that the Ring will begin to corrupt his character, and he hopes to take it to a more worthy bearer who can resist its temptations better than he can.
Gandalf’s character development continues—he is a facilitator who sets things in motion and a guide who advises and will offer protection, but he always leaves his charges to make choices of their own free will. It is Frodo’s choice to accept the mantle of Ring-bearer (note that he is perhaps partly influenced by recent desires for adventure, and a growing attachment to the Ring). Frodo’s dual desires for the comforts of home and the excitement of adventure are again on display here. His humility in admitting his weaknesses and fears with regard to the Ring will become his greatest strengths on his journey from the Shire.
Gandalf is quite flabbergasted by Frodo’s candid and thoughtful response—once again, the wizard says, he has been surprised by the bravery demonstrated by hobbits, similar to his previous experiences traveling with Bilbo. Gandalf advises that it is no longer safe to use the name “Baggins,” and suggests that Frodo travel using the name “Underhill.” He also recommends that Frodo travel with trustworthy companions.
The surprising streak of courage and resilience that hobbits can demonstrate surfaces in Frodo, echoing Bilbo’s past enterprises. Already the Ring’s influence (despite good intentions) can be seen: Frodo undertakes deception in order to carry the danger away from his homeland.
Gandalf suddenly stops speaking, listening to the silence that envelopes them. Suddenly springing to the window sill, the wizard reaches outside and hauls an eavesdropper into view—the gardener, Sam, has been eagerly listening to their conversation about magical creatures and objects. The loyal gardener is petrified that the wizard will turn him into something “unnatural”— Frodo jokingly suggests a spotted toad—but he also asks to accompany Frodo as a trustworthy companion. Sam is particularly keen to visit the elves if at all possible on their journey. Gandalf laughs heartily at this new development and decides that Sam will indeed join Frodo on his quest to bear the Ring away from the Shire.
Here is the first scene of surveillance that occurs in The Fellowship. In this case it is friendly ears that are listening in the hopes of hearing about the legendary elves. Sam’s subsequent commitment as a companion for Frodo promotes him as a foil for the serious and responsible Ring-bearer—Sam demonstrates relentless positivity and is often comedic in his straightforward manner of thought and speech. Here, he is the opposite of a noble hero—caught listening in a hedge, hauled by the ear through an open window, and threatened with being turned into a toad. However, Sam’s lack of hesitation in joining Frodo signifies his loyal character and the unexpected yet innate courage of hobbits to undertake perilous action if the situation calls for it.