Many days later, Frodo goes to Aragorn to ask for permission to leave the city. Before returning to the Shire, he wants to visit Bilbo in Rivendell. He was disappointed that Bilbo didn’t make the journey to Minas Tirith with the Elves. Arwen tells him that Bilbo is very weak now that the power of the Ring has been destroyed, and he only has one long journey left in him. Aragorn tells Frodo that he’ll ride with him and the other hobbits as far as Rohan and offers him any gift he desires—but Arwen chooses the gift: her place on the ship to the Undying Lands if he chooses to leave Middle-earth with Bilbo.
Even though Frodo has endured the treachery of Mordor and almost sacrificed his life for the freedom of Middle-earth, he still asks Aragorn for permission to come and go from Minas Tirith, which is a sign of his loyalty and respect for the new king. That huge sacrifice doesn’t go unrewarded, though—Arwen’s sacrifice is just as great, because giving up her place on the ship is a guarantee that she’ll live out the last days of her life in Middle-earth and never see her fellow Elves again.
The hobbits ride with Éomer’s company to escort Théoden back to Rohan. When they arrive, they stay and rest. After a great feast, Théoden is buried beneath a mound like the line of kings before him. The group prepares to ride again, but Arwen stays behind at Edoras. Her final parting with Elrond is incredibly painful: they will never see each other again. Éowyn gives Merry an ancient horn as a token of his service to Rohan. The group rides on to Helm’s Deep where Legolas fulfils his promise to Gimli and goes with him into the Glittering Caves. Legolas finds them beautiful beyond description.
Éowyn’s gift to Merry of the horn is a sign of both of their true natures—Éowyn as someone with an affinity for battle and who is roused by a rallying horn, and Merry as someone who’s learned much about war and might end up needing that knowledge and its accompanying tool in the future. Legolas’s appreciation of the Glittering Caves is a sign that his friendship with Gimli has been transformative, and now he finds places outside of Mirkwood to be just as profoundly beautiful as his own home.
The group rides on to Isengard and talks with the Ents who have taken over Orthanc. Gandalf thanks Tree-beard for all his help in the war. Tree-beard tells him he’s been boring Saruman, who had been trapped in the tower, with his stories, but that Saruman fled a week ago. This worries Gandalf, who suspects Saruman has a little more strength left. The party prepares to move on, but Legolas and Gimli decide to take a different route to reach their own homelands. Aragorn announces the end of the Fellowship of the Ring at last. Galadriel tells Tree-beard that they won’t meet again, at least not while Middle-earth exists.
This is a scene of many farewells and endings, and to most of the characters, it seems that the journey is coming to a close. Gandalf has his doubts, though, and as the person best equipped with knowledge of Saruman’s character, his concern is a sign that not everything will be totally peaceful and settled yet.
The hobbits are sad to leave Aragorn. Aragorn reminds Pippin that he’s still a knight of Gondor and might be called to serve again. The hobbits ride with Gandalf, Galadriel, and Celeborn. On their way, they come across Saruman, who looks ragged and old. Gandalf offers to help him, but Saruman refuses the offer. He laughs at Galadriel and Gandalf, telling them they’ve brought their own doom in their victory over Sauron. Merry offers Saruman a pipe of Longbottom Leaf, which Saruman claims to be his anyway. When he curses Merry, Merry asks for the pipe and leaf back. Saruman hints at the hobbits’ home not being as safe when they return as when they left it. Gandalf thinks Saruman might be planning something wicked.
Saruman’s greed and pride are still a huge part of his character, even in seemingly utter defeat. The Longbottom Leaf, offered as a gift by Merry, was a product of the Shire anyway, and Saruman scorns it in a pure display of arrogance. His anticipation of Saruman and Galadriel’s demise now that their rings have lost power is similar to Denethor’s despair when he assumed he could predict the future: Saruman has no true knowledge of what awaits him or his other immortal companions, and his presumptions come from a place of insecurity rather than objective truth.
The hobbits feel they should head back to the Shire quickly, but Frodo insists he needs to visit Bilbo in Rivendell first. After a few more days, they camp for a while so that Galadriel and Celeborn can take their time conversing with Elrond and Gandalf about the past and the future. Eventually, Galadriel and Celeborn head into the mountains with the others from Lórien while the hobbits continue to Rivendell with Elrond and Gandalf. When they reach Rivendell, they find Bilbo immediately: he looks old but peaceful. He reminds them it’s his birthday tomorrow; he'll be 129 years old. The hobbits celebrate Bilbo’s birthday with him and stay in Rivendell for a few more days, recounting their journeys to Bilbo, though he struggles to stay awake through the stories.
Frodo’s stubborn resolve to visit Bilbo despite the hobbits’ collective worry about what might’ve happened in the Shire shows that his love and care for Bilbo have endured despite his perilous journey. Bilbo’s aged appearance is a sign that his vitality was tied to the Ring—even though, unlike Gollum, he gave the Ring up freely, he is still dependent on it to a lesser degree. His weakness is all the more apparent when he falls asleep during stories, because even just a few years ago, stories were a large source of his delight.
The hobbits eventually prepare to leave for the Shire. Gandalf will escort them as far as Bree. Frodo says goodbye to Bilbo, who tells him he’s getting very sleepy. Bilbo gives gifts to the four hobbits and asks Frodo where his ring ended up. Frodo tells him he lost it, but Bilbo wishes he could see it again. When Bilbo has fallen asleep, Sam tells Frodo that he doubts Bilbo will write their story. Bilbo wakes to say that he’d like Frodo to take his books and papers and arrange them into more of an order. On the day the hobbits leave, Elrond tells Frodo in private that he won’t have any need to return to Rivendell to see Bilbo—he should look out for Bilbo and Elrond in the Shire at this time of year.
Though Bilbo is no longer able to finish writing his story, it’s clear that the memories are still important to him because he entrusts his notes to Frodo to compile into a complete book. Elrond’s private conversation with Frodo shows that the two of them have a special relationship that can’t be understood or appreciated by the other hobbits, hinting at the fact that Bilbo and Elrond will be going on a particularly special journey when they venture through the Shire—a journey Frodo will understand the significance of, but the others won’t.