Bilbo Baggins, a remarkably old and eccentric hobbit, throws a spectacular all-day party to celebrate his 111th birthday and his cousin Frodo's 33rd. Although old, Bilbo has the appearance and energy of someone half his age, while Frodo is now legally able to inherit Bilbo's estate. During his after-dinner speech, Bilbo announces that he is leaving, slips on his magic ring, and disappears in front of his guests' astonished eyes. Back in his hobbit hole, Bag End, he meets with his old friend the wizard Gandalf, and they discuss his plan to leave everything — including the ring — to Frodo. Bilbo becomes agitated and suspicious, and he nearly keeps the ring, but he finally leaves it behind. After he commits to the decision, he feels relieved, as though a heavy burden has been lifted.
Frodo, who knew the plan, settles in to live respectably. For seventeen years, little happens except that Frodo does not age, much like his vanished cousin. Travelers' stories of danger beyond the Shire start to arrive, followed soon by Gandalf. He has come to realize that Frodo's ring is, in fact, the One Ring, created long ago by the Dark Lord Sauron. Sauron is unspeakably evil, and he needs to recover the Ring in order to enslave all the peoples of Middle-earth. He has learned from Gollum that the Ring has been found, and he has begun to search for it. Frodo must leave the Shire soon, before Sauron finds him, to keep the Ring safe.
Frodo promises Gandalf that he will leave no later than autumn, and the wizard promises to return to accompany him to Rivendell. To misdirect any pursuit, Frodo pretends to move to the country. Accompanied by Sam Gamgee, his friend and gardener, and his cousin Pippin Took, Frodo sets off walking cross-country. Along the way, they repeatedly encounter one or more frightening strangers: large men wearing black cloaks and riding large black horses, whose presence instills fear in anyone who sees them. Each time, Frodo feels an almost irresistible urge to put on the Ring to hide from them. One of these Black Riders nearly finds them hiding along the roadside, but is scared off by the arrival of a party of elves who give the hobbits shelter for the night.
Dogged by the Black Riders on their trail, the hobbits get Farmer Maggot to smuggle them to the ferry across the Brandywine River. Safe for the moment in his new house at Crickhollow, Frodo breaks the news to his close friends Merry and Pippin that he will be leaving the Shire first thing in the morning. They insist on accompanying him, having long suspected his plans. Hoping to lose the pursuit by avoiding the Road, they set off for the Old Forest, an ancient woodland with a sinister reputation on the border of the Shire.
The hobbits find the Old Forest unsettling. As Merry explains, the trees of the Forest are more alive — or aware — than normal trees. They watch intruders, sometimes dropping branches on them or even grabbing them with roots, and do not like people much. The paths of the Forest are constantly changing, and the hobbits find themselves guided to the heart of the Forest, the valley of the Withywindle. There they find themselves unnaturally sleepy, and they lay down to rest near a giant willow tree. Sam saves Frodo when the tree uses a root to try to drown him, but they are unable to save Merry and Pippin who have been swallowed by cracks in its trunk. When they run calling for help, they find a strange man dressed in blue with yellow boots. He introduces himself as Tom Bombadil, and he breaks frequently into nonsense-singing, but he saves Merry and Pippin from Old Man Willow. As night falls, he leads them to his house on the border of the Old Forest.
The opening chapters of the novel introduce readers to the society and habits of hobbits in general and the peculiar Baggins family in particular. Bilbo's lavish birthday party establishes the simple pleasures of hobbit-life, which center around the celebration of living with excellent food, fine drink, the giving of presents, and delight in toys and fireworks. The hobbits' behavior around the party, especially the conversation of Gaffer Gamgee and the company at the Green Dragon, also reveals their shortcomings: Hobbits are provincial, inclined to gossip, and even greedy, as the traveling hobbit's fascination with Bilbo's legendary wealth indicates. In other words, hobbits are typical of the English before the wars, secure in their safe little green country with all the good and bad that comes with that condition.
When Gandalf arrives with news that Bilbo's magic ring is the One Ring — the physical embodiment of all that is most evil in Middle-earth — the threat to the Shire's tranquility motivates Frodo to take up the quest far more than his desire to have an adventure, although the prospect of escaping the Shire's provincial life certainly appeals to him. Not only does Frodo repeatedly comment on his desire to protect the Shire's "stupid" inhabitants, that desire is also shared by many of the other characters, including Gandalf. One of the major themes of the book focuses on the preservation of the Shire as an ideal community, characterized by the common sense of its citizens and their connection to the land in which they live.
This ideal country is not a wild one, although there is room in it for wild spaces. As the hobbits' journey demonstrates, the wilderness is a place that is beautiful but also dangerous. The Old Forest, and Old Man Willow at its heart, represents nature as a threatening place. It is also isolated: Both their encounter with the wicked tree and their earlier experiences with the Black Riders demonstrate that the loneliness of wild places can be lethal. Without the support of a community, of people who can be called upon to help when needed, the hobbits are terribly vulnerable. They nearly lose their lives more than once — and, because of the Ring, that loss would be disastrous not only to themselves, but to the Shire and to all of Middle-earth.
What saves the quest and the hobbits' lives is not their own actions — although they do their best, as when Sam and Frodo run for help in the forest, their best will clearly not solve the problem. In both cases, they are saved by luck. First the elves happen to come by; then Tom Bombadil happens to be gathering lilies for his wife. Neither rescuer has any idea that the hobbits might need help, yet both arrive just at the right moment to lend aid. Many such moments in the story dramatize the principle that Gandalf invokes when explaining how the Ring came to Bilbo, of all people: "I can put it no more plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought." Although the hobbits' narrow escapes may seem the work of luck or chance, they may also have a meaning or intention far beyond our own perception.
bollards wooden posts used to secure ropes, as in tying up a boat.
brakes an area of rough, overgrown land; a thicket.
copper a large boiler for heating water or cooking.
dark lantern a lantern that can be closed to block the light.
elevenses British term for a midmorning snack.
the Four Farthings divisions of the Shire, similar to counties.
gaffer old man.
hollow a small valley.
mathom hobbit term for an old item that no one remembers the use of, but no one wants to throw away.
sloe the purple fruit of the blackthorn tree, similar to a plum.
spinney a small woodland.
queer strange or odd.
slot the trail of an animal.