Sixty years have passed since Bilbo Baggins, the hero of The Hobbit, had returned from his journey. He is well-known by many, both for his legendary wealth as well as for the fact that age does not seem to affect him. He announces a great celebration in honour of his 111th birthday and the 33rd birthday of his nephew Frodo, whom he had adopted as an heir some years ago and brought to live with him at Bag End. The party is splendid, and a great number of hobbits are invited. But Bilbo has felt strange lately, and has decided that he needs a 'holiday' and would leave the Shire; so after giving an after-dinner speech in front of 144 of his and Frodo's closest friends and relatives he puts on his magic ring and disappears, causing great surprise. He talks with Gandalf once more before leaving, and almost changes his original intention of leaving the ring to Frodo; but Gandalf persuades him to keep to his idea, and Bilbo leaves, much relieved and happier than ever. Gandalf warns Frodo not to use the ring. The following day Frodo is busy as Bilbo had left farewell-presents for many hobbits, and there is now a crowd of people at Bag End, many of them digging around and searching for Bilbo's imaginary treasures. Gandalf leaves, and does not return for a long time.
Gandalf visits Frodo only a few times in the years that follow. Frodo gets used to being the master of Bag End, and makes friends with some of the younger hobbits (for example with Peregrin Took and Merry Brandybuck) while most consider him queer, much like Bilbo before him. Rumours of strange events outside the Shire arise, such as of the rising of the Dark Power in the Land of Mordor, although most hobbits do not believe them yet. In Frodo's fiftieth year Gandalf visits him again and they have a long talk concerning the ring that Frodo had inherited from Bilbo. Gandalf tells Frodo about the nature and the history of the ring, which is actually the greatest of the Rings of Power, and was made long ago by Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor. Sauron is now eagerly searching for it, as by finding it his power would grow immensely; the ring should be destroyed lest Sauron should find it, but it could only be destroyed in Orodruin, the Mount Doom in Mordor. It seems that Sauron had already heard about Bilbo and the Shire from Gollum, so the Shire is probably no longer a safe place for Frodo. He decides he would leave, accompanied by the young Sam Gamgee, his gardener, who (unlike most hobbits) believes in the old tales and would greatly like to see the Elves.
To avoid his leaving the Shire from being widely known, Frodo sells Bag End to the Sackville-Bagginses and purchases a house in Buckland, east of the Shire, where he had spent his youth. On his fiftieth birthday he leaves Bag End and sets out with his friend Pippin (Peregrin Took) and Sam Gamgee; Gandalf has left him for a short time to gather news from the world outside, but has not returned yet, which greatly concerns Frodo. The next day the three hobbits notice that they are being followed by the mysterious Black Riders, yet they do not know exactly who they are, and being careful Frodo decides not to let the Riders see them. They meet a wandering group of High Elves lead by Gildor Inglorion in the evening; Frodo talks with Gildor for a long time, and Gildor advises him to try to reach Rivendell in spite of Gandalf's absence, and tells him that the Black Riders are dangerous servants of the Enemy.
The following day Frodo decides to take a short cut to the Brandywine river, where Merry was supposed to meet them that day; this was done partially to arrive there sooner, and partially to avoid being seen by the Black Riders again. Indeed they notice one on the road just after they leave it. After a long and unpleasant passage through the woods they reach the estate of Farmer Maggot, who is known for setting his dogs on any trespassers who come to pick his mushrooms (as Frodo himself had experienced in his youth). Yet he is quite friendly, especially as he knows Pippin quite well; he tells them that a strange and frightening black rider was asking him questions about a Baggins earlier that day. To help Frodo reach the Brandywine Ferry more safely and quickly, Maggot drives the three hobbits there with his waggon, and they find Merry there, anxiously awaiting them.
Just as they cross the River, they notice a black figure standing on the bank they had come from. They go to Frodo's new house at Crickhollow, and talk about their adventures on the journey. Frodo intends to finally tell his friends that he is going to leave as soon as possible, when they, to his complete amazement, tell him that they already know about the Ring, and the purpose of his journey, and that they intend to accompany him and help him. After the initial shock, Frodo gladly accepts their help, and they decide that they would depart early the following day through the Old Forest, a place known as queer and dangerous, in order to avoid the roads which are likely to be watched by the Riders.
The hobbits enter the Old Forest and soon begin to feel its queerness, as if the trees are watching them and hate them. They reach the Bonfire Glade, where hobbits burned a great many trees a long time ago. From there they follow a path which leads them to a hill rising out of the Forest, and from there, as they eventually notice, towards the Withywindle River, the central and strangest part of the forest. They want to avoid it and leave the path, but find that the terrain is always the most difficult in the direction they would like to go to. Eventually they descend into a fold which is too steep to be climbed out of again, and following the fold they come to the Withywindle and find a path running along it. This path brings them to an old willow-tree where they suddenly begin to feel sleepy. Frodo, Merry and Pippin fall asleep, and the tree throws Frodo into the water and 'captures' Merry and Pippin under its roots. Sam and Frodo cannot rescue them, and run down the path, crying for help. They meet Tom Bombadil, a strange man singing nonsensical songs. Tom sings the right tune, and the willow-tree lets Merry and Pippin go; then Tom invites the hobbits to his house, where he lives with Goldberry the River-daughter.
They have a magnificent dinner and then go to sleep, and each of them has different and strange dreams. The following day is Goldberry's 'washing day', which means it is raining, and the hobbits talk with Tom Bombadil for the entire day. Tom tells them a lot about the Forest, the ways of trees and animals, the Old Man Willow, the Barrow-downs, and the ancient history; for he is the Eldest, the Master, who was already there in the Elder Days, in the Spring of Arda, before the Elves had awakened or Melkor had come to Middle-earth. Then they talk about the Shire, and the quest of the four hobbits, and to their astonishment the Ring has no power over him. He gives them advice for the following day, and teaches them a rhyme with which to call him if they should need his help.
The hobbits leave Tom's house the next day, intending to cross the Barrow-downs; the Barrow-downs are a hilly area full of ancient barrows, about which dreadful legends are known. They make good progress in the morning, and around noon they stop to rest at a large, strangely cold stone standing on the flat top of a hill. They all fall asleep and wake at sundown surrounded by fog. They immediately head in the direction they believe to be the most direct towards the Road; some time later Frodo, who is in the front, passes between two standing stones and notices that the others are gone. He hears them crying for help and follows them, and is captured by a Barrow-wight. He awakes again within a barrow, and notices that the others are lying unconscious next to him and a hand is creeping towards them. Frodo sings the rhyme that Tom Bombadil had taught them the day before, and indeed Tom comes very soon, and daylight breaks into the barrow. Tom awakes the other three hobbits, and gives each of the four a sword from among the treasures that lay within the barrow. He also brings them their ponies, which have fled in the night; and he accompanies them for a while, to the borders of his land. The hobbits go on, and reach the village of Bree in the evening.
The hobbits enter The Prancing Pony, a large inn in Bree. A diverse company of guests is already gathered there: local hobbits and men, travelling dwarves, strange men from the South, and a mysterious Ranger known as Strider. After supper Frodo, Sam and Pippin decide to join the company; Pippin attracts the attention by telling a story about the Mayor of Shire, and encouraged by that he begins to tell about Bilbo's farewell party. Frodo does not want Bilbo's disappearance to be mentioned, and to interrupt Pippin he jumps on a table and starts to sing and dance. He jumps and falls off the table, and while falling the Ring slips on his finger and he disappears. This causes much anxiety and despite his later explanations of having crawled under the table into the corner most of the guests leave the common room. Strider seems to know his real name and the true cause of his disappearing and asks him to have a talk with him later. Butterbur, the innkeeper, also remembers something and asks Frodo for a private conversation.
Strider comes to talk with Frodo, Sam and Pippin. He offers to be their guide, and seems to know a lot about Frodo already; however, because of his appearance the hobbits do not trust him. Then Butterbur comes and explains that Gandalf has several months ago left a letter for a certain Frodo Baggins, which Butterbur forgot to send to the Shire. Frodo and his company seem to match the description Gandalf gave to Butterbur, so he gives the letter to Frodo. Among other things, this letter contains Gandalf's advice to accept the help of a friend of his, a man called Strider (with the true name Aragorn), should they meet him. Thus Frodo decides to accept his help as a guide to Rivendell. Merry, who has earlier gone out to get some fresh air, now returns and tells he has seen the Black Riders, and it seems that they have spies in Bree. They decide not to go to the rooms appointed for them, and sleep in the parlour, after they have barred the window and the door.
On that very evening, the Black Riders break into Frodo's house at Crickhollow and, discovering that Frodo is not there, ride towards Bree with great haste. They break into the inn, or more specifically into the room where hobbit-guests usually sleep. Thus the hobbits are not discovered, but all the horses and ponies stabled at the inn escape in terror. The following day they buy a pony and supplies of food (much of which they would have to carry on their backs); they head towards Rivendell, and Strider leads them through the wilderness to a hill called Weathertop, which offers a view over a large surrounding area. It seems that Gandalf had been there three days before them. That evening they are attacked by five of the Riders in a dell below Weathertop; Frodo cannot resist the desire to put on the Ring, and immediately after doing so he realizes that he can see the Riders very clearly in spite of the darkness, yet they can also see him very well. The captain of the Riders attacks Frodo, who strikes him a blow on the feet, but being also hit by the Rider he swoons immediately afterwards.
Strider does his best to heal Frodo, but he could only receive proper treatment in Rivendell, which they should reach as soon as possible. They cross the river Hoarwell, or Mitheithel, and to avoid the road they walk through the wilderness and even reach the troll-country where Bilbo had experienced his first adventure so many years ago. They have to cross a line of hills to get closer to the Road again, since their only hope of reaching Rivendell in time is by following the Road which crosses the river Loudwater, or Bruinen, at the Ford of Bruinen. On the Road they meet Glorfindel, and Elf-lord who has been sent from Rivendell to find them and help them. Near the Ford of Bruinen they are ambushed by the Black Riders, five of which pursue them from behind, and the remaining four are waiting at the Ford. Frodo manages to escape them and cross the river on Glorfindel's horse. Then a great flood comes down the river which washes the Riders away.
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