Just over the top of the hill they came on the patch of fir-wood. Leaving the road they went into the deep resin-scented darkness of the trees, and gathered dead sticks and cones to make a fire. Soon they had a merry crackle of flame at the foot of a large fir-tree and they sat around it for a while, until they began to nod. Then, each in an angle of the great tree's roots, they curled up in their cloaks and blankets, and were soon fast asleep. They set no watch, for they were still in the heart of the Shire. A few creatures came and looked at them when the fire died away. A fox passing through the wood on business of his own stopped several minutes and sniffed.
From the first time I read this passage at eleven years old I have been charmed by it. As I grew older I came to regard it as a last vestigial intrusion of the much more forward and obvious narrator of The Hobbit, the same one who made the rather jarring comment of Gandalf's fireworks that 'the dragon passed like an express train' (FR 1.i.28). I always smiled to read it or recall it, but I didn't give it much more thought than that.'Hobbits,' he thought. 'Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Three of them! There's something mighty queer behind this.' He was quite right, but he never found out anything more about it.(FR 1.iii.72)
Until the other night. I had finished the second in my series on Sam and Story, and was reading through the next passages I wanted to examine, when suddenly I heard an echo of the fox's thoughts in an unexpected place. The next night the hobbits unexpectedly meet Gildor and the Elves in the woods Sam had been asking about:
The hobbits sat in shadow by the wayside. Before long the Elves came down the lane towards the valley, They passed slowly, and the hobbits could see the starlight glimmering on their hair and in their eyes. They bore no lights, yet as they walked a shimmer, like the light of the moon above the rim of the hills before it rises, seemed to fall about their feet. They were now silent, and as the last elf passed he turned and looked towards the hobbits and laughed,
'Hail, Frodo,' he cried. 'You are abroad late. Or perhaps you are lost?' Then he called aloud to the others, and all the company stopped and gathered round.
'This is indeed wonderful!' they said. 'Three hobbits alone in a wood at night! We have not seen such a thing since Bilbo went away. What is the meaning of it?'
'The meaning of it, fair people,' said Frodo, 'is simply that we seem to be going the same way as you are. I like walking under the stars. But I would welcome your company.'
'But we have no need of other company, and hobbits are so dull,' they laughed. 'And how do you know that we go the same way as you, for you do not know whither we are going?'(FR 1.iii.80)
And while I know I have heard (and forgotten) this particular echo before, I think it resonated differently for me this time because of my examination of the next scene in which Sam asks 'Do Elves live in those woods?' First there was the fox on his way through the woods on business of his own, who stopped when he did not have to and specifically noted the strangeness of three hobbits in a wood at night. Then the Elves do precisely the same thing.
This makes me think that the appearance of the sentient fox -- who is aware of 'strange doings in this land,' who of course does not see 'this land' as 'The Shire' because to him it is not The Shire, and who seems to be a folklore or fairy tale archetype of cunning in Middle-earth also -- is more than merely the vestige of The Hobbit I had long believed him to be.1 Rather he is another example of how the hobbits have already entered the world of Story without straying at all far from home and without their even knowing it yet. The fox is a link backwards to the Black Rider who questions the Gaffer right outside Frodo's front door earlier that same evening -- no one knew anything about him and his connection to another world then either -- and forwards to the reappearance of the same mysterious Black Rider in a more menacing way the next day,2 and the arrival of Gildor and the Elves. Much like them, the 'thinking fox,' as he is described in the index (RK 1156), shows that the world is other than the hobbits understand.
1 In two widely separate passages Gollum is likened to a fox in cleverness. In the first the speaker is Aragorn, who calls Gollum 'slier than a fox' (FR 2.ix.384); and in the second Faramir says that Gollum 'gave us the slip by some fox-trick' (TT 4.iv.657). Clearly the cunning of the fox is well-established in both the north and south of Middle-earth. One could not make such statements otherwise. It would be absurd to imagine that the reputation of the fox was established in any other way than in stories, just as it has been in our world from ancient times.
2 Note how the Black Rider is more frightening when he is near them in lonely places and in darkness (FR 1.iii.74-75, 78) than he was at the door of Bag End (1.iii.69, 75-76). This of course agrees with Strider's description of them (FR1.x.174). See my discussion here.