07 September 2014

The Black Riders at Bree

In the hobbits' room at the Prancing Pony, Frodo and Strider are discussing the worrisome failure of Gandalf to appear as promised:
'Do you think the Black Riders have anything to do with it -- with Gandalf's absence, I mean?' asked Frodo.
'I don't know of anything else that could have hindered him, except the Enemy himself,' said Strider.  'But do not give up hope!  Gandalf is greater than you Shire-folk know -- as a rule you can only see his jokes and his toys.  But this business of ours will be his greatest task.'
(FR 1.x.172)
At this point Merry bursts into the room saying that he has just seen the Black Riders.  There follows a discussion of the Black Riders in which we receive our first clear and significant information about them.  But we are more than merely informed. The very structure of the narrative linking this scene, which ends the present chapter, Strider, and the first two scenes in the next chapter, A Knife in the Dark, not only confirms what Strider tells the hobbits, thereby helping to establish his character and that of the Black Riders, but it also affords us a glimpse of the early use of a technique which Tolkien will use with great success in The Two Towers and The Return of the King.

First I want to sound a note of caution, especially for those of us who have read the work more than once. We need to beware of hindsight here.  For while it is true that Gandalf mentions the Ringwraiths back in The Shadow of the Past (FR 1.ii.51), neither Frodo nor the first time reader will know that the Black Riders are the nine mortal men Sauron ensnared with rings of power until Gandalf explicitly tells Frodo this in Many Meetings (FR 2.i.220).  When the hobbits met the Elves in the Shire and asked Gildor who the Riders were, Gildor refused to answer, though he issues a stern and prophetic warning to flee them (FR 1.iii.80, 83-84).1 Bombadil, too, seemed to know something about the Ringwraiths (FR 1.vii.132, viii.147), but told the hobbits nothing.  At this moment in this scene the hobbits, and the reader, know little more than that the Black Riders have come from Mordor in search of the Ring, and that there is something innately frightening about them.  And even in this scene Strider, who doubtless knows the identity of the black horsemen, withholds it from the hobbits.2  

Nor is it just the characters who are reticent.  The narrator, too, who is not averse to providing information about mysterious predatory evils in his own voice elsewhere, also holds his tongue throughout the first book of The Fellowship.So, while we might put the refusal of the characters to speak down to a reluctance to name an evil -- since naming calls -- we cannot do the same for the narrator.

This suggests that we need to pay close attention, because the text is telling us something more than their name alone could tell us.  For even if Strider had explained that the Black Riders were in fact the Ringwraiths of whom Gandalf had spoken, that would not tell the hobbits or the reader very much.  For Gandalf said little more than that they were Sauron's 'most terrible servants' before he, too, stopped talking: 'But come!  We will not speak of such things even in the morning of the Shire.' (FR 1.ii.51)

So what does the text say? The first thing we learn is that the Riders have a power great enough to hinder Gandalf, but what that power is we don't yet know. And, since we have not yet seen 'Gandalf the Grey uncloaked,' the assertion that the wizard is 'greater than you Shire-folk know' is suggestive but not very revealing.4 Strider means to inspire hope, but by increasing expectations of Gandalf's power, he necessarily does the same for the Riders.  The stronger Gandalf is, the stronger they must be to 'hinder' him.

With Merry's arrival, our information starts to become more definite.  Alone, outside, and in the dark, Merry had felt that 'something horrible was creeping near,' something he can at first perceive only as 'a sort of deeper shade among the shadows.' (FR 1.x.173) But the Rider withdraws at once, and Merry follows: 'I could hardly help myself.  I seemed to be drawn somehow.'  This sounds more like Merry's will is being influenced than mere hobbit curiosity, or the foolish stoutness of heart that Strider had believed it to be at first.5  As he draws near the Black Rider, he sees him talking to a man (almost certainly Bill Ferny passing on the word of Frodo's disappearance).  Then Merry is seized by terror and turns to go, but he is overwhelmed from behind by 'something' he has trouble describing:
 ...I fell over....I thought I had fallen into deep water...I had an ugly dream, which I can't remember.  I went to pieces.  I don't know what came over me.
(FR 1.x.173)
Strider identifies this without hesitation as The Black Breath, a power the Riders can evidently employ at will, since no one else we have seen them approach so far has been similarly affected.6 But now that the Black Riders know they have found the Ring, the next question becomes obvious, and its answering is revealing:
'What will happen?' said Merry. 'Will they attack the inn?'
'No, I think not,' said Strider. 'They are not all here yet.  And in any case that is not their way.  In dark and loneliness they are strongest; they will not openly attack a house where there are lights and many people -- not until they are desperate, not while all the long leagues of Eriador still lie before us.  But their power is in terror, and already some in Bree are in their clutch.  They will drive these wretches to some evil work: Ferny, and some of the strangers, and, maybe, the gatekeeper, too.  They had words with Harry at West-gate on Monday.  I was watching them.  He was white and shaking when they left him.'
(FR 1.x.174)
First Strider flatly rejects the likelihood of an attack because the Riders are not all present, and then, more importantly, he dismisses the very idea of one out of hand (thus, 'And in any case that is not their way.').  From such 'terrible servants' of the Enemy we might expect an approach both forceful and direct now that they have found the Ring, and, as Strider's statement also makes clear, such an assault is something of which they are entirely capable. But they prefer not to.  For 'their power is in terror;' and they like it that way.

To jump ahead just a little bit to illustrate this point, consider the Witch King's attack on Frodo on Weathertop a week later.  He is armed not only with a sword, but with an enchanted knife that reduces its victim to a wraith enslaved and tormented by Sauron.  It is this weapon the Witch King chooses to stab Frodo with when he could just as easily have killed him with his sword. (FR 1.xi.195-96; 2.i.222)  He chooses the application of terror over the application of force.  Because that is their way.

Nor is terror a power they use merely to subdue their opponents, as it is with Merry. It is a tool by which they 'drive' others to do evil, as happens with Bill Ferny, the southerners, and Harry the gatekeeper.  And again, since not everyone they approach is terrified, (or, like Merry, at least not terrified at once,) this power seems to be under their control, to be exerted when it suits them.7 It is precisely this use of their power of terror against which Strider is guarding the hobbits as chapter ten ends.

And the very next scenes, which open the chapter A Knife in the Dark, illustrate everything Strider has just said about the 'way' of the Black Riders. At Crickhollow (FR 1.xi,176-77) the night is dark, and the dwelling stands lonely, with 'the nearest house, more than a mile away.'  Inside are not many people but one, and he in terror. The Riders approach slowly but not too stealthily -- Fatty Bolger, a hobbit not a Ranger, sees them coming! -- allowing his fear to mount throughout the day until they finally attack in the dead of night, shattering the door with a single blow.  When they meet opposition because Fatty has fled and raised the alarm, they withdraw, openly and with clear contempt for the hobbits.  Back in Bree the following morning (FR 1.xi.177-179), the hobbits wake to find that their rooms, where Strider had urged them not to sleep, have been broken into through the windows and ransacked, as if by burglars and vandals.  This was Ferny and the other 'wretches,' driven by terror to 'some evil work,'  If Strider's words in the last chapter were not enough to make this clear, the contrast between the first two scenes in this chapter should be. When the Riders do attack, they do so openly.  They break down doors; they don't do windows.

Thus, as we see, these three scenes not only establish the character of the Black Riders in terms of their power and 'their way' of using it, but also confirm the capability and and trustworthiness of Strider, since events bear witness to his account of them.  We might even allow that these scenes plant a seed for our understanding of Gandalf and his power, given the implicit comparison of his with theirs.  For just as the power of the Ringwraiths consists in the terror they can inflict, whether as goad or weapon, so Gandalf's consists in his ability to inspire hearts to hope against the darkness.8

In switching the scene back to Crickhollow for a moment, we can also see Tolkien dividing the narrative into separate but related threads for the first time, as he will do later in The Two Towers and The Return of the King when he follows a number of interwoven strands that diverge and come together and diverge again in different ways before they finally all meet again in The Field of Cormallen: Merry and Pippin; Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli; Frodo and Sam; Gandalf and Pippin; and Merry and Éowyn.  These later instances differ significantly from this one, however.  They narrate large scale developments of significance to the Tale as whole, and continue at length, usually for at least a few chapters.  With Crickhollow, however, the narrator shifts the scene for a mere page and a half, and only, in a sense, to prove that Strider's description of the ways of the Black Riders is accurate,

To be sure the "incident at Crickhollow" is dramatic in itself, haunting and visual, taut with mystery and fear, brought off as masterfully as in the the best horror film. There is the 'brooding threat' that had been growing all day, the peeking of Fatty Bolger out the door, and the ghostly opening of the garden gate, seemingly by itself. There is the heroic blowing of the horn call of Buckland to rouse the hobbits to face a threat they cannot imagine.  There is the suitably epic allusion that whets our taste for events beyond our ken -- 'not since the white wolves came in the Fell Winter, when the Brandywine was frozen over' (note the famous capitals in Fell Winter, which tell us that this story is unknown only to us).  There is the "thin and menacing" voice of the Black Rider -- no longer whispering or hissing, but demanding the door be opened in the name of Mordor -- and then the heavy hand that breaks down the door with a single blow. And most remarkable of all there is the brief shift into the perspective of the Riders themselves --
Let the little people blow! Sauron would deal with them later.  Meanwhile they had another errand: they knew now that the house was empty and the Ring had gone.  They rode down the guards at the gate and vanished from the Shire.
(FR 1.x.177)

It is all quite breathtaking.  I can recall the thrill the first time I read it.  It's a wonderful scene and I love it.  The Tale would be far less rich without it.  But the plot would suffer little were it not there.


All citations of The Lord of the Rings refer to the single volume fiftieth anniversary edition.  Thus, for example, RK 6.ix.1030 cites The Return of the King, book six, chapter nine ( = The Grey Havens), page 1030.

1It is hardly surprising that it is in precisely this context that the famous line 'Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes' occurs.

2Strider ignores every opportunity to identify the Riders, even when telling the hobbits more about them (FR 1.xi.189, xii.197-98, 204).  On the way to Weathertop, Frodo had joked that he was getting so thin that he would become a wraith, and was rebuked by Strider 'with surprising earnestness.' (FR 1.xi.184) It is surprising only because of the hobbits' ignorance.  When Glorfindel arrives (FR 1.xii.210), he refers to the Riders as 'the Nine,' which is the first time their full number has been mentioned. (Strider twice indicates that he knows their number, but never gives it (FR 1.x.165, xii.197).)  Although Gandalf had spoken of the Nine to Frodo (FR 1.ii.50-51, Frodo does not make the connection.

3Shelob is a perfect example of this, whom the narrator pauses and intrudes into the narrative to identify  (TT 4.ix.723-24).  After an introduction in a high mythic register, detailing her evil, ancient and heedless even of Sauron, the narrator then turns back to say 'But nothing of this evil which they had stirred up against them did poor Sam know.' Cf. also TT 4.iii.644: 'Its name was Cirith Ungol....'

4Gandalf's threat -- 'Then you shall see Gandalf the Grey uncloaked' (FR 1.i.34) -- could suggest that not even Bilbo has seen this, and to be sure the Gandalf we see in The Hobbit does not show much 'power' of the kind displayed by him at times in The Lord of the Rings: at first offstage at Weathertop (1.x.183, 187, 2.ii.264), in Hollin against the wargs (2.iv,297-99; and, most famously, against the Balrog (2.326-27, 329-31; TT 3.v.501-02).

5Cf. FR 2.vii.366, where Galadriel speaks to Frodo about the use of the Ring and 'the domination of others,' an ability which she, herself the keeper of one of the three elven rings, demonstrates during the Company's stay in Lórien in the famous scene where she tests their hearts (FR 2.vii.356-58).  The power of terror wielded by the Ringwraiths is a different manifestation of this ability to dominate others that goes with using Rings of Power.  As the testing scene itself demonstrates, some are better than others at resisting domination.  For further discussion of this scene, go here.

6So far the Riders have been close to or spoken to the Gaffer (FR. 1.iii.69-70, 75-76), Farmer Maggot (1.iv.93-94), and Butterbur (1.x.167-68), all of whom were more 'put out' by them than anything else; but Harry the Gatekeeper (1.x.174) was frightened, as was Butterbur's servant Nob.  Frodo overhearing the Gaffer's conversation with the Rider finds himself annoyed. During their journey across the Shire in the chapter Three Is Company and A Short Cut to Mushrooms, Frodo, Sam, and Pippin have several near encounters with the Black Riders of course (1.iii.74-76, 78-79; iv.90-91),but they do not seem to grow seriously afraid until the third time, when they hear the Black Riders calling out to one another, cries which were 'chilling to the blood.'(1.iv.90) So, clearly, mere proximity to the Riders does not produce the effects of The Black Breath or induce panic and terror. Nor does the Rider attempt to intimidate the Gaffer, and he offers Maggot gold for information.  The openness of the Riders' dealings with all of these people is worth noting.

The Black Breath is identified in the index of persons, places, and things with The Black Shadow (RK 1145), and cites other passages (FR 2.ii.256; RK 5.860, 864, 865, 871), the most relevant of which is 5.viii.860.  Cf. especially the condition of Merry after striking the Witch King: RK 5.viii.858-59.

7See note 6.

8 Cf. Círdan's words to Gandalf as he gave him the Ring of Fire: 'with it you may rekindle hearts in a world that grows chill.' (RK 1085) See also the description of Gandalf (Olórin) in The Silmarillion (1977) 30-31 and The History of Middle-Earth x.147, 152, and especially 203, where Christopher Tolkien quotes a handwritten addition of his father's to the typescript of the Valaquenta, which he says was wrongly omitted from the published Silmarillion: '[Olórin] was humble in the Land of the Blessed; and in Middle-earth he sought no renown. His triumph was in the uprising of the fallen, and his joy was in the renewal of hope.'

One might object, not without reason, that this is 'retcon,' and so should be omitted from our consideration of The Lord of the Rings. If we were discussing Galadriel or Isildur, whose characters underwent substantial change and revision after the publication of The Lord of the Rings, I would entirely agree. But this characterization merely writes Gandalf and what we already can see in him in The Lord of the Rings into the 'older' text of The Silmarillion. There is no change in him as there is with the others. On Galadriel and Isildur see Unfinished Tales (1980) 228-267, 271-87 and listen to the discussions on Galadriel and  Isildur during The Mythgard Academy's free course on Unfinished Tales.

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