. Alas, not me: September 2014

19 September 2014

Thunder Road

Cover photo by Eric Meola

The screen door slams
Mary's dress waves
Like a vision she dances across the porch
As the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey that's me and I want you only
Don't turn me home again
I just can't face myself alone again
Don't run back inside
darling you know just what I'm here for
So you're scared and you're thinking
That maybe we ain't that young anymore
Show a little faith, there's magic in the night
You ain't a beauty but hey you're all right
Oh and that's all right with me

You can hide 'neath your covers
And study your pain
Make crosses from your lovers
Throw roses in the rain
Waste your summer praying in vain
For a savior to rise from these streets
Well now I'm no hero
That's understood
All the redemption I can offer, girl
Is beneath this dirty hood
With a chance to make it good somehow
Hey what else can we do now
Except roll down the window
And let the wind blow back your hair
Well the night's busting open
These two lanes will take us anywhere
We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels
Climb in back, heaven's waiting on down the tracks
Oh come take my hand
We're riding out tonight to case the promised land
Oh Thunder Road, oh Thunder Road
oh Thunder Road
Lying out there like a killer in the sun
Hey I know it's late we can make it if we run
Oh Thunder Road, sit tight, take hold
Thunder Road

Well I got this guitar
And I learned how to make it talk
And my car's out back
If you're ready to take that long walk
From your front porch to my front seat
The door's open but the ride ain't free
And I know you're lonely
For words that I ain't spoken
But tonight we'll be free
All the promises'll be broken
There were ghosts in the eyes
Of all the boys you sent away
They haunt this dusty beach road
In the skeleton frames of burned-out Chevrolets

They scream your name at night in the street
Your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet
And in the lonely cool before dawn
You hear their engines roaring on
But when you get to the porch they're gone on the wind
So Mary climb in
It's a town full of losers
And I'm pulling out of here to win.  
Bruce Springsteen
copyrightⒸ 1975

On August 25th 1975, the day the album Born To Run was released, I must have been at my family's summer home on the Jersey Shore, in that odd, wonderful, lovely beach town called Ocean Grove, which was as little as one footstep and as many as a million miles away from Asbury Park next door.  I wish I could say  -- it's silly, but I really do wish this -- that I can remember the first time Thunder Road was ever played on the radio.  I do remember the first time I heard it, however.  It was about a week later, back in our apartment in The Bronx, in the late afternoon just before supper.  It was hot and the windows were open, and I was in my bedroom listening to WNEW-FM.  The DJ, almost certainly Scott Muni (click this link, really do) with his definitive FM baritone, introduced the song.  In fact I think he introduced and played the whole album. (They did that all the time with new albums on WNEW.  If you were really into Rock in the 70s in the New York area, WNEW was the temple and Muni the high priest.)

The first thing that got my attention was the fact that this guy Springsteen was from the Jersey Shore, from Asbury Park in fact*, where I used to spend every evening walking the boardwalk with my friends and girlfriend or in the Casino playing pinball. So I was already listening closely.

Then came the languor of the opening bars of Thunder Road, which caught for me the laziness and the longing of the end of a summer day, only to quicken into that marvelous first image -- the bang shut of a wooden screen door, the swirl of a skirt, the swift grace of the girl, the specific song about loneliness on the radio as she crosses the porch towards you, towards me, with my yearning and fear of disappointment.  This wasn't like a vision.  It was a vision.

No doubt I looked around with a wild surmise.

I saw things that had always been there before, but that I had never seen.  Here were ordinary people trying to be the heroes of their own lives, but learning too late how hard it is even to be large enough for life in a world of tears.

It made me think of the books I read as a boy, in which the heroes would always overcome somehow.  Not so here.  You could fail.  The one you longed for could turn you away, could abandon you, could break you.

It made me think of The Bronx where I was growing up and where I saw one of my brothers living a life that -- minus the cars -- could have come out of this world.  It was a life I came to live, too.

It made me think of Asbury Park, where Ocean and Kingsley Avenues on summer nights -- the Circuit they called it -- were like some dark American Graffiti, and where only about five years earlier there had been race riots.  I was next door in Ocean Grove during those riots.  I suppose I was as aware of them as any ten year old white kid not from Asbury Park could have been.  Even then something told me that Asbury's best days were behind her.

But just as this song was about people whose hopes were frayed by sorrow and error, and probably hopeless, it was also about people who knew that that vision which came dancing across the porch towards them on a summer's evening was the only thing that was ever worth the risk of failure.  Hope plays on a dark stage.

Maybe that's why forty years on Thunder Road remains my favorite song.


*Yes, I know he's really from Freehold, but I didn't know that then.

18 September 2014

So Eden sank to grief

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower,
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
            Robert Frost -- 1923

The singsong brevity of the first four lines is brilliant.  It conveys the swift hour of gold in spring, but brings it near levity as well.  It's all too easy to read the trimeter and rhyme in an exaggerated and mocking way, as if it were bad poetry.

So far the setup.  Now comes the reversal.

Then 'subsides,' with its connotations of failure and falling off, pulls the ground from under our feet.  We weren't expecting that.  And as that leaf subsides, the meaning soars.  'So Eden sank to grief' raises the stakes, from woodland or garden to Garden. 'So dawn goes down to day' spells out a lesser aftermath for all our beginnings, and makes dawn seem more the beginning and ending of something better in itself. These two lines transfigure the poem.  What seemed about mere nature becomes about our nature, about our Fall in the spring of the world.  What's more, it was by Nature that we fell. It was only to be expected.  The gravity of Nature allows gold but a moment.  Then all 'subsides,' 'sinks,' 'goes down.'

Now Frost knew as well as any man that spring will come again for leaf and flower, but what about for us?

17 September 2014

Not By Taters Alone: Sam and Story (I)

Did any reader ever guess -- could any reader ever have guessed -- when first reading the early chapters of Book One that Sam Gamgee would become the final narrator of The Lord of the Rings?  It hardly seems likely.   While it's true of course that the Prologue twice refers to a 'Samwise' in connection with The Red Book (FR 13 and 14), his surname is never given; nor in the Tale itself is Sam ever called Samwise until Frodo does so over six hundred pages later in The Passage of the Marshes (TT 3.ii.624).1 And for most readers, even if they assumed that Sam and Samwise were the same, the identity of the third person narrator was probably not a question that arose.

And yet the seeds of this transition, of the moment when the telling of the Tale is handed over to Sam, are planted in the very first dramatic scene of the book, in which Sam's old father (the Gaffer) and several other hobbits meet over a pint at The Ivy Bush on a late summer evening.  The recent announcement of Bilbo's party has sparked conversation about 'the history and character of Mr. Bilbo Baggins,' and as the long time gardener at Bag End the Gaffer 'spoke with some authority' on the stories about him (1.i.22).  Towards the end of the conversation, however, the Gaffer also singles out his son Sam, who is not present, as one who has always taken a very special interest in stories.

But not for Sam are the gossipy stories with which these hobbits have busied themselves this evening: Bilbo's rumored secret hoard of 'gold and silver, and jools;' or the strangeness of Bucklanders who live 'on the wrong side of the Brandywine River, and right agin the Old Forest....a dark bad place, if half the tales be true;' or about the mysterious demise of Frodo's parents who were 'drownded' while out boating, of all things; or the just frustrations of Bilbo's relations, the hyphenated and universally detested Sackville-Bagginses (FR 1.i.22-23).  Even the hint of the foreign and the strange that comes into these tales -- the Old Forest, Bilbo's journey to a far land and return with (reputedly inexhaustible) wealth -- is nothing more than grist for the local gossip mill, and indirect proof that 'Bag End's a queer place, and its folk are queerer.' (1.i.24)  The Gaffer and his fellows shine a lurid light on every bit of it. Indeed the one ray of approval in the whole conversation is the statement that Old Gorbadoc Brandybuck kept 'a mighty generous table' (1.i.23)  And despite the Gaffer's denial of the tales about Bilbo's wealth and his stout defense of Bilbo's character, he, too, is clearly have a grand time 'holding forth' on these matters.

No, as the Gaffer makes inimitably clear, it is tales of an entirely different kind that interest his son:

'But my lad Sam will know more about [Bilbo's wealth]. He's in and out of Bag End. Crazy about stories of the old days, he is, and he listens to all Mr. Bilbo's tales.  Mr. Bilbo has learned him his letters  -- meaning no harm, mark you, and I hope no harm will come of it.
'Elves and Dragons! I says to him. Cabbages and potatoes are better for me and you. Don't go getting mixed up in the business of your betters, or you'll land in trouble too big for you, I says to him.'
(FR 1.i.24: the italics are Tolkien's)
Not that Sam is unique in knowing his letters of course.  The hobbit-children who see Gandalf arrive can recognize the G on his fireworks (1.i.25).  The sign on Bilbo's gate and the written invitations -- to which came written replies -- also strongly suggest a widespread basic literacy (1.i.26).  To this we may add the notes Bilbo left with his gifts, two of which refer to letter writing, and one to book borrowing (1.i.37-38). (The Gaffer, by contrast, receives 'two sacks of potatoes' (1.i.38) among other strictly useful gifts.)  And finally there is Bilbo's will, carefully read right through by Otho Sackville-Baggins and found to be 'very clear and correct (according to the legal customs of hobbits, which demand among other things seven signatures of witnesses in red ink).' (1.i.39)

So it is rather literacy of a certain kind -- one that allows or encourages reading books full of 'stories of the old days' and of 'Elves and Dragons' -- that makes hobbits uneasy, so much so that the Gaffer finds it necessary to defend Mr. Bilbo's intentions in teaching Sam and to express his own hopes for the best.  Part of the answer made to the Gaffer by Sandyman, the miller, 'voicing common opinion,' touches on the same concerns that the Gaffer voices himself.  For the miller refers to visits to Bag End by folk, like dwarves and Gandalf, whom he describes as 'outlandish,' which here we should probably take quite literally (1.i.24).  Those stories Sam is crazy for all involve things beyond the Shire and far older than it.  It is no accident that 'maps made in the Shire showed mostly white space beyond its borders' (1.ii.43).

And, at least when it comes to Sam, this level of literacy is clearly linked to the dangers of getting above oneself. In the Gaffer's mouth, more so than in any other's, 'cabbages and potatoes' is a quite pointed reproach.  After all he and Sam are both gardeners. 'Cabbages and potatoes' reminds Sam not only of his station but of his very identity.  Sam is not (to borrow a much later phrase) 'Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age' (RK 6.i.901).  'Stick to your taters, Sam, my lad,' the Gaffer might have said in a quieter mood (if he ever had one).

It is perhaps for this reason that Sam later appears to conceal how literate he actually is. We later learn that he can recite poetry about Gil-galad from memory (FR 1.xi.185-86).   Frodo is convinced that Sam has composed the troll song he performs, an assertion that Sam does not deny (1.xii.206-208). In Moria Sam expresses a desire to learn the poem Gimli recited (2.iv.315-16). And in Lórien Sam comes out with a (spontaneous?) quatrain on Gandalf's fireworks, to add to the lament Frodo has been composing; Sam immediately denigrates his own verses, but Frodo just as quickly flatters him by comparing his ability to Bilbo's (2.vii.359-60).

Most revealing, however, is the detail that emerges almost as soon as we actually meet Sam, one chapter and seventeen years later, in a scene parallel to the one with the Gaffer in chapter one.  Again we find ourselves in a pub, and with a similar cast. Yet the times have changed somewhat.  The world beyond the comfortably blank edges of Shire maps is in turmoil:

Little of this [news], of course, reached the ears of ordinary hobbits.  But even the deafest and most stay-at-home began to hear queer tales; and those whose business took them to the borders saw strange things. The conversation in The Green Dragon at Bywater, one evening in the spring of Frodo's fiftieth year, showed that even in the comfortable heart of the Shire rumours had been heard, though most hobbits still laughed at them.
Sam Gamgee was sitting in one corner near the fire, and opposite him was Ted Sandyman, the miller's son; and there were various other rustic hobbits listening to their talk.
'Queer things you do hear these days, to be sure,' said Sam.
'Ah,' said Ted, 'you do, if you listen.  But I can hear fireside-tales and children's stories at home, if I want to.'
'No doubt you can,' retorted Sam, 'and I daresay there's more truth in some of them than you reckon.  Who invented the stories anyway?  Take dragons now.'
'No thank'ee,' said Ted, 'I won't.  I heard tell of them when I was a youngster, but there's no call to believe in them now.  There's only one Dragon in Bywater, and that's Green,' he said, getting a general laugh.
'All right,' said Sam, laughing with the rest. 'But what about these Tree-men....?'
Now that we finally meet Sam, we can quickly see that he is as different from 'most hobbits' as the last scene suggested he would be.  Though they are laughing for now (thus, 'still') at the 'queer things you do hear these days,' Sam does not find these matters funny.  While he can take Sandyman's joke at his expense and laugh along, he can also be stung (thus, 'retorted') by the miller's none too subtle hint that he has not left childish things behind him.  He is relentless in his belief that these queer tales have relevant information in them that the others should attend to.  Thus even before the laughter has died, Sam has pressed on to the next queer thing: 'But what about...?'  For which he will also be mocked and dismissed (1.ii.44-45), as for the thing after that (the Elves: 1.ii.45), and the thing after that (Frodo and Bilbo: 1.ii.45).  But his faith in the importance of tales of this kind is unshakeable.  This characterizes Sam and sets him apart.

But there is another detail that distinguishes him even more, here and throughout this Tale, and it's easily missed.  Beyond the importance of stories about dragons and Tree-men and the departing Elves, there is another question: 'Who invented the stories anyway?'  Sam is not just 'crazy about stories of the old days,' he is thinking about them in a critical way.  And his next words --  'Take dragons now' -- are also worth noting.  He doesn't say 'Take Smaug now' as you might expect him to do if he were only trying to disprove the miller's suggestion that all such tales are childish fabrications. He is thinking about dragons plural, about dragons in general, about Dragons in the context of where stories come from.

That's not to say that Sam has any answer, or was about to blurt out some homespun version of On Fairy-stories if the miller had not deflected the conversation with a joke.  But he is on a path that is important in a Tale in which the background and continuity of other older Tales are very significant.  He thinks about stories in a larger sense because his profound desire for dragons is about more than the dragons themselves.  It is about Story itself.  So it is no accident and no surprise that Frodo entrusts Sam with finishing the Tale (RK 6.ix.1027), or that this scene ends with Sam returning home in the evening, his head full of Story, and that this book ends with Sam returning home in the evening, to take up his life and take up the work Frodo has left him (RK 6.ix.1031).

So I am going to be following this idea of 'Sam and Story' from the beginning of The Lord of the Rings to the end.  I have no idea how many posts it is going to be, how long it will take me, or whether the posts will in fact appear in order from beginning to end (though that is the plan).  The  posts I've linked to here are in a sense part of this study, but I imagine that by the time I have worked my way through the Tale all the way to the end I'll have more to say than I have said there already. I guess we'll see.


Again it is true that Sam is called Samwise in the synopsis at the beginning of The Two Towers that appears in three volume editions. It is also true that he is referred to as Master Samwise in the Table of Contents: The Choices of Master Samwise. Even so, that would nevertheless place the first clear identification of the Samwise of the Prologue with the Sam Gamgee of the Tale at the beginning of The Two Towers. Nor does everyone read the Prologue, or pay close attention to it if they do. There was a long time when I did not.

07 September 2014

Hitch on the Shelf

A couple of Christmas seasons ago a friend of mine and I were discussing the amazing popularity of Elf on the Shelf.  My friend, though not an evangelical atheist, was a big fan of Christopher Hitchens who had died the year before.  We joked that there should be a similar product, called Hitch on the Shelf, offered for the children of atheists.  A bit of satire also followed.


Christmas in Heaven

With his eyes shut the warmth of the sun on his skin felt like a dream. The salt breeze, soft and irregular as a low-church vicar, came and went to the beat of the sea on the pebbled shore.  This was very close to heaven.  Amis was right.  Who would have guessed that lying on a beach could match sitting in the pub having an argument? Briefly contented, he sighed.

'Now all I need is a scotch and a Rothmans,' he said.

'Not bloody likely,' said the voice of Martin Amis, 'not in this place.'

Christopher Hitchens opened his eyes. On the chaise longue beside him lay Martin Amis, who didn’t look well these days even with a tan. And what were those bandages on his hands and feet all about?


‘Not really.’

‘What do you mean, “not really,” and by the way you look like hell.’

‘That’s an odd choice of words for a dead man.’

‘Don’t be absurd, and don’t change the subject.  What do you mean, “not really”?’

‘I’m not absurd.  And you are dead.  That is entirely the subject.’

‘Oh, balls. And if you’re not Amis, then who are you?’

Amis sat up suddenly and turned towards him.  He leaned forward, elbows on knees, and began unwrapping his right hand.  In a few seconds he was done, and he held  his hand out.

'Oh, I see,' Hitch said, staring at the large hole in the middle of the palm.

'At last,’ Amis said in mock revelation.

Hitch looked down at the pile of unwound bandage.  Here and there were drops of blood, dark and reddish brown, blood that was old but somehow not dry.  More was dripping down onto the pile as he watched.  He found himself unable to take his eyes off the blood, but he clamped his jaw shut, pursed his lips, and thought for a moment.  This was going to be a challenge, the argument of a lifetime, as it were. But when in doubt, always attack.

'If you think that I’m going to bow down and worship you now, then you don’t know the first thing about me.  And you, sir, since you do exist, you have a lot to answer for.’

‘But I’ve already answered for everything that matters, haven’t I?’

Oh, please,’ he said, dropping his head into his hands in exasperation.  Then he realized the voice had changed, though it was still somehow familiar.  He glanced up, and saw Richard Dawkins, sitting precisely where Amis had been, now unwrapping his other hand.

‘Are these charades really necessary?  I should have thought god would have a better sense of humor.  I mean, who’s next, Mother Teresa?’

‘As a matter of fact I do, but Bob Hope stole all my best jokes,’ said Mother Teresa.

‘Well, you’re hardly alone there,’ Hitch said, laughing in spite of himself.

The pile of bandages was saturated now and a pool had begun to spread.

'Listen, if it’s all the same to you, is there no possibility of getting a drink and a smoke around here? I mean, really, who could it hurt now?’
‘Sorry, smoking and drinking are just not permitted,’ Mother Teresa said, unwrapping her left foot. Orwell got used to it. So can you.’

‘ “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it”.’

‘Marlowe is always such a nice choice for a quote,’ Jesus said, unwrapping his right foot, ‘and that one’s always been my favorite.  Though most people never get beyond “is this the face….” and so on.  Of course, I knew you’d do better.’

‘Yes, of course you did.’

Hitch looked down again.

‘Would you mind not bleeding so much?  It’s getting on me.’

‘My blood has been on you all your life,’ said Jesus.

‘Yes, yes, yes.  Washed in the blood of the lamb and all that rot.  Please, stop talking like a bad biblical epic – and don’t turn into Charlton Heston, if you please – let’s just get this over with.  Can I just go to hell now?  At least I’ll be able to smoke there.’

‘But there is no hell, Christopher.  That’s what washed in the blood of the lamb means.’

‘No hell?’ he looked at Jesus sidelong with all the uncertainty of a man of reason by reason betrayed.  ‘I don’t know whether that’s a relief or not.’

The son of God spread his hands, as if to say, ‘you’ll have to decide that for yourself.’

'But there is Purgatory,' said Jesus, with a quick nod and a wink.

Everything went black.  The sun, the sea, that wonderful breeze were all gone.  He was confined in a dark and narrow place, where he could scarcely move or breathe.  What?  Where...was...he?

‘Don’t worry, Christopher,' Jesus said. ‘This won’t last as long as it seems.’

It was quiet after that for a long time, peaceful almost, until the muffled endless drone of Christmas carols seeped in. Not even the decent ones, but the others, the saccharine vomitus of diseased minds, songs like ‘Walking in a Winter Wonderland.’ And he called this Purgatory? A hubbub of voices also came through, but nothing he could distinguish. Then it was silent once more. This happened over and over again for what seemed like weeks.

Suddenly the place he was in started moving, and the nausea he felt without any point of reference on which to ground his senses brought back the memory of how awful his illness had been. Then it all stopped, and light flooded in on him.

But it was not the light of freedom or paradise or revelation. At least he hoped not. He was in a room painted a brilliant shade of yellow so sickly it reminded him of jaundice. Morning streamed in through open curtains, illuminating a four poster bed covered in American Girl® dolls and a Hello Kitty® comforter. A little girl’s room. After a moment Hitch noticed something strange about the dolls: none of them had arms. Elsewhere in the house he could hear a child screaming and breaking things. A cat snarled in torment. Bending over Hitch were two women, clearly a mother and daughter. They seemed like giants.

‘So what is it?’ said the elder.

‘I got it at the mall, ma. It’s supposed to frighten children into behaving themselves.’

‘That was always my favorite thing about Christmas,’ the mother said, brimming with fond memory. ‘You have permission to scare your kids.'

Her daughter’s eyes narrowed at her for a moment, as if bitter with the ghost of Christmases past.

'So, what’s this thing called, honey?’

“Elf on the Shelf®, ma,’ she said. ‘It’s called Elf on the Shelf®.’

‘BALLS!’ shouted Hitch, but no one in the room was listening.

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.