They are short, humble, mostly unremarkable chapters, but I think “Three Is Company” and “A Shortcut to Mushrooms” function brilliantly as a build-up to “A Conspiracy Unmasked.”  The point is that Tolkien needs to get two things across to his readers: a growing unease about the Black Riders, and a growing trust and liking for dependable Hobbits (most notably Sam and Pippin, although in Farmer Maggot and Fatty Bolger we get a glimpse of the Shire’s real earthy strength).  These two things, in fact, go together; and they culminate at the moment when Frodo and company, hiding in Farmer Maggot’s wagon and cowering at the sound of hooves ahead on the dark road, discover that the culprit in the darkness is their old friend Merry come to look for them.


The Black Riders in the Shire, of course, pose a test of imagination for Tolkien.  The problem is how to describe the coming of the Witch-King and his wraiths (those lords of dreadful mythological note) to the very unmythological Shire.  What effects do they have on the nature of things?  Do rivers freeze over?  Do Hobbits drop dead in blinding flashes of green light?  Tolkien opts for none of these effects.  No doubt reasons intrinsic to the story prevent such spectacles (like the fact that the wraiths are far from the Dark Lord and their power is limited).  However, Tolkien the Artist has at least one extrinsic reason as well.  This reason seems to be that he is aiming for a certain quality of fear for the Black Riders, and it must be produced gradually.


Consider the way he goes about it.The first appearance of a Black Rider is not even known to be a Black Rider until much later.  The evening he leaves Bag End, Frodo overhears someone talking with the Gaffer.  He experiences the voice as being “strange, and somehow unpleasant” (78).  The next afternoon, a Black Rider makes what has become its classic appearance on the road to the Woody End:  Frodo has a “sudden desire to hide from the view of the rider”; the rider is described as “crouching” in the saddle, with a shadowed face; Frodo hears sniffing noises, and an “unreasoning fear of discovery” almost drives him to put on the Ring.  Unaccountably, at the last moment the Rider simply rides off.  Then Sam is prompted to relate what his Gaffer told him about the mysterious inquirer the previous night:  we learn that the Rider “hissed” and that it gave the Gaffer “quite a shudder.”


All this builds curiosity and unease in the reader.  But consider how thoroughly unusual it is for the introduction of a powerful villain.  Tolkien does not make us fear the Black Rider for what we know of its strength and deadliness.  He makes us fear it for what is quietly wrong about it, quietly (and yet increasingly) unnatural.


The first moment of true horror at the Black Rider occurs at the Hobbits’ second encounter on the road: when the Rider stops near their hiding place, bends to the ground, and begins to crawl towards them.  The unnatural crawling is the absolute signal that something is dreadfully wrong, and this is intensified by Frodo’s compulsion to wear the Ring again.  The moment, of course, is interrupted by a deus ex machina: the arrival of Gildor’s Elves.  What we lose in the believability of the story line at this point, however, is made up for by what Gildor is able to tell Frodo about the Black Riders.  Or rather, by what he doesn’t tell Frodo.  After observing the silencing effect that news of the Black Riders has on the Elves, we hear from Gildor only the ominous words “Has Gandalf told you nothing?… Then I think it is not for me to say more—lest terror should keep you from your journey” (93).


Frodo’s reaction to this is beautifully to the point:  “I cannot imagine what information could be more terrifying than your hints and warnings” (93)!  Tolkien knew his art.


In the next chapter, of course, the Hobbits hear the unearthly piercing cries of the Black Riders for the first time.  Then Farmer Maggot has his own story to tell of a Black Rider, with the repeated detail of “hissing” and the additional detail about his war-worthy dog taking one sniff of the rider and bolting off howling (103).  The Rider is revealed to be increasingly unnatural at every turn.  But the question of who the Black rider is remains unanswered.  I think Tolkien intends this.  His art is to create terror by silence.  Not only here, but consistently throughout the trilogy, we do not fear the Shadow because we know what’s in it.  We fear because we do not know.