As one of those annoying children who read The Lord of the Rings seven or eight times before reaching high school, it is sometimes difficult to remember what stood out at the first reading. It is very easy, for example, to focus on the meeting with Strider at the Prancing Pony as the most important event in the Bree chapters, because of who Strider turns out to be. However, it strikes me that the reader does not know of this importance, or even really begins to trust Strider, until after the Hobbits reach Rivendell, or (at the earliest) until Strider meets Glorfindel near the Ford. I think that what is really going on in the Bree chapters, and the rest of Book I, has two main currents: pursuit by the Black Riders, and the problem of Gandalf.

The Black Riders are the spoken and unspoken material of the Bree chapters. I had forgotten, until I was puzzling recently over a few passages, how firmly Tolkien assumes that the reader has the fear of the Black Riders in the back of his mind while reading about the Hobbits’ entrance into Bree. Everything, even the occasional oblique reference, caters to it. Here are some of the more obvious ones which, in my over-familiarity with the story-line, took some genuine thought before I realized again that they were obvious:

The gatekeeper is, for some reason, interested in the fact that there are four Hobbits from the Shire knocking at his gate. Beginning with him, there are repeated references—by Butterbur, by Strider, by Tolkien’s description of the people in the common room—to “queer folk being about.” It’s Tolkien’s way of saying that something’s rotten in Denmark. The only “queer folk” concerned with the Hobbits so far have been the Black Riders.

Frodo, however, doesn’t take the hint and instead wonders if Gandalf has been to Bree and is looking for the Hobbits. Sam, poor fellow, is the only Hobbit with Black Riders on his mind as they trot through the lanes of Bree. When the “dark figure” scales the gate after the Hobbits and vanishes into the streets, the reader’s mind instantly goes to the Black Riders, though later we find out that this figure was Strider himself.

Strider makes himself untrustworthy from the start, by dropping hints about Frodo’s name: “I am very pleased to meet you, Master—Underhill, if old Butterbur got your name right.” This brings to mind the name of Baggins, and the reader wonders if any fellows on black horses have been asking for Baggins in Bree. Then, while Frodo is up on the table distracting Pippin’s audience, he feels exactly what he has felt previously in the presence of the Black Riders—the temptation, apparently from outside himself, to put on the Ring.

In short, even before the meeting with Strider, the letter from Gandalf, and the actual attack on the Inn, the Black Riders are everywhere in Bree. The unusual thing about the way Tolkien brings this to the reader’s awareness, however, is that he almost never mentions them directly. (The one blunt exception to this is Sam’s thoughts about them.) Just as the Riders are unseen, they are unspoken; and this adds power to the reader’s fears and suspicions about them. It is Tolkien’s subtle playing with the reader’s expectations that makes them invisibly present even at the merriest moment in the inn’s common room.

Once again there will be a progression with the Black Riders: an unspoken presence in Chapter 9, Strider’s revelation of who they are in Chapter 10, and finally a tour de force of their powers in Chapter 11. Gandalf too becomes an increasingly important matter; but that should be reserved for another post.