Having determined henceforth to spy mostly upon plots, and not characters, I find it ironic that my very next post should be about a particular character.  This could not be helped, however.  Tolkien clearly signifies the importance of this character by naming an entire chapter after him, and by devoting that entire chapter to the problem of justifying him.

The problem is simple.  Out of the clear blue, or rather, out of the crowded mustiness of a common room at an inn, a character appears who seems to know all about Frodo’s doings and who wishes Frodo to take him as a guide.  Granted the setting—the disappearance of Gandalf, the threat of Black Riders, the suspicious behavior of everyone in the inn—why in the world should this character be trusted?

What is interesting about this problem of character, however, is that Tolkien does not (properly speaking) handle it as a problem of character as such.  He handles it (1) as a problem of argumentation, of rhetoric, and (2) as a problem of plot.  At the end of the chapter, the ultimate justification for any trust that we as readers may have in Strider, springs not from a direct manifestation of his character, but from a technically argumentative and deliberate plot structure throughout chapter 10.  In short, we end up believing Strider not because of what we see him do, but because of what he says and what other people do.

Tolkien’s justification of Strider progresses mostly with argumentation.  First, there is an initial dialectical exchange with Frodo and Sam, which ends in an impasse.  Second, Butterbur interrupts and precipitates a short rhetorical skirmish.  Third, Gandalf’s letter alters everything.  Fourth, a series of factual verifications and a strong argument from psychology clinch the point.  Finally, Merry’s brush with the Black Rider lends a sort of confirmation to the reader’s provisional trust.

First, then, for Strider’s arguments regarding himself.  The reason he must argue instead of act is that there is no time for anything else.  Strider cannot, in the present instant while sitting comfortably in a chair, prove his character by deeds, as characters in a novel would be required to do.  Instead, he has only words at his disposal, and his first apparent skills are those of a rhetorician trying to create assent in his audience.  His basic argument runs as follows: “If you want to get to Rivendell, you must take me as a guide.  You do want to get to Rivendell—I know that because I know all about your secret Ring and the Black Riders.  Therefore, you must take me as a guide, because I’m the only one who knows a way to Rivendell that the Black Riders are least likely to intercept.”

Sam’s counter-argument is a classic instance of prejudice in the Burkean sense:  “He comes out of the Wild, and I never heard no good of such folk”!

This brings things to an impasse.  Sam demands further explanations and proofs from Strider.  Strider points out the fundamental (epistemological) problem with such a request:  “Why,” he asks, “should you believe my story, if you do not trust me already?”  Any explanation can be doubted, and further explanation is useless without an initial element of trust.

Conveniently, however, the plot structure of the chapter defeats this impasse by catapulting Butterbur into the Hobbits’ room, with a yet more conveniently forgotten letter from Gandalf.  Butterbur’s own opinion of Strider, by the by, is even less argumentatively coherent than Sam’s.  At least Sam’s deduction about men from the Wild had two premises and an implied conclusion.  Poor Butterbur never makes it so far.  “If I was in your plight,” he puffs to Frodo, with a mere personal assertion, “I wouldn’t take up with a Ranger.”

Fortunately, however, the plot is twisting underneath Butterbur’s feet, and the letter from Gandalf forces Strider into a new light.  (It is most amusing, by-the-by, that the best method of justification that occurs to Tolkien the Oxford don, at this moment, is to provide Strider with a letter of reference!)  When Strider begins to independently verify certain facts about himself that are also contained in the letter—for example, quoting the verses that go with his name, or drawing the broken blade—we get something in the way of empirical justification.  But, in my opinion, the clinching argument is not empirical but logical and psychological.  In response to Sam’s accusation that he is only pretending to be the real Strider (a genuine empirical possibility), Strider rebuts with the syllogism:

“If I had killed the real Strider, I could kill you.  And I should have killed you already without so much talk.  If I was after the Ring, I could have it—NOW!”

What this argument sets up is a classic modus tollens:  If P then Q, but not Q, therefore not P.  In other words, Strider has not killed the Hobbits; therefore, he did not kill the real Strider.  He is not currently taking the Ring from Frodo; therefore, he is not after the Ring.  Psychologically, the argument seems sound because we know that the desire for the Ring does involve the ability, and even the overpowering compulsion, to steal the Ring; and the physical ability to kill the real Strider would imply the physical ability to kill little Hobbits as well.  Strider could have been a logic professor.

What remains after this argument is only further confirmation.  Strider dramatically draws his sword, only to show that it is broken.  He affirms that he is prepared to defend the Hobbits and especially Frodo at all cost.  After Merry comes running back from his near escape with a Black Rider, Strider capably takes charge of the situation in his first real instance of action.  The Hobbits bunker down for the night, and the reader anxiously awaits a final proof of Strider’s trustworthiness—by deeds.

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