Chapter 11 opens with a jolt.  The reader has just settled down in the Prancing Pony to see how Strider will handle the imminent threat of Black Riders in Bree.  And Black Riders do in fact arrive… but not at Bree!  Without warning, the plot has whisked us back to Crickhollow, where Fatty Bolger (in a surreal imitation of what could have happened at the Inn of Bree) flees from the Black Riders and abandons the little cottage to the invasion of supernatural forces.  Given that this is the only time the plot reverts to the Shire in the absence of the four Hobbits, the curious incident calls for a double glance.

First, though, we need to imagine what is actually happening in Bree that night, even though Tolkien does not give us an account.  Someone (quite probably Bill Ferny) breaks into the Hobbits’ sleeping room at the inn and demolishes it, slashing to pieces a decoy of Frodo that had been left in his bed.  Instead of describing this demolition, however, Tolkien gives us instead a picture of what is happening to another “decoy” of Frodo (Fatty Bolger himself, left to tend Crickhollow) dozens of miles away in the Shire.

Why this doubling?  Why make a decoy of the plot, the same way that Nob makes a decoy of Frodo?  Such narrative tricks are not in common trade in the age of the novel, and this particular trick is especially eye-catching because Fatty Bolger himself is so minor a character.  I have three hunches.

First is that the doubling is meant to underscore the danger to Frodo by showing what happens even to those who pretend to be Frodo.  Fatty Bolger, we recall, had been left behind in the Shire specifically “to keep up as long as possible the pretence that Mr. Baggins was still living at Crickhollow,” and that he had even “brought along some old clothes of Frodo’s to help him in playing the part” (chapter 5).  Meanwhile, Nob fashions a decoy of Frodo in the Prancing Pony by means of a good bolster and a brown woolen mat, to leave the impression that Frodo is sleeping soundly in his bed.  In the same night, both Crickhollow and the room in the Prancing Pony are attacked.  Fatty Bolger is nearly destroyed in the same way that the humble bolster is destroyed; but fortunately, the live decoy of Frodo escapes in time.

My second hunch is that this splitting of the narrative gives a prismatic effect to the danger.  We sense Frodo’s danger in Bree because we see its mirror image at Crickhollow.  And if the peril is so great at Crickhollow, where Frodo is not, how much greater must it be where he is?

Third, this kind of doubling of the plot and the person of Frodo multiplies our suspicions about the omnipresence of the Enemy.  The Black Riders are in many places at once.  They are on the scent, and converging.  The noose is tightening. The absence of Frodo from one place means his presence in another.

And, as an extra dollop of whipped cream on the special effects of this narrative trick, we get to hear the Horn of Buckland for the first time!  Gandalf said something once about Hobbits proving remarkably resistant in the face of evil.  The horn that can sound against the Ringwraiths in the Shire is the same that can sound against Saruman’s thugs—the Urban Planners, if you will—who arrive later.  A little foreshadowing of the stubbornness of Hobbits is not a bad preparation for what Frodo will find when he makes his return journey, and what will happen when his companions are forced to reckon with evil inside the Shire itself.

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