(Updated on 24/8/22)
The hobbits are fresh from endangering the very planet they walk on by getting drunk and singing in “At The Sign Of The Prancing Pony“, and get back to their room to find Strider already waiting for them. The very fact that he is in the room ahead of them is notable, as is maybe Strider’s noticeable lack of “people skills” initially: this is a capable man in many respects, but one perhaps unused to having to deal with people in this manner. They hobbits react suspiciously, as anyone would. Up to this point, the various figures they have met on their travels – Farmer Maggot in “A Conspiracy Unmasked“, Bombadil and Goldberry in “The Old Forest“, Butterbur – have been helpful personalities. But the darkness of the previous chapter, and that sense of dread, is making them more cautious almost immediately. It definitely seems like their experiences so far have upped their perception of possible danger and that’s only a good thing.
In fact, it’s too much of a good thing, because we now have to spend a chapter watching a good guy (perhaps the goodest of the good guys) convince the hobbits that not only does he mean them no harm, but he’s their only chance to not die horribly in the days ahead. Perhaps Tolkien wrote himself into a hole here, but he makes the best of it in what is, essentially, “At The Sign Of The Prancing Pony 2: Enter Strider”
Strider is the one who jumped over the wall at the beginning of the last chapter. He’s been looking for a Baggins and he’s aware that Black Rider’s have been in the area, and he hands out this information confidently. Strider immediately seems like a guy in the know (one of his first lines here is a pregnant “I have ears“), this being our first confirmation that there is more than one Black Rider, and you get a sense that he knows enough to be very useful to the hobbits. As he himself points out, if he wanted to kill them, he could do it very easily (maybe Pippin would be a good start…). And he’s made his way into their lodgings very easily, only spotted when the hobbits build up the fire.
Of course, the fact that Strider overheard the conversation outside Bree, the one where Frodo warned the group not to call him Baggins, is a fairly damning indictment of how far Frodo has yet to go. He’s getting better, but he’s still not being careful enough. That’s just about all the character development we’ll get for the Ring-bearer this time out, as he spends the chapter simply trying to determine whether he can trust Aragorn or not. The decision essentially rests with him, but he won’t have to make it just on gut instinct. Maybe it would have been more interesting if he had to, but it might not have followed that the Frodo being more careful about his identity and company would willingly taker Strider on without the assurance of Gandalf.
Bill Ferny, a Bree native mentioned earlier, gets outright tagged as an antagonist at this point. In the last chapter, we’ve got the feeling that these suspicious Breelanders, the newer ones anyway, might just be ruffians or the like, a loud-mouthed contrast to the more silent Rangers. But this confirms something we’ll be seeing a lot of as we go along: men outside Mordor being very much on Sauron’s side. This ties into your classic “men are weak” concept (the Ringwraiths being the most extreme example) that you’ll see in a lot of fantasy fiction, that Tolkien was no stranger to writing. Here, at least, there indications that some of the collaboration might not have been quite so willing: “They had words with Harry at West-gate on Monday…He was white and shaking when they left him.”
Sam’s role in the chapter is to bring his sceptical nature to the fore, coming right out against Strider from the start:; “…he warns and he says take care; and I say yes to that, and let’s begin with him“. It does serve him well here; after all, who the hell is Strider at the beginning of the chapter? Just some rough looking guy who happens to know Gandalf’s name. Sam seems way more inclined to question him than the others and rightly so.
But he remains suspicious later, after the piles of evidence showing Strider is who he says he is gets presented, so it’s not all good. “Sam said nothing.” Sam is stubborn and sticks to his guns even in the face of evidence. It might be that sort of hard-headed rural attitude he has, of maintaining a sceptical attitude to all things foreign to the Shire. And men are about as foreign as it gets. He does stand up to Strider though, and that does take balls. It won’t be the last time.
As for Pippin, he’s fairly accepting of Aragorn, right from the start, reacting with mild surprise rather than shock when he finds him in their room and later dismisses the talk of death and danger with a yawn, an attitude that seems almost like forced teenaged nonchalantness. I don’t know what’s up with Pippin in Bree, he seems to be under the illusion that the dangerous part of the quest is over. This indicates more of that small picture thinking from Shire residents, who can’t begin to contemplate things outside their home, even those things might want to kill them all.
Looking at Strider, this is his proper introduction chapter and we get a mixed bag. He’s an impressive guy. He’s perceptive, and knows just what to say and when to say it (“No more than you can afford,’ answered Strider with a slow smile, as if he guessed Frodo’s thoughts”). He’s knowledgeable, and shows it (“I know their number. I know these Riders…I know more about these pursuers than you do. You fear them, but you do not fear them enough, yet”). He knows how to speak and how to change that manner of speaking when it suits his purposes (“You began to talk to me like the Bree-folk, but your voice has changed…“). He has a lot to cover and not a lot of time to do it in. He has to convince these three strangers that he is on their side, that he is a friend of Gandalf’s, that the Black Riders are coming to kill them all and that the hobbits need to bring him along for the rest of the journey: in fact they need to follow him.
And he’s able to do it, with some help, but he speaks his argument well beforehand, even if his initial manner of doing so might have been counter-productive. Aragorn is the “rascally” hero here, a few steps away from bragging about how fast his Millennium Falcon can do the Kessel run, though he will go in a different direction soon enough. He’s an instant archetype numerous authors will try to recreate or tinker with, but is also a copy of numerous literary heroes that came before him. And he is part and parcel of a standard way of presenting protagonist characters in The Lord Of The Rings, that of hidden greatness being concealed under an outwardly deceptive shell. Gandalf is an old man with great magical power, the hobbits generally show much greater courage and strength than you would give them credit for, and here is a dangerous looking murky individual, who will one day become the great Captain of Men that Middle-Earth requires.
He’s fairly harsh with Butterbur and Pippin towards the latter half of the chapter, with the insults coming thick and fast when the depths of the inn-keepers incompetence becomes apparent (“A fat innkeeper who only remembers his own name because people shout it at him all day”). I suppose he has reason, though his profession that he might be looking for companionship rings a little hollow as a result. He comes off as distant and solitary in these moments and it’s something that will be repeated constantly for the next few chapters. He expresses a simple hope that the party would “take to me for my own sake” a statement that has that certain melancholy ring to it: “A hunted man sometimes wearies of distrust and longs for friendship.” He’s just as suspicious as Sam considers him really, a guy who is never been able to rest easy his whole life.
I also love the following exchange, as Aragorn just steps over Frodo’s blathering and gets to the point:
“’What are all these queer goings on? What are these black men after, and where do they come from, I’d like to know?’
‘I’m sorry I can’t explain it all,’ answered Frodo. ‘I am tired and very worried, and it’s a long tale. But if you mean to help me, I ought to warn you that you will be in danger as long as I am in your house. These Black Riders: I am not sure, but I think, I fear they come from—‘
‘They come from Mordor,’ said Strider in a low voice. ‘”
It’s not the only example of impressive words being given to Aragorn. Take here, as he sells himself to the hobbits as a guide and indicates past dealings with the Black Riders:
“You can do as you like about my reward: take me as a guide or not. But I may say that I know all the lands between the Shire and the Misty Mountains, for I have wandered over them for many years. I am older than I look. I might prove useful. You will have to leave the open road after tonight; for the horsemen will watch it night and day. You may escape from Bree, and be allowed to go forward while the Sun is up; but you won’t go far. They will come on you in the wild, in some dark place where there is no help. Do you wish them to find you? They are terrible!”
Talk about a picture being painted. And, perhaps my favourite, in response to Sam’s continued distrust, ending with those famous words:
“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!’
He stood up, and seemed suddenly to grow taller. In his eyes gleamed a light, keen and commanding. Throwing back his cloak, he laid his hand on the hilt of a sword that had hung concealed by his side. They did not dare to move. Sam sat wide-mouthed staring at him dumbly.
‘But I am the real Strider, fortunately,’ he said, looking down at them with his face softened by a sudden smile. ‘I am Aragorn son of Arathorn; and if by life or death I can save you, I will.”
There is a certain majesty to that statement, that fits with the picture of Strider that we have seen so far. “Kingly” is the word I’d use, and his declaration of his identity carries greater weight upon a re-read, especially once you include the information contained in the Appendices: revealing his name isn’t something that Aragorn, who has spent his life avoiding the detection of the demigod who wants his line ended, does lightly.
I said Aragorn was a mixed bag, and I meant that in a good way. In the course of “Strider”, he insults and he praises, he critiques and he leads. He might even demonstrate a certain small temptation to take the Ring for himself in the above quoted passage, though it is beaten down quickly. He demonstrates a multi-faceted personality in other words. He’s not just the “King of Kings” in the making, he’s not the grand hero who will save the world. He’s a scruffy looking Ranger, with a bit of a grouchy temper at times, but who just really wants to help these four guys, and will put his life on the line to do so. Who he really is and what he wants are questions that we can wait to be answered. For now, it is enough to see this fascinating character introduced properly.
Butterbur tells us that Black Riders haven’t just been operating in the area, but that they were outside just a while ago. As a result the tension gets wracked up to a huge degree. Aragorn is used effectively to do this, ramming home the point that the party is a step away from total disaster and failure. They’re going to need him, and sooner rather than later. He immediately begins making practical preparations for a potential attack.
And it turns out that, with all the talking, they’ve forgotten that Merry went wandering off for a walk. That’s a hell of a facepalm moment for everyone involved. Just as the hobbits appear to be taking things more seriously as they approach Bree, they revert back to being foolish. I mean, when even the annoying bartender is pointing out that you need a lot of looking after, you know something is wrong.
Again, this is simply Tolkien’s way of playing up just how much the group needs Strider and it’s clear they really, really do. I wouldn’t say it was a clumsy way to do it, it’s not like he ever portrayed the hobbits as master of stealth, but we are getting a little beaten over the head by the sentiment at this stage. The hobbits just aren’t learning to be more careful/responsible even though Black Riders, living trees and evil spirits have all tried to get them.
We also hear our first proper news on Gandalf, but it’s not much, merely adding to the mystery surrounding his absence. He had to leave because of “bad news”. The letter is a useful tool to legitimise Strider and the poem contained therein is probably The Lord of the Rings’ most notable short verse, adding that epic quality to Aragorn, though it will mean more at a later date. It’s simple and memorable, making its point quickly:
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king
There’s so much to read into these eight lines, that it really might be the best verse that Tolkien came up with for his epic. It begins with a simply put warning not to trust appearances, and continues with references to the Rangers and their hidden strength, before conjuring an image of renewal and hope, the reforging of blades and the crowning of Kings: two things that are almost a prophecy for Aragorn (I think it’s better to just ignore the fact that Aragorn is literally carrying around a broken sword for some reason). It’s just wonderful, and there’s a reason why elements of it, especially the first line, have wormed their way into the popular consciousness.
Gandalf’s been largely absent from thought since “Three Is Company” and Aragorn’s concern for him also ramps up the mystery and tension. Gandalf was the first mentor, the one who advises Frodo on what to do and what course to take. Bombadil was the second and now we have our third, following right along from the others. He’s yet another ally in an unexpected place, the third by my count.
Rivendell remains the primary goal, but before the chapter closes a new intermediate one is assigned by Aragorn: Weathertop, an old watchtower. Man, Rivendell seemed a lot closer in The Hobbit. That probably makes it clear just how much more dangerous the trip is this time around, in that it’s taking five times as long to get there.
Merry returns towards the end of the chapter and he’s turned into some kind of daredevil, going after some dark figure in the streets of Bree, which turns out to have been a Black Rider. Or two. It was a brave move, but really, really stupid. A little bit out of character for the hobbits I think, from what we’ve been told about them so far, though one might suspect, upon a second reading, that Merry’s brief quasi-possession in the Barrow may have encouraged him to face down one of the “men of Carn Dum”, just as he will outside Minis Tirith much later in the story.
This chapter needs to keep the build-up of narrative excitement going, and I think that it achieves this fairly well. It is, very much so, a sequel to the previous chapter, maintaining the setting and tone. It’s all dark conversations and intrigue abounding, with issues of trust and deceit high on the list of obvious themes. As a proper introduction to Aragorn, our man who would be King, it also succeeds: here is a dark, vagabondish ranger, but one who carries a spark of mightiness in him, a spark that we know will come to the fore sooner rather than later. The chapter’s conclusion adds additional complexity to the unfolding tale in the form of Gandalf’s unknown status, and a pertinent reminder that danger is still all around. Adding in the growing characterisation of Sam, some decent dialogue moments, and a good leaving off point to keep the reader engaged, we can say that “Strider” is a strong chapter.
Moreover, it’s just nice to have a new main character. We’ve had the four hobbits for several chapters now, with other characters jumping in and out of the narrative, but having this new permanent presence, so different to the hobbits in so many key ways, allows for a greater diversity of dialogue and character interaction than we have had before. Aragorn, by simple virtue of being new, attracts our interest.
We’re heading into proper dark territory next time out. See you on Weathertop.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.