Frodo has his “private talks” and receives some much-needed guidance as the Black Riders close in.
Strider meets Frodo, Sam, and Pippin in their room (Merry evidently went out for a walk and hasn’t come back yet). He offers to tell them some nebulous “things to their advantage”, and asks in return that Frodo lets him come along on their journey.
‘Oh, indeed!’ replied Frodo, surprised, but not much relieved. ‘Even if I wanted another companion, I should not agree to any such thing, until I knew a good deal more about you, and your business.’
‘Excellent!’ exclaimed Strider, crossing his legs and sitting back comfortably. ‘You seem to be coming to your senses again, and that is all to the good. You have been much too careless so far. Very well! I will tell you what I know, and leave the reward to you. You may be glad to grant it, when you have heard me.’
Yeah, Frodo gets a lot of flak for his vanishing stunt last chapter. Even if it was an accident on his part, Strider points out that it was a mistake to go out into the common-room in the first place, since they’re trying to escape in secret – he tried to warn them about it earlier, but Butterbur wouldn’t let him speak to them.
‘No, I don’t think any harm of old Butterbur. Only he does not altogether like mysterious vagabonds of my sort.’
Strider had been watching the road and waiting for Frodo, because Frodo’s business concerned him and his “friends”, and he might actually know more about Frodo’s “business” than Frodo does. At the very least, he knows more about the Black Riders.
‘I knew these horsemen were pursuing me; but now at any rate they seem to have missed me and to have gone away.’
‘You must not count on that!’ said Strider sharply. ‘They will return. And more are coming. There are others. I know their number. I know these Riders.’ He paused, and his eyes were cold and hard.
Strider explains that the Riders will soon hear about Frodo’s “accident” (if they hadn’t already), and then it would only be a matter of time before they catch Frodo if he sticks to the road. He offers to guide them through the wilderness to Rivendell (since Rangers are well acquainted with the wilds). But Sam points out that if Strider really wants them to be more cautious, they should start by asking him for a bit more proof that he won’t rob them or just abandon them in the middle of nowhere. And then Barliman comes in for his little chat.
He explains that a “friend” told him to be on the lookout for hobbits from the Shire, and Frodo in particular.
‘Ah! That was Gandalf, if you know who I mean. A wizard they say he is, but he’s a good friend of mine, whether or no. But now I don’t know what he’ll have to say to me, if I see him again: turn all my ale sour or me into a block of wood, I shouldn’t wonder. He’s a bit hasty. Still what’s done can’t be undone.’
It turns out to be more a case of “undone” than “done”: Gandalf left in a hurry one day back in summer, and asked Barliman to have a letter delivered to the Shire, but he couldn’t find anyone to deliver it in the days afterward, and eventually he just forgot about it. Still, he promised to help Gandalf’s friends however he could, even though he knows some kind of trouble is hot on their trail. That was why he was so guarded about Strider – Butterbur thought he was trying to cause trouble for them.
‘Well, you know your own business, maybe,’ said Mr. Butterbur, looking suspiciously at Strider. ‘But if I was in your plight, I wouldn’t take up with a Ranger.’
‘Then who would you take up with?’ asked Strider. ‘A fat innkeeper who only remembers his own name because people shout it at him all day? They cannot stay in The Pony for ever, and they cannot go home. They have a long road before them. Will you go with them and keep the black men off?’
Strider confirms that the Black Riders come from Mordor, but Barliman still agrees to help them, at least for the night. He sets up a watch and a guard around the inn so that they can (hopefully) at least get a peaceful night’s sleep.
And then Frodo finally gets the letter from Gandalf. He wrote that they should leave the Shire immediately (way back in June) and make for Rivendell. He also mentions his friend Strider…
PS. Do NOT use It again, not for any reason whatever! Do not travel by night!
PPS. Make sure that it is the real Strider. There are many strange men on the roads. His true name is Aragorn.
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.
I have to say, this is some of Tolkien’s best poetry. I think he’d be both flattered and a little irritated to know that a lot of people think this verse comes from the Bible. But it’s simultaneously memorable, lyrical, and relevant to the story.
Also, Frodo did everything Gandalf told him NOT to do (waiting too long to start, traveling at night, using the Ring more than once…). But at least they’re back on the right path.
‘How do we know you are the Strider that Gandalf speaks about?’ [Sam] demanded. ‘You never mentioned Gandalf, till this letter came out. You might be a play-acting spy, for all I can see, trying to get us to go with you. You might have done in the real Strider and took his clothes. What have you to say to that?’
‘That you are a stout fellow,’ answered Strider; ‘but I am afraid my only answer to you, Sam Gamgee, is this. 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 suddenly seemed 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. […]
‘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.’
Considering how most of this chapter is taken up by Frodo figuring out if he can trust Strider, it really makes the hobbits in the movies look a lot dumber in comparison (even if it does help the story move along quicker) – apparently they didn’t bother to ask questions until after they were already out in the wilderness with him, when the point is already moot.
‘I believed you were a friend before the letter came,’ [Frodo] said, ‘or at least I wished to. You have frightened me several times tonight, but never in the way that servants of the Enemy would, or so I imagine. I think one of his spies would – well, seem fairer and feel fouler, if you understand.’
‘I see,’ laughed Strider. ‘I look foul and feel fair. Is that it? All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost.’
‘Did the verses apply to you, then?’ asked Frodo. ‘I could not make out what they were about. But how did you know that they were in Gandalf’s letter, if you have never seen it?’
‘I did not know,’ he answered. ‘But I am Aragorn, and those verses go with that name.’
Even Strider expresses concern about Gandalf’s disappearance…and then they all remember that Merry hasn’t come back yet.
At that moment they heard a door slam; then feet came running along the passage. Merry came in with a rush followed by Nob. He shut the door hastily, and leaned against it. He was out of breath. They stared at him in alarm for a moment before he gasped: ‘I have seen them, Frodo! I have seen them! Black Riders!’
Evidently he ran into one in the village (along with some of the unsavory fellows from the inn) and blacked out. Nob went out looking for him and saw some people trying to carry him off, but they ran off when he showed up.
‘I had an ugly dream, which I can’t remember. I went to pieces. I don’t know what came over me.’
‘I do,’ said Strider. ‘The Black Breath.’
He concludes that the Riders must be aware of Frodo’s presence, and that they’ll probably attack the inn in some fashion, so he advises the hobbits not to sleep in their bedrooms and stays to keep watch.
‘Jumped over the Moon!’ chuckled Merry as he rolled himself in his blanket. ‘Very ridiculous of you, Frodo! But I wish I had been there to see. The worthies of Bree will be discussing it a hundred years hence.’
‘I hope so,’ said Strider.
Next time: A knife in the dark…