Frodo is due to meet Butterbur in Frodo’s room. But he, Pippin and Sam first go to the parlour where they earlier ate. To their surprise, Merry is no longer there. The fire has burned down. They put on some more wood, and are then shocked to find Strider there.
Frodo had agreed to talk, but now Strider says he ‘has his price’. This worries Frodo, who has only a little money with him. (Weird, since he is well off and is expecting to leave The Shire for a long time, perhaps for ever.) But Strider just asks to come with them. Frodo is doubtful, and Strider says this is sensible and they have been much too careless before now.
Strider explains he overheard them earlier. And was looking for Frodo Baggins. He knows of the Black Riders. And that in the common-room, they were watched by Bill Ferny, and an unnamed Southerner. (Who never is named.)
He offers to take them by secret routes. Sam is suspicious, but Frodo decides to trust the man. And notes that his accent has changed, having begun like a Bree-lander. Probably he now sounds more like Gandalf, but we are not told.
Strider does not suggest recruiting the dwarves, who would perhaps be friends if they were of Durin’s kindred. We learn no more about them, but some are evil and many selfish. Had Frodo brought money, they might have relied on even evil dwarves keeping their word.
For now, Strider is mistrusted. To keep the suspense, things are left open. Logically, Aragorn should say ‘I know what Gandalf had you throw on the fire, and what you then saw’. This would prove his honesty, since Gandalf should have told him and would not have told many. And Frodo could make an equally indirect reply to show that he is indeed the hobbit Gandalf mentioned, which Aragorn was not entirely certain of.
Then Butterbur interrupts them and gives Frodo the letter. He first tells them that ‘black men’ had been asking after him. And that Strider had tried to get into their room, but was not allowed. He mistrusts Strider, who now reveal himself and warns Butterbur what they face:
“’They come from Mordor,’ said Strider in a low voice. ‘From Mordor, Barliman, if that means anything to you.’
“’Save us!’ cried Mr. Butterbur turning pale; the name evidently was known to him. ‘That is the worst news that has come to Bree in my time.’ ‘It is,’ said Frodo. ‘Are you still willing to help me?’ ‘I am,’ said Mr. “Butterbur. ‘More than ever. Though I don’t know what the likes of me can do against, against ‘ he faltered.
“’Against the Shadow in the East,’ said Strider quietly. ‘Not much, Barliman, but every little helps. You can let Mr. Underhill stay here tonight, as Mr. Underhill, and you can forget the name of Baggins, till he is far away.’
“’I’ll do that,’ said Butterbur. ‘But they’ll find out he’s here without help from me, I’m afraid. It’s a pity Mr. Baggins drew attention to himself this evening, to say no more. The story of that Mr. Bilbo’s going off has been heard before tonight in Bree.”
Note that Aragorn takes the local opposition to be working for Sauron. They may well have begun as agents of Saruman, whose turn to evil is only revealed later. But they have also been scared by the Nazgul, and probably have little idea of what the higher powers are up to.
Frodo then reads the letter, with another fine verse, my favourite in the entire book. But here again, Gandalf is being amateurish. In his letter he expresses concern that Butterbur might forget, but then says just ‘I shall roast him’ rather than having a backup. Other men might take a letter, or be trusted to remind Butterbur.
Aragorn explains also he wanted to study the hobbits and be sure it was not a trap. And that if he were after the Ring, he could kill them and have it:
“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 was a long silence. At last Frodo spoke with hesitation. ‘I believed that you were a friend before the letter came,’ he 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.’ He drew out his sword, and they saw that the blade was indeed broken a foot below the hilt. ‘Not much use is it, Sam?’ said Strider. ‘But the time is near when it shall be forged anew.’”
That he carries it at all seems odd. Jackson has all fragments kept as a memorial at Rivendell. But it might be more useful than a common sword even when fragmented. And it is symbolic of him as a lesser heir of mighty kings.
And with a chance of rising again. It seems to me that the thought of seizing the ring occurred to him and tempted him. He probably could use it to defeat Sauron, and it belonged to his ancestor Isildur. It would give him a vastly better chance of winning Arwen, we later learn. He also might have persuaded Frodo to hand it over. But he must have accepted Gandalf’s warning that using the Ring would make him another Dark Lord.
This is a constant but understated theme. When you fight evil, there is always a danger of becoming like the thing you fight. Gandalf and Aragorn both feel it. Saruman falls into that error, and so briefly does Boromir. Both Elrond and Faramir in the book have already set their minds against that temptation.
Aragorn is worried about Gandalf’s fate, but explains that Gandalf is greater than they know: they have seen only his jokes and his toys. (But Bilbo saw a lot more, and would have told.)
Then Merry returns, having seen the Black Riders. Had been cast into magic unconsciousness, but luckily they fail to realise he is more than a local. Do not suspect that he will eventually help kill the strongest of them.
The hobbits remain in the parlour. Strider advised them not to go to their rooms. “The hobbit-rooms have windows looking north and close to the ground. We will all remain together and bar this window and the door.” He expects the Black Riders to be stealthy and not attack the inn openly.
How can they be weak here and much stronger in attacking Gondor? Tolkien stays somewhere that they were more powerful when close to Mordor. It occurred to me that if they are basically shadows, the shadows would be darker when they are close to the flames at the core of Sauron’s power. Location matters: at Mount Doom even Galadriel’s phial with the light of Earendil’s Star loses its power:
“It threw no light into that stifling dark. He was come to the heart of the realm of Sauron… all other powers were here subdued.”
Or all but Eru working behind the scenes, given the way Gollum accidentally saved everything.
The whole attack on Bree is rewritten for the films, of course. Bakshi and Jackson think of the original rooms as being a single room with four beds, which must have been easier to film. In both book and film, someone new to the story would wonder like Frodo if Strider is trustworthy. In Jackson, at least, there is no parlour. Aragorn grabs him and takes him to the hobbit bedroom. If it were not 12-rated, one might worry what might happen next. One of many instances in which Aragorn and others are much less polite than Tolkien had them. More like people who could thrive in the world of blockbuster film-making in the current era.
Years back, I suggested Aragorn owed something to Conan. Adapted to Tolkien’s views on sex, obviously. And lineage and ethics – Aragorn merely appears to be a wandering rogue and is heir of the fallen kings.
You may know that he began as a brown-faced hobbit called Trotter. Who may be recovered from the waste-paper-basket of history for the planned Amazon series. One could make good mileage out of Rangers and hobbits in Bree between the adventures of Bilbo and Frodo.