We're off to see the wizard, the wonderful wizard of... Oops, wrong story.
I think the opening here is a little stronger than many of the other chapters so far. We're a little more in the thick of things. Strider speaks with the hobbits, and again it's a game of hints, of offers and questions. It's nicely played, I think, keeping the tension high. He could have just come in and announced himself, but I think it would have come off a little preachy and dull. And it keeps an air of mystery around Strider, and I think that mystery is one of the pleasurable aspects of the story, particularly as he's slowly transformed from this fey Ranger, Strider, into the King of the West, Aragorn. I think proclaiming himself here would have ruined much of that. I enjoy the fact that he's somewhat sly and shifty here, and it adds a level of tension to a scene that might otherwise be too much talk and too little action (or conflict).
Strider also brings home a little more of the danger of the Black Riders. "They are terrible!... You fear them, but you do not fear them enough, yet." The same, of course, might be said of the reader, on account of some of Tolkien's choices in portraying the Black Riders and their pursuit. Yet for the next section their danger and menace is necessarily important, and so the task now is to build up that sense of menace, and the reaction of Strider, this mysterious and seemingly powerful stranger, helps sway both the hobbits and the reader.
And when Strider is about to share his story... he's interrupted by the arrival of the inkeeper. A simple little trick, but I think it adds a little tension. We're now left with a bit of a cliffhanger, wondering what Strider will tell us... yet the innkeeper has important news, too. I think it keeps both balls in the air at once, allowing them to play off each other and shade meanings.
The innkeeper bears a letter from Gandalf... a letter that was supposed to have been delivered months ago. Another little bit that adds tension, I think, along with the delayed opening of the letter. It could have simply been left for Frodo if he arrived... but the fact that the delivery failed creates a tension that filters through the scene, playing on the already built up mystery of Gandalf's absence.
The letter offers a vague explanation of that absence (more mystery), and also relates that they should have left the Shire long before they did. They are now late... and that lateness has greatly increased the danger. This ties in with that new menace of the Black Riders, setting up the conflicts to come, the increasing danger. It's a careful setting of mood and expectation.
We also see a hint of Aragorn in Strider, the majesty to be revealed: "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." This deepens, I think, the mystery set about Strider, and also sets up an image of the tension that runs through the character of Aragorn: the hidden life of a Ranger, and the open life of Isildur's Heir, the open life of a King set to challenge Sauron. We see only a moment of the King, here, for now is still the time of the Ranger, the time of a guide. Aragorn can hold to this, in truth, until the breaking of the Fellowship.
Yet Strider is exceedingly worried about Gandalf's absence. What could keep him away? And there are hints, too, of Gandalf's hidden powers... and some foreshadowing hidden in the words of Strider: "But this business of ours will be his greatest task."
Merry returns, and with sudden news: Black Riders have come. He saw them, and then was overcome by some sort of spell... again falling into a sort of sleep. A bit of a motif growing here... the magical sleep of Old Man Willow, and then in the Barrow Downs, and in the tomb of the wight... and now here with the Black Breath of the Riders. Sleep as... what? Death? Capitulation? Loss of will and choice? The end of seduction (in the sense of sin)? Strider says that the Riders power is in terror... which holds throughout the novel, yet he also says they will not openly attack a house where there are lights and many people. Which seems odd... would they not do so even for the One Ring? What could stop them? Certainly their attitude has changed by the Return of the King, when they attack Minis Tirith. Is that a bit of deus ex machina? Their attributes and characteristics shift a little according to what is most convenient for the story? Or is it merely part of that finding out process, that sense of transformation and discovery that seems to accompany the story as Tolkien passes farther into it, as he delves more deeply into the heart of the story?
The chapter ends with a return to discussion about Frodo's silly song in the tavern... but in the end the humour is undercut by Strider, whose words are a return to reality, a warning of the dangers to come.
It's an interesting chapter... little action in the foreground, and yet a certain tension is carried through. A chapter of dialogue, of talk... and yet a number of techniques help keep the pace moving. Interesting choices... Tolkien does like having a lot happen offstage. Merry's run-in with the Black Riders could easily have been shown... but instead it's relayed to the reader in dialogue, in a chapter already heavy with such dialogue. There's a unity in that, I guess, and this format keeps the focus more tightly on Frodo. Yet it seems a fairly dramatic moment to happen off-stage. Interesting, really... and Tolkien does it a lot in the story to come, too. Anyone have thoughts on that?