After an entirely succesful minding of Ps and Qs and certainly not drawing any unwanted attention to themselves, Frodo and company withdraw to their parlour for a conversation with Strider. The latter introduces himself, and offers Frodo information, but for a price: the hobbits must take him with them. In an unexpected attack of common sense, Frodo is skeptical, and demands to know who Strider is and what he wants. Strider applauds this, and admits that he overheard the hobbits agreeing to not mention the name Baggins. This interested him, because he and his associates are looking for a hobbit named Frodo Baggins.
Frodo and Sam burst out of their seats at this, and I'm wondering what on earth they were going to do. Strider, however, calms them down with a sobering warning: black horsemen have been seen in Bree. This sobers Frodo into self-reflection; perhaps, he says to Sam and Pippin, they shouldn't have gone to the common room at all. It's testament to Strider's self-control and leadership that he doesn't sarcastically applaud this. The reflectiveness quickly fades, though, with Frodo admitting that yes, some men on horses have been chasing him, "but now at any rate they seem to have missed me and to have gone away". Somehow, Strider isn't impressed by this, and tries to convince the hobbits that not only will the riders not give up that easily, but that they also have allies in Bree - Bill Ferny is named - who will be quite eager to tell them about Frodo's performance mishap. The hobbits can't possibly follow the Road any more, because the Black Riders will surely catch them, so Strider reiterates his offer to guide them. As he's trying to persuade Frodo, he even has a bit of a flashback about the riders, and then puts the question:
"Strider can take you by paths that are seldom trodden. Will you have him?"
Sam speaks up, and says no: they know nothing about Strider, and shouldn't trust him. Frodo disagrees. He thinks Strider isn't really what he looks like, but doesn't understand why. As Strider is about to explain, Butterbur shows up with candles and hot water. Strider steps back into a corner, and while Nob hauls water to the hobbits' rooms, the innkeeper addresses Frodo. He makes a series of apologies for his forgetfulness, but eventually gets to the point: he has a letter, to Frodo from Gandalf, which he never remembered to have delivered. Gandalf had also asked him to help Frodo out if he ever came to Bree, which he's also apparently only just remembered. Apologizing profusely and more than a little scared of Gandalf, Butterbur promises to do anything he can to help. Black riders, he too reports, have been asking after a hobbit named Baggins, and "that Ranger, Strider" has been asking questions as well. At this, Strider reveals himself; Butterbur is skeptical of taking up with a Ranger, and Strider retaliates by calling him fat. It has actually been several chapters since someone was fat-shamed! Unless you count naming a pony "Fatty", in which case it hasn't.
Unfazed by the insult, Butterbur offers to lodge the hobbits at his inn until the trouble blows over, but Frodo has to decline. He and Strider explain that the Black Riders hunting him come from Mordor, which scares the crap out of poor Barliman. It's agreed that the hobbits will leave at dawn. When I say hobbits, by the way, I mean Frodo, Sam and Pippin; no-one's noticed that Merry's missing until Butterbur asks after him. Barliman now gets to be the Beorn of the piece and pass judgement on the traveling circus:
"Well, you do want looking after and no mistake: your party might be on a holiday!" said Butterbur.
No objections whatsoever. While Nob is sent out to look for the forgotten Merry, Frodo finally sits down with Gandalf's letter. Briefly, it tells Frodo to leave at once and try to find a man called Strider. The letter is dated Midyear's Day; Frodo, never having received it, only set off in late September, and by Fonstad's reckoning, arrived in Bree on the 29th of September: over three months after Gandalf left the letter there. As Frodo says, if he'd only gotten the letter sooner, they'd be safe in Rivendell already, perhaps even without seeing a hint of the Black Riders.
After the letter authenticates Strider, so to speak, the hobbits agree to follow his lead. Strider's plan is to leave the road as soon as possible to shake off pursuit, and make for Weathertop, a hill north of the Road, and from there to Rivendell. The idea is that this will also give them a chance to find Gandalf, whose absence worries both Frodo and Strider. As this is being discussed, Merry bursts in, reporting Black Riders in the village. He'd gone out for a walk, and apparently almost stumbled across Bill Ferny talking to a Black Rider. The rider's breath had stunned him, but Nob had luckily happened on the scene and woken him. Strider reckons that the Black Riders must now know everything that had transpired at the inn, and that they may well attack it in the night. It isn't their style to storm lit and populated places, especially when they know that they'll have all of Eriador to hunt the hobbits across, but Strider nonetheless strongly suggests the hobbits sleep in the parlor rather than in their rooms. This is done, and Frodo and company camp out on the parlor floor, with Strider watching over them.
If the previous chapter could've been a short story, this is almost a short stage play: all the action takes place in a parlour in the Prancing Pony, with characters entering and exiting and occasionally reporting on what goes on outside. Strictly speaking, the scope of the story has narrowed dramatically: this is basically a dialogue between Frodo and Strider in a single room. In terms of the evolution of the story, however, while Butterbur and Nob are still around for some rustic comedy, the Shire and its birthday-parties, and even the perils of the Old Forest, are falling steadily behind. The threat Frodo and company have to contend with is now the active malice of Mordor.
I have to admit that of all the characters in Tolkien's works, I think I'm most fond of Strider. He accords very well with my sensibilities, and given the very young age at which I first read the Lord of the Rings, has almost certainly had a hand in shaping them as well. One of my favorite bits is in this chapter:
"But I must admit," he added with a queer laugh, "that I hoped you would take to me for my own sake. A hunted man sometimes wearies of distrust and longs for friendship. But there, I believe my looks are against me."
I sympathize strongly. However, we barely get to know Strider at all here; we know he's a weather-beaten ranger who looks for all the world like a brigand, that his name is Aragorn, and that he's friends with Gandalf. The real content of this chapter is the cautious conversation between him and Frodo, which may not be up there with the Bilbo-Smaug dialogues, but that I nonetheless enjoyed. To the extent that any wider points are being made, the one that gets repeated by both Frodo and Pippin is that they didn't really suspect Strider of evil, because he "looked foul and felt fair", whereas a servant of the Enemy would have been the opposite. So certainly the hobbits seem to have a great deal of faith in their witch-smelling powers. To Tolkien, one suspects, intuition was another kind of providence.
It's also fascinating to realize that Barliman Butterbur damn near won the War of the Ring for Sauron before it even started. It was sheer luck (providence) that a Black Rider showed up at Bag End the night Frodo left, rather than, say, a few hours earlier. In fact, by all indications, if Gandalf's letter had been properly delivered, Frodo and company could have taken a leisurely stroll down the Road to Rivendell with no trouble at all. Thorin and company, traveling in no hurry, took about a month to get from Hobbiton to Rivendell, so Frodo could easily have been there in August. According to the timeline in Appendix B, the Black Riders only crossed the Isen on September 18th. So if Butterbur wasn't useless, and if Gandalf hadn't inexplicably trusted him, all the travails Frodo and company had to get through to get to the Last Homely House East of the Sea could have been avoided. Again, you'd think that if divine providence wanted to get Frodo to Rivendell, you'd think it'd have been a damn sight easier to remind Butterbur in, say, July, but like I said, it's not like the idea of providence actually makes any sense. I'm sure there's a fat joke in this somewhere.
There really ought to be a Shadow event card in War of the Ring called Mind like a Lumber-room, that prevents the Fellowship from moving that turn.
Next time, into the wild.