Following the success of The Hobbit, Tolkien was asked to write the sequel to it: the publisher and the public wanted more adventures of the Hobbits. As the Professor began working on the follow-up to his story, the new tale, which eventually became The Lord of the Rings, was slowly diverging from the light tone of The Hobbit and the area of children’s literature into the darker and more sinister realm. One of the chief contributors to the darkness of the new tale were the Black Riders.As a first-time reader and even now — having read The Lord of the Rings more than once — I still shudder reading the episodes with the Riders as they pursue the Hobbits on their way to Rivendell. In my opinion, in this part of the book they appear more terrifying than anywhere else when the mystery of their identities is finally revealed. Creating suspense and the sense of vulnerability, Tolkien makes the Black Riders an ever-present, though not always visible, threat which creates the effect of a horror story.
When Frodo, Sam and Pippin first hear the sound of hoofs on the road behind them, little do they know what kind of creature is following them closely. When, having hidden, Frodo looks out to see the Rider, the sight cannot be pleasing and soothing for him:
Round the corner came a black horse, no hobbit-pony but a full-sized horse; and on it sat a large man, who seemed to crouch in the saddle, wrapped in a great black cloak and hood, so that only his boots in the high stirrups showed below; his face was shadowed and invisible.
(Fellowship of the Ring, p. 99)
The sight of a black chap with a shadowy face riding a big black horse on a rarely used road, sniffing and clearly looking for something or someone is unsettling and enough to make one become frightened enough to leave the road and be more cautious. The germ of the suspense and horror has already been planted. Intensified even more by Sam’s remembering his Gaffer talking to a similar rider, who inquired after Baggins, such a spooky encounter makes the position of our travellers vulnerable and very insecure. Such uncanny Riders can easily chill one’s blood when one is out in the countryside and still has a bit of walking to do, sleeping under the night sky included. As the Hobbits meet a Black Rider for the second time — this time in the dark — it becomes a pattern and now it is clear: the travellers are no longer safe on their way. Here a combination of darkness and a creepy crawling figure is marvellously sinister. The fears of the dark and the unknown work well together to create this deeply scary, unnerving atmosphere.
From then on the nature of the Hobbits’ journey changes dramatically. The presence of the Riders becomes tangible even when we do not see them. The sound of hoofs is dreaded and we never know where or when more Riders can appear on the road or from behind a tree. What Frodo planned as a pleasant walk to enjoy and savour the last look of the Shire turns into a pursuit where the Hobbits grow afraid of the open spaces, always hide, look behind them and are not aware of the next step of their pursuers.
The feeling of unsafeness, vulnerability, exposure and fear of discovery create the tense fearful atmosphere. The Riders are always close at hand — either behind the Hobbits, or near them, or before them. They appear where the Hobbits were a minute ago and make one wonder what could have happened if the Hobbits had tarried there just a little longer. When the Hobbits forget about them or grow too careless with songs, they are reminded by the sound of hoofs or shrill cries that the Black Riders are their reality, present even though they might be unseen. They appear out of nowhere and disappear in the same direction. At this point it is impossible to say whether there is one Rider or several of them, and there is no knowing when or where they might come from in the next minute.
Though clearly realising that the Black Riders are dangerous, Frodo and the company have little knowledge of what they really are. Gildor refuses to speak about the Riders calling them deadly and Strider locates them to the land of Mordor. This uncertainty and reluctance of those in the know to speak about the Riders blackens the picture dramatically. These horsemen are not explained at all until a certain moment, and in this case less is more: the unknown terrifies more than if Tolkien had revealed everything about them from the first pages. At this point the Riders appear even more horrible than Sauron, who is mostly a rumour, a remote dark power in Mordor. Compared to him, the Black Riders are terribly real and they are not in Mordor but in the Shire.
As Fatty Bolger is left at Crickhollow to wait for Gandalf, there is no envying him. As Fatty thinks that going into the Old Forest is extremely dangerous, little does he realise how mistaken he is. When the Black Riders come to Crickhollow and finally do attack, the Old Forest does not seem such a bad place at all:
….darkness lay on Buckland; a mist strayed in the dells and along the river-bank. The house at Crickhollow stood silent. Fatty Bolger opened the door cautiously and peered out. A feeling of fear had been growing on him all day, and he was unable to rest or go to bed: there was a brooding threat in the breathless night-air. As he stared out into the gloom, a black shadow moved under the trees; the gate seemed to open of its own accord and close again without a sound. Terror seized him. He shrank back, and for a moment he stood trembling in the hall. Then he shut and locked the door.
The night deepened. There came the soft sound of horses led with stealth along the lane. Outside the gate they stopped, and three black figures entered, like shades of night creeping across the ground. One went to the door, one to the corner of the house on either side; and there they stood, as still as the shadows of stones, while night went slowly on. The house and the quiet trees seemed to be waiting breathlessly.
(Fellowship of the Ring, p. 232)
It seems that the Riders are inescapable. They know everything about the Hobbits and where to look for them. Whenever the travellers come, there is either talk of the Riders, paired with scared locals, or the Riders themselves. It is enough to drive anyone to despair.
The sense of fear which the Black Riders evoke in those encountering them is their characteristic trait. They are not just creepy in their looks or behaviour or ability to appear and disappear suddenly, but their very presence chills one’s blood, makes even the stoutest warriors run in terror, “for even the Wise might fear to withstand the Nine, when they are gathered together under their fell chieftain” (Fellowship of the Ring, p. 337). They are haunting and horrible. Tolkien stated in Letter # 210:
Their peril is almost entirely due to the unreasoning fear which they inspire (like ghosts). They have no great physical power against the fearless; but what they have, and the fear that they inspire, is enormously increased in darkness.
Letter № 210
It is only in Rivendell when the Black Riders are explained. Gandalf says that they are the Nine he mentioned passingly to Frodo long ago in Bag End before his journey began. We learn that they used to be mighty Men who long ago received the Nine Rings of Power from Sauron and fell under the dominion of the One Ring turning into Ringwraiths.
The name ‘Ringwraiths’ is not a coincidental choice here. ‘Wraith’ is an old word of unknown origin but recorded first in XVI century. Its major meaning is ‘a ghost’ or ‘a spectre’. Another meaning, suggested by Miriam-Webster dictionary, is ‘an insubstantial form or semblance’ with the synonymous ‘shadow’ referring to it, too. Like it is always the case with Tolkien his choice of words is very accurate and precise: the Nine were invisible in the Seen world and wore cloaks “to give shape to their nothingness” (Fellowship of the Ring, p. 291), so it is no wonder no one could see their faces under hoods because in the Seen world there was nothing to see.
Being a talented storyteller, Tolkien knew that less is more when it came to creating the atmosphere of fear and suspense. Thus the Black Riders come across as incredibly scary and blood-chilling in their own right. Indeed, with the air of dread around them, it was enough to hear that the Nine were abroad again to understand that this did not promise anything even remotely good.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
- H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).
Featured image – Creative Common Licence found at Pixabay.