A Belated Burying of Bafflement: Bree, Bolsters, Bill Ferny, and Black Riders
Continuing in Level 3 lockdown, I have been spending a fair bit of time recently listening to the Prancing Pony Podcast. I can strongly recommend it for my fellow Tolkien geeks: it’s an ongoing and entertaining look at The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and (as at the time of writing) The Lord of the Rings. They are currently up to Galadriel.
Anyway, while listening to the section on Bree, I heard the hosts quote Tolkien’s manuscript, The Hunt for the Ring. The bulk of this appears in Unfinished Tales (1980), and represents Tolkien’s attempt to detail the Nazgûl search for Frodo.
Well and good. Then my ears pricked up. I realised that they were quoting bits of The Hunt for the Ring that do not appear in the published Unfinished Tales. Rather, they were quoting material that only appears in Hammond and Scull’s Reader’s Companion (2005). A book I don’t have, incidentally, and which I have never read.
Now, the hosts were using this manuscript for other purposes… but it struck me that the read-out material was actually providing an answer to a notorious old Tolkienian conundrum. I did a bit of online research about the Hammond and Scull material, and sure enough, it does.
Who attacked the Inn at Bree – and slashed the bolsters – in A Knife in the Dark? Bill Ferny or the Nazgûl?
I’m feeling rather foolish. A full fifteen years after this information was released, it has finally filtered down to Yours Truly. For all I know, most of my readers already knew this. Worse, I was a (moderate) member of the Ferny camp. Oh dear.
When I first read The Lord of the Rings as a child, I did think it was the Nazgûl. The notion that it may have been Bill Ferny never occurred to me. It helped that Ralph Bakshi (1978), and Peter Jackson (2001) both ran with the Nazgûl interpretation in their film adaptations.
Then I stumbled across an online debate about Nazgûl versus Bill Ferny, and I realised that there were solid arguments for the latter. And since this was prior to 2005, there was no conclusive evidence to resolve things. It was instead a matter of inference… and The History of Middle-earth actually suggests that Tolkien did at least consider the Ferny possibility.
The Nazgûl hypothesis – at the time – rested on three major points:
- The attack on Bree is literally coincidental with the attack on Crickhollow, which most certainly was the Ringwraiths. This is the Nine going in for the kill in both locations.
- No-one in-story thinks to accuse Bill Ferny of vandalism after the fact. In fact, the hobbits buy a horse off him afterwards. This suggests that the characters in-story think the culprits were the Black Riders.
- What orders would the Ringwraiths have given to Ferny? This is a vital quest for them – the idea of delegating this to a petty crook would be a dangerous complication.
In addition, one might suggest that the slasher of the bolsters was someone willing to murder the hobbits. Ferny is an arse, a crook, a weasel… but he does not come across as sufficiently evil (or brave) to pull off the raid. The Ringwraiths are much nastier.
The Ferny hypothesis, by contrast, relied on:
- Aragorn being correct. Merry literally asks him whether the Black Riders would attack the Inn. Aragorn’s answer?
‘What will happen?’ said Merry. ‘Will they attack the inn?’
‘No, I think not,’ said Strider. ‘They are not all here yet. And in any case that is not their way. In dark and loneliness they are strongest; they will not openly attack a house where there are lights and many people — not until they are desperate, not while all the long leagues of Eriador still lie before us. But their power is in terror, and already some in Bree are in their clutch. They will drive these wretches to some evil work: Ferny, and some of the strangers, and, maybe, the gatekeeper too. They had words with Harry at West-gate on Monday. I was watching them. He was white and shaking when they left him.
“Drive these wretches to evil work”? This is Aragorn literally accusing Ferny and Company of being ready to do something malicious… whereupon we promptly get the raid on the Inn. It would be strange for Aragorn – whose advice we are supposed to trust – to be so wrong in his assessment.
- The bolsters being used to imitate sleeping hobbits is a visual illusion – the sort to fool someone with normal senses (Ferny!), but not the Ringwraiths. Whomever hacked up the bolsters was extremely disappointed at the contents of the beds – why would the Ringwraiths be disappointed at the bolsters when they were never fooled in the first place?
- Various other bits and pieces (see this Michael Martinez essay from 2012(!) for other pro-Ferny arguments).
Meanwhile, we get this from the drafts, as contained in The History of Middle-earth Volume VII: The Treason of Isengard:
DE get in touch with Bill Ferney, and hear of news at the Inn. [Struck out at once: They attack the Inn but fail (and get the idea that Green'(10) has gone off?)] They fear Trotter’, but get Bill Ferney and the Southerner to burgle the Inn and try and get more news, especially of the Ring. (They are puzzled by two Bagginses.) The burglary fails; but they drive off all the ponies.
(Of Hamilcar, Gandalf, and Saruman, p.71.)
DE refers to the fourth and fifth Black Riders. Green is Frodo’s adoptive surname (later Underhill). Here we see Tolkien explicitly switching from The Nazgûl Did It, to Ferny and the Southerner Did It.
This is a draft outline, and as such ought to be treated warily, but the notion of this being Ferny’s work did cross Tolkien’s mind. There is at least some reason for the ambiguity of the finished text.
So I was not being too foolish in succumbing to the Bill Ferny theory.
However, here is the 2005 evidence from Hammond and Scull…
the windows had been forced– In Marquette MSS 4/2/36(The Hunt for the Ring)it is said that the three Black Riders who had beensent to Weathertop and told to ride back along the Roadreached Bree at dusk [on 29 September], and soon learn from the Isengardspy of the events in the Inn, and guess the presence of the Ring. One is sentto the [Witch-king]…. [He] is waylaid by Dunedain and driven away doesnot reach [the Witch-king] until the next day.. .. [The other two] foiled intheir attempt to capture Merry make plans for attack on the Inn at night.. ..The Inn attacked by the two Riders in early hours before dawn.Crickhollow attacked at about the same time…. Both attacks fail. [The twoRiders in Bree] go off in haste to find [the Witch-king] to report that Bearerhas gone (without waiting for further news).
Now, it may be argued that this is still a rough and messy outline (The Hunt for the Ring appears in Unfinished Tales for a reason), and if all else fails, there is always Death of the Author – the actual text of The Lord of the Rings still offers support to the Ferny theory.
My view? The ‘two Riders’ summation appears to be Tolkien’s final view of the matter, and it does not contradict the implications of what was published. Christopher Tolkien in Unfinished Tales notes that The Hunt for the Ring was written after the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring in 1954.
[MSS 4/2/36 does not mean the text was written in 1936, but simply the filing system]
So yeah. The Nazgûl attacked the Inn, and I must apologise to Mr William Ferny for this defamation of his character.
Addendum: Given the twenty-five year gap between the publication of Unfinished Tales in 1980 and the Reader’s Companion in 2005, it has occurred to me that the Fernyite Theory would never have arisen had Christopher Tolkien included the rest of The Hunt for the Ring in the 1980 volume. It’s one of those oddities of fandom that an extremely interesting theory – bolstered by The History of Middle-earth – was created, and later brought down, more or less by accident.