I posted a few days ago on the hints Tolkien gives us along the way of the existence of the hobbit “Conspiracy” long before it is “unmasked” in ch. 5 of book 1 of the Fellowship. In a similar fashion, before the reader even meets Strider at the Prancing Pony, Tolkien has already given some clues as to his identity. When Frodo first notices Strider, what he sees is “a strange-looking weather-beaten man, sitting in the shadows near the wall, [who] was also listening intently to the hobbit-talk…. A travel-stained cloak of heavy dark-green cloth was drawn close about him, and in spite of the heat of the room he wore a hood that overshadowed his face.” It’s not clear whether we are supposed to suspect, or at least wonder, whether this man is himself a Black Rider, but there doesn’t seem to be anything to rule it out as a possibility, except that Frodo is able to see the “gleam of his eyes.” Perhaps Tolkien wants us to wonder whether he is a Black Rider while simultaneously giving us the evidence–whether we recognize it as such or not–for why he can’t be. At the very least, it would be reasonable for the (attentive) reader to wonder if this mysterious figure is at all connected with the “dark figure” who, when the hobbits turn their backs from speaking to the Bree gatekeeper, “climbed quickly in over the gated and melted into the shadows of the village street.” For as it turns out, this figure, whom we are led to wonder if it is a Black Rider, is in fact Strider.
When Frodo asks Butterbur who the man is, however, he tells him that he “don’t rightly know,” but that “He is one of the wandering folk–Rangers we call them.” Butterbur goes on to say describe Strider in the following words:
He seldom talks: not but what he can tell a rare tale when he has the mind. He disappears for a month, or a year, and then he pops up again. He was in and out pretty often last spring; but I haven’t seen him about lately. What his right name is I’ve never heard: but he’s known round here as Strider. Goes about at a great pace on his long shanks; though he don’t tell nobody what cause he has to hurry.
What Butterbur says here of Strider, however, is merely a particular instance and illustration of the reader has already learned about Rangers at the beginning of the chapter. As Tolkien writes there:
In those days no other Men had settled dwellings so far west, or within a hundred leagues of the Shire. But in the wild lands beyond Bree there were mysterious wanderers. The Bree-folk called them Rangers, and knew nothing of their origin. They were taller and darker than the Men of Bree and were believed to have strange powers of sight and hearing, and to understand the languages of beasts and birds. They roamed at will southwards, and eastwards even as far as the Misty Mountains; but they were now few and rarely seen. When they appeared they brought news from afar, and told strange forgotten tales which were eagerly listened to; but the Bree-folk did not make friends of them.
Strider, then, is simply one of these “Rangers,” a “mysterious,” dwindling and wandering folk who are “taller and darker” than other men, had “strange powers of sight and hearing and are able to commune with animals. What is important to note, however, is that the Rangers are only introduced after–immediately after, mind you–a discussion of the ancient kings of Númenor. The Men of Bree, we are told, counted themselves the “descendants of the first Men that ever wandered into the West of the middle-world. Few had survived the turmoils of the Elder Days: but when the Kings returned again over the Great Sea they had found the Bree-men still there, and they were still there now, when the memory of the old Kings had faded into the grass.” What this passage says is that the Men of Bree who were there when Númenórean kings first returned from over the sea are still there now, whereas the memory of the kings themselves has become forgotten. What the passage carefully does not say is that the Númenórean kings themselves were no longer there, for of course, the reality is that, while they may be forgotten, they are not gone.
As I say, it is immediately on the heels of this discussion that the narration turns to the Rangers. “In those days no other Men has settled dwellings so far west, or within a hundred leagues of the Shire. But in the wild lands beyond Bree there were mysterious wanderers. The Bree-folk called them Rangers, and knew nothing of their origin.” The reason the Bree-folk knew nothing of their origins, it turns, is one that we have already been told: these are the descendants of the Númenóreans from over the sea whose memory has now “faded into the grass.” And this is who Strider is.
Thus, long before the reader gets to the third part of The Lord of the Rings and its theme of the “return of the king,” he is introduced to those ancients kings who long ago “returned” to Middle-earth over the Great Sea to find men living in Bree, kings whose identity has since become forgotten, but not, as it turns out, because they are no longer present. And it is the descendent and heir to these kings who has made yet another “return” to Bree and whom we meet with Frodo “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony.”