According to a draft for the events that Tolkien wrote at some point, and which is included in Hammond and Scull's The LOTR: A Reader's Companion, "The Inn attacked by the two Riders* in early hours before dawn". So, apparently, it was the Black Riders after all.
Rowan, I've seen this fragment mentioned as a proof of the Riders' guilt before. I don't know the timing of it, though. At one point in Tolkien's drafts, the Riders really were just men in black on horses, and were quite capable of such petty offenses. Only later did they turn into the wraiths of doom.
I usually prefer to wait until the whole chapter has been discussed before turning to the Reader's Companion, but since this came up, I decided to look this up.
It's not from one of the old drafts of this chapter that this statement comes from. It's from one of the portions of the "Hunt for the Ring" texts that was not included in UT. What it states is quite interesting, actually:
[The other two] failed in their 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.
This was written after LOTR was published (but before the second edition). It's possible that it wasn't Tolkien's intention at the time he wrote this that it was the Riders that attacked the Inn, but he certainly concluded that it was afterwards. And there really isn't any reason to believe that he changed his mind. There's nothing in the original draft of the chapter that shed's any light on the subject. It pretty reached the final form right from the beginning; which is to say vague enough to be either the Riders or their surrogates.
I particularly liked the passage describing the southern travellers the morning after the attack. They are all set to blame Butterbur for the loss of their horses, until it is realized that one of their companions has also disappeared in the night. None other than the squint-eyed southerner seen in Bill Ferny's company. Butterbur tells them to "Go and ask Ferny where your handsome friend is!". Then Tolkien slips in the signifcant line "But it appeared that he was nobody's friend, and nobody could recollect when he had joined their party."
I was wondering about the reference to Elendil standing on Weathertop (Amon Sûl) and watching for the coming of Gil-galad out of the West, in the days of the Last Alliance.
Does anyone think this is a reference to Elendil using one of the Palantíri, rather than actually seeing the host with his naked eye?
Elen, I like that passage with the southern travelers, too. It's one of those places where Tolkien shows a keen insight into human nature.
As for whether the reference to Elendil is to his using the palantír, it could well be. I don't think I had ever given that much thought, but it makes good sense.
Just a few thoughts: The "Horn-call of Buckland": AWAKE! FEAR! FIRE! FOES! AWAKE! -- seems like an early rehearsal for the grander horns of Rohan.
Tolkien does that type of foreshadowing very well, doesn't he Teremia?
And I really, really appreciate the completely unnecessary paragraph explaining the further fate of all those ponies stolen (actually: scattered) by the Black Riders: "Merry's ponies had escaped altogether, and eventually (having a good deal of sense) they made their way to the Downs in search of Fatty Lumpkin. So they came under the care of Tom Bombadil for a while, and were well-off. But when news of the events at Bree came to Tom's ears, he sent them to Mr. Butterbur, who ths got five good beasts at a very fair price. They had to work harder in Bree, but Bob treated them well; so on the whole they were lucky: they missed a dark and dangerous journey. But they never came to Rivendell." There we have the pony's-eye view of The Lord of the Rings! I'm glad the ponies are all right (even if they never get to see Rivendell), and I'm also glad Fatty Bolger's all right, back in Buckland. (That's a paragraph with two Fatty's in it, I just now notice.)
The detail about the ponies is the type of thing that separates LOTR not only from other people's writings, but from The Silmarillion
as well. I love those kinds of details; it makes the world so much realer for me. It's why I'm glad that Tolkien didn't have a professional editor, forcing him to remove "unnecessarily and irrelevant" details.
We're not talking about the Nazgûl yet, right? They are very scary in this chapter.
We can talk about them. I just didn't get to the end of the chapter. And I think they are pretty scary even in the beginning of the chapter, when they are shown attacking Crickhollow. Much more so than earlier. They start to become scary for me when Merry describes his encounter with them at the end of the previous chapter. Before then, not so much.