Mar 13, 2017

Let's Read Tolkien 30: A Knife in the Dark

As they prepared for sleep in the inn at Bree, darkness lay on Buckland; a mist strayed in the dells and along the river-bank.

Remember Fatty Bolger? The hobbit who was fat, stayed behind in Crickhollow to pretend to be Frodo and was fat? In Tolkien's stories, fat people are comical, constantly shamed for their weight, but occasionally in very real danger, and this is one of the latter cases. In the middle of the night, three Black Riders surround Frodo's house in Crickhollow, and in the darkest hour before dawn, they smash the door open and break in. Fredegar is nowhere to be found: as soon as he saw the shadows coming, he hightailed it out the back door amd ran a straight mile to the nearest house, without a fat joke in sight. The neighbors make out that he's been attacked somehow, and sound the alarm. Amidst the blowing of the hobbits' horns, the Black Riders charge out through the North-gate and vanish into the wilderness.

Meanwhile, in Bree, Frodo sleeps uneasily, dreaming of galloping horses and horn-calls. In the morning, the hobbits find their rooms ransacked and their beds torn apart. Barliman Butterbur is terrified, and when he hurries off to make preparations for Frodo and company's departure, the news only gets worse: the attackers - we presume the Black Riders - also opened the stable doors and drove out all the horses and ponies. After hours of searching, the only mount the hobbits can secure is a pony owned by Bill Ferny, available for a shocking price. Butterbur pays for it, and even compensates Merry for the loss of the hobbits' ponies. The narrative breaks continuity for a moment here to tell us that the ponies made their way to Tom Bombadil, who sent them back to Butterbur once he heard what happened, so Barliman ended up all right.

It's already midmorning when the hobbits and Strider eventually manage to leave, and a crowd has gathered to see them off. As they pass Bill Ferny's house, he shows up to taunt them, but Sam throws an apple at him. In one of our first encounters with Tolkienian racial profiling, they also spot the "sallow face with sly, slanting eyes" that belongs to the "southerner", who witnessed Frodo's performance at the inn, hanging out with Ferny. "He looks more than half like a goblin," thinks Frodo, who to our knowledge has never seen a goblin in his life, but is a well-bred enough gentlehobbit to immediately associate foreigners with orcishness.

Eventually, the crowd following them gives up, and soon thereafter Strider leads them off the road to the north. At first, they make as if they're heading for Archet, another village in Bree-land, and after several doublebacks and other rangerlike maneuvers, they strike out east for Weathertop. On the third day, they leave the Chetwood and enter the open country around Weathertop and find their first obstacle: the Midgewater Marshes. Finding a way through is difficult enough, and the hobbits are mercilessly assaulted by clouds of tiny midges that get all over them and bite the shit out of them. At night, the midges are joined by some "evil relatives of the cricket" that make a horrible racket. It takes the company several days to make their way through the marshes, and on the night of the fourth day, Frodo and Aragorn see mysterious white flashes of light, like lightning, on the eastern horizon.

As Frodo and company clear the marshes, the ground starts to rise, and they see a line of hills in the distance. Strider identifies the most prominent of them as Weathertop. He suggests they should head for it, hoping perhaps to meet Gandalf, although he admits the hope is slim. He leads the hobbits into the hills, where they find scattered ruins and a road leading toward Weathertop. Ruins make Merry nervous, so he asks if there's a barrow on the hill. Strider explains that the ruins are remains of the northern kingdom, and the road they're on was built to serve the great watchtower of Amon Sûl on what is now Weathertop, where Elendil awaited Gil-galad. The hobbits, who still think of Strider as something of a brigand, are astonished to hear him spouting ancient lore. No less astonishingly, when Merry asks who Gil-galad was, he gets an answer in the form of poetry - from Sam! It turns out Bilbo had taught him some of his translation of the Fall of Gil-galad. Showing his usual self-restraint, Pippin starts shouting about Mordor, only to be shushed by Strider.

Around noon, the travellers reach Weathertop. They find a sheltered hollow on the west side, where Sam and Pippin wait while the others head to the summit. There they find an impressive view of the country, traces of a fire among the ruins, and a mark possibly left by Gandalf, which they interpret as meaning that he had been there three days ago - when Frodo and Strider saw the flash of light on the horizon. Strider reasons that Gandalf must have been attacked there, and that they must make their own way forward. He reckons they have about a fortnight's journey ahead of them, avoiding the road.

Their reckonings are interrupted, however, when Frodo spots riders on the road below them. Strider and the hobbits take cover and leave the summit, but there's no doubt that the enemy is here. Back in the dell, Sam and Pippin have found water and firewood, and thoroughly trampled some tracks that Strider had neglected to examine. As they discuss their situation, Merry quite intelligently asks whether the Riders can, in fact, see. Strider explains that their horses can see, and they can sense living creatures - and the Ring. If they left the dell now, they'd almost certainly be seen before they made it far. His plan is to camp there and build a fire, using it for defence; the Riders, he says, fear fire.

This they do, and as evening draws near, they have a frugal meal and bemoan their lack of provisions. Strider tells them stories of ancient times, culminating in a song several pages long about Beren and Lúthien. He also gives them a prose version of the story: Beren's love for Lúthien, their quest for the Silmarils and their deaths, and their descendants, Elrond and the kings of Númenor.

When Strider is finished, night has already fallen, and the moon is rising. Soon, they find themselves surrounded by Black Riders. While the other hobbits are overcome with terror, Frodo feels an irresistible compulsion to put on the Ring. As he does, he can suddenly see the spectral figures of the Black Riders under their robes. As they advance on him, he throws himself at the nearest one, stabbing at its feet and shouting Elbereth. He feels a stabbing pain in his shoulder, and as he slips the Ring from his finger, everything goes dark.


This is quite a chapter: it's almost as long as the previous two combined, and while those were set in the very restricted confines of Bree and a parlor at the Prancing Pony, here we pop back to the Shire, deal with the aftermath of an attack in Bree and range over the wood and marshes of the Lone-lands, and hear the tale of Beren and Lúthien. I very nearly didn't finish this post on time! I did very much enjoy the chapter. Like I've said, I like Tolkien's travelogues, and Strider gives him a vehicle to start getting us properly acquainted with the mythical history of Middle-earth.

I hate to second-guess a ranger, but going to Weathertop seems to have been a terrible idea. Reading closely, I'm struck by how uncertain Aragorn is of what to do in the absence of Gandalf.

"We might reach it by noon tomorrow, if we go straight towards it. I suppose we had better do so."


"I think," answered Strider slowly, as if he was not quite sure, "I think the best thing is to go as straight eastward from here as we can, to make for the line of hills, not for Weathertop. (...) Then we shall see what we shall see."

Here's my objection. If you look at any map of Eriador, there is literally nothing between Bree and Rivendell except the Road and Weathertop. This is the Black Riders' logic at Bree: missing the hobbits there is fine, because there's nowhere they can possibly run or hide once they leave Bree. The Riders will ride them down on the Road. However, their plan fails because the hobbits meet Strider, who can get them to Rivendell without using the Road. Once Frodo and company go off-road, what can the Riders do? It seems like it would be almost impossible for them to track a ranger in the Lone-lands. All they can do is patrol the Road, probably keeping a close eye on the bridges, and head to Weathertop. Since it's an excellent observation post and the only actual landmark or location of any significance between Bree and Rivendell, it's a natural place to keep watch.

In other words, by heading to Weathertop, Strider chooses to go to the one location in Eriador where the Black Riders are most likely to be found. This is honestly another one of those "you had one job" -situations. So why does a massively experienced ranger like Aragorn make such a horrible mistake? He damn near gets Frodo killed and loses the Ring to the Enemy.

The only textual explanation I can give is that the hope of meeting Gandalf is so important to Strider that it outweighs the massive dangers of Weathertop. Indeed, he says as much himself:

"I was too careless on the hill-top," answered Strider. "I was very anxious to find Gandalf; but it was a mistake for three of us to go up and stand there so long."

Not only was staying on the hill-top a careless mistake, but so was coming there in the first place. It's now led to the most dramatic chapter ending so far, with Frodo collapsing to the ground after being stabbed.

Next time: trolls, elves and a flood.


Leon said...

In comparing the book to the film, it's in the film that Jackson did one thing right (IMO), he gave Aragorn a sword. In the book Strider's holding them off with a burning stick... which is fine for Fellowship but kinda falls apart when we read Return and suddenly the power of the Nazgul is exposed. Maybe Eowyn just needed a burning stick? But being Jackson he still made Aragorn just a tad too OP in dispatching the riders. It should have been a more desperate fight with Strider just barely keeping them from taking Frodo and not turning into some 80's action hero.

Michael Halila said...

I disagree completely. Or to be specific, I don't know what you mean by "the power of the Nazgûl". Remember that in the previous chapter, Aragorn reckons that they won't "openly attack a house where there are lights and many people", implying that the guests at the Prancing Pony could have fought them off. It's nowhere shown or even implied that the Nazgul are particularly physically formidable. Their strength is the terror they cause. In the next chapter, Aragorn will maintain that Frodo stabbing a Nazgûl did nothing, or at least less than the name Elbereth. So why would a sword have done any more? Also, Aragorn drives off the Nazgûl when they believe they've succeeded, which we'll be returning to. Unlike Éowyn, he doesn't destroy a single one of them. He also uses fire, which we've specifically been told they're vulnerable to. So in my mind, this part makes perfect sense in terms of what we're told in the books.

Leon said...

But at that point they're very much isolated and there are no real witnesses. Frodo and Aragorn were the only ones not struck immobile by the Nazgul's terror. To me, I feel that after Frodo's incapacitation the Nazgul outnumbered Aragorn and could have tried to strike him down. Yes, the morgul knife would have made Frodo a wraith but they knew the direction of the party and Elrond's skill as a healer. Plus I can't imagine the phone call they had to make to Sauron explaining this...

Michael Halila said...

Could have, possibly. Absolutely should have if they could. I was planning on coming back to this next time, but it's one of several mistakes they make which seem to come down to arrogance and lack of information. In Chapter I of Book 2, Gandalf says that the mightiest of Men couldn't have withstood the Morgul-knife for that long. It seems probable that the Nazgûl had no idea Frodo could possibly get so far. Also, again, as near as I can tell, the only martial prowess the Ring-wraiths ever show is stabbing a hobbit. Yes, they outnumber Aragorn, but could they actually defeat him in combat? Remember that when they see Glorfindel, they panic and run. Aragorn is hardly just anyone either.

But yes, I can imagine the debriefing may have been interesting!

Michael Halila said...

Just to return to this briefly, here's what Strider has to say about Frodo slashing the Witch-king's cloak: "This was the stroke of Frodo's sword [...] The only hurt that it did to his enemy, I fear; for it is unharmed, but all blades perish that pierce that dreadful King." So using a burning stick seems like a very good idea, if fire is effective, because clearly swords are not.

However, Frodo's knife might have been, if he'd only hit the Witch-king!

Michael Halila said...

Reading the History of the Lord of the Rings makes Aragorn's decision to head for Weathertop much more understandable, at least in terms of textual history: in several earlier drafts, Frodo and company were to have met Gandalf there, in which case heading for Weathertop would have made a great deal of sense. Unfortunately, as sometimes happens when revising texts, the original reason was dropped from the narrative, and now the end result doesn't really make sense.