Chapter XI: A Knife in the Dark
There’s a significant change in tone across the last few chapters of Book I of The Fellowship of the Ring. Chapter I, ‘A Long Expected Party’ is a bridge between the children’s tale of The Hobbit and the grown-up tale of The Lord of the Rings. We see a lot of hobbit-talk, a party, and fireworks, but there is little of the greater story until we reach chapter II, ‘The Shadow of the Past’. We’re still working through a lighter story– in spite of the utter weirdness of the Old Forest and Tom Bombadil– right up to ‘The Fog on the Barrow-downs’. From then on, it’s a darker story with a higher tone, more akin to Victorian tales or medieval legends than contemporary fantasies. The tone will change again and again, depending on character and setting, but it will never go back to the light, child-like tone of ‘A Long Expected Party’.
But back to the story. We travel back to the Shire for a page or so. Fredegar Bolger, who remained at the house in Crickhollow, is visited by shadowy figures who frighten him so much that he flees the house and collapses in a nearby town. His panicked babbles tell the Bucklanders that some enemy is coming. They think it’s from the Old Forest and sound the Horn-Call of Buckland, which hasn’t been heard for a century. This rouses the hobbits, and while the ensuing hubbub doesn’t frighten the Black Riders, they do get the heck out of Buckland. The Riders know the Ring isn’t there and they have an errand to complete. No one notices a torn-up cloak left on the doorstep to Frodo’s house.
Meanwhile, back in the main part of the story, the hobbits wake to discover that the Black Riders were in Bree last night, and indeed in the Prancing Pony itself. It’s a good thing they didn’t go back to their original rooms because the Riders attacked it– the beds are shredded and the windows are broken. There was also a raid on the stables, and nearly every horse or pony in town is gone. This is bad news. The hobbits didn’t bring their ponies just for riding. They needed them to carry the food and supplies necessary for a long journey in the wilderness. It’s Autumn now, and they’re headed into a land where no one lives in the time of year when plants and trees are going dormant. There will be little chance for them to find food, and no one to buy it from.
Butterbur does locate a single, wretched pony but it’s Bill Ferny’s and Bill Ferny is an awful person who won’t accept less than three times the poor pony’s value. It’s a blow to the finances of the old innkeeper, but he feels guilty about the letter incident and the loss of the hobbits’ ponies, so he pays. Bill Ferny’s pony is a skinny, dispirited thing, but he perks up under Sam’s care (Sam names the pony Bill). And so, hours later than planned and with the eyes of the entire town on them, Strider leads them out of Bree and down the Road for a long way. Once he’s satisfied that no one is following them, he takes them off the Road and into the wilderness.
As modern people used to cities and civilization, we’re not accustomed to the idea of ‘Wilderness’. To most of us, the wilderness is a pleasant idea, full of trees and flowers and tall grasses, with singing birds and squirrels and foxes scrabbling through the underbrush. It’s a pleasant view of nature, but it’s not an accurate one. Nature at its wildest is hard and unforgiving, full of dangers you’d never expect. And Strider is taking the hobbits deeper into it, through dense underbrush and trees and on into the pathless Midgewater Marshes, where they encounter maddening insects, bitter cold, and damp air. It’s worse than anything they’ve seen before, but there are no enemies on their trail. They’re toughening up and learning to survive on far less food and comfort than they ever thought possible back in the Shire. This education will serve them well on the road ahead.
In the midst of this cold and empty land, the company falls back on storytelling to keep their spirits up. This isn’t the idle gossip from the Green Dragon in Hobbiton, but the telling of great and ancient tales of heroes of the past. Bilbo knew a lot of these legends, and he was happy to tell them to Frodo and Sam, who surprises them all by reciting part of the tale of Gil-galad.
Gil-galad was a king of the Elves during the Second Age, the era when Sauron arose as the greatest enemy of the peoples of Middle-earth. After tricking the Elven smith, Celebrimbor into forging the Great Rings, he attempted to gain power over all the races through the creation of the One Ring. But the Elves resisted and created the Last Alliance between the Elves and the men of Numenor (a fallen kingdom of Men from across the sea, from whom Aragorn is descended). Gil-galad was one of the leaders of the Last Alliance, and in the final push against Sauron, he fell along with High King Elendil (Isildur’s father). Despite their deaths, Isildur cut the Ring from Sauron’s hand, claimed the Ring for his own, and so we have the great events of the Third Age of Middle Earth (which we’re in the middle of right now).
The hobbits want to hear more about Gil-galad, but Strider says no. The tale ends in Mordor, and he counsels them not to speak of that dark land while they’re alone in the wilderness and far from help.
And now for a quick note on Strider. There’s a big difference between book-Strider and movie-Strider. In Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, Aragorn is a conflicted character. The heir of kings, he has no desire to take up the mantle of kingship himself and yet he must take up this mantle of leadership, or else Middle-earth could fall to Sauron. Book-Aragorn isn’t bothered by his status as heir to a great kingdom. But the deeper I look at these chapters, the more uncertainty I see in this character, who is often described as rather arrogant when he isn’t flat. Since he started leading the hobbits, Strider has been uncertain of which path to take them on, and how best to defend them. He might have been slipping through the Enemy’s traps and riding to war for decades, but with this incredible responsibility of protecting the Ringbearer and keeping the Black Riders away on his shoulders, he’s not as sure of himself as he would be if he were alone or traveling with an ordinary group of people.
“’What do you advise us to do?’ asked Frodo.
‘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…”
Strider is not as sure of himself here as he would like to seem, and he’s constantly adjusting his plans. Initially, he didn’t want to go to Weathertop but plans change and he ends up leading them there.
Weathertop is a hill crowned by the ruins of the ancient watchtower of Amon Sul. There are many ruins in this land, as it was once a kingdom of Men, but they were defeated long ago and their territories are now deserted. Think of it like western Europe during the Middle Ages, when the people encountered massive Roman ruins. They knew a great people lived there once, but that was long ago and the secrets of their great buildings were lost, along with much of their history and culture.
Not all the ancient stories are lost, though, as Strider shows when he tells the hobbits part of the story of Beren and Lúthien Tinúviel. This story is one of the three foundational tales of Middle-earth, and it was the one closest to Tolkien’s heart. Lúthien was an Elven princess during the First Age, and her father Thingol’s kingdom of Menegroth was hidden from the rest of the world by the magic of her mother, Melian. Beren was a Man who, because of the doom that lay upon him, found his way into the kingdom in spite of the magic. Lúthien was dancing in a hemlock grove in the forest one day and Beren caught sight of her. They ended up falling in love, and when Lúthien brought Beren to Thingol’s court, he demanded Beren do an impossible task before he could marry her. Angry but undaunted, Beren set out to achieve this task: to bring one of the precious Silmaril jewels back from the crown of Morgoth (the dark lord for whom Sauron was merely a captain in the First Age). Lúthien ended up following Beren into the dark realms along with the great hound Huan, and after much darkness and struggle (in which Lúthien defeated both Sauron and Morgoth), they succeeded in claiming one of the Silmarils. But before they could return it to Thingol, they were attacked by one of Morgoth’s servants, the giant wolf Carcaroth, and Beren’s hand was bitten off and he lost the Silmaril. Ultimately, Beren and Lúthien wed, but their time in this world was short and because Lúthien chose mortality to be with Beren, she died indeed and was lost to her people forever. This is a short version of the tale, of course, and is told far more completely in the book, Beren and Lúthien.
Why is this story, of all the tales Tolkien wrote, the closest to his heart? It is simply this: Tolkien’s wife, Edith, was the love of his life. They were kept apart in their youth and she nearly married another before they could meet again. One day, not too long after they were married, they were walking together in the woods and Edith danced for him in the midst of a flowering hemlock grove, as Lúthien did when she met Beren. For the entirety of their lives together, he regarded her as his Lúthien. After her death in 1971, Tolkien wrote to one of his sons that, “She was my Lúthien, and she knew it…”. If you ever wonder why the greatest beauties of Tolkien’s works (Lúthien and Arwen) have pale skin, dark hair, and grey eyes, look at a photograph of Edith Tolkien from her youth. You’ll see she has pale skin, dark hair, and grey eyes. Other literary marriages might have been more dramatic, but I think the love story of JRR and Edith Tolkien is one of the best of Twentieth century literature.
But back to the story at hand. There’s something about the tale of Beren and Lúthien that affects Strider, but neither we nor the hobbits will find out about it for a few chapters. In the meantime, Strider and hobbits have a look around. This wasn’t the location of a great watchtower for no reason– they can see the land for miles around. Unfortunately, they can be seen for miles around, too, and Sam spies dark figures moving towards Weathertop. Strider realizes the Black Riders have found them at last. They’re trapped, and there’s nothing they can do but prepare.
All too soon the Riders attack. The terror they inspire overwhelms the hobbits, leaving them unable to fight. Frodo feels a compulsion to put the Ring on, in spite of all the warnings he’s received. He doesn’t hope to escape or hide, but some will other than his own wants him to put the Ring on. So he does. He sees the Black Riders’ true forms. They are ancient, haggard figures with cruel eyes. One of them is taller than the other and has a crown on his helmet. He carries a sword in one hand and a knife in the other, and they seem to glow with a light of their own. This is the Witch-king of Angmar, the lord of the Nazgul and leader of the Black Riders. He stabs Frodo in the shoulder.
Frodo falls and cries out, “O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!” and sees Strider wielding flaming brands and driving the Black Riders away. Then he takes the Ring off and falls unconscious.
Chapter XII: Flight to the Ford
Frodo wakes up. The other hobbits are thrilled. It’s been a horrid night, what with the Black Riders attacking them and Frodo disappearing and then reappearing unconscious. And now Strider’s gone. Sam suspects dark motives (again), but it turns out that Strider has been trying to see where the Riders are and what they’re up to. He has good news and bad news. The good news is that they’ve left (yay!). The bad news is that they’ve done their damage, and all they need to do now is wait for whatever poison or weapon they used on Frodo to do its work and turn him into a wraith so they can collect the Ring at their leisure (Boo!). Sam nearly bursts into tears at the news, but Strider tells him not to despair. Hobbits are made of tougher stuff than everyone thinks, he says, and Frodo will last longer than his enemies think he will.
The hobbits are frightened. Frodo is in pain. Strider is grim. They could all use a stiff drink, but Rivendell is the better part of three weeks away. They’ll have to settle for Strider’s herbcraft. He has a few leaves of a plant he calls Athelas, which he tosses into some boiling water. It smells refreshing, calms their nerves, and lessens Frodo’s pain. He’s regretting that he put the Ring on and obeyed the wishes of his enemies. But I can’t blame him. The Ring has a powerful effect on the mind, and it wants to be found. With Sauron’s greatest servants nearby, its effects are surely magnified by the fear they exude. It’s not the first time Frodo’s mind has been suborned by the Ring, and it won’t be the last.
When morning comes, the company divides their luggage among them and get Frodo onto Bill’s back. He’s too weak to walk, but they have to keep moving. The Black Riders are all around them, waiting. They must reach Rivendell, or else all is lost.
It’s a long, long journey. Frodo is in immense pain, and the longer the journey goes the more the world starts to fade to his sight, except during the night. They carry on gloomily, though Strider finds an Elvish token (a green beryl, or Elfstone) on a bridge. He doesn’t know how it got there, but he decides to take it as a good sign.
They soon pass into the woods where Bilbo and the thirteen dwarves encountered three trolls. Pippin and Merry, who were scouting ahead, come back with stories of trolls ahead, but Strider admonishes them for forgetting everything they know about trolls– it’s the middle of a sunny day! Trolls can’t survive in the sunlight, after all. Sam sings a silly song about trolls, which seems to cheer everyone up. Frodo says he’s learning a lot about Samwise Gamgee and wonders if e will end up becoming a wizard or a warrior by journey’s end.
“‘I hope not,’ said Sam, ‘I don’t want to be neither!’”
Sam’s showing his good hobbit sense here. He knows what his skills are, and magic and fighting aren’t among them. Good hobbit sense will see a person through many perils.
The continue toward Rivendell and are trying to figure out where to make camp when they hear hoofbeats ahead. It scares them at first. The only riders they’ve seen are Black Riders, but they quickly see that this rider is an Elf. The horse is white and its tack is decorated with jewels. The rider has golden hair, and Frodo seems to see a brilliant light shining through the rider, as though his body and clothes were only a veil. This light is a sort of signature of the Elves, especially the Elves of the First Age when they were at the height of their power. And this Elf, Glorfindel, is an Elf of the First Age. He is, in fact, a badass. Way back during one of the wars of the First Age, Glorfindel took on a balrog. By himself. This ‘demon of the ancient world’, an evil spirit of fire, servant of Morgoth. And Glorfindel defeated him. Granted, he was killed doing the deed, but he’s not less of a badass for it. Because of his courage and the great things he did in service of others, Glorfindel was sent back to Middle-earth in a new body. There he did more great deeds. About a thousand years earlier, he helped defeat the Witch-king of Angmar at the Battle of Fornost. There, he made a particular prophecy: “Do not pursue him! He will not return to this land. Far off yet is his doom, and not by the hand of man will he fall.” Of course, everyone took this to mean he was talking about Mankind, and not the male gender, because of course. But the prophecy is out there now. So is the Witch-king, who is the Lord of the Nazgul, aka the leader of the Black Riders. And now Glorfindel’s there, too. Finally! Someone who can stand against the Black Riders!
As it turns out, Elrond sent Glorfindel out to look for Strider and the hobbits, because when one small person who lacks martial skill is carrying the most powerful bit of jewelry ever created, it’s a good idea to send your best people to find him. Elrond sent Glorfindel. Peter Jackson sent Arwen. I get it. Arwen didn’t have much to do in the films, and you don’t want to spend a bunch of time introducing a character who will barely be in it. I appreciate the change, and I like what Liv Tyler did with the role. But I still would have liked to have seen Glorfindel on screen.
Anyway. Strider tells Glorfindel all that has befallen them and shows him the Witch-king’s sword hilt. The blade itself turned to dust just after the attack. Then Glorfindel examines Frodo’s wound. It’s nearly closed, but he’s still in pain and the world is still fading. At Glorfindel’s touch, things get clearer and the pain lessens. The Elf-lord decides that Frodo will ride his horse, Asfaloth because Asfaloth can outrun even the horses of the Black Riders. Frodo objects to this. He refuses to leave his friends behind in danger. Glorfindel just smiles. “‘I doubt very much,’ he said, ‘if your friends would be in danger if you were not with them. The pursuit would follow you and leave us in peace, I think. It is you, Frodo, and that which you bear that brings us all into peril.’”
They continue on, traveling as fast as their tired legs allow. Though Glorfindel has an amazing Elvish brew that perks everyone up, Frodo’s pain is growing again. After a couple more days of travel, they’re finally nearing the River Bruinen and the Ford of Rivendell. All they need to do is cross the Ford, and they’re safe. But there’s a long last mile left, and the Black Riders have caught up to them. The company is nearing safety and they have a powerful Elven lord with them. The Riders have decided to attack them in force.
Glorfindel urges Frodo to ride on, and though Asfaloth starts to run, Frodo checks him. He feels that strange compulsion to stay and put the Ring on. He recognizes that it’s not his own will at work, that the Riders are compelling his obedience. Finally, Glorfindel issues a command to Asfaloth, and the horse springs forward, racing toward the Ford just ahead of the Black Riders. They get across the Bruinen and up onto the far shore. But the Riders are closing in, and this time neither Strider nor Glorfindel is there to save him. Frodo resists their commands to the last, declaring, “By Elbereth and Luthien the Fair… you shall have neither the Ring nor me!”
The Black Riders start into the river, making a last effort to command Frodo, who is stricken with fear. Suddenly, the river starts to rise in a flash flood. There are shapes of white riders on white horses, and the water overcomes the Black Riders who were in the water. The rest fall back but are assailed by a shining figure followed by smaller, shadowy forms wielding fire. The black horses panic and are swept away by the river.
Then Frodo falls and remembers nothing more.
Next Week: The company sees some new faces, some old faces, and Elrond leads up the board meeting to end all board meetings in Book II, chapters I and II- ‘Many Meetings’ and ‘The Council of Elrond’