This is the longest chapter since “A Shadow of the Past” and it’s all about building up the suspense.
And it’s there right from the start when we get a truly excellent cut back to the Shire and Fatty Bolger in Crickhollow. It would have been very easy to simply leave him out of the rest of the story. After all, no one really cares about him. Instead, we get a page and a half that manages to scare the life out of the reader and make the Black Riders even more threatening as they finally start getting physical. You got that sense of precision deadliness about them, as they surround the small cottage and wait for the moment to strike.
Poor Fatty, given a near-suicidal task, runs off and his actions end up showing us that the hobbits can actually rouse themselves when the need arises and have a communication system in place for such an occurrence. There is a great sense in those paragraphs of the Ringwraiths plan turning against them rapidly and their need to stay covert being threatened. The kind of arrogant thought process as they leave the Shire (“Let the little people blow!”) is there to remind us that they aren’t actually threatened by the hobbits, but they don’t want to get into a messy confrontation (even if they’d win). As it is, the ruse/diversion is up: the Black Riders are all after Frodo and company now and the tension is racked up accordingly.
This is our last glimpse of the Shire until the penultimate chapter of the story and it serves as some decent foreshadowing of what will occur there, with the horn call of Buckland being sounded.
Back in Bree, things get even more nerve wracking when the hobbits wake to find their intended room for the night trashed. The implication here is that it might have been just a man, the finger pointed at the “slant-eyed southerner” from the previous chapter, but think about it: they managed to break in, wreck the place and get out without being seen or heard. Nope, has to be Ringwraiths. That’s a horrifying thought, that these guys were that close to the party without them realising it. But, it always raises a pertinent question about the Ringwraiths, which I’ll get to in a minute.
As vicious as the enemies are, they’re also smart. Scattering the groups ponies ensures that the party will have to move slowly towards Rivendell and delays their departure from Bree. We’re not getting that the bad guys have a very real intelligence, one that the hobbits don’t share.
The hobbits, through the course of this chapter, do seem to be getting better at this whole travelling malarkey, accepting heavier loads, less food and the pains of walking for more than two straight weeks. They’re toughing up a bit, only natural after so much time.
There is a bit here where the group ask Butterbur if it’s possible to buy a pack animal in the town and the barman’s stuttering, negative response could only remind me of this from “Blackadder the Third”:
Hire a horse!? For ninepence? On Jewish New Year in the rain!? A bare fortnight after the dreaded Horse Plague of Old London Town!? With the blacksmith’s strike in its fifth week and the Dorset Horse Fetishists Fair tomorrow!?
We got a dose of karma writing here, as Tolkien tells us that Butterbur ends up getting the ponies back and making a profit of them. This little bit is a tad unnecessary and seems to exist only to give the innkeeper a reward for being so nice to the party. It’s not the last time we’ll see this sort of karmic reward style stuff either.
Aragorn’s character comes on in leaps and bounds in this chapter. He’s made a plan and he’s making the best of a terrible situation. He does his best to throw the bad guys off the trail coming out of Bree, and leads the group to Weathertop without incident. He’s clearly learned in history and poetry and does whatever he can to keep the groups morale up, whether it be through song or positive thinking (such as dismissing the loss of the ponies at Bree). Aragorn seems to be someone who recognises that fighting isn’t an option and that all they can do is harden their resolve against the coming dangers. He has a bit of a reputation in Bree, silencing people with a stare.
We also get a few interesting tidbits on the character. He’s superstitious: balking at the mention of wraiths and Mordor. He namedrops Bilbo, giving us our first scrap of info on that character since “Many Meetings” (interestingly enough, Frodo doesn’t seem to react to that). He seems to know an awful lot about the Black Riders, indicating previous experience. And he’s a damn fine storyteller.
But, something is amiss here. The aim is the watchtower of Weathetop but once they get there Strider is concerned that the Black Riders might be heading that way too. It’s written somewhat oddly, almost as if Aragorn only realised how risky heading to Weathertop was once he was nearly there. I can’t really reconcile that other than surmising that there was no other legitimate path to take.
On the Ringwraiths, we learn they cannot perceive they world normally, but use other senses, some outside the realm of mortals. Just when they couldn’t be any creepier. Moreover, they are drawn to the Ring.
But that doesn’t really add up, at least not in the way Aragorn says it. The Wraiths have been inches away from the Ring twice now (on the road in “Three is Company” and earlier in this chapter) and didn’t seem to sense it then. It would seem that they are drawn to the Rings power, but not in a kind of homing beacon sense. I wish that was better quantified in the text because Aragorn basically implies that all of their hiding and sneaking is somewhat pointless.
A snippet of dialogue in that regard, where Frodo casually remarks upon his losing weight turning him into a Wraith is a nicely subtle bit of foreshadowing of what will be the main crisis of the following chapter.
A word on Sam in this chapter. He nails Bill Ferny with an apple, illustrating the hobbits’ inbred accuracy with throwing objects. In this, he shows backbone and courage (as well as a streak of viciousness) in standing up against evil forces, which we’ll see more and more as we go on. We have a truly surprising moment with his recitation of a beautiful few verses of Elvish poetry. This harks back to his obsession with Elves and their culture to which he seems to be clinging too in the darkness.
Most of the chapter is concerned with the journey of the party through “the wilds”. It’s as brief as we’ve seen from Tolkien: he skips through several days in a few paragraphs, in what I suppose is an attempt to portray the land as boring as possible. The Midgewater Marshes get an effective description as an insect filled hell hole, one that anyone who has spent time in the countryside can relate to.
The sequence where the party observe strange lights in the distance is an interesting touch, one that adds an element of advancing towards trouble and mystery, especially with the suggested Gandalf connection. Approaching Weathertop, an area once at the heart of ancient Kingdoms, we get a very real sense of walking through history, as the party navigates old lost roads and ruins.
This is continued on Weathertop itself, which has an almost haunted feel about it, a lost structure in the middle of a lawless land. The Gandalf mystery takes a turn here, with the suggestion that he was attacked unexpectedly only growing the tension that has been strengthening for the last few chapters. When someone as powerful as Gandalf was in trouble, you know bad stuff is happening.
And then the Ringwraiths turn up and the suspense rockets, more so because the party is now stuck at Weathertop (Why was this the goal again?). It’s amazing how some black flecks in the distance can do that, but that’s the payoff for the buildup of these characters, which has been going for nine chapters now.
On Weathertop, with danger closing in, Frodo feels the true weight of his quest for the first time, which I find perfectly in keeping with the character that has been presented to us so far, the one that dallied in leaving the Shire, and freaked out in the Old Forest. Now he gets it, now, halfway into the wilds. I suppose it’s a testament to the depressing environment that it finally has Frodo realise what he’s up against it. He’ll be getting a more direct demonstration shortly.
Very briefly, on Merry. He points out in a short exposition scene that the Black Riders don’t seem to see, but rather smell. I liked that it was Merry who remembers this and posits it during the discussion, emphasising the more logical head on his shoulders.
There is an excellent tension break scene here, where Aragorn sings and later recounts the tale of Beren and Luthien which is told in The Silmarillion. The story has connections to the Aragorn character (not exactly recycled for him and Arwen, but many similar elements) and to Tolkien himself (who based Beren and Luthien on himself and his wife Edith) hence its inclusion here. It’s a classic old style lay tale and it helps to add a greater depth to the history of the universe Tolkien is presenting, by showing us that world has its own ancient heroes and legends, dark dangers long past that dwarf the current troubles, something that will be touched upon again by Sam in Book Four. The story itself is, as Aragorn puts it, uplifting yet sad.
The inevitable attack comes and it’s the most tense, heart racing moment in the story so far. Amazingly well written, with Tolkien having built the Black Riders up in the mind of the reader for so long. All that build-up pays off here. The Wraiths advance, the hobbits cower and it looks like we’re gazing into the jaws of disaster.
The Witch-King is positively identified here for the first time, perhaps the key, physical villain of the entire story, alongside Saruman, though for now he’s little more than a Wraith with a crown. The connection between the closeness of the Wraith’s presence and the Rings power is confirmed, as Frodo can no longer avoid putting it on. Frodo becomes the victim of an horrific attack, “a dart of poisoned ice” in his shoulder. His defence is to call on the ancient magic of the Elvish language, something we’ll see again later in the story, and strike back as best he can. Our last moment in the chapter is watching Aragorn fling himself at the Wraiths without support, as Frodo loses consciousness. You couldn’t write a better cliffhanger as only the second real action scene of the book so far comes to a close.
The events of this chapter get cut up a bit for the movie. The Ringwraith attack on the inn gets shown as a sort of tension filled fake-out which I didn’t especially like, since it was obvious they weren’t actually about to kill the heroes 40 minutes into the movie. The travel time to Weathertop gets slashed in the theatrical cut, with a few deleted scenes of the wilds and Marshes making it into the extended edition, though its short and not especially relevant to the plot other than to depict the hobbits as miserable in the environment.
The stupidity of the party (except Frodo) is played up as they light a very visible fire on Weathertop, an inversion of the book where Aragorn lights a fire over the warnings of the hobbits, arguing that it doesn’t really matter because the Wraiths know where they are (and that fire is a useful weapon).
The Wraith attack is done especially well, with the tiny hobbits dwarfed by the black figures who advance in formation and move their swords in symmetry with each other. Unlike the book, Sam has a go at the Wraiths and gets tossed aside; Merry and Pippin stand in front of Frodo and suffer a similar fate. Frodo’s vision of the Wraith’s true nature is suitably creepy and unnerving as is the titular “knife in the dark”.
Aragorn turns up and we get to see him take on the Wraiths by himself, a scene absent from the book, but which allows Jackson to show Aragorn as the brave warrior in the movie (Aragorn isn’t really shown fighting until four chapters from now in the book). However, the fact that Aragorn leaves the hobbits on their own for hours in the move, ostensibly to “have a look round” is very strange and is never rightly explained or commented on, serving only to explain why he doesn’t attack the Wraiths immediately when they arrive (it is never explained why he doesn’t in the book either). The attack itself is moved from a dell on the hill, to the ruins of the Watchtower itself, a suitably creepy location for it. The Ringwraith chorus is perfect as well, an unnerving and chilling choir.
Briefly, I’d also like to mention another deleted scene, as close an adaptation of The Silmarillion tale as Jackson made. After showing off his prowess as a hunter, Aragorn is spotted by a wakeful Frodo singing the lay. When asked by the Ring-bearer he gives a brief description of the songs tale, focusing on Luthian’s decision to love a mortal man. When Frodo asked “What happened to her?” the response is a simple, softly spoken “She died.” I think it’s a pity the scene got cut, because it sets up the entire Aragorn/Arwen subplot, far better than her unexpected appearance shortly after did.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.