(Updated on 30/08/2022)
This is the longest chapter since “The Shadow of the Past” and, in many respects, it’s all about building up suspense (and is that the best chapter title so far?).
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, the fifth Beatle. After all, no one really cares that much about him. Instead, we get a page and a half that perhaps manages to scare the life out of the reader and make the Black Riders even more threatening, as they finally start getting physical and showing that they are capable of more than being unnerving. You got that sense of precision deadliness about them, as they surround the small cottage and wait for the moment to strike: “a black shadow moved under the trees; the gate seemed to open of its own accord and close again without a sound…he knew that he must run for it, or perish”. Finally, they make a large and imposing reveal of themselves, and their allegiance, no longer willing to just be a shadowy threat: “Open in the name of Mordor!”
Poor Fatty, realising now that he has been 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. And their call, in a line of exquisite beauty “rent the night like a fire on a hill-top” (Oh, how I wish I could write like that). There is a great feeling in these 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! Sauron would deal with them later…”) 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 surely win). As it is, the ruse/diversion of Merry is up: the Black Riders are all after Frodo and company properly now and the tension is racked up accordingly: “They rode down the guards at the gate and vanished from the Shire.”
This is also 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 and the hobbits suddenly finding themselves in the middle of great events that they can’t really comprehend. The look back to home lacks much comfort for the reader then, and the next time we see the Shire it will only have gotten worse.
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: whoever did it managed to break in, wreck the place and get out without being seen or heard. It has to be Ringwraiths, some of them anyway. 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 group’s ponies ensures that the party will have to move slowly towards Rivendell and delays their departure from Bree (as well as denying the ponies the chance to make it to Rivendell, a tragedy that Tolkien feels is worth noting about them in the text, such is its magnitude). We’re getting that the bad guys have a very real intelligence, one that the hobbits haven’t really shared up to this point. They can’t openly attack the party at this time, but they can set it up so it will be easier later.
The hobbits, through the course of this chapter, do seem to be getting better at travelling, accepting heavier loads, less food and the pains of walking for more than two straight weeks. They’re toughening up a bit, which is only natural after so much time. It’s an important evolution for the characters: not that things are going to get really dicey, Tolkien has to show how the party can get out of it and make it believable. It isn’t just that Aragorn is around to steer them on the right path, though that it is a huge factor. It’s also that the experiences they have already gone through are turning them into harder people.
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 in the follow-up, as Tolkien tells us that Butterbur ends up getting the ponies back and making a profit off 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 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, (it falls very directly in one instance later “now that Strider was no longer speaking“) 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 and reminding us of the public perception of the Rangers. Later, his sombre mood will infect others: “You do make me feel uncomfortable and lonesome, Strider!” Sam will say, but in truth the party would be lost without him.
We also get a few interesting morsels on the character besides. 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 it at all). 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 Weathertop 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, and that the hope of meeting Gandalf banished other concerns. Or maybe Aragorn just wants to have a look around from that high ground, and is as careful as he can about getting that look. But, as we will see more in the course of The Fellowship Of The Ring, Aragorn isn’t without his flaws as a leader.
On the Ringwraiths, we learn they cannot perceive the world normally, but use other senses, some outside the realm of mortals. Just when they couldn’t be any creepier. Moreover, they are stated as being drawn to the Ring: “Also,’ he added, and his voice sank to a whisper, ‘the Ring draws them.” 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 Ring’s 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, that the Ringwraiths, sniffer dog like, will always be able to find them, but that just doesn’t hold up with what happens in the story. 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’ instinctual 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. It’s no battle to the death with Shelob, but it’s on that path. We also get a moment of great deadpan humour from him, as he quips “Waste of a good apple” after nailing Ferny with it. More interestingly, we read a truly surprising moment with his recitation of a few beautiful 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. It’s a nice little poem too, like the epic nature of Elvish poetry mixing with more down to Earth hobbit rhymes:
“Gil-galad was an Elven-king.
Of him the harpers sadly sing:
the last whose realm was fair and free
between the Mountains and the Sea…”
Strider notes that this most be a translation of Bilbo’s, and again I am struck by the fact that it goes strangely un-noted by the other hobbits that Strider apparently knows Frodo’s uncle.
Much 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, but also clear is an undeniable sense of menace: “…they saw no sign and heard no sound of any other living thing all that day“. Such absence of noise in this moment is not a comfort, and neither really is the occasional appearance of avians, as Strider notes that “Not all the birds are to be trusted“. 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, not dissimilar to the overall feel of “Fog On The Barrow-Downs”, as Merry notes. The tension is ramping up-and-up as we go on, as exemplified by Strider’s harsh reaction to that throwaway joke by Frodo:
“‘I hope the thinning process will not go on indefinitely, or I shall become a wraith.’
‘Do not speak of such things!’ said Strider quickly, and with surprising earnestness.”
This is continued on Weathertop itself, which has a very haunted feel about it – “very cheerless and
uninviting” says Merry – 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 pages. 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 build-up of these characters, which has been going for nine chapters now. Things seem to be at their worst, with the party surrounded and no way out, but the usually grim Strider suddenly changes his tune: “There is still hope…You are not alone.”
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: “He wished bitterly that his fortune had left him in the quiet and beloved Shire. He stared down at the hateful Road, leading back westward – to his home”. 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 very shortly, and “A Knife In The Dark” is a true threshold moment for Frodo.
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 shoulder that we have witnessed before. Pippin gets very little in this chapter, his usual boisterousness silenced, though his own change, as he is noted trying to appear “tougher than he looked (or felt)” is also there.
There is an excellent tension break scene that follows, where Aragorn sings and later recounts the tale of Beren and Luthien which is told in The Silmarillion. I won’t post any of the lengthy poem here, but will say that it is strangely compelling in its structure and imagery, a good accompaniment to the larger tale. The story has connections to the Aragorn character (not exactly recycled for him and Arwen, but containing many similar elements) and to Tolkien (who based Beren and Luthien at least somewhat 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, and is further something very beautiful in the harsh and dark landscape that the party finds themselves in.
I’d also like to mention a deleted scene from Peter Jackson’s adaptation. After showing off his prowess as a hunter, Viggo Mortenson’s Aragorn is spotted by Elijah Woods’ wakeful Frodo singing the lay. When asked by the Ring-bearer he gives a brief description of the songs tale, focusing on Luthien’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.
The inevitable attack comes and it’s the tensest, heart racing moment in the story so far. It is a scene that is very well written, with Tolkien having built the Black Riders up in the mind of the reader for so long:
“Over the lip of the little dell, on the side away from the hill, they felt, rather than saw, a shadow rise, one shadow or more than one. They strained their eyes, and the shadows seemed to grow. Soon there could be no doubt:
Three or four tall black figures were standing there on the slope, looking down on them. So black were they that they seemed like black holes in the deep shade behind them. Frodo thought that he heard a faint hiss as of venomous breath and felt a thin piercing chill. Then the shapes slowly advanced…”
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. Frodo see’s the Wraiths for what they really are:
“There were five tall figures: two standing on the lip of the dell, three advancing. In their white faces burned keen and merciless eyes; under their mantles were long grey robes; upon their grey hairs were helms of silver; in their haggard hands were swords of steel.”
I love this bit of descriptive writing, if only because it paints its picture with enough gaps for the audience to fill in in themselves. The Ringwraiths are undoubtedly human-like beyond their outward hoods and cloaks, but also inhuman. We immediately picture a walking corpse, though not a shambling one: the hands might be “haggard”, but they carry swords that rush forward. Their outward display of physical violence earlier in the chapter, the implied battle of lights with Gandalf, the uneasy feeling that all of the protagonists feel around them (like they are “wrong” in the living world), and this unnerving description are the brilliant touches that Tolkien makes to them in this section, before the final encounter. Strider steps up and gets the hobbits ready as much as he can: “Keep close to the fire, with your faces outward!…Get some of the longer sticks ready in your hands!”
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 other Ringwraiths pause when Frodo draws his Numenorean sword, perhaps a little unnerved to see such a blade in the hands of their target, a blade that can do them harm, but not the Witch-King: “He sprang forward and bore down on Frodo.” The connection between the closeness of the Wraith’s presence and the Ring’s power is confirmed, as Frodo can no longer avoid putting it on: “The desire to do this laid hold of him, and he could think of nothing else”. Frodo becomes the victim of an horrific attack, “a dart of poisoned ice” in his shoulder, having done more than any of his companions in simply drawing his sword and making a desperate strike. But that is just folly of its own, and the Ring will provide no salvation here either. His true 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. The words are important: time and again, as you might well expect from somebody of Tolkien’s literary and academic background, we see that words have a greater power than their own form. Remember how Aragorn balked at talk of Wraiths and Mordor earlier in the chapter, as if the words might summon those very foes?
Our last moment in the chapter is watching Aragorn, “as through a swirling mist”, fling himself at the Wraiths without support, “a flaming brand of wood in either hand”. Here is the hero of the story proving his mettle for the first time, and it too had a build-up that paid off: Aragorn is terrified of the Black Riders, and outlined clearly how they fear and prey on the living. But he still charges at them, and without compunction. “If by my life or death I can save you, I will.”
Frodo loses consciousness, his hand grasped tightly around the Ring. You couldn’t write a better cliff-hanger as only the second real “action” scene of the book so far comes to a close. No epic battles here, just terrified hobbits having a brush with death, their final fate left to the next page.
This chapter needs to keep up the high tempo of intrigue, interest and engagement that the Bree pages have managed to instil in the reader, and it does that with aplomb. It could easily all turn to a mess, with the long distance to be travelled for only a little pay-off in the end. But Tolkien fills the intervening pages with great moments and decent characterisation: the Crickhollow interlude, the aftermath of the night attack in the Prancing Pony, Sam’s encounter with Bill Ferny, the Midgewater Marshes, Sam’s poetry, the location of Weathertop, the Gandalf mystery, and the tale of Luthien. And all of that comes before the attack of the Ringwraiths, arguably the very best moment of the story so far, where The Lord Of The Rings, having meandered a little bit and threatened to become a dull fantasy bore at times, firmly establishes itself as the book you can’t put down. “A Knife In The Dark” is a very strong chapter, that does so much good for the story generally and the characters that are inhabiting it. The deadly peril of the party is described in great terms, and Frodo’s fate is very much up in the air.
We’ll find a resolution to that cliff-hanger, and to Book One, next time.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.
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Strider attacks the Riders in the book.He waves fire at them,and Frodo cuts some of a Riders robe off
Did I claim otherwise?
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