The Black Riders make their move…
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. The house at Crickhollow stood silent. Fatty Bolger opened the door cautiously and peered out. A feeling of fear had been growing on him all day, and he was unable to rest or go to bed: there was a brooding threat in the breathless night-air.
Tolkien is excellent at capturing the feeling of terror, which I suppose is what makes me think of so many of these scenes as horror-esque. But fortunately, Fatty isn’t quite so terrified that he can’t do anything. He escapes the house and raises the alarm in Buckland, which at least prompts the Riders to leave once they’ve confirmed Frodo isn’t there.
As soon as Strider had roused them all, he led the way to their bedrooms. When they saw them they were glad that they had taken his advice: the windows had been forced open and were swinging, and the curtains were flapping; the beds were tossed about, and the bolsters slashed and flung upon the floor; the brown mat was torn to pieces.
So the Riders split up, with some assaulting the house in Buckland and others attacking the inn. It’s interesting how you’re tempted to believe that was the titular “knife in the dark” (Peter Jackson seemed to think so), if only so you can think they manage to make it through the chapter with no real harm. But there have to be consequences for Frodo’s actions the night before.
All plans for leaving Bree quickly and quietly are put on hold, because all of Merry’s ponies have disappeared (along with all the other horses at the inn).
It turned out later that only one horse had actually been stolen. The others had been driven off, or had bolted in terror, and were eventually found wandering about the Bree-land. Merry’s ponies had escaped altogether, and eventually (having a good deal of sense) they made their way to the Downs in search if 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 thus 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.
I kind of like bits like this that explain what happened to some minor character (or in this case, animals) that doesn’t come back into the story again. It makes the present darkness that much more bearable when you know that something ended up going right. But to replace the ponies, they buy a pony for baggage off Bill Ferny (who obviously had something to do with the horses vanishing the night before). The pony is in bad shape, but doesn’t seem to mind long, dangerous journeys with masters that actually care about him.
‘Morning, my little friends!’ [Bill Ferny] said to the others. ‘I suppose you know who you’ve taken up with? That’s Stick-at-naught Strider, that is! Though I’ve heard other names not so pretty. Watch out tonight! And you, Sammie, don’t go ill-treating my poor old pony!’ […]
Sam turned quickly. ‘And you, Ferny,’ he said, ‘put your ugly face out of sight, or it will get hurt.’ With a sudden flick, quick as lightning, an apple left his hand and hit Bill square on the nose. He ducked too late, and curses came from behind the hedge. ‘Waste of a good apple,’ said Sam regretfully, and strode on.
Sam takes a liking to the pony, and becomes almost as protective of it as he is of Frodo, and it is adorable.
Strider leads them off the road, taking them through the Midgewater Marshes, home to the Neeker-breekers (evil cousins of the cricket) and lots and lots of midges. A few days into their journey, they notice a strange light show in the hills at night, but can find no ready explanation for it.
Already they were getting used to much walking on short commons – shorter at any rate than what in the Shire they would have thought barely enough to keep them on their legs. Pippin declared that Frodo was looking twice the hobbit that he had been.
‘Very odd,’ said Frodo, tightening his belt, ‘considering that there is actually a good deal less of me. I hope the thinning process won’t go on indefinitely, or I shall become a wraith.’
‘Do not speak of such things!’ said Strider quickly, and with surprising earnestness.
They (or rather, Strider) intend to stop at the ruined watchtower on Weathertop to see what’s out on the road, and also to look for any sign of Gandalf. They use some old hidden paths to approach it under cover.
‘I wonder who made this path, and what for,’ said Merry, as they walked along one of these avenues, where the stones were unusually large and closely set. ‘I am not sure that I like it: it has a- well, rather a barrow-wightish look. Is there any barrow on Weathertop?’
‘No. There is no barrow on Weathertop, nor on any of these hills,’ answered Strider. ‘The Men of the West did not live here; though in their latter days they defended the hills for a while against the evil that came out of Angmar. This path was made to serve the forts along the walls.’
Merry’s started taking an interest in other cultures, even if he’s still influenced by the “superstitions” of the Shire (it’s kind of hard to call it superstition when he’s actually encountered a barrow-wight, though…). This does confirm that the people who once lived on the Downs were the Men of the West, the ones who resisted Sauron.
And then we discover some of Sam’s hidden depths, as he recites some verses about the Elven-king Gil-galad, when the others ask Strider about him but find him silent.
‘I learned it from Mr. Bilbo when I was a lad. He used to tell me tales like that, knowing how I was always one for hearing about Elves. It was Mr. Bilbo as taught me my letters. He was mighty book-learned was dear old Mr. Bilbo. And he wrote poetry. He wrote what I have just said.’
‘He did not make it up,’ said Strider. ‘It is part of the lay called The Fall of Gil-galad, which is in an ancient tongue. Bilbo must have translated it. I never knew that.’
I love how Tolkien just casually reveals here that Strider is acquainted with Bilbo (in addition to Gandalf, and all the random ancient lore he knows…).
When they finally reach Weathertop, Strider takes Frodo and Merry up to the tower, and they discover a little riddle left for them: A scorched pile of rocks, and a rock on top with some markings scratched onto it.
‘I wish we could feel sure that [Gandalf] made the marks, whatever they may mean,’ said Frodo. ‘It would be a great comfort to know that he was on the way, in front of us or behind us.’
‘Perhaps,’ said Strider. ‘For myself, I believe that he was here, and was in danger. There have been scorching flames here; and now the light that we saw three nights ago in the eastern sky comes back to my mind. I guess that he was attacked on this hilltop, but with what result I cannot tell. He is here no longer, and we must now look after ourselves and make our own way to Rivendell, as best we can.’
But then they see Black Riders gathering on the road, and Strider is mad at himself for letting three people stand up on the hilltop for so long in plain view of the road – at which Merry asks if the Black Riders can actually see anything.
‘The black horses can see, and the Riders can use men and other creatures as spies, as we found at Bree. They themselves do not see the world of light as we do, but our shapes cast shadows in their minds, which only the noon sun destroys; and in the dark they perceive many signs and forms that are hidden from us: then they are most to be feared. And at all times they smell the blood of living things, desiring and hating it. Senses, too, there are other than sight or smell. We can feel their presence – it troubled our hearts, as soon as we came here, and before we saw them; they feel ours more keenly. Also,’ he added, and his voice sank to a whisper, ‘the Ring draws them.’
So it was only really a matter of time before the Riders caught up with them. While they wait in a hollow, Strider tells them a poem about Beren and Luthien, the first union between Men and Elves (in more than one sense of the word). I’ll discuss them (and their relevance to Aragorn) more fully later, but in short, they are his ancestors, and also the less distant forebearers of Elrond (he is called “Half-Elven” for a reason). Also they’re kind of based on Tolkien’s romance with his wife and it is adorable.
Then the Black Riders arrive.
Frodo was hardly less terrified than his companions; he was quaking as if he was bitter cold, but his terror was swallowed up in a sudden temptation to put on the Ring. The desire to do this laid hold of him, and he could think of nothing else. He did not forget the Barrow, nor the message of Gandalf; but something seemed to be compelling him to disregard all warnings, and he longed to yield. Not with the hope of escape, or of doing anything, either good or bad: he simply felt that he must take the Ring and put it on his finger. […] He shut his eyes and struggled for a while; but resistance became unbearable, and at last he slowly drew out the chain, and slipped the Ring on the forefinger of his left hand.
Immediately, though everything else remained as before, dim and dark, the shapes became terribly clear. He was able to see beneath their black wrappings. 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. […]
At that moment Frodo threw himself forward on the ground, and he heard himself crying aloud: O Elbereth! Gilthoniel! At the same time he struck at the feet of the enemy. A shrill cry rang out in the night; and he felt a pain like a dart of poisoned ice pierce his left shoulder. […] With a last effort Frodo, dropping his sword, slipped the Ring from his finger and closed his right hand tight upon it.
Until next time…