Reading Middle-earth — Chapter 11: A Knife In The Dark
The chapter begins with what’s either a flashback or a vision Frodo has in his sleep. We see Fatty Bolger back at Crickhollow keeping up Frodo’s ruse and an attack by several Black Riders, who then flee Buckland to join up with the other riders.
The hobbits wake up in the parlour under the watchful eye of Strider. They discover their booked room ransacked, confirming that Bill Ferny sold them out. To make matters worse, all the horses and ponies bolted during the night. Finding themselves delayed and without options, they’re forced to buy a sickly, underfed pony from none other than Bill Ferny.
Strider leads the hobbits out of Bree and into the wild. They make their way to Weathertop where they find signs of Gandalf—a hastily abandoned camp and a G rune scratched on a rock. The group makes camp and Strider sings the tale of Lúthien Tinúviel, an elven princess who sacrificed her immortality to be with a mortal man, but despite the tale’s beauty a sense of dread soon falls on them.
The dark shapes of Black Riders creep up to the edge of the firelight and Frodo is overcome by The Ring’s will. Putting it on, the terrible of form of the Black Riders is revealed to him: pale wraiths cloaked in grey; ruined kings of men. Frodo calls out the names of the elvish queen of the stars, Elbereth or Gilthoniel in his terror and his stabbed by the crowned leader of the Black Riders.
This a long chapter, and it sets up lots of small details and character points that grow and pay off later.
A beautiful thread running through Tolkien’s work is how evil acts and decisions can unintentionally lead to good outcomes. There are much grander examples of this theme in The Lord of the Rings but this chapter introduces one I find more beautiful for its insignificance. In Book 1, Chapter 9 I described Bill Ferny as a model of everyday evil; he’s self-serving, which Tolkien views as invariably leading to vice. In fact, in The Silmarillion Tolkien suggests that Sauron “was only less evil than his master in that for long he served another and not himself.” Bill Ferny gouges the hobbits in their need, overcharging them for his half-starved pony.
Despite Bill Ferny’s selfish intentions (and temporary selfish gain), the pony is saved to be a blessing. The pony is invigorated away from its former oppression and happily serves its new, kind masters. Later on, Samwise will reveal what he’s named the pony: Bill. Out of Bill Ferny’s grasping selfishness, a good outcome. Bill the pony serves faithfully and happily, and none of the party (especially Sam) regrets paying three times Bill’s worth—everyone involved finishes happier, all except Bill Ferny.
More than meets the eye
Hints suggesting Strider is more than a ragged vagabond continue to trickle in this chapter. He sings ancient songs and shows his knowledge of lore and history, but his surprises don’t shock either the hobbits or readers yet.
More surprising is who recites the The Fall of Gil-galad. After Strider mentions the name of the old elf king, simple Sam recites a section that he memorized under Bilbo, and blushes when he’s asked to continue.
I love Sam’s self-forgetfulness. He isn’t showing off what he knows; he’s unable to contain what he loves. Sam has been absorbing stories since before Bilbo taught him to read, and he’s alert to any mention of elves or great tales, it’s likely none of hobbits ever heard him recite such exalted verse before:
“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. His sword was long, his lance was keen. His shining helm afar was seen; the countless stars of heaven's field were mirrored in his silver shield. But long ago he rode away, and where he dwelleth none can say; for into darkness fell his star in Mordor where the shadows are.
Courage and Quaking Hearts
Courage and fear are inseparable because courage can’t exist without fear. Several times between Bree and Weathertop Strider appears to be scared. He hushes Sam and Pippin when they mention Mordor and after Frodo suggests he’ll become a wraith if he loses any more weight, the intimidating ranger quickly silences him: “Do not speak of such things!”
Strider knows more about the enemies hunting them than the hobbits do, so his greater fear is justified. He has an understanding of the danger that sobers him, but the inexperienced hobbits are unsettled by his open foreboding.
“And at all times [the Black Riders] 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 troubles 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.”
He’s definitely not describing anything I’d want to find in the dark. Frodo responds with appropriate distress:
“Is there no escape then?” said Frodo, looking round wildly. “If I move I shall be seen and hunted! If I stay, I shall draw them to me!”
And then Strider shows how courage works itself outward, encouraging Frodo (or anyone) who can see the object of his fear:
“Strider laid his hand on [Frodo’s] shoulder. ‘There is still hope,’ he said. ‘You are not alone. Let us take this wood that is set ready for the fire as a sign. There is little shelter or defence here, but fire shall serve for both…these Riders do not love it, and fear those who wield it.’”
There is danger; they won’t escape it. Frodo will be wounded that night and forever marked, but Strider’s courage and encouragement will win through. Although they aren’t spared pain or harm, Strider’s courage carries the battle on and keeps the darkness at bay; even if it can’t be called a victory, his faithful action moves Middle-earth closer to redemption.
Keep reading Middle-earth
In Chapter 12: Flight to the Ford, Strider and the hobbits are surprised by two unexpected meetings, Frodo is nearly overcome, and the Black Riders attack in strength. If you’re just joining the journey you can get caught up on Book 1 of the Fellowship of the Ring.