A Knife in the Dark
The previous chapter left Frodo and his companions in peril in Bree. We then jump back to Crickhollow, where they left Fatty Bolger pretending to be Frodo at the start of Chapter 6. The Nazgul have news, which must have come from dishonest hobbits. We later learn that this is mostly Saruman’s work, with his agents pretend to work with Mordor but trying to trick its agents.
The Nazgul invasion of Crickhollow is like something from a ghost story, rather than the High Fantasy the tale soon becomes:
“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.
“As he stared out into the gloom, a black shadow moved under the trees; the gate seemed to open of its own accord and close again without a sound. Terror seized him. He shrank back, and for a moment he stood trembling in the hall. Then he shut and locked the door.
“The night deepened. There came the soft sound of horses led with stealth along the lane. Outside the gate they stopped, and three black figures entered, like shades of night creeping across the ground. One went to the door, one to the corner of the house on either side; and there they stood, as still as the shadows of stones, while night went slowly on. The house and the quiet trees seemed to be waiting breathlessly.
“There was a faint stir in the leaves, and a cock crowed far away. The cold hour before dawn was passing. The figure by the door moved. In the dark without moon or stars a drawn blade gleamed, as if a chill light had been unsheathed. There was a blow, soft but heavy, and the door shuddered.
“’Open, in the name of Mordor!’ said a voice thin and menacing.
“At a second blow the door yielded and fell back, with timbers burst and lock broken. The black figures passed swiftly in.
“At that moment, among the trees nearby, a horn rang out. It rent the night like fire on a hill -top.
“AWAKE! FEAR! FIRE! FOES! AWAKE!
“Fatty Bolger had not been idle. As soon as he saw the dark shapes creep from the garden, he knew that he must run for it, or perish. And run he did, out of the back door, through the garden, and over the fields. When he reached the nearest house, more than a mile away, he collapsed on the doorstep. ‘No, no, no!’ he was crying. ‘No, not me! I haven’t got it!’ It was some time before anyone could make out what he was babbling about. At
“last they got the idea that enemies were in Buckland, some strange invasion from the Old Forest. And then they lost no more time.
“FEAR! FIRE! FOES!
“The Brandybucks were blowing the Horn-call of Buckland, that had not been sounded for a hundred years, not since the white wolves came in the Fell Winter, when the Brandywine was frozen over.
“Far-away answering horns were heard. The alarm was spreading. The black figures fled from the house. One of them let fall a hobbit-cloak on the step, as he ran. In the lane the noise of hoofs broke out, and gathering to a gallop, went hammering away into the darkness. All about Crickhollow there was the sound of horns blowing, and voices crying and feet running. But the Black Riders rode like a gale to the North-gate. Let the little people blow! Sauron would deal with them later. Meanwhile they had another errand: they knew now that the house was empty, and the Ring had gone. They rode down the guards at the gate and vanished from the Shire.”
The Nazgul see things that humans and hobbits do not. They may well have been able to tell that the One Ring was there, but not recently. Certainly they do not bother to chase poor Fatty Bolger, nor fight the angry hobbits.
That same night, Bree is also attacked. The Nazgul break into the rooms where the hobbits should have been staying. But they have stayed in the parlour, guarded by Strider.
The Black Riders drive off most of the ponies and horses, though only one is stolen, maybe by the suspicious Southerner. He had infiltrated a group of men who are unclear who he was: perhaps he uses magic. Butterbur does not see he owes them anything, but does do his best for the hobbits, paying three times the proper price for a pony belonging to the villain Bill Ferny. He later does well out of this – Merry’s ponies flee to Old Fatty Lumpkin, and when Tom hears about it he sends them back and they become Butterbur’s property.
It is interesting to note that by playing both sides, Bill Ferny unintentionally brings about the defeat of both Sauron and Saruman. Without Bill the Pony, Aragorn and the hobbits could not have got Frodo alive to Rivendell. At the start of Book Two, we learn that he was within hours of becoming a wraith. And it is
Strider reckons that since he does not plan to use the Road, ponies would not have speeded them much, but are needed to carry enough food. But the pony, which Sam calls Bill, is thin and they don’t like to give it much. For his part, the pony is glad to be free of his former owner and prefers the tough journey, getting steadily stronger and healthier.
Note that Tolkien everywhere gives a mass of extra details. This is what gives the book its enduring power. Most writers trying to do something Tolkien-like would not pay attention to either landscape or the welfare of a pony.
Leaving, they see the Southerner hiding with Bill Ferny. Ferny is rude to them and Sam throws an apple at him, hitting his face. They have also attracted an interested audience, and so set off on the road until they lose them. Then Strider strikes out into wild country, saving a long loop of the road by passing through the unpleasant Midgewater Marshes. These have natural pests, but hopefully no more. It seems a good place for Mewlips, but they are not mentioned.
On the night of the fourth day, they see flashes of light to the east. We later learn that this was Gandalf, who had arrived at Bree after they had left, but was riding Shadowfax and got ahead of them. Supposed that Strider had gone into the wild and would make for Weathertop, but Gandalf after holding off the Nazgul did not try to remain on it. He rides off to get help from Rivendell, and also diverted four of the Nine.
Note that if they had stayed in Bree, they would have had a much easier journey when Gandalf finally arrived. But Aragorn could not have known that, or even that Gandalf would pass through Bree.
They arrive at Weathertop, a ruined tower of Westerness, as Aragorn explains. Here, Sam shows he is no ordinary hobbit, reciting a verse from Bilbo about Gil-galad long ago. Mentions that there was more about Mordor, but he had not wanted to hear or remember it. Strider warns against even using the name ‘Mordor’ – though he does this on other occasions. The matter of the Last Alliance is also one he would have had strong feelings about. His remote ancestors died in that struggle, and his ancestor Isildur made the fatal error of not destroying the One Ring.
Weathertop is much more a ruin than the film shows. They correctly suspect that they have missed Gandalf. They read his signs but are not sure. Then while it is still daylight, they see in the distance two Riders from the east, going westwards. Then three more from the West, going eastwards. The five are converging on them.
Strider had placed them in a hollow on the flanks of Weathertop. He now regrets this, but there is nowhere safer they could get to before night. Instead they make up a fire, which will be their best defence. They find firewood, left by rangers. Also the marks of ‘booted feet’ –the Nazgul have boots as well as cloaks, which was mentioned when the first of them was seen.
Strider reckons it will take another fortnight to get to Rivendell. The Road has never been measured and he does not intend to take it, since the Black Riders are on it. He also mentions in passing a ‘Forsaken Inn’ a day beyond Bree. They are well past it and it is not mentioned again, but it is one of the little extras typical of Tolkien. The things that make you feel it is a real place and not just backdrop for the story
On the flanks of Weathertop, the party have to survive the perils of the night. It is mentioned that the Black Riders do not have conventional sight, relying on their horses, bred and raised to serve Mordor. They see shadows, and a lot more after sunset.
“’Can the Riders see?’ asked Merry. ‘I mean, they seem usually to have used their noses rather than their eyes, smelling for us, if smelling is the right word, at least in the daylight. But you made us lie down flat when you saw them down below; and now you talk of being seen, if we move.’
“’I was too careless on the hill-top,’ answered Strider. ‘I was very anxious to find some sign of Gandalf; but it was a mistake for three of us to go up and stand there so long. For 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.’”
It has been noted that they have aspects of vampires. But they show no signs of feeding off blood or living creatures or needing to do so. The term is never used in Lord of the Rings: Gandalf speaks only of werewolves and wraiths when telling Frodo of the servants of Sauron in The Shadow of the Past. But they seem to have existed in the First Age, at least. In the Silmarillion tale Of Beren and Luthien, we are told that after Sauron in wolf form is defeated by Luthien and Huan the Hound of Valinor, he “took the form of a vampire” and flees to another land, which he fills with horror. And later on, when Beren and Luthien disguise themselves to infiltrate Morgoth’s stronghold of Angband, they are able to take the forms of a werewolf and a vampire:
“He turned aside therefore at Sauron’s isle, as they ran northward again, and he took thence the ghastly wolf-hame of Draugluin [the ‘father of werewolves’, slain earlier by Huan], and the bat-fell of Thuringwethil. She was the messenger of Sauron, and was wont to fly in vampire’s form to Angband; and her great fingered wings were barbed at each joint’s end with an iron claw. Clad in these dreadful garments Huan and Luthien ran through Taur-ne-Fuin, and all things fled before them.”
The Tolkien Gateway entry calls her a vampire,[A] but as I see it she is a powerful sorceress who can shape-shift. It is logical to suppose that both Draugluin and Thuringwethil were corrupted Maia, or the descendants. It seems also it needs physical objects, except for someone as powerful as Sauron.
Note also that the name Thuringwethil is first used by Luthien for herself in The Lays of Beleriand,[B] where she tried to convince Morgoth she wishes to serve him. Since Thuringwethil as a distinct individual is spun off from Luthien, it is logical to see her as a similar but lesser being. The Tolkien Gateway assumes she was killed, but this is also left loose. If you wanted an interesting story, you could have her repent. She might be under supervision of the rescued prisoners, who might hold Sauron’s fortress for themselves.
And the werewolf? It is in their nature to alternate between human and wolf, unlike wargs who are simply evil wolves. ‘Hame’ means “a natural covering, integument; skin, membrane, slough (of a serpent)”, and later also “each of two curved pieces of wood or metal placed over, fastened to, or forming, the collar of a draught horse”.[C] Whether they flayed the dead Draugluin or whether it was a garment he could put on and take off is left unclear. So too is why the wolf and bat garments were kept, or who was keeping them.
I could not get it any clearer using earlier versions from The History of Middle-Earth, except that when the Sauron-figure was a magical giant cat. Sauron began within the earliest versions of Beren and Luthien as Tevildo, Prince of Cats, and later Thu the Necromancer. In the first version we have Beren used the pelt of another cat to disguise himself, while Luthien at that stage had no disguise.
All this suggests that in Tolkien’s mythology, both vampires and werewolves exist as distinct categories of being, perhaps descended from evil Maia. But also it is possible to take their form, using magic and magical objects. Presumably Luthien’s magic is needed, as it definitely is in the early versions.
Vampires or not, the Black Riders are a great peril. While they wait, Merry wants to hear more about Gil-galad, but Strider stops them. Instead he tells the start of the tale of Beren and Luthien, here named as Tinuviel, a less-used name in the final form. And that the Kings of Westerness were descended from them, but he does not mention that these are his ancestors.
As darkness gathers, they see shadows approaching. And spells are being cast at Frodo, so he is persuaded to put on the One Ring. Sees then that four apparent shadows are five figures in white, the worst being the Witch-King with an actual crown. As later on at the ford to Rivendell, Frodo tries to command them, but has not the power. He strikes at the Witch-King but is stabbed in the shoulder. He calls on Elbereth, the star-queen Varda. And he is then rescued by Strider, who comes forward with fire. The Nazgul fear fire, even though Sauron can use it. And we later learn that they think Frodo will quickly become a wraith and be under their power.
Frodo manages to take off the ring, closing his right hand around it. This would have done no good had not the Witch-King been driven back – cutting off the hand with the ring would have been easy enough. Fortunately, they have retreated.
Copyright © Gwydion M. Williams.
[B] Lines 3944-3965. Page 297 of the hardback edition.
[C] Oxford English Dictionary, second CD edition.