The Fellowship of the Ring
Book I, Chapter 11
Summary — A Knife in the Dark
Back at Frodo’s house in Crickhollow, Fatty Bolger sees dark shapes approach the front gate. He flees out the back door just before three Black Riders break into the house and find it empty. He sounds the alarm, and the Riders flee.
Meanwhile, at the inn, Strider wakes the hobbits up early. Going to their bedroom, they see that their beds were thrown apart and slashed during the night. Furthermore, all their ponies were let loose overnight as well. The hobbits are forced to buy a half-starved pony at a high price, from the suspicious Bill Ferny. They leave with the whole town watching.
A short way down the road, Strider leads the hobbits off into the forest to avoid pursuit. Unfortunately, this path takes them to the Midgewater Marshes, which means three days of bug bites and soggy feet. Still, they are safe until they come out of the Marshes and see the large hill Weathertop ahead in the distance. Strider says that a great watchtower once stood on Weathertop, built by the Men of Westernesse. Now only its ruins remain. After another day, the band arrives at Weathertop. They find signs of a camp, as well as a rock with an Elven rune symbol carved into it. Both signs lead them to suspect that Gandalf passed through the camp recently, in great haste. Strider thinks Gandalf may have been attacked while he was there.
The group rests in a hollow on the side of the hill, and they light a fire. Frodo suddenly thinks he senses five black specks moving on the road far below—the Black Riders. Strider decides they should stay where they are, as trying to move would only make them more vulnerable. To keep up their spirits, Strider tells them old legends and sings them a song of Lúthien Tinúviel, the most beautiful Elven princess, who fell in love with a Man and chose mortality so that she could join him in death.
Suddenly, Sam, who has wandered away, runs back from the edge of the dell and says he feels a strange dread. The group gathers around the fire, facing outward, and watches as several dark shapes come over the lip of the hill. Merry and Pippin throw themselves to the ground in panic, and Sam shrinks to Frodo’s side. Frodo suddenly feels a terrible desire to put on the Ring, and he does so.
The black shapes suddenly become clear to Frodo, and he can see through the Black Riders’ cloaks. He sees that they have deathly white faces and terrible eyes, and that they are robed in gray and carry swords. The tallest wears a crown, and it springs toward Frodo with a knife and sword. Frodo cries out the Elven names Elbereth and Gilthoniel and stabs at the feet of the Black Riders’ king. Frodo feels an icy pain in his shoulder and then suddenly sees Strider leap forward with a burning log in each hand. Frodo takes off the Ring just as he falls unconscious.
Despite Frodo’s physical weakness and inexperience, he does have the weapon of words at his disposal, which he wields effectively on a number of occasions. After the confrontation at Weathertop, Strider tells Frodo that it was not his sword thrust that hurt the king of the Riders, but rather the Elvish words Frodo cried out as he lunged: “O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!” Elbereth was a queen of the Elves in ancient times, in the First Age of Middle-earth. Her name means “Star-queen” in the Elvish tongue. Though it may seem strange that a mere name would cause the Black Riders to flee, we see again that language is always potent in Tolkien’s world. Indeed, Tolkien—who was a passionate student of philology, the study of language—built his entire history of Middle-earth around languages he himself invented. Whenever we see these brief glimpses of foreign words in The Lord of the Rings, we must keep in mind that they are not nonsense, but are part of a comprehensive, structured linguistic system. Tolkien’s Elvish language—along with the Dwarvish language and the language of Mordor, among others—has a system of characters, grammar, and vocabulary. It is fitting, then, for Tolkien to give great power to language in the world of Middle-earth. This power, however, cuts both ways: though Frodo’s Elvish incantation serves as protection, Strider also warns the hobbits against even mentioning the name of Mordor while out in the open and unprotected, as it could bring them great harm.
The Ring displays its powers again here, but also its limitations. When Frodo dons the Ring to escape the notice of the Black Riders, his invisibility comes along with another gift, the ability to see through the Riders’ cloaks. He can see their pallid faces and their horrifying eyes, and he observes a crown on the head of the tallest of them. Yet despite the thrilling insight the Ring affords Frodo, Tolkien invites us to wonder about the practical usefulness of this suddenly enhanced vision. Blessed with the power of the Ring, Frodo does not act like a superhero. The others in the Fellowship are more active, whereas Frodo’s role is observational and detached rather than participatory or aggressive. Certainly Frodo is less of a threat to the Riders than Aragorn, who wildly brandishes two burning logs as he lunges at them. It may be that the Ring, for all its power and all the knowledge it offers, is not an effective tool in a quest such as Frodo’s.
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