The Lord of the Rings Reread

LotR re-read: Fellowship I.11, “A Knife in the Dark”

We’re getting near the end of book I of Fellowship; “A Knife in the Dark” is the penultimate chapter. Before delving into the usual spoilers and commentary, I wanted to mention something I’ve realized about my memory and re-reading.

All the comments where I say, “What am I forgetting?” and people tell me—very helpfully, thank you!—have demonstrated that I remember The Lord of the Rings the way I do most songs. Start a song playing and I can sing along without thinking about it, no problem; but ask me to sing the lyrics cold and, for most songs, I’ll have a much harder time. Similarly, there’s a lot of stuff in LotR that turns out to be much more dependent on context than I’d realized, which is a little humbling considering how well I thought I knew the text. Apparently, I know the text well when I’m reading it, but less so when trying to retrieve information cold.

Which is just one more reason to appreciate the community’s participation in the project. And with that, let’s dive into chapter 11.

What Happens

(This is where Kate resists the urge to say, “Lots!” and skip right to the commentary, intoxicated by action. Be grateful.)

Riders break into Crickhollow and then ride away when the Brandybucks, alerted by Fatty Bolger, blow the alarm. On the same night, the hobbits’ room at The Prancing Pony is broken into and the bolsters imitating their sleeping bodies are slashed. More, their ponies, and everyone else’s riding animals, are missing. They find a pack animal, Bill Ferny’s pony, but lose any hope of leaving town quietly.

Perhaps because of Strider’s caution after they leave Bree, they nevertheless encounter nothing more than wildlife until they reach Weathertop. There, they discover signs of fire on the hill-top and what may be a message from Gandalf that he was there three days prior, when they saw flashes of light from a distance. While they ponder the question, Frodo spots five Black Riders approaching the hill. For lack of anything better, the group shelters in a dell on the hillside. While they wait, Strider tells the story of Beren and Lúthien.

At moonrise, the Riders approach the dell. Frodo struggles but is unable to resist the urge to put on the Ring. When he does, he is able to see the Riders as white-faced, grey-robed, sword-carrying tall figures. The tallest, who wears a crown, also carries a knife. As he approaches, Frodo throws himself to the ground and stabs at the Rider’s feet, receiving a knife wound in the shoulder in return. As Frodo passes out, he sees Strider leaping forward with burning wood in his hands, and takes off the Ring.


The attack on Crickhollow. This is lovely evocative narrative, and maybe I should just leave it as such; but the logistics puzzle me.

Gandalf says, at the Council of Elrond, that four Riders invaded the Shire. That is indeed conveyed by the text, but I had to go and look for confirmation of the count regardless, because the fourth Rider is so inactive that I wasn’t sure he was actually present.

First, “a black shadow moved under the trees; the gate seemed to open of its own accord and close again without a sound.” Okay, apparently that’s supposed to be one. In response, Fatty Bolger shuts and locks the door. “The night deepen(s),” and three more figures approach. At this point, Fatty flees out the back—he left when he saw “the dark shapes creep from the garden.” What was the first Rider doing in the meantime, besides apparently not watching the back? He isn’t mentioned at all after he’s first seen; the other three take up position at the front door and the front corners without any indication that they displace someone already there. And then the three just stand there waiting, long enough for Fatty to run over a mile and babble incoherently for a while; minimum of an hour, say. What were they waiting for?

This section contains our first (I believe) Evil point-of-view, as the Riders leave: “Let the little people blow! Sauron would deal with them later. Meanwhile they had another errand . . . ” We also get Frodo’s dream-perspective on it, as he again dreams true, of wind, galloping hoofs, and a blowing horn.

Finally, a silly note: “FEAR! FIRE! FOES! AWAKE!” has made it into our household vocabulary as what the heck the dog is saying when she suddenly bays like the world is coming to an end.

* * *

The attack on the inn. Last time I quoted Strider saying that he didn’t think the Riders would attack the inn; instead, “(t)hey will drive these wretches to some evil work.” I’d always taken it for granted that the Riders were the ones to break in and slash up the room: the interactions with Bill Ferny afterward just don’t feel like any of the characters think that Ferny was an active participant in violence. Besides, what would the Riders have had them do, kidnap the hobbits? Kill them? Either way, they’d have to hope that their henchmen didn’t take the Ring, and it seems like a lot more trouble than just doing it themselves. Yet, no-one acts as though Strider was wrong, either. What do you all think?

Bill Ferny, by the way, was “swarthy” on first introduction, while his Southern friend was “squint-eyed.” Just to spread the skin-color goodness around, the Southerner now gets to have “a sallow face with sly, slanting eyes”; Frodo thinks he “looks more than half like a goblin.” Gee, me with my Asian ancestry feels so welcomed by the text now.

* * *

Strider gives the hobbits a big mythology dump as they wait for the Riders, telling them Beren and Lúthien’s story, which “is sad, as are all the tales of Middle-earth,” and touches for the first time on much of the First Age. Later it will become clear that this is his own backstory, too—and don’t think I didn’t notice that as he talked of the Kings of Númenor, “Suddenly a pale light appeared over the crown of Weathertop behind him.”

Of course, in a reversal, the moonlight is then used by the Riders to attack.

* * *


I was amused that Pippin “tr(ies) to show that he was tougher than he looked (or felt)” when Strider asks about their carrying capacities. Reacting to Strider’s comments last chapter, it seems.

Poor Strider. Not only are you forced to leave Bree with everyone staring at you, but you have to shepherd nitwits who talk casually of becoming wraiths (Frodo) and blithely cry out the name of Mordor (Pippin). Your patience with them, especially Sam with his “Hadn’t we better clear out quick, Mr. Strider?” is notable.

Merry remains common-sensical and sensitive to otherworldly stuff, worrying that the path to Weathertop has a barrow-wightish look.

Sam showcases his love of poetry and lore, reciting the opening of “Gil-galad was an Elven king.” Which seems kind of sing-songy to me, but then my lack of poetry sense is well-known.

And Frodo displays his resilience on Weathertop during the Riders’ attack, especially since it comes shortly after he “for the first time fully realized his homelessness and danger,” and despite his inability to keep from putting the Ring on.

(The attack on Weathertop is also lovely evocative narrative, but I really don’t have much to say about it.)

* * *


  • Arrrgh biting insects arrrgh arrrgh. The Midgewater section is too evocative for me; I have to skim it quickly. Arrrgh.

  • The narrative is very careful about dates here, to the point of explicitly saying things like “It was the night of the fifth of October, and they were six days out from Bree.” I think it may be the care with which the calendar is worked out that makes me particularly dubious about other logistical things.

  • Another missed inn, the Forsaken Inn a day east of Bree. Not a very welcoming name, and the hobbits seem never to have heard of it, which may be why it passes with so little notice.

The end of book I, next week. Progress, it is being made . . .

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