Aha! Thought I'd given up, didn't you? But no! I have an indomitable will of steel. Well, okay, it gets a little soft and saggy in the middle. But pobody's nerfect, right? (I had a door hanger with that on it when I was a kid. Sharp.)
A Knife in the Dark
The chapter starts with a jump back to the minor character of Fatty Bolger, watching the house in Crickhollow. The Black Riders come to the house, a scene which acts as a nice opening book-end to match with the scene at the end of the chapter (the Riders attacking the companions on Weathertop - getting ahead of myself, though...). And some moments of fine writing: "they stood, as still as the shadows of stones". I like that, both the image and the rhythm, the slight sibilance of those 's' sounds without overdoing it. And it's nice to see the danger and strength of the Black Riders growing:
"In the dark without moon or stars a drawn blade gleamed, as if a chill light had been unsheated. 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 within."
I like the unsheathing of the chill light, and I like the yielding door and how it falls back. A bit of personification, something of a military metaphor. The sense of forces in contention. And I like the power: a knock that bursts wooden timbers. Yes, the Black Riders are certainly to be reckoned with now. Except, of course, that Fatty has slipped out the back door and escaped. Yes, hobbits are quiet and good at sneaking... but wouldn't the Riders have thought a little more of this possibility, particularly if they think the Ring is at stake? But Fatty escapes, and raises the alarm, and the Black Riders race away, uncaring of the alarm. Only the Ring matters. And Sauron can deal with the Hobbits later... a foreshadowing for the end of the series?
Frodo awakes from a troubled dream, a transition that makes it seem almost as if he felt or sensed what was happening in Crickhollow. I wouldn't say transitions are one of Tolkien's strong suits, but he gets them right sometimes.
When the companions arise (in the Prancing Pony in Bree) and return to their original rooms, they find them wrecked. I think this helps heighten the tension, shows how close their enemies are getting... and yet I also wonder a little at the competence of Sauron's pursuers. They seem to be always close, and yet never make the right choice or figure out a way to catch up with the companions. You'd think they might be a little better at searching.
This is followed by a few pages of the commonplace: eating breakfast, getting a pony from Bill Ferny, a brief authorial jump forward in time to tell the story of the lost ponies and how they returned. This last is one of those interesting bits that I wonder if the story might be better off without. It draws attention to the narrator and away from the story, without much to gain. I mean, the reader doesn't really need to know what happened to the ponies. Why pull away from the drama of the moment?
Finally, the hobbits and Strider leave Bree, though not before Sam pings the sly Bill Ferny with an apple in the face. An interesting little reminder that Sam, for all his homeyness, has a tough side to him, especially when you consider the size difference between Sam and Bill Ferny. A rough sort of courage there, and it strikes me again that Sam is the blue collar fellow, while the other three hobbits are of a more genteel class. And Sam's even a little funny about it, with his "Waste of a good apple."
The companions cross into the wilderness, heading for Rivendell. They pass through marshland (and offere a couple of funny comments about bugs - a nice touch. A bit of humour, a bit of "show" rather than "tell"... but not too much. Nothing that bogs down the story, pardon the pun). That night they see flashes on a distant hill, "like lightning that leaps up from the hill-tops", though even Strider has no explanation for it - and this lack is worrying and adds to the tension.
The little company continues on toward Weathertop, and again we see Tolkien's penchant for foreshadowing... and for turning a bit of humor on its head for dramatic effect:
"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 will not go on indefinitely, or I shall become a wraith.'
'Do not speak of such things!' said Strider quickly, and with surprising earnestness."
A nice bit of ordinary humour, turned suddenly to a warning... and an interesting bit of foreshadowing, for this is exactly what the Black Riders intend for Frodo, looking to turn him into a wraith just as they are.
There's a fair bit of world building thrown in here, with some of the history of Amon Sul (the watchtower whose ruins remain on Weathertop) and Gil-galad, the elven king. And again a bit of foreshadowing: "'Going to Mordor!' cried Pippin. 'I hope it won't come to that!' 'Do not speak that name so loudly!' said Strider."
Arriving finally at Weathertop, they find the crown scarred by flame, and a possible message left by Gandalf... though all is uncertain. Yet it would explain the lights they had seen in the sky three nights earlier. I find I like how this is handled... things are left somewhat vague. Explanations are offered, but nothing is certain. I think it helps maintain the air of mystery and danger. Was it Gandalf? Did he survive? What happened? And I like that we only now get a delayed answer to the mystery of the lights in the sky. Set something up... and don't rush to solve it to quickly. Let it percolate a little and only then come back to it.
And then they see black specks on the road... the enemy approaching. They descend to a dell farther below and camp. Strangely, they make no attempt to run or sneak away. Is making a stand really the safer route here? It would not strike me as so. Indeed, they tell stories, which seems a little odd, though in the hope that they might be fortifying: "It is a fair tale, though it is sad, as are all tales of Middle-earth, and yet it may lift up your hearts." Interesting, really, that all tales of Middle-earth are sad... another bit of foreshadowing? It's true, in a way, as Tolkien does often eschew the happy ending. One of those elements, I think, that moves his stories beyond the simple Good versus Evil brand of fantasy. And the story Strider tells is that of Beren and Luthien. A courageous story, and heartening in a sense, as they defeat Morgoth (Sauron's old master), but also sad, as it's a tale of doomed love and tragedy and loss. Strider has an eager face as he explains, and speaks of the lineage of Beren and Luthien, which is interesting as this is also his lineage, and Arwen's, too, and the story of Beren and Luthien mirrors their own in many ways.
Finally, the Ringwraiths come. Merry and Pippin fall in dread. Again, Sam shows his toughness and stays by Frodo's side, despite his fear. Frodo himself feels a terrible compulsion and puts on the Ring, and suddenly he can see the Ringwraiths clearly, and their leader approaches, a knife in his hand glowing with a pale light. Yet here Frodo does not give in, but shouts and attacks, despite the compulsion of the Ring (sadly the movie skips this part, and keeps Frodo cowering - a slight de-heroing of the tale, it seems to me). But Frodo is wounded, and falls back, slipping the ring off even as Strider attacks the Ringwraiths with fire.
A nice cliffhanger, yes?