Chapter 11 of The Fellowship of the Ring
In this chapter, Strider leads the hobbits into the wilderness in a failed attempt to evade the Black Riders. The chase culminates on Weathertop hill, where Frodo and the Chief of the Ringwraiths stab at each other, with perilous results for the hobbit.
This is an exciting and terrifying chapter -- but it's also important for a more subtle reason: it's the first chapter where Tolkien begins to fragment his narrative: he gives various characters different perspectives on the same events, and delays reconciling these perspectives for the reader until much later in his story. Although this fracturing starts out small, like all cracks, it grows and grows -- until it eventually will divide his story into two separate but devilishly interrelated portions: Frodo's journey on one hand and the war in Rohan and Gondor on the other.
My argument is that this fragmenting of the story creates increasing tension for the reader -- and when Tolkien finally resolves this tension by giving us the full picture, it provides a great measure of the satisfaction we feel when we read The Lord of the Rings.
In "A Knife in the Dark" the fracture begins right away: Tolkien switches perspective to a brief vignette of the the Black Riders invading Buckland and storming Crickhollow. The Shire hobbits blow horns in alarm and the Ringwraiths ride off in search of Frodo. Immediately after this, Tolkien pivots back to Frodo in Bree, whose sleep is troubled by dreams of "galloping hoofs... and far off he heard a horn blowing wildly." This is just a tiny crack: two different perspectives on the onrushing wrath of Mordor.
But the crack will widen. The next break occurs a few days after the heroes strike out into the wilderness and before they've reached Weathertop. One evening, they notice something strange:
As Frodo lay, tired but unable to close his eyes, it seemed to him that far away there came a light in the eastern sky: it flashed and faded many times. It was not the dawn, for that was still some hours off.
‘What is the light?' he said to Strider, who had risen, and was standing, gazing ahead into the night.
'I do not know,' Strider answered. 'It is too distant to make out. It is like lightning that leaps up from the hill-tops.'
Frodo lay down again, but for a long while he could still see the white flashes, and against them the tall dark figure of Strider, standing silent and watchful. At last he passed into uneasy sleep.
(FotR, Book I, Chapter 11)Tolkien gives us no more information about this lightning until the Council of Elrond, when the reader (and Frodo) both learn that they were caused by Gandalf and his fire magic as he strove to fight off the Black Riders on Weathertop. Gandalf will tell them in Rivendell:
"I galloped to Weathertop like a gale, and I reached it before sundown on my second day from Bree-and they were there before me. They drew away from me, for they felt the coming of my anger and they dared not face it while the Sun was in the sky. But they closed round at night, and I was besieged on the hill-top, in the old ring of Amon Sûl. I was hard put to it indeed: such light and flame cannot have been seen on Weathertop since the war-beacons of old.
"At sunrise I escaped and fled towards the north. I could not hope to do more. It was impossible to find you, Frodo, in the wilderness, and it would have been folly to try with all the Nine at my heels."
(FotR, Book II, Chapter 2)It's also at this time that we learn that all the while that Strider and Frodo were venturing through the wild hoping to find Gandalf, Gandalf was also looking for them, sometimes just behind them and sometimes just ahead. Although Tolkien largely keeps us in the dark about Gandalf's half of this dance of miscues, he does tantalize us (and Frodo) with hints, like the strange sigil that Gandalf left on Weathertop or Glorfindel's tokens on the Bridge of Mitheithel.
|Weathertop Hill (courtesy of LOTRO Wiki)
The drama of this fracture is tremendous. All that Frodo (and the reader) want is to know what happened to Gandalf. And indeed, what reader doesn't crave a description of exactly how Gandalf fought off the Witchking with his magic when they met on Weathertop. And yet this is precisely the information that Tolkien withholds. He teases us, and then ultimately leaves it to our own imagination to tell us what Gandalf's conjuring looked like up close. This is masterful restraint on Tolkien's part.
But my favourite disunion of perspectives comes at the end of this chapter, when Frodo and the Witch King fight each other. This one is easy to miss because in the entire Lord of the Rings, Tolkien only gives us Frodo's perspective on this encounter. But in his personal papers, Tolkien also wrote about the Witch King's understanding of what happened. Go figure... the Witch King was just as scared of Frodo as Frodo was of the Witch King:
He [the Lord of the Nazgul] had been shaken by the fire of Gandalf, and began to perceive that the mission on which Sauron had sent him was one of great peril to himself... the timid and terrified Bearer [Frodo] had resisted him, had dared to strike at him with an enchanted sword made... long ago for his destruction. Narrowly it missed him. How he had come by it -- save in the Barrows of Cardolan. Then he was in some way mightier than the B[arrow]-wight; and he called on Elbereth, a name of terror to the Nazgul...
Escaping a wound that would have been deadly to him as the Mordor-knife to Frodo (as was proved in the end), he withdrew and hid for a while, out of doubt and fear both of Aragorn and especially of Frodo.
[Marquette MSS 4/2/36, "The Hunt for the Ring". The italics in the quote are Tolkien's.]In these papers, Tolkien also makes it clear that the Witch King was confused and scared by the fact that it wasn't Aragorn who was bearing the Ring. If this strange creature Baggins had the Ring instead of the mighty Aragorn, it meant that in some way Baggins was even more powerful than the lord of the Dunedain. How's a Nazgul supposed to cope?
|How's a Nazgul to cope?
Tolkien's willingness to fragment and overlap his characters' perspectives is a daring and modern approach to structuring a novel, and I'm not sure he gets enough appreciation for it. So, props Professor T.
(Before I leave you, I'll just add that if you enjoy this sort of multiplicity, do yourself a grand favour and read or listen to The Seventh Voyage by the great sci-fi author Stanislas Lem. It's my favourite short story, and is an elegant fugue of conflicting perspectives.)