The Lord of the Rings – Book 1, Chapter 11: “A Knife in the Dark”

Back in Crickhollow, Black Riders harass Fatty Bolger, who escapes and announces the invasion by blowing the horn of Buck.  The Riders scatter, knowing that both Frodo and Ring are not there.

At the Prancing Pony, Strider learns the hobbit rooms have been ransacked.  All the horses are stolen, leaving no means to travel… except for one pony.  This pony is owned by Bill Ferny, who sells it for three times its worth.  The hobbits load the pony and set off, creating a stir in Bree.  Their journey starts on the road, continuing through woods, bogs, and marshes.  By the sixth day, they’re near where they hope to meet Gandalf, who left a sign of runes signifying that he was there three days ago.

Making their way up to the remnants of the old watchtower on Weathertop, they find recent traces of a hasty camp site, possibly left by Gandalf, possibly by rangers.  Either way, it concerns Strider that they should not stay so long.  They make a fire and listen to stories of Elves, of Gil-galad the Elven King and of the star-crossed lovers Beren and Luthien.

Noticing strange shadows, the group realizes the enemy is approaching.  Frodo gives in to the need to put on the Ring, allowing him to visibly see the Riders.  There are five, one wearing a crown.  Though invisible, the crowned Rider springs forward with his knife.  Frodo strikes at the enemy’s feet but is himself stabbed in the shoulder.  He slips the Ring from his finger just before losing consciousness.

Exciting chapter!  And thanks to the poetry, it’s also a dense one in terms of world building.

We’ll start with “The Fall of Gil-Galad,” which Sam recites in part, claiming that Bilbo taught it to him.  According to Strider, it’s a poem originally written in the ancient tongue, and it was Bilbo who translated it to the common tongue.  We’re only given three stanzas of it before Strider changes the subject, though Frodo and Strider know considerably more of it.  It seems to be a long epic, telling the story of the Siege of Barad-dûr at the end of the War of the Last Alliance, marking the end of the Second Age of Middle-Earth.  At least, I assume it’s long, a la Homer’s The Iliad, though perhaps I’m wrong.  The Siege lasted seven years, and there are few events in the Middle-Earth as important enough to mark in a song of this caliber.  Ereinion Gil-galad was the last great Elf-King of Middle-Earth and the last High King of the Eldar.  We know that he aided in the overthrow of Sauron and was himself lost in battle at the Siege of Barad-dûr, his face scorched by the heat of Sauron’s hand.  Gil-galad left no heir, and with the death of Elendil as well, and Isildur’s claiming of the Ring, relations between Elves and Men worsened in the dawn of the Third Age.  It’s really no wonder Strider didn’t want to complete the story on the mountain that night.

“The Song of Beren and Luthien” that Strider turns to has personal significance for him and for Professor Tolkien.  The events of the tale take place some 6500 years before the time of our heroes, in the First Age.  Tolkien wrote several versions of this story before the final version that appears in The Silmarillion.

There is no effective way to summarize the events of this tale with any real detail better than the song itself.  The nuts and bolts of it is that Beren’s a royal-born Man, and Lúthien Tinúviel was an Elf Princess.  They fell in love, and her father was so appalled by the notion that he set before Beren the unachievable task of recovering a Silmaril from the Iron Crown of Morgoth (Sauron’s master, the original Dark Lord of Middle-Earth).  Of course, Beren did it with Lúthien’s help, and a monstrous werewolf took his hand and the Silmaril it held for his troubles.  Being an object blessed by Varda, all unclean flesh that touches a Silmaril withers and burns (which is why Morgoth held them in the Iron Crown).  Beren reclaimed his price, and Lúthien healed him.  But the werewolf didn’t die.  In its madness, it needed to be hunted down, which Beren did.  The hunt resulted in a mortal blow to Beren.  Lúthien wasted away shortly after, sacrificing her immortality to join him in death.

But their love story didn’t end there.  Their spirits found one another in the Halls of Mandos in the Uttermost West, and there Lúthien sang a song of such otherworldly power and beauty that it melted even the heart of the implacable Mandos himself.  For her efforts, she was granted a unique fate of returning to Middle-Earth to live a mortal life alongside Beren.  They would dwell together in happiness for a time on the green island of Tol Galen in the River Adurant.  Then Beren went to battle against the Dwarves and eventually recovered the Silmaril.  He gave it to Lúthien, who wore it until their deaths, which it’s believed happened quicker due to the power of the Silmaril.  The Silmaril passed to their son Dior, which led to the Second Kinslaying, but that’s another story.

The full tale is big, nasty, and involves Sauron taking both wolf and vampire forms.  Lots of fun.  According to Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey, the story is drawn from both the boar hunt in the Welsh Mabinogion and the Greek myth for the hunt of the Calydonian Boar,  and from one of the most famous parts of the Prose Edda, regarding the legend of the wolf Fenris and the god Tyr.  Beren’s hound Huan recalls several faithful hounds of legend.  Once more, we see Middle-Earth being sculpted on the tales that inspired Tolkien himself, using his own works to bridge the gaps between mythology and history.

How important was the story of Beren and Lúthien to Tolkien?  I think this says it all…

Tolkien gravestone


For those interested, you can find The Tolkien Ensemble’s renditions of the songs in this chapter here:

The Fall of Gil-Galad

The Song of Beren and Luthien

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