Strider and the hobbits make it to their fourth encampment since leaving Bree. There, they see white flashes in the distance. What could they be?
Thoughts on the Passage – Book I, Chapter 11 (p183 50th Anniv. Ed.)
This is one of my favorite passages so far. It reminds me of seeing lightening in the West and now distances are skewed and almost nonsensical. Frodo was trying to sleep, but noticed flashes in the eastern sky. He rose and asked Strider what they were, but Strider didn’t know.
“It is too distant to make out. It is like lightning that leaps up from the hill-tops.” Finally Frodo fell asleep, but Strider continued his watch.
The next day (which we will get to tomorrow), we learn that the flashing was coming from Weathertop. As most of us already know, it’s Gandalf battling the Nazgul. But how did this happen?
In the chapter, “The Council of Elrond,” Gandalf explains that he arrived at Weathertop on his second day out of Bree (the night of October 3). Taking the East Road and traveling by Shadowfax, he overtook Strider and the Hobbits who were slogging through the Midgewater Marshes north of the road.
Gandalf was pursued by the Nazgul, and arrived on Weathertop during the day (of the 3rd). “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 Sul. I was hard put to it indeed: such light and flame cannot have been seen on Weathertop since the war-beacons of old.”
We’ll get to Amon Sul and the whole war-beacons thing at another time. But for now, this is all we know of the battle and of the Nazgul. Thankfully, Tolkien wasn’t content with leaving it at this. After the publication of Lord of the Rings, he sat down and fleshed out the minutia.
It should be noted that Strider and Frodo witnessing Gandalf’s battle was something added very late in the writing process, probably in the final draft. Prior to that, the whole Weathertop thing is an absolute mess. In fact, Tolkien wrote himself a note reminding that this “Weathertop business” must be “simplified.” Anyway, we’re looking forward, not backward.
From the manuscript “The Hunt for the Ring – Time Scheme: Black Riders” (which has been partially reprinted in Hammond & Scull’s essential Reader’s Companion), we can learn quite a bit more of the Nazgul’s movements. Concerning the fight, four Black Riders were sent ahead with the Witch-king. They have arrived at Weathertop before Gandalf. As Gandalf moves closer to overtaking them in the daylight of October 3rd, they hide in the hills along the road. Once he passes, they close in behind.
“[The Witch-king] is both pleased and puzzled. For a while he had been in great fear, thinking that by some means Gandalf had got possession of the Ring and was now the Bearer; but as Gandalf passes he is aware that Gandalf has not got the Ring.”
But these are just notes, and here Tolkien asks himself, “What is he pursuing? He himself [Witch-king] must be after the escaping Bearer; and it must therefore somehow have gone on far ahead.”
So at this point, still in the daylight of October 3rd, the Witch-king knows that Gandalf does not have the Ring, and believes that the Ring Bearer (Frodo) has fled east toward Rivendell. In truth, of course, Frodo and company are nearly 50 miles behind them and a bit to the north.
But the Witch-king knows of Gandalf and realizes he is a “great power and enemy. He must be dealt with, and yet that needs great force.”
The five Nazgul, Witch-king at their head, pursue Gandalf “hotly to Weathertop.” But when Gandalf stops there, instead of continuing on, they begin to think that this “is a trysting place,” where he was to perhaps meet some comrades.
In addition to the five Nazgul, there was a sixth sent to Weathertop several days back. And so it is six Nazgul who attack Gandalf at dark.
Tolkien does not in any way describe the actual battle. From what I can see, he never even attempted it. In the third(sh) draft of “The Council of Elrond,” he says, “I passed a very bad night besieged on the top of Weathertop.” (I’m not going to get into the idea that Gandalf was then riding with a hobbit named Hamilcar Bolger who would eventually morph/evolve/slip into Pippin. Sort of.) This seems to be the first time Tolkien wrote at all about it.
In the next draft, Gandalf tells Frodo that two Nazgul (already waiting at Weathertop), “drew off before my [?wrath]. But that night… gathered, and I was besieged on the top, but I perceived they had not got you.” The draft written after this one is basically the same as the published version: “such light and flame cannot have been seen on Weathertop since the war-beacons of old.”
And that brings us back to our starting point. Thanks for coming along!
A Few Notes:
- I find it odd that Tolkien, who had written some of the most “beautiful” lines about wars and battles didn’t take the opportunity to describe the struggle.
- It’s cute how from one draft to the next, Tolkien played with the number of Nazgul waiting at Weather-top from two to one. Seriously, why did this matter? I love it.
- Reading through the old manuscripts contained in Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle-earth series is horribly exciting and confusing. I hope everyone feels this way.
- Does all this background information help or hinder you in your understanding of the overall story? Or doesn’t it matter at all? I can see some folks really being uninterested, but really, in a project like this, what the hell else am I going to write about?
About the Photo
I don’t do a lot of black and white photography (though that’s about to change), but this photo caught my eye. It’s taken in the Drumheller Channels in eastern Washington. I can’t really judge how far away the little peaks on the horizon are, but they seem to be more or less far away. At this point, Frodo and friends are 46 walking miles away from Weathertop’s summit. It’s a fair enough representation. (Flickr)
- Miles today: 5
- Miles thus far: 195
- 46 miles to Weathertop Summit
- 265 miles to Rivendell
- 1,584 miles to Mt. Doom
Today’s stopping place: Just after the Marshes! (map)