Approaching Weathertop: Anatomy of a Scene

With this passage, Tolkien has taken his party and the readers from civilized—or at least semi civilized—borders of The Shire into the romantic wilderness.  Indeed, from Tolkien’s descriptions—old green-covered ruins and an undulating landscape—nothing could be more romantic in the traditional and proper understanding of the world.  Nature itself has become a character, with the past providing the very edges of reality.

When one of the hobbits, Merry, asks about the origins of the ruins of the area, Strider offers his long insight. It turns out, that this land was not inhabited by men, but it was once protected by them, and in grim fashion. “The Men of the West did not live here; though in their latter days they defended the hills for a while against the evil that came out of Angmar,” Strider notes. “This path was made to serve the forts along the walls. But long before, in the first days of the North Kingdom, they built a great watch-tower on Weathertop, Amon Sûl they called it.”[3] Here, Strider continues, the great leader of the North, Elendil, once awaited the arrival of “Gil-galad out of the West, in the days of the Last Alliance” of men and elves against the wickedness of Sauron.  This had been at the end of the Second Age, over three thousand years earlier. At the mention of Gil-galad, a song erupts, the singing of the Lay of Gil-galad.  To the surprise of everyone, including the singer himself, the singer is not Strider, but Sam, reciting a poem taught to him by Bilbo, who had translated it into the common tongue from Elvish.

In his descriptions, Tolkien offers not just the “undulating ridge,” but also a “pale clear light of the October sun” as well hills that “were brown and somber; behind them stood taller shapes of grey, and behind those again were high white peaks glimmering among the clouds.”[4]

Upon Amon Sûl, the party finds a mysterious stone, marked with the Elven ruin for “G” and three hatch marks. Perplexed, the party looks across the horizon, only horrified to see that “two black specks were moving slowly,” two of the nine Ring Wraiths searching for them. Securing themselves against the inevitable clash with the wraiths, the party builds a fire, and, as a form of prayer, Strider tells them the story of Beren and Lúthien, the greatest love story of Middle-earth, the marriage of a mortal man and immortal elf.

The leaves were long, the grass was green, The hemlock-umbels tall and fair, And in the glade a light was seen Of stars in shadow shimmering. Tinúviel was dancing there To music of a pipe unseen, And light of stars was in her hair, And in her raiment glimmering.[5]

Only minutes later, after Strider has sung and explained the tale, the Ring Wraiths attack, manipulating Frodo into slipping on the One Ring and entering their perilous realm. Fortified by the tale of Beren and Lúthien, however, Frodo resists, crying aloud the name of the most holy of women in Tolkien’s universe: “O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!”[6] With such sacred words on his lips, Frodo’s blade pierces the foot of his enemy, but only after the sword of the Ring Wraith ripped open his shoulder.

While this is only one scene of the massive The Lord of the Rings, it is a telling one.  Through romance, imagery of light and color, the voluptuousness of the landscape, and the holiness of song and poetry, Tolkien brilliantly reveals himself as a master of the English language and, especially, of the written word.

[1] Sayer, “Recollections of J.R.R. Tolkien,” in Pearce, ed., Tolkien: A Celebration (London, ENG: Fount, 1999), 6-7.

[2] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 184-185.

[3] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 186.

[4] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 186-187.

[5] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 191.

[6] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 195.