Though the approach to the mountain Weathertop is only one scene in “The Lord of the Rings,” it is a telling one. Through romance, imagery of light and color, the voluptuousness of his landscapes, and the holiness of song and poetry, J.R.R. Tolkien brilliantly reveals himself as a master of the English language and, especially, of the written word.

In his personal recollections of his mentor, hero, and friend, George Sayer remembered that J.R.R. Tolkien possessed the uncanny ability to match his facial expressions and speech patterns to and with the prevailing mood of any given conversation. “As I sat with him and the Lewis brothers in the pub, I remember being fascinated by the expressions on his face, the way they changed to suit what he was saying,” Sayer recollected. “Often he was smiling, genial, or wore a pixy look. A few seconds later he might burst into savage scathing criticism, looking fierce and menacing. Then he might soon again become genial.”[1] It was not affectation, but sincere intensity. The very same might (and should) be claimed of his writing ability. When the mood calls for levity, Tolkien writes with levity. When the mood calls for depth, Tolkien writes with depth. When the mood calls for contemplation, Tolkien writes contemplatively. As a twentieth-century author, he was an absolute master at this.

One can see Tolkien’s skill in the approach to Weathertop, chapter 11 of book one of The Fellowship of the Ring, “A Knife in the Dark.” Having slowly fled the social and near fatal disasters of Bree, September 30, the four hobbits, Bill the Pony, and Strider the Ranger make their way east of the village, en route to the Elvish safe haven of Rivendell. They won’t arrive in Rivendell until late on October 20, but they have no idea of just how long it will take. Dispirited, the party moves anxiously and uneasily, not sure who in the village had betrayed them to the demonic black riders. The same riders—at least four of them—attack Frodo and his party on the evening of October 6.

On October 4, after an agonizing journey through insect-ridden marshes, Frodo and his party spot Weathertop for the first time. Strider advises a roundabout route, thus approaching Weathertop from the north, a path better hidden from the spies of the enemies. On October 5, the hobbits feel refreshed after a good night’s sleep. “There was a frost in the air, and the sky was a pale clear blue,” Tolkien writes.[2] As the party nears Weathertop, they find themselves on “an undulating ridge, often rising almost to a thousand feet, and here and there falling again to low clefts or passes.” The last looks and leads into the east, seemingly endless in vista, and the party views “what looked to be the remains of green-grown walls and dikes, and in the clefts there stood the ruins of old works of stone.”

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 word. 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 as 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 rune 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 rips 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.

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[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.

The featured image is “Rocky Mountains” (1866) by Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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