Tales from the Prancing Pony (4)
Weathertop and Trollshaws

Last Update 9 August 1999

All text and images copyright Gil Williamson 1998-99

SW from Caradhras





Out from Bree along the East Road, the travellers, having some confidence in their Guide, once again attempted to vary the route, this time crossing the railway and entering undulating countryside to the North. The mountain Amon Soul (pronounced Ah-mon Sool) - Weathertop, as it was called by Tolkien - could already be seen a day's march or more to the East, and the road appeared to be turning South, away from their direct route. The Boy was particularly keen to make the ascent, and the Guide promised that the route was well-trodden, and not exceptionally arduous.

They soon encountered the marshes that bedevilled Frodo and his companions, an area that, to this day, is largely a wet wasteland centred on the lake Tolkien calls Midge Water - a literal translation of Sykke-Nin. No photographs were taken, but the journey evinced some amusing comments about the venomous midges in the area.

  • The Boy These midges are so large, we should catch and skin them. It would not take more than half a dozen to make a useful hat;
  • The Bosun We should take a breeding pair home with us. They'd make a fine weapon of war at sea;
  • The Boy With a suitable harness, and a domesticated one of these flies, we could conquer the air;
  • The Scholar When these creatures bite, they take a lump of meat from your leg and retire to a safe distance to devour it;

The ponies suffered badly, sometimes being black with insects.

Even the Guide was not immune, as the midges could seek out tender parts of his lips and gums, and in a very short time all members of the party were grateful to return to the tedious but relatively painless road.

This part of the book is characterised by a mood of depression and regret for wasted time. The Scholar clearly believes that a rail or coach journey at this stage would have been advisable, just to save this tedious leg of the trip.

Weathertop from the West - One of Grimfield's photographs. Note the huge cairn on the summit. The cairn is no longer there, having been excavated by archaeologists in the mid-1920s.

bree to wtop map
Bree to Amon Soul

Amon Soul

We could now see Amon Soul (Ed. Weathertop) much more clearly. Though it is not, according to the Boy, a tall mountain, it is impressive, rising from the flatlands around it as the highest and most Southerly peak in a small range of hills and mountains. A number of small villages and a few trees and bushes cluster around Amon Soul's base, but the upper slopes are cruelly bare.

The Boy became very excited as we approached, and he began to discuss the route of 'our' ascent with the Guide, who reassured him that the peak was frequently climbed and that a path existed. At a point on the road that the traveller may recognise only by the fact that it is marked by a large boulder covered in indecipherable runes, we turned North East from the East Road and, after a march of half a day, entered a small village (which has no name on our maps, and which calls itself, so far as the Guide could inform us, 'The Town', or, if pressed, the 'The Town West of Amon Soul'). (This appears on the map as "Walker's Village" Ed.) We entered its main street, attracting as little local attention as a travelling circus might. The Guide was busy, explaining our presence (which was more than we could have done) in the local dialect. The Guide himself seemed as interesting to the populace as we strange foreigners, though they did not crowd around him in the way they did us. Once we had shed a few of the inquisitive peasants, impudent children and barking dogs seemingly intent on abducting us as souvenirs, we were able to renew our provisions at a small and well-stocked general store, and to continue out of the village on a track which wound upwards, surrounded by a crowd who found our every mannerism hilarious. One by one, they called farewells and fell back, until after a half hour of stiff climbing, our entourage had been reduced to a silent but persistent old man and his huge hound-like dog.

The old man insisted on leading the procession, keeping ahead of the Guide and our ponies with a long, ground-devouring stride of his thin limbs. The Guide confided to us that the old man had once been what passes in these parts for a police officer, and commanded much respect in the district. Further, he was of "Royal" blood, whatever that means in those parts. His name translated as Walker, which we could easily believe, as he proved very good at it. The old man's dog was nearly as tall as our ponies, but rakishly thin, and it constantly eyed us all speculatively as though we were a sort of mobile supper. It had plainly eaten little lately - perhaps only a small boy or two and a stray horse. When we stopped to rest, the Bosun prepared tea, as usual, and the old man shared a cup with us, never breaking into a smile, but making a moue of approval. After the refreshments he gestured to the worsening weather. A storm was clearly brewing to the North. Then he waved in a benedictory fashion and turned back to his village, calling a single word to his dog, which gave us a hungry glance before following him.

The track to the summit is not direct, but follows a series of ridges that are aiming for the main saddle between Amon Soul and the smaller peak to its North, Gonuid. The route is well-travelled, as it leads over the ridge to a village on the Eastern slopes of Amon Soul. Our climb was steady, but not exhausting, and our only concern was the accumulation of dark clouds now obscuring Gonuid and the other peaks to the North. The trees, hitherto fairly frequent, became more sparse as we climbed, and the Guide recommended we make camp in a copse just before the final steep climb to the ridge. Amon Soul was now to our South-East. We had hardly made fast our tents and stores when the storm arrived. It did not rain as that term is understood in England. It was, rather, as though a bathtub of Cyclopean proportions had been suddenly inverted above our camp. According to the Bosun, the soaking we received, the squalls, the lightning flashes and the explosions of thunder closely resembled the effect of a battleship in close combat in heavy weather. Based on this comparison, both the Boy and I resolved to avoid Naval service, should we ever have become tempted by the Bosun's tales of exotic travel and adventure undertaken at the expense of Her Majesty. Luckily, our ordeal was over before our possessions and ponies had been swept all the way back to the foot of the hill. The Guide had chosen well. Our camp site was well-drained and somewhat sheltered from the worst of the wind. Indeed, the ponies seemed less disturbed by the experience than they had been by the eerie quiet of the Barrow Downs. We were then able to observe the storm delivering its contents to the South as we settled to a warming fire of fallen twigs, a cooked evening meal and an early bed.

Another incident is worth recording. Throughout his time with us, the Guide had carried his hen, feeding and watering it regularly, and generally making its life comfortable, even allowing it to wander a little when we camped. We had concluded that the bird was some kind of pet. Thus our astonishment when this evening he removed it from its cage, murmured to it gently, then bit its head off, skinned it deftly and consumed it raw. It was a grisly sight indeed, and the Bosun was moved to cry "Oh, I say!" in protest.

"You think me cruel?" asked the Guide.

"I do. You have carried that bird for a week, with every appearance of care, only to kill and eat it so suddenly."

"Imagine you were that bird," replied the Guide. "Would you prefer a comfortable life with no threat or fear, or would you prefer the life of a hen taken to market, where it is hung up by the feet from a hook, starved, and treated like a parcel until someone kills it carelessly, or it dies of neglect? I do not needlessly torture my food, nor subject it to disease and neglect. Such behaviour does not improve its flavour or value. Its end was swift and merciful." We had to admit that he was right, as he often proved to be in subsequent weeks.

By nine o'clock of the following morning, having ridden up the track through pine woods, then rough scrub, and finally bare rocks and stones, we could see the ridge above us. At the Boy's suggestion, we agreed to lead the ponies in order to spare them the exertion and risk of carrying us up the precipice. Perched on precipitous slopes, occasional sheep, as wiry as greyhounds, grazed on the hillside. Heaven knows what they found to eat. Nourishing pebbles, perhaps. An hour later, puffing with exertion, the Bosun and I gained the ridge, where the Guide and the Boy awaited us with the superior patience of athletes who understand the frailty of mere mortal man. Here we turned off the main track, which descends the Eastern face of the ridge, to climb the ridge of Amon Soul to our South. Even off the main track, the path to the summit, though narrow, is well-trodden, and easily wide enough for the ponies. This proved convenient for the Bosun and the Scholar, but the stoic Boy insisted on walking when he could have ridden, while the Guide, of course, never rode.

The outlook from the summit of Amon Soul is inspiring, permitting, as it does, a view of up to a hundred miles in every direction. The summit is actually rather broad, and the pinnacle one can see from below is a huge cairn built from stones fetched by centuries of climbers. The summit area is walled with an ancient rampart, which has fallen to a height of two or three feet in most places, the building blocks no doubt being incorporated into the cairn.

We walked around the area for some twenty minutes. It was perishing cold, and, though I would not have missed the experience, only the Boy appeared to truly appreciate the windswept glory of the place. Far below, we could see the East Road, the village we had visited the previous day, and the route we would follow through another village and back to the Road. A plume of smoke and a rattling to the West indicated the position of a distant railway train. Above us, a large black bird, of a species I could not identify, described huge, slow circles in a manner reminiscent of an eagle or vulture.

A curious accident occurred on the way down the hill. We heard a rush of air and saw the large bird dropping in front of us. It then pivoted around and flew straight towards us. We could now see it was huge, ten feet or more from tip to tip of its wings. While Nature often shows us creatures of great power and ferocity, seldom does she show them as evil. Yet from this bird came an unmistakable malevolence which we all felt. It was black all over like a raven, except for glittering yellow eyes. The Boy was standing in the stirrups of the leading pony, the better to view this marvel, and as the bird approached, the pony reared, depositing him on the ground. The bird made a curious screech, in which words could almost be heard, just as a talking parrot may sound, and turned away to circle again. All our mounts bolted a little, and the Guide flung himself to the ground, but order was soon restored. However, the boy was found to have fallen on a piece of jagged metal, which had grazed his side. Imagine our surprise when we discovered that it was a broken dagger.

The Guide warned us immediately not to touch the dagger. "Such weapons seek out mortals to harm," he said, examining it where it lay on the ground by the path, "This dagger is very ancient."

"Oh, come, it is only a dagger," I replied, "Its blade would not cut butter. And it cannot be so old. There is no sign of rust on the blade, even though it is broken." But The Guide would have none of it, picked the weapon up between two stones, and dropped it over the side of the ridge before I had the opportunity to examine it. All I can recall is that it was unnaturally dark, almost black, and that both the hilt and the stump of blade were engraved with an indecipherable script.

The Guide then turned his attention to the Boy, seeking to clean the wound. "If any piece of the knife is in the wound, it will enter your body like a worm, and kill you," he warned.

"Nonsense! It is only a graze," replied the Boy, "I have suffered worse in fencing classes. And I have no desire to remove my shirt here and now. Let us attend to it, if necessary, later. I am more concerned that oversized crow may return." However, the large bird had disappeared for the time being.

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Old Bridge at Mithael
The Old Bridge at Mithael - a drawing from the book, said to be by The Bosun.


The descent to the East Road was uneventful, and the travellers spent a night in one of the coaching inns, and might have been tempted to take the daily coach on to Arvendel (Tolkien's Rivendell) had the Guide been prepared to bring the ponies on separately. Though the Boy was showing signs of fever, his minor wound appeared clean. The Bosun thought the Boy's fever might be malaria, contracted in the swamps, but the Guide was sure it was his brush with the mysterious knife. The Boy himself was unconcerned, and so they all continued Eastwards.

They crossed the famous Mithael Bridge, spending a night in one of the busy Inns near the thoroughfare. The Inn was called the local equivalent of "The Ford" - a name dating back to before the 15th Century road bridge and 19th Century rail bridge which are here within half a mile of each other.

wtop to riv map
Amon Soul to Arvendel


For some reason, known only to God, the inhabitants of Mithael have no clear concept of hot water. Our innkeeper appeared to comprehend the words, when spoken in a variety of tongues, yet the water provided for our tea at breakfast might conveniently be described as chambré, like a fine claret at the Travellers' Club. For some twenty minutes, the Bosun and I were engaged in delicate negotiations towards an increase in temperature for our tea, during which The Guide regarded our antics with amused tolerance and the kitchen lad was sent scurrying back and forth. The breakfast was in all other respects better than tolerable, and our banter had lost its edge with general contentment, when the Boy appeared in the breakfast room looking like a dead man, and moving no faster.

The Boy sat at our table, refusing nourishment of any kind, and apologised for his low state, suggesting that we others continue while he recuperated and joined us in a few days by train. I would not have wagered a guinea on the prospect of his recovery at all at that moment, far less a rapid one. He refused at first to show us the wound, but the Guide would brook no opposition, and removed the Boy's shirt then and there in the breakfast room, regardless of embarrassment.

What I am about to tell you may sound strange, but I assure the reader that it is absolutely true. Having inspected the red and angry gash in the Boy's side, which was clearly poisoned, the Guide spoke in the local dialect to the kichen lad, who was obviously terrified of him. The lad went out and returned with a plate of bread and an old tablecloth. The Guide poked at the bread, which looked perfectly good to me, then spoke sharply to the kitchen lad, who ran out with the bread and returned some minutes later with the end of a rather stale loaf. This was still not old enough, apparently, and the Guide repaired to the kitchen in person, returning with a handful of green-tinged lumps of the least appetising bread I had yet seen, (not including the offerings of the Prince Albert at Greyhaven). These the Guide fashioned into a poultice, using the luke-warm water intended for our tea, and attached the poultice to the wound with strips torn from the old tablecloth.

I later discovered, on inspecting the inn-keeper's bill, that the tablecloth, far from being the torn and stained remnant it had appeared, must have been a valuable antique! The sacrifice was, nevertheless, well worth while, as the treatment, renewed twice daily, worked extremely well, and within a few days the Boy was as good as new. Further, the inn-keeper failed to recognise our use of a valuable medicament (the miraculous green bread), and forgot to charge us for it! I have since heard that the mould which forms upon bread was known to the ancient Egyptians as a cure for infection.

During the two days of the Boy's recovery, the Guide showed the Bosun and myself some of the local wonders. These included the bridge, which is of a type we have seen in France, and a large and attractive town square, surrounded by ornate civic buildings. There is also a huge medieval fort whose ruined state is due to repeated plunderings for building materials by the Church. This thoughtless destruction of historical monuments is common in Middle Earth. I fancy that only the extreme desirability of crossing the river dry-shod has preserved the Mithael bridge largely intact.

As a result, perhaps, of the ready availability of raw materials from the fort, there are many churches in Mithael, including a large eighteenth century barn which styles itself "Cathedral", but in which I would not stable my horses, due to its inelegant architectural style, which resembles a small barracks block, surmounted by a pimple, crowned with a cricket stump (Ed. This is true). The Guide spoke knowledgeably about the town, but declined to enter any of the Churches. The Church has been inimical to his race throughout recorded history, with many periods of persecution. "My tribe," he explained, "Has had the misfortune to ally itself to leaders whom the Church named, often after the event, as evil. Indeed, our leaders made such mistakes in both the pre- and post-Christian eras. This has given us a reputation somewhat worse than Jews, and we are variously thought to be demons, hobgoblins, or apes. We are barred from proper education and those of my race who have wished to become Christians in this country have been denied the privilege on the basis of our appearance. The men of Middle Earth value us as mine workers in peace time, and as warriors when the country is under attack, but our services are soon forgotten."

"How, then," I asked during one of our walks through the town, "Have you become so well-schooled? How did you learn English, for example?"

"Ha!" he replied, "One Scholar recognises another! My early education was in a tribal school, then I attended a Spanish college, posing as a Moor, where I learned Spanish, French, English, History and much besides."

"How could you afford such extended studies?"

"Our tribe, as I told you, are miners in time of peace. We mine precious metals, especially gold. We can afford anything we wish. Unfortunately, we do not reproduce as readily as other races and many are born crippled. Some say that the metals we mine cause these infirmities, but we must earn our living. However, men will always outbreed us, and so we do not push ourselves forward. There is a legend that a wizard called Zaruman created our race from the unholy wedding of men and goblins, and that this is the origin of our infirmities."

Though somewhat embarrassed by these confidences, I asked why a scholar of his quality should become our Guide. He replied that it amused him to do so, especially since he could obtain no better employment than mining in his native land.

(The above section hinting at the history of The Guide's race is not unique in the book, yet it is nowhere comprehensively treated. It is a sad fact that the remainder of the Uruk-Hai race in Middle Earth was wiped out in the Winter of 1928 by an epidemic of influenza to which they turned out to be highly susceptible. Ed.)

The Giants
The Giants - limestone pillars resembling Frodo's Trolls.
A modern photograph reproduced by kind permission of the Tourist Administration of Mithael District.


The Boy's recovery was extremely swift, and the travellers lost only about a day and a half, since they had planned to spend half a day in Mithael. They also made good progress along the well-paved road to the East. The narrative resumes at the point where The Guide turns the party off the road to see The Giants, a diversion of a dozen miles or so.

Like Mithael, and unlike many of the other sites visited by the Scholar, The Giants are still in the state in which he left them, and can be viewed today, provided a visa can be obtained. Though a Tourist Administration exists, travel to Mithael District purely for the purpose of Tourism is not routinely permitted, but a permit for non-invasive research may be obtained by bona fide academics, and a short-stay visa will usually be granted on presentation of a permit together with an astonishingly impudent sum of money.

Frodo's Trolls

The Giants - limestone pillars resembling Frodo's Trolls.
One of Grimfield's photographs.

wtop to riv map
Amon Soul to Arvendel


According to the Guide, this area had at one time been totally wooded, but there was no evidence whatever of trees, most of the terrain, where it was not too steep to plough, being tilled for the growing of wheat and barley. Where the land was too precipitous for crops, but not quite vertical, we saw cattle and sheep clinging to the rock face, munching stones, as seems the usual diet in Middle Earth of animals which elsewhere aspire to be herbivores.

The last part of the journey was up a steep fissure in an unremarkable flat-topped hill, but as we emerged on the plateau we were greeted with the most amazing array of limestone pillars.

The Giants

One of Grimfield's photographs.

Abandoning our ponies to feed in a nearby quarry, we spent a full two hours in exploring what was a fairly extensive area of natural beauty. The Boy was so far recovered that he could not resist scaling a pillar of some sixty feet. For my part, I managed to obtain a number of excellent photographs.

On the way down, with the sun setting to our left, the Guide told us several stories about the region, which was once thought to be the haunt of witches and trolls. The limestone outcrops are popularly believed to be the petrified bodies of trolls and giants, rendered immobile by the witches. It is also rumoured that the figures move around under cover of darkness, though they always return to their places before dawn.

The downward route was different from the climb, and we reached the main East Road in near-darkness, putting up at another inn with no conception of hot water, but a keen appreciation of ale and stew.

On the next day, breakfast was served in a large room, with open windows along one side to a garden. Every alcove, shelf and side table was filled with stuffed animals. Among the smaller mammals and birds, there were a number of extremely rare specimens. The Guide informed us that it was considered good sport in this district only to kill animals and birds which were useless for the table. Otherwise, what had been sport became mere farming. "For our part," the Bosun replied, "My countrymen have always considered it ignoble to kill game that cannot be eaten". The Guide agreed, but reminded us that England was famous for hunting the fox but he had heard that we did not eat it. Moreover, he did not agree that fox-hunting was a form of pest control, as too many people appeared to take pleasure in the activity. As ever, the Guide's remarks were novel and thought-provoking.

In addition to the animals which were the product of the taxidermist's art, there were a number of birds engaged in saving the taxidermist trouble by stuffing themselves with any portions of our breakfast which we did not vigorously defend. These lively winged buccaneers perched indiscriminately on the preserved corpses of their fellows, without any appearance of dread or respect, and the Boy to this day swears there was a blackbird's nest in the gaping snarl of a stuffed wolf.

We completed the remaining distance to Arvendel (Tolkien's Rivendell. Ed.) before nightfall. The journey took us through farmlands and over the Bruinen River by a much-patched wooden bridge, then the road climbed steeply into trees, over several mountain torrents, including one very large one, and finally to the village of Arvendel, perched on a green, wooded shoulder of the surrounding mountains.

The feeling of peace and goodwill emanating from the very stones of this hamlet filled the Bosun, the Boy and the Scholar with warmth and comfort, and the small inn was the best we had yet visited. Nevertheless, the Guide seemed ill-at-ease, and would not tarry, preferring instead to camp on the hillside above the village, on the other side of the river, which he crossed by the railway bridge. He left hurriedly, saying his tribe was unwelcome in this place, though, in truth, none of the inhabitants had paid the slightest attention to him. He promised to return for us in the morning.

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