A physicist loose among the liberal arts

How to Catch a Baggins

I’m almost caught up with the Mythgard Academy class on Return of the Shadow.  This morning I finished Class #12.

There was quite a bit of discussion of Gildor’s comment that the other hobbits will mess up the ability of the Black Riders to track Bingo by smell. How did they do that?  Here’s (half of) the slide that was on screen at the time.

I think it likely that your three companions have already helped you to escape: the Riders did not know that they were with you, and their presence has for the time being confused the scent.

Return of the Shadow, p. 282

Well, let’s back up a step and ask a more basic question: Why did Sauron send creatures to look for Bagginses who can’t see very well, but can smell? As Corey Olsen said, it’s wrong to think of Black Riders acting like bloodhounds. They do not have superhuman olfactory organs.  They can’t detect the differences between hobbits by scent. After all, they’d never met a hobbit until they got to the Shire. They didn’t know what hobbits smell like, any more than Smaug did. They had to be searching for a smell that they hadn’t experienced personally, but had been described to them.  It would have to be a very strong smell for that to succeed.

The Black Riders were tracking the smell of tobacco smoke.

In the published Fellowship of the Ring, we hear about “sniffing” in Chapter 3, when the hobbits are out on the road. We don’t hear Gaffer Gamgee mention it.

Ceci n'est pas une bague.

In our war against the West, this has always been our greatest foe.

Out on the road, sniffing works. In Hobbiton, where lots of people smoke, Black Riders were at a loss.  They couldn’t find Baggins because everyone in Hobbiton smells like that.  And since they don’t know anything else about hobbits, smell is all they’ve got to go on.  Without smell, they have to ask nicely, and perhaps bribe if asking doesn’t work.

This clears up something I’d wondered about in the published Fellowship of the Ring.  Gandalf is rather pleased with his cleverness in getting half of the Black Riders to follow him away from Weathertop.

“I hoped to draw some of them off, and yet reach Rivendell ahead of you and send out help. Four Riders did indeed follow me, but they turned back after a while and made for the Ford, it seems. That helped a little, for there were only five, not nine, when your camp was attacked.”

LotR II,i

How did he draw them off?  On the “other side”, where Ringwraiths have frightening forms and Glorfindel shines brightly, Gandalf can hardly be mistaken for a hobbit.  The Ringwraiths know he’s there, and they can’t be very eager to tangle with a Maia when their mission is to capture a Baggins.

Now we know the answer:  Gandalf smokes tobacco, too.  When the Ringwraiths smelled Gandalf, they smelled the smell of their quarry. They knew Gandalf was there, but they couldn’t take the chance that he didn’t have a Baggins with him, so they divided their forces and attacked Frodo’s camp with only half their strength.


Sing along with LotR


Gargantua on Drinking


  1. Brilliant, Joe, but there is a corollary that needs to be expressed now that you have solved the mystery of the sniffing.

    Since we learn in Unfinished Tales that the name of the sniffing Black Rider was Khâmul, Joe, we can say with certainty that Khâmul would walk a mile for the Eye.

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