108) Fog on the Barrow-downs

Fog on the Barrow-downs

The hobbits set out, with Tom assuming they should be OK just with his advice – and is of course dead wrong.  We learn later that the Witch-King put the barrow-wights there in the first place.  He has perhaps stirred them up to unusual malice and power.  Whether or not the Black Riders would be barred from the barrow-downs by Tom is unknown.  They later raid Crickhollow, far to the west, so it seems they could not yet locate Frodo or his ring.

They set out but get lost in fog.  Soon Frodo finds he is alone and must pass between two large standing stones.  This is part of a trap, for he then falls asleep and wakes in the barrow.  He has perhaps passed into another world.

He then sees the others, clad in white garments and with treasures laid on them, but all is cold and evil.  And he hears the dismal song of the barrow-wight:

“After a while the song became clearer, and with dread in his heart he perceived that it had changed into an incantation:

“Cold be hand and heart and bone,
“and cold be sleep under stone:
“never mare to wake on stony bed,
“never, till the Sun fails and the Moon is dead.
“In the black wind the stars shall die,
“and still on gold here let them lie,
“till the dark lord lifts his hand
“over dead sea and withered land.”

This is like Lewis’s vision of the end of Narnia, except that good people escape it and go to Paradise.  And also like the post-human exhausted future in Wells’s The Time Machine – always ignored in the dramatization I’ve seen.  It is not like the climatic battle, ruin and then renewal of Norse mythology, which Tolkien in early version of his own mythology foresees.  But evil creatures might have different expectations.  Or be left behind in it if that is the choice they made.

For now, there is immediate peril to the travellers.  Understandably terrified, Frodo thinks of fleeing and abandoning the others.  He then recovers his courage, grabs a sword, and attacks the barrow-wight’s grasping hand.  He cuts off the hand, but the blade shatters also.

He then summons Tom, who arrives surprisingly quickly.  Of course, this is still his land.  He may have sensed the trouble and come looking for them.

Tom is much harsher with the wight than with Old Man Willow, banishing him far away.  Unlike the trees, the wight must have chosen evil from a desire for power.  He might have been a mortal who rejected death.

Tom then brings out the hobbits and the treasures.

Merry has had a dream – as a warrior of Arnor killed fighting the forces of the witch-king.  Perhaps buried in the barrow, but it might also be much older.

All but Frodo have lost their clothes. Tom has the hobbits discard what the wight clothed them in and run naked to recover.  Frodo still has his regular cloths, including the One Ring, which the wight seems not to have sensed.  (Or perhaps it feared it and was taking time to try to break Frodo’s will.)

We then have one of the little touches that make Tolkien superior to most magic stories: their five ponies arrive, led by Tom’s own pony, and answering to his song:

  • “Sharp-ears, Wise-nose, Swish-tail and Bumpkin,
  • “White-socks my little lad, and old Fatty Lumpkin!”

The first five belong to Merry and must have existing names, though these are never mentioned.  They thereafter answer to the names Tom gives them.  And they have spare clothes, though they feel uncomfortable since these were intended as winter garments.

Tom leaves most of the treasures to lie for anyone to take, which breaks the barrow spell and stops another wight coming there.  (Which implies that the mound-makers were not wholly free of evil and this was used by their enemies.)  Tom has no wish to possess more than he needs, and the hobbits understandably ignore it.  Tom takes one small treasure for Goldberry.  And he chooses daggers for the hobbits – daggers large enough to serve them as swords, as Sting did for Bilbo.  (Bilbo still has it, passing it on to Frodo in Rivendell along with this mithril coat, both essential for their future perils.)

Tom gives the hobbits some idea of what he has given them, presumably taken from a barrow made by good people but invaded by evil:

“’Old knives are long enough as swords for hobbit-people,’ he said. ‘Sharp blades are good to have, if Shire-folk go walking, east, south, or far away into dark and danger.’ Then he told them that these blades were forged many long years ago by Men of Westernesse: they were foes of the Dark Lord, but they were overcome by the evil king of Carn Dym in the Land of Angmar.

“’Few now remember them,’ Tom murmured, ‘yet still some go wandering, sons of forgotten kings walking in loneliness, guarding from evil things folk that are heedless.’

“The hobbits did not understand his words, but as he spoke they had a vision as it were of a great expanse of years behind them, like a vast shadowy plain over which there strode shapes of Men, tall and grim with bright swords, and last came one with a star on his brow. Then the vision faded, and they were back in the sunlit world. It was time to start again.”

The reference to ‘one with a star on his brow’ probably means Aragorn, though I overlooked it at the time. He is last because the future is still not decided.  Even though it will take an Act of God to destroy the ring, you could see it as only coming because many and the hobbits especially end up earning it.  Sam comes close to killing Gollum at the foot of Mount Doom, which would fit his earlier attitudes.  Gollum certainly merits death by that point – but like Bilbo long ago, Sam does not take it upon himself to kill someone who deserves death.  His brief experience with the One Ring lets him sympathise a little with Gollum’s plight.

Back before Bree, they need advice.  Tom knows much but is unlikely to be the God of Tolkien’s vision, particularly since he started out as a toy Dutch Doll.  He has limits, saying “out east my knowledge fails”.  But not wholly:

“‘Tom will give you good advice, till this day is over (after that your own luck must go with you and guide you): four miles along the Road you’ll come upon a village, Bree under Bree-hill, with doors looking westward. There you’ll find an old inn that is called The Prancing Pony. Barliman Butterbur is the worthy keeper. There you can stay the night, and afterwards the morning will speed you upon your way. Be bold, but wary! Keep up your merry hearts, and ride to meet your fortune!’

“They begged him to come at least as far as the inn and drink once more with them; but he laughed and refused, saying: ‘Tom’s country ends here: he will not pass the borders.’”

Note that this is the very first time that Bree has been mentioned since the Prologue.  We later learn that Merry, at least, knows that it exists.  The Bucklanders have had dealings there and he expects them to know of him.

Tom’s advice is vital – they will meet Aragorn and get Gandalf’s letter.  Tom senses this is the best move for them, though he does not expect the Black Riders and perhaps does not know that Bree is going through a period of stress and infiltration by evil.

The hobbits have learned much, but they are still beginners.  Frodo sees the need to reminds his friends that he must be called Underhill, not Baggins.

Copyright © Gwydion M. Williams.