(Updated on 15/08/2022)
This chapter desperately needs to start with a bit of a bang, even a non-literal one. And it sort of does, with a brief description of Frodo’s third dream, probably the most notable one:
“Frodo heard a sweet singing running in his mind; a song that seemed to come like a pale light behind a grey rain-curtain, and growing stronger to turn the veil all to glass and silver, until at last it was rolled back, and a far green country opened before him under a swift sunrise.”
It’s a clear connection to the very end of the story, with Frodo having a premonition of his journey across the sea to Valinor. This kind of foreshadowing is a neat touch, but lacks substance at this stage in the story: it’s impossible for the first-time reader to actually know what’s going on here, other than that Frodo’s subconscious seems obsessed with the sea. As for the why, you could argue that possession of the Ring is granting Frodo some sort of vague precognition, or maybe a higher power – like the one Gandalf surmised was guiding events to its design in “The Shadow Of The Past” – is giving Frodo a glimpse of the reward his terrible ordeal will result in.
The party commits a bit of a faux pas as they leave the house of Bombadil, forgetting to say farewell to the lady of the house, much to their mortification. The time given to this ties back into the rules of xenia and how guests and hosts are supposed to treat each other. I imagine this kind of thing is actually a bigger deal in Middle-Earth, or at least the Shire, than it’s made out to be by Goldberry, who doesn’t actually care. Why should she? She’s too busy being mysterious.
There is a lovely bit of descriptive writing here, as Tolkien shows us the view from the hill of Bombadil’s house:
“… the land rose in wooded ridges, green, yellow, russet under the sun, beyond which lay hidden the valley of the Brandywine. To the South, over the line of the Withywindle, there was a distant glint like pale glass where the Brandywine River made a great loop in the lowlands…Northward beyond the dwindling downs the land ran away in flats and swellings of grey and green and pale earth-colours, until it faded into a featureless and shadowy distance. Eastward the Barrow-downs rose, ridge upon ridge into the morning, and vanished out of eyesight into a guess: it was no more than a guess of blue and a remote white glimmer blending with the hem of the sky, but it spoke to them, out of memory and old tales, of the high and distant mountains.”
It’s not the last time Tolkien will give us a panoramic description from a height, but this is one of my favourites, as we see the forest, the Brandywine valley and the Downs, all in one glorious vista.
Off our party goes and once Tom leaves (to the cheers of many readers I am sure), they go right back to being idiots. This time, they misjudge the distance they need to travel to reach safety beyond the Downs, get tired on the way and fall asleep. And there does not seem to be any magic to blame this time: it was a “sleep they never meant to take“. They just get complacent, lazy and doze off, heedless of the danger that is still so near. It seems their time at Tom’s house has spoiled them a little, as they suddenly realise how screwed they are upon waking. The party has an overly optimistic approach to travelling, even though they are going through an extremely haunted and perilous area. I mean, they left their pack-ponies loose while they were all asleep. Looks like its back to naivety and inexperience, the lessons of Black Riders and sentient Willow trees forgotten.
Part of me does think this was all set-up for Aragorn, who we’re meeting very shortly. Tolkien is emphasising just how unprepared for this quest the hobbits are and he’s doing a bang-up job. They needed Tom to help them out in the forest and they’ll need Strider to get them to Rivendell. That’s the pay-off for this set-up, of getting the reader into position where taking Aragorn into the party, willingly, is seen as the logical choice.
The sudden change of tone is very notable as we move into unsettling horror territory, similar in some respects to that of “The Old Forest”, but also different. That was sort of a creepy fairy tale kind of thing, of magical creatures with dark intentions. Here, we have a ghost story, one with a sort of ancient ring to it. We still don’t have a lot of info on the Downs (you have to go into the appendices to really get it) but we know it’s a burial ground for nobility of ages past, one that has become the home of evil spirits. At this point though, less is more, as we can let our own thoughts make the Downs scary. Knowing that it is the graveyard of the old Kingdom of Cardolan, destroyed by Angmar millennia ago and now filled with ghosts possessing old bones isn’t going to improve the experience. It’s a burial mound site: they’re always going to be associated with the supernatural and, occasionally, evil. Tolkien lived near such a site during his time at Oxford and it’s obvious that he was inspired by it. Hell, if you’re like me and live in Britain or Ireland, you’ve probably seen such sites yourself, which can indeed be strange, unsettling places in the right conditions. The monolith-like marker stone that the four sleep under – and here we are again, with mystical forces bringing sleep now repeated after “The Old Forest” – is an imposing figure in our minds, as are the two standing stones Frodo stumbles past later, which almost seem like some kind of threshold to a very different world. It is here that the malevolence of the Downs becomes very apparent: “The fog rolled up to the walls and rose above them, and as it mounted it bent over their heads until it became a roof: they were shut in a hall of mist whose central pillar was the standing stone.
They felt as if a trap was closing about them…”
The horror is done so well here – the sense of gathering gloom, the separation (nothing scarier than being alone in a situation like that) and the idea that the “wights” actually capture people just to bury them alive – and is genuinely terrifying, before we even get to what Frodo actually sees after all of his friends are taken without him even realising: “It leaned over him. He thought there were two eyes, very cold though lit with a pale light that seemed to come from some remote distance. Then a grip stronger and colder than iron seized him. The icy touch froze his bones, and he remembered no more.”
Getting dragged into an ancient tomb by malevolent spirits, concerned only with their own dark designs and not with rings, might be as dark as The Lord Of The Rings has gotten so far. The hobbits of the party faced a terrible threat from the Black Riders in “Three Is Company” and avoided it, and then another in the Forest, but it was so otherworldly that it was like a strange dream in many ways. Here, all four of them are facing a direct confrontation with death, through the form of dead people, the “wight” itself mimicking later descriptions of the Dark Lord, perhaps deliberately: “a tall dark figure like a shadow against the stars”. An arm starts snaking across the floor, the kind of horrific image that we are unprepared for and repelled by. Sam, Merry and Pippin lie with a sword already across their necks, a ghostly and disturbing picture, ready for the kill.
Frodo is caught and we reach a crucial point for the character, who alone among the four finds himself in a position of being able to possibly escape. Just earlier he blundered ahead of he group without heed, showcasing again some of the weakness that we have already seen. He’s tempted to run off, maybe use the Ring to save himself: “He wondered if he put on the Ring, whether the Barrow-wight would miss him, and he might find some way out. He thought of himself running free over the grass, grieving for Merry, and Sam, and Pippin, but free and alive himself. Gandalf would admit that there had been nothing else he could do“. I certainly wouldn’t consider such an action out of character at this point and it might be justified. And, of course, you can feel the Ring’s influence in his thinking as well, urging him to take the selfish path, as well as probably being the reason that he doesn’t fall as hard under the spell as the other three. Save himself, he’s the important one, he can’t let the Ring be lost here, and so on, that road to hell paved with such good intentions.
But he finds the courage to stay and take on the creeping arm. We have a connection to The Hobbit here as Tolkien describes, just as he did for Bilbo then, how hobbits have a seed of courage in them “waiting for some final and desperate danger to make it grow”, despite their outward appearance of being jolly, fat beings. We’ll see it again, for each of our four hobbits here in turn. But this is Frodo’s moment as he rises to the challenge. Accepting the quest in the first place was a fairly heroic moment for the Ring-bearer but his subsequent actions – delaying departure, snapping at his friends, blind panic in the forest – didn’t bear that decision out, making it look kneejerk and not well thought. But he gets to be the hero here, when he is required to be, and he follows through by his decision to stay, hacking away at the horrible creature threatening his friends. And that’s important: Frodo isn’t just fighting for his own survival, but that of the miniature Fellowship that he has become a part of: no wonder “Bilbo (and Gandalf) had thought him the best hobbit in the Shire.” Frodo is the only one of the four to get much characterisation in this chapter.
We have more tone/song connections here as the horror is emphasised by the wight’s rhyme, a horrific little ditty. Peter Jackson liked it so much that he couldn’t just discard it with the rest of this chapter, transplanting it to Gollum in The Two Towers:
“Cold be hand and heart and bone,
and cold be sleep under stone:
never more 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.”
Unlike the trees of the Old Forest, the wight isn’t a completely separate entity from the larger struggle, or at least so I read in this song with the reference to the “Dark Lord”. What connection they may have is left to the reader’s imagination, and they may well be more taken with the grim premonition of the words, which predicts a victory for the forces of darkness that will leave the word devastated.
Then rescue arrives with the return of Tom Bombadil and his ridiculous songs:
“Get out, you old Wight! Vanish in the sunlight!
Shrivel like the cold mist, like the winds go wailing,
Come never here again! Leave your barrow empty!
Out into the barren lands far beyond the mountains!
Lost and forgotten be, darker than the darkness,
Where gates stand for ever shut, till the world is mended.“
The two songs contrast each other, one inspiring darkness, dread and fear, the other mending, strength and courage, in a battle of styles and cores that adds another element to “Fog On The Barrow-Downs”. Frodo actually fears that the wight’s song has turned him to stone, while Bombadil describes his own verses as “strong”. Of course, it’s still Tom Bombadil singing nonsense rhymes, and it’s bound to grate. The entire structure of this chapter bares such a very precise similarity to “The Old Forest”, which maybe only becomes obvious with this moment of rescue, that the reader might be inclined to feel let down. The hobbits enter a dangerous new area without enough heed for the coming threats, they wonder off their chosen path, they are waylaid and nearly killed by a supernatural entity, they are rescued by a deus ex machina incarnate in the form of Tom, and they get shown safely out. The specific tone and surroundings are different, but the story is much the same, and that isn’t to Tolkien’s credit. One wonders if maybe the hobbits, through the actions of Frodo, should have made good their own rescue here, thus proving that they are growing as characters. Or, while maintaining the structure, maybe the rescuer could have been Aragorn, though this would have mangled the following two chapters.
Tom must have been following the hobbits at a distance to have helped them out like this. Or maybe he really is just God. He’s able to defeat the wight with a song, further deepening the mystery surrounding him. This sort of stuff, the power of music over things, is explored further in parts of The Silmarillion, and we’ll see some more examples of it in The Lord of the Rings later. It’s not an original device for Tolkien to use either and I’m not a gigantic fan of it: it seems a bit of a cop out in these kind of instances.
In the aftermath Merry gets a brief moment where he seems to be channelling the past experiences of someone in the Barrow: “ ‘Of course, I remember!’ he said. ‘The men of Carn Dûm came on us at night, and we were worsted. Ah! the spear in my heart!’ He clutched at his breast. ‘No! No!’ he said, opening his eyes. ‘What am I saying? I have been dreaming.’“. It’s concise and it’s creepy but it might have been interesting to explore it a bit more. What if Merry could have supplied some info on the Ringwraiths as a result (he was briefly channelling some Prince killed by the forces of Angmar, the old Kingdom of the Witch-King)? But in truth this is a well planted seed to associate Merry with the Witch-King in a way that will only really land with the super observant or those reading for a second time.
Tom tells the hobbits to run around naked to get their wits back and they do so: “Cast off these cold rags! Run naked on the grass, while Tom goes a-hunting!…The hobbits ran about for a while on the grass, as he told them.” It’s a very strange moment and I don’t really know what to say about it, but it feels like I should note it. Moving right along.
Thinking about it, I wonder now why Bombadil didn’t just accompany the hobbits the whole time. He must have realised how hopeless they were by themselves and he ends up bringing them nearly all the way to Bree anyway. But then again, he is just so uncaring about things everyone else is taking with the utmost seriousness. The Ring, the quest, the dangers surrounding his home, it’s all so much noise to Bombadil, who comes when he’s needed and departs just as quickly, as if the work was just a trifle to him he is already forgetting. It’s another reason that I find him a bit annoying.
Tom gives out some swords, blades that will have great importance later in the story. We get our first mention (though not by name) of the Dunedain, aka the Rangers, who will be a vital part of the story – one of them at least – from the next chapter on, the foreshadowing being obvious. A brief vision of Aragorn, initiated by Bombadil perhaps, jumps into the minds of the characters, the Ranger “with a star on his brow“, a vision that will come to fruition in one of the closing chapters. All these premonitions of things to come must be connected to Tom in some way, but, we’ll never know. It is paving the way for Strider, showing the height of his ancestry in a dreamish way, after the majority of the chapter was spent in its haunted wreckage.
Oh and the hobbits, apparently, haven’t even considered that fighting may be necessary in their quest up to this point. They’ve been dodging Black Riders, evil trees and the bodily remains of ancient nobility possessed by evil spirits and they haven’t considered the idea they have to defend themselves? Well, they are still hobbits, epic quest or no epic quest. Bilbo left home without a handkerchief. These guys left without swords.
There’s also the brooch that Tom fishes out of the barrow, deciding to bring it back to Goldberry, but not before reflecting on the woman who wore it, thousands of years ago: “Fair was she who long ago wore this on her shoulder. Goldberry shall wear it now, and we will not forget her!” It’s clearly implied that this was someone that Tom knew, and is a rare moment of sadness from the character. But the moment passes quickly enough, just another layer of the Tom Bombadil mystery.
The party, led by Bombadil, reaches the main road – the Great East Road that they were apparently aiming for the whole time – and we’re back to normality. Suddenly, they have to start worrying about Black Riders again but that seems reasonable after the adversaries they’ve faced in the last few chapters. Scary men on horses? Try being eaten by a tree.
Tom says goodbye, and we never see the weirdest character in the whole epic again. His final bit of advice –“Be bold, but wary” – is certainly something that this group of hobbits should be taking to heart. Too much blundering around, too many close escapes from disaster. Frodo does seem to take Tom’s advice to heart, stressing that he’s “Mr Underhill” from now on. Unfortunately, it’s not something that Pippin will follow properly. And so, to Bree, with another stirring last line to emphasise the fear they have faced and fled from: “Towards it they now hurried, desiring only to find a fire, and a door between them and the night.”
We’ve reached the end of a series of chapters I would call “How Merry’s shortcut nearly killed them all”. “Fog On The Barrow-Downs” needed to accomplish a serious injection of verve and excitement back into the story that listed so badly during “In The House Of Tom Bombadil”. And it does that, to a point. The horror story that unfolds on the Downs is exciting enough, and has some more great prose and descriptive writing. It lets Frodo be a hero of his own accord just a little bit. It puts the hobbits and the reader back out into the scary world of Middle-Earth, where crazy things can happen and deadly dangers abound. “Touch and go” as Gandalf would say later. But it’s also a chapter we’ve already read in so many ways, and is infected with the plot resolution convenience of Tom Bombadil, whose intervention at the end, unlike in “The Old Forest” when it was new, degrades the sense of peril considerably. But, now he’s gone, and he won’t be coming back. The hobbits are still going to need a guardian character to do most of the work in getting them to where they are going alive, but at least the new one won’t be anywhere near as divisive among the readership.
We’re at the extreme border of the hobbit’s knowledge. Beyond here it’s Bree, and then it’s the wilds. The party, and the reader, are heading directly into unfamiliar territory.
After a piss-up of course.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.