Dec 12, 2016

Let's Read Tolkien 27: Fog on the Barrow-downs

That night they heard no noises.

Oh goddammit, more fog. You'd think this was Morrowind. Despite the title, though, the first scene of the chapter is Frodo's second dream in the house of Tom Bombadil: a curtain of rain parting to reveal a rising sun and a green land. He wakes, and with surprisingly little ceremony, the hobbits breakfast and are sent off by Tom Bombadil.

As the hobbits are leading their ponies up the hill away from Tom's house, Frodo suddenly realizes they've forgotten about Goldberry. Given that she's basically only appeared as a receptionist and waitress at the Bombadil Hotel, this is unfortunately not very surprising. However, she turns out to be waiting for them as a kind of apparition on a hill. She has them look around at the scenery: the Forest to the west and north of them, the grim Barrow-downs to the east and far beyond them, a hint of mountains in the distance. That done, she gives the hobbits her blessing and sends them on their way.

I talked at length about Tom in the previous instalment of this series, not least because there just wasn't that much to say about Goldberry. As the daughter of the river showing the geography of the land to the travellers, she's woman-as-nature made flesh, and is actually our first encounter with Tolkien's most prominent female archetype, the Ethereal Muse. Goldberry inspires Frodo to poetry, serves food and washes clothes, and is generally there to be inspiring and beautiful and handy around the house for the men around her. As they leave, she also gets to be the first Lady on a Hill in the story, watching the protagonists recede into the distance. She's not in any way an unsympathetic character, but like all embodiments of the Ethereal Feminine in prose written by white men, she's unfortunately not very interesting, either. Thank heavens for Lobelia Sackville-Baggins.

Goldberry reminds the hobbits to keep left and avoid the Barrow-downs. If you've read the Hobbit, you'll probably have a pretty good idea of how well this is going to turn out. Frodo and company set off north, and as they travel along the day gets warmer. From a hilltop, they think they can see a line of trees that marks the Road that they're aiming for. Cheered, they descend into an adjacent hollow, where they pause for lunch, leaning against a lone standing stone. I don't know how this could possibly have seemed like a good idea to them, but there you are.

With their backs to the totally-not-at-all-sinister standing stone in the middle of the haunted Barrow-downs, the hobbits fall asleep. When they wake up, everything around them is covered by a thick fog and the sun is setting. They quickly saddle their ponies and try to make their way toward what they think is north, but the freezing fog envelops them and they get separated. Frodo's pony runs off, and he repeats his Old Forest survival trick of running in a random direction in a panic. This time, it ends in him being captured by a Barrow-wight.

Frodo finds himself lying on a bier inside the barrow, apparently bewitched by the Barrow-wight. Sam, Pippin and Merry are lying next to him, decked out in gold jewelry and apparently unconscious, a sword laid across their necks. Weapons, shields and treasure surround them. The Barrow-wight chants a spell which momentarily freezes Frodo, but like Bilbo in the dragon's tunnel, he has an attack of hobbit courage and steels himself to face the Barrow-wight. As its arm creeps toward Sam, Frodo chops at it with a sword, which shatters. Finally, he remembers the emergency rhyme Tom Bombadil taught them and sings it.

After a moment's stunned silence, Tom shows up and banishes the Barrow-wight. He wakes the hobbits, finds their ponies again, and exorcises the Barrow-wight for good by hauling out all the treasure in the barrow and spreading it out on the hillside for anyone to take. There's an unexpectedly touching moment when Tom finds a brooch among the treasures and seems to remember who wore it. He gives the hobbits knives from the loot, very reasonably pointing out that since they keep getting themselves into trouble, maybe they should consider being armed. This is a new idea to Frodo and company, which does make one wonder how they'd figured this would all work out, but also serves as a reminder of the decisively unmilitary character of hobbits. Tom tells them the knives were forged by the men of Westernesse, who were enemies of the king of Angmar, and engages in a bit of foreshadowing about sons of forgotten kings. He also very sensibly offers to escort the hobbits to the road.

So in the end, Frodo and company finally make it out of the Old Forest and back onto the Road. They wonder whether they've evaded the Black Riders, and pause at the thought that they're now about to cross over into lands they barely know anything about any more. As a final favor, Tom recommends that when they continue along the road and arrive at Bree, they stay at the Prancing Pony inn. With that, Tom is gone, and Frodo and company set off down the road. As they ride, they speculate on what they'll find at Bree, and Frodo, to his infinite credit, tells his young friends to not use the name Baggins, but to rather call him Mr. Underhill. Soon enough, Bree-hill appears in the distance, and the chapter ends.


This chapter marks our first proper encounter with one of the most important concepts in the Lord of the Rings: the wraith. Admittedly, everyone who's familiar with the story know that we've met wraiths before, but they haven't actually been introduced as such yet. There's some excellent stuff in Shippey's Author of the Century on the philology of the word wraith, but I'm more interested in the theology of wraiths. In my first post on the Lord of the Rings, I quoted Tolkien's summary of what his magnum opus is all about: the Fall, Mortality and the Machine. They all meet in the figure of the wraith.

The Fall, you'll recall, is when a lady supposedly ate some fruit once. I don't know how many people remember why that was such a big deal in the Bible, though, but it's actually made pretty clear that God needed to stop people from becoming immortal:

And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:
- Genesis 3:22

God, in other words, thought that this fruit-eating might lead to him getting some competition, so he banished humans from Paradise and doomed us all to die. If you think that sounds silly, it's because it is. Apparently what happened was that when the Hebrews were in exile, they figured that their religion needs a tree-of-eternal-life myth, so they plagiarized one off their shall we say hosts. Tolkien, bless his heart, took this silly story very seriously indeed, and wrote it into his mythology as the Doom of Men: Eru (God) has decreed that all men must die and pass beyond the circles of the world to an unknown fate. So from the Fall, Mortality.

What does this have to do with Barrow-wights? A barrow is a grave-mound, and barrow-wight literally means "grave-thing" or "grave-person" (Old English wiht). Now, we're not told what, exactly, a Barrow-wight is. This is the background we got on them and the Downs in the previous chapter:

They heard of the Great Barrows, and the green mounds, and the stone-rings upon the hills and in the hollows among the hills. Sheep were bleating in flocks. Green walls amd white walls rose. There were fortresses on the heights. Kings of little kingdoms fought together, and the young Sun shone like fire on the red metal of their new and greedy swords. There was victory and defeat; and towers fell, fortresses were burned, and flames went up into the sky. Gold was piled on the biers of dead kings and queens; and mounds covered them, and the stone doors were shut; and the grass grew over all. Sheep walked for a while biting the grass, but soon the hills were empty again. A shadow came out of dark places far away, and the bones were stirred in the mounds. Barrow-wights walked in the hollow places with a clink of rings on cold fingers, and gold chains in the wind. Stone rings grinned out of the ground like broken teeth in the moonlight.

I make no apologies for the length of the quote, because this is one of my favorite pieces of exposition in the whole book, wih the young sun on the red metal and everything. For Tolkien, the key to his stories and their success was the languages he'd created; the names and languages came first, and everything else flowed from them. I have no reason to doubt his account of his own creative process, and certainly language is part of the charm of the stories. For me, though, what sets Tolkien apart from so many other fantasy authors isn't so much language but history, and here it is in spades, both in the exposition and then in the story itself. The Barrow-wight may be an evil spirit "out of dark places far away" (Angmar and Rhudaur, as Appendix A specifies), but it's also almost literally history come to life, or at least unlife: waking from his trance, Merry imagines himself to have been killed in a long-forgotten war against the Witch-king of Angmar.

In Scandinavian sagas like the memorable Hervararkviða, the draugr are the unquiet dead, haunting their own barrows. Here, though, the Barrow-wight is a spirit sent to haunt the barrow, that's somehow appropriated not only the body but apparently somehow the memories of the dead buried there, or at least it somehow passes them on to Merry. It's never explained what, exactly, these spirits are, but there's a poignant bit of description in the wight's spell: "The night was railing against the morning of which it was bereaved, and the cold was cursing the warmth for which it hungered." Maybe it's just me, but I've always thought of the Barrow-wights as wraiths of a kind: undead who've somehow used magic (the Machine!) to escape death, at the cost of their humanity, which they now yearn to recover but can't. We'll be returning to this theme later.

To me, the exorcism Tom carries out to banish the wight also ties them to the idea of cheating death. There's an interesting passage in one of Tolkien's letters on Gondor, which I don't actually think we've even heard of by this point, and elves. Remember that to break the spell on the mound, Tom disperses the treasure in the barrow out in the open, where anyone can take it.

In their way the Men of Gondor were similar [to the elves]: a withering people whose only "hallows" were their tombs.
- Letters, 154

In letter 211, he also directly compares Gondor to Egypt, remarking again on the obsession of the Gondorians with tombs. This, combined with Tom's exorcism, makes me think that even if the spirits came from elsewhere, the reason they were able to haunt the tombs and possess their inhabitants was the gold and treasure, "cold and unlovely", in the tombs. We don't hear of wights haunting other burial places; did the burial practices of the ancient northern kingdom that once stood on the Downs constitute a kind of sin against mortality, an attempt to take treasure beyond the circles of the world or just "tomb-worship", that made them suspectible to the wights? I don't know, but it's a thought I've had before that I only now managed to put into writing.


I said before that I really like the Old Forest chapters, and I also like this one with its ruins and wraiths and whatnot. It's tremendously atmospheric. Having said that, though, the hobbits' adventure on the Barrow-downs is dismayingly identical in form to their adventure in the Old Forest. The hobbits enter an area with a dangerous reputation, fall asleep, get ensnared by a malign intelligence, and while several of them are incapacitated, the others first fight back ineffectively and then manage, in the nick of time, to summon Tom Bombadil to rescue them. It really is exactly the same. It's easier to make the case for the Barrow-downs' significance for the plot, at least in material terms, because the hobbits pick up these nifty daggers. In my opinion, both adventures make a strong contribution to Tolkien's world-building and I like both of them; I just wish they weren't so very similar.

Next time, a pub, a vagrant and an ill-considered song.


Leon said...

I've always loved the Barrow-Downs because of that creepiness mixed with the sad tinge of history, a forgotten kingdom and its forgotten kings. Especially Merry's implanted memories of a long-dead prince.

This really should be developed into a course.

Michael Halila said...

Thank you! Also, I apologize for the publication delay: apparently the new Blogger interface no longer lets me know when there are new comments. It's startling how this platform keeps getting worse and worse.