Saturday, July 13, 2024

Lord of the Rings Re-Read: Fog on the Barrow Downs

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A few weeks ago I was talking with a friend about Peter Jackson’s adaptations of The Lord of the Rings: what was left in, what was left out, and why. He mentioned that a more direct, literal interpretation of the story would be much more suited to a mini-series than a movie (or even three of them) – and I think nothing proves him right quite like “Fog on the Barrow Downs” and the preceding two chapters. It’s an odd, dreamy interlude occurring so early in the story, veering between deep dangers lurking in the landscape and happy sunshine and song. It’s a strong left turn away from the plot as it had been previously set up, to the point that the other hobbits had forgotten about the Black Riders until Frodo brings them up near the chapter’s end. So let’s take a spooky detour into the barrow downs, and try to figure out why these chapters are here.

Leaving Bombadil’s and the Barrow Downs

It’s amazing how refreshing Bombadil’s place seems as the hobbits are leaving it. The land had been literally washed the day before by the rain, and as the hobbits depart the morning is described as “cool, bright and clean under a washed autumn sky of thin blue.” There’s no sense of the homesickness that was present in earlier chapters like “Three is Company.” Instead, there’s the sense of a fresh start and adventure pulling at the hobbits. As they leave they note a different landscape in every direction: forest to the west, river to the south, plains to the north, and to the east a glimmer that “spoke to them, out of memory and old tales of the high and distant mountains.” There’s a feeling of possibility that paints the hobbits as more vibrant and adventurous than we’ve seen them so far, to the extent that they see it as “fainthearted” to skirt the barrow downs when they could be “leaping, as lusty as Tom, over the stepping stones of the hills straight towards the mountains.”

While it’s nice to see the hobbits with some newly-found confidence, it becomes clear pretty quickly that things are not going to go well. The hobbits don’t strike me as being all that bright in this chapter, to be honest. As soon as they leave, the journey is redolent of their trip into the Old Forest – despite the lack of trees, the air is hot and heavy and oppressive. And later, rather than being forced down and down to the Withywindle, a lost Frodo will find himself spiraling further and further upwards to a barrow top. And everything just feels wrong: even when the heat dissipates the hobbits are left with a “watery” sun and cold, thick fog (the description of the sun as “watery” was especially unsettling for me). There is a reference again to the four cardinal directions: but instead of seeing different landscape the hobbits just get encircled by fog, as if all of the previous possibilities had been quietly blotted out.

The danger shifts slowly but certainly: heat and heavy oppression becomes sharp cold. It’s interesting how Tolkien’s language changes along with the atmosphere, and how many conflicting sensations arise. Take this passage as an example:

The mist was flowing past him now in shreds and tatters. His breath was smoking… even as he went forward the mist was rolled up and thrust aside, and the starry sky was unveiled.

It’s unsettling how suddenly violent it gets. We’ve moved from heavy heat to wet fog, and then suddenly the fog itself gets shredded. At this point even the starry sky – usually such a source of beauty and comfort in Tolkien’s writing – feels ominous and sharp. And it only becomes worse from there, as the hobbits are pulled into the barrow itself, subjected to sharp swords, cold chains of gold, and a terrible voice singing inscrutably until Frodo can finally make out words about the death of the moon and stars themselves. The whole passage is really well-crafted, and genuinely spooky. I really like the shift from hot and humid to cold and dry, and the chapter really feels like someone freezing to death so slowly that they don’t even know that it’s happening.

barrow downs

Sing-Offs and Stories

I’m not really convinced that there is a “secret” meaning behind these chapters, or that they’re there for any specific, tangible reason. If I had to guess, I’d say that Tolkien put them in because he liked them: the Old Forest and the Barrow Downs are great set pieces, and Bombadil is such a lovely weirdo. They don’t have to be there for the story to work.

But I still like them. And more so than on previous readings of The Lord of the Rings I think I would defend this section against people who don’t think it really belongs, or that it throws off the pacing. I mean, these imaginary critics are kind of right – these chapters do throw off the pacing – but I think a lot of good comes from them too.

Weird stuff with time and reality happens in these chapters. There are lots of dreams, sudden shifts to sleep, visions of things happening far away in space, as well as far away in time. Simon Cook pointed in out in the comments of “In the House of Tom Bombadil” – there’s enchantment happening everywhere, for good or ill (enchantment, for Tolkien, seems morally neutral). Right at the start of the chapter Frodo has a dream about his future: there is “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,” a preview to his experiences at the end of The Return of the King. After being saved by Tom, Merry seems temporarily disassociated from his time and place: he thinks he has taken a spear through the heart in an attack by the men of Carn Dûm. Some enchantments work both ways: when Tom gives the hobbits short swords from the barrows, 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.” It’s a vision that stretches back into the past, but also one that ends with a reference to Aragorn / Strider, whom we’ll meet in the next chapter.

All of this serves to situate the hobbits in a larger story. This happened before, of course. “The Shadow of the Past” provides context; even “A Long-Expected Party” takes time to dip in and out of Frodo’s family history. But it’s different in these later chapters. Stories become active, powerful forces in their own right. Not only do Frodo and his compatriots learn of the larger stories they are about to become a part of, they also learn to use them. The highest dramatic points of this chapter are rooted in stories. First, Bombadil defeats the barrow-wight by essentially out-singing him: “his songs are stronger songs.” He essentially converts that barrow-wight’s song of cold stone and dying light to an inverse story: rather than cold swords on the hobbits’ necks there are bright swords wielded by living people; rather than stars dying in the sky there is a man coming with a star in his brow. Tom wins by re-framing the narrative into something stronger.

Even more importantly, Frodo learns how to do the same thing:

He found himself as he lay thinking about Bilbo Baggins and his stories, of their jogging along together in the lanes of the Shire and talking about roads and adventures. There is a seed of courage hidden (often deeply, it is true) in the heart of the fattest and most timid hobbit, waiting for some final and desperate danger to make it grow… [Frodo] thought that he had come to the end of his adventure, a terrible end, but the thought hardened him.

This is a marked change of pace for Frodo, when we think that, just a few chapters ago, his response to his friend getting caught in a tree was to run away screaming. It’s so interesting to me that Frodo thought of stories, and roads, before he decided to reach inside and find that seed of courage. There’s no plot-specific reason why that first sentence needs to be there. But I think it’s very important to The Lord of the Rings as a whole that it is. And that, before one of his first voluntary, forceful actions of the whole tale, Frodo strengthened himself by thinking about stories.

I think you could make the argument, so far, that The Lord of the Rings is a story about stories, how they’re used and why they matter. From what I remember, that’s going to be even truer as we go along.

Final Comments

  • Cold be hand and heart and bone / and cold be sleep under stone / never more to wake on stony bed / never, tll 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. I hadn’t remembered that this song was originally from this chapter. Thanks to Peter Jackson, I’ll probably forever associate that first line with Gollum.
  • If you are captured by a barrow-wight, the solution is to take off all your clothes and run around naked on the grass? Sometimes I forget why hippies like Tolkien, sometimes I don’t.
  • Merry mentions attackers from Carn Dûm after his experience in the barrow. I hadn’t really been aware of what this meant on prior re-reads, but Carn Dûm seems to have been the capital of Angmar, realm of the Witch King, and his base for attacks on the kingdom of Arnor (whose barrier Tom points out later in the chapter). Please correct me if I’m wrong on this!
  • Everyone except Frodo had forgotten about the Black Riders by the time they made it back to the road. That breaks my heart. These poor little hobbits have no idea what they’re in for.
  • My copy of The Lord of the Rings doesn’t use Oxford commas. This seems deeply wrong for a work by Tolkien.
  • Prose Prize: The mist was flowing past him now in shreds and tatters. His breath was smoking, and that darkness was less near and thick… The wind began to hiss over the grass. He imagined suddenly that he caught a muffled cry, and he made towards it; and even as he went forward the mist was rolled up and thrust aside, and the starry sky was unveiled.
  • Art credits for this week: the cover image of the barrow downs is by Jonathan Guzi and the second image is by Cor Blok. I like how Guzi’s picture really highlights how Tolkien describes the barrows as “jagged teeth out of green gums.”

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