Welcome, as always, dear readers.
It all began with Tom Bombadil,
his being left out of almost all adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, both radio and film, and how, although I believed, as Tolkien suggested, that Tom had a part to play in the story, it was the Barrow-downs I missed because of that omission, as much because I find the chapter in which they play a major role a really well-crafted piece of story-telling—and a chilling one, at that.
(This is an image you can see on various Tolkien websites and, for my taste, although it’s nicely done, it has a few too many standing stones, although, to do the artist justice, he/she is probably modeling it on some spots on Dartmoor, where such things can tend to congregate.)
In the first installment of this posting, we and the hobbits had left Tom’s house with the intent to reach the East Road, which will take us to Bree.
This required a straight line, more or less, due north, skirting the Old Forest to the west (to our left)
and the Barrow-Downs to the east (to our right—an important fact and well worth keeping in mind for what’s to come).
While doing so, we’ve encountered a rather strange earthwork, a so-called “saucer barrow”,
with a single standing stone in its midst (although no barrow).
From the lip of this earthwork, the hobbits believe that they can make out the East Road, not so much farther to the north:
“Then their hearts rose; for it seemed plain that they had come further already than they had expected. Certainly the distances had now all become hazy and deceptive, but there could be no doubt that the Downs were coming to an end. A long valley lay below them winding away northwards, until it came to an opening between two steep shoulders. Beyond, there seemed to be no more hills. Due north they faintly glimpsed a long dark line. ‘That is a line of trees,’ said Merry, ‘and that must mark the Road. All along it for many leagues east of the Bridge there are trees growing. Some say they were planted in the old days.’ “ (All quotations in this posting are from The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 8, “Fog on the Barrow-downs”)
(a Van Gogh pen and ink sketch from 1888. Such tree-lined roads remind me of long stretches of highways in France—here’s a short history of why they look the way they do: https://archive.macleans.ca/article/1914/3/1/french-roads-and-their-trees)
And, lulled by what so far seems a mild day, we and the hobbits stop for an impromptu picnic—
“But they were now hungry, and the sun was still at the fearless noon; so they set their backs against the east side of the stone. It was cool, as if the sun had had no power to warm it; but at that time this seemed pleasant. There they took food and drink, and made as good a noon-meal under the open sky as anyone could wish; for the food came from ‘down under Hill’. Tom had provided them with plenty for the comfort of the day. Their ponies unburdened strayed upon the grass.”
But, although Tom may have provided lunch, he also gave the hobbits a warning:
“Tom reckoned the Sun would shine tomorrow, and it would be a glad morning, and setting out would be hopeful. But they would do well to start early; for weather in that country was a thing that even Tom could not be sure of for long, and it would change sometimes quicker than he could change his jacket. ‘I am no weather-master,’ said he, ‘nor is aught that goes on two legs.’”
And now they found that Tom was right:
“Riding over the hills, and eating their fill, the warm sun and the scent of turf, lying a little too long, stretching out their legs and looking at the sky above their noses: these things are, perhaps, enough to explain what happened. However that may be: they woke suddenly and uncomfortably from a sleep they had never meant to take. The standing stone was cold, and it cast a long pale shadow that stretched eastward over them. The sun, a pale and watery yellow, was gleaming through the mist just above the west wall of the hollow in which they lay; north, south, and east, beyond the wall the fog was thick, cold and white. The air was silent, heavy and chill. Their ponies were standing crowded together with their heads down.”
As they had left Tom Bombadil’s, Goldberry had said to them: “North with the wind in the left eye and a blessing on your purpose. Make haste while the Sun shines!”, but now:
“The hobbits sprang to their feet in alarm, and ran to the western rim. They found that they were upon an island in the fog. Even as they looked out in dismay towards the setting sun, it sank before their eyes into a white sea, and a cold grey shadow sprang up in the East behind. 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.”
(And I wonder if this last bit of description isn’t a foreshadowing of the inside of the main chamber in a barrow? Here’s the partially-reconstructed late-Neolithic barrow at Belas Knap for a comparison.)
As I wrote in Part I of this posting, I’m interested in watching the way in which Tolkien entangles both the hobbits and us, the readers, in this ghostly and unstable world. The hobbits have been lulled into being too leisurely and now the change of weather has begun to ensnare them. Their route was due north, but, without Goldberry’s sun, how might they know which way was north?
“They felt as if a trap was closing about them; but they did not quite lose heart. They still remembered the hopeful view that had had of the line of the Road ahead, and they still knew in which direction it lay.”
But did they?
“The valley seemed to stretch on endlessly. Suddenly Frodo saw a hopeful sign. On either side ahead a darkness began to loom through the mist; and he guessed that they were at last approaching the gap in the hills, the north-gate of the Barrow-downs. If they could pass that, they would be free…But his hope soon changed to bewilderment and alarm. The dark patches grew darker, but they shrank; and suddenly he saw, towering ominous before him and leaning slightly towards one another like the pillars of a headless door, two huge standing stones. He could not remember having seen any sign of these in the valley, when he looked out from the hill in the morning.”
But he might have seen them, and what they lead to, just not making the immediate connection with his earlier optimistic view of their progress:
“ ‘Splendid!’ said Frodo. ‘If we make as good going this afternoon as we have done this morning, we shall have left the Downs before the Sun sets and be jogging on in search of a camping place.’ But even as he spoke he turned his glance eastwards, and he saw that on that side the hills were higher and looked down upon them, and all those hills were crowned with green mounds, and on some were standing stones, pointing upwards like jagged teeth out of green gums.”
“…like the pillars of a headless door…”—but a door leading to what? Here, I’m reminded of the cave now called “Oweynagat” (translated either as “Cave of the Cats”, or, probably more likely, “Cave of the Battles”) at Cruachan Ai (modern Rathcroghan) in Eire, which was believed to be an entrance to the Otherworld…
(although in both Old Irish and Middle Welsh literature, at times it seems that one might step from one world into the other without even knowing it—see, for example, the story of Pwyll here: https://sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/mab/mab20.htm#page_339 )
And now, disoriented by the fog and in increasing panic, Frodo makes a mistake—and his pony is well aware of it:
“He had passed between them almost before he was aware: and even as he did so darkness seemed to fall round him. His pony reared and snorted, and he fell off. When he looked back he found that he was alone: the others had not followed him.”
Frodo runs back between the pillars, but, hearing what he believes to be a distant cry–
“It was away eastward, on his left as he stood under the great stones, staring and straining into the gloom. He plunged off in the direction of the call, and found himself going steeply uphill.”
Now, looking once more at a map, we see that Frodo, coming to those standing stones, has become completely turned around—east is not to his right, as when the hobbits began their passage of the Barrow-downs, but to his left and Frodo is now running south, back into the Downs—and towards those barrows he had spotted that morning—has he, going between those standing stones, entered another world? If so, it’s a very menacing one.
And now, as Tom had warned them, the weather changes again:
“The mist was flowing past him now in shreds and tatters. His breath was smoking, and the darkness was less near and thick. He looked up and saw with surprise that faint stars were appearing overhead amid the strands of hurrying cloud and fog. The wind began to hiss over the grass…and even as he went forward the mist was rolled up and thrust aside, and the starry sky was unveiled.”
Where had Frodo come to?
“A glance showed him that he was now facing southwards and was on a round hill-top, which he must have climbed from the north. Out of the east a biting wind was blowing. To his right there loomed against the westward stars a dark black shade. A great barrow stood there.”
We know what happens next—the Barrow-wight seizes the paralyzed Frodo and he wakes up among his friends, about to be sacrificed–until he defends himself
(a Ted Nasmith)
and then calls for Tom Bombadil—who arrives, drives out the Wight, and it’s almost as if we’re back to where we began—although perhaps warier and Merry has that sword with which he wounds the chief of the Nazgul, once the Witch King of Angmar—
“Then he told them that the 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 Dum in the Land of Angmar.”
(another Ted Nasmith)
Peter Jackson, explaining his decision to drop Tom Bombadil, Old Man Willow, and the Barrow-downs is quoted as saying:
“In the plot of ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ in our movie, in its most simple form, is Frodo carrying the Ring. Eventually, he has to go to Mordor and destroy the Ring. So, you know, what does Old Man Willow contribute to the story of Frodo carrying the Ring? What does Tom Bombadil ultimately really have to do with the Ring? I know there’s Ring stuff in the Bombadil episode, but it’s not really advancing our story. It’s not really telling us things we need to know.” (quoted from: https://www.msn.com/en-us/movies/news/why-peter-jackson-cut-tom-bombadil-from-the-lord-of-the-rings/ar-AAVCAT4 )
Although I understand what Jackson means, for me, “things we need to know” does not necessarily include only the “Ring stuff”, but also the wider, deeper picture which JRRT is at such pains to provide us with, an ancient world, inhabited by ancient good, in the form of Tom Bombadil, but also ancient evil in the Barrow-wight and the Downs which he—and presumably others—haunt. When I reread The Lord of the Rings, “Fog on the Barrow-downs” is a chapter to which I look forward, both to enjoy the story-telling and to be as haunted as the Downs themselves are, as well.
Thanks for reading, as ever.
Keep the wind in your left eye,
And know, that, as always, there’s