Reading Middle-earth — Chapter 8: Fog on the Barrow-downs
The hobbits say farewell to Tom Bombadil and Goldberry and set a course for the East Road that will take them to Bree. After stopping for lunch and a rather unexpected nap at the foot of a dark standing stone atop a green hill, the hobbits awake in a fog. Alarmed by the cold and gathering darkness, they lose each other and Frodo is separated from his companions. He is soon reunited with them under a cursed tomb, or barrow, when a barrow-wight seizes him.
Under the barrow, Frodo faces his most desperate moment of the quest so far. Unsure whether Sam, Merry, and Pippin are alive or dead, he is tempted to put on the Ring and escape, but a seed of courage spouts to enable him to flee this evil, yet subtle temptation. Frodo leaps to the defence of his friends, but it is not enough.
Desperate, Frodo sings Tom Bombadil’s song and soon Tom’s booing voice washes over the hills and into the barrow—Tom saves the day again! The hobbits wake up and escape the barrow with prizes bestowed by Tom: long knives from the long forgotten kingdom of Arnor. Tom breaks the curse of the barrow by freely giving away the mound’s treasure before accompanying the hobbits the read of the way to road, where he bids them a final farewell.
The Ring and the subtlety of evil
In the barrow, Frodo is far from his vision of far green country under a swift sunrise. So far in the story the Ring’s evil has only manifested itself as Bilbo’s desire to keep it and Frodo’s temptation to use it to hide—despite already being hidden—from the Black Riders. Now, the Ring works on Frodo in a subtle but powerful way, with almost no attention called to it in the text.
“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 was nothing else he could do.”
Tolkien has a lot to say about the subtlety of evil throughout The Lord of the Rings, and I’m looking forward to exploring the Ring, power, and the nature of evil, but I see “Fog on the Barrow-downs” primarily as an introduction to Tolkien’s varying conceptions of heroism. Part of why I love the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring is the absence of great heroes; I love how readers are introduced to Middle-earth through its least exciting citizens, hobbits.
Middle-earth is full of great heroes, both major and minor, because Tolkien was very familiar with ancient warrior traditions from Anglo-Saxon and Norse traditions; he made his name as an academic reminding people Beowulf was an epic, not just a Middle-English textbook. I explore this chapter’s particular strain of heroism over at Area of Effect in the article Frodo vs. Beowulf: A Hobbit’s Heroics.
I’m excited about Chapter 9: At the Sign of The Prancing Pony because the hobbits world is about to grow some more with the introduction of Strider. The tattered ranger will accompany the hobbits (and us!) to Rivendell and I’m looking forward to thinking through the facets of his character.
Thanks for reading and look for the next post at the rising of the sun in the east…sometime soon.