~ 19 April 2022 ~
As soon as I posted last week’s reading notes and thoughts, I started reading my favourite chapter, Fog on the Barrow-Downs, straight away…In fact, I read this week’s half a chapter twice…because…well, why not?
The Reading, and Ensuing Thoughts
I’m continuing on with this edition of The Fellowship of the Ring, illustrated by Alan Lee. This week we’re back to the normal reading schedule of half a chapter a week. And so we begin Fog on the Barrow-Downs…
The hobbits take their leave of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, and make their way northwards, their warning to keep away from the Barrow-downs, still ringing in their ears. At first they make good progress, but the sinister magic of the place begins to work against them, and what starts out as a short lunch break turns into a nightmare. In the shadow of the Barrow-downs they rest, and unaccountably sleep away the rest of the day.
When they wake, night is falling around them. They do their best to find their way but soon Frodo finds himself alone, in the dark. He thinks he hears cries for help and so goes off in search of the others. Yet disoriented and unfamiliar with the area, things take a dark turn, when he is captured by a barrow-wight, and falls under its spell. When he is next conscious, it is to find Sam, Merry and Pippin decked out in shrouds and surrounded by burial goods, ready to be sacrificed.
As I read these six-and-a-bit pages, I was struck again with how Tolkien uses weather, time of day / night, environment, and myth, legend and history to build tension, create atmosphere, and especially in this chapter, introduce a very tangible sense of fear in the reader. These areas are after all, the things over which we have very little control.
Middle Earth Musings and Meditations
I’ve been fascinated by barrows since I was a child, and I attribute, at least in part, my love of landscape and history of people in the landscape, to them. There is just something very evocative, and something very present, about the ancient dead being buried, with or without treasure, in these man-made mounds, many of which are on a scale that alters the landscape, and our perception of it, itself.
One of my little pet projects I’ve been working on, on and off for years, is inspired by the bones of woman buried in a barrow. The story is told in a mixture of poetry and prose, and is far from complete, but here, should you wish to read it, is the opening verse:
I returned to my two trusty volumes by David Day (“Characters from Tolkien”, and “Tolkien: The Illustrated Encyclopedia”) to read further about Barrow-wights and the Barrow-Downs. From the first, I was fascinated by the description of what Barrow-wights are: demons possessing the bones and armour of the first Kings of Men. From the second, I was intrigued by this quote, explaining some of the historical context of this location:
“Considered by many during the Third Age to be the most ancient burial ground of Men on Middle-earth, they were revered by the Dunedain of Arnor.”
(From Tolkien: The Illustrated Encyclopedia by David Day, page 64)
The Lord of the Rings Question of the Week:
What do you think is the theme to this chapter? Is there one aspect of the narrative that stood out to you as you read this week’s text?
To me, Fog on the Barrow-Downs, is about courage. I think it is in this chapter that we are given our first glimpse of why Frodo is trusted by Gandalf (and others) with this quest he is on. His courage, faced with the almost impossible task of trying to save himself and his friends from a very powerful, very dark, supernatural being, doesn’t fail him. As he is lying on the cold ground of the barrow, we are given clear indicators that the hobbits have crossed some kind of boundary between their world and the next, or have moved into an otherworld (similar to the world of fairy in folklore), but he doesn’t give into despair with that realisation, but rather his resolve is hardened. We see this with how Tolkien describes the change in Frodo in this scene: “…he no longer felt limp like a helpless prey.”