Tolkien Tuesday #14

~ 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:

1: The Barrow

She lies sleeping

On a bed of stone

Surrounded by riches

Decorating her bones

White-washed by

The passage of time

It’s been many long years

Since her dark secrets leached tears

Sammi Cox – from an as yet untitled Work in Progress…


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.”

15 thoughts on “Tolkien Tuesday #14

  1. Interesting observation about the ingredients in a scene for creating fear. I agree but for some reason the Barrow Wights never scared me as much as the Black Riders did. Maybe because they don’t hunt but wait for their prey to come to them? No idea, it’s not logical, just how I always felt about them. I noticed the use of the weather, too. That fog is effective. And I was wondering if the weather always helps the bad guys or if we’ll find examples of weather helping the good guys. “The sun rises when help comes” isn’t really much help in my view, but I couldn’t think of anything else right now.
    The question: like you I think the theme is overcoming fear. Yes, Frodo finds a large chunk of that strength and resilience inside him that is apparently hidden in many hobbits. Those who underestimate them do that to their disadvantage.

    Liked by 3 people

    • That is a great point, one I hadn’t considered before, that the wights are location dependent, and don’t hunt like the black riders do.

      I also can’t think of anything where good weather helps the good guys, it only seems to improve their mood and allow them to feel better about the situation they are in. I shall have to try and pay attention to that going forward.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Old Man Willow was location-dependent too, and he was just as deadly. I agree that neither is as scary as the Black Riders, but also I think I’m being influenced by how much scarier the Black Riders become later in the book, when we know more about them. Right now in the book, the Riders have (literally) just sniffed around looking for the hobbits, whereas these two fixed-location threats have come within minutes of killing them all. I see the Barrow and its wights as a trap similar to Old Man Willow — one that unwary wanderers can find themselves lured into, so again, a cautionary tale about not being prepared and vigilant, about not believing the old tales — but this one feels more linked to the evil of man rather than the tooth-and-claw of Nature.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This is one chapter I remember reading (remember, I was ill at the time). I suppose I remember it because of the barrows. Barrows feature in my next 2 books. And I’ve one on back burner that uses a barrow as a portal. I think Tolkien was doing the same. They’ve left the world of men and have travelled into mythic time.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I remembered this scene being longer, and read it over twice and more slowly to appreciate it more. It really is terrifying, with — as you say, Sammi — such vivid description of the spooky weather and fog, and how the fog cuts you off from help, dims your senses, traps you.

    I don’t think it’s ever clarified why the the wights changed the other three hobbits’ clothing, but not Frodo’s, is it?

    I was struck by Frodo’s courage here, but also that he remembered about the line to call Tom for help in the first place, and thought to use it.

    This chapter has one of my favorite lines about Tom Bombadil: “They took a deep draught of the air, and felt that a skip and a few stout strides would bear them wherever they wished. It seemed fainthearted to go jogging aside over the crumpled skirts of the downs toward the Road, when they should be leaping as lusty as Tom, over the stepping stones of the hills straight toward the mountains.” I loved that line, especially the part about “leaping as lusty as Tom”: it stirred my heart with a warm feeling, thinking about how Tom has such an energizing, inspirational effect on others.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I also remembered it being longer…isn’t that funny?

      I don’t think it is explained why Frodo’s clothing isn’t changed. Is it only because he was found last? Perhaps the barrow-wights were used to ensnaring a maximum of three unwary passers-by and they were ill-prepared for a fourth? Or could it be to do with the length of the sword that is placed across the hobbits’ throats? Maybe there was no room for Frodo? I wish I knew the answer to this one…

      That’s another good point about Tom. He not only makes the hobbits feel better and lighter, but makes them feel like can go above and beyond and achieve more than they otherwise could.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I was also thinking that maybe it was because Frodo was captured last, that the wights hadn’t gotten around to dressing him up for whatever sacrifice they had planned. But then why was he just lying there unconscious, instead of being prepped?

        And yes, Tom is an inspiration just by living his life with joy. ❤

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Finally, I am back. And shall be bombarding you with my catching up. (I was beta reading a book and otherwise just not into reading at all).
    I loved this half chapter and yes, Tolkien was quite the master at using weather and elements thereof to create a mood.
    I think this is definitely a “passage” from now into the new and completely unknown there.
    This is Frodo’s moment (first of) to really show his strength and courage.
    As for why Frodo is not dressed as the others, I do feel it is because he was found after the other three. Then again, we shall never know!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love how he uses the weather. I’m not sure I realised how prevalent it is in the story until this re-read.

      That’s so true, Dale. We will never know but it’s so much fun trying to find the “hidden meaning” in Tolkien’s writing – usually where there isn’t one! 🙂


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