The Lord of the Rings Reread

LotR re-read: Fellowship I.8, “Fog on the Barrow-downs”

And now for chapter 8 of The Fellowship of the Ring, “Fog on the Barrow-downs.” The usual spoilers and commentary follow. (And, for those of you who followed this project in its prior incarnation, this is the first completely new post.)

What Happens

Frodo has a dream or vision of “a far green country.” After breakfast, the hobbits bid farewell to Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, separately. They head out over the Barrow-downs in hot sunny weather, and have lunch on top of a hill. They fall asleep and wake to find it sunset and the Downs covered with fog. They set out anyway, steering for the Road based on their memory of the view. Frodo, at the front of the line, sees what he thinks is the northern boundary and hurries forward, but ends up passing through two standing stones. He falls off his rearing pony and then discovers that he’s become separated from the others. Following what he thinks are cries for help, he finds himself on top of a hill with the fog clearing away. A Barrow-wight seizes him and he passes out.

When Frodo wakes, he sees the other three hobbits lying dressed in white, adorned with treasure, and with a naked sword across their necks. He hears the Barrow-wight’s incantation bidding that they not wake “till the dark lord lifts his hand / over dead sea and withered land,” and sees the wight’s hand seeking the hilt of the sword. He momentarily thinks of using the Ring to escape, but instead grabs a nearby sword and breaks off the wight’s hand. He then remembers and sings the song to summon Bombadil.

Bombail arrives, banishes the wight, wakes the hobbits, finds their ponies, and breaks the spell on the mound. He takes a blue-stoned brooch for Goldberry and gives the hobbits long daggers made by Men of Westernesse, invoking for them a vision, as he does, of what will prove to be the Rangers and Aragorn. He accompanies them to the edge of the Downs and refuses to pass his country’s borders, but advises them to stay at a Bree inn called The Prancing Pony. The chapter ends with the hobbits hurrying toward Bree.


First of all, Ursula K. Le Guin has very closely analyzed this chapter in her essay “Rhythmic Pattern in The Lord of the Rings,” originally published in Meditations on Middle-earth, edited by Karen Haber, and republished in the collection The Wave in the Mind and on the web (possibly without permission, I can’t tell) here. To crib from my own prior summary, Le Guin reads this chapter to support her thesis that

The rhythm that shapes and directs [Tolkien’s] narrative is noticeable, was noticeable to me, because it is very strong and very simple, as simple as a rhythm can be: two beats. Stress, release. Inbreath, outbreath. A heartbeat. A walking gait—but on so vast a scale, so capable of endlessly complex and subtle variation, that it carries the whole enormous narrative straight through from beginning to end, from There to Back Again, without faltering.

She lists recurrent elements and reversals of the chapter, and notes that “[t]hese reversals are not simple binary flips. The positive causes or grows from the negative state, and the negative from the position.” I can give a sense of the way she analyzes the chapter’s events by excerpting her discussion of the very end:

The shadow of menace is inescapable. The chapter that began with a hopeful day-break vision of brightness ends in a tired evening gloom. These are the final sentences:

Darkness came down quickly, as they plodded slowly downhill and up again, until at last they saw lights twinkling some distance ahead.

Before them rose Bree-hill barring the way, a dark mass against misty stars; and under its western flank nestled a large village. Towards it they now hurried, desiring only to find a fire, and a door between them and the night.

These few lines of straightforward narrative description are full of rapid reversals: darkness/lights twinkling—downhill/up again—the rise of Bree-hill/the village under it (west of it)—a dark mass/misty stars—a fire/the night. They are like drumbeats. Reading the lines aloud I can’t help thinking of a Beethoven finale, as in the Ninth Symphony: the absolute certainty and definition of crashing chord and silence, repeated, repeated again. Yet the tone is quiet, the language simple, and the emotions evoked are quiet, simple, common: a longing to end the day’s journey, to be inside by the fire, out of the night.

After all, the whole trilogy ends on much the same note. From darkness into the firelight. “Well,” Sam says, “I’m back.”

Le Guin also points out that the chapter is connected to the rest of the book, first by its oblique references to the bigger picture (the Rangers, the Dark Lord, etc.) and second by how the Barrow-wight’s appearance foreshadows Sauron’s, “a tall dark figure like a shadow against the stars.”

I first read this essay at the start of this project, and it’s been hugely influential on my approach to the text. I highly recommend reading the whole thing.

* * *

What’s left to talk about after Le Guin’s essay? Well, a few things.

First, there’s what we know from reading the whole book is a glimpse of Frodo’s ultimate reward/escape:

But either in his dreams or out of them, he could not tell which, Frodo heard a sweet singing running in his mind; 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.

Something I’ve read, and now I cannot find the reference, pointed out that Frodo dreams truest at Tom’s house, between this and Gandalf. If the Gandalf dream was actually the Ring, then Tom can’t get credit, but in any case, this is a lovely image containing quiet, non-threatening reversals.

* * *

The intrusive omniscient narrator makes a reappearance on the Downs, first to raise and, simultaneously, discount a possibility of supernatural doings:

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 [when the hobbits fell asleep on the hilltop].

And then to tell us that

There is a seed of courage hidden (often deeply, it is true) in the heart of the fattest and most timid hobbit, wailing for some final and desperate danger to make it grow.

Perhaps a bit of narrative comfort as we return to dangerous events, or is that reading too much into it?

Speaking of possibly-supernatural doings, I wonder about later effects of the fog. Frodo’s memory of Tom had “disappeared with the first coming of the fog,” and it was really not very smart of the hobbits to leave the hilltop and strike out into the fog, even if “they now had so great a dislike for that hollow place about the stone that no thought of remaining there.” On the other hand, it doesn’t seem very, well, Tolkien-ish that there should be something mind-deadening about the fog, does it?

* * *

The encounter with the Barrow-wight:

In “Frodo and the Great War,”1 John Garth suggests that the surreal nature of this scene, particularly the green light, may have been influenced by WWI gas attacks. (More about this article later, when it’s relevant.) It is certainly a very odd scene when compared to the tone of the book so far, especially the Barrow-wight’s hand “walking on its fingers” toward the sword across the hobbits’ necks—great image, doesn’t make a lot of logistical sense to me, just like why Frodo wasn’t placed among the three—then breaking off and “wriggling still, like a wounded spider” when Frodo leaves. Despite the spider reference, the descriptions seem peculiarly inorganic to me, and I’m not sure if there’s anything else like it in the book.

* * *

I found it interesting that Merry had the dream/vision of the mound’s inhabitants being slain by the men of Carn Dûm, those led by the now-chief Ringwraith. It’s not foreshadowing since it’s Pippin who eventually confronts the Witch King; is Merry more sensitive to such things? I don’t remember anything that would suggest that from later on, but I’ll keep an eye out.

They do all get the “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.” This is another way Tom puts them in a historical context, even if they don’t understand the full significance yet.

(This is also the point where they think that they hadn’t anticipated having to fight; I was going to joke that this is how you can tell that they hadn’t read fantasy novels, but you know, they all knew Bilbo’s stories, shouldn’t that have served as an equivalent?)

* * *

Okay, I had a serious “these people are weird” moment when the hobbits run naked on the grass, and pretty much always have. Tell me I’m not the only one?

* * *

Two minor last comments.

First, Tom tells the hobbits that they must forgive their ponies, “for though their hearts are faithful, to face fear of Barrow-wights is not what they were made for.” This rings some faint bell in my mind, but I can’t think of what. Does it suggest anything to you all?

Second, I could do without the enormous thumping-down of tone in Sam’s comment that Tom is “a caution and no mistake. I reckon we may go a good deal further and see naught better, nor queerer.”

1Published in The Lord of the Rings, 1954-2004: Scholarship in Honor of Richard E. Blackwelder, ed. Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, Marquette University Press, 2006.

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