In the eighth chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring, IS THIS REAL LIFE. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Lord of the Rings.
CHAPTER EIGHT: FOG ON THE BARROW-DOWNS
It is simply astounding to me that:
1) I never read this book.
2) this book is so goddamn good.
3) this book totally dispels the idea that you can’t find some good scares in the classics.
4) THAT NO ONE EVER MENTIONED THAT THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS WAS CREEPY AS HELL.
Look, I am not even close to anything resembling the “main” plot for this novel, and already I am entertained and frightened. I actually had to stop and acknowledge this idea to myself: the last few chapters have virtually nothing to do with the Ring or Sauron or the Black Riders or Gandalf AND IT’S STILL SO GOOD. In chapter eight in particular, I get to witness one of Tolkien’s undeniable strengths: the use of his detailed world-building to give me nightmares.
It’s remarkable these days how easy it is for my brain to decide to dream about something that’s spooked me. I think I shall blame that on being stressed in general, therefore making my subconscious mind ~vulnerable~ to attack, but I have had nightmares about Doctor Who, Harry Potter, Luther, Torchwood, and Fringe in the last few months of my life. WHICH IS PARTIALLY AWESOME, mind you, but still. I’d rather just have pleasant dreams about those things instead.
I’m beginning to totally fall in love with the term “nightmare fuel” because it really helps to describe this concept: these are things that unsettle us and creep us out on a visceral level, that address fears that are deep-seeded and debilitating at times. Chapter eight is so scary to me on a number of levels: the fear of getting the lost, the fear of being kidnapped, and the fear of WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT A WIGHT OH MY GOD HELP ME HELP ME. And yet on top of that, this is just plain good writing: evocative, descriptive to a point where Tolkien makes it easy to understand the smallest details of this imagined world, and clever enough to keep me fully engaged in the story.
Do I understand the River-daughter or Tom Bombadil anymore than I did yesterday? LOL NOPE. The group of hobbits ready themselves on that particular morning to finally leave Tom’s house, and Tom is just so goddamn weird to me, and I love it. He’s so joyous and I have no idea why, but it’s never annoying to me. It’s not like he’s mocking the hobbits or being pervasively cheery just to spite others. He bids them goodbye with genuine happiness, so much so that the hobbits are sad to have to leave his wonderful home, no matter how strange and queer it all is.
I also really love the image of Frodo turning back to see Goldberry waving them goodbye off in the distance, of them rushing up a slope to greet her one last time in that misty valley, and then walking down the hill to see her disappear at the top of it. I don’t know that we’ll see her again, but at the very least, I’m just as intrigued by her as Frodo is. Who the hell is she, and why is she important?
As dense as this all is, it’s becoming increasingly easy to navigate through the long passages without any sort of dialogue in this book. There’s a poetic sense of wonder and appreciation for the physical environment in Tolkien’s words, and it’s something I can relate to and cherish myself. When he’s describing grass, I don’t find it boring at all:
There was no tree nor any visible water: it was a country of grass and short springy turn, silent except for the whisper of the air over the edges of the land, and high lonely cries of strange birds.
I think there’s something about loneliness and vacancy that Tolkien finds in the wilderness of Middle-earth that he always conveys well. He did it in The Hobbit, too; if you recall, one of my favorite sections was Bilbo looking back on the expanse of the Shire and feeling so terribly alone when he did. (Which was also nicely paralleled in this book as well.) I’ve spoken of my love of being outdoors before, but the context here is totally different for me. There really is something lonely about being in the forest, or going on a hike, if it’s in the right place. And I don’t think feeling lonely or alone is always this bad, negative thing. As social as I am at times, I’m at a point in my life where I really love the silence and solitude that comes with being in a place far from the bustling, active city that I live in, and that actually makes me feel more whole at times.
So in a sense, it’s that comfort that Tolkien exploits brilliantly, both in the reader and in the characters. An open field, here in chapter eight, is comforting to them. There’s no hidden entities or spirits hiding behind (or inside) trees, and being able to experience the luxury of that sort of sight is immensely helpful on their journey. When Merry spots a dark line in the distance, he knows it’s a visual marker for the Road that they need to be on. The whole group was reassured by this.
And then Tolkien destroys it all:
In the midst of it there stood a single stone, standing tall under the sun above, and at this hour casting no shadow. It was shapeless and yet significant: like a landmark, or a guarding finger, or more like a warning.
This genuinely creeps me out. I grew up in a part of Southern California where a wildlife reserve was just a quarter mile from my backyard, and it took me so many years to traverse all the hills and paths and switchbacks it provided. I remember the time my cross country team decided to run the complicated and sandy switchbacks through the bamboo forest alongside the Santa Ana River. On that afternoon, perhaps six or seven miles from where we started, we burst out of the forest into an unnatural clearing where a tiny, abandoned stone church stood before us. Like this shapeless stone, it just felt wrong, even though it was just a building. It was as if it was a sign of something we couldn’t understand, and after exploring the structure for a couple minutes, the whole group completely agreed that we weren’t meant to be there.
In hindsight, that’s entirely irrational, but we trusted our instincts and we left. That’s the mistake that these hobbits make: even though the stone feels so very wrong just existing in that space, they all decide to rest their backs against it for just a moment. That moment turns into a disaster when all four hobbits fall asleep when they had no intention to do so. It’s never spelled out in the pages here, but I imagine that stone had some power over them. Perhaps, though, it was just a case of them being full and tired. Either way, this is what they wake to:
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.
From here until nearly the end of chapter eight, this is all just…well, fucked up. It’s executed so brilliantly by Tolkien, and the use of fog and disorientation contributes to a sense of constant danger to the hobbits. They are almost certain to get lost, I realize, and that ends up being the absolute least of their worries. They try to organize a method to travel in the thick fog, with Frodo leading them all in single file, but when he comes upon two more standing stones, I basically gave up hope that this was going to end well.
I MEAN SERIOUSLY THIS IS SUCH AN UTTER DISASTER. Frodo gets separated from the others, no one is responding to his cries, and then someone does respond AND IT’S CLEARLY NOT ANY OF THE OTHER HOBBITS. I will not apologize for this being one of the creepiest things in this book at this point.
‘Where are you?’ he cried again, both angry and afraid.
‘Here!’ said a voice, deep and cold, that seemed to come out of the ground. ‘I am waiting for you!’
‘No!’ said Frodo; but he did not run away. His knees gave, and he fell on the ground. Nothing happened, and there was no sound. Trembling he looked up, in time to see a tall dark figure like a shadow against the stars. It leaned over him. He thought there were two eyes, very cold though lit with a pale light that seemed to come from some remote distance. Then a grip stronger and colder than iron seized him. The icy touch froze his bones, and he remembered no more.
YOU IN DANGER, FRODO. Oh my god, WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT? Tolkien names it just a few seconds later: a Barrow-wight. My only experience with wights is from A Song of Ice and Fire and all I know is that this disturbs me DEEP IN MY SOUL. We are on chapter EIGHT and shit is already SO REAL and it has absolutely nothing to do with the Ring. Good god, I swear, WHAT HAVE I GOTTEN MYSELF INTO???
It’s here that Tolkien completely wins me over, though, because even amidst the terror, he takes the time to give me one beautiful moment of characterization for Frodo Baggins. As I pointed out from the opening chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring, a lot of Frodo’s personality and beliefs comes from living with Bilbo for so long, and that comes up when Frodo wakes up in the cave of the Barrow-wight. Tolkien describes this as a “seed of hidden courage” that is in all hobbits, and I was so impressed by the idea that Frodo is able to access this because of the adventures his uncle had told him about, those queer and dangerous things Bilbo did that were unheard of for a hobbit. Being able to draw that sort of strength is really a powerful thing for Frodo, because it allows him to confront a fear he might have normally shied away from.
Can we talk about that fear? Yeah, it’s this:
Round the corner a long arm was groping, walking on its fingers towards Sam, who was lying nearest, and towards the hilt of the sword that lay upon him.
Yeah, fuck you, Tolkien. This is so unbearably creepy that I am most certainly going to have a nightmare about it forever. Is it even attached to something or is it just a sentient arm? Wait, don’t answer that. neither answer seems appealing.
But it’s in this moment of utter terror that Frodo finds that kernel of courage inside of him, almost as if he wouldn’t want to let Bilbo down, and he grabs a short sword nearby and HACKS THE HAND OFF OF THE ARM THAT IS HEADING FOR SAM. Holy shit, this is such an amazing scene. Yet it becomes even greater when the other hobbits wake up and completely oout of nowhere, Frodo sings that song he learned from Tom Bombadil in the last chapter AND TOM BOMBADIL JUST SHOWS UP OUT OF THIN AIR. No, seriously, what is Tom???? How can he do that? Oh my god, is he the original Beetlejuice? HE TOTALLY IS, ISN’T HE?
So Tom saves all four hobbits from whatever doom the Barrow-wights had planned for them (WHY DID THEY DRESS SAM, MERRY, AND PIPPIN UP???) because he is the best badass of all time or something.
‘You’ve found yourselves again, out of the deep water. Clothes are but little loss, if you escape from drowning.’
DO YOU ONLY SPEAK IN LOGICAL CONUNDRUMS, TOM BOMBADIL? Oh my god, his whole existence is a huge riddle, and I kind of love it? Plus, it’s clear now that he truly means well, that he’s not some secretly sinister being. I mean, he just saved the hobbits and brought back their horses and brought them food as well. Who is this man??? Why is he so interested in the hobbits? HOW CAN I SECURE MY OWN TOM BOMBADIL FOR MY LIFE?
I admit to being a bit confused by this all, not due to reading comprehension, but because I feel like there’s a huge piece of this story that’s missing. But I appreciate the character of Tom Bombadil not because he saves the hobbits, but because he is so fascinating. He is so concerned in the very best way possible, and it’s a blessing to have him help out these four main characters. I still don’t understand exactly what Tom is the Master of, especially since it’s made clear that his knowledge and power only extends to a certain point in this part of Middle-earth. I’d forgotten that yesterday, so I guess he’s not really a god in any conventional sense. Still, he bids the hobbits goodbye as they head off to find the Prancing Pony, an inn that Tom recommends they stop at. I don’t know what’s there, and I don’t know who Tom is quite yet, but for the time being, he’s helped them further along on their journey, and I’m glad he was a part of it.