Frodo has faced threats and danger many times already, but this is his first test of courage as Tolkien goes for full-on horror. But first, a digression on women in Lord of the Rings.
‘Goldberry!’ [Frodo] cried. ‘My fair lady, clad all in silver green! We have never said farewell to her, nor seen her since the evening!’ He was so distressed that he turned back; but at that moment a clear call came rippling down. There on the hill-brow she stood beckoning to them: her hair was flying loose, and as it caught the sun it shone and shimmered. A light like the glint of water on dewy grass flashed from under her feet as she danced.
Goldberry is extremely representative of Tolkien’s female characters – that is, she doesn’t really do much on her own, instead affecting the plot by motivating the men around her to do stuff. Also her primary character trait is that she’s pretty. She sets the standard for future female characters – I’m tempted to call it the “Disney Princess standard”, but even Snow White is more proactive than Goldberry. Let’s call it the “Goldberry Standard”.
I don’t hate Goldberry, or even dislike her (she hardly has enough character to elicit much feeling either way). I’m just disappointed that this is how Tolkien represents my sex. I could count the number of remotely relevant female characters on my fingers, and the number of women who directly impact the plot would easily fit on one hand (and half of them are still extremely small roles). Most of them just serve as motivators (positive or negative) for male characters – the Goldberry Standard.
It’s not just that it’s so hard to find a woman who actually feels like a fully-realized character, but also the attitude it represents. These women are idolized, something beautiful and “perfect” that has to be protected. While I’ll take chivalry over sexualization any day, they’re both objectifying. Both view woman as something “other”, whether it’s less-than or more-than. And both can be damaging to women – when you can’t be as perfect as a man (or even society) says you should be, that can cause its own scars.
Basically, this is one of my biggest gripes with the series. It’s understandable that Tolkien would take the chivalry route, and I even understand why he would choose to work with an almost exclusively male cast – that’s just what he knew, and honestly, that was the era he lived in. Lewis turned out to be way more progressive than him on that front (eventually).
Anyhow, there was something interesting going on. Like a ghost or something.
In the midst of [the hollow] 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.
Tolkien is a master of atmosphere, and so the transition to horror is also masterfully done, as the hobbits suddenly fall asleep (again) and awake to find that fog has rolled in…
Suddenly Frodo saw a hopeful sign. On either side ahead a darkness began to loom through the mist; and he guessed that they were at last approaching the gap in the hills, the north-gate of the Barrow-downs. If they could pass that, they would be free.
‘Come on! Follow me!’ he called back over his shoulder, and he hurried forward. But his hope soon changed to bewilderment and alarm. The dark patches grew darker, but they shrank; and suddenly he saw, towering ominous before him and leaning slightly towards one another like the pillars of a headless door, two huge standing stones.
Everyone apparently loses one another in the fog, the ponies run off – and Frodo finds himself at the entrance of a barrow.
‘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.
These first few chapters have gotten into a slightly formulaic rhythm: Frodo (& co) gets in trouble, then is saved at the last moment by some deus ex machina. You can kind of see where the pathetic Frodo in the films comes from in scenes like this – but that changes.
There is a seed of courage hidden (often deeply, it is true) in the heart of the fattest and most timid hobbit, waiting for some final and desperate danger to make it grow. Frodo was neither very fat nor very timid; indeed, though he did not know it, Bilbo (and Gandalf) had thought him the best hobbit in the Shire. He thought he had come to the end of his adventure, and a terrible end, but the thought hardened him. He found himself stiffening, as if for a final spring; he no longer felt limp like a helpless prey.
He wills himself to do something. He discovers that Sam, Pippin, and Merry are out cold next to him in the barrow.
Suddenly a song began: a cold murmur, rising and falling. The voice seemed far away and immeasurably dreary, sometimes high in the air and thin, sometimes like a low moan from the ground. Out if the formless stream of sad but horrible sounds, strings of words would now and again shape themselves: grim, hard, cold words, heartless and miserable. The night was railing against the morning of which it was bereaved, and the cold was cursing the warmth for which it hungered.
Even the evil creatures have their song. I find it fascinating that the Barrow-wights aren’t supposed to be ghosts (or at least not the ghosts of the former inhabitants of the Downs), but something else that was drawn to the void left by the fall of that kingdom. They seem to be attracted by both the graves and the treasure they contain, although they don’t appear to have any use for either – they’re just railing against light and life and everything else they can never have.
As the Wight finally appears, Frodo’s thoughts once again turn to the Ring, using it to escape by himself, but with his newfound courage he manages to resist the temptation.
Suddenly resolve hardened in him, and he seized a short sword that lay beside him, and kneeling he stooped low over the bodies of his companions. With what strength he had he hewed at the crawling arm near the wrist, and the hand broke off; but at the same moment the sword splintered up to the hilt. There was a shriek and the light vanished. In the dark there was a snarling noise.
Then Frodo remembers that Tom Bombadil taught them a song to sing if they ever got in trouble again, and no matter your feelings on Tom, it’s a relief to see him again after that.
Get out, you old Wight! Vanish in the sunlight!
Shrivel like the cold mist, like the winds go wailing,
Out into the barren lands far beyond the mountains!
Come never here again! Leave your barrow empty!
Lost and forgotten be, darker than the darkness,
Where gates stand for ever shut, till the world is mended.
I feel fairly certain that Neil Gaiman was influenced by this episode (what with the whole spider-like hand thing in Coraline), and I must commend his taste (even if I’m not a huge fan of horror in general).
Tom lays out all the treasures from the barrow and says that the Wight’s spell will be broken if good creatures take the treasures for good (or at least benign) purposes. It seems to be the burying of the treasure, making it “dead” treasure that does good to no one when there are so many people who could use it, that gives the Wight its power (or at least its purpose).
Merry seemed to have a dream-vision-nightmare-thing while he was out, evidently some memory an ancient battle (I’m guessing whatever battle killed the person buried in the barrow), presumably because he’s the second most mature hobbit in the group. Anyhow, Tom picks out some daggers from the hoard for the hobbits to use as swords.
‘Old knives are long enough as swords for hobbit-people,’ he said. ‘Sharp blades are good to have, if Shire-folk go walking, east, south, or far away into dark and danger.’ Then he told them that these blades were forged many long years ago by Men of Westernesse: they were foes of the Dark Lord, but they were overcome by the evil king of Carn Dum in the Land of Angmar.
‘Few now remember them,’ Tom murmured, ‘yet still some go wandering, sons of forgotten kings walking in loneliness, guarding from evil things folk that are heedless.’
If you think some of those names sound vaguely familiar, yes, that is the Witch-King of Angmar Tom’s referring to. But it’s interesting that Tom Bombadil is the one who first arms the hobbits – perhaps because they couldn’t have been bothered to carry a sword before they actually faced such dangers. Perhaps they have courage now, too, or maybe it’s just Frodo.
Tom escorts them back to the Road and leaves (because we can’t have a character like Tom coming along for the journey – that would be too easy). And now they have to worry about the Black Riders again. But at least Tom recommends an inn for them: The Prancing Pony…