Friday, June 26, 2009

Blogging the Rings: Fellowship, Book 1, Chapter 8

Back at it...

Fog on the Barrow-Downs

The chapter opens with a beautiful little bit, another strange sort of vision or dream, though perhaps it's real... Tolkien consciously casts doubt on how it is perceived.

"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."

Again we have the long lines, poetic and rolling, images built and slowly layered. Not so glib, now, but more and more the evocative language takes precedent within the story. A vision here... of what? The afterlife? His final trip across the sea? Unclear, but it is a hopeful image, a bit of light to shine through the darkness and fear yet to come.

The hobbits head off, away from Tom's home, but realize they did not say goodbye to Goldberry. Frodo laments, and his dialogue is one of those bits that rings poorly in my ear. Tolkien often uses a formal sort of dialogue, but I usually find it reads well, and fairly human, for all that. But occasional bits of speech sound pretty unlikely, such as this one, where Frodo slips into a sort of false rhymey style (not unlike Tom Bombadil, really): "My fair lady, clad all in silver green! We have never said farewell to her, nor seen her since the evening!" The similar line structure and rhythm, topped with the almost-rhyme of "green" and "evening", makes this bit seem awkward to me. And "clad all in silver green" seems rather odd for spoken dialogue, particularly as something said to the other hobbits, who know Goldberry as well as he does. It seems strange to highlight that bit of information here.

And the barrow-downs themselves, evocatively described, and again with the long line, the rhythmic and poetic description: "Eastward the Barrow-downs rose, ridge behind ridge into the morning, and vanished out of eyesight into a guess: it was no more than a guess of blue and a remote white glimmer blending with the hem of the sky, but it spoke to them, out of memory and old tales, of the high and distant mountains." Imagery connected to history and the hobbits own knowledge, tied neatly together. And more of that imagery to create mood and danger: "and all those hills were crowned with green mounds, and on some were standing stones, pointing upwards like jagged teeth out of green gums." Not only is the imagery connected to a desired mood, but also to the action to come. The standing stones like jagged teeth in green gums... and the hobbits are about to be captured and swallowed by one of these barrows. The imagery, in a sense, prefigures the action.

The hobbits fall into an unnatural sleep, one they never meant to take (an echo of Old Man Willow, and a furtherance of the sleep=death metaphor, perhaps). Fog swallows the barrow-downs, making a mystery of the world, much like at the crossing of the Brandywine. Here, though, there is no happy ending: the hobbits are separated and become lost, and Frodo hear's only distantly the shouts of the others, shouts which seem to become cries for help.

Frodo collapses, and is captured by a barrow-wight, a "tall dark figure like a shadow against the stars." Its voice is "deep and cold", and its eyes too are "very cold". It has an "icy touch", and a "grip stronger and colder than iron". Four uses of "cold" description in two paragraphs... a hammer to drive home the point. There seems, to me, to be a very strong hint of the wraiths here: is the barrow-wight, perhaps, the key to the transition between the Black Riders and the Ringwraiths? The wight is cold and almost half-substantial here, a creature (or man) somewhere between life and death... much as the Nine Riders are (as we will soon learn). And the cold descriptions reinforce the idea of death, of this half-life.

Frodo awakes on a cold stone, and there is a cold glow, and his sleeping companions look "cold and unlovely". And then a cold murmur (a song), cold words, a cold curse which chills Frodo, and the first two lines of the song, the incantation, both have cold in them. And yet, oddly, it doesn't read too badly. The repetition works, I think, perhaps helped by the simpleness of the word. It's not a ten dollar word, doesn't protrude too much from the text. Certainly it helps create a little scenic motif here.

There's a few oddities, too, in this section. The other hobbits have been clad in white, and are surrounded by treasures, and adorned in circlets and gold chains and rings. The ring mention is interesting, and makes me think again of the ringwraiths, for it was the Nine Rings that made them into wraiths. Yet it still seems a little odd, too. We have to picture the fey wight undressing the hobbits... and then redressing them and placing these items upon them. It's an odd image, when taken practically, and hard to connect with the mood and mystery of the scene. A little silly, in a way, when you think of it. But Tolkien is careful (consciously?) of not mentioning the practical aspect of how this change must have occurred, but sticks simply to the ghostly image of how they now appear to Frodo.

Another oddity, the description of the wight coming for them: "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." An odd image, as nothing is given but the arm, and its movement, how it walks upon its fingers... a strangely disembodied image, as if the wight is nothing but the arm, a severed arm creeping toward them on its fingers.

And Frodo thinks about putting on his ring and disappearing, feels drawn to do so... another connection with the Ringwraiths, who create just such a pressure in Frodo - put on the ring, put on the ring, put on the ring...

"And the arm crept nearer"... not the wight, just the arm. Again the odd and disturbing image of the severed arm, bodiless and creeping. Frodo hews at the "crawling arm" (again disembodied, with no mention of the wight itself) and "the hand broke off". An interesting word choice, the use of "broke". It doesn't seem to fit with a sword, something cutting, but the use of that word helps reinforce the image of the cold, hard wight.

And then Frodo calls for Tom Bombadil, who seems almost magically to appear. Lightness returns, with Tom's songs and rhymes, and he dispels the wight and the darkness, light streaming in. Only the hand of the wight remains, truly severed now, yet still wriggling "like a wounded spider". An interesting use, again, of imagery foreshadowing action, with the seemingly disembodied arm coming before the actual severing of the hand.

Tom leads them free, and tells them to strip off the strange garb placed on them by the wight... and to run naked on the grass. Which the hobbits do. Really, Tolkien? Really? Is this quite the time to be frolicking naked in the grass? Quite the odd little moment, it seems to me. I suppose the intent is to highlight the return to innocence, to being fresh-born... but on the realist level it seems quite ludicrous. We barely escape a deathly wight... well, let us frolic naked in the grass! Because, you know, I always do that with my buddies after a tough day.

Tom brings them back their ponies... and brings them weapons, too, strong weapons that will be good for fighting agents of the Dark Lord. Yet this surprises the hobbits, as "Fighting had not before occurred to any of them as one of the adventures in which their flight would land them." This seems, on the face of it, a very odd statement. Yes, they're peaceable hobbit folk, but are they really all that naive? Even Bilbo, on his less serious adventure, had to fight. And they know the fate of the world hangs on their mission, and the Dark Lord hunts for them... and fighting never occurred to any of them? Seems a little strange, I think.

Finally they pass from the Barrow-mounds and reach the Road, and here a fear of the Black Riders returns, something they had almost forgotten. This strikes me in two ways: one, it's a good move on Tolkien's part, drawing the reader's attention back to the main plotline and the central conflict. And two, it helps show just how self-cointained these last chapters have been, and how little connection they have with the rest of the story. There's much that is wonderful in them... yet they have not been highly relevant, either.

And lastly they reach the town of Bree, and they recall the necessary subterfuge that must come: Frodo is to be Mr. Underhill, and no longer Mr. Baggins. This again focuses the story back on the main plot, the danger of the Ring - and those who hunt it. And the hobbits seek only "a door between them and the night."


Deb Salisbury said...

I had always thought the arm scene was creepy, but it hadn't occurred to me how odd it was that we only saw the arm. I did wonder why the wight had stripped and redressed them. That was weird - bordering on creepy - which might be what he had in mind.

I just assumed that since the hobbits usually hid from danger, as a race quite successfully, that it might not occur to them to fight.

Everything from their rescue from old man willow until now seemed to belong to a different story. But since he didn't finish any other stories, I won't complain about it being here. ;-)

Ink said...

Yeah, I think there's been some wonderful stuff in these last chapters... it's just that it doesn't seem to fit when you look at the book as a whole. And I might miss it if it had never been... but it's still odd. :)

Yeah, the hobbits are a peaceable folk. But these particular hobbits all grew up on Bilbo's stories of Sting and Mirkwood and Smaug and the Battle of Five Armies. And their own quest is more serious and inherently dangerous. Wouldn't it at least occur to them?

And the weird arm of the wight has been in my head a long, long time...

Deb Salisbury said...

Hmmm, yes, plus the Brandybucks were known for being strange and quarrelsome - for hobbits. :-)

Deniz Bevan said...

I think the severed hand was something one of Tolkien's sons was very frightened of as a kid; there's a drawing Tolkien made of it in one of the collected books of his paintings.
As for fighting not having occurred to them I think it was more a case of, while they had probably dimly been aware of the idea of battle, suddenly having swords to carry made them that much more aware of the reality of using such weapons.

Matthew Rush said...

I think another part about the Hobbits not expecting to fight is that at this point they are thinking of nothing further than Bree and The Prancing Pony.

They expect to hand the Ring off to Gandalf and be done with it. Or perhaps consider going as far a Rivendell but certainly not beyond. It does seem a little naive for them to expect the road to either of those places to be free of fighting though. I mean at least wolves, goblins or trolls should be creatures they're prepared to meet.