The Fellowship of the Ring (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 133-143
Anyone who has ever been out walking in the downland of a county like Wiltshire in England as the evening turns towards night will know that it does not require too much imagination to picture the scene that Tolkien gives us in this episode of The Lord of the Rings. Some of the barrows that you will find there are older by far than anything that you would call European civilisation and among them are the great stone circles such as Stonehenge that conjure such a wonderful sense of mystery, or at least they would do so if it were not for modern highways and visitor centres.
Once again the hobbits let their guard down, falling asleep with their backs to a standing stone and awakening amidst a chilling fog as night begins to fall. Frodo becomes separated from his companions and their ponies panic and flee towards safety. Eventually Frodo is captured by the same creature that has taken his friends, a barrow wight, and all are imprisoned within a burial chamber.
Frodo found Sam, Merry and Pippin lying “on their backs, and their faces looked deathly pale; and they were clad in white. About them lay many treasures, of gold maybe, though in that light they looked cold and unlovely. On their heads were circlets, gold chains were about their waists, and on their fingers were many rings. Swords lay by their sides, and shields were at their feet. But across their three necks lay one long naked sword.”
The hobbits have been drawn inside the spell under which a barrow wight, a spirit that feeds upon the sadness of death, has placed the barrow and those who have been laid to rest within it. When they are rescued by Tom Bombadil it becomes clear that for a time they have been imprisoned within an old memory of a battle between the forces of the witch kingdom of Angmar and the kingdom of Arnor. As he returns to consciousness Merry is held for a moment within that memory, feeling a spear piercing him in his throat. The barrow wight is a creature that exists almost entirely within the dread, the misery and sadness of such memories, relying upon incantations and ceremonies through which it draws its prisoners into its own miserable existence.
The wight is so frozen within that moment that even Frodo’s limited freedom is already too much for it. Frodo has it at bay even before he begins his own spell, the song that calls Tom Bombadil to aid them. It is the song that Tom taught them while they stayed in the house under hill and soon he arrives, joyfully announcing that “Tom, he is the Master: his songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster”.
Tolkien’s legendarium is faithful to the spirit of nordic mythology with its intimate relationship between language and matter. In many ways the incantation of the wight within this story represents that relationship in its most corrupted form as the evil creature seeks to bend the hobbits to its twisted but miserably limited purposes. Tom’s song by contrast is completely pure, although deceptively simple. His one purpose is to allow all creatures to be entirely free and themselves. He has a wild desire for their beatitude, as one theologian speaks of the saints. Tolkien was a great student of language but did not only know language in an abstract sense as in dictionary definitions. Language was something he experienced through his five senses. Tolkien always regarded Charles Williams, the member of the Inklings who understood and perhaps practised magic the most, with a certain suspicion. I wonder if that is because, as with Gandalf and his fear of the Ring, he knew that he might have too great a profiency as a practitioner of magic himself, were he ever to practice it, with all its attendant temptations to control the lives of others.
How important it is then that this episode ends with the hobbits running naked and free upon the downs, subject to no-one except by the commitments that they have made to each other and, as in Frodo’s case, his promise to Gandalf. Frodo, in particular, has won an important victory, most especially over the temptation to put on the Ring, but also in his exercise of freedom in wielding a blade against the barrow wight and in the song that calls Tom Bombadil, the master, to give them his aid.