“Tom, he is Master”. The Stronger Songs of Tom Bombadil Rescue the Hobbits From the Barrow Wight.

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.

The opening to a barrow in Wiltshire that is 6,000 years old

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 strikes a blow by Ted Nasmith

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 Arthedain. As he returns to consciousness Merry is held for a moment within that memory, feeling a spear piercing him in his heart. 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”.

Tom’s songs are stronger songs

Tolkien’s legendarium is faithful to the spirit of norse 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.

The King and The Healing of Faramir

It is not so much the wound that Faramir received in battle that brings him close to death. Aragorn reaches the heart of the matter when he says to Imrahil, “Weariness, grief for his father’s mood, a wound, and over all the Black Breath”. All these things have finally overcome the valiant Faramir. All his life he has resisted the creeping shadow both in the rise of Mordor beyond the borders of Gondor and within the hearts of his own people and now, at last, his hope is gone.

It is not by Athelas alone that Aragorn heals Faramir. Tolkien does not enter into any explanation of the process but simply describes what Aragorn does.

“Now Aragorn knelt beside Faramir, and held a hand upon his brow. And those who watched him felt that some great struggle was going on. For Aragorn’s face grew grey with weariness; and ever and anon he called the name of Faramir, but each time more faintly to their hearing, as if Aragorn himself was removed from them, and walked in some dark vale, calling for one who is lost.”

What Tolkien describes here is some form of the coinherence about which the Inklings used to speak and an idea which was introduced to them by Charles Williams. Williams believed that Christians could voluntarily bear the suffering or burden of another and so aid their healing. Aragorn’s apparent journey away from himself and his profound weariness as he makes this journey seems to suggest that this is what is happening. For those who would like to explore this idea further I would warmly recommend the work of Sørina Higgins on Charles Williams which you can explore by going to https://theoddestinkling.wordpress.com and clicking on coinherence in the tags on the right hand side of the page.

It may be that Aragorn is able to call Faramir back from his journey towards death by this means but the healing is made complete when Bergil arrives with athelas. Aragorn crushes two leaves and casts them into a bowl of water and life is restored to both the healer and the one who is near to death.

“The fragrance that came to each was like a memory of dewy mornings of unshadowed sun in some land of which the fair world in Spring is itself but a fleeting memory.”

As you read the account of the healings in this beautiful chapter you will note that the fragrance of athelas is somehow different for each person that is healed. It is a beautiful expression of the unique relationship between the one who is hurt, the means of their healing and the healer. Surely in Faramir’s case we catch a glimpse, just for a moment, of his deepest yearning. When Faramir explained to Frodo the meaning of the ceremony that he and his men observed before eating in Henneth Anûn he spoke of his longing for the restoring of Gondor and also for something deeper even than that longing. He spoke of “that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be”.   https://stephencwinter.com/2015/09/08/faramir-remembers-that-which-is-beyond-elvenhome-and-will-ever-be/

Faramir has long pondered that which Númenor and even Valinor can only point to. He is one who cannot stay at the surface of things and so passes through his experience as son of the Steward of Gondor through the history of his people and unto their origins in Númenor. And on arriving there and pondering both its glory and its fall under the shadow he goes deeper yet until he comes to Valinor which is forever closed to them. He will know that it is at the surface of Valinor the deathless land that the corrupted kings of Númenor stayed and so desired to possess it and the gift of immortality and so he passes deeper yet to what lies beyond Elvenhome. This is what he and all in the Houses of Healing glimpse just for a moment. It is a glimpse into the most secret place within his soul, into his most true self, even into the deepest reality of all and so he is called back from the shadows into light and life and into service of the king for whose return he has long waited.