What Happened at the Fords of Bruinen? Gandalf Explains All to Frodo in Rivendell.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 215-219

Gandalf explains much to Frodo as the hobbit rests in his wonderful bed but one question above all still bothers him.

“Just give me news of my friends, and tell me the end of the affair at the Ford, as I keep on asking, and I shall be content for the present. After that I shall have another sleep, I think; but I shan’t be able to close my eyes until you have finished the story for me.”

We thought about the events at the Fords of Bruinen a few weeks ago when we were introduced to Glorfindel and his decisive intervention. Now we return to them as Gandalf explains to Frodo what was happening to him on that day. Gandalf explains to Frodo that the Ringwraiths could see him even when he was not wearing the Ring because he was “on the threshold of their world”. The Morgul-knife, with which the Witch-king of Angmar, the Lord of Minas Morgul, had pierced Frodo in his shoulder, had broken inside the wound and had left a splinter there. He had tried to pierce Frodo in his heart and if he had succeeded he would have done a deed that would have been worse than murder for Frodo would have become a wraith, he “would have become like they are, only weaker and under their command”.

And now we know why Gandalf looked at Frodo so closely. How far into the shadow world had Frodo gone? Was there any lasting damage caused by the Morgul Blade as the Witch-king intended or had Elrond been successful in both removing the deadly splinter and in preventing Frodo from slipping out of the world of substance and into the world that the ringwraiths knew?

What is clear is that Frodo’s resistance played a crucial role in his escape and then his recovery. As Gandalf puts it, “Your heart was not touched, and only your shoulder was pierced; and that was because you resisted to the last”. Frodo’s resistance was crucial at that point and then at the Fords of Bruinen when he called out, “You shall have neither the Ring nor me”. But most important of all was the fact that he was able to resist tye journey of the fragment of the blade from the shoulder to the heart.

Frodo resists until the very end of his strength

Frodo’s resistance was aided at the beginning by Strider’s application of athelas to the wound. Even though he is not yet king it is a sign of his true identity that this herb, that seems to share his hiddenness in its apparent insignificance, responds both to his touch and his voice. Strider is the true king who is to come and the world listens to his voice.

But this is not the only aid that Frodo receives. When his hobbit companions said to him, “We are your friends, Frodo”, on that night at Crickhollow when the “conspiracy” was unmasked, these were not mere words. The friendship of Merry, Pippin and, above all, Sam was shown in the unloading of Bill the pony and the carrying of great burdens; it was shown in hobbit cheerfulness even in adversity; it was shown in Sam’s song about trolls at the discovery of the place where Bilbo’s first adventure took place; and it was shown at the Fords of Bruinen when they all ran towards the deadliest of danger in the ringwraiths. And, as readers of The Lord of the Rings know, this was not the last time in the story that this friends were willing to lay down their lives for the love of a friend.

Sam Gamgee cheers his friends with a little song

Of course, none of this would have been to any effect if the hobbits had been alone. The Nazgûl would have been too deadly a foe and the Ring, and Frodo too, would have been taken away to Mordor had it not been for the intervention of Glorfindel and the power in the river that awaited any attempt to cross by an enemy. The waters in the river rose and the steeds of the ringwraiths were swept away, their riders forced to return to Mordor having failed in their mission and to be rehorsed.

All of this Gandalf explains to Frodo but he also tells him that while “fortune or fate” may have helped him to escape his deadly foe so too did courage and all through the story that courage will make all the difference.

Frodo has mighty allies

“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.

Éowyn, Merry and The Lord of the Nazgûl

As Théoden lies, his body broken beneath Snowmane, only two among his household knights remain beside him. One is the hobbit, Meriadoc Brandybuck, who began the great ride of the Rohirrim in some indignation feeling that his offer of service to the king had been disregarded but who at this moment of horror is at Théoden’s side only because he has been carried there. And the other is the one who carried Merry into battle and who followed the king wherever he went in the fight. This knight named himself, Dernhelm, but is now revealed as Éowyn, daughter of Éomund, and niece to Théoden.

Éowyn is there because of her love for Théoden who has been as a father to her, and she is there because she seeks death. Indeed we could describe her as being one who has already died and so feels no fear.

“Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace!” she cries. And the Lord of the Nazgûl who has journeyed deathless through long ages and through battles beyond numbering, advances upon her to destroy both her and Théoden.

But he is resisted. The fear that robs all who try to cross his path of the strength even to try and resist him has no power over her for she is beyond fear, and then something new and entirely unexpected is brought to the story. When Éowyn declares her intent to hinder him he cries out that, “No living man may hinder me!” and in so doing he grants to Éowyn a new strength and determination for, as she declares to him, “no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you if you touch him.”

Doubt enters the Ringwraith’s mind and amazement the mind of the terrified hobbit and, within moments, Éowyn and Merry have pierced the sinews of the Black Captain that he had thought invulnerable to all hurt “and a cry went up into the shuddering air, and faded to a shrill wailing, passing with the wind, a voice bodiless and thin that died”. So passes the Lord of the Nazgûl in utter despair.

This is a moment of great power in Tolkien’s story and it is one that neither Éowyn nor Merry have foreseen nor even dreamt of. Merry wanted simply to follow Théoden into the battle. Indeed, all he wanted was not to be left out. Éowyn wanted only a death in battle to obliterate the unendurable pain of rejection that she has had to bear since Aragorn’s departure. But a deeper feeling is awoken in both of them by the Lord of the Nazgûl. Deeper than Éowyn’s despair or Merry’s fear and sense of insignificance. In Éowyn it is her love for Théoden and in Merry a realisation that he cannot stand by and let Éowyn die alone. These deeper feelings rouse them to action but, by themselves, could do little more than bring them to a brave death that would have achieved nothing. It is the pronouncement of the prophecy by the Lord of the Nazgûl, the Witch King of Angmar of old, that brings about his own destruction, turning Éowyn and Merry into deadly foes and making vulnerable an undead body that has been untouchable through long ages.

Many who have achieved something of significance in their lives have spoken of an energy, a strength, that is given to them at a critical moment. At that moment and for that moment only it is as if no power can stand before them. The desire to do some good and the strength to do it come together irresistibly. It is as if some latent possibility is released that can, it seems, achieve anything. It can never be ordered and we can never know when it will come but when it does then we must act with all the courage that we can muster. And such power comes to those who desire some good for others and never for some selfish end. It is this divine power that comes to Merry and to Éowyn at this critical moment.