Summary: Book 1, Chapter 8: Fog on the Barrow-downs
The next morning, Tom sends off the hobbits, who head north into the hills of the Barrow-downs. At noon, they stop atop a strange, flat-topped hill with a single stone standing in its center. Off to the north, the Downs seem to be ending, which is an encouraging sight, but the hills to the east appear foreboding. The hobbits stretch their legs and eat a full lunch of the food Tom has given them. Unfortunately, their full stomachs, the warm sun, and their fatigue, perhaps combined with some power of the hill itself, cause them to fall asleep.
When they awake, the sun is setting and a thick fog has settled over the Downs. They quickly head back down the hill in what they think is a northerly direction. Frodo believes he sees the exit to the Downs, and he rushes ahead, calling out to the other hobbits. When Frodo reaches what he thought was the gate, he turns to find that he is alone. He hears distant cries and runs forward. He reaches the top of a hill and sees a barrow in front of him. A deep voice speaks to Frodo and says it has been waiting for him. Suddenly, a dark figure appears and grabs him with an icy grip. Frodo falls unconscious.
When Frodo wakes up, he is inside a barrow, under the hills. He realizes that a Barrow-wight has captured him. He is afraid, but he steels himself with desperate courage. Next to him lie the other three hobbits, pale and unconscious, adorned with gold and jewelry and with a giant sword lying across their necks. In the eerie cold, Frodo hears a voice chanting. He sees a long arm walking on its fingers toward the sword. For a moment, Frodo panics and feels tempted to put the Ring on his finger and run away. Unwilling to abandon his friends, however, he grabs a nearby dagger and, with all his remaining strength, cuts off the reaching hand. There is a shriek, and the sword shatters, but the Barrow-wight then makes a growling sound.
Falling over Merry, Frodo suddenly remembers the song Tom Bombadil taught them. He begins to sing and soon hears a reply: old Tom comes crashing into the mound, collapsing the Barrow-wight’s chamber. Tom helps the hobbits out onto the grass, where they recover from the Barrow-wight’s spell. Tom takes the Barrow-wight’s treasure out into the sunlight and leaves it on top of the hill for passersby to sift through. Tom takes a beautiful brooch from the treasure and, looking at it, sadly thinks of the woman who once wore it. Returning their ponies and their packs, Tom takes daggers from the Barrow-wight’s treasure mound and gives one to each hobbit.
Tom leads the hobbits out of the Downs and safely to the East Road. He will not pass out of his country, but he directs the hobbits to the nearby town of Bree, where there is a fine inn where they can spend the night. Before they get to Bree, Frodo tells his companions that in front of strangers they should refer to him not as Mr. Baggins, but as Mr. Underhill—a precaution Gandalf earlier reminded Frodo to take.
The encounter with the Barrow-wight allows us to learn more about Tolkien’s vision of evil. Of course, Sauron emerges as the major figure of wickedness in The Lord of the Rings, the being whose nefarious intentions shape the plot of the novel. But Sauron does not have a monopoly on immorality or selfishness, and the presence of the Barrow-wight—or mound demon, as we might call him in more modern English—reminds us that nastiness in Tolkien comes in many shapes and sizes. There is nothing to indicate that the Barrow-wight has any connections with Sauron, or that it is doing anything to further Sauron’s aims. The demon is, in a sense, a free agent of evil. Yet even so, there are uncanny resemblances between the Barrow-wight and the Dark Lord. Like Sauron, the wight is in search of jewelry, and is willing to kill to get it. Moreover, the independently moving arm of the wight—which walks spookily on its fingers—may remind us of the severed finger of Sauron, detached when Isildur took the Ring from him. Neither the wight nor Sauron has a personality in The Lord of the Rings; they are incarnations of wickedness rather than fully formed characters. They reach and grab with no soul or personality, as if they have hands but no hearts or minds.
The struggle with the Barrow-wight illustrates in miniature some of the major elements of the hobbits’ future adventures. First, the idea of fellowship is emphasized when Frodo is left isolated after the wight has captured his cohorts. Frodo has been seen alone in the novel before this point, but he has never seemed quite as lonely as he does when he calls out for his friends and hears nothing but the wind in return. We see that Frodo is not just in the company of the other members of the Fellowship, but is building a real connection with them. Another example of fellowship is Frodo’s sudden rescue by Tom, who has appeared only recently in the narrative. We might have expected Tolkien to use the encounter with the Barrow-wight as an opportunity to showcase Frodo’s developing heroic skills—but he does not, for Frodo falls prey to the wight just as his colleagues did. Heroism does not necessarily mean standing out from the others as the strongest; it can go hand in hand with reliance upon others. We see that Tolkien is putting forth a new model of the hero, one who does not insist on doing everything himself, but who can accept aid from others.
The power of the Ring appears as a temptation here, one that must be resisted. We are again shown that Sauron’s power is not an external threat, but an internal one as well: it afflicts the mind and heart of its wearer, working its insidious effects from the inside out. During Frodo’s confrontation with the Barrow-wight, his first instinct is to put on the Ring, become invisible, and save himself by running away. Of course this would be an effective solution, but it would also be a thoroughly selfish one, as it would ensure the deaths of his friends left behind in the mound. The struggle Frodo undergoes in this episode is therefore not just between himself and a wicked demon, but between two parts of himself—one part that looks to save his own skin at any cost, and another part that cares about those dear to him. We see again that Tolkien’s tale is not just about external happenings, but about inward development.