The Harrowing of the Barrow Downs

The Harrowing of Hell, from a 14th century manuscript, via Wikimedia Commons

The Harrowing of Hell, from a 14th century manuscript, via Wikimedia Commons

Reading The Lord of the Rings out loud to the children is a very different experience from reading the books to myself. We are taking them at a very, very much slower pace than anything I’d do on my own. Not only are we bound by the fact that it’s just one among many of our current read alouds, but also sometimes the kids get overwhelmed and need to stop. We’ve been stopping very frequently and I anticipate we will continue to do so. It’s not been rare for a single chapter to get stretched out over two or three or even four days.

The upshot of this slow reading, though, is that not only do I see more details but I have more time to ponder. Not only am I seeing the book through new eyes as they experience it for the first time (one of the greatest joys for a literary mother is getting to have that first time again, vicariously with her children) but also simply because of the pace we’re setting, creeping instead of racing, there’s time for nibbling and digesting instead of gulping. I feel much less like the wolf who couldn’t tell the difference between Red Riding Hood and a sack of stones. This is much more like the French manner of eating, small elegant portions that you linger over and really get to taste.

And then there’s this. Last year my friend Literacy Chic wrote a handful of blog posts about notable moments in The Lord of the Rings. Those posts have been informing my reading this time through, too. When we have reached each of the points she blogged about, I’ve paid more attention, even if I didn’t remember all the details of her arguments. I also find myself adopting her habit of looking for notable moments as I read.

One notable moment, which we reached a couple of weeks ago but I’m only getting around to writing about it now, was the moment when Tom Bombadil comes to rescue the hobbits on the barrow downs. It struck me as I read that the whole scene is a type of the harrowing of hell, the moment that according to ancient tradition we recall on Holy Saturday when Jesus goes to the realm of the dead and smashes open the gates to release Adam and Eve and the patriarchs and prophets, all the holy men and women who have died since the beginning of time. He leads them out of the realm of the dead and into the kingdom of paradise. Not only that, but it’s also full of baptismal imagery, appropriate because baptism is also a type of resurrection.

It’s not much of a stretch to see the harrowing of hell imagery in this scene. After all, they are literally in a tomb, Bombadil literally shatters the doors and bursts in. The scene is almost like an icon.

But there’s something about the way the Barrow-wights have laid the hobbits out, something about the ritual of it, that fills this scene with much more weight. I’m still trying to figure out the purpose to the ritual. Is the Barrow-wight trying to make the hobbits into more Barrow-wights, into some kind of wraiths? Merry’s memory of the ancient battle suggests that the Barrow-wight’s ritual somehow makes the past present to the hobbits or maybe they’re possessed by the spirit of the past?

Frodo wakes up in the barrow laid out “flat on his back upon a cold stone with his hands on his breast.” He and the other hobbits have been laid out as if dead, their clothes have been taken away and they’ve been given white garments—burial shrouds of a sort?— as well as all kinds of jewelry: circlets, gold chains, rings, swords, and shields nearby. Laid out like kings of old for whom the barrows were originally raised. They aren’t dead yet, but they aren’t fully alive either. Their faces are “deathly pale” and later when Frodo touches them Merry’s face is cold.

And then the Barrow-wight enters, who seems to be almost a personification of death, singing an eerie song, almost a hymn to death, not only the death of the hobbits, but of light and life itself:

Cold be hand and heart and bone,
and cold be sleep under stone:
never more to wake on stony bed,
never, till the Sun fails, and the Moon is dead.
In the black wind the stars shall die,
and still on gold here let them lie,
till the dark lord lifts his hand
over dead sea and withered land.

The narrative calls it an incantation, and there’s definitely a liturgical quality to the verse, like an anti-psalm. It’s not entirely clear that the song comes an entity and not from the forces of nature or of entropy itself: “The night was railing against the morning of which it was bereaved, and the cold was cursing the warmth for which it hungered.”

This is very different from the hungry maw of Old Man Willow whom the hobbit escaped from just two chapters previously, right before they entered Tom Bombadil’s house. (Interesting how the two dangers bracket the hobbit’s stay in Bombadil’s house, inviting comparison.) The Willow-man is old and angry and hungry, but it is living. It’s twisted from its original being, it has become malevolent and dangerous, but it is still a growing thing, full of life and sap. The Barrow-wight is the opposite of Old Man Willow, it is night and cold and hunger divorced from life and root and sap. It is the spirit of death. Interestingly, one of Tom’s threats when he hears the willow is eating Merry and Pippin is, “I’ll freeze his marrow cold, if he doesn’t behave himself. I’ll sing his roots off. I’ll sing a wind up and blow leaf and branch away.” A threat which is echoed when Frodo is chilled to the marrow by the Barrow-wight’s incantation.

It is worth noting, too, that the Dark Lord is mentioned in the Barrow-wight’s song, suggesting perhaps that Sauron is the original author of the evil of the Barrow-wights?

Merry, Sam, and Pippin lie as if dead, but Frodo wakes– and why Frodo this time and not Sam as in the incident with the willow? And when he wakes he does summon the strength to fight the Barrow-wight. He even manages to lop off its hand. But it shatters the blade and it’s not clear at all that the wight has been vanquished. Only Tom has the power to truly break the wight’s power.

And then Frodo suddenly remembers an incantation of his own (which had vanished from his mind with the coming of the fog) to counter the evil of the wight’s incantation.

And here’s what’s interesting, the rhyme itself gives Frodo strength. He begins “in a small desperate voice” but at the name of Tom his voice grows strong with “a full and lively sound, and the dark chamber echoed as if to drum and trumpet.” The drum and trumpet are both martial instruments and instruments mentioned in the psalms, used in liturgical music. And there’s something very psalm-like in the song that Tom teaches the hobbits,

“By water, wood and hill, by the reed and willow,
By fire, sun, and moon, harken now and hear us!
Come, Tom Bombadil, for our need is near us.”

The parallelism, the images are reminiscent of the Canticle of the youths in the fiery furnace, invoking sun and moon, fire and water, hills and growing things. It also recalls several psalms, such as Psalm 31, which ask the Lord for deliverance: “incline your ear to me; make haste to rescue me!”

Tom answers almost immediately. It’s only “a long slow moment” before Frodo hears his answering voice singing. And when he comes the stones roll and fall away and light bursts in, “real light, the plain light of day,” a door opens up and the sickly light is gone from the hobbits faces, “They looked now as if they were only very deeply asleep.” Many of the elements here are reminiscent of traditional images of the harrowing of hell: the stone rolled away, the light entering into the darkness. Though the echoes are interrupted, a bit, by the presence of Tom’s hat, feather, and all. Tom isn’t quite what one expects from a Christ figure, he’s a bit more playful and frivolous.

Still, I’m reminded of the Paschal troparion:

“Christ is risen from the dead,
and by His death, He had trampled upon death,
and given life to those who are in tombs,”

The last part of Tom’s injunction to the Wight is most notable to me,

“Come never here again!Leave you barrow empty!
Lost and forgotten be, darker than the darkness,
Where gates stand for ever shut, till the world is mended.”

Though here is is the Wight who is banished from the world of the living, to await the final times “when the world is mended.” If this scene is a type of the harrowing of hell, it is also a reminder that Christ’s victory does not end all temporal struggles, there’s still plenty of fight to be fought until the end of days when there will be a new heavens and a new earth.

I cannot pass over the detail of the Wight’s severed hand “wriggling still like a wounded spider.” The spider imagery connects it both to the spiders of Mirkwood and to Shelob and Ungoliant.

Then, finally, Tom waked the sleeping hobbits with a final invocation:

“Wake now my merry lads! Wake and hear me calling!
Warm now be heart and limb! The cold stone is fallen;
Dark door is standing wide; dead hand is broken.
Night under Night is flown, and the Gate is open!”

Several resonances here. I’m reminded of Ezekiel, who asks God to replace his heart of stone with a natural heart. Night under Night is an echo surely of “Night unto Night makes known the message.” But the main thrust of the imagery is that of the empty tomb: the fallen stone, the door standing wide, the open gate.

Merry’s words, remembering the men of Carn Dûm and the ambush and the spear in his heart, suggest he’s been dreaming someone else’s dream, remembering someone else’s memories. He has truly been in the realm of the dead, if only in his dream, perhaps he has even been possessed by the spirit of one of the men buried in the barrow. He’s had some kind of supernatural experience.

Then when Sam complains about the loss of their clothes, Tom compares their experience to drowning, “You’ve found yourselves again, out of the deep water. Clothes are but little loss, if you escape from drowning.” And now comes a spate of baptismal imagery as Bombadil urges them to cast off the rags that the Barrow-wight clothed them in and to run naked on the grass.

So not only have the hobbits literally been rescued from the tomb, but have figuratively been pulled out of the deep water. The confluence of death, burial, and water recalls what Saint Paul says about baptism, “Or are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life. For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.” (Romans 6: 3-5) or Colossians 2:12: “You were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.”

The hobbits run about naked on the grass, an Edenic image. And they feel like people “that, after being long ill and bedridden, wake one day to find that they are unexpectedly well and the day is again full of promises.”

There is sometime like the resurrection of Lazarus too, who is also unwrapped from the grave clothes. But the hobbits’ resurrection is a bit more prosaic at the same time. They clothe themselves with spare clothes from their packs and are too warm because they are their winter clothes. Like all the baptized, they must now go out to the world and finish their journey. Baptism is a point of departure, not a destination.

Still, there is something about their scrape with death here that strengthens the hobbits. They come forth from their adventure in the barrows with new weapons, blades forged long ago by the Men of Westernesse, foes of the Dark Lord. It’s an imagery of baptism as arming the soul for battle against evil.

The gift of the blades also immediately foreshadows the meeting with Strider, “‘Few now remember them,’ Tom murmered, ‘yet still some go wandering, sons of forgotten kings walking in loneliness, guarding from evil things folk that are heedless.’”

Still, one more little grace note remains to remind us of baptism. Usually in baptism a person receives a new name. Here the hobbits are not renamed, but their ponies are. Tom christens them, “Sharp-ears, Wise-nose, Swish-tail and Bumpkin, White-socks, my little lad, and old Fatty Lumpkin.” Maybe it’s whimsy to see in this renaming of the ponies another sign of baptism, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

6 Responses to The Harrowing of the Barrow Downs

  1. Stephanie December 8, 2015 at 5:44 am #

    Thanks for your wonderful meditation, Melanie. The bit of Tom’s song that jumped out to me was “and the Gate is open!” There is something so powerful and joyous about a gate that was locked swung wide open. It brought to mind the opened cathedral doors signifying the beginning of the Year of Mercy. Also, though it isn’t explicit in scripture and maybe I’m extrapolating from religious paintings, but the thought that the way that was barred and guarded by angels into the Garden of Eden after the fall might one day be opened is such an image of hope and forgiveness. “I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture” John 10.9.

    • Melanie Bettinelli December 11, 2015 at 10:50 pm #

      “There is something so powerful and joyous about a gate that was locked swung wide open” Yes! I suppose this is why the Key of David is one of my favorite of the December antiphons.

      Oh and I like the connection with the Doors of Mercy.

  2. Daria December 8, 2015 at 1:54 pm #

    Oh, Melanie, how I envy you! I probably read the LOTR trilogy (and the Hobbit) aloud to various kids (as they aged into it) three or four times. Wish I could do it again, even though my Gollum voice gave me a sore throat. My 23 yr old son and I did take turns reading Hobbit aloud to each other in preparation for the movie (and agreed that the best thing about that film was that it had prompted us to do so).

    • Melanie Bettinelli December 11, 2015 at 10:51 pm #

      Sometimes the slow pace is maddening to me. I want to get on and Bella wants to slow down. But yes it’s such a joy to share with the kids. I do hope it’s the first of many readings together as a family.

  3. Erik Von Norden December 12, 2015 at 11:49 am #

    I always thought the Tom Bombadil character was the one with the most potential, and most under-utilized. Great reading, thanks.

    • Melanie Bettinelli December 13, 2015 at 12:29 am #

      While I love Tom Bombadil and would consider him one of my favorite characters in The Lord of the Rings and while my natural readerly curiosity of course wants to know more about him and read more of his story, still, I’m not sure the work would be better if it were altered to have more Tom. I fear that if there were more of him I might like him less. Not because it would be too much of a good thing, but because it would pull the shape of the story all our of joint and I can’t imagine it making the story more right to have more Tom. I’m also a kind of a fan of the J.J. Abrams mystery box school of storytelling. Sometimes I think the best parts of the story are what is never revealed.

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