LOTR 9: If there’s something strange in your neighbourhood, who you gonna call? Tom Bombadil!
Updated: Aug 7
(Fog on the Barrow-Downs, by Jonathan Guzi - reproduced with permission)
On the chapter ‘Fog on the Barrow-Downs’, Christopher regrettably reflects that ’there is little that need be said’ (Return, p. 329). Although he is referring to the chapter as it existed in Phase Three (recalling that Phase Two finished at Tom Bombadil’s house), I think Christopher’s comments can be extended to the chapter’s history in general. He even notes in Phase One ’the final form . . . is very largely present: for most of its length only very minor alterations were made afterwards’ (Return, p. 127).
In Phase One he gives two pages to a plot summary from the Barrow-downs to Rivendell that his father notoriously scribbled in pencil but I would rather save such comments for their relevant chapters (Return, pp. 125 - 126). Regarding the larger scope of the story, Christopher does note that ‘here for the first time the Fiery Mountain enters the story as the goal for which they will in the end be bound’ (Return, p. 126). It is remarkable just how much plot was worked out in Phase One.
1. Merry’s Vision
Regarding the chapter itself, there appears to be very little that Tolkien actually changed from its first incarnation. Merry’s vision after awakening from the Barrow has one or two small notes of interest. Here it is in its first form:
’Then he stopped, and a shadow came over his face. “I begin to remember,”
he said. “I thought I was dead - but don’t let us speak of it.”' (Return, p. 128).
You may recall Verlyn Flieger’s article on reincarnation and what she calls Merry’s ‘flashback’, where she argues that through Merry a past figure (whom she identifies as the prince of Cardolan) is reincarnated through their memories in Merry (pp. 106 - 110). She notes that the ‘I’ in this passage is confusing; it is unclear if the person speaking is Merry or a past individual (p. 107)? Flieger further identifies that:
The chronology of composition is worth noting here, for the Barrow-wight
chapter was first drafted near the end of 1938, not long after the abortive 1936
“Lost Road” but before the equally unfinished 1945- 46 “Notion Club Papers,”
both of which deal explicitly with inherited memory and reincarnation
(Shadow 112), and may well have influenced the Barrow episode both in
retrospect and anticipation. (p. 107).
The contextual details lend weight to the possibility that this is reincarnation. However (I would have to revisit both these texts to be clear on this) in either of the other texts do the dreamers come into contact with a historical artefact like Merry does? Merry’s flashback creeps closer to an M. R. James antiquarian horror story than a Tolkien time-travel story and the trope of supernatural possession rather than reincarnation appears more defined. Merry has this vision as a direct consequence of touching these ancient relics.
Mentions of Carn Dûm (Phase Three) and Angmar (Phase Four) are not included until later drafts. At this point, Tolkien was on the cusp of the ancient conflict that would haunt the northern regions of Middle-earth.
2. Butterbur and . . . Green?
The only other detail of note from this chapter is the connection between Tom Bombadil and who we know as Barliman Butterbur. In the chapter’s infancy this merry fellow was known by other names: Timothy Titus and Barnabus Butterbur. I think above anything else these names show Tolkien’s innate fondness for alliteration as a mode of phonetic comedy alongside its more sonorous and ancient heritage in England.
In Phase One as well, Tom says that Butterbur is ’not unknown’ to him, and this stuck in Phase Three (Return, p. 129). When questioning Bombadil’s borders in Phase Four, Tolkien did not exactly struggle in rejecting that Bombadil and Butterbur were acquainted (Treason, p. 10).
On the topic of names and relations, in Phase Four Frodo asks the other hobbits to call him ‘Mr Green’ which is strikingly different from the published version and Phases Two and Three where he is called ‘Mr Hill of Faraway’ (original emphasis, Treason, p. 37). I have not yet come across the first mention of Underhill but will be sure to point this out! I anticipate it was changed in the Bree chapters.
Flieger, V. (2007). 'The Curious Incident of the Dream at the Barrow: Memory and Reincarnation in Middle-earth’ Tolkien Studies (4) 99 - 112.
Tolkien, J. R. R. (1988). The History of Middle-earth: The Return of the Shadow. [Ed. Tolkien, C.]. London: HarperCollins.
Tolkien, J. R. R. (1989). The History of Middle-earth: The Treason of Isengard. [Ed. Tolkien, C.]. London: HarperCollins.