The fantasy readerscape is a curious place. A choosing of souls. This is a snapshot of a hero’s journey. And a dream of meaning.
After the gray, piercing mountains of hopelessness in the far North, that extreme and dangerous center-line of the world, one would suppose the South to be a hospitable place. It is – until we see Frodo striding toward the horizon, and we follow, clad like his absent halfling companions.
He walks before us, seeming unaware of my companion and I, our voices unheard by others in these lands. We see his back, always just out of reach, elven cloak rippling, concealing, his footsteps never faltering or ceasing. We wonder, but follow.
After all, is he not a hero?
Time and distance are meaningless, amorphous as a night thought. Over rolling hills, sere wastes, forest and fell, we follow. Our destination is near. We feel it in our bones. More, Frodo quickens his steps, still never looking back, though we leap and wave our arms. All is now bare dirt, rock, and ice.
Rounding a last corner, we reel back in horror.
Not to the fiery mountain have we come, nor the door to the land of the West, nor Elrond’s half-way house, nor the simplest mountain cote in Middle-earth, always ready with a warm welcome for weary travelers.
Our path has brought before us a black maw, a sucking darkness without stars. The air smells of every rot in the world. Frodo steps into the inky mist swirling along the ground, thickening.
A shaft of chill freezes my heart. That curly-headed figure, cloaked in tattered grey-green, turns at last.
It is not Frodo.
My companion raises an arm, pointing, feet stuttering back wildly. “It isn’t me! That isn’t me!” he shrieks.
It is. And then that face changes, and it is me. Grinning: without amusement, pleasure, or kindness. It is the “me” I chose at every turning of the path, every point of decision.
We’d struggled not toward the fiery mountain, but the unending, icy clutch of self-trust. Self without the warmth of my better self – a spark from Another – guiding and channeling the strength of our hearts, keeping our feet from the guiding-pole of the world that kills by self-deception.
The Frodo that was not, stared at us. Without heart, almost without mind; without hunger but for one thing – us.
The weight of that malevolent gaze drove me to my knees. Shaking my head violently, sweat stinging my eyes, I tasted the bitterness of the lies I nursed along our way.
In desperation I sprang up and turned, gripping my companion’s hand. I left my back to the death beyond death. To the darkness that had our names, that could swallow every name on earth and remain unchanged: a brooding, mindless, insatiable hunger.
A light grew before us, where improbable grass met the warming dawn. A breeze stirred my hair, kissed my face with a touch of fresh hope. Was return possible?
Our packs were empty, and we were empty of every warmth of heart and spirit. Frodo never chose this path under my deadly cold feet, never chose to trust only himself. Despite Gandalf’s advice in the movie.
In the true tale, in a life-giving scene left out of the second-hand telling, Frodo chose quite differently. He knew he had not the strength to do it alone, and dared not put his trust in himself.
What I tell second-hand, the true-teller shows.
“A great barrow stood there.
”’Where are you?’ he cried again, both angry and afraid.
”’Here!’ said a voice, deep and cold, that seemed to come out of the ground. ‘I am waiting for you!’
”’No!’ said Frodo; but he did not run away. His knees gave, and he fell on the ground. Nothing happened, and there was no sound. Trembling he looked up, in time to see a tall dark figure like a shadow against the stars. It leaned over him. He thought there were two eyes, very cold though lit with a pale light that seemed to come from some remote distance. Then a grip stronger and colder than iron seized him. The icy touch froze his bones, and he remembered no more.
“When he came to himself again, for a moment he could recall nothing except a sense of dread. Then suddenly he knew that he was imprisoned, caught hopelessly; he was in a barrow. A Barrow-wight had taken him, and he was probably already under the dreadful spells of the Barrow-wights about which whispered tales spoke. He dared not move, but lay as he found himself: flat on his back upon a cold stone with his hands on his breast.
“But though his fear was so great that it seemed to be part of the very darkness that was round him, he found himself as he lay thinking about Bilbo Baggins and his stories, of their jogging along together in the lanes of the Shire and talking about roads and adventures. There is a seed of courage hidden (often deeply, it is true) in the heart of the fattest and most timid hobbit, waiting for some final and desperate danger to make it grow. Frodo was neither very fat nor very timid; indeed, though he did not know it, Bilbo (and Gandalf) had thought him the best hobbit in the Shire. He thought he had come to the end of his adventure, and a terrible end, but the thought hardened him. He found himself stiffening, as if for a final spring; he no longer felt limp like a helpless prey.
“As he lay there, thinking and getting a hold on himself, he noticed all at once that the darkness was slowly giving way: a pale greenish light was growing round him. It did not a first show him what kind of a place he was in, for the light seemed to be coming out of himself, and from the floor beside him, and had not yet reached the roof or wall. He turned, and there in the cold glow he saw lying beside him, Sam, Pippin, and Merry. They were 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.
“Suddenly a song began: a cold murmur, rising and falling. The voice seemed far away and immeasurably dreary, sometimes high in the air and thin, sometimes like a low moan from the ground. Out of the formless stream of sad but horrible sounds, strings of words would now and again shape themselves: grim, hard, cold words, heartless and miserable. The night was railing against the morning of which it was bereaved, and the cold was cursing the warmth for which it hungered. Frodo was chilled to the marrow. After a while the song became clearer, and with dread in his heart he perceived that in had changed into an incantation: 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.
“He heard behind his head a creaking and scraping sound. Raising himself on one arm he looked, and saw now in the pale light that they were in a kind of passage which behind them turned a corner. Round the corner a long arm was groping, walking on its fingers towards Sam, who was lying nearest, and towards the hilt of the sword that lay upon him.
“At first Frodo felt as if he had indeed been turned into stone by the incantation. Then a wild thought of escape came to him. He wondered if he put on the Ring, whether the Barrow-wight would miss him, and he might find some way out. He thought of himself running free over the grass, grieving for Merry, and Sam, and Pippin, but free and alive himself. Gandalf would admit that there had been nothing else he could do.
“But the courage that had been awakened in him was now too strong: he could not leave his friends so easily. He wavered, groping in his pocket, and then fought with himself again; and as he did so the arm crept nearer. Suddenly resolve hardened in him, and he seized a short sword that lay beside him and kneeling he stooped low over the bodies of his companions. With what strength he had he hewed at the crawling arm near the wrist, and the hand broke off; but at the same moment the sword splintered up to the hilt. There was a shriek and the light vanished. In the dark there was a snarling noise.
“Frodo fell forward over Merry, and Merry’s face felt cold. All at once back into his mind, from which it had disappeared with the first coming of the fog, came the memory of the house down under the Hill, and of Tom singing. He remembered the rhyme that Tom had taught them. In a small desperate voice he began: Ho! Tom Bombadil! and with that name his voice seemed to grow strong: it had a full and lively sound, and the dark chamber echoed as if to drum and trumpet.
Ho! Tom Bombadil, Tom Bombadillo! 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!
“There was a sudden deep silence, in which Frodo could hear his heart beating. After a long slow moment he heard plain, but far away, as if it was coming down through the ground or through thick walls, an answering voice singing: Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow, Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow. None has ever caught him yet, for Tom, he is the master: His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster.
“There was a loud rumbling sound, as of stones rolling and falling, and suddenly light streamed in, real light, the plain light of day. A low, door-like opening appeared at the end of the chamber beyond Frodo’s feet and there was Tom’s head (hat, feather, and all) framed against the light of the sun rising red behind him. The light fell upon the floor, and upon the faces of the three hobbits lying beside Frodo. They did not stir, but the sickly hue had left them. They looked now as if they were only very deeply asleep.
“Tom stooped, removed his hat, and came into the dark chamber, singing: Get out, you old Wight! Vanish in the sunlight! Shrivel like the cold mist, like the winds go wailing, Out into the barren lands far beyond the mountains! Come never here again! Leave your barrow empty! Lost and forgotten be, darker than the darkness, Where gates stand for ever shut, till the world is mended.‘” – The Fellowship of the Ring pg 193 – 197
Instead of waking no more except to despair under the dark lord’s hand, the creature of the maw is banished, till the world is mended. Frodo is freed. We alone do not have the strength for our moral battles. We must go to the One who has won them all, and sets us free to new life.
Pardon my telling. It is necessary in these days as the sun goes down in the West, until the mending.
Did you know that villains place ruthless trust in themselves alone? More than the minds of great kings and long schemers are clouded. Truth-tellers are now rare as Faramir. Who, contrary to a comment on the movie, did exist and yet lives. Not under that name, but I have seen him. Even in our land.
Frodo chose goodness. Despite any cost. Hope, beauty, and bravery brought him, along with many other heroes, to a good end. Though the way was fraught with real peril.
Some things are worse than mere death. Frodo knew it well. And it is not Frodo behind me, aching to consume all I am or might ever be.
But our path need not end here, swallowed by the death beyond death. Frodo showed me that. Turning from the maw, I have given our fate to Another. Ahead, the Light illumines a path without deception, though with both torturous places and fair. Places where my cowardly, untrue self will die, and my true self will rise to great deeds, and do exploits.
My companion follows my forward step. We choose, and have been chosen. To One, victory is due, never to might of thew.
Life is ahead.