The next morning, Frodo, Merry, Sam, Pippin, and their ponies leave the house of Tom Bombadil and travel north into the hills of the Barrow-downs—a series of burial mounds crowned by monoliths. At midday, the hobbits stop for rest and food, and after their long morning ride they accidentally fall asleep under the warm sun.
The hobbits have taken heart from their stay with Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, feeling ready to move forward in their journey. They must pass through ancient burial grounds, an environment that stands as tribute to the history of human kings of old. However, evil has infected the burial mounds and they are now well known as the domain of evil barrow-wights.
They awake to find that it is dusk and that a thick fog surrounds them. Disheartened by the ominous shift in weather, the hobbits move slowly through the fog in what they believe is a northerly direction. Frodo hurries ahead of the group when he believes he spies the exit from the Barrow-downs. He finds that he is mistaken, and turning back, has lost his companions to the fog. Suddenly he hears cries through the mist and tries to find their source. Ascending a hill and surrounded by an increasingly icy wind, he sees a barrow before him. Frodo hears a sinister voice before being confronted by the spectral figure of a barrow-wight. The creature sizes Frodo with an iron-like grip, and he falls unconscious.
A shift from warmth to gloom occurs in the weather and in the hobbits’ moods. Again Tolkien broadens the world of Middle-earth, demonstrating that evil forces exist beyond Sauron. The hobbits’ folly in falling asleep and then becoming separated shows that they still have much to learn.
When Frodo awakes, he realizes that he is trapped inside the burial mound. He is desperately afraid to be at the mercy of a barrow-wight, but steels his nerve to try and formulate a plan. He can see Sam, Merry, and Pippin lying near him, wrapped in white clothing, gold, and jewelry, with a long sword lying across their necks.
There is a notable contrast between the safety of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry’s hospitality and the hobbits’ terrifying experiences immediately preceding and following their stay. The darkness of the forest and within the barrows is the opposite of a bright and warm home. Frodo is terrified to be within the barrow-wight’s evil grasp, but he does not give in to his fear and instead tries to find a way out of the dire situation.
Suddenly a chanting song wafts through the darkness, and Frodo is chilled to the bone. When he sees a long arm groping toward Sam from a passage behind the hobbits, Frodo panics even further and considers putting on the Ring and running away. But his loyalty to his friends stops him, and his growing courage allows him to take hold of a short sword lying in the barrow’s treasure. He hacks at the advancing arm, severing the hand at the same moment that the sword shatters. All light in the barrow vanishes as snarling noises echo around Frodo.
Frodo demonstrates immense courage in dealing with his fear to try and protect his friends. He will not give in to the evil Ring’s temptation to disappear from sight and run away, as he will not abandon the others to the barrow-wight’s clutches. Frodo’s actions are in two ways heroic: his internal struggle as he resists the Ring’s influence is matched by his external struggle when he attacks the barrow-wight’s groping arm.
Tripping over Merry, Frodo suddenly remembers Tom Bombadil’s song that he taught to the hobbits in case of emergency. Frodo nervously begins to sing and hears a reply from far away, followed by Tom Bombadil’s entrance to the barrow in a stream of light. Bombadil swiftly vanquishes the barrow-wight and revives the other hobbits. He then spreads the barrow’s treasures on the green grass atop the burial mound, choosing from the piles a brooch for Goldberry and daggers for each of the hobbits to wear. He also retrieves the hobbits’ ponies, who ran away from the barrow-wight’s presence.
Singing helps to maintain Frodo’s hope in the face of adversity. The hobbits survive their ordeal by once more relying on the strength and fellowship of another character, the ancient Tom Bombadil, who is aligned with light and goodness.
Tom leads the hobbits out of the Barrow-downs and accompanies them to the road. He takes his leave to return home to Goldberry, advising the group to make for an inn called The Prancing Pony at the nearby town of Bree. The hobbits hurriedly ride toward the warmth and safety of the inn.
Tom reminds readers of Gandalf, for both are wise and powerful beings who offer their guidance to the hobbits. Tom’s interventions have been crucial to the hobbits’ survival in Gandalf’s unexplained absence.