Tales from the Prancing Pony (3)
The Old Forest and Barrow Downs

Last Update 21 May 1998

All text and images copyright Gil Williamson 1998

SW from Caradhras




Day 2-5

The Old Forest

The day after the travellers reached Greyhaven, which was obviously nearly as much of an eyesore then as it is today, they sent the canoes and most of their supplies ahead by rail to Carrock (a village on the Anduin River).

They then turned to the problem of a local guide, not so much to find the way as to recommend more scenic routes, identify historical sites, translate where necessary and advise them on local habits & customs. From a small group of apparently totally unsuitable candidates fielded by Carlton-Browne, they chose the least unacceptable - a man called Treblig. They had planned to rent horses for the journey to Carrock, and then to send them back to Greyhaven with the guide. This proved impossible, as no stable was prepared to believe in the safe return of their horses, and demanded a surety deposit so large that the travellers couldn't have afforded it. The Boy's expertise in horseflesh was brought into play and they bought five of the sturdy local ponies instead.

The first part of the journey was uneventful, though the Scholar deplores the industrialisation of the chalk downs area from Greyhaven to Banakran (the town that Tolkien calls Hobbiton - basically, Banakran means "the place of the halflings). They made two overnight stops en route from Greyhaven to Banakran.

Interestingly, the travellers were shown the remains of what Treblig called "The Ancient Grey Towers" - the remains, as The Boy remarked, being "reminiscent of a very small quantity of medium-sized white stones, placed in rings on the roadside, much less impressive than Stonehenge, and, indeed, less impressive than the coal house in my garden in London".

Today, a century later, the countryside is somewhat restored, except for urban sprawl and the carefully preserved ruins of early factories (this is called Industrial Archaeology), but there is now a deplorable nuclear re-processing plant on the hill above Banakran.

They spent the night at a passable inn near Banakran, having been shown, with great reverence, a "Mallorn Tree", of which the Scholar, who seems to know a thing or two about natural history, writes that he recognised it as "a species of Eucalyptus, though a Eucalyptus of great age and size". The tree is no longer there, so we will never know whether Treblig's Mallorn was a mysterious (and very early) import from Australia or some now-extinct native species.

In the evening, the town was lit by a magnificent fireworks display, "... the likes of which we have never seen, with dragons, horses, heroes and castles of light hanging in the air above the town for minutes at a time".

At the first opportunity on the following day, they requested their guide to leave the main road and travel parallel to and south of it so as to be away from the main road and the railway line that ran alongside of it. Treblig was reluctant to stray from the beaten track. It was pointed out to him that there was no benefit to the travellers to be shown the way along a well-travelled, partly-paved, signposted road, but Treblig only agreed to follow the narrow lanes through Suza (which Tolkien calls "the Shire") under threat of dismissal.

We pick up the story as they approach the Brandwyn (Baranduin) River.

East Road
The East Road

The Old Forest

Treblig continued to grumble about the diversion we were taking, making grave predictions that we might have to retrace our steps. We were now travelling east, however, just as we had desired, and I offered him the map, which clearly showed at least two crossings of the Brandwyn River south of the East Road. He paid the map scant attention, and I concluded that it meant little or nothing to him.

"You seem to have some reason to avoid this area," I suggested.

"Master, here we are safe but slow. In the Forest is no road, many dangers, so we must use East Road anyway. Wasting time here. No history to look at."

The Bosun rode up and asked what we were talking about.

I said, "He seems to think that this part of Suza is acceptable, though lacking in interest. However, he feels the Old Forest is well-nigh impassible, and we'll be forced north to the East Road. However, the map shows crossings of the river south of the road, and I think we ought to have a look at the Forest, anyway. We didn't come here to walk along the highway. There are certain to be game paths through the woods, and we have a compass!"

The countryside here was not significantly different to the English countryside. However, Treblig occasionally pointed out to us homes that were carved into chalky hillsides. These were strange and somehow incongruous, as they were built like burrows, yet they had circular doors in the entrances, circular windows, and were often surrounded by well-tended gardens. Treblig told us that these houses (he called them a word that sounded like smiles) were traditional in the area. Once, apparently, only halflings used them, but now they were fashionable with dwarves and men. We could not discern the distinction he made between dwarves and halflings. Both were of small stature, both were at home underground, but where Suza had once been a domain exclusively of halflings, it was now inhabited by men and dwarves, and halflings (or hobbits) were always shy, inconspicuous creatures, and never seen in Middle Earth today. In truth, we seldom saw anyone in the lanes of Suza. I think we passed two men on horseback, a girl on a pony, a pair of dwarves digging the entrance to a new smile and an old lady tending her garden, all of whom nodded solemnly and politely, then stared after us as we rode past.

The River Brandwyn with the Old Forest in the background

In due course, we emerged from the country lanes on to a ridge above the flood plain of the Brandwyn. Below us was a village called Stock, according to the map, and on the far side of Stock, the Stockbridge across the Brandwyn. Beyond the river, the dark line of the Forest stretched north and south as far as the eye could see. The road we were on wound down into the valley and entered Stock.

It being late, we put up for the night at the inn in Stock. With some relief, we ate the best meal and drank the best beer we had been offered in Middle Earth to date, and agreed that The Dragon Smaug, as the inn was called, would bear comparison with The Cockpit in Eton, where we had dined when we planned our adventure. (The Cockpit in Eton is still an excellent Restaurant, though you can no longer sleep there - not, at any rate, overnight - Ed.)

In the morning we rose very early. When we gained the road, Treblig again attempted to lead us North to the Branbuck Bridge on the East Road, but we paid him no heed, and made our way to the Stock bridge, a little east of the village. When I had made a photograph of the Brandwyn and the Old Forest beyond, there ensued a comical scene in which Treblig first refused to cross the bridge, predicting dire consequences (which foreboding later turned out to be justified), and then dismounted and set off by himself back up the road to Banakran calling on us to follow. We debated briefly whether to let him go (he had received no pay so far, and had left behind the pony with which we had provided him) or to ride after him and try to fetch him back. I was the only one of us who was interested in retaining his services, but I had no compelling reason to give the others who were both pleased to be rid of him. Yet before we reached a conclusion, he came running back, mounted his pony, and rode swiftly across the bridge. Before we followed, the Bosun remarked that a strange figure had just appeared on the ridge we had crossed the previous day. The Boy studied the figure through his spy-glass, but could see little at this range. He remarked on the figure's long-limbed gait, and we could not fail to link Treblig's change of mind to the stranger's appearance.

From that moment onwards, Treblig behaved in a strange and frightened fashion, to such an extent that the Boy dubbed him "Trembling". He flinched every time a sheep bleated or a marsh bird cried, and when a donkey, hidden behind a high hedge, brayed a greeting to our party as we passed, Trembling nearly collapsed with fear, so that we could not help but laugh out loud at the terrified expression on his face. Yet in contrast to his reluctant air of the previous day, he made haste to guide us to the Forest Gate, a strange tunnel that penetrates the apparently continuous hedge of trees, emerging into the cool darkness of a dense forest. The silence was near-total, there were no birds, no squirrels. Strangely, the pathway from the Gate ended abruptly a few furlongs into the forest, and we were constrained to make our way through the trees as best we could.

This became so uncomfortable that we were forced to admit that Treblig might have been correct, and that we should have avoided the forest. Dignity argued that we not admit this, and we plodded onwards, until it would hardly have been worth turning back, even supposing we could have retraced our steps to the Gate. Treblig kept glancing around nervously, and made no attempt to show us the way. It is hard to remember how long we proceeded in this fashion, with the Bosun cursing that his pipe refused to light, the Boy complaining that his mount was trying to scrape him off on the overhanging branches, Treblig whining a refrain to the effect of "Told you so", and I have no doubt my own sweet temper was somewhat in jeopardy.

Day 6-8

Eventually, I proposed that we try to turn north and work our way through to the East Road. The Old Forest had an alternative suggestion, which it made known to us by placing the thickest briars between us and the north, and placing difficult ridges in that direction also. However difficult, it was easier to continue eastwards.

In fact, as soon as we decided to cease the struggle to reach the East Road, the going became easier, and the vestige of a trail became visible. We made much better progress from this point onward, and emerged in what was early afternoon in a clear area at the bank of a stream. In this pleasant spot, we set the ponies to graze. The Bosun assembled his smallest rod, and vainly attempted to hoodwink a fish onto his line. We gave him a quarter-hour and then ate the cold ham we had brought from the Dragon Smaug. In any event, the Boy failed to persuade his camp fire to light, so we would have been eating raw fish, just as we drank cold water instead of tea.

After lunch, the Bosun continued to try his luck with the local fish, while the Boy and I attempted to light the camp fire. I could not even light the oil lamp, which we had hoped to use to start the fire. Though there seemed nothing wrong with it, it would not light for us that day, yet it worked perfectly for the rest of the trip. Since returning from Middle Earth, I have written a letter of complaint to the makers. We three were so engrossed that we did not remark Treblig's departure, but depart he did, and disappeared from human ken, by all accounts. He did not ride away, as all the ponies were still present. He even left a good pair of boots by the foot of a large willow tree, though we never realised he had a spare pair. He did not drown because the stream was too small to wash a body away. No-one heard him go. Indeed, the Bosun had noticed him sleeping where we later found his boots. We searched for him and called for a very long time, several minutes, at any rate, without result.

At last, we crossed the stream and continued our journey, still heading east along a well-defined trail. We met no-one, nor was there any evidence of other travellers on the trail, the only footprints and hoofprints being those our own party left behind. As night fell, we emerged from the Forest, having covered some fifty miles since early dawn, onto a bleak heathland dotted with bare, low hills. We turned north with relief, hoping to reach the East Road before dark. It was not to be. As light failed, we climbed a conical hill in order to see as far as possible, but there was no sign of the road in the gathering darkness. The hill had a hollow in its top, like a volcano. It was covered with soft grass and springy heather, and there were a few standing stones in the centre of the depression. We made camp, ate a cold supper and passed an uneventful night, though the ponies spent the dark hours in constant agitation.

On the following morning, however, we found ourselves in rather a pickle. We awoke to a thick and clammy mist, and I immediately realised that I could not find my compass, though I had fallen asleep with it in my jacket pocket. Neither the Bosun nor the Boy could find their compasses either. Someone or other, perhaps Treblig, had robbed us of the means to find our way out of this wilderness. A number of other items were missing. They had in common the fact that they were small, and made of bright metal, such as the Bosun's pipe-scraping instrument, and the Boy's pocket watch which he said was no loss, since it had cost only a few shillings and had not kept good time ever since he had consulted it during a rainstorm in Edinburgh.

"In fact," he said, "I hope the thief uses it to keep an important appointment, as he will arrive either unfashionably early, attracting scorn and mockery, or hopelessly late, causing him to be shunned by his peers."

We hoped the mist would lift, but it did not. We would not be able to navigate by line of sight in this. However, the mist was lighter to the East where the sun was, and the Boy proposed that we make a start in the approximate direction of north, keeping the hazy illumination to our right, and using a simple method of staying in a straight line, even if we made little progress. At the foot of the hill it was thicker than ever. We could no longer be sure of the direction of the sun, and within five minutes, we had lost each other three times, and even when we gave up the effort and climbed the hill again, it turned out not to be our hill, but a ridge.

Nothing daunted, we started to make preparations for a cup of tea, lighting a fire easily on this occasion. We were cheerful enough. The mist could not last for ever, surely. Suddenly, a deep, harsh voice spoke from the mist, "Have you a cup of tea for a fellow traveller?"

I started up as a tall, lanky figure stepped into the small circle of visibility. This fellow was the stuff of nightmares. He was black - not the black of your African, nor yet of the Hindoo, nor even the Tamil, but the hard, shiny, black of a beetle. His long head, pointed at the crown and chin, was preceded by a nose like a beak, triangular, and broad at the base. His yellow teeth as he smiled his greeting to us were large and sharp, and even when his mouth was closed, four fangs projected, two upwards and two downwards. His hands and feet were large and muscular, his limbs long and sinewy. He wore only a tight leather coat which I never saw him remove, and, though he walked barefoot, you could hear his feet click on the stones, so hard were they. He carried only a makeshift cage, containing a hen.

"May I introduce myself? I am Hrkwssfpih, which means Devil Spit in my language. I am of the Uruk-Hai, a noble warrior clan, but I mean you no harm." The name 'Hrkwssfpih' is written phonetically. I have no idea of the proper spelling.

He was evidently used to the effect his appearance had upon strangers, and made some effort to be reassuring, sitting down and showing his teeth in an unintentionally menacing smile. Being gentlemanly Britons, we were at pains not to seem churlish, introduced ourselves, proferred tea, and so on. All the while, he chattered on in his harsh voice, commenting on the weather, our ponies, the quality of the tea (which was, indeed, the very best Ceylon) despite the lack of milk, and showing an excellent command of the English language, though his sibilants were affected by his fangs, so that he lisped in an incongruous manner.

"And what brings you here, Mr ...?" I asked, at last.

"Hrkwssfpih. I am anxious to be of service to you gentlemen. For a fee, of course. I am offering to be your guide, as I am temporarily without employment, and I see that your fellow has deserted you."

My immediate thought was that he knew we were in a difficult situation. It was obviously none other than Hrkwssfpih who had terrified the unfortunate Treblig by his appearance on the ridge above the river the previous day, and, for all we knew, he may have done away with the poor devil. Perhaps, also, it had been he who had stolen our compasses and other trinkets. Now, I assumed, he was about to hold us to ransom with a steep demand. Before I could speak, however, he suggested a figure which, though nearly double what Treblig had asked, would not have satisfied a street sweeper in England. I exchanged a glance with the Bosun and the Boy, then agreed.

"On one condition. That we may call you 'Guide', rather than your given name, as I think we may bite our tongues in the attempt."

"A small sacrifice", he replied. "Though Hrkwssfpih is a noble name, Guide is a noble occupation." Then he solemnly shook hands with each of us in turn. It felt like gripping the hand of a bronze statue.

"So, Guide", said the Bosun, "Pray guide us to the East Road, as we are anxious to reach Bree, and our compasses have all gone missing."

"The Barrow Wights are fascinated by magnetic articles," remarked the Guide, mysteriously. This was the first of many mysterious statements from the Guide, some of which I have remembered well enough to record. Then he raised his head, drew a deep breath through his huge nostrils, and suggested we pack away our picnic.

At the Guide's request, we connected the ponies head to tail, and he set off, leading the first one with a long rope. He refused to mount, saying that he had little love for ponies, and, in truth, they avoided him too, when they could. I never saw him touch a pony, and they seemed not to like the smell of him, though, to us, he was odourless, in total contrast, as the Boy remarked, to the Bosun's socks.

I had some misgivings at the trust we had shown in the Guide, at a very short acquaintance and no proper introduction. These misgivings were not allayed by the fact that I could not see further than the pony's ear in this fog and there was a constant sensation of turning in a circle, aniti-clockwise. The terrain was uneven, and we seemed to climb and descend constantly. Yet the most disturbing thing, and we all experienced it, was the sensation that we were passing among a multitude. There were murmurs of conversation from all sides, footsteps, little cries and the tinkle of metal against metal. From time to time, an almost palpable skein of fog would touch the face or hand, imparting a chill, sometimes accompanied by the sound of a whisper. The Guide later told us that we had been passing among the ghosts of the Barrow Downs, a typical folk-tale response, but I feel it is much more likely that the weather conditions and landscape conspired to cause strange echoes of our own passage to be reflected and magnified back at us. Nevertheless, at the time, it was most eerie, and we were indeed relieved to emerge from the fog onto a heathland, with the road in front of us. I turned to look at the fog which stood like a wall behind us. It was most unnatural how it withstood the noonday sun now beating on the road.

We made a small fire, and lunched beside the road. The Guide accepted our tea, but, in a scene rather shocking to we three, he swiftly removed the hen from its cage, bit off its head, skinned and gutted it expertly with his bare hands, and offered us some. Like gentlemen, we pretended not to be perturbed, though the sight of these teeth in action had induced a chill. We declined, the Bosun remarking politely that there was nothing like a good fresh chicken for a snack. The Guide agreed, devouring the bird raw, bones and all.

We became used to his eating habits in subsequent days, and he explained them as follows.

The well-being of his food was important to him. The creatures he ate, mostly chickens, rabbits and other small game, were kept in a healthy state until he ate them, and their end came to them swiftly and unexpectedly. The meat thus obtained was fresh, tender and healthy. He was particularly prone to ascribe all infection to quality of food and drink, and it is true to say that he never had a day's illness in our company.

The journey to Bree was uneventful and swift, and we put up at the Inn of the Prancing Pony, a most wonderful establishment, sprawling across several acres of Bree, with a convivial dining and drinking hall of heroic proportions, which seems permanently filled with interesting people from all over Middle Earth, including a number of folk of small stature who were identified to us as halflings and a small group of the Guide's race, who seemed no less friendly than our own man, but were referred to as "Yorks" (a phonetic rendering) and shunned by everyone, which is the fate, as the Boy remarked, of all who originate in Yorkshire.

At dinner that evening, we four sat together, and the Guide told us his history, that of his clan and of times ancient beyond understanding, most of it sheer fabrication, I am sure, though I have recorded what I noted and remembered of his tales that night and later, and will write a book on the subject, so that we do not confuse the present factual account of our travels with mythology. (This book was written, and submitted to several publishers, all of whom rejected it. I hope, eventually, to turn up the manuscript from one of these, as it is not among the papers I have obtained from Grimfield's heirs. Ed.)

On subsequent evenings, for we remained four days at Bree in that comfortable atmosphere, we ourselves were the raconteurs, surrounded by locals and visitors as we told of our travelling, soldiering and maritime adventures.

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