Hello and welcome to September 26, 3018 of the Third Age! It’s another big and memorable day today. We enter the Old Forest and meet a few legends! Let’s go!
The Memory of Many Injuries
Merry was the first awake (probably), and Frodo is again last (except for “that sluggard Fatty”). After a quick breakfast, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippen were on the road just a bit after 6am. It was their earliest start yet.
Coming to the Hedge an hour later, they entered the Old Forest a tunnel. Before disappearing, Frodo reminded Fatty to “tell Gandalf to hurry along the East Road.” They, of course, had no idea where Gandalf might be, but it was a ‘just in case’ sort of thing anyway.
There has been oodles written about the Old Forest, and it wouldn’t do well for me to go on about it. But in 1972, Tolkien had this to say:
“In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies. […] The Old Forest was hostile to two legged creatures because of the memory of many injuries.”
These injuries, we learn were from the Hobbits who “came and cut down hundreds of trees and made a great bonfire in the Forest, and burned all the ground in a long strip east of the Hedge.” Local Hobbits claim that it was because the trees were attacking the Hedge, but after the fire, they noticed that the trees “became very unfriendly.”
This whole thing reminds me of a passage in “The New Shadow,” a possible sequel to Lord of the Rings that Tolkien abandoned in the late 1960s. He constructed a conversation between two men of Gondor, Saelon and Borlas. They were talking about unripe fruit, with Borlas telling the younger Saelon that destroying unripe fruit is just as bad to the trees as blights and cankers, ill winds. It was, in fact, “the way of Orcs.”
Saelon reasoned that it was the “way of Men too.” Then Saelon went on a bit of a tear:
“To trees all Men are Orcs. Do Men consider the fulfillment of the life-story of a tree before they cut it down? For whatever purpose: to have its room for tilth, to use its flesh as timber or as fuel, or merely to open the view? If trees were the judges, would they set Men above Orcs, or indeed above the cankers and blights? What more right, the might ask, have Men to feed on their juices than blights?”
Anyway, this was a matter close to his heart, especially, it seems, towards the end.
Everything Is Much More Alive
All that said, the Old Forest is depicted as basically bad, even evil. The Hobbits, as a whole, are afraid of it, few ever daring to step foot within it.
As Merry explained, “Everything in it is very much more alive, more aware of what is going on, so to speak, than things are in the Shire.” He had been in once before, just a little, and it seemed like “all the trees were whispering.”
In their journey into the Old Forest, the trees attempted to hide the path, and even to guide them. We soon learn that Old Man Willow controls almost everything in the Old Forest. “His grey thirsty spirit drew power out of the earth and spread like fine root-threads in teh ground, and invisible twig fingers in the air, till it had under its dominion nearly all the trees of the Forest from the Hedge to the Downs.”
Atop a hill and a clearing, they got their first glance of the Withywindle.
Tolkien’s first bit of creation that would eventually grow into the Lord of the Rings-era of Middle-earth was the poem “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.” Though it was first published in 1934 (while he was writing and editing The Hobbit, it was a story he told his children years before that (probably before he started writing The Hobbit).
Map taken from Journeys of Frodo by Barbara Strachey (long out of print).
The Withywindle, however, did not come from this poem, but was created by Tolkien in the first draft of this chapter. He wrote in Nomenclature that it was intended to be “in the language of the Shire.” Withy- was a common name for willows, though -windle was all his own. Seemingly, he just added a bit of flair to the word “withywind, “a name of the convolvulus or bindweed.”
Anyway, the Hobbits are soon attacked by Old Man Willow, a character taken directly from “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil”. In the earliest published version (1934), Tom was attacked and captured by Old Man Willow just as the Hobbits were. Tom fell asleep under him and “in a crack caught him tight: quiet it closed together” and Bombadil was trapped.
In the poem, Old Man Willow has a bit of dialog, and asks Tom why he was “peeping” and various other things. Tom’s reply was:
You let me out again, Old Man Willow!
I am stiff lying here; they’re no sort of pillow,
your hard crooked roots. Drink your river water!
Go back to sleep again, like the River-daughter!
Old Man Willow “let him loose, when he heard him speaking.”
In our story, Old Man Willow throws Frodo into the water, while practically devouring Pippin and Merry. Sam save Frodo, and here is where we meet the aforementioned Tom Bombadil.
Hop Along, My Hearties
Tom Bombadil refers to himself as “Eldest,” and doesn’t seem to really fit into any category of creature in the Legendarium. In another sense, Tom is truly the eldest, as he was created by Tolkien likely before even The Hobbit was written.
In 1937, when Tolkien was trying to figure out what to do for a Hobbit sequel, he wondered Tom could be made into the hero the story (that would eventually become Lord of the Rings. At this time, Tolkien saw Tom as “the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside.”
Of course, he didn’t center the story around Tom, but liberally sprinkled on the Bombadil & Friends through this chapter. He did so, he claimed, because he “wanted an adventure along the way.”
Who Is Tom Bombadil?
Tom is ancient and Tolkien never gave much of an explanation beyond that. He was likely in the world before the First Age (or at least at the start of it). Many folks smarter than I have spent thousands of words on Tom. I honestly can’t add much of anything to that.
My favorite thing about him is that Tolkien wrote even Tom’s non-rhyming lines in meter. It’s a lovely touch, and honestly makes me love the Bombadil chapter.
Tom frees Merry and Pippin. It’s clear that he could destroy Old Man Willow, but lets him live, again and again. This is Tom’s nature.
After Fellowship of the Ring was published, Tolkien received a lot of mail wondering who and/or what Tom Bombadil was. He seemed perplexed by the question. “Tom Bombadil is not an important person – to the narrative,” he replied to one. “[H]e is just an invention….” Tolkien added him and left him in because served a sort of function. “Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left for him in the world of Sauron.”
Tolkien insisted that Tom Bombadil did not need “philosophizing about, and is not improved by it.” He described Tom as an “exemplar, a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science,” which he went on to clarify meant “Zoology and Botany not Cattle-breeding or Agriculture.”
In the end, Tolkien added Tom for “an adventure along the way.” He left him in “because I like him.”
“He is best left as he is,” wrote Tolkien in 1968, “a mystery.”
Spring-time and Summer-time, and Spring Again After
To me, there is nothing as wonderful in all of Tolkien’s writings as Goldberry. Her mystery, her everything completely captures me. I adore her.
She was a central part of the original Bombadil poem from 1934, where she was the “Riverwoman’s daughter.” She pulled him down into the river and then fled back to her house, but Tom would not follow. He later caught and married her (thankfully this problematic bit was sorted out in Lord of the Rings.
In our story, Tom first mentioned her in verse, and again as he was leading the Hobbits to his house.
When they arrive, Tolkien finally gets a chance to describe Goldberry.
Her long yellow hair rippled down her shoulders; her gown was green, green as young reeds, shot with silver like beads of dew; and her belt was of gold, shaped like a chain of flag-lilies set with the pale-blue eyes of forget-me-nots. About her feet in wide vessels of green and brown earthenware, white water-lilies were floating, so that she seemed to be enthroned in the midst of a pool.
When she met Frodo, he recited a poem that seems to come out of nowhere – at least Frodo has no idea how it came to him.
Tolkien later described Goldberry as representing “the actual seasonal changes in such [river-]lands.”
It’s Goldberry who sees Frodo as an “Elf-friend.” While Gildor was the first to refer to him as such, he seemed to do so as a sort of friendly greeting. Goldberry explained that “the light in your eyes and the ring in the voice tells it.” Readers know that this phrase crops up again and again, and it might be a good idea to keep an eye on it.
When Frodo asked her “Who is Tom Bombadil,” she replies simply: “He is.”
That’s a bit of a loaded answer – and Tolkien was not ready for the response he received about it. “He is,” thought many readers, was her way of rephrasing “I Am” from the Bible. Tolkien made certain to clarify this – Tom was not God, and “he is” was a far cry from “I am that I am.”
Good Night and Sleep Deep
After supper, the Hobbits were shown to their room. They talked to Tom for awhile, and he told them that he was expecting them. News had come his way, probably from Gildor. Frodo asked about Old Man Willow, but Tom wouldn’t talk about him at night. It would have to wait until morning.
Once asleep, Frodo dreamed of Gandalf’s escape from Orthanc, which happened four days prior. He also dreamed of the Nazgûl, likely happening at the same time as Gandalf’s escape. With that, Frodo woke, thinking that he had actually heard the Riders outside.
Pippin dreamed of Old Man Willow. He was terrified at first, but “a voice” (Tom) soothed him to “hear no nightly noises.”
Merry dreamed of water and lying in a “soft slimy bog,” but woke up soon after.
“Sam slept through the night in deep content, if logs are contented.”
Meanwhile in Bree …
Quickly – Aragorn has arrived in Bree as have two Nazgûl – one from the north, the other from the south. They ask about “Baggins” and terrorize the gatekeeper, Harry Goatleaf, into spying for them.
According to Tolkien’s notes (published in Hammond & Scull’s Readers Companion, there were two Nazgûl who visited Bree on this night. Neither were the Witch-king or Khamûl. These two were sent by Khamûl, who was then hiding in Buckland with his typical companion.
After leaving Harry Goatleaf and Bree, the two Nazgûl search for the Witch-king, but wont find him until the following day.
Camera: Ricoh KR-10 (1980)
Lens: Mamiya-Sekor 55mm; f/1.8; 80B filter
Film: Kono Rotwild 400 CN