Making their way into the Old Forest, our hobbits become sleepy and lie down next to an old willow tree. But not all is as it seems. This is Old Man Willow, and he traps Merry and Pippin and tries to drown Frodo in the river! The uneasy Sam comes to Frodo’s rescue, but here we meet one of the strangest of Tolkien’s characters, Tom Bombadil.
Thoughts on the Passage – Book I, Chapter 6 (p115-120, 50th Anniv. Ed.)
I don’t think I can explain just how much I absolutely love the Old Forest and Tom Bombadil segments of LotR. They really do exist in their own world. The story could do almost as well without anything between Crickhollow and Bree, but I would miss everything about Old Man Willow, Tom, Goldberry and even the Barrow-wights. I know this isn’t a very common view, but I adore every word of Chapters six, seven and eight.
Today, I don’t want to get too into Bombadil, just yet. There will be more than enough time for him. Today I’m thinking about Old Man Willow. He is the most Ent-like of the trees in the Old Forest, but his heart is rotten and he is, maybe not evil, but really not a nice fellow. He seems to control the trees in the Old Forest, and while our hobbits followed the path along the Withywindle, they began to feel sleepy. Actually, this was part of Old Man Willow’s power: “Sleepiness seemed to be creeping out of the ground and up their legs, and falling softly out of the air upon their heads and eyes.”
Frodo, Pippin and Merry were drawn to a large willow tree and there they rested, each falling asleep. This was Old Man Willow, and he literally ate all of Pippin and half of Merry. Frodo he dunked in the water and held him under with a tree root. Sam, on the other hand, made it a point to stay awake, though he too was sleepy: “‘There’s more behind this than sun and warn air,’ he muttered to himself. ‘I don’t like this great big tree. I don’t trust it. Hark at it singing about sleep now! This won’t do at all!'”
Tolkien’s use of song – well, I could go on for days about it. From the Ainulindale to Finrod’s battle with Sauron to the Dwarves convincing Bilbo to come with them, it’s clear that songs are ridiculously powerful and enchanting. Old Man Willow’s song is no different.
He, like Tom, Goldberry and the Barrow-wights, were first introduced in a stand-alone poem written in the mid1930s. Only later did Tolkien fold them into Middle-earth. And I’m so glad that he did.
In the original poem, Old Man Willow swallows Tom, clothes still wet from when Goldberry, the river’s daughter, pulled him under. It’s Tom’s song that releases him from the Willow, putting the tree to sleep, just as he did to escape Goldberry. Tom then does the same to Badgers and the Barrow-wight. Tolkien makes a passing reference to badgers later on.
Anyway, Tom accidentally comes across the scene of the crime, singing a song to Old Man Willow to clear the way: “Poor old Willow-man, you tuck your roots away!/Tom’s in a hurry now. Evening will follow day.” Apparently, Tom must do this every time he goes near Old Man Willow. They clearly have a long history together.
And while Tom might be able to handle this old crooked tree, our hobbits cannot. Because of this, Tom gets serious. He puts his mouth up to the tree and sings, though the hobbits cannot hear the words. He backed off, broke off one of the Willow’s branches, hit him with it: “‘You let them out again, Old Man Willow!’ he said. ‘What be you a-thinking of? You should not be waking. Eat earth! Dig deep! Drink water! Go to sleep! Bombadil is talking!'”
It’s later explained that there are varying degrees of Ent-ness, from those who are almost like trees, to full on Ent, like Treebeard. Old Man Willow isn’t an Ent, but he’s not totally asleep, either. This Tom Bombadil tries to remedy, telling him to go back to sleep, to dig his roots into the ground and drink water like a good willow tree might. That he ends his command with “Bombadil is talking!” really strikes me. He’s not singing here. He’s serious, so cut the crap, tree.
In the next chapter, Tom explains to Frodo just why the trees act in such a way:
“Tom’s words laid bare the hearts of the trees and their thoughts, which were often dark and strange, and filled with a hatred of things that go free upon the earth, gnawing, biting, breaking, hacking, burning: destroyers and usurpers.”
But we shouldn’t feel too badly for them, at least not for Old Man Willow, whose “heart was rotten.” He was “a master of winds, and his song an thought ran through the woods on both sides of the river. His grey thirsty spirit drew power out of the earth and spread like fine root-threads in the ground, and invisible twig-fingers in the air, till it had under its dominion nearly all the trees of the Forest from the Hedge [in Buckleberry] to the Downs.”
Though Tom chastised Old Man Willow, he did not cast him out. He didn’t cut him down or burn him up. He simply put him in his place. Goldberry explains why: “The trees and the grasses and all things growing or living in the land belong each to themselves. Tom Bombadil is the Master. No one has ever caught old Tom walking in the forest, wading in the water, leaping on the hill-tops under light and shadow. He has no fear. Tom Bombadil is master.”
Of course, if we are to believe the old poem (said to have been written by hobbits in Buckland), Goldberry caught Tom wading in the water. But then, in turn, Tom caught Goldberry. Since then, and after a wedding (which makes the Barrow-wight cry), they lived together in the Old Forest.
About the Photo
The photo was taken along Crab Creek in central Washington. This passage reminded me of it:
“Everywhere the reeds and grasses were lush and tall […] but once found, the path was easy to follow […] There were armies of flies of all kinds buzzing round their ears, and the afternoon sun was burning on their backs.”
Thoughts on the Exercising
Well, okay. So I stopped at four miles. That’s just how it works sometimes. It’s probably because I worked on speed. I was hovering at 12-13+mph the whole way. Normally, I’ll start at 10mph and work my way up (slowly). Tomorrow, I’m going to do four again. We’ll see if I can eventually trick myself into doing six.
- Miles today: 4
- Miles thus far: 96
- 39 miles to Bree
- 118 miles to Weathertop
- 364 miles to Rivendell
- 1,683 miles to Mt. Doom