Chapter VI- The Old Forest
I’ll be the first to admit that I find forests a little creepy. I’ve lived on the Great Plains all my life. We don’t do vast expanses of trees. Hiking through the forests of northern Minnesota and Colorado is eerie enough. How do you know there isn’t a bear or some other beastie around the next turn? At the very least, I know the trees themselves aren’t out to get me, unlike the ones in the Old Forest on the border of the Shire. They aren’t your ordinary flora. These are ancient trees, and they have some sort of intelligence and are full of malice towards beings that walk on two legs. And Frodo and the others blithely walk into this danger.
Oh, my brave young hobbits. You have a lot to learn about the world.
The hobbits set out before daybreak, leaving the comfort and relative safety of the house at Crickhollow behind. Frodo has it in his head to take a ‘short cut’ through the Old Forest. Merry, being a local, is unsure of this course, but figures there’s a path and a well-known river (the Withywindle) to keep them from losing their way, so he goes along with it. And with that, they are outside the Shire, facing the wide world ahead.
They get lost right away, of course. To be fair, though it’s not their fault. They are four hobbits facing a forest full of trees that loathe them. And if that’s not enough, these trees can move the path around to suit themselves and drive unsuspecting travelers wherever they want them to go, and that is directly to Old Man Willow, in the center of the forest.
Now, I’m just going on bits of lore that I’ve collected here and there. Researching trees of Faërie isn’t the easiest thing to do unless you have a good deal of time on your hands (which I don’t). The first few dozen results will either lead you to ‘sacred goddess lore’ pages that want to sell you crystals and align your chakras or gardening sites. But from the various readings from authors like W.B. Yeats, I’ve gathered that old willows in Faërie locales are generally malevolent beings you don’t want to encounter– especially not in the center of their power. Which is right where the hobbits have ended up: “A golden afternoon of late sunshine lay warm and drowsy upon the hidden land between. In the midst of it there wound lazily a dark river of brown water, bordered with ancient willows, arched over with willows, blocked with fallen willows, and flecked with thousands of faded willow leaves.” That’s a lot of willows, and it’s bad news for the Hobbits. They grow drowsy, and soon all but Sam have nodded off to sleep against a gigantic old willow tree.
If it wasn’t for the Ents, far away in Fangorn forest, I would think that these trees were denizens of a Faërie realm, or something close to one. Willows often appear in Faërie stories, after all, along with eerie forests. I’ve seen Old Man Willow in other tales unrelated to Tolkien, and he’s as malevolent in those as he is here. But way back just after the dawn of Time, the goddess-like figure of Yavanna asked Iluvatar for being to guard the trees she loved so dearly. Thus, the Ents came into being (in the very shortened version of the story). So in Tolkien’s world, intelligent trees have been around for a very, very long time, and because Elves and Men and Dwarves and Hobbits (not to mention Orcs and Trolls) have burned and cut down forests, these intelligent (or near-intelligent) trees have had a long time to get very angry at anything that goes on two legs. Though some have tried to make the trees of the Old Forest out to be erstwhile servants of Sauron, Tolkien himself stated that this was not the case. There is always more than one source of evil and malice in the world.
So anyway. The hobbits (except for Sam) have suddenly fallen asleep, and Sam is left wondering what the heck is going on. “There’s more behind this than sun and warm air…I don’t like this great big tree. I don’t trust it. Hark at it singing about sleep now!” Sam might not have a lot of book-learning, but he has enough Hobbit-sense to see through things. He hears a splash and finds Frodo caught under a root in the river. Sam rescues him and they look for Merry and Pippin and discover that the two younger hobbits have been pulledinto the tree. They can’t cut down or burn the tree without the tree killing the two first. Nearing panic, Frodo calls out for help.
Suddenly, he hears someone singing away down the path. Soon, a strange man appears, dancing along the path and singing a nonsense song about hurrying to meet Goldberry. He’s not as tall as a Man but is taller than a hobbit. His boots are yellow, his coat is blue, and he has a long brown beard. His face is red, but creased with hundreds of laugh lines, and he is carrying a tray of water lilies. He happened to come along at the right time, and when Frodo explains what’s happened, Tom leaps into action. Literally. Then he orders Old Man Willow to release the hobbits and go to sleep. Which the tree just does, because this funny little man has that kind of power. Once the hobbits are away from Old Man Willow, Tom invites them to his house. He hurries ahead, sure that they’ll find their way.
This is the part of the forest that, in my opinion, they truly reach some part of Faërie itself. It has many features from old, old stories (not Disney. Older and eerier than that). “…they caught sight of queer gnarled and knobbly faces that gloomed dark against the twilight, and leered down at them from the high bank and the edges of the wood. They began to feel that all this country was unreal, and that they were stumbling through an ominous dream that led to no awakening.”
Then out of the gloom, a cheerful clearing opens up. There is light ahead and Tom’s singing is joined by another clear voice welcoming them to the House of Tom Bombadil.
Chapter VII- In the House of Tom Bombadil
I’ve heard many accounts of geek-girls encountering self-proclaimed male fandom gatekeepers who declare that, if the girl can’t answer some bit of arcane trivia about that fandom, then she is not a true fan. Exasperating, that. But the only time I’ve ever encountered this was at the hands of another woman. Sometime after The Fellowship of the Ring movie came out, I was talking to a woman I’d recently met about how much I loved LotR. She was a fan, too, and to test my knowledge she snapped the question, “Who is Tom Bombadil?” Younger me was a bit thrown by her vehemence and stuttered an answer. Older me would have raised an eyebrow and given a list worthy of Danaerys Targaryen’s roll call (Stormborn, First of her name, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, etc, etc.)
Who is Tom Bombadil? His companion Goldberry helpfully answers, “He is, as you have seen him…He is the Master of wood, water, and hill”. Elrond describes him thus later on: “Iarwain Ben-adar we called him oldest and fatherless. But many another name he has since been given byother folk; Forn by the Dwarves, Orald by Northern Men and other names beside. He is a strange creature…”. Tolkien had no real answer for Tom’s origins. Many of his characters appeared to him unexpectedly, conjured from bits and pieces of the hundreds of stories he’d studied. Tom would seem to be one of these, some sort of Faërie being that simply appeared in Middle-earth, had mastery of his little corner of the world and could command all things within it if he chose, and ultimately faded away as the tides of time swept many magical things away into the forgotten past.
But if Tom is not a Faë, his bride Goldberry almost certainly is. She is the River’s daughter, and in the poem cycle “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil”, the story is told of how she, a water nymph or some other kind of river spirit, pulled him into the water at their first meeting. Tom returned, pulled her out of the water in kind, and they lived together thereafter. I do wonder if Tom’s endless gifts of water lilies are a condition of her staying with him, though. He always seems to be gathering them, and among the Faë, terms and conditions definitely apply.
But anyway. The hobbits enter Tom’s house and are struck by the wonder of it, and especially by Goldberry’s beauty. To Frodo, she is as enchanting as the Elves but simpler and not so lofty. Goldberry recognizes Frodo as an Elf-friend and welcomes them in. They are given a place to wash, fed a fulfilling dinner, and shown to comfortable beds. Tom tells Frodo that he crossed their paths by chance, if by chance you’d call it, but that he’d heard news that hobbits were traveling by unsafe paths through the woods. Frodo wants to know more– particularly about Old Man Willow– but Tom declares that it’s time for sleep and that they need not fear anything during the night. Lucky for the hobbits, since Merry and Pippin have nightmares and Frodo dreams about an old man walking on a tower high above the plains. Sam dreams of nothing at all.
They spend at least another day in Tom’s house. Here, as in Elven lands (and in Faërie), time passes strangely. It could have been one day, it could have been several. But it is raining outside and they cannot travel, and Tom seems content to play host for a while longer. He tells them tales of ages past when the Elves were young. Frodo again asks who, exactly Tom is, Tom answers, “Eldest, that’s what I am… Tom was here before the river and the trees…He made paths before the Big People, and saw the little People arriving. When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent. He knew the dark under the stars with it was fearless– before the Dark Lord came from Outside.” Given that description and the events of The Silmarillion, it’s a good bet that Tom was around before the sun and the moon, before the two trees Telperion and Laurelin grew up to light the world. Perhaps he was there when Iluvatar first sang the world into being. Whoever he is, he is powerful in his way but reluctant to leave his lands. Like Gildor, his concerns are not mortal concerns. Though the Ring has no power over him, he could not guard it against Sauron. The hobbits must continue on. Tom advises them about the road they should take, and they head to bed.
Chapter VIII- Fog on the Barrow-Downs
Frodo has an odd dream on their last night at Tom’s house: he hears distant singing coming through a wide rainstorm, “…until at last it was rolled back, and a far green country opened before him under a swift sunrise.” Is it important? Maybe not, but then again, Tolkien doesn’t do things like this by mistake. Remember this dream. It might come into play later on. In fact, keep in mind all the dreams people have in The Lord of the Rings. They all tend to be important.
Dreams aside, the morning is bright. The ponies are happy, Tom is happy, and the hobbits are in a good mood until they realize they haven’t said goodbye to Goldberry. But because Goldberry isn’t quite of this world and because they aren’t quite in this world, Goldberry appears like she’s been summoned (likely she has been. Naming spirits and Faë creatures will do that). She bids them farewell and disappears again, and they ride through an empty country towards a series of standing stones (think Stonehenge) that are some of the main features of the Barrow-downs. It’s eerie, but the coolness of the day and the bright sunshine help to ease the hobbits’ wariness, and they stop for a meal. The food is wonderful– Tom provided it– and it is good specifically because it “came from ‘down under Hill’”. The Hollow Hills tend to be where the realms of Faërie are, so of course, the food is wonderful. Good thing Tom is a benign being, or there might be problems. More of those potentially problematic terms and conditions. Word to the wise: do not accept food from Faeries.
But then again, there are problems and not because of Tom or his food. Thanks to a long morning ride, good food, and pleasant sunshine the hobbits all fall asleep and fail to wake until evening is at hand. Had they stayed awake they would have passed through the Barrow-downs and been safe, but they’re leaving too late in the day to escape this unsettling land. They make the attempt anyway, but as night falls a thick fog builds. Soon they lose their way and Frodo finds himself alone, able only to hear his companions without catching sight of them. Stumbling through the mist, Frodo passes through two great stones that seem to be a doorway. The east wind is blowing (later on, the east wind will be referred to as a herald of Mordor. Eastern winds are seldom good in Northern lore).
Suddenly, a dark shadow with cold eyes looms above him. It grabs Frodo by the shoulder and its icy grip makes him pass out.
I’ll leave Frodo there for a bit and take this opportunity to talk about barrows. What are they? For the most part, and particularly for The Lord of the Rings, barrows are the burial places of ancient kings. A chamber was built to house a great person, a king for example, and then a hill of earth or stone would be constructed over the chamber to protect the burial site and to act as a memorial to the king. Often, treasures would be buried with the person so they could have them in the afterlife. In Middle-earth, the Barrow-Downs are haunted. In ancient days, the Witch-king of Angmar (he’ll come back into the story in a bit) defeated the men of Westernesse and sent foul spirits to inhabit the bones of those buried in the barrows, turning the bodies of these noble people into foul, undead things– wights, or in this instance, Barrow-wights.
And now back to our creepy story, already in progress.
So Frodo wakes up and finds himself in a dark room, laid out on a stone slab. A green light begins to shine, revealing Sam, Merry, and Pippin laying beside him, dressed in white with rings and golden circlets on their heads, surrounded by other treasures. A long sword lies across their necks.
If that wasn’t creepy enough, something starts singing somewhere, if undead spirits can sing. The “lyrics” mention a black wind that will kill the stars and that the beings in the Barrow will lie there until the dark lord has power over the dead seas and withered lands. Sounds like a dark prophecy about Sauron to me– a dark end for the realms of the North. If they fall to Sauron, the Barrow-wights will rise.
Of course, things get worse. A dismembered hand comes crawling on its fingers down the passageway heading straight for the sword. What. Even?! Is this not creepier than all the Orcs of Mordor?
Like any rational person would, Frodo quietly freaks out. He thinks about getting out of there while he can, leaving his friends behind. ‘There was nothing you could have done’, he imagines Gandalf saying. But then his hobbit nature takes over, because hobbits are made of sterner stuff than that. Even the fattest, most timid Hobbit has a courageous core deep inside, and Frodo is neither fat nor timid. He grabs a nearby short sword and hacks at the hand. It breaks off, the light goes out, and something snarls nearby. Fortunately, Frodo remembers one of the songs Tom taught him. And Tom, being some sort of Faërie-like being, appears when summoned. He drives the wights away and together he and Frodo pull the others out of the barrow and into the morning sunlight. Tom brings out a bunch of the treasure, and then they proceed to wake the other hobbits.
Waking up is hard to do, especially after you’ve been captured by the undead. Merry panics about the spear in his heart, and then recalls that it was only a dream. The sunlight causes the horrors of the night to fade, just as it cleanses the treasure that Tom brought out. He selects a brooch from the pile for Goldberry (and seems to recall the woman who wore it in ancient days) and gives each hobbit a jeweled short sword set with fiery runes. The blades, Tom says, were forged by the men of Westernesse, a noble people who have since dwindled and now walk in loneliness, guarding foolish folk from evil things. He’s speaking, of course, of the Dunedain Rangers, and his tale prompts a vision of tall, grim men with sharp swords. The last one to appear in this vision has a star upon his brow. Visions are like dreams. Often ignored, usually important. Remember the guy with the star on his brow.
Ponies gathered, composures regained, and with swords in hand, Tom and the hobbits set out again. Tom spends most of this journey singing what sounds like nonsensical songs. Or maybe they’re in some ancient, wondrous language. It’s hard to say. Tom is not quite of this world, after all. They cross a dike (a type of boundary wall constructed of earth meant as a defense. Look up Offa’s Dyke, if you want to know more) and finally find the Road again. It’s a comforting sight after all this wandering through dangerous country, in spite of the loneliness that falls upon them now that they’re facing the wide world and the next part of their journey. I can understand. Travel changes you. You leave home as one person, and come back a different one thanks to your experiences. Little do the hobbits know how much their journey will change them.
Though they plead with him to accompany them to Bree, Tom turns for home. He’s reached the borders of his lands and Goldberry is waiting for him, he says. He offers advice, and then the hobbits are on their own again. Frodo tells them that the name of Baggins must not be mentioned. If they give any name, it must be ‘Underhill’. And with that, they hurry toward the lights of Bree, wanting nothing more than a fir and a door between them and the rest of the world.
Next Week: Frodo and Company find an inn, make some ill-advised musical choices, and Frodo catches the eye of a tall, dark stranger from across a crowded room in ‘At the Sign of the Prancing Pony’ and ‘Strider’