Last time on the Tolkien Re-read the hobbits ran into more Black Riders on their way to Crickhollow, Frodo’s friends revealed that they are sneaky hobbitses who know all about the Ring because they’ve been spying on him, and Gandalf continued to worry Frodo with his mysterious absence.
Previous posts for the Tolkien Re-read (including my re-read of The Hobbit) can be found here.
A quick note: I’m reading from the Houghton Mifflin movie tie-in hardcover from 2001, but the text should match Del Rey’s more recent tie-in edition (pictured right). Each post will cover one or two chapters and include footnotes of useless trivia that you can read or ignore at your discretion—they’re mostly there to contain the worst of my nerd-babble. Also, there might be spoilers ahead. For the most part, the posts will keep in time with the chapters I’m discussing from The Fellowship of the Ring, but I can’t guarantee I won’t geek out about related things from later in the trilogy or elsewhere in Tolkien lore. If you’ve at least seen the movies, it won’t be a problem, but I shall do my best to avoid spoilery content for the sake of the uninitiated
THE LORD OF THE RINGS
The Fellowship of the Ring – Book I
Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
Chapter 6: The Old Forest
Frodo, Sam, and Merry leave Crickhollow early the next morning, ponies in tow. (Poor ponies. If the fate of all those ponies in The Hobbit is any indication, this adventure probably won’t end well for them.) They part with Fatty Bolger at the Hedge (a sprawling wall of shrubbery planted to separate the Old Forest from Buckland and the Shire), and tell him to let Gandalf know they’re heading for the East Road, which they plan to meet up with once through the forest.
They cut through the Hedge via an underground tunnel that dips beneath the shrubbery and re-emerges on the other side, within the boundaries of the Old Forest.
Quick Facts about the Old Forest
◊ It’s a “queer” place
◊ Everything in it is alive and aware of what goes on around it
◊ Paths through the forest always seem to be moving and changing
◊ The trees don’t like strangers and watch those who pass through
◊ At night the trees can be heard whispering to each other
◊ It’s said the trees can actually move and once, long ago, they attacked the Hedge, but the hobbits cut them down and burned them—and the trees have been very unfriendly ever since
(Basically, the takeaway here is that the trees are quite alive, probably, and mostly grumpy. Mostly.)
Merry, who has been in the Old Forest before, tells all of this to Frodo, Sam, and Pippin as he cheerfully looks for a familiar path (maybe not the best subject of conversation while actually in the forest). As Merry leads them through the trees they begin to feel disapproving gazes following their progress, a feeling that gets more uncomfortable the farther they go.
Pippin, uncomfortable with the unseen but watchful eyes of the trees, breaks down and shouts that he’s not there to harm them, but this only makes the trees seem to crowd in closer. From this, the hobbits determine that raised voices are a bad idea, and continue on in silence. Eventually, Merry finds a place he recognizes.
Relevant Quote Break!
Merry: These trees do shift! There is the Bonfire Glade in front of us (or so I hope), but the path seems to have moved away!
When they reach the glade, they find a path leading from it, apparently in the direction they need to go. Feeling encouraged, they ride down this path, but soon the trees close in on them again.
Relevant Quote Break!
[A]fter a while, the air began to get hot and stuffy. The trees drew close again on either side, and they could no longer see far ahead. Now stronger than ever they felt again the ill will of the wood pressing in no them. So silent was it that the fall of their ponies’ hoofs, rustling dead leaves and occasionally stumbling on hidden roots, seemed to thud in their ears.
Unnerved by the silence, Frodo attempts to sing a song, but chooses rather poorly—something he doesn’t notice until he gets to this bit: For east or west all woods must fail. (Yeah, not exactly the best song for traveling in a malevolent forest of sentient trees.)
Frodo realizes his mistake and immediately shuts up. Merry suggests that they don’t sing anymore. (Good thinking, Merry. You hobbits are always singing at inappropriate times.)
Eventually, the path leads them up a hill and they’re able to get their bearings. Merry spots the Withywindle, which flows south-west through the Old Forest and meets up with the Brandywine. Besides being located in the direction they aren’t heading, the area around the Withywindle is the most dangerous part of the forest.
Favorite Quote Break!
Merry: We don’t want to go that way. The Withywindle valley is said to be the queerest part of the whole wood—the centre from which all the queerness comes, as it were.
After a brief rest on this hill, they continue on the same path, but it soon becomes apparent that the path is not heading in the direction it appeared to be. Instead, it is turning sharply toward the Withywindle valley. They immediately decide it’s best to leave the path and head north in hopes of eventually hitting the East Road.
This idea seemed to be a good one at first, but it’s soon apparent that the forest is forcing them towards the Withywindle anyway. After a few hours of traveling (struggling?) against the shifting trees, the hobbits lose all sense of direction and eventually find themselves on the banks of the Withywindle. Merry quickly explores the area and finds a footpath that appears to go in the direct of the East Road, but Pippin is having none of it.
Favorite Quote Break!
Pippin: That is, if the track goes on so far [as the East Road], and does not simply lead us into a bog and leave us there. Who made the track, do you suppose, and why? I am sure it was not for our benefit. I am getting very suspicious of this Forest and everything in it, and I begin to believe all the stories about it.
Despite Pippin’s protests, it’s clear to the other hobbits that Merry’s footpath is the only way out of the Withywindle Valley. Surprisingly (suspiciously?) the path is easy to follow, twisting and turning to avoid dangerous footing, and crossing water where tree trunks had been laid down as bridges.
Walking, a List
◊ The hobbits walk along this easy path
◊ They start to feel hot under the afternoon sun
◊ They begin to encounter swarms of flies that buzz around their ears
◊ Their feet begin to get heavy
◊ They come to a place shaded by the branches of a willow tree
◊ Suddenly, they’re all overwhelmed with sleepiness
This sudden sleepiness concerns Frodo, since they are still not safely out of the forest, but he is overcome with it, too. Merry and Pippin lay down against the willow’s trunk, Frodo sleepily climbs onto a root of the willow that stretches over a stream and begins to bathe his feet, and Sam does his best to keep his eyes open.
Relevant Quote Break!
Sam sat down and scratched his head, and yawned like a cavern. He was worried. The afternoon was getting late, and he thought this sudden sleepiness uncanny. “There’s more behind this than sun and warm 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!”
(Wait, the tree is singing? That’s totally normal and not at all creepy, right?)
Sam, now determined to wake his friends and drag them away from the suspicious willow tree, staggers to his feet and gathers up the wandering ponies. Then he hears a splash and the sound of a door closing. The splash was Frodo falling into the water, where the tree is holding him under with a root, and the door closing was the willow tree pulling Merry and Pippin into its trunk.
Sam helps Frodo out of the water and together they discuss how to get Merry and Pippin out of the tree—chop them out with an axe, use fire to burn away the tree, etc. They decide on fire and get one started against the trunk of the willow.
Relevant Quote Break!
A tremor ran through the whole willow. The leaves seemed to hiss above their heads with a sound of pain and anger. A loud scream came from Merry, and from far inside the tree they heard Pippin give a muffled yell.
Merry screams at them to put out the fire because that the willow says he’ll squeeze the hobbit in two if they don’t, so Frodo and Sam immediately extinguish the flames. Then, in a panic, Frodo runs up the path shouting for help.
And to the surprise of both hobbits, someone answers:
Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo!
Ring a dong! hop along! fal lal the willow!
Tom Bom, jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo!
(How I feel about mostly everything that happens for the next few chapters. Because Tom Bombadil.)
A man, hopping and singing, appears on the path. He’s too large to be a hobbit, though not quite tall enough to be one of the Big Folk, and is wearing yellow boots and a blue coat. He introduces himself as Tom Bombadil and immediately sets to scolding the willow tree—which he calls Old Man Willow—once he hears from Frodo and Sam what’s happened.
Favorite Quote Break!
Tom Bombadil: You let them out again, Old Man Willow! What be you a-thinking of? You should not be waking. Eat earth! Dig deep! Drink water! Go to Sleep!* Bombadil is talking!
Much to everyone’s relief, Old Man Willow releases Merry and Pippin, and Bombadil invites the hobbits to dinner. Frodo & Friends happily accept and follow the mysterious Tom to his house.
Chapter 7: In the House of Tom Bombadil
Okay. So, I’ve said this before, but I’m saying it again. Tom Bombadil is, quite possibly, my least favorite thing in the Tolkien universe. Too harsh? No. No it is not. This entire chapter is a weird sort of tangent in which the hobbits sit around talking to and eating with the odd forest master—spirit?—whatever-the-hell Bombadil is while Goldberry, Tom’s “pretty lady,” makes it rain by washing her hair. Or something.
The only thing that made Tom Bombadil less irritatingly random to me, was this article theorizing on what he actually is. It’s dark and perfectly thought out, but also full of spoilers. If you haven’t read the books or seen the movies, maybe don’t go there. If you have…read it. Read it now.
Inside Tom Bombadil’s house, the four hobbits meet Goldberry, daughter of the River, who laughingly welcomes the hobbits into the house while Tom tends to their ponies. And sings about himself. As he does.
Favorite Quote Break!
Frodo: Fair lady! Tell me, if my asking does not seem foolish, who is Tom Bombadil?
Goldberry: He is.
Goldberry: He is the Master of wood, water, and hill.
Frodo: Then all this strange land belongs to him?
Goldberry: No indeed! [...] 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.
(There you have it, folks. Tom Bombadil, sketchiest secondary character in The Lord of the Rings.)
When Tom finishes with the ponies, they all sit down to an uneventful supper. Afterwards, Goldberry wishes the hobbits goodnight, telling them to “heed no nightly noises” before leaving them alone with Tom.
Frodo asks Tom if he heard him crying for help earlier in the forest (Tom did not). Tom says it was just chance that brought him there at the right moment. Oh, and also that he had been expecting them.
Relevant Quote Break!
Tom Bombadil: We heard news of you, and learned that you were wandering. We guessed you’d come ere long down to the water: all paths lead that way, down to Withywindle.
(Wait, who is “we?” And why do all the paths lead to the Withywindle?)
Frodo asks what Old Man Willow is, but Pippin and Merry quickly silence him, for it is dark out and they are frightened. Tom agrees that night is not the time for such topics and, soon, they all lie down for sleep.
That night Frodo has another one of his dreams.** In this one he is standing before a circular wall of rock that has a great gate carved into it. Beyond this wall is a plain with a great stone tower rising from its center. On the tower stands a man, though Frodo can only just make out his figure and the whiteness of his hair. He can hear the crying and howling of “fell voices” surrounding the tower, and see a winged shape passing across the moon. Then, the man atop the tower produces a flash of light from his staff and leaps onto the back of an enormous eagle. There is the sound of galloping horses, coming from the East, and Frodo immediately thinks “Black Riders!” as he awakes.
In the morning, they eat breakfast but it starts to rain before they can continue their journey. So, the hobbits spend the day listening to Tom Bombadil telling stories about the ways of trees and the Old Forest and the Great Downs and about the world when only the Elf-sires were awake.***
Quick Facts About Trees (in the Old Forest)
◊ Their hearts and thoughts are dark and strange
◊ They hate things that can roam the earth freely “gnawing, biting, hacking, burning” and see such creatures as “destroyers and usurpers”
◊ The Old Forest is, in fact, ancient and was once part of a “vast forgotten wood”
◊ The Old Forest contains the fathers of the fathers of trees, which remember a time when they were lords
◊ None of the trees in the Old Forest are more dangerous than the Great Willow, aka the master of winds, aka Old Man Willow
◊ The Great Willow’s malice and song and thought run throughout the forest and it has dominion over nearly all of the trees
Quick Facts About the Great Barrows (aka the Barrow-Downs)
◊ The barrows contain the biers and gold of long-dead kings and queens
◊ “A shadow came out of dark places far away” and has stirred the bones within the barrows
◊ Now Barrow-wights walk the Great Barrows
When Tom’s storytelling ends, Frodo asks again who he is.
Favorite Quote Break!
Tom Bombadil: Don’t you know my name yet? That’s the only answer. Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless? But you are young and I am old. Eldest, that’s what I am. Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn. He made paths before the Big People, and saw the Little People arriving. He was here before the Kings and the graves and the Barrow-wrights. When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent. He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless—before the Dark Lord came from Outside.****
Just at this moment, Goldberry returns and announces that the rain has ended. Everyone eats again.
After supper, Goldberry leaves the hobbits alone with Tom, who knows much more about them than they had guessed. He knows their families, and some history of the Shire, and apparently gained this knowledge from Farmer Maggot and the Elf Gildor.
(This all seems quite suspicious to me, since Farmer Maggot lives a good deal away from the Old Forest, and it’s unlikely Gildor and his elves have traveled through the Old Forest since meeting Frodo & Friends—but my opinion might be tainted.)
Tom asks about the purpose of their journey and Frodo finds himself telling him nearly everything. Then, when Tom asks to see the Ring, Frodo takes it out and hands it over without hesitation.
Tom Bombadil examines the ring and, laughing, puts it on his finger. Astonishingly, he does not become invisible while wearing it, but simply laughs again. Then he removes the Ring and hands it back to Frodo. Even more astonishingly, when Frodo later puts on the Ring, to make sure it is, indeed, the Ring, Tom Bombadil is still able to see him, though Marry, Pippin, and Sam cannot.
(Curious, no? Well, I’m pretty sure this is never explained or talked about again. Best forget about it.)
After this, Tom advises the hobbits to leave early the next day and to travel North from his house, over the western slopes of the Barrow-Downs. If all goes well, they should hit the East Road without coming to any of the Barrows. He also teaches them a rhyme to ward off danger, just in case they somehow manage come upon one of the Barrows or a Wright:
Ho! Tom Bombadil, Tom Bombadillo!
By water, wood and hill, by the reed and willow,
By fire, sun and moon, harken now and hear us!
Come, Tom Bombadil, for our need is near us!
They sing this together once and then head to bed.
USELESS TRIVIA FOOTNOTES
*Bombadil’s speech to Old Man Willow: Tom Bombadil was cut from the movie adaptations, but he did manage to make some subtle appearances. The rhyme Bombadil says to Old Man Willow in the Old Forest is exactly what Treebeard says when rescuing Merry and Pippin from a waking tree in Fangorn in the extended edition of The Two Towers.
**Frodo’s Dream: The basic message of Frodo’s dream this time around is that Gandalf (the white-haired figure atop the tower who produces flashes of light with his staff can be assumed to be the wizard) has been missing for so long because he’s run into some trouble. However, he’s managed to escape with the help of a giant eagle (likely the same one that proved so helpful in The Hobbit). [slight SPOILER in white]: The figure atop the tower is Gandalf, and the tower is Isengard. Gandalf travelled there for advice from Saruman, a fellow wizard, but Saruman is playing for the Dark Lord Sauron now and imprisoned Gandalf atop the tower. The fell voices Frodo heard were those of orcs, who Saruman has employed around Isengard. The sound of hooves coming from the East is likely revealing that more Ringwraiths have been sent after Frodo—there are nine of them, afterall.
***The waking of the Elf-sires: There isn’t much actually said about them in this passage beyond mentioning that Tom Bombadil tells the hobbits about them, but their waking is where The Silmarillion begins.
****The Dark Lord from Outside: Tom is likely referring to Morgoth (not Sauron) when he mentions a “Dark Lord from Outside.” Morgoth (originally Melkor) was once the most powerful of the Valar, the beings who created Middle-earth, but he became rather a bit evil. He’s the main antagonist of The Silmarillion and is the Dark Lord the peoples of Middle-earth fought against long before Sauron (Morgoth’s most loyal servant) took on the title. Morgoth is probably my favorite dark and nasty thing.
Whew! Glad that’s over. Too much Bombadil is bad for the health. It is known. Anyway, the hobbits made it through the Old Forest (though not without getting attacked by a willow tree), met the mysterious Tom Bombadil and his lady Goldberry, learned some things about trees and Barrows, and are now headed for the haunted Barrow-Downs. Check back in a couple weeks for Chapter 8: Fog on the Barrow-Downs!
Logan Balestrino is the Publishing Assistant for Del Rey/Spectra and Digital Content at the Random House Publishing Group. She is prone to Doctor Who rants, anime marathons, and extensive ramblings on Elven lineage and the creation of language in Middle-earth. When Logan isn’t working or hanging upside down at her aerials class, she can usually be found saving Hyrule or talking herself out of buying another pair of shoes.