Old Man Willow. O Hobbits, Take Care Where You Sleep!

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (HarperCollins 1991) pp 108-116

The hobbits have to make their way through the Old Forest in order to rejoin the East-West road through Eriador. Their intention is to throw the Black Riders off their scent and so to arrive safely in Bree. There, or at least so they hope, they will meet up with Gandalf and so journey on to Rivendell together.

Well, that is their intention anyway, but first they have to get through a forest that clearly regards them with dislike or worse. “They all got an uncomfortable feeling that they were being watched with disapproval, deepening to dislike and even enmity”.

The Old Forest by Alan Lee

The Old Forest was all that was left in Eriador of the great primeval forest of the Elder Days. When Merry and Pippin meet Treebeard in the forest of Fangorn later in the story he tells them that “there was all one wood once upon a time from here [Fangorn] to the Mountains of Lune”.

“I do not doubt,”says Treebeard, “that there is some shadow of the Great Darkness lying there still away north”, and it is the Darkness, the time of the dominion of Morgoth, in the First Age of the World, of whom Sauron was merely a lieutenant that led even a part of the natural world to fall under its dominion.

We should not blame the hobbits too much for their unwariness. Life until now has taught them so little of the dangers of the world. But they should not have fallen asleep with their backs to the trunk of Old Man Willow, the heart of the hostility of the Forest. Falling asleep in the wild can either be an opening into wonder or danger. I read just the other day of an explorer of the wild who fell asleep on a warm summer day in the woods and awoke to find a female Roe Deer gazing at him just a few inches from his face. Their encounter lasted only a few seconds before the deer ran off into the undergrowth but it left him with a sense of peace and wonder that stays with him to this day. I once climbed down with a companion into a gorge a little below the Victoria Falls on the Zambezi river. This was in the days before it was possible to navigate the gorges in inflatable craft and so we had this place to ourselves. At the bottom of the gorge he wandered off to look around and I fell asleep in the stifling heat of the afternoon with my back to a rock. I awoke to find myself surrounded by a troop of baboons who were eyeing me with great curiosity. I stayed quite still and looked back at them. What would have happened next I do not know for my companion returned, startled the troop and they ran away. Like the explorer and the deer my brief connection with wild things has never left me.

To be awoken by a gentle deer is one thing. It is a little more uncertain to be awoken by a troop of baboons and I sometimes wonder what was going to happen next if my companion had not returned. But Old Man Willow wishes nothing but harm for the hobbits. He tries to drown Frodo in the Withywindle river and to entrap Merry and Pippin within himself. Only Sam seems to be alert to his malice. The first time in The Lord of the Rings in which he is ahead of the others. But the great adventure seems to be at an end on the very first day beyond the borders of the Shire until a song of utter carefree joy alerts Frodo and Sam to the rescue that is about to come to them.

So do take care where you fall asleep. You may avoid danger that way. But there again you may avoid wonder too. To be open to wonder it seems that you have to be open to danger as well. At least that is what the hobbits discover. They fall into danger but wonder is bounding down the path towards them.

Wonder bounds down the path towards the hobbits

Forests are Strange Things. The Hobbits Enter the Old Forest.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 107-09

Anyone who has anything to do with forests for any length of time soon comes to know that they have an identity that is very much their own. In his introduction to the wonderful book, The Hidden Lives of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben, the Australian palaeontologist, Tim Flannery, writes of Wohlleben, “His deep understanding of the lives of trees, reached through decades of careful observation and study, reveals a world so astonishing that if you read his book, I believe that forests will become magical places for you, too.”

The magic of the forest (A painting by Alan Lee)

And the essence of this “magic” is the ability of trees to communicate with each other so that they can give aid to one another against any potential threats. They even continue to feed the stumps of trees that have long fallen or been cut down knowing that these stumps still have their part to play in nurturing the future of the forest. I recently came across the stump of a tree that had been cut down and through a neat round hole in its centre a healthy young sapling was climbing vigorously upwards towards the sky.

I have been walking my dog in woodland near my home in north Worcestershire, in our own Crickhollow, close by the farm where Tolkien’s aunt and grandfather lived and where he often stayed as a child, I discovered, to my pleasure, that I can have the woods to myself because most people are nervous about entering them. You really don’t know what you will find within them. So most people stick to the paths that run alongside the woods. A bit like Fredegar Bolger really.

I find that the best time of the day to walk in them is the early morning. I have the particular pleasure of greeting the sunrise in the spring and autumn. In the summer the woods are already fully awake. In the winter I enter their mysterious darkness. I have got to know the paths and so I feel confident in making my way through them, even when I cannot see more than a yard or so ahead of me.

The Forest by Night

At least that is how I like to reassure myself as I step off the wide pathway and into silent darkness of the wood. Except the wood never stays the same. The weight of a snowfall in winter or a hig storm will almost certainly bring down tree branches, sometimes hefty boughs or even whole trees. One path that used to take me down to a secret place at the joining of two streams is now completely blocked by the fall of an ancient hollow oak. There is a gap beneath it that my dog can pass through but I have to clamber over it. It is worth the effort but I still remember my dismay when I first encountered this obstruction.

There have been many obstructions in the years in which I have come to know the woods. Some have required the making of new paths. First, the trampling down of the undergrowth. There are far too many nettles in the late spring and summer in this modern nutrient saturated environment. You might think that the surfeit of nitrates would be a good thing but wild flowers prefer a plainer diet and, sadly, nettles thrive on them. So the first stage in the making of a path is always a discomforting affair as I get my legs covered in stings that go through my trousers. The second stage is the removal of branches that lie across my way. And then the third is to walk the path again and again and again until the earth beneath my feet is gradually forced together and, for a time at least, the life beneath is not able to make its way through to the world above.

A Forest Path by Grrroch

So yes, the Old Forest is a strange affair, but only because it is not like “the woods and fields and little rivers” of the Shire or my own county of Worcestershire where everything takes time to happen. In the Old Forest the speech of the trees and the endless changes that take place in every wood all happen much more quickly. And the Forest has little love for hobbits. Frodo and Sam and Merry and Pippin really will have to be rescued before the day is out.

The Story of Meriadoc Brandybuck. Or The Necessity of Getting Out of Your Depth.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 107,108

There are few things more annoying than when someone for whom you don’t have very much respect gets something absolutely right. I don’t know how much respect the other hobbits have for Fredegar Bolger (or Fatty to his friends) although I do note that little attempt is made to persuade Fatty to come with them when he tells the other hobbits that he will not come into the Old Forest with them.

Fatty’s main contribution to the discussion about how the hobbits are to leave Buckland without attracting the attention of the Black Riders is to warn them of the dangers of the Forest. By contrast, Merry is both confident and competent. He has been into the Forest before. He speaks about the path that he intends to take. He gives a lesson on the history of the Forest or at least the history that hobbits have been a part of. He has ponies ready for the journey and all the supplies have been prepared. He has anticipated Frodo’s insistence that he must leave the Shire immediately. He has been making preparations for just this moment all through the summer. And with a little help from Pippin he has even composed a song that is suitable for the occasion drawing upon his knowledge of hobbit history. “It was made on the model of the dwarf-song that started Bilbo on his adventure long ago, and went to the same tune”.

Merry takes charge at Crickhollow

One day Merry will make a fine Master of Buckland but on this day everything will go completely wrong and Fatty will be proved completely right.

“I only hope that you will not need rescuing before the day is out.”

Merry and his companions will need rescuing before the day is out. In fact if rescue had not been at hand the quest would have ended in disaster almost before it had begun. And things do not really get much better for Merry from that point onwards. He will lurch from catastrophe to catastrophe and will need to be rescued many times.

Rescued from the barrow wight by Tom Bombadil. Rescued from the Black Rider in the streets of Bree by Nob of all people and rescued from starvation in the Forest of Fangorn by Treebeard. Eventually he will complain bitterly of being no more than an item of baggage in the story and perhaps his lowest point will be when Théoden of Rohan will announce to him that he is to be left behind when the Riders go to war outside the gates of Minas Tirith. He has been of some value as a kind of entertainment for the king on the journey from the sack of Isengard to the gathering at Dunharrow but he will be of no value at all in the serious business of war. And even when he does go, thanks to the intervention of another character who has been left behind, he finds himself being addressed by a soldier who has just stumbled over him as “Master Bag”. It is the one name they know him by, the name that speaks of his humiliation.

Merry’s journey is in many ways a miserable one and yet he neither falls into bitterness nor despair. Two qualities will sustain him throughout and these are his cheerfulness, by which I mean that he has the ability, no matter how great the humiliation, to be ‘cheered up’ to find cheer as soon as he is able, in the house of Tom Bombadil, in the dwelling of Treebeard and in the wreckage of Isengard amidst the spoils of battle. A moment of pleasure is always able to put all suffering out of his mind. And the other is what Gandalf calls, “his gentle loyalty”. There may be many times in which Merry is unhappy but at no time is his self-pity of more importance to him than the welfare of his friends.

Merry cheers up at the house of Tom Bombadil

And so the time will come when he will play a central role in one of the great deeds of his Age in Middle-earth. And he will be there because of his gentle loyalty. When he sees Éowyn standing hopelessly before the Lord of the Nazgûl on the Pelennor Fields it will be pity that fills his heart and, Tolkien tells us, “suddenly the slow-kindled courage of his race awoke. He clenched his hand. She should not die, so fair, so desperate! At least she should not die alone, unaided.”

“She should not die alone”. Ted Nasmith’s evocation of the fight with the Lord of the Nazgûl.

Frodo Longs to See the Sea. The Dream at Crickhollow.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 105-106

Frodo has made up his mind. He will leave the Shire the very next morning as early as possible and he will go through the Old Forest. All is ready thanks to Merry, the great organiser, and so the hobbits make their way to bed after tidying up, of course.

And there Frodo dreams. At first he dreams of a forest with creatures snuffling at its roots. Frodo is sure that they are looking for him and that they will find him.

Frodo is sure that they will find him

And then Tolkien writes that Frodo “heard a noise in the distance” and that he thought at first that it was the wind in the trees of the forest. But then, in that way in dreams in which you know that you know something, without knowing why or how, Frodo realises that the sound that he can hear is that of the sea. Actually, Tolkien does not spell, sea, as I have done in its generic form as not being the land. He speaks of the Sea. The Sea. The great Sea that parts Middle-earth from the Undying Lands. The Sea over which the Elves may pass in order to reach those lands but which is a way that is denied to mortals.

We learn that this is not the first time that Frodo has heard this sound in his dreams, that it is a recurring and troubled theme within them. And so we are brought within his inner life. Dreams will play an important part in The Lord of the Rings. As in our own experience they will always leave us with as many questions as answers. Tolkien had too much insight into the mystery of the human psyche to write write one of those all too popular books on “the interpretation of dreams” in which particular objects or images within a dream are assigned particular meanings. Such an understanding of dreams would either make Frodo in some sense, omniscient, or it would give that quality to us, the reader. As it is, both Frodo and us as well have to stumble through life in the dark, walking by faith and not by sight.

“Suddenly he found he was out in the open. There were no trees after all. He was on a dark heath, and there was a strange salt smell in the air. Looking up he saw before him a tall white tower, standing alone on a high ridge.”

Ted Nasmith’s evocation of The Sea

So Frodo is taken in his dream from a vision of a forest and creatures snuffling about just as he had heard the Black Rider sniffing for him. Everything in this part of the dream takes him downwards and this is the journey that he must now take. Even in his dream this feels a hopeless affair. The creatures will find him. But then Tolkien uses the word, Suddenly, and we look upwards with him to a tall white tower, alone on a high ridge. We are taken from the journey that he must take to the journey that he longs to take, even though he does not know what that journey is.

“A great desire came over him to climb the tower and see the Sea.”

The great Tolkien scholar, Verlyn Flieger, comments on this passage in her book, Splintered Light. She speaks of an “implied desire to climb up and look outward to the immense unknown.” And then she speaks of a “very real attribute of the human psyche: the desire to seek something without knowing what it is.” Or to use the great insight of Augustine of Hippo, to keep on searching restlessly until we find our rest in the ultimate, or in God.

Significantly, Tolkien does not give us our last glimpse of Frodo at the end of the story as he does to his companions as they gaze outwards to the last glimpse of the light of the phial of Galadriel as the ship dips over the horizon. He takes us onwards with Frodo until journeys end as Frodo “beholds white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise”. Frodo must take the journey into danger and darkness but his heart longs for something else and one day he will find it.

I am grateful to the blog written by Jonathan McIntosh, The Flame Imperishable, for many of the insights in this week’s post and for the quote from Verlyn Flieger. You can find it at https://jonathansmcintosh.wordpress.com/2018/01/17/frodos-dream-tower/