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