The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 132-133
“Frodo heard a sweet singing running in his mind: a song that seemed to come like a pale light behind a grey rain-curtain, and growing stronger to turn the veil all to glass and silver, until at last it was all rolled back, and a far green country opened before him under a swift sunrise.”
This dream passage comes at the beginning of Frodo’s journey on the last night of the hobbits’ stay in the house of Tom Bombadil, the second of two important dreams at this part of the story, the other of which was the tower dream in Crickhollow the night before the hobbits entered the Old Forest. But Tolkien uses the same words at the end of the story at the very end of Frodo’s earthly travels following his sea voyage with Bilbo, Gandalf, Galadriel and Elrond, the Ringbearers, into the West, and Tolkien makes a point there of remembering Frodo’s dream as it is fulfilled.
A far green country under a swift sunrise. As far back as 1944 Tolkien intended to end his story with a remembrance and a fulfillment of the dream in Bombadil’s house. He meant to use these words as a frame about his story. (The Letters of J.R.R Tolkien p. 104). Of course at this point of the story, with all the struggles that lie ahead of him, Frodo has no notion of this, but the story and the storyteller does. As we have considered in other posts Frodo is a part of a story far greater than he is. He is meant to have the Ring. He will be overcome by its utterly malign power but by grace he will not be destroyed either by the Ring nor by its maker, nor will he be caught up in its destruction; but neither will he find healing in Middle-earth. By the prayer of Arwen Undómiel, whose place he will take on the ship bearing her father, Frodo will be permitted to enter the Undying Lands and there he will be healed.
But why does Tolkien refer to Frodo’s healing in Undying Lands at this point of the story? It does Frodo no good in so far as we are able to tell and until we, who read The Lord of the Rings, come across these words once again at the end of the story, it has no effect upon us either. There is no comfort to be gained here for any of us.
I think that there are two things to be said. On the one hand it is an encouragement to read The Lord of the Rings again and again, as I hope you are doing. There are so many layers of meaning to be discerned within the story that we will discover more and more with every reading. But the other speaks to how Frodo, and we ourselves as his fellow creatures, must live. Frodo will carry this dream within his subconscious throughout and there, no doubt, it will do its work within his psyche as dreams will always do but the dream will point to a reality that does not require our conscious assent to be entirely itself. Even before Arwen’s prayer or before Frodo’s despair that he will ever find healing in Middle-earth, a place has been prepared for him in which, as Tolkien put it in another letter, Frodo will go “both to a purgatory and peace” (The Letters of J.R.R Tolkien p. 328). There is no sense in which this purgatory is a punishment in the usual way in which this has been understood and if prayers are required to release him from it it can only be that what awaits him beyond the circles of the world is of such surpassing wonder that to be denied it, even in an earthly paradise, is punishment by comparison. Those of us who are mortal can only grasp this reality by faith and be encouraged in it by those occasional glimpses that might be afforded to us, but even these are enough to strengthen us to live our lives courageously and so fulfill our calling even as Frodo does.
I am grateful to Keith Kelly and Michael Livingston for a fine paper published by The Mythopoeic Society and which can be accessed through the link below.
8 thoughts on “A Far Green Country Under a Swift Sunrise. Frodo’s Dream in the House of Tom Bombadil.”
To be honest, I’ve only read through The Lord of the Rings twice. What you said about Frodo is certainly interesting. It seems as if he finds comfort certainly, but clearly the loss is painful for the hobbits.
Isn’t that the sadness of our lives? In our separation from the people that we have loved we feel our own sorrow that we can no longer see them but we also have hope for their healing. Frodo is so wounded by his labours that he cannot find healing as he had hoped in a quiet life in the Shire and it is in the earthly paradise of the Undying Lands where he will find this as he comes to terms with both his greatness and littleness as Tolkien puts it in one of his letters. Later Sam will come to join him there after a long good life in the Shire for he too was a Ringbearer.
I’d love to hear how these thoughts fit with the poem “Frodos Dreme” from the Adventures of Tom Bombadil. Here’s a snatch that grabbed me, having a little re-read yesterday:
At last there came light in my long night,
and I saw my hair hanging grey.
‘Bent though I be, I must find the sea!
I have lost myself, and I know not the way,
but let me be gone!’ Then I stumbled on;
like a hunting bat shadow was over me;
in my ears dinned a withering wind,
and with ragged briars I tried to cover me.
My hands were torn and my knees worn,
and years were heavy upon my back,
when the rain in my face took a salt taste,
and I smelled the smell of sea-wrack.
David, what a wonderful thought that draws upon a source that I know too little. My weekly posts have largely drawn upon 50 years of reading LOTR and then The Silmarillion and more recently the letters. I then try to enter a conversation with these sources, with my own life experience and my Christian faith and life to see what emerges. Inevitably, from time to time, someone shares something that expands my understanding of Tolkien considerably and this is one of those occasions. Thank you so much!
It seems to me that “Frodo’s Dreme” not only deepens our understanding of the dream in the house of Tom Bombadil but also the dream at Crickhollow before the hobbits first enter the Old Forest in which Frodo is clearly in search of the sea and in search of healing. Do you know the date in which Tolkien wrote the poem?
Thank you! I think it’s a fascinating poem. Pretty dark. Verlyn Flieger relates it to the experience of returning from the trenches, which suggests that the “Where can I find rest?”-era Frodo might be fairly autobiographical on Tolkien’s part. I’m sure a lot could be written on analysing that!
I think there’s some stuff in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography about the poem’s origins, but I don’t remember the details. I know it was published in the 30s, then rewritten and expanded for The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, which came out in 1962. That’s all I know.
Verlyn Flieger is one of the most insightful (and thorough) of Tolkien scholars and so I am sure that this must be right. The war memorial in Magdeburg Cathedral is a harrowing sculpture of three soldiers visibly carrying the scars of war. It had to be hidden both from the Nazis during that era and then from the communist regime during that era too. Perhaps few governments of any colour wish to be reminded of the effects of war upon those who take part in them. I remember at the outset of the second Iraq war writing to my MP about my experience as a parish priest dealing with broken lives (both soldiers and their families) consequent upon previous conflicts. All I received in return was a statement from the Defence Department on how well they cared for service personnel. I have rarely met an ex soldier who I did not like (including the rough and ready ones!) but there is nothing good to say about war although sometimes it is necessary in order to resist evil just as Gandalf says to the Warden of the Houses of Healing.
Hello Stephen, I’ve recently come across this website: it’s wonderful, and so good to read the thoughtful reflections of others on texts I know and love. About the dating of Frodos Dreme: Verlyn Flieger, in her edition of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (2014), pp. 252- 261 writes that it went through more than one version. It was originally called Looney, and was published in the Oxford Magazine for 18 January 1934. It was “probably written in 1932 or 1933” Looney is printed, as well as The Sea-Bell, in Flieger’s edition. J.E.A. Tyler in The Complete Tolkien Companion, p.571, writes that Looney was “at some point subtitled Frodos Dreme.” “The Sea-Bell is a revised and expanded version of the poem Looney,” (Flieger 2014), first published in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil in 1962. The character in the poem may be understood as a traumatised soldier of the First World War, and as Frodo, wounded by knife, sting and bite, as well as the long effects of bearing the Ring.
John Garth, in The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien (2020) writes the following, at p.171:
“Verlyn Flieger has compared how returning Great War veterans found it nearly impossible to express their experiences to people at home. Looney, she suggests, speaks for soldiers such as Tolkien himself, whom the Somme bereaved of the close fellowship of former schoolfriends…..
Might the wood in Looney reflect a specific place? In July 1916, fresh from combat, Tolkien learned that Rob Gilson [ a close schoolfriend] had been killed. But duties meant that he was given no time to think until his battalion went in to rest at Bus-les-Artois three weeks later. Here, he sat out in the wood for two nights, weary, hungry and lonely, with ‘intense feelings more than ideas but very powerless,’ as he said in a letter to [another close school friend] Geoffrey Bache Smith the next day. Tolkien’s urge would have been familiar to [Siegfried] Sassoon, who described how ‘thoughts you’ve gagged all day’ would drive you ‘out to jabber among the trees.’ “
Chris, thank you so much for taking the trouble to leave this comment on my blog . Please do call again! What a gift Tolkien left us through his inner struggle with the experience of the trenches. My own father almost never spoke about his experience of the second world war. We knew that he took part in the Normandy landings in June 1944 but all he ever said to me was that he had seen some terrible things. It was only from another brother that I learned that he had been a part of the liberation of the Belsen concentration camp. All of the post war generation have surely been shaped by the experiences of their fathers in the two wars.