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

Songs that Come to Us out of Strange Places

It is through the intervention of the Ents of Fangorn that victory is won at Helm’s Deep but this frightens the Riders of Rohan more perhaps than did the enemies they faced in the battle. For a kind of disenchantment has been at work among them for a very long time. You may remember that when Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli first encountered Eomer and his war band upon the plains of Rohan they met with mistrust and some fear. When Eomer heard that the friends had met Galadriel in Lothlorien he reacted with both wonder but also fearful hostility.

“Then there is a Lady in the Golden Wood, as old tales tell!” he said. “Few escape her nets, they say. These are strange days! But if you have her favour, then you also are net-weavers and sorcerers, maybe.”

Théoden’s reaction to his first encounter with Ents is less hostile, perhaps, after all he has just benefitted from their timely intervention, but it is hardly less ignorant! He declares that he knows nothing of them so Gandalf takes the opportunity to teach him a few home truths and he shows Théoden that they are indeed truths he once learned in his own home.

“They are the shepherds of the trees…Is it so long since you listened to tales by the fireside? There are children in your land who, out of the twisted threads of story, could pick the answer to your question. You have seen Ents, Ents out of Fangorn Forest, which in your tongue you call the Entwood. Did you think that the name was given only in idle fancy?”

Théoden’s response shows that he may be ignorant as are his people but that he does ponder things deeply.

“Out of the shadows of legend I begin to understand the marvel of the trees, I think…Songs we have that tell of these things, but we are forgetting them, teaching them only to children, as a careless custom. And now the songs have come down among us out of strange places, and walk visible under the Sun.”

Théoden’s musings tell the tale of our own times too. What we know call Fairy Tales are stories thought to be fit only for children and so the very word, Fairy, is considered childish and the culture in which these tales arose, the culture of our medieval ancestors, is thought to have been immature and in need of enlightenment. Indeed from the time of the Enlightenment onward such tales became, as Théoden put it, taught only to children “as a careless custom”.

Recently it has been noted by many critics that much of the best writing of our time has been written ostensibly for children though sadly one leading author in the UK commented that he was disturbed by the sight of adults on trains reading Harry Potter. In the packed church in which I watched a school nativity play this morning there was an atmosphere of delight as parents and grandparents gazed upon their young dressed as characters from the gospel stories. There is a general acceptance that faith is a good thing for children especially when linked to a moral education but one, sadly perhaps, that must be left behind on leaving childhood. And yet the word adult when used as an adjective to describe books, films, pictures etc. is used to denote a deeply immature sexuality that has perhaps a place in an occasional time of carnival as ancient societies knew but is deeply destructive of mature sexual relationships and mature societies when it becomes the norm.

Thankfully Tolkien himself created a mythology that speaks to both adults and children in our own time. His work has transformed the lives of many and sowed seeds of enchantment among many more that will bear fruit. I pray that we too may find songs coming down to us “out of strange places” that may “walk visible under the Sun.”

Gimli Teaches Us The Importance of Seeing

After the victorious ending of the Battle of Helm’s Deep Gandalf takes Théoden and a small company with him to go to Isengard and for the first time since the sundering of the Fellowship at the Falls of Rauros the pace of the story is able to slacken somewhat. The pursuit of the orc company who seized Merry and Pippin, the rush to Edoras and the battle that followed all lie behind and many and great dangers lie ahead, but for a brief time Legolas and Gimli have time to look about them and to wonder.

Both of them are drawn to those things that delight them most. For Legolas this means all that grows in the earth and he wonders at the Ents and the trees that they tend; and for Gimli this means the earth itself and the wondrous caves of Aglarond that he has just encountered.

Legolas is drawn to the ancient wonder that dwells within the Forest of Fangorn that we thought about when Merry and Pippin escaped from their captors and met Treebeard in Fangorn. Immediately he wants to know, to understand and to communicate: “They are the strangest trees that ever I saw…and I have seen many an oak grow from acorn to ruinous age. I wish that there were leisure now to walk among them: they have voices, and in time I might come to understand their thought.”

And in this we remember that Treebeard told the hobbits that it was Elves who first taught speech to the Ents. It is Elves who long to commune with all living things and to draw them into their own beatitude, their own state of blessing, that all creation might find its own voice and thus speak with the One.

But if Legolas is moved by his delight in the living forest he is outmatched in this by his good friend Gimli. The three pages in The Lord of the Rings in which Gimli describes the Glittering Caves of Aglarond are among the most beautiful in the whole work and Tolkien gives this beauty to a dwarf! Even Legolas declares, “I have never heard you speak like this before.” I wish I had space to quote them in full but I will just have to encourage you to read them for yourself. Just one section must be quoted and that is Gimli’s response to Legolas’ concern that Dwarves might mar the natural beauty of the caves in their greed for gain.

“No, you do not understand,” said Gimli. “No dwarf could be unmoved by such loveliness. None of Durin’s race would mine these caves for stones or ore, not if diamonds and gold could be got there. Do you cut down groves of blossoming trees in the springtime for firewood? We would tend these glades of flowering stone, not quarry them. With cautious skill, tap by tap- a small chip of rock and no more, perhaps, in a whole anxious day- so we could work…”

As we read these words they call to mind Leonardo da Vinci working in this way on his great fresco of The Last Supper at the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. It is said that he would spend whole days just looking at his work as it unfolded and doing nothing. Imagine describing such a way of working in an appraisal interview!

What we see described here at this brief moment of rest in the story is the fruit of intense seeing and then the using of the language of seeing. Tolkien gives to these two friends the roles of artist and poet. And why do so at this moment in the story? Is it perhaps to make the contrast with Saruman, the man whose mind is full “of metal and wheels”, who we are about to meet face to face, even greater? Or is it to show that these heroes are more than just warriors and are only warriors at all at greatest need? Surely at the least he shows us that his warriors are first of all great lovers and that it is because of this that their prowess in battle can bring forth good. Tolkien will return to this later in the story in his reflection on the contrast between the brothers, Boromir and Faramir, but we will leave this part of the story, perhaps, contemplating our own need to train our ability both to see and to learn to describe what we can see.

On Learning How to Receive Good Gifts

With long but steady strides Treebeard takes Merry and Pippin on a long journey across the Fangorn Forest but at its ending they are in a safe place for the first time since leaving Lothlorien. They are in Wellinghall at the foot of the Misty Mountains, one of Treebeard’s dwelling places in the forest. “I like it,” he says. “We will stay here tonight.”

Treebeard gives Merry and Pippin a drink very like the water of the Entwash that they had drunk earlier that day near the borders of the forest after escaping the orcs and Tolkien tells us that the water had “some scent or savour in it which they could not describe: it was faint, but it reminded them of the smell of a distant wood borne from afar by a cool breeze at night.” Tolkien seems to have had a particular love for this kind of description. He hints at what it is that his characters remember. They are “reminded” of the smell and the wood is “distant” and its savour “borne from afar”. Later in his description of Aragorn’s use of athelas to heal those who have been wounded in the Houses of Healing after the Battle of The Pelennor Fields he uses it in a particularly poignant manner. Instead of a simple and straightforward description of the properties of the herb or of the drink he evokes the memory of a sensation, a memory that lies hidden at the edge of consciousness. In the case of Aragorn’s use of athelas this is especially striking. When he uses it to bathe Frodo’s wound after the attack at Weathertop we are simply told that “the fragrance of the steam was refreshing, and those that were unhurt felt their minds calmed and cleared.” In the Houses of Healing Tolkien again hints at memories that are evoked by the effect of the steam. It is as if the memory, mingled with the working upon the senses of the aroma of the herb crushed in warm water and the hands of the true king, achieves the healing of body and soul and spirit together.

 

Here it is not so much healing that is achieved. That came about if you remember when the hobbits drank of the streams of the Entwash earlier that day. Here Merry and Pippin find refreshment and nourishment but what refreshment; what nourishment! Later their friends will observe that they have grown in stature and other hobbits will find them almost intimidating.

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What a journey they have been upon since their capture by the orcs and Pippin’s unhappy description of himself as “a nuisance: a passenger, a piece of luggage”. They have been through a kind of initiation together and now they are warriors and ready for battle. There is nothing that they have done which has brought about this transformation except their refusal to give up and their total loyalty to their friends and to the quest even though all seems hopeless. Later this will be described as a “gentle loyalty” thus distinguishing it from the fierce loyalty of battle hardened members of the Fellowship like Gimli or Legolas, but it is loyalty nonetheless. In Tolkien’s Christian understanding of such things no gift can be described as a payment to honour a contractual obligation. The hobbits did not encounter Treebeard or drink “of the draughts of Fangorn” as their due wage for loyalty. But without that loyalty no gift could have been received. The same is true for us. It is by means of our commitment to the good that we, like Merry and Pippin, will be capable of receiving gifts that will transform us.