“Heed no Nightly Voices”. The Hobbits in the House of Tom Bombadil.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 123-126

The day that began in Crickhollow and has been lived in the Old Forest where the great journey came almost to a catastrophic end now draws to a close in the house of Tom Bombadil with hunger satisfied and songs poured joyously from hearts that have been warmed by a drink that seems only to be water and yet feels more like wine. This is a house that lies on a threshold between worlds. It is as safe and snug as any that a hobbit could ask for and yet it is presided over by one who embodies nature in its joy and wildness and one who possesses a queenly beauty in a state of complete simplicity.

"I will have love, have love 
From anything made of
And a life with a shapely form
With gaiety and charm 
And capable of receiving
With grace the grace of living
And wild moments too
Self when freed from you."
Bombadil and Goldberry by Mareishon

So wrote the great Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh, in his poem, The Self Slaved, and Tom Bombadil could be the perfect embodiment of his vision of one, so freed from the slavery of the small self, that he can enjoy gaiety, charm, grace and wildness all in one moment or, should we say, all in one festive evening.

Frodo delights in the feast with his companions but he is always one who is trying to construct a narrative bigger than the present moment.

“Did you hear me calling, Master, or was it just chance that brought you at that moment?”

Was it just chance that brought you?

And Bombadil’s answer takes Frodo to a narrative so great that all the events that take place within it feel like chance, “if chance you call it.” Tom had been there to collect water-lilies for Goldberry from the very pool where he had first met her long ago. Perhaps the feast that the hobbits have shared with their hosts was intended first to be an anniversary celebration. And then Tom says,

For now I shall no longer 
go down deep again along the forest-water,
not while the year is old. Nor shall I be passing 
Old Man Willow's house this side of spring-time, 
not till the merry spring,  when the River-daughter 
dances down the withy-path to bathe in  the water. 

The rhythms of Tom’s life are the rhythms of the seasons and have always been so for he is Eldest. On the night of the feast it is the 26th of September in the year 3019 of the Third Age of the world. The pace of events in the world outside begins to hurry forward eventually reaching a terrifying climax on the 25th March just six months later in a battle before the Black Gate of Mordor and in a lonely struggle in the Cracks of Doom. Does any of this matter to Tom Bombadil? It would appear that it does not. In spring time he will make his journey down the river once more. Do we chastise him for his carelessness? If we do then it would seem to have as much point as it would if we were to become angry at the seasons themselves for not caring about what takes place within them.

Tom Bombadil lives his life at the pace of the passing seasons. Frodo recalled this when he recited the poem about Goldberry with which he greeted her.

O spring-time and summer-time, and spring again after! O wind on the waterfall, and the leaves’ laughter!

The beasts and birds, the trees and flowers, all live their lives in complete disregard for the great events of any time and Tom Bombadil and Goldberry live their lives in rhythm with them. Whether Frodo succeeds in his task or not Tom will go down the Withywindle with Goldberry in the spring time. Now they will make preparation for winter. If Frodo fails how many more springs and autumns will there be? The pace of events in the world outside and in the world in which Tom is Master will eventually meet and as Elrond will say, “If all else is conquered, Bombadil will fall, Last as he was First; and then night will come”.

But not tonight. On this night only the hobbits’ fears can enter the house. They are safe and need not heed any nightly noises.

Heed no nightly noises

“A Golden Light was All About Them”. Arriving at the House of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.118-120

I have always found that the trials and tribulations of a day’s travel, however difficult, however wearying, are forgotten swiftly if the day ends well. Even, on one occasion, arriving at a police station in a small Zambian town at 3 o’clock on a bitterly cold morning in pitch blackness and being permitted to sit on a chair next to a charcoal brazier felt like an arrival in a place of safety, welcome and comfort.

The arrival of the hobbits at the house of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry is in some ways like my memories but it far surpasses them in its wonder. As they arrive at the house and its open door they hear a voice singing, “as young and as ancient as Spring, like the song of a glad water flowing down into the night from a bright morning in the hills”. It is Goldberry, the River Daughter.

And then, words that read like a benediction which end the chapter.

“And with that song the hobbits stood upon the threshold, and a golden light was all about them.”

The House of Tom Bombadil by Joe Gilronan

I think that we need to remind ourselves what a day the weary travellers have had; beginning before dawn at Crickhollow and the first wary steps into the Old Forest, then the terrifying encounter with Old Man Willow and then the bewildering yet wonderful rescue by Tom Bombadil. That would be enough by itself but there is a strangely unsettling passage before the chapter reaches its beautiful resolution. If we were to use a musical analogy we might describe it as a coda, the Italian word for a tail. A coda is a concluding section of a piece of music that either extends or re-elaborates themes heard earlier in the piece.

This coda is the brief passage that describes the journey that the hobbits take along the path by the Withywindle in the direction that Bombadil has outlined to them. So strange and unsettling is this passage that some readers have described a feeling of doubt when reading it for the first time. Can the hobbits really trust Tom Bombadil? Are they being lured into a trap? Far from the fears of the day being at an end they seem to return with renewed intensity.

“It became difficult to follow the path, and they were very tired. Their legs seemed leaden. Strange furtive noises ran among the bushes and reeds on either side of them; and if they looked up to the pale sky, they caught sight of queer gnarled and knobbly faces that gloomed dark against the twilight, and leered down at them from the high bank and the edges of the wood. They began to feel that all this country was unreal, and that they were stumbling through an ominous dream that led to no awakening.”

A darkening forest

Should we try to reassure the hobbits by telling them that far worse terrors lie ahead for them or shall we let them be? Perhaps it is just as well that all that has happened to them in this day has been easily solved and that the fears of this last part of the journey all lie in their imaginations. The hobbits are learning one step at a time so that when real dangers come and there is no one to rescue them they will stand bravely, ready to go to their deaths if need be.

But “today’s trouble is enough for today” as the gospels put it and so we will leave them in peace even though they do not know it is peace. The golden light flowing from the door of the house to which they wearily stumble still awaits them. And when they have been fed and are sitting at their ease they will not be thinking of the fears of the last part of the journey, the strange coda to a fearful piece of music that they had hoped had been resolved completely when Tom Bombadil had first appeared. But now, at last it is resolved and they are safe from all that can harm them. The glad water in the hills has reached down into the terrors of the night and has completely transformed them.

Another vision of the House of Bombadil and Goldberry

I have done my best to find the names of the artists who have produced the artwork displayed in this week’s post. I hope they will forgive me where I have not found the name. I am more than happy to include it where I am informed. Do look at the many imaginings of the House of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry in your search engine. It is well worth doing.

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