“Why Did Celeborn Warn Us Against Your Forest?” Treebeard Tells the Hobbits Something of The Story of Forests and Ents.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp. 607-611

Carefully but firmly holding Merry and Pippin in the crooks of his arms Treebeard makes his way through the Forest of Fangorn. The hobbits have had plenty of experience of being carried in the past few days but the last one was by orcs, “seized like a sack” and crushed into their necks. Their arms were gripped like iron with orcs’ fingernails biting into their flesh. This is very different, soon Merry and Pippin begin to feel “safe and comfortable”, hobbit curiosity gets the better of Pippin and there is something he wants to know.

Alan Lee depicts the moment when Treebeard first picks up the hobbits. They are in his hands for careful examination. Soon they will be in the crooks of his arms for gentle carrying.

“Please, Treebeard,” he said, “could I ask you about something? Why did Celeborn warn us against your forest? He told us not to risk getting entangled in it.”

It is a theme that runs through The Lord of the Rings that its free peoples have become divided from one another so that there is a sense of hiddeness and wariness about each land in which strangers are treated with suspicion. So normal has this become that when Gandalf, who has worked harder than any to break down barriers between peoples, is confronted with the words pedo mellon a minna on the western doors of Moria he assumes that a secret password is required of him. In fact all he needs to do is to say the word, friend, mellon, and the doors open. This is a fact that I note was completely ignored in the recent Amazon dramatisation, The Rings of Power. We live in suspicious times once more and, like Gandalf, assume that doors will be closed against us. Even the stories that we tell tend to be of suspicion and wariness rather than friendship and openness.

Tolkien’s own drawing of Durin’s Doors. It shows that a door can either an invitation to enter or a warning to keep out.

Treebeard speaks of this as he ponders Celeborn’s own land, the Golden Wood, turning over Elven words as one might allow a fine wine to linger upon the tongue before swallowing it. Lothlórien too is a dangerous place, “and not for anyone just to enter in”. We might note that when Gandalf took Gollum prisoner it was to the realm of Thranduil that he took him and not Lothlórien. The secretness of that land needed to be preserved.

It is darkness that has divided the peoples of Middle-earth, darkness not as a welcome pause between periods of daylight in which rest can be taken and moonlight and starlight enjoyed for their own sake but as a thing of threat in which enemies might be hiding ready to do harm. Treebeard speaks of “the Great Darkness”, presumably referring to the time that followed the destruction of the Trees of Light in Valinor by Morgoth in the First Age, a time in which darkness did not merely mean an absence of light but had a quality of its own, the kind of hopelessness to which Dante refers in the motto that stands above the Gates of Hell in his Divine Comedy. It is this kind of darkness that entered parts of the realm of Fangorn just as it did in parts of The Old Forest near the Shire. Treebeard speaks of some trees in the forest especially in the valleys under the mountains that are “sound as a bell, and bad right through.”

The Ents have watched over the forest since time immemorial and they have tried to teach the trees about light, opening their hearts to it, softening those hearts. And they have tried to keep unwary folk away from danger. And it must surely be a fruit of their work that at the end of The Lord of the Rings Legolas takes Gimli upon a voyage of discovery through Fangorn that is a source of delight and wonder and not one of danger and threat. It is not just because of Sauron’s fall that the darkness has been lifted, the time for that has been much too brief, it is because through the work of the Ents that the forest is full of light. But perhaps Legolas and Gimli had the services of an Ent to guide them through the forest. We are not told. A guide such as Treebeard could take a guest into secret places safely, unfolding them to those who wish to take time to enjoy them. This would be a different way of getting to know a forest than to take a truck along a highway that has been driven through its heart like a sword thrust.

It takes time to enter the secrets of a forest. Perhaps a lifetime. Alan Lee depicts a part of the Forest of Fangorn .

Hill Is a Hasty Word for a “Thing That Has Stood Here Since This Part of The World Was Shaped.” Treebeard Calls Us to Learn to Speak With Less Haste.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp. 603-607

Merry and Pippin begin to tell their story to Treebeard but soon Merry suggests that Treebeard put them down.

“You must be getting tired of holding us up,” he says.

Treebeard replies by saying that he doesn’t tire easily but that perhaps it is time to go, to leave the place on which they are standing. And then he ponders the name of this thing.

“Hill?” suggested Pippin. “Shelf? Step?” suggested Merry.

Treebeard repeated the words thoughtfully. “Hill. Yes, that was it. But it is a hasty word for a thing that has stood here ever since this part of the world was shaped. Never mind. Let us go.”

You must be getting tired from holding us up.” Alan Lee’s wonderful depiction of the first encounter between the hobbits and Treebeard.

And so Treebeard, in just a few words, challenges us to examine the ways in which we use language, a way is usually unexamined, we might even say, thoughtless. We first learn the names of things from our parents and other adults; a code that we share in common with all who speak our mother tongue. Hobbits, in Tolkien’s world, abandoned their own original language and adopted the Common Tongue, or Westron, that enabled the peoples of Middle-earth, such as Ents and Hobbits, to speak with one another. It is another way in which Hobbits are able to be a kind of Everyman in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien did some work on the Westron language but unlike the languages of the Elves that emerged from a first principle of language, from the mythology that was the Elves first and essential experience of reality, Westron was a translation from English back into an invented language.

Merry and Pippin, like most hobbits, have very little understanding of the ancient languages of Middle-earth. They are modern people for whom language has lost its ancient connection to an experience of its world that is rooted in myth and mystery. Those who still speak Gaelic in Scotland are able, if they so choose, to walk about a Hebridean island and through the names of each place they come to, tell the story of their island. Tolkien, through his knowledge of Old English, could do something similar with the place names of England, particularly in the ancient shires of Worcester and Oxford. The name of the town near which I live in Worcestershire is Droitwich, from the Old English wic or village and dright which might be dirt (drit). English, unlike Gaelic which tells stories, has always been a practical language. We might say that it is a hasty language. It encourages you to get on with things. Gaelic encourages you to stop and ponder the stories of things.

The old High Street in Droitwich

Treebeard is not particularly interested in getting on with things. He has no gardens to tend or food to grow. As he says to the young hobbits his food is a drink “that will keep you green and growing for a long, long while” and unlike ale or beer this drink involves no manufacturing process. His task is to be a shepherd to the trees of the forest and like shepherds, or herdsmen, throughout the world for much of the time, the work requires a close attention to all that is going on and Treebeard has been paying attention for thousands of years. His language, perhaps more like Gaelic, invites you to stop and ponder.

His attentiveness and his long memory is expressed in the telling of stories and the hill on which he has been standing that day has a very long story indeed. Treebeard’s life is lived in long practiced harmony with the forest in which he has lived for long ages and his language is contemplative, an expression of that harmony.

The French Orthodox scholar, Olivier Clément, speaks of this kind of contemplation thus:

“Here is a little spiritual exercise by means of the humblest of sensations- of breathing, of rejoicing under the blue sky, of touching a stone, or the bark of a tree, of gazing… at the majesty of a tree- I try to reach the transcendence of a thing. The object is visible and at the same time invisible; I must seek its inner self, let myself be led by it”

Treebeard has been led by the “inner self” of his forest for a very long time.

Merry and Pippin begin to contemplate Fangorn in Alan Lee’s depiction.

“My Name is Like a Story.” Treebeard Gives a Lesson in Language as Participation in Life.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) 603-607

Last week I wrote about the first encounter between Merry, Pippin and Treebeard as if they had met at a party and had begun the process of getting to know each other. Of course, my suggested image of a party has to be qualified by the possibility that Treebeard might have killed the young hobbits before any conversation took place. That really is some party!

But Treebeard hears the nice voices of the hobbits and decides not to act too hastily and once that decision has been made the whole business of getting to know each other can begin.

For Merry and Pippin this is a simple matter. “Nobody else calls us hobbits; we call ourselves that.” But for Treebeard a name is a very different affair altogether. One one level a name is something that one can present to another so that the business of getting to know a person can begin. “Well, I am an Ent, or that’s what they call me. Yes, Ent is the word. The Ent, I am, you might say, in your manner of speaking. Fangorn is my name according to some. Treebeard others make it. Treebeard will do.” All of this is mere preliminary to real communication. Nothing much has really been said as yet. The real business is yet to start.

Alan Lee conveys something of the mystery that is Treebeard in this beautiful picture.

“‘ I am not going to tell you my name, not yet at any rate’. A queer half-knowing, half-humorous look came with a green flicker into his eyes. ‘For one thing it would take a long while: my name is growing all the time, and I’ve lived a very long time; so my name is like a story. Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to in my language, in the Old Entish as you might say.”

Treebeard gives a clue about himself in speaking of Ents from the “old lists” of living things in which he tries, and fails, to find hobbits. The Ents are “earthborn, old as mountains.” Pippin later described Treebeard in these terms, “something that grew in the ground… had suddenly waked up, and was considering you with the same slow care that it had given to its own inside affairs for endless years.” Ents are a part of the ancient story of the earth and are yet as immediate and sudden as waking up on a spring morning and finding that everything is alive once more.

Treebeard, like nature herself, takes a particular pleasure in the process of concealment. In speaking of concealment I do not mean deception. He is not trying to throw anyone of the track by pretending to be what he is not. What he does through concealment is to invite another into the long business of getting to know him. I am reminded of the beautiful thing that the great writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, said of his wife of many years. “I have known her for so long that she has become a complete mystery to me.” Marquez speaks of the particular pleasure that is gained in remaining in a relationship for a long time and yet never losing a curiosity in who the other is. The reward for this curiosity is not a series of facts that can be consigned to a database that can be forgotten until it becomes necessary to access the data contained therein. The reward is mystery. It is an invitation to go ever deeper and to know that one will never get to the end of the going and that each act of discovery will be a delight over which you can linger and enjoy.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mercedes Barcha delighting in the mystery of one another.

And language, for Treebeard, is a participation in the story of all things. It is not a dispassionate observation of observable facts, that quality that Treebeard describes as hastiness. It is an ongoing response to the hospitable invitation that another gives to get to know them, to listen to their story. And once Treebeard has decided not to kill the young hobbits the business of allowing the hobbits to get to know him can begin.

“Nice Little Voices; They Reminded Me of Something I Cannot Remember.” What Draws Treebeard to Merry and Pippin?

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp. 603-607

In last week’s post I noted the complete lack of tension in the first moments of the encounter between Merry, Pippin and Treebeard on the hill top in the Forest of Fangorn. Although the first part of their conversation is an enquiry that asks about the identity of the other it is as if both the Hobbits and the Ent are asking one another whether they might have met on some previous occasion. It all feels like they have met at a party and have begun that process of getting to know each other. Except that, for Treebeard at least, there was the possibility that he might have killed the hobbits first.

“Very odd indeed! Do not be hasty, that is my motto. But if I had seen you, before I heard your voices – I liked them: nice little voices; they reminded me of something I cannot remember – if I had seen you before I heard you, I should just have trodden on you, taking you for little Orcs, and found out my mistake afterwards.”

The hobbits are like elf-children peering out of the Wild Wood in the deeps of time. A beautiful depiction by Ray Gilronan.

It is Merry and Pippin’s voices that save their lives and their voices that remind Treebeard of something. Perhaps Tolkien gives us a clue to this something as the young hobbits first enter the forest.

“Out of the shadows the hobbits peeped, gazing back down the slope: little furtive figures that in the dim light looked like elf-children in the deeps of time peering out of the Wild Wood in wonder at their first Dawn.”

Everything in the journey from the plains of Rohan into the Forest of Fangorn, from the crude grasp of their Orc captors into Treebeard’s careful grip is a journey into a world in which everything is both very old and yet one in which an original innocence can flourish. It is this innocence that Treebeard hears in the “nice little voices” of the young hobbits. It is a world still unstained by evil and it calls to that within the ancient Ent which still longs for this world.

Merry and Pippin, just being themselves.

I think that we might say that it is the “nice little voices” of Merry and Pippin that bring down the walls of Isengard. They awaken something within Treebeard that he thinks is worth fighting for. We see this effect right through The Lord of The Rings. Hobbits speak of something young and fresh in an ageing, tired world. As they arrive in Rivendell and then Lothlórien, bearing the Ring of Power that is so terrible an expression of the lust for power and control that first stirred within Melkor long ago, they call Elrond and then Galadriel to the act of faith and sacrifice that is possible only to someone who believes in the future. It is the kind of faith that is so often reawakened by the birth of a child. It is reawakened in Treebeard by the childlikeness of Merry and Pippin, guilelessly climbing up the hill upon which Treebeard is standing in the early morning in order to enjoy the feel of the sun upon his ancient limbs once more.

If there had ever been any sense that the hobbits’ behaviour was some kind of a strategy then Elrond and Galadriel would never have accepted the realisation that with their coming their own long sojourn in Middle-earth was coming to an end. And Treebeard would never have decided to risk everything upon a march of the Ents upon Isengard that as Treebeard was to say might be their last. And this, surely, is why the Valar guide a Hobbit to that place, deep beneath the Misty Mountains, where the Ring just happens to have been mislaid by Gollum. No other creature in Middle-earth could have been entrusted with something like the Ring. And, as Gollum’s own sad history demonstrates, even a hobbit can be corrupted by the power of the Ring. Was he, or perhaps Déagol, meant to be the Ringbearer long before first Bilbo and then Frodo took this responsibility?

Was Sméagol, or perhaps Déagol, meant to be the Ringbearer?

Frodo has to fight a terrible battle against the corruption of the Ring and yet at all times others recognise an original goodness within him and consider him worthy of the responsibility of bearing the Ring. They see this goodness in Sam, in Merry and in Pippin as well. But, in Merry and in Pippin in particular, they see this goodness before the inner struggles through which Frodo has to pass and in Treebeard, something is reawakened that belongs both to an ancient past and to a hope of renewal. Such original goodness always has this potential.

“Fangorn is My Name.” Merry and Pippin Meet Treebeard on a Hill in The Forest.

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991,2007) pp. 600-607

Merry and Pippin make their escape from the Orcs up the Entwash into the Forest of Fangorn and at first they are driven by fear of their captors. But at last they pause, struggling for breath in the stifling stillness of the forest and try to assess their position. Which way should they go and what provision do they have for their journey?

A careful examination of their position would not give the hobbits much hope. They have only lembas to eat and enough for only five days and where will they go? But we have already seen that they are content to live in the moment and soon their curiosity about their immediate surroundings begins to grow and, for a while at least, concern for their prospects fades away.

It is the age of the forest that fascinates them and the feeling of age. Pippin likens the forest to the “old room in the Great Place of the Tooks”, where the Old Took, Gerontius, who Bilbo knew, lived year after year while the room grew old about him. “But that is nothing to the old feeling of this wood.”

Anke Eissmann’s characterful depiction of Merry and Pippin in Fangorn Forest

The moment in which the young hobbits meet Treebeard for the very first time is handled very differently in Peter Jackson’s film than it is in Tolkien’s original telling of the story. The obvious difference is that Tolkien gives us no pursuing orcs. They are lying slain on the grass of Rohan by this point and Grishnákh was killed while trying to take the hobbits to Mordor. But the other difference is that there seems to be a complete absence of fear on the part of Merry and Pippin as they are lifted from the ground by “a large Man-like, almost Troll-like, figure, at least fourteen feet high, very sturdy, with a tall head, and hardly any neck.” I will come back to this strange absence of fear next week in my reflection. As always I do not consider it to be an oversight on Tolkien’s part, one that Peter Jackson corrects.

What we are given is wonder. The first thing that Merry and Pippin become aware of is Treebeard’s eyes and it is Pippin, the one who is normally unreflective, who tries to describe those eyes.

“One felt as if there was an enormous well behind them, filled up with ages of memory and long slow steady thinking; but their surface was sparkling with the present; like sun shimmering on the outer leaves of a vast tree, or on the ripples of a very deep lake. I don’t know, but it felt as if something that grew in the ground- asleep, you might say, or just feeling itself as something between root-tip and leaf-tip, between deep earth and sky had suddenly waked up, and was considering you with the same slow care that it had given to its own inside affairs for endless years.”

What Pippin seems to be describing is nature itself in all its heartbreaking beauty. I say heartbreaking because even as we read these words we are so aware of the fragility of the world that Treebeard expresses and represents. And in this Tolkien reveals himself as a modern writer who is aware that nature is standing at bay as a debased culture, orc like in its character, knows only one relationship to the natural world and that is dominance, abuse and rape.

One of my pleasures in writing these reflections is seeking for appropriate artwork to aid them. Although I enjoyed the films that Peter Jackson made and, in particular, loved the landscapes within which he set the story I have found much more help for my own work from the imaginations of artists. This week I have used an image by the excellent Anke Eissmann once again who finds such character in the faces of Merry and Pippin and I have found a wonderful depiction of Treebeard’s face by Alan Lee. If Eissmann always gives us character in her work Lee gives us mystery. There is a transcendent quality to all his work. Each image is a kind of portal to a reality beyond the surface that can be touched or simply regarded. This is certainly true of his depiction of Treebeard and as I looked at it I began to see a likeness to his depiction of the figure of Merlin in Bragdon Wood from C.S Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. Again, in future weeks, I want to come back to this likeness. I do not know if it was intentional on Lee’s part but that sense that something is awakening, emerging from the earth in both Treebeard and Merlin, is one that excites, even intoxicates me. I hope that you will enjoy this exploration with me and that, perhaps, you will share your insights and responses in the comments section below.

Alan Lee depicts Treebeard as if emerging from the earth
And here is Alan Lee’s depiction of Merlin emerging from the earth of Bragdon Wood. I hope that you will enjoy comparing the two.

“This Old Man Had a Hat Not a Hood.” Who Did The Three Hunters See Under The Eaves of Fangorn?

The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991, 2007) pp.573-577

Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli have found the site of the battle between the Riders of Rohan and the Orc band who had taken Merry and Pippin but they have found no sign of the hobbits themselves. Now before they continue their search they decide to make camp for the night right under the eaves of an ancient chestnut tree. They build a fire taking care not to cut wood from any living tree but only that which they can gather from the ground about them.

As they rest by their fire they ponder the journey that lies before them, a journey that is likely to take them into the forest itself.

“Celeborn warned us not to go far into Fangorn,” Legolas says. “Do you know why, Aragorn?”

But Aragorn knows little of the forest save that it is old, “as old as the forest by the Barrow-downs, and it is far greater. Elrond says that the two are akin, the last strongholds of the mighty woods of the Elder Days, in which the Firstborn roamed while Men still slept. Yet Fangorn holds some secret of its own. What it is I do not know.”

Alan Lee evokes the wonderful mystery of forests.

The journeys of The Lord of the Rings sometimes lead under the ground, such as the journey through Moria, the Paths of the Dead under the White Mountains between Rohan and Gondor and the path through Shelob’s Lair that passes under the mountains that surround Mordor. Each of these paths hide a deadly peril. The Balrog lurks in the depths of Moria; the Dead haunt the paths under the White Mountains; and Shelob lies in wait for any that might pass through her lair under the mountains of Mordor. All who pass through these dark ways will come to an end of themselves in some way and emerge the other side as different from the self that first entered in.

But the journeys through forests are different in nature. In these journeys a secret is encountered. The hobbits encounter Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest, a strange and delightful wonder. In Lothlórien, the Golden Wood, the Fellowship meet the Lady of the Wood, Galadriel. And in Fangorn Forest Merry and Pippin meet Treebeard, the oldest of the Ents, the Onodrim of which Legolas speaks by the campfire. Each forest is alive, not just as the aggregation of many things, many separate trees and other plants, but as an intelligence that holds all the separate parts together and which is expressed in the secret life hidden therein.

The night passes and Gimli is on watch by the fire when something happens that awakens all three. Or perhaps I should say that two things happen. An old man “wrapped in a great cloak” is seen standing in the firelight but who disappears when challenged by Aragorn. And the other thing is that the horses run off at the same moment.

Shadowfax, Chief of the Mearas.

Gimli is convinced that the old man is Saruman and that he has driven their horses away. He is partly correct in this. The following day the companions will meet Gandalf in the forest. It is one of the great moments of the story. Gimli will ask Gandalf if it was him or Saruman who he had seen by the fire and Gandalf will reassure him that he was not there so it was likely to have been Saruman; that Saruman had not been able to wait for his orcs to bring him the hobbits and with the hobbits the greatest prize of all, the One Ring. But it was not Saruman who drove away the horses. The following morning Aragorn will remark to the others that the horses did not sound as if they were fleeing in terror and Legolas will reply that “they spoke as horses will when they meet a friend that they have long missed.” The friend, as we will learn later, is Shadowfax, the greatest of horses who has drawn near to Fangorn in order to await Gandalf. If the companions knew this they would not have to worry about their horses. As Galadriel told them their paths are laid out before their feet and all they need do is to walk the paths in trust.

Gandalf and Saruman together.

“My Heart Would be Glad if I Were Beneath the Eaves of That Wood, and it Were Springtime.” The Fellowship Draw Near to Lothlórien.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.324-326

As Tolkien takes us from the dark of Moria and the terrible events at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm so the language that he uses grows ever richer and more verdant. It is Legolas, the Wood-elf from the green of Mirkwood who first speaks of the land that they approach.

“‘There lie the woods of Lothlórien!’ said Legolas. ‘That is the fairest of all the dwellings of my people. There are no trees like the trees of that land.'”

Ted Nasmith’s imagining of Lothlórien

The history of Lothlórien goes back to the earliest days of the First Age and a settlement there of Silvan, or woodland elves, kindred to Legolas’s own people. When the Valar called the Elves to come to Valinor for fear of Morgoth the Silvan elves had refused the call, choosing to stay east of the Misty Mountains in the vale of Anduin. It was these who were found by Galadriel and Celeborn, fleeing eastward from the war that destroyed the kingdom of Eregion in the Second Age and they became lords of the people who dwelt there. So it was that the two great strongholds of the Elves in Middle-earth were created after the destruction wrought by Sauron, Imladris or Rivendell founded by Elrond and Lothlórien founded by Galadriel and Celeborn.

The Sindarin elves who came with Galadriel named the woodland realm that they settled in Laurelindórenan, or the Valley of Singing Gold, so-called because of the mallorn trees, gifts of Gil-galad, that they had brought with them. It is of these that Legolas speaks in language that becomes ever more poetic.

“For in the autumn their leaves fall not, but turn to gold. Not till the spring comes, and the new green opens do they fall, and then the boughs are laden with yellow flowers; and the floor of the wood is golden, and golden is the roof, and its pillars are of silver, for the bark of the trees is smooth and grey.”

(I have not been able to find the name of the artist who has done this beautiful painting. Can anyone help me? )

You can almost feel Legolas savouring his own words like fine wine, especially the adjectives, golden, golden, and silver. Tolkien himself enjoyed a visceral relationship to language so that he could experience a word both in his senses and in his inner life and in passages like this, even though they are written in the Common Tongue, both for the sake of the Company and for his readers like myself, they are still able to convey a sense of this relationship. We too long to travel to this earthly paradise and to hear and taste the music of the singing gold.

But its name is no longer Laurelindórenan but Lothlórien. It has become the Dreamflower or even just Lórien, or Dream Land. Later Treebeard will speak of this to Merry and Pippin.

“Now they make the name shorter: Lothlórien they call it. Perhaps they are right; maybe it is fading, not growing. Land of the Valley of Singing Gold, that was it, once upon a time. Now it is the Dreamflower.”

The dream that the Fellowship will enter will still be potent, still intoxicating, and perhaps just a little frightening, very frightening for those who bring their peril with them as Sam will later put it to Faramir in Henneth Annûn. But it is a land that is falling asleep, “fading, not growing”. Tolkien skilfully shows a world that is still saturated with the myth of Eden. Like Legolas we cry with yearning, “My heart would be glad if I were beneath the eaves of that wood, and it were springtime!” or with Aragorn, “My heart will be glad, even in the winter”, but as we read The Lord of the Rings we come to realise that there is no return to Eden, that if there is to be a place for us, somewhere, then it lies before and beyond us. As Aragorn will say to Arwen Undómiel at his own ending, “In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them there is more than memory.”

Anna Kulisz imagines the Fellowship in Lothlórien

Ho, Tom Bombadil! The Hobbits Meet a Strange Wonder in The Old Forest.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 116-118

I love all the times in The Lord of the Rings when someone enters the story mysteriously, wonderfully and decisively. Think of Gildor Inglorien and his companions appearing on the woodland path upon which Frodo, Sam and Pippin have just encountered the Black Rider or think of the moment when Merry and Pippin, fleeing from their orc captors and a deadly battle are swept up into the arms of Treebeard. Without warning, we like they are caught up into a world so wonderful that we want to give it the name, magical. The same is true at this moment when “suddenly, hopping and dancing along the path, there appeared above the reeds an old battered hat with a tall crown and a long blue feather stuck in the band.”

Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest

It is Tom Bombadil and in moments the terrifying experience with the malevolent Old Man Willow is at an end and the hobbits are free.

Now, those who only know The Lord of the Rings through the fine films made by Peter Jackson will know little or nothing about Tom. He is a secret shared only by the initiates who have read Tolkien’s books and we clasp this secret close to our bosoms and share it only with other initiates. It marks us out from those “lesser” mortals who have not shared what we know. Now we hear that a small screen version of the story is in preparation and might Tom Bombadil make an appearance?

Now, I do not wish to comment on whether this might be good news or not. I enjoyed the films that Peter Jackson made of The Lord of the Rings with all their flaws. I disagreed with some of the ways in which certain characters were portrayed but I felt that the films were largely true to what Tolkien had given to us in his great work.

Now Bombadil might be given to us through the mind and imagination of a writer other than Tolkien and just as with the movies millions of people may meet him for the first time through that medium. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I happen to think that it is neither. It is an inevitable consequence of writing a great story that it will be passed on by other means and by other hands. It has always happened and every time that it does it brings new people to an experience that has been loved by those who have enjoyed the story in its original form. It also allows people who have known the story and the character of Tom Bombadil to compare their understanding of him with the character that is brought to them by this new means. They may or may not like this new character. For myself I rather expect that he will fall short of the Bombadil that exists in my imagination but I will not resent the experience that others will have by encountering him for the first time on the small screen. I will nurse my own hope that they will go on to pick up the books and meet him through Tolkien’s imagination and his masterful character drawing.

For the hobbits who meet him on the path along the Withywindle on that autumn afternoon the experience is overwhelming. This is partly because of the terror that they have just been through and which Bombadil has brought to an end so suddenly and so completely. And it is because of the utter strangeness of the creature that has done this. Tom Bombadil brings an overwhelming gladness with him that is unique within this story and which I find difficulty in being able to recall from any other character in literature that I know. Is the character of Jesus as portrayed in St St John’s gospel like this? You know that bit in the gospel when he prays for his disciples that his joy may be in them and that their joy may be full. Is this the kind of joy that we see in Tom Bombadil? I do not have answers for certain but for those of you who love this character as I do I hope that you will enjoy the next few weeks in which we explore him together and please do use the ability to leave a comment so that we can talk together.

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

The Fall and Rise of Meriadoc Brandybuck and the Battle of Bywater

If you click on the tag, Merry, at the foot of this post you will find a series of reflections on his progress through The Lord of the Rings at least since I began to publish them on WordPress in October 2013. At that point I had just begun to read The Two Towers and so my first encounter with Merry was as a prisoner of the Uruk Hai of Isengard. I intend to return to The Fellowship of the Ring later in the year and hope to do it better justice than I did when I wrote my early reflections on another website. But even though the reflections on Merry’s early story are missing from this blog I hope that you will see that they do form a true “pilgrim’s progress” as do all of the stories of the major major characters in Tolkien’s great tale.

Merry’s story is of a soul formed through a fall and a rise and if you have already noted that this is the opposite direction to the journey that Lotho Pimple takes and that we thought about last week then you are right. The tragedy of Lotho’s story is not so much that he fell but that he did not live to face the truth about himself and so to rise again. I wrote last week about gaining the world and so losing the soul. Lotho never saw the grace of losing the world before Wormtongue murdered him.

Merry begins The Lord of the Rings as a competent organiser just as he is at the Battle of Bywater when he takes command of troops who have no experience of battle but plenty of spirit and leads them to victory over Saruman’s brigands. Merry slays the leader of the outlaws who, if he had known that the hobbit that he faced had done battle with the deadliest warrior of the Age and lived to tell the tale would never have dared to confront him.

At our first meeting with Merry he is the “leader” of the conspiracy that seems to know more about Frodo’s business than he does. He has food, hot baths and ponies organised at Crickhollow and a secret escape route from the Black Riders through the Old Forest about which he also has local knowledge. But as soon as he is in the forest he is out of his depth, he has to be rescued from Old Man Willow by Tom Bombadil and he remains more or less out of his depth for the rest of the story.

Which of us is ever at our ease in being out of our depth? I mean, truly out of our depth, beyond our competence and in an unfamiliar element? For much of the story Merry sees himself as no more than unwanted extra baggage in someone else’s story and yet without realising it he is becoming at ease with unfamiliarity, at ease with the sense that each experience is beyond his capacity to cope with. And so, without being aware that this is what he is doing, he wins the trust of the mistrusting Treebeard and so brings about the fall of Isengard and it is in “being overlooked” at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields that he aids Éowyn in bringing about the fall of the Witch King of Angmar, the Lord of the Nazgûl. And he achieves all this because he is one who lives for love. Love for the Shire, love for his friends and love for those, like Théoden and Éowyn, who give their love to him.

And now, back on familiar territory, battle hardened but not heart hardened, he deploys his troops swiftly and effectively and so brings to a speedy end the occupation of the Shire. Does he know how he has made this journey and why he has become such an effective leader? I suspect not. But neither does he mind. It is enough that the work is done and that the Shire can begin to be healed once more but we can enjoy the growth of his soul and love him just as do all who know him well.