Kevin Roger Black - Where the Shadows Lie
The Old Forest
Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow, (I: 197)
Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow.
None has ever caught him yet, for Tom, he is the master:
His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster.
The Hobbits could receive no better introduction to Middle-earth than the one they get in the Old Forest. This forest grows right on the edge of the Shire, across the Brandywine River, and therefore is removed, like the Shire, from the populous and political South. It is also removed from the other old forest that appears in the second volume: Fangorn Forest. For this is an Old Forest in capital letters: the forest of old fears and old legends, which the perceptive reader will recognize as kin to another dangerous old legendary forest: the Forest Sauvage. Each step inside its borders brings the hobbits further, not only from the security of the Shire, but from their own time, as the ancient trees crowd in and stifle them from the sun. The path they follow curls and winds sensuously through the trees, seducing them farther and farther into the forest, away from their intended destination, the East Road. But, just as in Malory's Forest, the seduction of the trees is fraught with danger. Lulled to sleep under the branches of a willow tree, they awaken to find that the tree has opened up and begun to devour two of their number; and had they not been rescued shortly thereafter by Tom Bombadil, the forest would have digested them and their urgent errand without a trace.
The Old Forest, being the Hobbit's first introduction to Middle-earth outside the Shire, also introduces them to the living history of Middle-earth. Throughout their long quest, the Hobbits face a surprising number of survivors from the Elder Daysthe first and second ages of Middle-earth. These octogenarians create a strong sense of connection between the past and the present, and while in most other places the ancient survivors dwindle in conflict with the hostile forces of the present, here the old trees and spirits have sway. The Old Forest has not been changed by the years: it remains entirely primeval, powerful, and serene, as if no transitory wars, dynasties, or Rings of Power could ever touch it. In this character, it blurrily represents the forest of Man's imagination, the refuge of myths and fairy-stories. Tolkien felt that the imagination was the key to unlocking the permanent and worthy parts of the mind, which come from God, who gave us a creative spirit. But imagination is a dense and dark path to enlightenment, and full of traps and danger, just like the forest which looms over them.
The special wunderkind of the forest is Tom Bombadil, who clumps around noisily through the trees singing nonsense like "Hey! Come merry dol! derry dol! My darling!" Tom releases the Hobbits from the willow with a song and takes them to his cottage deep in the woods, which he shares with his wife, Goldberry, the daughter of the River. The hobbits are naturally curious about their mysterious and powerful host, but all that they can find out about Bombadil from his wife is that he is:
"He is, as you have seen him," she said in answer to his look. "He is the Master of wood, water, and hill." (I: 173-4)
Master, she stresses, but not its owner. Later, when the hobbits receive Bombadil's own account of his origins, he tells them that he is "Eldest," who came before the river and trees, and can remember the first raindrop and acorn, before the first of the Elves sailed to Middle-earth from over the Great Sea.
As I have already mentioned, Bombadil is a great singer of songs, and during the second night that the hobbits spend at his house, Tom displays his talent for story-telling, telling them all about the Old Forest, and laying bare:
....the hearts of trees and their thoughts, which were often dark and strange, and filled with a hatred of things that go free upon the earth, gnawing, biting, hacking, burning: destroyers and usurpers. It was not called the Old Forest without reason, for it was indeed ancient, a survivor of vast forgotten woods; and in it there lived yet, ageing no quicker than the hills, the fathers of the fathers of trees, remembering times when they were lords. (I: 180-1)
The forest has existed for thousands of years, and at best a man can acquaint himself with a small piece of it. Compared to the power of the Old Forest, individual men are very, very petty indeed. We can imagine that the trees would take a very dim view of minds that could be swayed by the sensationalism of O. J. Simpson driving his white Ford Bronco down the L. A. freeway. But men, blinding themselves to trees and their ancient stories, have become their enemies, chopping, burning, carelessly destroying in their hasty greed. As Tom speaks, his voice blends in with the Forest, becoming part of its elemental force:
Tom's talk left the woods and went leaping up the young stream, over bubbling waterfalls, over pebbles and worn rocks, and among small flowers in close grass and wet crannies, wandering at last up on to the Downs. (I: 181)
Tom's voice is the voice of the Forest: he embodies the spirit of old bards that would translate ancient stories, borrowings from the forest of folklore, into verse and song. Hence Tom is the Master of what he sings, but not its owner; he is also its guardian and keeper in a world that has nearly forgotten that the forest exists.
Tom turns the tables on the hobbits by inducing them to tell him all they know about their mission and the Ringshowing the avid curiosity of a collector of stories and lore. But when he is shown the Ring by Frodo, he demonstrates that it has no power over him by peering through it, putting it on and taking it off, and tossing it in the air. The Ring has no hold over him because it is, fundamentally, a machinea mechanical device crafted by Sauron in the fires of Orodruin during the Second Age. The fact that the mechanism is magical has no bearing on its natureit is an artificial tool and therefore of no use to a spinner of folklore. In "On Fairy-Stories," Tolkien declares that a writer of fairy-stories is perfectly justified in ignoring rude mechanical devices, such as street-lamps:
The electric street-lamp may indeed be ignored, simply because it is so insignificant and transient. Fairy-stories, at any rate, have many more permanent and fundamental things to talk about. Lightning, for example. The escapist is not... subservient to the whims of evanescent fashion. ("OFS": 61)
Bombadil scorns the Ring for the same reason: it is does not have any poetry or philosophical importance, it is an impermanent prop and unfit for folklore.
Every hour the Hobbits spend with Tom awakens them to the significant and profound songs of the trees and hills, that contrast the comparatively tinny and hollow siren song of the Ring. Though Tom does not directly advance their mission, except by keeping them out of trouble, their visit with Bombadil does much to fortify them on the road ahead. The temporal power offered to them by the Ring no longer holds the same attraction for them, for they recognize the lasting power and honor of the great, half-forgotten stories and songs.
As if to underscore the importance of this lesson, the Hobbits are "tested" in another adventure before they escape from the Forest. Leaving Tom's house, they are caught up in a fog, and wander into the Barrow-Downs, burial grounds of forgotten Kings whose empires ended in fire. The hobbits fall under the spell of a Barrow-Wight, who charms them into entering his mound. Frodo awakens from the ghoul's spell to find himself on a cold stone slab in a tomb. Turning his head, he sees his friends beside him, unconscious, and queerly decked out in gold:
He turned, and there in the cold glow he saw lying beside him, Sam, Pippin, and Merry. They were on their backs, and their faces looked deathly pale; and they were clad in white. About them lay many treasures, of gold maybe, though in that light they looked cold and unlovely. On their heads were circlets, gold chains were about their waists, and on their fingers were many rings. Swords lay by their sides, and shields were at their feet. But across their necks lay one long naked sword. (I: 194)
Tolkien has the grace not to stress his point any further, but it is clear that the odd abundance of lucre combined with the posture and appearance of the hobbits is meant to show that death is the end of greedthe kings and their riches lie forgotten in an unquiet grave amidst the deathlessness of the forest and Tom. Frodo manages to sing a charm to summon Bombadil, and they are rescued. When they strip off the gold chains, they find their clothes have disappeared, and they are naked. Tom tells them "You've found yourselves again, out of deep water. Clothes are but little loss, if you escape from drowning" (I: 198). The escape from death in the tomb, and the passing "out of deep water" signifies a rebirth, and the Hobbits are now happy with no more material goods than they brought into the world with them. Before leaving the mound again, Tom piles the treasure in a heap outdoors, "'free to all finders, birds, beasts, Elves or Men, and all kindly creatures'" (I: 200) for the scattering of the treasure is the only way to break the spell of the mound. Money, after all, is also a tool, and its value is empty to those who hear the music of the ancient forest. The Hobbits carry wisdom away with them when they leave, but no gold.