Reinvestigating the Old Forest, Old Man Willow and Tom Bombadil

These three enigmas are most likely the most controversial figures in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  They are not immediately approachable.  They are barely comprehensible.  What are they?  Where did they come from?  What are they doing next to the Shire, of all places?  What could Tolkien have been thinking?

Remember for a minute the nature of the Shire.  Essentially, it is a bourgeois English countryside transplanted into Middle Earth.  It is not explicitly of Middle Earth.  And, most definitely, not of Eriador.  Eriador, at the time of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, is a very dark and dangerous place.  It is wild.  Life and civilization of any sort can only be found in small, secluded pockets far removed from one another.  So how on earth is this haven of peace and innocence stuck in the middle of it!?  Or rather, how can we, the readers, expect not to find something wholly strange and dangerous beyond the High Hay?

Think of the Shire as our starting point.  Our reality.  It is little removed from our own world.  The passage of the hobbits into the Old Forest is comparable to the moment when the Pavense’s pass through the wardrobe into Narnia.  Tolkien takes the reader out of the transition space of the Shire and wholly into Middle Earth.

Yet, to begin, the Old Forest appears normal.  It’s a dark and spooky forest.  A place little known, except in myth and legend.  It is odd.  It is different.  But at first, it gives no reason to give us pause.  Except then things begin to move.  The forest reveals its malice and cruel intent.  Suddenly, what once seemed normal becomes alien.  Old Man Willow is the ultimate example of this alienation.  It is beyond us to truly comprehend either.  Yet at the same time, they seem so real.  We’ve all seen knarly, creepy old trees leaning out of the fog.  It is just a short step between that and Old Man Willow.

Tom Bombadil, the savior of the hobbits, seems odd, yet normal.  Though his mannerisms are strange, Tom is very much like the hobbits.  But, like the Forest, he is one step removed.  He is not of their world.  He is.  He was.  He has some form of power over the land; and the Ring has no hold on him.

So what does all this mean?

It’s simple.  It goes back to canned excuse of transition and gives it weight and credence.  Old Man Willow, the Old Forest and Tom Bombadil are transition.  A transition from the realities of the Shire, into those of Middle Earth.

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What’s in a Name?

Tolkien is well known for his careful choice of names in his works.  He made an effort to give them meaning, symbolism and authenticity.  They were built with etymological meaning.  It is hard to think any Tolkien has no name.  And yet there is one: Gollum. 

This name has no true meaning.  It is nothing more than onomatopoeia, mimicking the gurgling cough of Smeagol.  Why would Tolkien do this?  It is obvious to any reader, that he’s not the type to just toss in a name off-hand.  So there must be some meaning to this apparently meaningless title.

An interesting way to look at the origin of Gollum is to think of when it is first used as a name. Smeagol becomes Gollum after taking possession of the Ring. The fact that the name has no meaning is intrinsic to the uniqueness of the character. Gollum, in truth, no longer has meaning. His entire being is wrapped up in the power of the Ring. Essentially he is a shell, he becomes the personification of the Ring’s vices. From this, it is easy to see why Gollum calls himself “My Precious.” He is the Ring, it has consumed him.  The murder of Deagol is more; it is also the “death” of Smeagol. 

His existence becomes consumed by the obsessive need to protect his precious and nurture his hatred.  He begins his ownership of the Ring with murder, theft and treachery.  This is key.  Remember Tolkien’s initial conception of the power of the ring.  It gained dominance over the bearer through his or her wrong-doings.  Essentially, Gollum is nothing more than the host to a pernicious parasite.  He is an embodiment of evil.  In the world of Middle Earth, people avoid naming evil.  Sauron is the “shadow,” the “eye,” his name is anathema.  This can be interpreted in many ways.  The use of the name may draw his attention to the speaker.  OR, evil itself is nameless.

Gollum’s lot becomes a bit clearer when he becomes the guide of Frodo.  For a short time, he is brought back to life by the kindness and pity of Frodo.  Frodo’s insistence upon the use of the name Smeagol grants some level of dignity and respect to Gollum.  He is no longer the “thief,” the “murderer,” or the “sneak.”  He is a person.  No longer just a symbol or embodiment of vice.  For a short time he is Smeagol again.  He is his own, no longer dominated by another entity.  He regains his own name and his own being.