Of Songs, Dreams & the Ring

In the Christian tradition and particularly the Roman Catholic rite song has always played an important role in worship and prayer. Song was and is popularly believed to be the most potent form of prayer; the most moving and most likely to be heard by God. This does not discount other forms of prayer, but song has a very special place in the Catholic faith and mass. Reading about Tom Bombadil and Goldberry brings this great tradition to mind and reminds me in many ways of the monastic tradition, where almost all prayer was conducted by means of song. It makes for an interesting interpretation of Tom, doesn’t it?

But then there’s Old Man Willow, who Tom says is “a mighty singer.” Here the similarities, obviously, fail. Yet there still remains the truth that there is some mysterious power in song, and that power is infectious, as is seen in the hobbits.

Before going to bed, Goldberry gives the hobbits this warning:
“Heed no nightly noises! For nothing passes door and window here save moonlight and starlight and the wind off the hill-top.”

When the hobbits go to sleep that night, Frodo, Pippin and Merry dream. They dream vivid, terrifying dreams of such vividness that they are compelled to search for truth in them upon waking. All three dreams devolve into nightmarish fantasy, usually focusing on past horrors.

Yet there is one unique dream: that of Frodo. His dream, at least at first, is a true dream. We and he don’t know it yet, but he is seeing Gandalf’s escape from Isengard, which occured eight days prior to the night at Bombadil’s house. In all cases then, the hobbits see the past in some manner. Yet Frodo’s is the true past. Why?

There are two possiblities: either it is the effect of the Ring’s power or it is the effect of grace or eucatastrophe. Either works, but it is evident that another power is at work.

In preparing this post I had another thought I found to be quite intriguing. Only the hobbits who were affected by Old Man Willow dream. Sam did not. Sam fought off the effects of Old Man Willow’s singing and remained free of his power. Frodo, Pippin and Merry all fell asleep under his song and succumbed to his mechanations. And recall, Tom Bombadil admitted Old Man Willow is a mighty singer. It may be a slight stretch, but could the dreams have originated from Old Man Willow? It also seems suspect that Goldberry and Tom knew they would dream and have nightmares. Does this indicate some lasting hold of the Willow’s or just the haunted aura of the Old Forest and the Barrow Downs?

Escaping the same old Question

I’ve written about the Old Forest, Old Man Willow and Tom Bombadil on many occasions in an attempt to shed some light on their purpose in the narrative.  However, this is a mystery that will most likely never be answered satisfactorily, so I tried to shift my focus as I reread “The Old Forest” today.  I saw some new things, but the funny thing is I always ended up thinking how this or that truly helps the story. 

My first impression of the Old Forest was very surreal, and downright creepy.  With this chapter, the reader is almost immediately confronted by strangeness, and Tolkien’s imagery here, though a bit on the disturbing side, is very effective.  The journey doesn’t start auspisciously, “Soon they were riding off into the mist, which seemed to open reluctantly before them and close forbiddingly behind…”  Not a happy way the start a day is it?  And it only gets worse.  The tunnel through the High Hay is “dark and damp” with a gate of iron bars.  There’s a certain ring of finality and dread the entire passage of the hobbits’ leave-taking of the Shire in the closing of that gate.

And then there’s Merry’s description.  Granted there is description and imagery as the hobbits traverse the forest, but I found this one paragraph the most powerful and evocative:

“But the Forest is queer.  Everything in it is very much more alive, more aware of what is going on, so to speak, than things are in the Shire.  And the trees do not like strangers.  They watch you.  They are usually content usually to watch you, as long as daylight lasts, and don’t do much.  Occasionally the most unfriendly ones may drop a brand, or stick a root out, or grasp at you with a long trailer.  But at night things can be more alarming, or so I am told.  I have only once or twice been in here after dark, and then only near the hedge.  I thought all the trees were whispering and the branches swayed and groped without any wind.  They do say the trees do actually move, and can surround strangers and hem them in.  In fact long ago they attacked the Hedge: they came and planted themselves right by it, and leaned over it…” (FotR p108)

There is just something so otherworldly about this entire chapter which is so well captured in this one passage.  We go from the peace and natural beauty into this place where nature becomes dark and gloomy…and downright crafty.  It is a shock, immediate and brutal.  And in some ways begs the question: how are we to stomach this? 

Well, we aren’t dropped in completely unawares.  There were hints dropped in Sam and Ted’s conversation earlier in the book of walking trees.  And there is the hobbits’ complete lack of knowledge of the outside world to consider.  But in the end, I was most drawn to the foreshadowing of this chapter.  It is full of references immediately recognizable to re-readers who keep an eye out.  I don’t know how well the ents and the huorns were established in Tolkien’s thought at this time, but it would appear that in the Old Forest we get our first glimpse of their development, at least in how they pertain to Middle Earth during the Third Age.  This whole scenario runs parallel with the entry to Fangorn and the meeting of Treebeard; and shows great similarities with the huorns and the “dark” places of Fangorn.  Treebeard’s lament about the ents was ever on my mind reading this chapter: that many ents had become too sleepy and so like trees and many trees too awake like ents. 

To return to my discussion of imagery, as the chapter continues, the descriptions become gradually darker and more threatening.  Yet the forest has some tricks up its sleeve (or should I say branch).  Notice the transition in tone from the forest to the Withywindle River valley.  Suddenly there is color, openness, peace.  Or so it seems.  I hadn’t picked up on this before, its subtle, but upon rereading this shift becomes loaded with meaning. 

By this false sense of the security the Hobbits are lulled to a stop, to sleep against a hoary old tree.  Only to be hurled in the water, or sucked into it’s shadowy depths.  And even then there is a sense of calm and lassitude, for the hobbits, besides Sam, remain asleep throughout.  This only heightens the strangeness and horror of the event. 

The strangeness also acts as a barrier, however.  It makes the entire adventure hard to believe and out of this world.  And so I never found this threat to the hobbits to be overly threatening, but rather miner.  The barrow wights to come were always more successful.  Upon this reread, I felt an almost palpable sense of relief at the entry of Tom Bombadil.  Not for his role in saving the hobbits, but for his apparent normalcy.  He is a return, more or less, to the sort of person we know.  He is there the draw us out of this surreal nightmare which is the Old Forest. 

And so I’ve returned to question that has haunted so many who read The Lord of the Rings: why the Old Forest, why Old Man Willow, why Tom Bombadil? 

We are used to our world and its close shadow, which is the Shire.  But at the High Hay we enter with tentative steps more firmly into the secondary world of Tolkien’s creation.  We are thrust straight into the strangeness of it; not necessarily with the expectation of our belief in this moment but with thoughts turned towards our future belief.  Have you ever noticed that to a certain degree everything that follows is easier to swallow after the Old Forest?  I hadn’t, but I think that’s part of the point.  By placing this den of strangeness right at the start of his tale, I believe Tolkien has found a way to aid his readers in believing his tale. It is an abrupt wake up call to all readers: we are far from home.

Friendly Trust

Trust (noun): charge, custody, or care

To Trust (verb): to permit to remain or go somewhere or to do something without fear of consequences

What does it mean to trust someone?  And is trust healthy?  Can it be in error, yet this still be a possitive outcome? 

These three questions are at the core of “A Conspiracy Unmasked.”  Frodo’s idea of trust follows the definition of the verb above.  He expects to be let alone to follow his own path and keep his own secrets.  His trust is a personal trust; that of one who feels responsible and unwilling to draw others into his misfortune.  His trust is the trust of non-interferance, not the true trust of friendship. 

The conspiracy, however, embodies the noun of trust.  Friends are entrusted with the care of each other.  To look after one another and support each other in all circumstances.  Though misguided, Frodo in large part also follows this definition.  He believes he is caring for the safety and innocence of his friends by keeping them in the dark and preventing them from joining him.  The conspiracy’s spying on Frodo is a literal betrayal of Frodo’s trust, a betrayal of his privacy and an accusation against his ability to care for himself.  This may seem a great betrayal, a sign of an utter lack of trust, but it is not.  It is the firm espousal of Friendly Trust, which closely relates to the noun’s definition. 

It is a grey area.   But I think one of the main points of this chapter is to reveal the nature of true friendship.  Not passing friendships and acquaintances, but true life-long friendships.  In these, part of the role of the friend is to look out for the other, even if that means guarding them from themself.   This is a truth that even Frodo comes to realize, which is evident in his quick and unresisting acceptance of Pippin and Merry into his quest. 

This is a pivotal moment in the book in terms of characterization.  Here we see the true depth of friendship and love between the four (five including Fatty) hobbits and the lengths they will go to look out for one another.  And this is before any of the character growth at the core of the tale!  It also is great evidence of the real cunning and intelligence of hobbits, if they choose to use it.  Up until this point intelligence was a largely ignored or even scorned aspect of hobbit life.  One has only to think of how the hobbits thought of Bilbo. 

I’d like to use this opportunity to compare this vignette to the moment of meeting in the film adaption.  In the film Merry and Pippin appear out of nowhere, run into Frodo and Sam, fall down a cliff and almost a split second later decide to go with Frodo.  From the long expected party we get a pair of miscreants, and pretty stupid/immature ones at that.  The only purpose I can see here is speed, nothing else can be gained here.  Instead, a great jewel of characterisation is lost and cast aside.

A Good Dose of Hobbit Sense

Two things struck me from the chapter “Shortcut to Mushrooms:” the nature of hobbits and Tolkien’s use of the situation both for foreshadowing and information.  Pippin at this point in the book represents the ordinary hobbit, granted as normal as can be for a Took.  He is not as closely tied in friendship and loyalties to Frodo as Sam.  He is also unaware of the implications of the events that surround him.  And so, in him, we get a glimpse of hobbit sense.  With Pippin the primary focus and priority of all hobbits is reinforced: good food and good ale.  His comments to Frodo when he finally wakes are very revealing.  When there is good food, it’s essentially every hobbit for themshelf…unless you have a close friend like Sam to look out for you.  The other point of interest is the amount of reverence given to food and the act of eating.  Given the nature of hobbits, one could say this is their principle art form.  therefore Pippin’s reaction to Frodo’s desire to think at breakfast is not just jest, I’d say its actual shock.

Then there’s Farmer Maggot.  For a long time his character has perplexed me.  As I’ve stated before, he acts as one of the first Guardians for the hobbits.  He also acts as the window into the typical hobbit family, life and society.  What is shocking about Maggot, however, is how he deals with the Black Rider.  He stands up to it and even goes to far as to threaten it!  What is more, upon finding that the Black Riders are a true threat to Frodo and company he offers his help in their journey as well as his continued aid in fooling the Black Riders of Frodo’s whereabouts.  Hobbits can be strong-willed and courageous in a pinch, but it usually takes a lot to draw something like this out of them.  One has only to think of Bilbo in The Hobbit or the Shire at the end of LotR for example.  So what makes Maggot special?  He is the paradigm of what it means to be a hobbit.  He’s a farmer who likes his food.  He has a large family.  He likes to gossip.  So how is he different? 

Well, for one thing, he’s shrewd.  He was able to guess the purpose of the Riders with no hints or guesses and come extremely close to the mark.  And while it may have been courageous on his part to stand up to the Rider in his lane, much of that was most like bluff and bluster.  I think this is revealed in large part by the anecdotes told by Frodo of his past relations with Farmer Maggot, as well as Pippins comments regarding his character.  However, Maggot’s actions also reveal the true mettle of hobbits.  They will stand up for themselves and others of their kind against any and all outsiders.  There is also the fact that Bombadil seems to know Farmer Maggot or at least know of him. 

In the end, who Farmer Maggot is and what he does is not that important.  What he reveals about the nature of the Shire and Hobbits is.  And this is what Tolkien does by taking a “shortcut.”  As Pippin says “Shortcuts lead to long delays,” and this is a device Tolkien uses over and over in order to reveal information to the reader without needing to stop the plot or rely on exposition.  There are many shortcuts used in The Lord of the Rings.  Three stand out the most: Moria, Cirith Ungol and the Paths of the Dead.  The Shortcut to the Mushrooms is just the first in a series of trips of discovery.  Each of these supposed shortcuts reveals something; about the characters, about Middle Earth, or the nature of their quest and the evils of the world.

The hobbit’s shortcut in this chapter is not so important.  It does, however, run in almost direct parallel to the shortcut through the Old Forest.  Here we see the hobbits encounter normal problems, in a “normal” setting much like our own world.  Here they attempt to do the unexpected by leaving the road.  They try to cut across country, only to have nature turn them aside.  And in the end they are saved by a guardian. 

As discussed previously, the Lord of the Rings is a story of growth.  Their challenges and the stature of their guardians reflect this.  It also works to immerse the reader in Middle Earth.  It is akin to testing the waters by dipping in a toe, or wading before diving in.  That is the trek between Hobbiton and Bucklebury.  With the hobbits, we readers are slowly being guided away from the known and comfortable into the blank parts of the map.