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.