Our last meeting in January was only missing Mike, who was otherwise engaged. Our reading had been ‘The Old Forest’, ‘The House of Tom Bombadil’, and ‘Fog on the Barrow Downs’ – in fact we barely touched on this last chapter, so it will be discussed next time. As it was, we had plenty to talk about with just the first 2 chapters.
Angela began our discussions with her observation that from the time the hobbits leave Farmer Maggot’s house sound and vision are subdued. There is greater emphasis on silence, low sounds and obscurity in the mist and fog. Natural for autumn, but the soft sounds make everything creepier.
Pat came straight to the point when she asked if the Ring was inciting the trees in the Forest to behave as they do – and is the Ring the most powerful force in Middle-earth. Resounding replies of ‘No!’ all round.
Ian went on to comment that the true nature of the power of the Forest has largely been forgotten except in Crickhollow, and the Forest has had time to brood on its own malice. It is Old Man Willow of his own volition who waylays the hobbits.
Eileen noted that the hobbits are forced to follow that paths the Forest itself wanted, and Angela reminded us that the trees are said to hate anything the goes free.
Julie moderated the discussion by noting that the Withywindle is not evil [in spite of its implication in the near-drowning of Frodo]. I wondered if the River was under the influence of Ulmo and his Maia.
Angela noted, however, that the valley of the Withywindle is a place of somnolence, and compared it to the River in Mirkwood that puts Bombur to sleep when his foot touches it.
Ian suggested that Tolkien distinguishes good and evil from what is only bad – what he calles ‘ill’, thus the Forest exercises its own nature, and the hobbits are the trespassers.
Laura then asked ‘what about Yavanna?’. Ian still maintained that the Forest was simply doing its own thing.
Pat remarked, following on from her comments last time, that there is an emphasis on Merry in the Old Forest chapter, and his particular character is demonstrated.
Eileen added that Frodo seem confused in the Forest, so Merry leads the party, and Frodo is constantly surprised that so many people know what he doing, including, so it appears, Farmer Maggot and Tom.
Chris wondered if the Ring was responsible for what seems like Frodo’s more acute hearing when he is the first to hear Tom singing?
Eileen then asked if Tom was not too good? Ian responded that Tom is not concerned with what’s happening, he’s happy but unconcerned. Eileen then observed that Tom is optimistic but ‘too sudden’ in his appearance, and then his house is otherworldly. Ian remarked that following Tom is like following Lewis Carol’s white rabbit, is it a trap? Having been scared in the Forest, this question is raised, but Tom is of the moment. Ian was about to develop a whole theory about time in relation to Tom and the Old Forest – more of this shortly!
Chris remarked that Tom knows the hobbits are coming, and Angela added that he had been in communication with Farmer Maggot, and with the elves. Angela and Tim noted that Barliman Butterbur is also known to Tom.
Tim reminded us that during our previous reading of this chapter many years ago we considered whether Tom and his song are part of the Song of Creation.
Julie noted that Tolkien as narrator call it a ‘nonsense’ song and then qualifies this, asking ‘is it?
Laura observed that it may function like the Kyrie Eleison – sung or spoken because it is recognised or believed to be language of great power even though it may not necessarily be understood.
Tim then noted that Sam is the first person to shake himself out of the stupor induced by the Willow, and try to rescue all the others.
Angela then remarked that Tom knows all this history of Middle-earth and especially the Shire and the Barrow Downs.
Laura wondered why Goldberry does not have a larger role. Tim observed that Tom and Goldberry represented the elements of earth and water, and that they have physical form but were not necessarily ‘human’. This reminded some of us of the Maiar who could choose the form in which they clothed themselves. Tim observed that the specific dynamic between Tom and Goldberry adds mystery.
Ian returned to his interest in time and remarked that trees and humans had different perceptions of time, therefore in the Forest the trees control time. Laura raised the matter of Tom’s garden, and Ian remarked that it is the place where Tom and Goldberry could be together, and he associated them with the separate concepts of time as known to the classical Greeks, in which Chronos signified time flowing, while Kairos signified the instant. This relates to Goldberry the River-daughter ‘flowing’, while Tom is the ‘instant’. But both are supernatural.
Chris wondered if Tom was in fact an early creation by Eru? Ian noted that Tom’s influence and help is limited in extent and he himself will not pass certain boundaries, and Pat found it interesting the Tom keeps to his own country. It was noted that various characters in the early chapters express a restricted knowledge of a wider world, and Angela observed that Sam seems never to have travelled further than 20 miles from his home until he sets out with Frodo.
Laura commented that the description of Goldberry surrounded by waterlilies is like a pre-raphaelite painting.
Chris drew attention to the description of Tom’s house and wondered if there was any significance in its east-west alignment. It was observed that this was the usual alignment of churches. Pat remarked that it was aligned to natural time and the passage of time from daybeak to sunset. I suggested that Tom, unlike almost everyone else, was not bothered by the significance of the east, although he knew about it. All the doors in Bree faced west, and even the Barrows should be passed on the west side.
Laura questioned, on the basis of what Tom sings about collecting the last of the waterlilies and not going deep into the Forest until spring, whether he hibernates through the winter?
Eileen thought she perceived Tolkien’s particular liking for nature, and we all agreed this was the case. Ian cited letter 159, in which Tolkien expressed this deep interest. Laura observed that Tom’s relationship to nature contrasts with that of Saruman.
Eileen also noted that Tom wants to give the hobbits good advice for their onward journey, in contrast to the elves’ reluctance to offer advice. She also wondered if the mist over the Forest and the fog on the Downs connoted the inability to think as well as to see?
At this point we were running out of time and had to consider our next reading. As we had hardly touched on ‘Fog on the Barrow Downs’ we agreed to discuss that, and to read ‘The Prancing Pony’ and ‘Strider’.