(Updated on 04/08/2022)
Mystery is the theme as our four-man band, fresh from the events of “A Conspiracy Unmasked”, enters the Old Forest. I liked how Merry describes the Old Forest at the beginning of the chapter, just like a rural dweller would, drawing on old legends and myths – “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” – before admitting he really doesn’t know all that much. The forest is “queer”, an ancient place that hobbits fear to tread, a dangerous land to be guarded against and not explored lightly. At this point, the reader would not be unwise to think the forest might be nothing more than the geographical equivalent of the bogeyman, a haunted house that hobbit kids use to scare their friends at Halloween. Merry’s almost-boast that he has been inside it a few times reeks of this and, on first reading, you’d be tempted to dismiss the coming chapter as a waltz through a slightly scary, but utterly ordinary, forest with the end moral being that you shouldn’t believe everything you hear and that the worst fear is created entirely by the mind.
But, as Merry notes, the trees inside have attacked Buckland, in a fashion, which soon dispels the possible notion that the hobbits are simply falling prey to unsubstantial superstition. The gate into it is kept locked when not in use, and you know it isn’t to stop people stumbling from the hobbit side into the trees. Tolkien sets the chapter up quite nicely, as we are eager to discover just what it is about the place that is so bad, so bad that the peace loving hobbits defended their cultivated order with an all-out attack on the wildness just outside their borders: “…the hobbits came and cut down hundreds of trees, and made a great bonfire in the Forest, and burned all the ground in a long strip east of the Hedge“. Tolkien loved nature, there is no doubt, but we can infer enough from the first six chapters to think that he ultimately preferred an ordered form of nature: no one is going to be taking the hobbits to task for their burning of the Old Forest, sentient trees or no.
Merry is pretty good as Mr Exposition, setting the Forest up and generally acting as the leader of the party. That follows on from the competent way he was presented in both “A Shortcut To Mushrooms” and “A Conspiracy Unmasked”. However, this whole persona gets blown when they go wrong inside the wood, besting Frodo’s earlier mistake of taking a shortcut across the Shire. Merry blunders into the re-route with everyone else, and has no plan B. We haven’t got a clear-cut leader, or heroic figure yet, and we won’t get one in this chapter.
The trees inside the forest are alive in some kind of fashion: they move about when others aren’t looking, they change the paths of the forest according to their own twisted designs and they have a malevolence that is obvious and unnerving. Like a carnivorous plant with a fly, they lure the hobbits in, pushing the four towards seemingly safe locations when in reality they are moving towards places they can be more easily digested. This is faerie land exemplified really: how many stories, myths or legends revolve around the bad things that happen when you get lost in a mysterious wood? We are off the edge of the map now, adrift in a sea of otherworld tales and dangers, and other beings are calling the shots: “They were being headed off, and were simply following a course chosen for them…into the heart of the Forest and not out of it“.
The atmosphere of the forest is depressingly oppressive. Tolkien creates a world where the reader feels like they are suffocating, a sensory experience that is altogether uncomfortable. Even before they enter “…they were riding off into the mist, which seemed to open reluctantly before them and close forbiddingly behind them” and then “For the moment there was no whispering or movement among the branches; but they all got an uncomfortable feeling that they were being watched with disapproval, deepening to dislike and even enmity. The feeling steadily grew, until they found themselves looking up quickly, or glancing back over their shoulders, as if they expected a sudden blow”.
I think anybody who has walked through a wood in the height of summer can remember a similar feeling, and it’s translated into words quite well. I recall especially my own experience in Japan’s famed Aokigahara, where the silence itself becomes part of the creeping feeling that all is not right. The horrid intelligence of the forest, one that is bearing down on the little group, is palpable. The Old Forest is an extreme, more evil form of Fangorn, which we’ll enter much later. And we’ll get much the same imagery there, but this wood is far more insidious, more…bad-minded. The trees of the Old Forest have little care for rings or power. They take no sides in the grander struggle. But they are undoubtedly evil in intention. I would compare them in many ways to Shelob, who seems affiliated to Sauron but without any conviction in it at all. Forces like her, and these trees, delight in their wickedness, and would ally with whomever would advance that wickedness.
There is a Mirkwood connection here as well, from The Hobbit, as bad things start happening the second the hobbits leave the path. Here the decision is taken out of their hands, but it’s still a common theme of Tolkien: stick to the known ways, or you’ll regret it. Getting lost in such an environment represents both a physical failing – in stepping off the path – and to some degree a moral one, a representation of giving into temptation, lack of will, lack of caution, whatever you want to call it, which certainly was the case with Thorin and company. The paths were made for a reason. Even the description of the entrances in both respects are similar. From The Hobbit:
“The entrance to the path was like a sort of arch leading into a gloomy tunnel made by two great trees that leant together, too old and strangled with ivy and hung with lichen to bear more than a few blackened leaves.”
And from The Lord Of The Rings:
“A cutting had been made, at some distance from the Hedge, and went sloping gently down into the ground. It had walls of brick at the sides, which rose steadily, until suddenly they arched over and formed a tunnel that dived deep under the Hedge and came out in the hollow on the other side.”
In all of this Tolkien demonstrates his perhaps under-appreciated skill as a writer of horror: he’s good at describing an unnatural place, building suspense as people go through it and leading things to a terrifying crescendo. “The Old Forest” is not the first time he has done this – “Riddles In The Dark” and “Flies And Spiders” are there of course – and it will not be the last either: one just has to look ahead to chapters like “Shelob’s Lair” or “The Passing Of The Grey Company“.
Pippin is the first to panic, snapping at the trees suddenly, like a frustrated child: “‘Oi! Oi!’ he cried. ‘I am not going to do anything. Just let me pass through, will you!’“. It’s the beginning of a collapse in the group’s morale and nerve. I think it’s an excellent way of showing just what kind of an effect the forest is having: Pippin being the most carefree hobbit, so if he’s feeling the strain of the situation, you know things are getting really bad. Mysterious Black Riders are one thing. They were tangible and avoidable. How do you deal with an entire forest that seems to bear you ill-will?
As before, the actions of the hobbits as they walk along, as described by Tolkien, helps set the tone. And its one of silence, worry and nervousness. Frodo’s brief song – not the first or last time characters will turn to verse to try and get spirits rising – gets cut off and this chapter contains the longest amount of time the book has gone without dialogue so far. Singing is a recurring thing in “The Old Forest” actually, with Frodo’s failure to boost morale contrasted sharply with the nonsense-style rhyming which saves the day later.
The group reaches a hill in the middle of the forest and has a look around. So much emphasis is placed on how the hobbits should be avoiding the Withywindle Valley that we know that’s exactly where they’re going to end up. I mean, if anything, Tolkien is over egging that inevitability. It’s only at this point of the journey that we, the reader, actually find out where the hobbits are aiming to go by travelling through the forest, which is “the old east road”. Still vague, but at least we know, generally, where the plot is headed. We also get a brief throwaway reference – which of course means we’re going to end up there too – of the Barrow Downs, an area on the border of the forest. Hitting the Withywindle – “a dark river of brown water, bordered with ancient willows, arched over with willows, blocked with fallen willows, and flecked with thousands of faded willow-leaves” – allows for another Mirkwood comparison, bearing a similarity to the enchanted stream that Bombur falls into it: both are strange waterways, the encounter with which bodes nothing good.
The party faces its very first direct danger shortly after in the form of “Old Man Willow”, brilliantly described: “ Enormous it looked, its sprawling branches going up like reaching arms with many long-fingered hands, its knotted and twisted trunk gaping in wide fissures that creaked faintly as the boughs moved”. Up to that point the dangers have been avoiding the Black Riders. Now, they face a more obvious and very different problem. This Willow tree is the clearest sign of magical power in the forest yet and it packs a hell of a punch. It’s on a par with the poppy fields of The Wizard of Oz and the sirens of ancient Greek legend: an evil using the lure of sleep and song to doom travellers hardly being a new literary advice: “…with a sound now of faint and far-off laughter“. Still, it’s written well and we know that the party is in real trouble, as The Lord of the Rings undertakes a sudden charge into more hardcore fantasy territory.
Frodo fights the power of the tree but gives in. Sam fights it, gives in, but then fights it again, waking up and pretty much saving the day in the process. It won’t be the last time either. I said that this chapter doesn’t give us a real stand-out figure for this four-man group, but Sam is the best of them, and just for this moment, when his innate common sense warns him to the calamity that is about to occur. He’s not one to stand around idly when faced with this kind of problem: “‘If it don’t let them go, I’ll have it down, if I have to gnaw it.’” But such an attitude isn’t always a good thing.
We do get a very real sense of the dire situation from the way Frodo and Sam react to Merry and Pippin’s extreme peril in being caught by the tree. This is best shown in the not-well-thought-out plan Sam cooks up, setting the tree on fire, which results in this marvellous exchange:
“‘Wait a minute!’ cried Sam, struck by an idea suggested by firewood. ‘We might do something with fire!’
‘We might,’ said Frodo doubtfully. ‘We might succeed in roasting Pippin alive inside.’”
This pretty much takes back any of the points Sam has won, as his suggestion involves setting ablaze the malevolent being that has one of his friends inside. These hobbits aren’t experienced travellers, and they have no background in dealing with magical threats. And that really comes out here, in spades.
Frodo snaps big time. We’ve seen hints of this already, his general depression, his snarkyness, and his mistakes. But he loses it here, running “witless” around the place screaming for help, “without any clear idea of why he did so, or what he hoped for”, losing all self-control and giving into despair. I think that if the Council of Elrond could see Frodo act this way, they wouldn’t be so quick to let him be the permanent Ring-bearer. This kind of behaviour is far from productive and tantamount to a full blown mental breakdown. Tolkien writes him this way, I suppose, to emphasise his weakness.
But, help is at hand: “…then suddenly, hopping and dancing along the path, there appeared above the reeds an old battered hat with a tall crown and a long blue feather stuck in the band. With another hop and a bound there came into view a man, or so it seemed. At any rate he was too large and heavy for a hobbit, if not quite tall enough for one of the Big People, though he made noise enough for one, slumping along with great yellow boots on his thick legs, and charging through grass and rushes like a cow going down to drink. He had a blue coat and a long brown beard; his eyes were blue and bright, and his face was red as a ripe apple“.
Tom Bombadil is an absolutely insane character, especially by modern standards. I’ll be talking about him a lot more in the next chapter but, for now, a few points will suffice. He’s random. Very random. He’s not man, or an elf or a dwarf or a hobbit, he wears all blue, has a feather in his cap and spends his time singing and running around the enchanted forest, in which he sticks out like a sore thumb, before you even start on his bizarre speech with its vaguely memorable meter (more obvious from an audiobook perhaps). You’ll find an awful lot of debate about Bombadil in Tolkien fan circles but I think the answer is simple enough. Tolkien, notably, wrote the vast majority of The Lord of the Rings on the fly, coming up with a lot of plot elements as he went along. I think, having got to a point where he had written the hobbits into this corner, he came up with using the Tom character (someone he’d made up for a short story a few years earlier) as a way to get them out, with no firm intentions regarding his nature.
And that’s why he’s so random. More than that, his speech, his demeanour, and his power over the trees definitely mark him out as not quite at home with regular folks. It’ll get even more notable in the next chapter. Like the trees, he will be revealed as a strange neutral entity in the larger struggle, but one whose character is certainly more predisposed to good than evil.
One other point marks him out. His home lies between the Old Forest and the Barrow-Downs, two very dark and generally bad places. Though we’ve yet to learn just what makes the Downs such a feared area, we can surmise that Bombadil must be some kind of strange entity, to have chosen to live on the borders of each. Or maybe he didn’t choose at all.
The hobbits are extremely trusting of Tom, even though, if this story was set in the modern day, he’d be the kind of person living in the woods so he could stockpile arms and await the inevitable revolution. Frodo’s lack of caution can be seen again. Still, with his rapid defeat of Old Man Willow, whom he strangely commands to cease his nefarious activity, he’s gotten the hobbits out of quite a bind, so their trust can be explained. Like Maggot before, Bombadil is a light in the darkness, the unexpected ally, who the child-like hobbits desperately need to rely on. They follow him like he is some kind of Pied Piper, never questioning, just straining to keep up. His home, with a female voice joining his in mysterious song, is one full of cheer and welcome: “…the hobbits stood upon the threshold, and a golden light was all about them”.
If “The Old Forest” has its problems in terms of resolution and character development, it makes up for it with its imagery, which is some of the most evocative and mesmerising in the entire genre of fantasy. A few examples:
“In the midst of it there wound lazily a dark river of brown water, bordered with ancient willows, arched over with willows, blocked with fallen willows, and flecked with thousands of faded willow-leaves. The air was thick with them, fluttering yellow from the branches; for there was a warm and gentle breeze blowing softly in the valley, and the reeds were rustling, and the willow-boughs were creaking.”
“They stepped out from the Forest, and found a wide sweep of grass welling up before them. The river, now small and swift, was leaping merrily down to meet them, glinting here and there in the light of the stars, which were already shining in the sky.”
“The leaves were all thicker and greener about the edge of the glade, enclosing it with an almost solid wall. No tree grew there, only rough grass and many tall plants: stalky and faded hemlocks and wood-parsley, fire-weed seeding into fluffy ashes, and rampant nettles and thistles. A dreary place: but it seemed a charming and cheerful garden after the close Forest.”
It isn’t anything grand in scope or complex in words. But it is simply effective descriptions, that spark the imagination and gets the images in your head.
This chapter needs to inject some life into a narrative that has slowed greatly in the last few instalments. It needs to reduce the hobbits to the state of children in order to emphasise their weakness in the wide world. And it needs to offer a new and vey credible threat to their overall advancement. It does all that, but it is the pacing that is the key thing. “The Old Forest” isn’t a thrill-a-page kind of chapter, and its ending is very strange in regards working out the mini-arc it contains (entering with confidence, losing it gradually, crisis point, rescue). But it does change the atmosphere of the story in a positive way: the creepy and overpowering aura of the forest turns The Lord of the Rings into a fairy horror story for a short time, one that keeps the reader engaged, by means of wondering how far the hobbits will go towards destruction and how they will survive. It does enough to make the story more exciting after the near-drudgery of the last two chapters, and that’s enough.
Unfortunately, for those concerns specifically, the next chapter is going to be a problem.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.