(Updated on 09/09/22)
OK, this chapter. It would be too lenient to say that it is the most divisive chapter in the entire book really, because I do feel that it has actually gone beyond that point (and some way beyond). Much of the modern readership seems to have little appreciation for this chapter, and they have similar feelings for Tom Bombadil and Goldberry more specifically. And there are very good reasons for these feelings.
Fresh from “The Old Forest“, we get our introduction to Goldberry right off the bat, and it’s a whole pile of “what the hell is going on?” She’s the first female character of consequence in the story, bar Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, but we will never learn all that much about her as she is set up simply and never changes too much from that initial appraisal: a beautiful, dutiful wife, who seems to have little agency in the life she inhabits. The change in surroundings is so jarring: from deadly enchanted forest to idyllic log cabin home, complete with boisterous housewife. Unlike Bombadil, I feel as if Goldberry isn’t quite so difficult to figure out. From the description given to her, her obvious connection with nature, especially the Withywindle which she namedrops constantly, and the way that she talks I’d say she is meant to be some sort of nature spirit or nymph, perhaps a personification of the Withywindle itself: she is the “River-daughter” after all. The effect of her is immediate and magical, Frodo suddenly peeling off the most imaginative language to describe her, like a thespian reciting a monologue he can’t remember learning: “Suddenly he stopped and stammered, overcome with surprise to hear himself saying such things.”
On Tom: Well, he’s probably the most debated characters in the fandom, with only the endless back and forth on winged balrogs coming close in terms of discussion topics. Just what is he?
From the information given or hinted at in this chapter, it is far from conclusive. Directly asking who or what he is simply gets cryptic answers: He “is” and he further describes himself as “Eldest, that’s what I am”. His house is an idyllic refuge in-between two extremely dark places, neither of which has any kind of power over him (this little piece of domesticity, so well ordered and neat, further points to the divide between Tolkien’s idealised “nature” and the unruly wilderness beyond). His home is replete with amazing food and drink, shelter from the darkness outside, etc. He has little care for the lives and troubles of mortals, indicating that he himself is immortal, and he does have a bit of a similarity to elves (especially those from The Hobbit and “A Short Rest“) while being far more relatable. Tom knew the party was coming in advance, so we he can guess that he can commune with nature aside from his more tangible links to the likes of Gildor and Farmer Maggot (the latter getting an odd but never elaborated upon reference later in the chapter: “There’s earth under his old feet, and clay on his fingers; wisdom in his bones and both his eyes are open”). He and Goldberry have some sort of power to assuage nightmares, and she can summon rain from the skies.
And, of course, he has power over the Ring, or rather the Ring has no power over him. We read about this in an extremely odd scene that really just diminishes the reputation that the Ring has created for itself up to this point, as part of a process to emphasise Tom’s self-mastery. And that is a mastery that means he has transcended the desires, trinkets and MacGuffins of normal people. Everything Tom says is weird, mysterious and cryptic, infuriatingly so. The next chapter shows that he won’t leave the general area around his home for some reason and whether it’s by choice is not made clear. The full range of descriptions is poetic, but unhelpful:
“The trees and the grasses and all things growing or living in the land belong each to themselves. Tom Bombadil is the Master. No one has ever caught old Tom walking in the forest, wading in the water, leaping on the hill-tops under light and shadow. He has no fear. Tom Bombadil is master.”
“Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn. He made paths before the Big People, and saw the little People arriving. He was here before the Kings and the graves and the Barrow-wights. When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent. He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless—before the Dark Lord came from Outside.”
I was always struck by that reference to the “Dark Lord”, naturally thinking it meant Sauron in my first reading. The common opinion is that it is actually Morgoth – the universes’ nearest approximation to Satan if you haven’t read The Silmarillion – and that sentence is always read in my head like a whisper, lest that dark presence be summoned.
So, what the hell? A commonly offered theory is that Bombadil is God, or Middle-Earth’s version of one (Illuvatar). That would certainly explain the “eldest” stuff and his incredible magical powers. It’s also hard not to think of “I am that I am” when you read “He is” or “Eldest, that’s what I am” or of some grand detached viewpoint when Tom speaks about things in the third person, as if his consciousness is above such identifications as the hobbits use. But I think it’s too simple an explanation and, as is made clear later, he actually would be in serious trouble in the event of a Sauron victory in the coming war. Is he an Ainur, a sort of demi-god, or a Maiar, Middle-Earth’s version of Angels, in the same line as the wizards? Well, he doesn’t turn up in The Silmarillion in any form and he is “eldest”: the Ainur and the Maiar had a creator. My only substantial idea is that he is simply some sort of spirit, fairie or fey of a kind, a nature entity unique to the universe, perhaps a “Father Nature”. And he is “master”, of himself that is, and not of anything else. Very zen I suppose, but this self-mastery and detachment from the worries of the rest of Middle-Earth mark Bombadil apart, a singular entity in the entire universe presented, who exists outside regular perceptions of space and time. Tolkien is on record as describing Bombadil as an intentional “enigma” of the story, one that even he has no firm explanation for, beyond wanting to use a character who was separated from the earthly desires and attachments of every other character and faction in the larger story. We’ll never know, but for now Bombadil exists simply to make sure the party doesn’t get swallowed up by the forest or the Downs in the next chapter.
Tom and Goldberry are manic and appear borderline insane, dancing around, telling “absurd” stories, and generally just acting like hippies. It’s not hard to see why these characters have dated so horribly, to the extent that they are considered a joke by a lot of readers today, and not a very funny one: read around anywhere about popular reaction to the two, and you’ll get a large degree of snark mixed with genuine annoyance. You can’t get a grasp on them, and they serve no purpose to the plot beyond these chapters, and even here you feel like the story could have continued in some manner without their presence (maybe Aragorn could have been introduced sooner). Part of you thinks that this chapter is set-up for something to follow, which would make sense, but then Bombadil, past the next chapter, is mentioned just twice more. He and his wife feel more like characters from The Hobbit – I’m thinking of the first encounter with elves in that story especially – and were transplanted in here to poor effect. You could read for days about ideas and theories surrounding the two if you were so inclined, but I’ll step back from that debate now, lacking the time or space to do it justice.
Frodo is happy to stay in the weird mans house and isn’t especially eager to set back out on his journey, echoing his previous hesitance in leaving Hobbiton in “Three Is Company“. Added to that is his use of the Ring to try and trick Bombadil, a rather irresponsible thing to attempt, directly against the advice of Gandalf, though it may come from a magically created sense of ease that he has in Bombadil’s house. Frodo still has a lot of growing up to do and still doesn’t seem to grasp just what kind of story he is in the middle of. Interestingly enough, this is the first time in the story that the Ring has actually been used, and it’s a dud.
First night there, we get the description of Frodo’s second dream.
“Then he saw the young moon rising; under its thin light there loomed before him a black wall of rock, pierced by a dark arch like a great gate. It seemed to Frodo that he was lifted up, and passing over he saw that the rock-wall was a circle of hills, and that within it was a plain, and in the midst of the plain stood a pinnacle of stone, like a vast tower but not made by hands. On its top stood the figure of a man. The moon as it rose seemed to hang for a moment above his head and glistened in his white hair as the wind stirred it. Up from the dark plain below came the crying of fell voices, and the howling of many wolves. Suddenly a shadow, like the shape of great wings, passed across the moon. The figure lifted his arms and a light flashed from the staff that he wielded. A mighty eagle swept down and bore him away. The voices wailed and the wolves yammered. There was a noise like a strong wind blowing, and on it was borne the sound of hoofs, galloping, galloping, galloping from the East. ‘Black Riders!’ thought Frodo as he wakened, with the sound of the hoofs still echoing in his mind.”
This is depicted as some sort of premonition type thing, but, as we’ll learn later, it’s actually the past. Why Frodo would dream of Gandalf’s escape from Isengard is unknown really. This is just another confusing aspect of the Tom character: we’ll get another eerie dream at the start of the next chapter, so is it Frodo or some side effect of Tom’s presence? Merry and Pippin deal with more straightforward nightmares, their fears easily assuaged by the power of Goldberry. Interestingly Sam, of all the underdeveloped hobbits in this chapter the worst afflicted, is described as sleeping “in deep content, if logs are contented“, with nary a glimpse of the kind of trouble the others have.
The latter half of the chapter contains a frustrating sequence where Bombadil apparently gives out plenty of info on the forest, Old Man Willow, and the apparent darkness, but the reader never learns any of it, Tolkien skipping by in a few sentences, alluding to but never offering the information. Annoying, and the whole bit seems very much like Tolkien wanted to move things along without creating greater substance to the chapter. Bombadil’s typical personality also grates, as he just bursts into unnecessary song when discussing the Willow tree who lures people to their doom through mystical song: maybe he was being ironic.
Some small bits of info are given out about the Barrow-Downs though, which serves as important set-up. We’ll only get into it a bit more later, but it’s basically a Valley of the Kings for Arnor, only corrupted and haunted. Even the Shire inhabitants are terrified of the place (relatedly, for a place that’s supposed to be all peace and light, the Shire is very close to two of the most dangerous parts of Middle-Earth). Between the flowing description and Bombadil giving the hobbits a warning song to summon him, we all know that the party is heading right into danger there. The description is flowery and dramatic, calling back to Gandalf’s recitation of the war against Sauron in ages past:
“They heard of the Great Barrows, and the green mounds, and the stone-rings upon the hills and in the hollows among the hills. Sheep were bleating in flocks. Green walls and white walls rose. There were fortresses on the heights. Kings of little kingdoms fought together, and the young Sun shone like fire on the red metal of their new and greedy swords. There was victory and defeat; and towers fell, fortresses were burned, and flames went up into the sky. Gold was piled on the biers of dead kings and queens; and mounds covered them, and the stone doors were shut; and the grass grew over all. Sheep walked for a while biting the grass, but soon the hills were empty again. A shadow came out of dark places far away, and the bones were stirred in the mounds. Barrow-wights walked in the hollow places with a clink of rings on cold fingers, and gold chains in the wind. Stone rings grinned out of the ground like broken teeth in the moonlight.”
The storytelling eventually seems to breach the boundaries of perceived time and space, the hobbits transported into a realm of vivid tales and visions of faraway places, without ever leaving where they are or seeing a measurable amount of time past. The writing here is spectacular at times, but you can never quite get beyond the feel of it just being a distraction. It’s a history of the world, of a kind anyway, but does it really belong in this moment?
This chapter should be continuing the swing back into more exciting territory that “The Old Forest” began. But it does the exact opposite. In these pages the narrative slows to a crawl again, and that can only be frustrating to a reader who is surely getting a little tired of so much waiting around. Sandwiched between two similar, but far more engaging chapters, “In The House Of Tom Bombadil” can only be viewed as a real low point in the story, especially in a modern context.
There are still a few moments of great prose of course, a personal favourite being the description of Goldberry’s singing:
“…songs that began merrily in the hills and fell softly down into silence; and in the silences they saw in their minds pools and waters wider than any they had known, and looking into them they saw the sky below them and the stars like jewels in the depths.”
But good prose alone cannot save a chapter if it has too many larger problems.
Here was, I feel, Tolkien indulging himself too much, in inserting such a pair of frustratingly obtuse characters, for no other reason than he had him previously created and wanted to throw him in. Bombadil and Goldberry just do not serve enough of a purpose in this story.
Evidence of that is how Bombadil never appears in most adaptations of the story, including Peter Jackson’s version. But, one adaptation that does spring to mind for me is the video game version of The Fellowship of the Ring. Tom makes an appearance in a bit of that. Now, the voice acting in the game is, for the most part, fine, but Tom and Goldberry are hilariously bad. It’s like the guy doing him was just told, ”Ah, be jolly” and proceeds to sing and prance his way through the role with this really badly placed enthusiasm. Something to watch (From 5.17).
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.