Gazing into GHG’s Palantir: ‘The Old Forest’

The Grey Havens Group Palantir has seen and heard much, but it is unpredictable and often fell. It is a contrary device, who knows what it may reveal to the unwary gaze? As the mists clear, ages pass, and the withered leaves of the conversation of earliest days is revealed in the barest shreds…

When a group comes to discuss The Lord of the Rings there is one chapter (or perhaps three) in particular which are guaranteed to spark far reaching debate and analysis. That chapter is “The Old Forest” and those which follow, which have been an enigma and constant source of introspection since their composition. As a group, GHG Palantir delved deeply into the character of Tom and nature itself, as well as the nature of evil. Is Old Man Willow evil? Or the Barrow Wights? Or is it that they just ARE? In the same way the predator pursues its prey for sustenance, are the actions of these ‘other’ elements just their way, and thereby neither good or evil?

Evil is a very complex matter, not only in Tolkien, but also in world mythology and global understanding. As expected, we wandered down many paths, both odd and fascinating, ultimately coming to the conclusion that in their naiveté the hobbits need to experience evil or danger in all its many forms to even begin to understand it. The hobbits, as our guides/avatars, lead us through this growing understanding as well.

We also delved into the far past with regards to the nature of the dispute between elves and dwarves, paying particular attention to the affect of being adopted Children vs. actual Children of Ilúvatar. This grew out of a discussion of how Trees are imbued with a certain sentience, independent of whether they are Ents, or even huorns, as creations of Yavanna. Therefore there would be some natural tension as first creations before the Eldar and Men, but being subservient to them.

Enchantment is also a very important part of this section of the book. We discussed the nature of the Withy-Windle and the symbiosis that is created by the enchantment of the Barrow Downs and the trees which both feed off the water and feed it their own malice. This bears on Tolkien’s other treatment of waters in the Enchanted Stream, the stream from the Morghul vale, the waters outside the west gate of Moria, and the dark streams issuing from the Ered Gorgoroth.

This chapter, along with “Three is Company” before, begins the process of revelation by which the reader is shown the true heroism of Sam and even sets the foundation for his centrality in the narrative entire. Sam, alone of the hobbits, does not succumb to the power of Old Man Willow. Whether by virtue of his rustic simplicity or insurmountable hobbit-sense, he is not fooled by the tree’s song. Merry and Pippin are the first to succumb. Frodo initially resists, but later falls. This sets up and continues foreshadowing of the pivotal moments to come.

…The mists clear, and the light within dims until the hour of our next meeting.

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