Gazing into GHG’s Palantir: ‘At the Sign of the Prancing Pony’

The Grey Havens Group Palantir has seen and heard much, but it is unpredictable and often fell. As the mists clear, the withered leaves of past conversations are revealed in barest shreds…

It’s time to hit the bar for a pint and discuss “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony.”

Bree and its folk are truly astonishing when compared to other peoples and places in the book. It is one of the few true melting pots of Middle-earth. Big and Little Folk both live side by side in harmony. Yet they are also very insular and isolationist, whether as an artifact of their location in the sparsely populated north or as a sign of the darkly changing times. Just as in the Shire (and Tolkien pointedly repeats the phrasing from the two sides), all non-Bree-landers are Outsiders. “There’s no accounting for East or West, as they say in Bree.” There is a stigma, a fear, even an implied superiority in the society of both places.

Travel has been light in recent years on the North Road and especially on the Greenway, but tonight the Inn is full. Southrons have come up enmasse, with stated goals of resettling in the north, whether welcomed or no. Are they refugees of the wars of the South? Or are they opportunists looking to settle? Or are they the first reconnaissance effort of Saruman in the North?

Significant time was spent discussing the four hobbits in their first experiences and reactions to the Big Folk and the “city.” Sam, in particular, is very uncomfortable, evidently a homebody. Amusingly, each hobbit is very familiar with the inside of a pub, or the bottom of a tankard, and may be easily seen as pub-crawlers. Sam is the gossip, who will warm up to anyone with a few pints. Merry is the quiet one, who prefers quiet and a breath of fresh air to the crowded smokiness of the common-room. Pippin is the story-teller, who, with a few drinks, will spin the wildest tales to be the center of the party and strive for the biggest laughs. And Frodo is the cautious one, who drinks but keeps to himself. Now with Frodo and Merry it is far more likely events form their behavior, but Sam and Pippin? They know their way around a pub!

…which leads to Frodo’s song. Pippin, reaching for an absurd story to entertain, almost lets the cat out of the bag. Here Tolkien is at his most ingenious and smugly humorous. As he does on several occasions, he one-ups history and tells the original version of the beloved Mother Goose rhyme, which first appeared in England in the eighteenth century.

In a possible sign of Frodo’s growth in stature as the bearer of the Ring, this moment marks the first time Frodo notes himself that something is acting on him from the Outside, trying to get him to put on the Ring. In all other instances, he appropriates the urging or acting of the Ring upon him and makes it his own.

Tolkien often leads the reader to make assumptions, but leaves clever hints along the way for the quick of wit to find the correct path. Who is the dark figure who darts over the gate after the hobbits enter Bree? Upon the first reading this figure seems to be one of the Dark Riders. Others have read it as Gollum. With further reading, the figure is Aragorn. It is meant to be a question mark in this chapter, and leads to very intriguing possibilities. It is exceedingly difficult to wrap one’s head around the idea of Gollum in Bree, but it is a fascinating concept to contemplate! Strider later reveals from his own mouth, that he is the culprit. However, there is a wonderful cue in this chapter which lets the reader in on the secret. Notice the dark figure “[melts] into the shadows” and later, in our first introduction to Strider he is “sitting in the shadows…” face overshadowed…He disappears in shadow at the gate and reappears in shadow in the Inn. This imagery is no coincidence. When it comes to words and wordplay, Tolkien is almost always intentional.

The Men and Hobbits of Bree claim to be the oldest of all settlers in the land. They were there before in the dark ages and after when the Numenoreans returned. It was hypothesized that they lived in the region between the Blue and Misty Mountains during the First Age and are of the clans of Men who never crossed over into Beleriand. Therefore, there is, like the elves, a race (of sorts) of Light Men and Dark Men; those who cross and those who stay behind. Is there such a thing as Light and Dark Hobbits? Or Dwarves?

… until the hour of our next meeting.

Gazing into GHG’s Palantir: ‘Fog on the Barrow Downs’

The Grey Havens Group Palantir has seen and heard much, but it is unpredictable and often fell. As the mists clear, the withered leaves of conversation of earliest days are revealed in the barest shreds…

The quality of Tolkien’s prose does not get anywhere near the attention it deserves. As with each of the three Tom Bombadil chapters, the last, “Fog on the Barrow Downs” demonstrates clear lyricism, artistry and rhythmic quality. However, Tolkien’s prose is such that its beauty often remains hidden or obscured until it is read aloud, wherein its full glory is revealed.   Like elvish song, the aural quality of the writing is superb and will speak to the listener regardless of its meaning. ‘Cellar door’ anyone?

Tolkien states in Letters that if The Lord of the Rings has a central theme it would be Life, Death, and Immortality. These themes play into the dream sequence which begins the chapter.

Tom’s relationship with Goldberry continues to be an intriguing area of study. The parallels with pagan and ancient mythology abound; in particular the parallel with the story of Persephone and Hades. However, the links to English folklore and mythology, namely in the figure of The Green Man and the daughter of Gaia are particularly suited. Many of the events, “props,” and descriptions of these chapters also bear great resemblance to and may reflect pagan ritual and tradition centered on the autumnal equinox.

Tom and Goldberry have an equal, yet opposite nature: the silliness of Tom on a foundation of wisdom, and the graceful wisdom of Goldberry with an underlay of whimsy. They are two sides to the same coin, a sort of yin and yang. They depend upon and support and complete each other.

Ever notice that from the introduction of Tom in the Old Forest through to his departure at the road, Sam never speaks? And is barely mentioned? Tom’s home acts as a place of rest and recuperation, as well as fantasy and whimsy. Perhaps Sam, who is not affected by the song of Old Man Willow, does not require the care the others need at this moment. This omission also plays into the developing nature of the story, wherein Tolkien essentially discovered the narrative as he went. Sam grows into his central role slowly. These vignettes are only the opening scenes which set the foundation.

… until the hour of our next meeting.

Gazing into GHG’s Palantir: “In the House of Tom Bombadil”

The Grey Havens Group Palantir has seen and heard much, but it is unpredictable and often fell. As the mists clear, the withered leaves of conversation of earliest days are revealed in the barest shreds…

“Hey! Come merry dol!” Come and join the party.
Old Tom Bombadil is singing, won’t the talk be hearty!
Mysteries seeking, questions raising, stories to be tested.
Heated debate, prose praising, theories to be bested.
“Hey! Come derry dol!” long we will be talking!
You who wander, ponder here, don’t you now be balking!
Tom is in the house again. Goldberry’s waiting,
Hop along, sing along, hungers to be sating!

-GHG Palantir call to the meeting

Any discussion of “In the House of Tom Bombadil” is bound to be divergent, raucous and full of contention. From Letters, Tolkien gives the reader little more explanation than that Tom Bombadil is an example of other or a manifestation of environmental spirit, meant to express the far reaches of Middle-earth beyond the narrow gaze of the quest. Given such vague and open-ended description, it is little wonder the discussion of this chapter spent significant time on the nature of Tom and Goldberry. Many theories were discussed, including but not limited to those identifying the two as Aule and Yavanna, or Adam and Eve, or even Eru Ilúvatar.

All that may be definitively stated is that they are both, and Tom in particular, meant to be enigmatic. Parallels to ‘On Fairy Stories’ were rampant, as were links to the Silmarillion, and the notion of Applicability. The ambiguity created around the existence, purpose and action of Tom, Goldberry and Old Man Willow is the fertile ground through which insight, theory and applicability spring. Taking a bird’s eye view of this chapter, it may be seen how ambiguity, multiplicity and differing reports are used by Tolkien to create moments ripe for the reader’s applicability, in which the definition of the moment may constantly change, yet ever be true.

Tom’s house, for which this chapter is named, is as much a character as any. Tolkien’s description is very precise with regards to the cardinal points, orienting the house in the land, and with regards to its internal navigation. It is very much an enigma, like its residents. Like the map beyond the Shire, its plan is full of blank areas. Yet those areas described are written with tremendous clarity. It is both known and familiar, as it is also opaque.

How Tolkien portrays evil is a continuing theme in the chapter. Much is also gleaned from Tom’s own description, which further develops his own characters by virtue of his stated beliefs about the running of the world. Old Man Willow and the Barrow Wights both appear ‘evil’ but fall into a grey area. They act in the way a fly finds the spider evil when caught in the web. Too often evil is associated with beings or events which attack or harm, without study of the underlying reason, if any behind the action. Do the trees or the wights lack Reason? If so, they only function by their nature, and not by any moral code.

Merry, Pippin, and Frodo dream very vivid nightmarish dreams the night following the rescue by Tom. These three fell to the temptation of Old Man Willow’s singing. Are the dreams part of his lingering influence or even his song entering through the window? Are they prescient visions? It seems obvious, the tree is central to Merry and Pippin’s dreams, as they echo their harrowing experience from earlier that day. Frodo’s dream, however, is a true dream of past events, and may infer some power granted by virtue of bearing the Ring. They are not necessarily hopeful visions though, so does the Ring guide the vision towards darkness as in the manner of the Palantir and Denethor?

This chapter marks the center of a ‘trilogy’ of Tom/Old Forest chapters which function as a united narrative. This grouping of threes appears to continue in future chapters, perhaps in reflection of the three Themes of Iluvatar? Groupings of chapters by threes is a common feature of meta-narrative within the larger story, and will be seen again.

… until the hour of our next meeting.