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.

The Wedding in the Dingle

Down in the Dingle, before the seas were bent upon the circles of the World, before the first acorn opened in the valley of the Withywindle, dwelt a strange creature of ancient Middle-earth.  Old Tom Bombadil made his paths along the winding willow-strewn river when there were no other folk to follow them.  Elves came; then other peoples of Middle-earth.

Long ages passed.  And in his house upon a grassy hillside Tom sang his songs above the river.  From his words came a weird tolling of nonsense and forgotten meanings, a rhythmic poetry that rang out across that ancient land.

He often sat beside the water, his long beard tickling the passing reflections.  There he one day glimpsed Goldberry.  He saw her in the river under water-lilies, below shady willow roots.  The way Tom told the tale, young Goldberry tried to capture his heart.  But he refused to follow her into the depths, to her home beneath the water.

Iarwain Ben-adar they called him long ago, the Elves who came to Lindon and who built Mithlond.  He became known to the Dwarves of the Blue Mountains as Forn.  And among the humans who settled in that region he was called Orald – these folk made barrows for their dead, not far from the Withywindle.  Eldest, he was.

A century or so before the end of the Second Age of the World, Elendil established his realm in Arnor.  Númenórean refugees occupied the lands surrounding the Withywindle.  They found Orald a curious creature.  His songs were full of enigmatic mastery, and he could have helped them with his power, but he was forgetful of their worries, and their many wars had no hold on him.  Instead, he sang his songs to the animals and trees.

Over eight hundred years into the Third Age, Arnor splintered into three realms.  Now the kings of Cardolan ruled over the region.  The refugees from Númenor learned that Orald’s land had its own dangers, but it was a refuge from the cares of their politics.  They whispered spells over the forging of swords to settle matters among themselves, but they set aside their weapons in the House of Orald.

About 1150 of the Third Age, Hobbits first appeared west of the Misty Mountains.  Orald took notice as they migrated into Eriador among the splintered kingdoms descended from Arnor.  By 1300 they begin to settle around Bree, an old town in that part of the world.  In 1601 the Hobbits were granted leave to live beyond the Baranduin by King Argeleb II of Arthedain.

Orald knew the kings of Cardolan.  He knew them for hundreds of years as they buried their dead in the ancient barrows of Tyrn Gorthad.  At the end of that time, not long after the Hobbits settled nearby, one day he noticed a woman among them.  “Fair she was,” he said of her over 1300 years later.  And she wore a pretty blue brooch on her shoulder.

Whatever Orald said to her in those days, and whatever she said to him, one day she died – and with her death came the end of Cardolan.  A plague in 1636 destroyed the kingdom and ravaged the Hobbits.  The last prince of Cardolan died in battle with the men of Carn Dûm, and he was buried in an ancient barrow near the realm of Orald.

In the years that followed the end of Cardolan, evil creatures crept into the cold barrows.  Wights from Angmar.  Some say the sorcerers of Rhudaur had a hand in this, enemies of Cardolan.

By then Orald had become known among the Hobbits as Tom Bombadil.  This name came to him from Buckland.  And under this name the resonation of his singing entered their legends.  They told of his dealings with mischievous animals and hard-hearted Old Man Willow, and they spoke of the power that his songs had over the evil of the Barrow-wights.

And in their tales they also passed down the memory of the marriage of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry.  They recalled how Badger-folk danced and Willow-man tapped upon the windows of the house.  In their traditions pretty Goldberry wore upon her golden tresses a garland of forget-me-nots and flag-lilies and her dress was silver-green.

Tom often told the Hobbits of how Goldberry had tried to capture his heart.  He liked to say that he one day stole her away from her home in a deep pool of the Withywindle.  At their wedding the Hobbits remembered how he sang like a starling.

And the Elves slowly forgot about Iarwain Ben-adar.  Círdan and the Elven mariners at Mithlond ceased to wonder about the old strange creature in the Dingle of the Withywindle.  Elrond and the Elves of Rivendell didn’t come to visit.  None of them attended the wedding.

But down in the Dingle that day came Hobbits from Buckland.  And there were Badgers.  And Old Man Willow.  And a Barrow-wight with bright eyes sat up and wept in his barrow.

This all happened when Tom Bombadil wedded pretty Goldberry, the River-daughter.  She wore shoes that flashed like fishes’ mail.  And she sang of the seasons, of still waters like skies full of jewels.  And among lamps that gleamed in the House of Bombadil, everyone heard how old Tom hummed that day like a honeybee.