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.