And now for chapter 6 of The Fellowship of the Ring, “The Old Forest.” The usual spoilers and commentary follow.
The four hobbits enter the Old Forest. Despite their best efforts, they are unable to make progress in any direction but south and east, leading them to the Withywindle valley. There, a great willow tree sings three of them to sleep: Merry and Pippin are pulled into cracks in the trunk, and Frodo is held under the river by a root. Sam rescues Frodo. After fire fails to convince the tree to release Merry and Pippin, Frodo calls for help. He is answered by Tom Bombadil, who was out to gather lilies for his lady. At Tom’s orders, the tree lets Merry and Pippin out. Tom invites the hobbits to his house, and the chapter ends with the hobbits standing on the threshold.
The first immediate physical peril faced by the hobbits, and I think it’s significant that it’s not from an obvious servant of the Enemy. Unfortunately I’m not sure what it’s significant of. Yes, it’s showing that there are powers in the world other than those centered around the struggle for the Ring, just as Tom himself is (and the Ents will be, at least at the start), but making this the first near-death experience? Perhaps it’s just that the Nazgul need more time to be built up.
(There is a little hint that Old Man Willow’s actions are unusual: Tom says, “What be you a-thinking of? You should not be waking,” which is probably related to the fall season. There’s only one other fact that would support a conclusion that the Ring is involved: Frodo is pushed into the water, not dragged into the trunk, though he also falls asleep with his back against it. It’s not in the Ring’s interest to be stuck into a tree, after all. However, this is pretty thin stuff to be speculating on.)
* * *
Whenever I feel that I’m giving the re-read short shrift, I do my best to visualize the descriptions (this is not something I do well at any time). I’d never remembered before that the hobbits enter the Forest by a tunnel with a gate, or noticed the way they enter the valley:
The afternoon was wearing away when they scrambled and stumbled into a fold . . . so steep and overhung that it proved impossible to climb out of it again, either forwards or backwards, without leaving their ponies and their baggage behind. . . . They were in a deep dim-lit gully over-arched by trees high above them.
After stumbling along for some way along the stream, they came quite suddenly out of the gloom. As if through a gate they saw the sunlight before them.
In my initial post, I said that I couldn’t understand how they got into the fold if it was so steep and overhung that they couldn’t get out again. Various people advised me that clearly I hadn’t done enough hiking, which is entirely true.
* * *
I also like the cold, alien quality of the landscape as the hobbits set out from Crickhollow:
The leaves of trees were glistening, and every twig was dripping; the grass was grey with cold dew. Everything was still, and far-away noises seemed near and clear: fowls chattering in a yard, someone closing a door of a distant house.
. . . soon they were riding off into the mist, which seemed to open reluctantly before them and close forbiddingly behind them. After riding for about an hour, slowly and without talking, they saw the Hedge looming suddenly ahead. It was tall and netted over with silver cobwebs.
In general, on re-reading this chapter now, I’m impressed with the way Tolkien conveys the oppressive atmosphere in the Forest.
* * *
Another times-changing bit, the repeated references to the Forest as “queer.” I’m not sure there’s an exact synonym for its use as eerie, strange, bizarre, unnatural; but my default associations with the word are certainly not Tolkien’s.
* * *
Does Sam stay awake because as a gardener, he is sensitive to the wrongness of Old Man Willow (he hears the singing and doesn’t trust it), or because he’s generally thick-headed? Also not a question that can be answered here, I think.
This reminds me of the characterizations in this chapter: Merry is cheerful, practical, and grounded when faced with the challenges of the Old Forest. Sam is fierce in his defense of his companions.
* * *
I’m not happy with the way that Frodo sometimes does plot-significant things without knowing why, such as running along the path crying for help “without any clear idea of why he did so, or what he hoped for.” Either the Valar are meddling, which strikes me as unsatisfactory on a plot/theme level, or the author just couldn’t figure out a better way to get events to fall out as necessary, which strikes me as unsatisfactory on a craft level.
* * *
Tom Bombadil’s introduction begins a trend that I only noticed on this re-read, the tendency for possibly-supernatural events to be described in equivocal terms, usually with the words “as if” or “seemed”:
[Hearing Tom’s song,] Frodo and Sam stood as if enchanted. . . .
“Help!” cried Frodo and Sam running towards him with their hands stretched out.
“Whoa! Whoa! steady there!” cried the old man, holding up one hand, and they stopped short, as if they had been struck stiff.
I am not sure whether this equivocation is a matter of easing us into things, and thus will go away, or if it’s limited to positive supernatural things, or if it’s just a characteristic of the book. If it’s the last, I’m not sure what purpose it serves or what I think of it.
* * *
According to Le Guin, Tom Bombadil speaks metrically, in “free, galloping dactyls and trochees, with tremendous forward impetus.” I am almost entirely meter-deaf, so I’ll take her word for it.
* * *
And we’re back to domestic comforts at the end, though of a stranger sort than Crickhollow (probably less strange than that of the Elves, though).
(The next post may be a bit delayed; I have several articles on Bombadil and Goldberry that I want to read before I tackle the next two chapters, but I will try to get to them promptly.)