As Frodo flies from The Enemy, he comes face to face with a much different power.
These next few chapters were inevitably cut from the film (and it’s hard to blame them for it – they would certainly be difficult to film), although bits and pieces do show up in different places (particularly in Fangorn). I’ve heard people dismiss this section for being “irrelevant”, a plot cul-de-sac that has precious little impact on the larger story, an episodic adventure that would be more at home in The Hobbit. But there is one very important point it sets up: There are many other powers in the world besides the ones we’re concerned with – good, bad, and otherwise.
‘Are the stories about it true?’ asked Pippin.
‘I don’t know what stories you mean,’ Merry answered. ‘If you mean the old bogey-stories Fatty’s nurses used to tell him, about goblins and wolves and things of that sort, I should say no. At any rate I don’t believe them. But the Forest is queer. Everything in it is very much more alive, more aware of what is going on, so to speak, than things are in the Shire. And the trees do not like strangers. They watch you. They are usually content merely to watch you, as long as daylight lasts, and don’t do much. Occasionally the most unfriendly ones may drop a branch, or stick a root out, or grasp at you with a long trailer. But at night things can be most alarming, or so I am told. I have only once or twice been in here after dark, and then only near the hedge. I thought all the trees were whispering to each other, passing news and plots along in an unintelligible language; and the branches swayed and groped without any wind. They do say the trees do actually move, and can surround strangers and hem them in. In fact long ago they attacked the Hedge: they came and planted themselves right by it, and leaned over it. But the hobbits came and cut down hundreds of trees, and made a great bonfire in the Forest, and burned all the ground in a long strip east of the Hedge.’
It’s not hard to see why the trees would grow more “unfriendly” after that incident, but it’s also hard to blame the hobbits for fighting back, defending their home from a strange threat.
And yes, they have ponies, because the conspiracy was very efficient (and well-funded) and it’s a very good idea to have mounts if you’re trying to get anywhere in a hurry. Also, Merry takes the lead here, being the only one with significant experience in the Old Forest. Unfortunately, not everyone is as comfortable in there as Merry.
There was not as yet any sign of a path, and the trees seemed constantly to bar their way. Pippin suddenly felt that he could not bear it any longer, and without warning let out a shout. ‘Oi! Oi!’ he cried. ‘I am not going to do anything. Just let me pass through, will you!’
The others halted, startled; but the cry fell as if muffled by a heavy curtain. There was no echo or answer though the wood seemed to become more crowded and watchful than before.
‘I should not shout, if I were you,’ said Merry. ‘It does more harm than good.’
Poor Frodo is feeling responsible for leading everyone into the Forest (possibly to their dooms), while everyone else (except possibly Merry) is just left to contemplate said doom and wonder whether it’s better than finding out what the Black Riders are first-hand.
The Trees slowly force them off-course, toward the center of the wood, until they find themselves at the Withywindle River, the alleged heart of all the “queerness” in the forest.
Coming to the opening they found that they had made their way down through a cleft in a high steep bank, almost a cliff. At its feet was a wide space of grass and reeds; and in the distance could be glimpsed another bank almost as steep. A golden afternoon of late sunshine lay warm and drowsy upon the hidden land between. In the midst of it there wound lazily a dark river of brown water, bordered with ancient willows, arched over with willows, blocked with fallen willows, and flecked with thousands of faded willow-leaves. The air was thick with them, fluttering yellow from the branches; for there was a warm and gentle breeze blowing softly in the valley, and the reeds were rustling, and the willow-boughs were creaking.
I love how Tolkien manages to imbue even this golden afternoon with a vague sense of menace, if only because it seems a little too quiet (like the rest of the forest). They also discover some deliberately-maintained footpaths in the valley, but still no sign of who made them…
And then all four of them are suddenly overcome by a desire for sleep…and Sam is the only one to resist (because he has work to do before he naps!). He comes back to discover that Frodo has fallen asleep under a tree root in the water.
‘Do you know, Sam,’ he said at length, ‘the beastly tree threw me in! I felt it. The big root just twisted round and tipped me in!’
‘You were dreaming I expect, Mr. Frodo,’ said Sam. ‘You shouldn’t sit in such a place, if you are feeling sleepy.’
‘What about the others?’ Frodo asked. ‘I wonder what sort of dreams they are having.’
It turns out that Merry and Pippin fell asleep by cracks in the willow-tree, which were consequently closed in on them. Pippin was completely enclosed, while Merry is only halfway, with his legs hanging out of the crack. Tolkien knows how to make you scared of trees.
Sam and Frodo try to scare the tree into letting them go by starting a fire, but then ‘he’ tells them to stop or he’ll crush Merry and Pippin. With nothing left to try, they just start yelling for help – and someone answers. In song!
Hey! Come merry dol! derry dol! My darling!
Light goes the weather-wind and the feathered starling,
Down along under Hill, shining in the sunlight,
Waiting on the doorstep for the cold starlight,
There my pretty lady is, River-woman’s daughter,
Slender as the willow-wand, clearer than the water.
Old Tom Bombadil water-lilies bringing
Comes hopping home again. Can you hear him singing?
I totally sympathize with people who can’t stand the character who speaks almost entirely in song (and frequently nonsensical song, at that). The first time (or two) that I read this, I only made it through by skimming over (or just skipping) the poetry, and Tom Bombadil forces you to engage with the verses in order to comprehend what’s going on.
‘My friends are caught in the willow-tree,’ cried Frodo breathlessly. […]
‘What?’ shouted Tom Bombadil, leaping up in the air. ‘Old Man Willow? Naught worse than that, eh? That can soon be mended. I know the tune for him. Old grey Willow-man! I’ll freeze his marrow cold if he don’t behave himself. I’ll sing his roots off. I’ll sing up a wind and blow leaf and branch away. Old Man Willow!’
Tom easily chastises the willow and rescues Merry and Pippin, as silly as it seems. He certainly seems like he would be more at home in The Hobbit, but I think that’s the point – he’s supposed to be a sort of tonal bridge between the two. And he still helps develop some of the themes in this series, too (which we’ll get into more next time). The one thing that stands out about him thus far is how he’s neither Man nor Hobbit, although he may share qualities with them. He belongs to no race…but perhaps he belongs to someone.
Then another clear voice, as young and ancient as Spring, like the song of a glad water flowing down into the night from a bright morning in the hills, came falling like silver to meet them:
Now let the song begin! Let us sing together
Of sun, stars, moon and mist, rain and cloudy weather,
Light on the budding leaf, dew on the feather,
Wind on the open hill, bells on the heather
Reeds by the shady pool, lilies on the water
Old Tom Bombadil and the River-daughter!
Until next time…