While the hobbits are largely concerned with figuring out who (or what) Tom Bombadil is, we get a chance to learn a little more about the hobbits.
In a chair, at the far side of the room facing the outer door, sat a woman. Her long yellow hair rippled down her shoulders; her gown was green, green as young reeds, shot with silver like beads of dew; and her belt was of gold, shaped like a chain of flag-lilies set with the pale-blue eyes of forget-me-nots. About her feet in wide vessels of green and brown earthenware, white water-lilies were floating, so that she seemed to be enthroned in the midst of a pool.
‘Enter, good guests!’ she said, and as she spoke they knew that it was her clear voice they had heard singing. They came a few timid steps further into the room, and began to bow low, feeling strangely surprised and awkward, like folk that, knocking at a cottage door to beg for a drink of water, have been answered by a fair young elf-queen clad in living flowers.
Goldberry (the “River-daughter”) is clearly associated with the waters (every time she appears Tolkien seems to evoke water-sounds or images), which makes it a little easier to guess at old Tom. I’ve always thought he somehow represents the land itself (although some people might not find that a satisfactory answer, that’s about as much as you can conclude).
‘Fair lady!’ said Frodo again after a while. ‘Tell me, if my asking does not seem foolish, who is Tom Bombadil?’
‘He is,’ said Goldberry, staying her swift movements and smiling. […] ‘He is, as you have seen him,’ she said in answer to his look. ‘He is the Master of wood, water, and hill.’
‘Then all this strange land belongs to him?’
‘No indeed!’ she answered, and her smile faded. ‘That would indeed be a burden,’ she added in a low voice, as if to herself. ‘The trees and the grasses and all things growing or living in the land belong each to themselves. Tom Bombadil is the Master. No one has ever caught old Tom walking in the forest, wading in the water, leaping on the hill-tops under light and shadow. He has no fear. Tom Bombadil is master.’
Frodo seems to take this for what it’s worth, always addressing Tom as “Master”. One more thing that soon becomes apparent is that Tom Bombadil does not want power (in any sense of the phrase). He has what he needs to live the life that he wants, and that’s all there is to it. Perhaps he could do incredible feats if he felt the need, but he rarely looks beyond the needs at hand.
‘Did you hear me calling, Master, or was it just chance that brought you at that moment?’
Tom stirred like a man shaken out of a pleasant dream. ‘Eh, what?’ said he. ‘Did I hear you calling? Nay, I did not hear: I was busy singing. Just chance brought me then, if chance you call it. It was no plan of mine, though I was waiting for you. We heard news of you, and learned that you were wandering. We guessed you’d come ere long to the water: all paths lead that way, down to Withywindle. Old grey Willow-man, he’s a mighty singer; and it’s hard for little folk to escape his cunning mazes. But Tom had an errand there, that he dared not hinder.’
Of course his errand was just gathering lilies for Goldberry, but I have a feeling just about any errand of Tom’s is one the creatures of the forest wouldn’t try to hinder. Frodo wants to learn more about Old Man Willow, but Merry and Pippin were (understandably) traumatized by that experience and don’t want to hear about it. Tom sides with Merry and Pippin, and sends them all to bed.
‘Have peace now,’ [Goldberry] said, ‘until the morning! Heed no nightly noises! For nothing passes door and window here save moonlight and starlight and the wind off the hill-top. Good night!’
And now we get to observe their dreams! Frodo’s are typically the most interesting from a story-perspective, mainly because he appears to have some sort of clairvoyance (which might be enhanced by the Ring, but I think it’s a power he was born with). Back in Chapter 4, he dreamed of the White Towers and the Sea (neither of which had he ever seen in waking life), and this time he dreams of what we’ll later discover is Isengard.
In the dead of night, Frodo lay in a dream without light. Then he saw the young moon rising; under its thin light there loomed before him a black wall of rock, pierced by a dark arch like a great gate. It seemed to Frodo that he was lifted up, and passing over he saw that the rock-wall was a circle of hills, and that within it was a plain, and in the midst of the plain stood a pinnacle of stone, like a vast tower but not made by hands. On its top stood the figure of a man. The moon as it rose seemed to hang for a moment above his head and glistened in his white hair as the wind stirred it. […] Suddenly a shadow, like the shape of great wings, passed across the moon. The figure lifted his arms and a white light flashed from the staff that he wielded. A mighty eagle swept down and bore him away.
Dream-visions are one of the few “holy” and acceptable forms of “magic” in the Bible – God communicates both directly and indirectly with people through dreams on many occasions. Interestingly, these “holy” supernatural powers are contrasted with “evil” unnatural powers, including (though not limited to) “technology” and “industry”.
Meanwhile, poor Pippin is having a nightmare about willow-trees. Merry, strangely enough, has a nightmare about rising waters – made even stranger when you remember that he actually grew up around water and is pretty comfortable with boats and such. The key to that riddle, I think, lies with Tolkien himself. Everybody seems to have a particular dream (or type of dream) that haunts them all their lives, and for Tolkien it was a dream of waters and floods, a sense of inevitable doom. This was one of the first hints for me that Merry was representative of Tolkien himself (the dream connection will show up again for another Tolkien-avatar).
As far as he could remember, Sam slept through the night in deep content, if logs are contented.
I love you, Sam.
In the morning, it’s conveniently rainy, so they have an excuse to stick around and chat all day. Tom does most of the telling, although they do get around to Frodo’s predicament, too.
He told them of bees and flowers, the ways of trees, and the strange creatures of the forest, about the evil things and good things, things friendly and unfriendly, cruel things and kind things, and secrets hidden under brambles.
As they listened, they began to understand the lives of the forest, apart from themselves, indeed to feel themselves as the strangers where all other things were at home. […]
Suddenly Tom’s talk left the woods and went leaping up the young stream, over bubbling waterfalls, over pebbles and worn rocks, and among small flowers in close grass and wet crannies, wandering at last up on to the Downs. They heard of the Great Barrows, and the green mounds, and the stone-rings upon the hills and in the hollows among the hills. Sheep were bleating in flocks, Green walls and white walls rose. There were fortresses on the heights. Kings of little kingdoms fought together, and the young Sun shone like fire on the red metal of their new and greedy swords. There was victory and defeat; and towers fell, fortresses were burned, and flames went up into the sky. Gold was piled on the biers of dead kings and queens; and mounds covered them, and the stone doors were shut; and the grass grew over all. Sheep walked for a while biting the grass, but soon the hills were empty again. A shadow came out of dark places far away, and the bones were stirred in the mounds. Barrow-wights walked in the hollow places with a clink of rings on cold fingers, and gold chains in the wind. Stone rings grinned out of the ground like broken teeth in the moonlight.
The Barrow-downs represent the greed and futility of Men, but also the power of the past to affect the present – the wights are still there, the ghosts of long-forgotten feuds over dead kingdoms and treasure.
‘Who are you, Master?’ he asked.
‘Eh, what?’ said Tom sitting up, and his eyes glinting in the gloom. ‘Don’t you know my name yet? That’s the only answer. Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless? But you are young and I am old. Eldest, that’s what I am. Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn. He made paths before the Big People, and saw the little People arriving. He was here before the Kings and the graves and the Barrow-wights. When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent. He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless – before the Dark Lord came from Outside.’
I love how Tom turns the question around – every person is a mystery to another person, although we may only care to understand people with greater power and wisdom. Then, after dinner, they get around to the present difficulties. Evidently Tom gets news from both Gildor and Farmer Maggot in some fashion, and he gets the rest of the tale from Frodo without much difficulty.
‘Show me the precious Ring!’ he said suddenly in the midst of the story: and Frodo, to his own astonishment, drew out the chain from his pocket, and unfastening the Ring handed it at once to Tom.
It seemed to grow larger as it lay for a moment on his big brown-skinned hand. Then suddenly he put it to his eye and laughed. For a second the hobbits had a vision, both comical and alarming, of his bright blue eye gleaming through a circle of gold. Then Tom put the Ring round the end of his little finger and held it up to the candlelight. For a moment the hobbits noticed nothing strange about this. Then they gasped. There was no sign of Tom disappearing!
The Ring holds no power over Tom, because he has no desire for its power. You could offer Tom the whole world and he would just laugh and go back to his own business. Perhaps it’s because he has no burden of responsibility.
And then Frodo does something stupid: He feels compelled to “check” and make sure that it’s “still the same Ring” and Tom didn’t play a trick on him or something. So he puts it on, and the other hobbits clearly can’t see him.
‘Hey there!’ cried Tom, glancing toward him with a most seeing look in his shining eyes. ‘Hey! Come Frodo, there! Where be you a-going? Old Tom Bombadil’s not as blind as that yet. Take off your golden ring! Your hand’s more fair without it.’
Next time: The Barrow-downs…