Oct 10, 2016

Let's Read Tolkien 25: The Old Forest

Frodo woke suddenly.

At dawn, the hobbits leave Frodo's house in Crickhollow, saddle up their ponies and head for the Old Forest. Fredegar "Fatty" Bolger accompanies them as far as the Hedge dividing Buckland from the Forest, simultaneously reprising two roles from the Hobbit: Bombur's walking fat joke schtick and Bilbo's anguished hand-wringing. I can't remember if there are fat jokes in the Silmarillion, but the evidence so far suggests there must be. Fredegar is left behind as Frodo and company pass through a cutting and gate under the hedge, and enter the Old Forest. The closing of the gate behind them marks Frodo's and the story's final transition out of the Shire.

"There!" said Merry. "You have left the Shire, and are now outside, and on the edge of the Old Forest."

We're then given a little bit of background by Merry, who dismisses "the old bogey-stories Fatty's nurses used to tell him", but does have some spooky forest experiences of his own to share. Someone, he points out, makes paths through the woods. He even tells the story of how the trees attacked the Hedge. "They came and planted themselves right by it"; the first shade of Macbeth's Great Birnam Wood on the march. The present-day reader is entertained by Merry's repeated insistence that the forest is queer, to the extent that I wonder what a certain Hugo nominee would make of this. However, the point is made: this is a forest unlike any the other hobbits have been in previously.

As Frodo and company enter the woods proper, the ground gradually rises and the forest thickens. There's no sound or movement, and the oppressive presence of the trees becomes stronger and stronger until Pippin actually cries out to the forest to let them pass. Instead, the menace only intensifies until Merry succeeds in finding their way to the Bonfire Glade, where the trees that attacked the hedge were burned. It's a gloomy, deserted place, but it makes a gap in the canopy where the hobbits can see the sky, and it cheers them up. What's more, a clear path leads on from the glade, and heartened, Frodo and company follow it. Soon, though, the oppressive gloom of the forest begins to press down on them again, to the extent that Frodo is considering turning back.

Eventually, though, the path takes them to a hilltop above the trees, where the hobbits pause for a midday meal and to get their bearings. Below them, the forest stretches out in all directions. To the north, where they're hoping to go in order to strike the East Road out of the Shire, they see nothing but haze. Far to the east, the haunted Barrow-downs loom on the horizon. Looking back west, the hedge is already lost somewhere in the haze, and to the south, fog still rises from the valley of the Withywindle. That, according to Merry, is the last place they want to go; "the queerest part of the whole wood - the centre from which all the queerness comes, as it were".

Hoping to avoid the queerness, the hobbits find a path heading north. This seemingly straight road disappoints them, though, veering off to the right and heading straight for the Withywindle. They leave the path and try to make their way north, but their way is blocked by what's described as "deep folds in the ground", "like the ruts of great giant-wheels or wide moats and sunken roads long disused and choked with brambles". I'm a little disappointed that Karen Wynn Fonstad didn't discuss these in her excellent Atlas of Middle-earth, leaving me unsure if they're natural features or completely overgrown ruins of the kingdom of Cardolan. Whatever they are, though, they do stop the hobbits from heading north. As the afternoon passes, Frodo and company do their best to make progress, but the forest inexorably drives them to the southeast.

Eventually the hobbits and their ponies end up in a rut they can't climb out of, and are forced to follow it down - straight into the valley of the Withywindle. The horror of queerness takes the form of a slowly flowing river overhung with willows. It's a drowsy, warm afternoon, with the sun shining down, and a gentle breeze rustles the reeds. What's more, Merry finds a footpath on their side of the river leading east, which he hopes will take them out of the forest. Pippin is more dubious, finding the path very suspicious, but he has no better ideas to offer, and Frodo and company set off down the path.

As they make their way along the path, the hobbits start becoming terribly sleepy. They stagger on for a while, until they reach a massive old willow-tree, where the sleepiness becomes irresistible. Merry and Pippin nod off, leaning on the tree, while Frodo wanders to the riverbank to bathe his feet. The ever-sensible Sam sits down to get his bearings, finding the tree and the sudden sleepiness highly suspicious. He thinks to look after the ponies, and just as he's leading them back to where he left the others, he hears Frodo fall in the river. Sam drags Frodo out from under a root hanging over the river, looking for all the world like it was trying to drown him. Merry and Pippin are trapped inside the tree; Frodo and Sam try starting a fire to threaten the tree, but Merry shouts that the willow-tree will kill them if they try to burn it. In the spirit of his illustrious adventuring cousin Bilbo, Frodo panics and takes off running along the path, screaming for help.

This doesn't seem like it would be the most productive thing to do, but on the path, Frodo soon encounters a strange man in a blue coat and yellow boots, singing rhyming nonsense about himself and carrying some water-lilies. On seeing Frodo and Sam, he introduces himself as Tom Bombadil. As the hobbits babble at him about their predicament, Bombadil immediately realizes that Old Man Willow is the culprit, and hurries along to the tree. Tom sings to the willow-tree and commands it to release the hobbits, which it does. Old Man Willow subdued, Tom reasonably decides that the hobbits can't be left to their own devices, and invites them to follow him to his house. Tom hurries ahead and the hobbits follow the path, out of the valley and up to Tom's house on a hillside.


The Old Forest is the first capital-f Forest in the Lord of the Rings. As it happens, I have something of a professional interest in forests, so this is going to be something I'll be looking at throughout this series of blog posts. Back in the Hobbit, Mirkwood was an awful, gloomy, miserable and deadly place, nothing like the woods Bilbo and the dwarves had passed through earlier. Similarly, Frodo and company already spent quite a while trekking through Woody End, but that forest, too, was described and traversed quite matter-of-factly.

While a lowercase-f forest is a scenic backdrop for the story, the Old Forest is almost a character in its own right, and dominates its chapter. At first, the forest threatens and resists the hobbits; once they venture too deep, it takes on an active role, directing them away from their path, and finally, in the person of Old Man Willow, trying to end Frodo's journey right on his own doorstep. If, previously, Tolkien has taken care to describe the landscape intimately, he now elevates it to an actor in its own right. In one of his letters (to the Daily Telegraph!), Tolkien says: "The Old Forest was hostile to two[-]legged creatures because of the memory of many injuries" (Letters, 339). What these injuries might have been, we don't know; maybe the hobbit-story Merry tells of the forest's attack isn't quite true, or the trees harbor older resentments, of the clearance of Buckland or even further back. This is a very effective, atmospheric chapter; the cutesy hobbit-ways of the Shire are behind us, and Frodo and company are making their way through a hostile, dangerous landscape.

It's interesting to think what might have happened if the hobbits' journey had ended on the banks of the Withywindle. What would Old Man Willow have made of the One Ring? Would a dark Huorn-forest have sprung up beside Buckland, or would the Ring have been discarded as a bauble, maybe ending up in some magpie's nest? Who would ever come across it in the Old Forest, or fish it out of the stream? Or could the Ring somehow roll down the river into the Brandywine, as Saruman claimed it had made its way down the Anduin and into the sea? Some traveler might spot it glinting in the waters of Sarn Ford, or maybe it would end up in the hand of a woodman of Eryn Vorn. There's a whole world of fan fiction in this!

We never get to find out, because just as Merry and Pippin are about to be devoured by Old Man Willow, someone happens to be heading down the path toward them. In the fabled words of the unknown author of My Immortal: it was Tom Bombadil. After he rescues the hapless hobbits from the willow-tree, Frodo and company spend all of the next chapter hanging out at his digs, so I'll save my comments on him for the next post. For now, all we need to know is that the hobbits have been saved by a singing hippie wizard, and next time, he tells them stories about badgers.

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