True story: ents don’t like hobbits. That’s what this chapter would have you believe, at any rate. Or maybe it’s not the ents, and it’s just the trees as a general population. It seems the hobbits cleared some land once upon a time and built some bonfires, and there’s been some enmity every since. Tolkien tells us all about it as our hobbity quartet makes their way through the Old Forest. Could you imagine what it’d be like in our world today if Mother Nature fought back in more direct ways the way Tolkien describes?
But as Merry says, “There are various queer things living deep in the Forest, and on the far side.” Paths change direction, disappear, and reappear. It would seem random, except the way it’s described, there’s clearly an unseen hand guiding it, deliberately messing with any who dare to come this way.
Once more owing to the power of music, we get another hobbit song. This one is designed to bolster their courage, even though the effect of the Forest made the words seem “wearisome.” It’s such a subtle description on Tolkien’s part, but it really adds to the weight of the Ring and their quest and everything else. It’s just one of those “let’s add another bit to this already cumbersome load.” If you want to hear The Tolkien Ensemble’s rendition of “Song in the Woods,” you can find that here. I think they pulled it off nicely. It’s hopeful and wearisome in equal measure.
Merry makes it a point of saying how they’re wanting to avoid the Withywindle valley, being “the queerest part of the whole wood — the entire centre from which all the queerness comes, as it were.” Of course that’s where the Forest is going to take them! You know it as soon as he says it. The Barrow-downs has a “sinister” reputation among the hobbits, so of course we’re going to visit it. It’s part of Tolkien’s grand design to first make the hobbits face the things they think they fear, and then to push them into even bigger things. It ramps up the suspense. I often think of some of the encounters from L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz when I read this chapter. It’s the same sort of thing… only better, because it’s Tolkien. Yes, I’m biased. What? Don’t look at me in that tone of voice!
So after a couple of hours of being screwed with and turned around, the hobbits find themselves at the River Withywindle (that’s just fun to say). Merry opts to explore, and Pippin provides the voice of reason / doom, talking about how the path could go into a bog or something of that nature. It’s hot, there are flies, and generally things are confusing and miserable. And they’re tired. Oh so tired. They stop to rest… and the trees ensnare them!
Frodo and Sam start discussing options for freeing their friends, when along comes Tom Bombadil. Now if there’s one character in the entirety of Middle-Earth that makes new readers scratch their heads and scream “WTF?!” it’s “Tom Bom, jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo.” This is one of the true acid tests to ask about when people claim to know The Lord of the Rings. If they know about Tom Bombadil, they know this book. If not, they’ve only seen the movies.
Confession time, I love “Tom Bombadil’s Song,” especially the version of it from The Tolkien Ensemble, which you can experience here. It’s very similar to hobbit songs in tone, but it’s a bit nonsensical, and many of the lyrics revolve around his sweetheart, Goldberry, the River-Daughter. I catch myself singing it in the mornings sometimes while I’m making coffee because it’s a cheerful little ditty. Also, I love Goldberry’s vocals when she make her appearance to sing the last verse. There’s something otherworldly and beautifully haunting about it that befits the Old Forest itself. It’s spot-on to the description in the book:
“Then another clear voice, as young and as 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”
I really think that passage alone says so much. We instantly know that Tom and Goldberry are at once young and ancient, immortal as anything can be in Middle-Earth. And based on Tom’s song, we know that he’s very much in love with Goldberry. I suppose it would be difficult not to be at least enchanted by someone with a voice like that. And since Tom was able to talk to the trees and get them to free Merry and Pippin, you know they wield real power and influence, and they seemingly do so for good. Or do they?
As golden light envelopes the hobbits, they stand on the threshold to Tom’s house. What strangeness will await them there? That’s for the next chapter to tell us.