This is one mean horse I'm riding...
The Old Forest
The chapter starts with Frodo being jarred awake in the darkness. There's no danger, but I think that sudden unease lingers a little, and foreshadows the mood of the chapter to come. Lots of other little harbingers to create a certain mood, an atmosphere that sets the scene. Fatty Bolger's fears, the "ominous" click of the gate (into the Old Forest) closing behind them.
This is followed by a conversation about the forest. Merry suggests the stories of fearsome goblins and monsters are not true, but rather that the trees themselves are alive, and can move and act of their own will - and do not like people, particularly at night. Which, to me, is oddly uncomforting. Way to buck up everyone, Merry. No, there's no goblins, just cruel trees... as they look around themselves in a seemingly endless forest of, you guessed it, trees. Though the hobbits take it very well... "'Is it only the trees that are dangerous?' asked Pippin." Um, Pip? There are a whole lot of trees... Luckily, though, there are various other "queer things" in the forest, so Pippin doesn't have to worry about just trees.
Yet here, also, Tolkien starts to make more serious use of his descriptive skills to create mood and tension. "Looking ahead they could see only treetrunks of innumerable sizes and shapes: straight or bent, twisted, leaning, squat or slender, smooth or gnarled and branched, and all the stems were green or grey with moss and slimy, shaggy growths." The description becomes more disturbing as it goes, as if they're sinking deeper into the gloom of the forest. Reminiscent, I think, of Mirkwood in The Hobbit. The hobbits have to wind their way through the "writhing and interlacing roots". I like that writhing, because it not only represents the appearance of the tangled roots but implies a sort of movement, a movement that reinforces the living and predatory nature of the forest itself.
The Bonfire glade provides a moment of relief, but Tolkien quickly closes that off, pushing them back into the stuffy gloom of the forest - the forest itself "drew close" and began "pressing on them". Do we take this literally yet? I don't think so... but the descriptions imply and hint at that sense of movement, of wilful intent. A clever construction of mood and atmosphere.
Another song... but here the song fails. No silliness, not now. "The air seemed heavy and the making of words wearisome. Just behind them a large branch fell from an old overhaning tree with a crash into the path. The trees seemed to close in before them." Tolkien uses "seemed" twice: a weak word, and yet perhaps fitting here, as he's playing that line between the idea of the living and moving trees and the fearful imaginings of the hobbits (and the reader), an illustration of how they feel rather than the direct reality.
This mood deepens and deepens... is the forest, the land itself, working against them, or only appearing to do so? We do not know, though we might suspect... "Then deep folds in the ground were discovered unexpectedly, like the ruts of great giant-wheels or wide moats and sunken roads long disused and choked with brambles." Giant wheels, impassable moats, sunken roads... all a little spooky, a little threatening. The language choices reinforce the mood, the sense of danger. The deep folds "choked" with brambles. They, too, are being choked off and driven, pushed in one direction against their will, the trees growing ever "deeper and darker".
They find themselves in the valley of the Withywindle River, its sides steep and unscalable... holding them in the one place they don't want to be. Yet there is, seemingly, a reprieve: "A golden afternoon of late sunsine 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." Beautiful... and dangerous, for it is a false respite. The danger is Old Man Willow, the greatest of the living trees, and he lures the hobbits to him and lulls them to sleep before attacking. Yet it starts here, with this first description before the Willow appears. Warm and drowsy... sunshine... wound lazily... the repetition of willow and willow leaves... the warm breeze... blowing softly... rustling reeds... It all serves as a sort of sleep song, Tolkien almost trying to hypnotize the reader, setting up the mood, the drowsiness, which he will so shortly begin to play on. Only the last bit, the creaking of the willows, might bring cause for alarm, a hint of danger.
Merry, Pippin and Frodo fall asleep... and only Sam does not. He feels something is wrong, resists... and ends up saving Frodo. Interesting to note, perhaps, that the three upper class hobbits fall prey to the magical song of the Willow, but Sam, lower class and seemingly simple, resists. A pattern starting?
This, of course, is the moment of Tom Bombadil's appearance. What to say about Tom? The mood changes immediately. Lightness and silliness returns. Tom, in many ways, seems like a character who would be more at home in the The Hobbit than in The Lord of the Rings. Songs and rhymes and silly wordplay...
And Tom, too, represents a certain ramdomness, another trait that seems less at home in this text than in Tolkien's previous one. For The Hobbit, essentially, was quite a ramdom story, at least until the end, where everything comes together and the elements build up and play against each other. But for much of the story, it is basically a sequence of random and separate adventures on the way to the Lonely Mountain. The Trolls, the goblin caves, Gollum, Beorn, Mirkwood... all sort of random, with much left to chance. The Lord of the Rings, however, is much more causally linked. Events build on one another. Actions create reactions, which create new actions, which cause... you get the idea. Here, though, Tom is a random element. Appearing out of the forest in the nick of time. Tom is his own master, fittingly enough, both in terms of the story (Tom is the Master!) and its structuring (his ramdomness and lack of relation to other story elements).
This chapter (and the next) seem to form a mingling point. The original style (the style of The Hobbit), with its playfulness and humourous interjections, with its simplicity and lightness, here becomes entwined with a newer and darker style, a more elegant and flowing style, a little denser, a little more conscious of mood and beauty. A change, I think, in the tone of the novel, that perhaps also represents the geographical shift in the narrative. The hobbits have left the Shire, homey and companionable, and have now entered mysterious and dangerous lands - the language, in a sense, reflects this. The world has suddenly broadened, and so has the language.
"Strange furtive noises ran among the bushes and reeds on either side of them; and if they looked up to the pale sky, they caught sight of queer gnarled and knobbly faces that gloomed dark against the twilight, and leered down at them from the high bank and the edges of the wood."
Not many sentences like that, I think, through the first five chapters of the novel. Some, who like a simple and more compacted prose, might find this new style overwrought, but I think there's something very much to be appreciated in it. It's certainly more ambitious, more atmospheric. I love bits like the "faces that gloomed dark against the twilight". That "gloomed" is both interesting and vivid, striking in its oddity. It offers both a visual sense and mood, as well as a sense of movement, "gloomed" playing off its similarity with "loomed". Very craftily done, if I may say so.
And yet here, still, the new style is leavened by Tom Bombadil, by his playful silliness. The shadow does not yet lie completely across the story.