I feel like I'm running a marathon. You know, without the muscle cramps or vomiting.
In the House of Tom Bombadil
The chapter opens with the hobbits meeting Goldberry, the wife of Tom Bombadil. One of the few female characters in the story, and, like most of the others, quite mysterious. And not human, or even hobbitish. While it's not made clear in the text of the story, source materials indicate that Goldberry is something much like a minor divinity, sort of a cross between a river dryad and a lesser god. A few hints only, as Frodo is reminded of Elven wonder, yet considers the spell she casts "less keen and lofty", but "deeper and nearer to mortal heart". Which, of course, suggests Goldberry is far from mortal herself.
It seems a bit of a theme in the story. Who are the female characters? We have Goldberry, we have Arwen (though she hovers, most often, just outside the story rather than within it), we have Galadriel. All mysterious, all a little beyond understanding, and none of them human. Only Eowyn plays a central role, and she is the only mortal female (I suppose I'm cruelly dismissing old Lobelia Sackville-Baggins). Interesting, that, and something we'll have to keep in mind once we reach Eowyn's part in the story.
The hobbits also learn a little more vague information about Tom Bombadil: he does not own the land (no one does), but he is its master. And of course more singing and rhyming, and a pleasant tucking in to sleep.
In the night, though, dreams... and these dreams help break up the sense of contented safety in Bombadil's house. Frodo has a vivid dream of a figure on a tower, surrounded by wolves and fell voices, and flashes of light... and a feeling of the presence of Black Riders. It's an interesting dream, not only because it breaks the mood of the chapter, but because it returns the reader's thoughts to the main plot, reminding them of the real danger while still off on this chance adventure in the Old Forest. A reminder of the Ring, and of those pursuing it... and again it seems a vision of Gandalf, with a staff that flashes light. A true vision, of a sort, as if Frodo were a seer. Is this a hidden gift of the ring? It's never really explained, I think, but it seems more than a dream. Perhaps the ring connects him with the Black Riders in some way... but I don't think this visionary sense returns much. A curious little bit of writing, overall.
Pippin has a fearful dream of creaking willows, of being once again trapped inside the great willow tree. Merry dreams of encroaching waters, of drowning. Both awake and are comforted, but both had fallen prey, it seems, to the song of the Forest. Sam, though, sleeps soundly, as if troubled by nothing. This recalls to me the last chapter, sort of in reverse. Where there he resisted the magical sleep (while the others failed to do so), here he can sleep naturally without being troubled by the strange and almost magical dreams/visions. Again, simple old Sam seems more immune to the strange charms of the magical world.
The hobbits enjoy more good food, and song and stories - yet this is balanced with that darker vision, too. We learn of the Forest and of Old Man Willow, and it's a description saturated with the sort of rich language we did not often see earlier in the story. It becomes ever more prominent:
"Tom's words laid bare the hearts of trees and their thoughts, which were often dark and strange, and filled with a hatred of things that go free upon the earth, gnawing, biting, breaking, hacking, burning: destroyers and usurpers. It was not called the Old Forest without reason, for it was indeed ancient, a survivor of vast forgotten woods; and in it there lived yet, ageing no quicker than the hills, the fathers of the fathers of trees, remembering times when they were lords. the countless years had filled them with pride and rooted wisdom, and with malice. But none were more dangerous than the Great Willow: his heart was rotten, but his strength was green; and he was cunning, and a master of winds, and his song and thought ran through the woods on both sides of the river. His grey thirsty spirit drew power out of the earth and spread like find root-threads in the ground, and invisible twig fingers in the air, till it had under its dominion nearly all the trees of the Forest from the Hedge to the Downs."
Very evocative and moody. Dark, the language itself full of violence, full of slow anger. I love the diction here, how the word choices reflect what they seek to evoke. The "green" strength of the willow, reflecting both the height of its power and the nature of it, too. The same sort of double use is apparent in his choice of "root-threads" and "invisible twig fingers" as well. And there is a sense of creeping corruption, or seduction, until all is under its sway. Not so unlike Sauron himself, slowly seeking to pull all to him, bent to his will, sort of a thematic mirror in miniature.
And more darkness, a darkness that becomes foreshadowing with Tom's tales of the Barrow Downs: "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." Yes, Tolkien really does like the foreshadowing. A striking description, and I note the repeated use of "rings". A subtler sort of foreshadowing perhaps, the wights being creatures (once men, perhaps) who have fallen to darkness. There's a hint of the Ringwraiths (Black Riders) here, with the "rings on cold fingers", a warning of possibilities to come.
And again, though, a retreat to good food, to happy stories and Goldberry's songs. It's a back and forth chapter, really. In the direct action there is no real movement, no conflict or tension. It's a happy respite. Yet Tolkien confounds that simple happiness by interweaving the dark dreams and the dark tales. The imagery and language provide a certain tension, plus the hint of what is to come in the dangerous Barrow Downs. Necessary, perhaps, or this chapter might fall right out of the book for its limpness. We can only take so many songs and descriptions of food and cream.
The ending of the chapter, though, is troubling. Tom Bombadil asks for the Ring... and Frodo gives it to him. And the Ring has no effect on Tom, and indeed he laughs and plays a trick with it before giving it back to Frodo. It all seems a little silly, and also poorly chosen in terms of developing the dramatic tension of the overall narrative arc. Yes, it does give Tom Bombadil a certain majesty, making his character seem interesting... but to what end? Tom has little role to play in the overall story, and soon disappears for good. And the cost of this is to diminish the Ring and its danger, and that dynamic is the engine that drives the whole story forward. A fairly ineffective course for the story to follow, I have to think.
And it's compounded by Frodo, somewhat suspiciously, testing the Ring and playing his own prank - putting on the Ring and becoming invisible. And yet Tom can see him, again undercutting the power and importance of the Ring to no real effect. And what's more the whimsy of Frodo's use goes against his task, goes against the warnings of the missing Gandalf. The Black Riders are still pursuing them... why put on the Ring?
Tom then gives them a rhyme to sing if they need his aid on their journey the next day. Another bit of foreshadowing, though the danger is somewhat undercut by the silliness of the rhyme itself, or at least it's opening line (...Tom Bombadillo!).
A strange little chapter, in the end. Little happens, and it's a happy respite for the hobbits... except for the plague of dream visions and warnings which seek to play up the dangers to come, even while Tom seems to dismiss the power and danger of the Ring itself. A chapter a little at odds with itself, perhaps, a disparity shown at times in the shifting language, the movement from silly rhymes to dark and moody descriptions.