We’ve now making some quite good progress through The Lord of the Rings, and since the three chapters of “The Old Forest,” “In the House of Tom Bombadil,” and “Fog on the Barrow-downs” seem to go well together, I thought I would discuss them of a piece.
Part of what makes the chapter “The Old Forest” so compelling is that it shows us that there is a great deal in the wider world that the hobbits can in many ways not even begin to fathom. While the Black Riders might have been invaders from outside threatening the peace and quiet of the Shire, the Old Forest is something altogether different. It is in many ways a liminal space, containing a bit of the danger of the outside world and yet also something of the world of the Shire. It is a place that hobbits are familiar with in their tales and legends, but it is also part of the outside world that threatens their peace.
It is also, as the necessity of the Hedge indicates, a reminder of how much work goes into the maintenance of the Shire. While the hobbits, particularly those in the interior, like to think that they are totally detached from the world around them, the wide world of Eriador presses against them on every side. The trees are indeed perilous, and Old Man Willow stands as a reminder of how terrifyingly strange nature can be, especially toward those who go about on two legs. It is not, however, that the forest is evil. It might be more accurate to say that it is wholly other, that it operates according to a set of laws that existed before men and hobbits came into the land and will probably continue once they are gone.
Now, on to the hobbits’ rescuer from the wiles of Old Man Willow. In all of Tolkien’s vast legendarium, perhaps no character has caused more controversy nor ignited more furious debate than Tom Bombadil (perhaps I exaggerate, but surely not by much). As elusive and mysterious as he is jolly and powerful Tom, like the forest over which he rules, is a creature that seems to exist according to his own laws. Older than Elves, perhaps even older than Treebeard (though that is a point that is up for fierce debate), Bombadil remains something of a riddle and an enigma.
When I was young, I used to dread getting to this section of the story, but now that I’m older (and hopefully a little wiser), I actually enjoy Tom’s antics. There is a measure of brilliance in these scenes, not only in that Tom always remains something of a mystery, but also in the way in which Tolkien imbues even his non-sung words with a rhythm and tenor all their own. We, along with the hobbits, find ourselves caught up in his tales and deep knowledge of this world, while also held something at a remove. All we get are glimpses of those bygone ages, and we know little of the men who once dwelt in these ancient kingdoms, and it is precisely these gaps in our knowledge that keep us reading on, hoping for more revelations, no matter how small.
There is something noble and ultimately tragic about the barrows. We know that the men who were buried there were, in their own way, brave warriors of old. It remains unclear (to me at least), whether the wights are the inhabited bodies of those ancient men or whether they are some other sort of spirit, but either way it is clear that they are a corruption of something that was once good. As with so much in Middle-earth, and especially in the ruins of Eriador, a once-glorious past has been reduced in stature. It is, perhaps, a mercy that Tom is able to banish the wight from the barrow, releasing it from its bound servitude.
In many ways, these chapters mark the decisive turning point in the narrative of the novel. From now on, the stakes of the quest to destroy the Ring will only grow higher, and the press of the danger all around them will only increase. Such is the dangerous world to come in The Lord of the Rings.