Saturday, June 15, 2024

Lord of the Rings Re-Read: The Old Forest

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“We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness. Of all faces those of our familiars are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces. This triteness is really the penalty of “appropriation”: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their color, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them.”

— J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories

Let’s talk about fantasy for a moment, before we head into the Old Forest.

Tolkien gets called the “Father of Modern Fantasy” a lot. And modern fantasy is often described in its relation to Tolkien: either following in his footsteps or blazing new trails away from his influence. Just take a look at Wikipedia’s history of the genre: we have early fantasy, modern fantasy, Tolkien, post-Tolkien. That’s that.

Of course there’s something to be said for that sort of breakdown: at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo is essentially an Orphaned Farm Boy thrust into an Adventure and tasked to Save the World from Great Evil. It’s fair enough to link epic fantasy from the 80s and 90s to that sort of template. But on the whole, it is really baffling to me that anyone would say that Tolkien is the father of the modern fantasy genre. He is, at most, a rich eccentric grandfather. There are lots and lots of reasons for this that we’ll get to as we move through the chapters: his use of characters, his views of magic and of history, his tone, his goals. Honestly, you could write an endless series of essays on it.

But we can start with this: “The Old Forest” (and its follow-up chapter, “In the House of Tom Bombadil”) would never get published by a modern fantasy publisher. “The Old Forest” doesn’t move the plot forward. There’s no substantial foreshadowing of future events. We don’t learn anything about the characters that we didn’t already know before: Merry is a good leader, Sam is fierce and stubborn in the face of trouble. And it’s an odd choice for the first big challenge for our little fellowship – the danger remains intangible and almost unarticulated until the very end, when the hobbits are rendered immediately helpless until they are saved by a blue-hatted, yellow-booted creature who defeats a tree through the power of song. Basically: your writing group would have a LOT to say about this chapter if you brought it in for review.

All that said, I like this chapter. A lot. It’s odd and disorienting, but it’s vibrant and often kind of mesmerizing. And I think it fits in well with Tolkien’s idea of fantasy, particularly with the quote above. A good fairy story (or fantasy, if you prefer) is not so much about the outer trappings, as much as they may be needed as a framework. It’s about re-evoking feelings. It’s about jarring a reader out of complacency, so that the familiar – the “possessed,” as Tolkien wrote – seems suddenly new. “The Old Forest” does this in different ways, from the claustrophobic magic of the trees to bombastic singing… gods? Nature spirits? Something… else? Time to get into Tom Bombadil land, guys. Your mileage may vary.

The Old Forest

In a lot of ways the Old Forest feels like a traditional sort of fairy land. Merry leads the group through an underground tunnel covered by a cobweb-laden hedge, and it’s striking how different the before and after is. The hobbits start their journey walking through mist, dripping branches, and cold grey dew. But as soon as they’re into the forest things become hot and warm and bright. It’s a nice crossing the threshold moment, and things get odd, quickly, in unexpected ways.

The first thing that struck me was how our heroes, throughout the chapter, seem to be fearing the wrong thing. At Frodo’s suggestion they turn to the Old Forest in an effort to lose the Black Riders that had been tracking them; a reasonable-enough thing to do. It’s interesting how all of the previous threats of the story fall away in this chapter. There’s no mention of Black Riders, no mention of Sauron, no mention of The Ring.

Even aside from that, though, the hobbits don’t seem to quite recognize the danger. Before entering the forest, Pippin asks if there is any danger besides the trees, and Merry gives the rather ominous answer that, well, something makes the paths. And then there’s the fear of the trees: Merry mentions that at night the trees whisper to each other, “passing news and plots along in an unintelligible language; and the branches swayed and groped without any wind.” The mistrust of trees grows when they enter the forest, and the hobbits repeatedly glance over their shoulders, fearing that they were about to be hit by branches.

This, of course, doesn’t turn out to be the problem at all: it’s a much more nebulous and ambient danger than anything crawling around in the woods. Beyond the heat and closeness of the trees, there’s a sort of infectious despair. Frodo’s attempt to lift the mood with a song peters out before he can finish. Everyone else is described as “depressed.” Even atop a hill in the middle of the forest, where they can finally escape the canopy, their location is described as “an island in a sea of trees, and the horizon was veiled.” And things only get worse on the other side of the hill. Despite all their best attempts to head north, the forest seems to force them down to the south, cutting off paths and trapping them in small ravines. “They were being headed off, and were simply following a course chosen for them.” It’s really unsettling stuff, and it feels as if the forest, rather than just attacking them outright, is slowly draining their purpose. This extends to the point that, rather than being attacked by a tree, Merry, Pippin, and Frodo, simply give themselves up to one.

It struck me that this dynamic within the chapter – playing down external fears and threats, playing up internal ones – fits nicely as a foreshadowing of The Lord of the Rings as a whole. In the end, this is going to come down to an internal test of character for most of our hobbits, where external events depend almost entirely on internal decisions and responses. The real danger isn’t so much the foes creeping through the woods or angry trees: it is personal failure, or an internal failure of standards. Loss of purpose, and loss of a sense of self, is the biggest threat.

Old Forest

Tom Bombadil

“Someone was singing a song; a deep glad voice was singing carelessly and happily, but it was singing nonsense.”

When the internal threat takes external form – when Merry & Pippin get eaten by a tree – it’s Tom Bombadil to the rescue. I don’t want to get too in-depth with the character at this point, since we have a whole chapter dedicated to him and to Goldberry next time. The internet is a weird, bottomless treasure trove of speculation about Bombadil, suggesting that he is anything from Eru himself to a Maia, or a nature spirit. One, my favorite so far, suggests that he is the secret alter-ego of the Witch King of Angmar. There will be a lot to say, I’m sure.

For now, I just want to touch on some first impressions of Bombadil, and how he fits in (or doesn’t fit in) to this chapter. Here’s how Tolkien describes him:

“Suddenly, hopping and dancing along the path, there appeared above the reeds an old battered hat with a tall crown and a long blue feather stuck in the band. With another hop and a bound there came into view a man, or so it seemed. At any rate he was too large and heavy for a hobbit, if not quite tall enough for one of the Big People, though he made quite enough noise for one, stumping along with great yellow boots on his thick legs, and charging through grass and rushes like a cow going down to drink. He had a blue coat and a long-brown beard; his eyes were blue and bright, and his face was red as a ripe apple, but creased into a hundred wrinkles of laughter.”

I did not like Bombadil as a kid. I took Tolkien too seriously, and was enamored of elves and starlight and trees, and all that. Bombadil was goofy, and I didn’t want goofiness in my fantasy. He struck me as the guy, should Tim Burton have ever adapted Lord of the Rings, whom Johnny Depp would have played under an upsetting pancake of makeup.

This time, though, I’m liking him more. He’s weird, and tonally jarring. But I sort of think he pairs well with the Old Forest. I like the idea of an old, overgrown forest, covered in moss and willow leaves, whispering despairing things to poor little hobbits, at the beck and call of a joyful guy bounding around with blue feathers and yellow shoes, singing songs where other people can’t. It also fits in with Tolkien’s comments on fantasy at the top: just when the forest starts to seem familiar – as soon as the reader says ‘yes, okay, I know where this is going’ – Bombadil happens, and suddenly things seem stranger and wider and more precarious again. I’m not fully on board, yet, but I like the guy more than I would have thought so far.

Final Comments

  • Tell me your feelings about Tom Bom, Jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo.
  • If you don’t know the origins of Tom Bombadil’s character, it is spectacular. Here it is courtesy of the Tolkien Estate: “Tom Bombadil was the name of a Dutch doll that belonged to Michael, J.R.R. Tolkien’s second son. John, his elder brother, did not like it, and one day decided to stuff it down the lavatory; but the doll was saved from this miserable fate and became the subject of a poem, ‘The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.’”
  • If you haven’t read it, go take a look at Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories.” It’s a wonderful essay, and a must for anyone interested in writing fantasy.
  • Sam on Old Man Willow: “I don’t like this great big tree. I don’t trust it. Hark at it singing about sleep now! This won’t do at all!” Any thoughts on why Sam was particularly resistant to the willow? I’m tempted to say that Sam simply has a much more solid sense of himself, and is less flighty, than the others. Sam does seem the type to be rather wowed by a magical tree, though, so I’m not quite sure where I land on that one. Similarly, Merry seems less affected than the rest near the start of the chapter. Is it just because he’s been in the Old Forest before?
  • I’m also delighted that Sam’s response to Frodo getting tossed into the Withywindle is “You shouldn’t sit in such a place, if you feel sleepy.” You’re not wrong, Sam!
  • “Wait a minute,” cried Sam, struck by an idea suggested by firewood. “We might do something with fire!”
    “We might,” said Frodo doubtfully. “We might succeed in roasting Pippin alive.”
  • Prose Prize: Lots of good contestants this week. Tolkien is at the top of his game in describing the dense, pressing claustrophobia of the forest. Despite that, I quite like this passage, coming as soon as Frodo & Co. leave the house at Crickhollow: The leaves of trees were glistening, and every twig was dripping; the grass was grey with cold dew. Everything was still, and far-away noises seemed near and clear: fowls chattering in a yard, someone closing the door of a distant house. It’s such a spot-on description for what it feels like to walk out into the early morning in the fall.
  • Our art this week comes courtesy of Phil Dragash whose Tolkein artwork can be largely found here.

Next Week: All Tom Bombadil, all the time. Plus Goldberry!

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