LOTR 7: Into the Woods to Bombadil’s House
Into the woods,
It's time to go,
I hate to leave,
I have to go.
Into the woods-
It's time, and so
I must begin my journey.
- Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods (1986).
I recently read John Garth’s book The Worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien (2020). In amongst the many moments that resonated with me, Garth’s observations on the Withywindle and origins of Old Man Willow reminded me of a recent walk I took around the Westbere marshes west of Canterbury, Kent (UK). Tolkien suffered from what he dubbed the ‘Oxford “sleepies”’, a drowsiness he associated with the city’s river-valley scenery (Worlds, p. 105 - 6). Westbere marshes sits besides the River Stour and this trance-like feeling most certainly permeates the river side just as it supposedly did for Tolkien by the River Cherwell in Oxfordshire. If you look at pictures of Cherwell and my picture below, you can see the similarities between the two English rivers:
I hope at least that Tolkien was not bitten by flying monstrosities as much as I was.
Anyway. On with the chapter! The hobbits are finally leaving the Shire and heading into the Old Forest.
I want to dip back into what was going on with the life of the forest. Are there Entwives here or not? If not then what are they? Tolkien comments on the fate of the Entwives twice in his letters: the first is from a letter to Naomi Mitchison on 25th April 1954:
I think that in fact the Entwines had disappeared for good, being destroyed with
their gardens in the War of the Last Alliance (Second Age 3429-3441) when Sauron
pursued a scorched earth policy and burned their land against the advance of the
Allies down the Anduin. They survived only in the 'agriculture' transmitted to
Men (and Hobbits). Some, of course, may have fled east, or even have become
enslaved: tyrants even in such tales must have an economic and agricultural
background to their soldiers and metal-workers. If any survived so, they would
indeed be far estranged from the Ents. (Letters, p. 179).
In the mode of a true ‘discoverer’ and antiquarian, Tolkien only speculates about the Entwives’ existence. His parenthetical mention of Hobbits at least allows us to ruminate on their connection to the Old Forest. Treebeard himself suggests to Merry and Pippin that the Entwives ‘would like your country’ which lends more support towards the theory that the Old Forest does consist of at least some Entwines (Lord, p. 472). Tolkien further echoes Treebeard’s thoughts on the blackening of a tree’s heart in the unsent extended draft of his 14th October 1958 letter to Rhona Beare. It is possible that through enslavement, misuse, torture through fire and other abuse that the Entwives became wild and full of hate. Even in the first version of ’The Old Forest’, Tolkien makes it clear that the trees of the forest are otherworldly to the hobbits:
They used long ago to attack the Hedge, come and plant themselves right by it and
lean over it. But we burn[t] the ground all along the east side for miles and they
gave it up. (Return, p. 111).
The burning of the hedge survives through to the published edition. Remembering Treebeard’s speculations, we could perhaps challenge the hobbits perception of these events by considering the Entwives to have only been interested in the fertile earth of the Shire. The aggressive behaviour of the hobbits will have no doubt triggered memories of the burning Sauron inflicted during the War of the Last Alliance, blurring their perceptions of what constitutes an orc and a hobbit.
We could extend this line further by suggesting that the orc is a set of performative acts or beliefs; a behaviour that is corrupt and cruel and bereft of empathy:
For we are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring. And we shall (it seems)
succeed. But the penalty is, as you will know, to breed new Sauron’s, and slowly
turn Men and Elves into Orcs. . . . we started out with a great many Orcs on our
side. (Letters, p. 66).
Although Tolkien was averse to people viewing The Lord of the Rings as an allegory, he does frequently utilise his creations in his letters as allegories.
This chapter, although undergoing some changes, saw less attention and development than previous chapters. Christopher himself comments that ‘it is then remarkable that this text reaches at a stroke the narrative as published in FR’ (Return, p. 112). Versions from Phases 2 - 4 are relatively the same in structure and sound. Minor details as to who is dragged beneath the ground by Willow-Man (Phases 1 -2) / Old Man Willow (Phases 3 onwards) and who is pushed into the river dominate Christopher’s notes. The uncanny quiet that permeates the Old Forest runs from the first version through to the published version. The future of the story is a little different in the first version as Tolkien planned initially for the hobbits to travel through the Old Forest, onto the Barrow-Downs and then to Tom Bombadil’s, but this did not see any further experimentation. Overall, the chapter was quite secure and settled from the start.
Garth, J. (2020). The Worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Tolkien, J. R. R. (1988). The History of Middle-earth: The Return of the Shadow. [Ed. Tolkien, C.]. London: HarperCollins.
Tolkien, J. R. R. (2006). The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. [Ed. Carpenter, H.]. London: HarperCollins.
Tolkien. J. R. R. (2007). The Lord of the Rings. London: HarperCollins.