In the sixth chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring, it takes all of ten pages for the group to face danger in the Old Forest. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Lord of the Rings.
CHAPTER SIX: THE OLD FOREST
Truthfully, this is entertaining. I keep having to stop and remind myself that this was published in 1954. Tolkien’s grasp of world-building, tension, and character development is really unbelievable to me in the very best way. To be fair, a lot of my favorite novels (The Stranger, The Plague, Crime and Punishment, etc) aren’t exactly new novels, but I love finding books that distinctly go against the idea that only recent literature is worth reading. Again, this is a dense novel for sure, but it’s not at all in the way that I expected.
I just love chapter six, okay? I really do. The tension and the terror of the Old Forest permeates well throughout the pages, another sign of how much better written this book is. The joy and happiness of the last five chapters is almost universally gone, and Tolkien trades this with a foreboding and daunting tone. What this does here is not only give me an expectation of disaster, but I can feel what the forest does to these four characters.
That’s what I want writing to do, in whatever way that the author tries to pull it off. I want to have all the feelings. I want immersion. I want to feel like I’m hovering just over the action and watching it unfold, and Tolkien delivers exactly what I want. It’s not even that his diction or vocabulary is particularly complex either:
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 a door of a distant house.
In two sentences, I’m sure a lot of you know exactly what time in the early morning this is. Most of us live somewhere where this happens, just before the sun comes up and the city wakes. This is what I’m talking about. It takes talent to be able to communicate something like this.
This sort of poetic diction is all throughout chapter six, and I was already pretty excited to head into the Old Forest even without being satisfied by Tolkien’s writing. The characters set the scene well, and once they exit the tunnel underneath the hedge, they begin to discuss all the rumors and stories associated with the mysterious place. Out of all of them, Merry’s the most experienced with the forest, and he’s quick to assure them that while it is weird and creepy, it’s nowhere near as bad as it’s supposed to be. The thing is, that doesn’t mean Merry says it isn’t creepy at all. In fact, he then tells a pretty horrifying story about the trees coming to life and attacking the Hedge, only backing down after a bunch of hobbits BURNED A BUNCH OF THEIR TREE BRETHREN IN A BONFIRE. what the hell.
It does take a while for the true horror to show up, and Tolkien brilliantly builds up the tension with a slow burn. If you know me, you know I love this technique, and after Merry tells the story about the tree bonfire, Tolkien begins to start to drop in details about the unsettling nature of the Old Forest:
For the moment there was no whispering or movement among the branches; but they all got an uncomfortable feeling that they were being watched with disapproval, deepening to dislike and even enmity. The feeling steadily grew, until they found themselves looking up quickly, or glancing back over their shoulders, as if they expected a sudden blow.
I love this. I genuinely think this is done well because it’s meant to disarm our senses, to unsettle us and leave us feeling vulnerable and exposed. The truth is that at this point, virtually anything can come out of the forest, and that sense of doom fills every sentence. Even worse, we’ve already been introduced to the idea that the trees themselves are actually alive, making their journey all the more perilous. Just how alive are they? Can they fully move on their in full visibility, or is it something that occurs when you turn away from them? Is it really true that they can hear the hobbits? I mean, Frodo sings that song about the trees falling, and it feels like the end of the whole world, doesn’t it?
They thankfully make it out of that particular part of the forest without anything eating them alive, and Merry continues to lead them in the direction he thinks is best. This involves avoiding a place called Withywindle, which:
‘The Withywindle valley is said to be the queerest part of the whole wood–the centre from which all queerness comes, as it were.’
SO THAT’S WHERE I’M FROM, AMIRITE. oh god. You know, I am genuinely not the slightest bit bothered by seeing the word “queer” so much in this book, and it actually gives me a burst of joy to see it every few pages? I just felt the need to say that out loud. THIS IS WONDERFUL.
Anyway, the group continues on through the forest, the sight of the Downs in the distance giving them hope that they’ll be able to get out of this place sooner than they hoped. Hope? Oh, what a futile thing to have at this point! That visual reference is essentially rendered moot not much longer after this because they get lost. I wasn’t surprised by this development at all, honestly, because it seemed inevitable: the group couldn’t take the most obvious path through the forest in fear of getting caught. Still, this ends up being far more disorienting than I thought it would be, and it’s the same case for our band of hobbits. Merry’s choice to find the Road turns into a disaster, as the band of trees he thought looked less dense and thinner and all around a good idea are hardly anything but that. What Tolkien conveys through this is that sense of being hopelessly lost, of this group not only losing their way, but losing that sense of adventure they set out with. I mean, I know that all four of these characters have acknowledged that this is NOT a there-and-back journey, as Frodo so wonderfully put it. Still, it’s exciting to each of them in their own way, and now? Well, it’s not so exciting at all, and that’s painfully realistic to me.
It’s only barely assuring that Merry realizes they’re following the River Withywindle, in the sense that it’s something recognizable, but…well, I suppose it’s kind of awful for the group. But is it totally fine for me to be a tad excited for them to head to Withywindle just because I want to see what’s so queer about that place? I FEEL LIKE THIS IS TOTALLY AN OKAY THING, RIGHT?
I did sort of regret feeling that because the footpath along the River is what they come upon next, which means….seriously, this is so pervasively creepy to me. Are the trees able to cast spells? Part of why this is so fucked up is that Tolkien doesn’t bother to explain how this part of the Forest is able to make the hobbits fall asleep. It just comes upon them so suddenly and with such a dramatic force that I first thought something else was responsible for it. Frodo describes some sort of “soft fluttering” heard in the trees, but we don’t know what that is. Unfortunately for him, though, he also succumbs to whatever spell they’re all put under.
I love that out of all of them, though, Sam is the one who is least susceptible to the effects of the tree that pulls them all down to the ground to fall asleep near it. In fact, he’s able to resist it enough to wake Frodo, who he discovers was pulled into the River by the tree. What the HELL is going on? Oh, right, the tree is basically CONSUMING MERRY AND PIPPIN. This will never not be one of the freakiest, weirdest things imaginable, and as someone who has mild claustrophobia, this would send me completely over the edge. HOW CAN A TREE DO THAT? WHY WOULD A TREE DO THAT?
I admit to laughing just a bit when Sam and Frodo try to figure out how on earth to get their friends from out of a tree, realizing how absurd the whole thing is. I mean, they can’t burn the tree down unless they like roasted Pippin. Then I stopped laughing at this part:
A loud scream came from Merry, and from far inside the tree they heard Pippin give a muffled yell.
‘Put it out! Put it out!’ cried Merry. ‘He’ll squeeze me in two, if you don’t. He says so!’
OKAY, THIS IS NOT FUNNY ANYMORE. First of all, HOW CAN THIS TREE EVEN TALK. Well, wait…I’m not questioning the logistics of this. Obviously, this is a fantasy and I just accept that this is a thing that can happen. But how can Merry hear the three, but no one else can?
It’s in this moment of terror that Tolkien introduces us to the delightfully weird Tom Bombadil. Do I trust him just yet? I really don’t know, to be honest with you. It’s perfectly possible that he’s just eccentric and rather enjoys traipsing through the woods and rescuing people from Old Man Willow, but he could also have an ulterior motive. I genuinely don’t know! I mean, what if he’s inviting them over for yellow cream and honeycomb and white bread and butter so he can bake hobbits for tomorrow’s dinner? LOOK I DON’T KNOW, IT COULD HAPPEN. Still, I reserve the right to enjoy Tom Bombadil as much as I want, and I really like how nonplussed he is by Old Man Willow trying to capture creatures inside its trunk.
But then I started worrying when Tom leads them to his home, and along the way, he gets really far ahead of the four hobbits, so much so that they can’t even hear him singing anymore. Oh god, it’s a trap, isn’t it? But his house is real, and it’s precisely where Tom leads them to. What Tom does not share with them is a small revelation in the last line of a song sung by someone else in the clearing that leads to his home:
Old Tom Bombadil and the River-daughter
Okay. Okay, who the hell is the River-daughter? WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN. Please let it be nice, I don’t want bad things to happen to the hobbits. 🙁