The Old Forest
The four hobbits depart early. Fatty Bolger remains. He is asked to tell Gandalf to look for them on the East Road, which they will rejoin later.
Merry explains that stories about goblins and wolves in the Old Forest are false, but something is there.
“The trees do not like strangers. They watch you. They are usually content merely to watch you, as long as daylight lasts, and don’t do much…
“They do say the trees do actually move, and can surround strangers and hem them in. In fact long ago they attacked the Hedge: they came and planted themselves right by it, and leaned over it. But the hobbits came and cut down hundreds of trees, and made a great bonfire in the Forest, and burned all the ground in a long strip east of the Hedge. After that the trees gave up the attack, but they became very unfriendly. There is still a wide bare space not far inside where the bonfire was made.”
You see the hobbits can get nasty. We later learn that the Old Forest is a remnant of something that was once much bigger. And that even the good characters are imperfect. Hobbits are less hostile to raw nature than normal humans, yet they must have cleared quite a lot of land. And the Bucklanders wage war when the trees get aggressive.
It is also likely that the Black Riders would attract much greater hostility, had they entered the Old Forest. It is not turned to active evil, as Mirkwood is. The trees resent even the hobbits, but would be vastly more hostile to the creatures of Mordor. The Old Forest is resentful life. Mordor is dead, killed by lusts for power, with humans a part of it.
For his part, Pippin tries to negotiate. He “let out a shout. ‘Oi! Oi!’ he cried. “I am not going to do anything. Just let me pass through, will you!’”. And Merry tells him off, saying “‘I should not shout, if I were you… It does more harm than good.’”
Here we see the marked difference in character. Merry and Pippin are much less similar than most people think. They are a double-act, but distinct. Merry is something of a warrior, with a bold spirit and a habit of doing what he sees as right. Pippin is both cleverer and more foolish, and becomes a cunning trickster later on.
Tooks are adventurers more than warriors. Brandybucks would probably not go anywhere without a sound reason.
Merry will lead the hobbits to war when they finally return to The Shire, with Pippin as his lieutenant, Sam following and Frodo mostly passive.
Merry here does not even have a sword. But his attitudes are more conventional: he just views the trees as enemies. This has the boldness that will later let him help kill the Witch-King of Angmar. But he also seems not to notice that the trees have a case. Pippin perhaps does see: he can much more readily accept an unfamiliar viewpoint. He conciliates Denethor, and though he cannot save him he is able to save Faramir and the Line of Stewards. And earlier he has been able to manipulate the orc Grishnákh into believing that he has the One Ring. Grishnákh, either wanting the ring for himself or else loyal to Sauron, carries them away from the other orcs and is then killed by the Rohirrim.
The film barely makes a distinction, but apparently it is Pippin who tricks Treebeard into seeing the devastation Isengard has made. Not in the book, where Treebeard is already feeling he needs to act.
When he gets the chance, Merry is much more the warrior. A warrior with good intentions, but any warrior has taken the first step on path to Sauron and Nazgul. At least Tolkien probably saw it so, and I feel the same. Also see the problem of fighting evil effectively without warrior feelings.
Merry is adopted by the Rohirrim, and Pippin by Gondor. This suits their character: Rohirrim are simple warriors while something older and wiser lingers in Gondor.
But that happens only because they survive the Old Forest, which almost does not happen. It might be that the Nazgul or Sauron himself has increased the natural hostility of the trees, in the same way that Sauron perhaps increases the Fellowship’s problems at Caradhras, or perhaps just sends snow. Certainly, Merry decided the trees do indeed shift and have obscured a path. They also find themselves heading towards the Barrow-Downs, which also have a bad reputation. (They will go that way two chapters on.) Then they find themselves on the River Withywindle, which they had also tried to avoid.
Frodo also makes an error: his song about failing upsets the trees. They know themselves to be a small remnant of a single forest that once included Mirkwood and Fangorn, where the ents dwell.
There is oppressive heat and flies – this happens in real forests. They grow tired and fall asleep. Sam is least affected and rescues Frodo – the first time he does this. But Merry and Pippin are trapped, until Tom Bombadil arrives singing.
“He was too large and heavy for a hobbit if not quite tall enough for one of the Big People”.
Nothing is said about a difference in ears. That was invented for the film. Tom recognises the willow as Old Man Willow and uses a song to free Merry and Pippin. He also seems to see the willow’s viewpoint, and seeks just to calm him.
Tom then takes them to cultivated and tame land, where his house is, and where Goldberry is waiting. They are promised bread, honey and cream. (No meat.)
As they approach Tom’s house, his song is answered:
“Then another clear voice, as young and as ancient as Spring, like the song of a glad water flowing down into the night from a bright morning in the hills, came falling like silver to meet them”
When they enter Tom’s house “a golden light was all about them”.
That’s Goldberry. Saying more about her and Tom is better done for the next chapter.
Copyright © Gwydion M. Williams.