Goldberry: The Enigmatic Mrs Bombadil

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Introduction:

A four part series that discusses a wholly new approach to looking at Tom Bombadil’s fair lady: ‘Goldberry’.

Part 1: Names, Nymphs and Nature’s Lilies

When it came to origins and sources Tolkien clarified that:

“The etymology of words and names in my story has two sides: (1) their etymology within the story; and (2) the sources from which I, as an author, derive them.”
– Letter to Gene Wolfe from Tolkien, November 1966

Now according to notes in a booklet of poetry issued after The Lord of the Rings, ‘Tom Bombadil’ as a name within the story was likely hobbit inspired – being:

“… Bucklandish in form … ”.
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1962

However we know through the 1934 Adventures of Tom Bombadil, the Professor:

“… had already ‘invented’ him independently …”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153

and prior to The Lord of the Rings.

Because the name had been originally assigned to a toy, we can also reasonably infer that it arose from outside of the Silmarillion mythology. Moreover that it was Tolkien himself who had come up with it:

“… I should not have given him so particular, individual, and ridiculous a name …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153   (my underlined emphasis)

But what exactly prompted such a ludicrously sounding and unique title is far the more interesting question.

Mark Hooker’s ground-breaking thesis: Magnus Thomas Bombadilus Oxoniensis in The Hobbitonian Anthology is perhaps the closest we can currently get to understanding the out of mythology source of ‘Tom Bombadil’. In short, Hooker believes that ‘Tom’ was derived from Oxford’s Christ Church Tower bell – known as ‘Great Tom’. Certainly there is complementary synergy in the exposed Latin inscription and its rhythmic peal; the ‘Bim Bom’ of the bell matches well with Tom’s seemingly nonsensical verse in The Lord of the Rings. Hooker has also suggested that apart from the bell’s ‘Bom’, Bombadil might have been derived from such words as ‘bombio’ to buzz, ‘bombo’ for bass drum – among numerous other offerings.

Equally puzzling as ‘Tom Bombadil’ is the etymological origin of ‘Goldberry’. From where, what, or whom did Tolkien derive that name? Yes exactly what was the history behind its development? Strangely enough, given its simplicity of construction, answers have been elusive. Nonetheless as academics would surely universally agree – Tolkien must have had his reasons, and they undoubtedly would have been well thought out.

Admirably Hooker has researched the Welsh language and resulting translations of ‘Gold’ and ‘berry’ as a possible source (Tolkien and Welsh). The ‘English calque of a Welsh theonym’ as Hooker suggests is perhaps a little difficult to get one’s head around. Happily for the less academically inclined, I will offer up something much simpler and a wholly different viewpoint.

My own inclination is that ‘Goldberry’ would probably have been named after a particular plant because of the ‘berry’ ending to her name. Most likely it would be an aquatic plant; and if so – one native to Oxford and Berkshire river environs. Goldberry is of course associated to the Withywindle in the novel which in turn, as some eminent scholars have remarked, was almost certainly modeled on Oxford’s River Cherwell.

Tom’s singing leaves us a decent clue in hinting that the color ‘gold’ is interchangeable with ‘yellow’:

“Goldberry, Goldberry, merry yellow berry-o!”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Old Forest

So perhaps what we should focus on is vegetation that yields yellow berries common to river-lands in two specific English counties.

Speculating further, Goldberry is strongly linked to water-lilies in the tale. These plants are of the Nymphaeaceae family, where the Latin based scientific designation, as Tolkien almost certainly knew, was inspired by Greek nymphs and sirens. Thus we intriguingly have the water-lily as being synonymous and intricately linked to the legendary female ‘water-nymph’.

For Goldberry – the river-daughter, outwardly nymph-like qualities were strongest in early Bombadil poetry where she was depicted as comfortably at home in her water-dwelling, notably among the lilies:

“… up came Goldberry, the River-woman’s daughter;
pulled Tom’s hanging hair. In he went a-wallowing

under the water-lilies, bubbling and a-swallowing.”
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1934

Complementing Greek mythology, later Teutonic and other North European legends have many examples of mythological merfolk making their abodes in fresh waters below lily-pads. Whether mermaids, water-nymphs, sirens, nixies or undines – these naiad-like creatures were usually young, beautiful and invariably female. Indeed artistic renditions abound depicting them in close association to river flora across a wide pan of European myth.

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Fritz Hegenbart – etching from The Journal of Applied Arts and Crafts, 1851

siren_b‘Nordic Thoughts’ – Siren among the lilies

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hylas

‘Hylas and the Nymphs’, John William Waterhouse, 1896

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Absolutely no evidence exists that Tolkien ever viewed any of the above artwork, nonetheless Michael Drout has mentioned Waterhouse and the strong probability of Pre-Raphaelite influences in J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment. Among Waterhouse’s works, ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’ is one of the more renowned portraits. If it had ever made its way to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (where some of his paintings indeed have been exhibited) and perchance the Professor had seen it – I’m sure with his eye for detail he would have noticed two different colored lilies.

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hylas2

Zoom in on Yellow & White Water-lilies, ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’

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Getting back to specific flora of Oxfordshire waters – though the lilies Tom brought Goldberry were white, the River Cherwell also happens to seed a more profuse yellow variety.

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order

‘The History of Banbury’, Alfred Beesley, pg. 575

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Notably alba and lutea are feminine forms of the Latin words for ‘white’ and ‘yellow’ respectively. Given that the masculine equivalents exist, not unreasonably it can be concluded that these plants spawned from life-giving waters are effectively ‘daughters of the river’.

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William Baxter’s ‘British Phaenogamous Botany’, Oxford, 1838

Nuphar Lutea.PNG

Yellow water-lily, Nuphar lutea

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Unquestionably Tolkien knew of the yellow water-lily’s existence. It is mentioned in the Appendix to The Book of Lost Tales I as ‘Nénu’ in Elvish form. In all likelihood that derivation was sourced from the lily’s medieval Latin name: Nenuphar, which of course had subsequently led to the scientific Nuphar extraction. In taxonomic descriptions, this plant is also commonly titled the ‘Brandy Bottle’ due to the flask shape of its spent fruit. The flower itself smells like alcohol – and so the ‘dregs of wine’ is an often employed phrase both capturing and conveying its slightly noxious aroma.

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brandy-bottle

‘Brandy Bottle’ – Yellow Water-lily Fruit

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A subtle and deliberate inter-connection of Nuphar lutea with the Withywindle tributary and then further to the naming of the “golden brown” ‘Brandywine’ river by Tolkien should not be downplayed. Not everything was in the book and not everything was fully explained.

At this point, with an alcoholic whiff in the air, we need to return to The Fellowship of the Ring text. At our first encounter with Goldberry, I suggest we read her description, then close our eyes and visualize unconventionally. We should try and think in terms of the imagery put out by Tolkien.

Perhaps we should try employing the ‘mooreeffoc’ principle Tolkien recommended in On Fairy Stories and attempt to see what might have become banal from a new perspective. And so if we focus on that very first paragraph, a metaphorical portrait of something other than a woman might mentally form:

“… yellow hair rippled down her shoulders; her gown was green, green as young reeds, shot with silver like beads of dew; … About her feet … white water-lilies were floating …”.  
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

In Goldberry’s initial posture what the Professor predominantly depicted was a mass of wavy yellow hair shouldered atop a green gown raised above what seemed like a watery bed of buoyant white lilies:

“… so that she seemed to be enthroned in the midst of a pool.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Her face was not mentioned, nor the color of her eyes, nor her limbs at this initial description. All of this is so much in contrast to Tom, whom Tolkien happily described at outset as possessing: “thick legs”, “eyes” that “were blue”, and a “face … red as a ripe apple … creased into a hundred wrinkles”. Yes we have a curious divergence for Goldberry from past practice.

So if we think thoughtfully, our slender figured hostess, I deem, epitomized the very essence of a water-lily. Not one of the white variety – but a full-bloomed wavy-petaled yellow lily on a single green water-spattered stalk raised well above the water with roots (represented by her feet) that reached below its surface. By leaving out (in that first paragraph) facial features, the color of her skin and any mention of her limbs – Tolkien left us articulate worded artistry emblematic of a special flower. The gold belt and chair seem to figuratively signify that she was indeed an “enthroned” “queen” of all Withywindle water-lilies, who had once reigned supreme in her shady pool. Such a motif can be reasonably perceived for our fair Goldberry – of course with some lateral imagination!

Perhaps Tolkien enhanced such visual imagery by audible means in her departure from the center of the ‘indoor pond’. To greet her guests, for they were on ‘land’, Goldberry had to metaphorically first pass the water’s edge:

“… her gown rustled softly like the wind in the flowering borders of a river.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Given the linkage observed so far -we are left with little choice but to probe deeper. At this point it is worth scrutinizing the plant and the species, in question, in more detail.

One interesting matter resulting from word origin research, is that the Nymph in Nymphaeaceae also has a dual meaning. Its Latin etymological source: nymphe, also means ‘bride’.

How curious! One can’t help but suspect that Tolkien as a professional philologist knew of this duality. After all, both aspects of nymphe are reflected in the 1934 The Adventures of Tom Bombadil poem. For after early water play, its culmination resulted in a wedding with Goldberry becoming Tom’s spouse:

“Old Tom Bombadil had a merry wedding, …”.
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1934

Perhaps even more remarkable, is that the Greek equivalent of nymphe is numphe; and that nubere in Latin means: ‘take a husband’. Maybe then for a Greek/Latin mix, that is stretchable to ‘nymph – take a husband’. In that light, if bere can be extrapolated to ‘berry’, the ending to ‘Goldberry’ appears highly befitting. Hmm – one can only wonder if Tolkien thought along such lines!

Despite some etymological progress, we must realize that it is our most ancient records of the northern hemisphere that seemingly connect to Tolkien’s mythology. Though we have the beginnings of an ‘external’ linkage of our world to his (from a philological standpoint), what about the ‘internal’ connection? What might have been the derivation of ‘Goldberry’ internal to the tale?

For that, I have a straightforward possibility. Namely that ‘Goldberry’ was simply a Common Speech corruption of the Sindarin: ‘Golodh bereth’ – meaning ‘Elvish Queen’. These alike words tie in with text where at first impression Frodo writes of being:

“… answered by a fair young elf-queen”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

It is quite probable that the Elves knew of Goldberry’s existence before the hobbits. Whether the corrupted rendering was Bucklandish in origin – we do not know. Nonetheless, one can easily imagine the scenario where Sindarin became distorted, and the Buckland hobbits being the first among their kind to have knowledge of her.

External to the tale, there also might have been more than just etymological roots to the name ‘Goldberry’. To establish whether this was the case, we need to once again look at our suspect floral candidate – but from a seasonal standpoint.

And so if we scrutinize the plant – there is most definitely one noteworthy feature to its life-cycle. In Oxfordshire in late spring and early summer is when the yellow water-lily begins its budding. At this point it strongly resembles a berry. Yes a yellow berry; conceivably one might even say: a gold berry!

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lily-bud

Yellow Water-lily Buds

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Goldberry being “young” and vibrant closely associates her with both early seasons where the ‘berry’, in slow-flowing English rivers, takes shape from a single stem. It is at this point we should recall that ‘nymph’ also means something ‘young and budding’. Despite such a word being used to entomologically describe the larvae of certain insects, it is not wholly inappropriate to think of it in terms of the initial stage of a flower’s development.

Now though full flowering may continue through to September – the yellow water-lily’s budding season is basically over by the end of summer to renew in the following spring. This slots in comfortably with the text’s rhyme:

“Fair River-daughter!
O spring-time and summer-time and spring again after!”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Towards the end of autumn the flower, leaves and stem die away leaving just the root rhizome. It is likely that Tolkien – who had a marked penchant to flora, and who had considerable botanical knowledge, would have known these details. A glimpse of this shines through in one of Warren Lewis’s diary entries where he recorded Tolkien:

“… with his botanical and etymological interests …”
– J.R.R. Tolkien: The Making of a Legend, The Struggle to Publish, Colin Duriez

would take time to note the countryside in long strolling walks in the Malvern Hills. Again in that same vein:

“All illustrated botany books … have for me a special fascination.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #312

When it came to local species, the Professor ought to have regularly espied the more common yellow water-lilies floating on the Cherwell’s surface. Over many years at Oxford, the seasons for emergence of shoots and flowering, and those in which they were absent should have been readily apparent in equally lazy brown waters as those of the book.

During their budding phase the lilies would have been hard to miss – especially on July and August afternoons while on the Cherwell:

“ … floating in the family punt hired for the season …”.
– Tolkien: A biography, Northmoor Road, Humphrey Carpenter

And so this is perhaps an opportune moment to recall that when it came to ‘sources’:

“… it is the particular use in a particular situation of any motive, whether invented, deliberately borrowed, or unconsciously remembered that is the most interesting thing to consider.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #337

Handily for The Lord of the Rings, some of Tolkien’s inspiration literally lay just outside his doorstep. The rivers Isis and Cherwell running through the heart of Oxford had a special bond when it came to its history and connection to water-lilies. William Turner, a renowned local artist, had painted two nationally acclaimed portraits of lilies on the Cherwell.

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cherwell

‘Waterlilies in the Cherwell’ by William Turner (of Oxford), c. 1850’s

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Right next to Magdalen College and its campus, where C.S. Lewis had taught and resided, is the famed Lily House. Part of the the oldest botanical garden in England it is one of the few which grows the giant Amazonian Victoria Cruziana lily.

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Victoria Cruziana Waterlily, Lily House, Oxford University Botanical Gardens

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In addition to the city’s history, the rivers of Oxford certainly played a role in the family’s ‘adventures’. Besides the danger of tripping over willow roots, lily-beds would also have presented tricky obstacles to navigate past. Family man Tolkien certainly was, but he also knew how to look after his children when confronted by the lurking dangers presented by the Isis and Cherwell. In a way Tom was family-oriented too – and if my hunch is correct Goldberry was no different.

Unless further factual information comes to light we can only guess the truth behind why Tolkien had Tom gather white water-lilies for Goldberry. At first sight the given reason is plain enough:

“… to please my pretty lady, …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Nevertheless the real motive might have been more subtle. Goldberry, as ‘queen of the lilies’ – I surmise, was not just monarchical but also had a semi-symbiotic relationship with her subjects (and no doubt friends): the lilies. The health of various river domains ought to have been much dependent on them. Oxygenation of the waters and the provision of a unique sub-ecosystem by the leaves, was of vital importance. And so it is suggested that Goldberry was just taking care of the eldest and most vulnerable ones from impending winter frosts – something which she did annually. White lilies were her focus simply because their blooms last slightly longer into the season; and yes indeed they survive and can even thrive in containers:

“… in wide vessels of … earthenware, white water-lilies were floating, …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Tom’s task was clearly urgent:

“Tom had an errand there, that he dared not hinder.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Moreover gathering lilies (leaves and all) was a rare event; it had nothing to do with house beautification:

“Each year at summer’s end I go to find them … ”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

So it seems Tom’s bride had not completely forsaken the pool. Consequently the ritual of bathing in it every year at spring-time was perhaps to welcome her new subjects – the buds of new lilies, both white and yellow. Far from abandoning the river’s special inhabitants – she was there to help the aged and nurture the very young!

Of course the above is conjecture. Nevertheless the connection of Goldberry with a flower is impressed upon us at not only at our first meeting, but also our last. There at farewell, once again Tolkien left us with a similar vision of a yellow-headed lily stood proud yet in a green pool like that in Once Upon a Time:

“ ‘Goldberry!’ … ‘My fair lady clad all in silver green’ … her hair was flying loose caught in the sun it shone and shimmered. A light like the water on dewy grass flashed from under her feet.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

And at last sight:

“ … they saw Goldberry, now small and slender like a sunlit flower against the sky: …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs    (my underlined emphasis)

When Tolkien stated that:

“Goldberry represents the actual seasonal changes” in “real river-lands”,
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #210

more than anything else – she symbolized the changes experienced by a flower: the yellow water-lily; another nymphean “daughter of the River”. This native Oxfordshire plant, when budding, I believe – is the ‘external’ and true inspirational source of the name: ‘Goldberry’.

Revisions:

11/11/2016 – Added from : “Despite some etymological progress …” to “… but from a seasonal standpoint.”

Added: “there is most definitely one noteworthy feature to its life-cycle.”

Is: “I believe – is the ‘external’ and true inspirational source …”, Was: “I believe – is the source …”.

12/16/2016 – Added: “And so this is perhaps an opportune moment to recall that when it came to ‘sources’:” & Letter #337 quote.

1/7/2017 – After quote: “… answered by a fair young elf-queen”, replaced paragraph with: “It is quite probable … knowledge of her.”

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