Goldberry: The Enigmatic Mrs Bombadil

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Part II: Undineiably a Fishy Story

Many readers have thought of Goldberry as being a relatively simple character. Compared to Tom that seems quite true – at least superficially. But was there more to Tom’s bride than just a passing resemblance to the water-nymph of Greek myth? Did Tolkien stop right there – or were there other facets to her, of a subtler nature, requiring more intense thought and deeper exploration?

One needling matter that triggers further pondering is: how did a water-being leave her river abode to become a domesticated land-based wife? There certainly are isolated cases of akin creatures in Nordic and Teutonic mythologies doing so, but the instances are rare. And so the question must be begged – did Tolkien follow in similar footsteps when shaping Goldberry? Or did the Professor create an entirely new type of life-form from that incredibly fertile mind?

To help answer all of these questions we will need to examine several mythological archetypes, ponder on their applicability, and then in finality try to thrash out whether Tolkien had an underlying purpose. Indeed was there a ‘method to his madness’ or a ‘master plan’? However before we go there we need to remind ourselves how the characters of Tom and Goldberry go hand-in-hand. The complexity of Tom has both frustrated and intrigued many of the books’ fans. Be that as it may, once we probe below the surface, it will become apparent Goldberry was no mere tag-along. Though textually much of her time was spent in the background – she was only a couple of complex and enigmatic steps behind!

An interesting group of archetypes worth looking into that bear some similarity to aspects of Goldberry, and touched upon by Ruth Noel in The Mythology of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, are the “Undine, the Lorelei and the Siren”. Noel only superficially addresses these mythical merwomen, but I shall dig deeper. In particular the spotlight will be directed on the ‘undine’ (also known as the ‘ondine’).

George MacDonald of whom Tolkien was a quite an admirer once wrote:

“Read Undine: that is a fairytale … of all fairytales I know, I think Undine the most beautiful.”
– The Fantastic Imagination, 1893

Published in 1811 and the work of a German novelist, Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué – the tale of Undine was an established and quite beloved fairy-story by the late 19th century. Centered around a water-entity who fell in love with a mortal knight, it recounted how the creature married the man to gain a soul.



Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué


Well what has this all got to do with Tolkien one might ask? In reply I will say that the strands of web are circuitous; for the direct ones are missing. It is here we must observe a convoluted, though some might view fanciful, circle.

The popularity of Undine was great enough to allow the renowned English artist Arthur Rackham to illustrate a re-issue in 1909. Tolkien much admired Rackham’s style and once admitted a drawing he had made of Old Man Willow:

“… probably came in part from Arthur Rackham’s tree-drawings”.
– Tolkien A biography, The storyteller, Humphrey Carpenter



Arthur Rackham


Rackham’s link to Bombadil went deeper than the Great Willow mention, for Tolkien when doling out advice to Pauline Baynes, for illustrating The Adventures of Tom Bombadil booklet of 1962, brought in a comparison specifically naming the artist.

Neither Rackham’s or Blyton’s creative tones were optimal. But ‘caught between the Devil and the deep blue sea’ – the Professor preferred Rackham’s artistry.

“I have not much doubt, however, that you would avoid the Scylla of Blyton and the Charybdis of Rackham – though to go to wreck on the latter would be the less evil fate.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #235

It seems reasonable to presume that Tolkien had at least some familiarity with Rackham’s drawings. And not only that – familiarity at the time work was initiated on The Lord of the Rings. Because Hammond and Scull (per J.R.R. Tolkien Artist & Illustrator) indicate that ‘Old Man Willow’ was sketched for reference purposes at the time of writing The Old Forest chapter.

Nevertheless there is no known record of Tolkien ever having viewed Rackham’s illustrations in Undine. Even though quite a collection of fairy-story books were purchased for his children – none have reported Undine being among them. Nor has the book surfaced in the Professor’s personal library. So for us, the case is speculative – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because we can take comfort in salutary advice:

“… many facts that some enquirer would like to know are omitted, and the truth has to be discovered or guessed from such evidence as there is …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #268

Somewhere along the line (pre-1934), I am guessing Tolkien ran across some drawings of a particular Rackham water-being that ended up being wholly inspirational. Of course given the vast resources at his disposable at Oxford University’s multiple libraries, it is quite possible Undine was accessed there. Equally possible is that C.S. Lewis introduced his friend to the fairy-story given his admiration and familiarity with it:

“He loved the drawings of Arthur Rackham in Undine …”.
– Jack: A life of CS Lewis, Into Narnia, George Sayer

Five of Rackham’s Undine sketches are shown below. All five of them have reasonable connections to Goldberry either in The Fellowship of the Ring or The Adventures of Tom Bombadil poem (1934 or 1962 version).



Drawing 1

[Resonances: Gold belt, yellowy-gold long rippling hair, silvery colored clothes, house prominently positioned next to river waters per TLotR.]



Drawing 2

[Resonances: Yellow hair, stone cottage positioned next to river waters, implied TLotR textual scene of Goldberry passing by a window.]



Drawing 3

[Resonances: Yellow hair, greenish and silvery clothing, river abode below waters per The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.]



Drawing 4

[Resonance: Implied TLotR textual scene of Goldberry out in the rain for her ‘washing day’.]



Drawing 5

[Resonance: Moment before capture by Tom on the river-bank beside the rushes per TLotR and The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.]


Now before I go on to further discuss Undine, it must be emphasized that this writer is well aware of the pitfalls to definitively linking the pictorial art of Rackham to Tolkien. Such dangers were outlined by the Professor himself in Letter #328. Some scholars will also no doubt point to Tolkien’s self-admitted weakness in remembering images and his preference for pure literature. Albeit Michael Drout in his Encyclopedia has noted the inconsistency of though:

“… declaring himself “not well acquainted with pictorial Art”. However on other occasions he admitted a literary debt to visual art.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment, Artists and Illustrators’ Influence on Tolkien

In truth, as an owner myself of Rackham’s illustrated edition – with much of the artwork occupying an entire page – the eye cannot help but be drawn there. Rackham’s drawings are indeed magnetic and possess a unique charm. Partly my own personal experience lends me to believe Undine artistry might well have been subliminally or even consciously present in Tolkien’s mind when Goldberry was first conceived and then later for The Lord of the Rings.

Yes Rackham’s art has a distinct signature to its style. Once one spots a face in the surf – one cannot help but look for more. And it is the Professor’s invention of the Foam-maidens and Foam-fays – the ‘Wingildin’ for the The Lost Tales of the early 20’s that perhaps leaves the barest of vestigial clues. The presence of such beings makes me think Tolkien had encountered the Rackham edition of Undine well over a decade before our first introduction to Bombadil’s fair water-lady.



Four Faces in the foamy water – see Drawing 1 above



Two Faces in the foamy water – see Drawing 2 above


Another link of Undine to Tolkien appears at the outset of his mythological writings. In 1920 after recounting The Fall of Gondolin to Oxford University’s Exeter College Essay Club, the recorder made the following note:

“… a discovery of a new mythological background Mr Tolkien’s matter was exceedingly illuminating and marked him as a staunch follower of tradition, a treatment indeed in the manner of such typical romantics as William Morris, George Macdonald [sic], de la Motte Fouqué etc. …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Note to Letter #163  
  (my underlined emphasis)

Despite the passage of a century, the tale had lost none of its charm among English scholars of mythology and folklore. Counted alongside other notable romantics, perhaps we can glean that Tolkien already knew of Fouqué’s Undine as a young adult. 

Now the term ‘undine’ originates from mythological related theory suggested by a 16th Century European alchemist who went by the pseudonym ‘Paracelsus’. It’s usage became so common that it made its way into all major dictionaries:

“Undine: a female spirit or nymph imagined as inhabiting water”.
– Oxford Dictionary of English, OUP, 2006

The word itself is sourced from the Latin unda, meaning ‘wave’ or ‘water’. We know that Tolkien was familiar with this Swiss-German’s work for at least two reasons. One was that Tolkien mentions him in Letter #239. The second is that Paracelsus was the inventor of the word ‘sylphs’ which Tolkien borrowed for The Lost Tales of the 20’s. Thus it seems reasonable to assume that Tolkien became familiar, well before The Lord of the Rings, with what Paracelsus essentially described as ‘elementals’. Of course, if at this early time the term ‘sylph’ was known to a young Tolkien – undoubtedly ‘undine’ would also have registered. 

As for ‘elementals’, they were proposed to be spirits of the four ancient elements: air, water, fire and earth. Except for the salamander, they took roughly humanoid shapes yet largely assumed and subsumed the form of matter that they were associated to. Undines were of beautiful feminine appearance (when visible to mortals) and explicitly bonded to water – sometimes tailed and sometimes not. 

Then were what Fouqué and we might term water-nymphs, really elementals?

“ ‘Pure and fair, more fair even than the race of mortals are the spirits of the water. Fishermen have chanced to see these water-nymphs or mermaidens, and they have spoken of their wondrous beauty. Mortals too have named these strange women Undines. …’ ”
– Undine, F. de La Motte Fouqué, Project Gutenberg E-book, Editor: Mary Macgregor, 1907     (my underlined emphasis)

For Fouqué, we almost certainly can deduce so – for right at the end of the tale Undine reverts back to her basic form:

“ … she went slowly out, and disappeared in the fountain. … a little spring, of silver brightness, was gushing out from the green turf, and it kept swelling and flowing onward with a low murmur, till it almost encircled the mound of the knight’s grave; it then continued its course, and emptied itself into a calm lake, which lay by the side of the consecrated ground. Even to this day, the inhabitants of the village point out the spring; and hold fast the belief that it is the poor deserted Undine, who in this manner still fondly encircles her beloved in her arms.”
– Undine, F. de La Motte Fouqué, Project Gutenberg E-book, produced by Sandra Laythorpe

More importantly had Tolkien latched on to such an idea and initially thought of Goldberry in her river abode as an undine? Were water-nymphs and undines one and the same in the Professor’s mind too?

In Fouqué’s tale the only way for one particular undine to gain a soul was to marry a man. Tom, though man-like in looks, was an immortal; but it is curious how Tom found Goldberry by the rushes:

“… and her heart was beating!”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Why wouldn’t it be? But was it merely fluttering in affection for Tom or was it the onset of a metamorphic transformation to acquire a soul? It might have been both, because in mythology the heart and the soul have always had strong linkage.

Yet even more curious is how the ending for the earliest full Bombadil poem resulted in marriage:

“Old Tom Bombadil had a merry wedding, …”.
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1934 (& 1962) poem

Hmm – it is interesting to speculate how Tolkien might have fitted our favorite water-being into his mythology. And more so to examine the evidence and case for other elementals. An affirmative conclusion would strengthen Goldberry’s position in the hierarchy of mythological entities connecting ‘his world’ to ours. A hierarchy that perhaps has yet to be fully understood. However such a discussion will be tabled for later.

As far as when Tokien first encountered the word ‘undine’ – it is quite possible he ran across it in Andrew Lang’s Olive Fairy Book in The Story of Little King Loc:

“ ‘He is sitting in the palace of the Undines, under the great Lake; …’ ”.
– Olive Fairy Book, Andrew Lang, 1907 

Issued a couple of years before ‘Rackham’s Undine’, there is little doubt that Tolkien had read this fairy-tale before embarking on the Bombadil chapters in The Lord of the Rings. His preparatory notes for On Fairy-Stories (see Tolkien On Fairy-Stories by Flieger and Anderson) made it quite plain that he had perused all of Lang’s colored books before lecture delivery at St. Andrews in 1939.

Now Arthur Rackham was not the only artist to visualize Undine. The popularity of the tale had spread across the Atlantic to be physically immortalized by two of America’s greatest sculptors.



Isamu Noguchi with ‘Undine’, 1925



‘Undine Rising from the Waters’, Chauncey Bradley Ives, 1884


In terms of portraits, once again the name of John Waterhouse crops up. His enamor with the water-nymph propelled him to paint Ondine in the heyday of Pre-Raphaelite art.



‘Ondine’ by John W. Waterhouse – exhibited Society of British Artists, 1872


Clearly Fouqués’ story had embedded itself in the hearts of the English speaking world by the turn of the 20th century. Even a play was written – notably connecting yellow water-lilies to the tale’s heroine:

“… Among the yellow lilies of the pool.
To greet me with thy kiss. …”.
– Undine: A Lyrical Drama, E. Hamilton Moore, 1902

A couple of years before Rackham’s issue, another British artist named Katherine Cameron had illustrated Undine. The cover of an 1907 edition depicts Undine with a flower garland in her hair – presumably just like Goldberry at her wedding:

“… his bride with forgetmenots and flag-lilies for garland …”.
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1934 & 1962 poems



‘Undine’, F. de La Motte Fouqué, Cover by Katherine Cameron, 1907


And then preceding both Rackham and Cameron, the English artist Rosie Pitman had also taken a crack at drawing Undine. Against one of Pitman’s internal drawings – the following comment was made:

“ … a full blown water-lily, symbolical of Undine’s perfected and spotless soul.”
– Undine, F. de La Motte Fouqué, Illustrations by Rosie M. Pitman, 1897

Were the water-lilies gathered by Tom and brought to Goldberry intended symbolism too? A sign perhaps of another water-nymph’s spotless and perfect soul? A soul which had been acquired through marriage and carnal union?

“ ‘… Never mind your mother
in her deep weedy pool; there you’ll find no lover!’ ”
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1934

Whatever the truth, going back to one of the questions posed at the beginning – at least we have a reasonable mechanism for the transformation of a water-being to one at home on terra firma. In itself this is a vital step. For we must acknowledge, Fouqués Undine is the closest model we have of a fairy-tale creature to which Goldberry might have been partly patterned on. Yes, a river-being Tolkien might have thought as being a link connecting the mythology of our real world to his bygone age.

Though we should not disregard the strength of the discussed peripheral clues, it is the sheer number of pictorial poses in the various issues of Undine which match up to details and hinted events surrounding Goldberry that is most remarkable. Perhaps taking all these matters in combination – we can now head towards unraveling some of the mystery surrounding Bombadil’s little water-lady. However if I am mistaken and everything is truly coincidental – then Goldberry herself might have told me to rapidly dismiss this train of thought and:

“ ‘… Make haste while the Sun shines!’ ”
– Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

I however believe otherwise, and that there is no coincidence – only more purposeful linkage. I have this odd feeling Goldberry’s advice was just a donnish touch – a deliberate insertion of an undiffused forerunner of an ancient English idiom:

‘Make hay while the Sun shines!’