Goldberry: The Enigmatic Mrs Bombadil

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Part III: Sirenading in the Rain – A Ban she Washed Away

‘No … No … No!’ – I can imagine scholarly voices crying foul.

‘Those water-nymphs and Undine of Parts I & II – they’re not the best of fits. There are gaping holes. There’s many an instance where Goldberry bears no resemblance to such beings whatsoever.’

At first glance these types of complaints appear quite valid. Thus I can sympathize with a tendency towards the reader being leery. Furthermore I can understand the argument:

‘But water-nymphs are Greek in origin – whereas Tolkien focused on northern myth, so why would he have brought in a southern gal? And besides, Goldberry can’t have been an undine seeking a soul – because Tom wasn’t human. Only marriage to a mortal would have sufficed.’

Such points cannot be summarily dismissed. Oh most certainly Tolkien knew his mythology and was equally well acquainted with fairy tales. An Oxford professor could not possibly have made such elementary mistakes.

Or could he?

One is certainly entitled to doubt the infallibility of an elite university’s don. Yet in this case I concur with naysayers. Yes Tolkien could not possibly have depicted Goldberry erroneously. Unless he did so deliberately. Unless he had a purpose in mind.

But why? What possibly could have led to the poetry echoing a Germanic Nixie when Goldberry tugged at Bombadil’s dangling beard pulling him into her pool:

“… Goldberry, the River-woman’s daughter;
pulled Tom’s hanging hair. In he went a-wallowing …”.
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1934 & 1962

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“The Nixy”, Andrew Lang’s The Yellow Fairy Book, illustration by H.J. Ford, 1894

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Or why a shimmering dress complete with fish mail-like footwear which has resonances to a mermaids’ scales and forked nether fins?

“ … Goldberry … the hobbits saw that she was clothed all in silver … And her shoes were like fishes’ mail.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

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“A Mermaid”, John William Waterhouse, 1901

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On top of water-nymphs and undines of Parts I & II, why so many more faces? Why this mishmash? Why no singularly coherent archetype?

To understand Tolkien’s reasoning, loose threads will need to be drawn together and then tied with a knot of logic. In this currently unraveled state one needs to ‘think outside the box’. So instead of producing a Gordian Knot – the aim will be for a neat little bow. A bow ready to be wrapped around a believable answer which not only provides a plausible explanation – but one that links into his documented thoughts. Such an encompassing solution would be especially powerful if those ideas coincided with Goldberry’s chronological development in The Fellowship of the Ring. But before evidence and a new proposal are supplied – some discussion on other antecedents will emphasize the many guises of Goldberry.

Now much excellent effort has already been spent excavating literature from which Goldberry might have been sourced. Taryne Jade Taylor1 and others have performed admirable work in looking at the Proserpina/Persephone link. Likewise John Bower2 has associated aspects of her to The Maid of the Moor – a medieval poem of unknown authorship which Tolkien might have been aware of.

More convincing likenesses have been made to Celtic folklore figures. One of these is the Goddess Etain of Irish myth which Leslie Jones in The Making of Middle-earth has uncovered. But I will focus on Hatcher’s3 mystical maiden: the Celtic ‘Washerwoman at the Ford’ – another character from Irish myth, and one which perhaps is the source of the legendary ‘Banshee’.

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“The Washerwoman”, Artist Unknown

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Both the ‘Washerwoman’ and ‘Banshee’ are mythical creatures linked to Faerie. That hidden land of folklore in turn is closely associated to tumuli and mounds found in many regions across the British Isles. To the best of our knowledge the legends of Faerie migrated across from Ireland where a magical underground realm inhabited by fairy-folk was known as the ‘Sidhe’.

The bean sídhe from Irish folklore and the bean sìth from Scottish Gaelic folklore both mean ‘woman of the sídhe’. Both also translate across as ‘fairy woman’. The fabled Washerwoman was a variant of the female fairy known as the bean nighe. She was often described as young and fair, though modern day depictions of both her and the Banshee can take either hideous or beautiful forms. Her doom was to wash blood-stained grave linen ominously portending the death of the one she lamented.

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“La Belle Dame sans Merci: The Banshee”, Henry Rheam, 1897

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“Bunworth Banshee”, Fairy legends and traditions of the South of Ireland, Thomas Croker, 1825

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For The Lord of the Rings, the location of Tom’s house in proximity to the tumuli of the Barrow-downs as well as the Withywindle river, ideally positions Goldberry to play the character of both the Washerwoman and Banshee. A comparative review exposes Celtic lore likenesses in several instances and matters. Individually they might not mean much, but collectively their significance should not be underplayed.

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(I) In Cuchulain of Muirthemne4 – translated by Lady Gregory, we have the Irish hero Cuchulain journeying to his last battle:

“And presently they came to a ford, and there they saw a young girl thin and white-skinned and having yellow hair, washing and ever washing, and wringing out clothing that was stained crimson red, and she crying and keening all the time. ‘Little Hound,’ said Cathbad, ‘Do you see what it is that young girl is doing? It is your red clothes she is washing, and crying as she washes, because she knows you are going to your death against Maeve’s great army.’ ”

In terms of look: Goldberry being “young” having “yellow hair”, “white arms” and “slender grace” matches.

In terms of function: Goldberry’s “washing day” ritual technically makes her a ‘washerwoman’.

(II) In Breton Gaelic, Folk-lore de France5: “She appears on the banks of streams, and calls to passers-by to aid her to wash the linen of the dead. If any refuse, he is dragged into the water and has his arms broken.”

In terms of actions: Goldberry pulling Tom into the water in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil matches.

(III) Per the Irish House of the O’Brien Clan (Banshees & the O’Briens):

When the Banshee decides to appear she may take the form of: “A beautiful woman with silver-white hair wearing a long shimmering silver dress.”

In terms of clothing: Goldberry’s “silver dress” matches.

(IV) By the late 19th century, the possession and use of a comb was firmly rooted to the Banshee. It possibly originated from its employment by the Irish Goddess Etain or got mixed-up through the legends of basking sirens and mermaids who similarly have been portrayed straightening their hair.

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 “Fair Ligea”, Illustration for John Milton’s: Comus6 by Arthur Rackham, 1921 

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 “The Mermaid and the Dolphin”, Illustration for William Shakespeare’s: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Arthur Rackham, 1908

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Interestingly the mermaid ‘set-piece’ pose is partially reflected in Bombadil poetry:

“… while fair Goldberry combed her tresses yellow.
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1934 & 1962

Though the Banshee’s comb is always a silver one, in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil its material was not revealed.

In terms of implements: Goldberry’s ‘comb’ matches.

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Thus, given these four numbered observations, we can conclude there are some definite similarities to Goldberry in ancient stories of the ‘Washerwoman at the Ford’ and the ‘Banshee’. Which all the more confusingly leaves us two more faces to add to the list. But what was the purpose behind such a perplexing list in the first place?

Hmm … to answer that question requires us to ponder on ‘roots’!

To understand Tolkien’s thinking on how legends and myths arose and how orally they had migrated and diffused across northern Europe, we should pay particular heed to an example laid out in On Fairy-Stories. Meticulously charted was his thought train when it came to the Norse God: Thórr.

Proffered up was how the legend of Thórr might have arisen based on a large, exceptionally strong red-bearded farmer. In broad summary, Tolkien asks how might he have been viewed by a passer-by when out in the fields at a time lightning flashed and thunder sounded? Perhaps a fearful outsider might have thought that a wrathful demi-god had come down from upon high to remind mortals homage was due? Of course the take-away from all of this, is a scenario that shows us a possible ‘root’ to a myth.

Tolkien’s logic trail is not unimportant. Because we can use it to think along the same lines for Goldberry. We need to put ourselves in the Professors’ shoes as best as we can; it’s our best chance for success. Besides the comparison is good – because both ‘Fairy Stories’  material and Goldberry’s ontological evolution in The Lord of the Rings was being sorted out at much the same time7.

How might a traveler from Bree lands or the Shire viewed a yellow-haired maiden washing (presumably clothes) next to a stream in the middle of a downpour? Because without doubt Goldberry was out in the elements. After Tom tells the hobbits:

“ ‘This is Goldberry’s washing day, … Too wet for hobbit-folk …’ ”,
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

our pseudo water-nymph came in from outside after singing from:

“… above them”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Because the song was “the tale of a river” one might conclude that Tolkien placed Goldberry a little further upstream and adjacent to the flow to do her washing. It was nearby as Pippin noted from a westward facing window:

“The stream ran down the hill on the left …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Further downstream the waters had earlier been reported to be brown. Would newly washed-away silt off the hilltop have made a muddy-bottomed rivulet seem reddish from afar?

To a wayward local – perhaps a Shire or Bree hobbit passing by, the sight of Goldberry engaged in washing would surely have seemed bizarre. Washing clothes in near blood-colored waters might have been imagined as the case. Even stranger would have been the singing. So would that have appeared sweet from a distance? Or would the pitter-patter of rain and an added wind have muffled and distorted Goldberry’s melodious tones? From afar, the song might have sounded more akin to Banshee-like wailing or even Washerwoman mourning than one of gladness. What would a terrified passer-by have reported to family and friends?

Just as one can imagine a washerwoman at work, one can also imagine the stream setting as being rocky and boulder strewn to lay clothes upon. There is every reason to believe that Goldberry went out in her silver dress and scaly shoes to perform the washing chore. The Fellowship of the Ring text gives no indication that a change in attire occurred after entering back into the house and before the hobbits reported on her striking outfit. Again, how to a stray traveler would Goldberry have appeared sitting on a rock in a silvery gown blending into similar hued footwear? Coupling such garb with her singing, conceivably could she have resembled what we, in this day and age, would term a ‘mermaid’ ?

Hmm … from Tolkien’s depiction, one can easily imagine how elements of the ‘Washerwoman at the Ford’, the ‘Banshee’ and ‘Mermaid’ legends might have arose. 

Though I have discussed the ‘Washerwoman’, ‘Banshee’, ‘Water-nymph’ and ‘Undine’ while touching on the ‘Nixie’ and ‘Mermaid’, there definitely are other related creatures to this broad spectrum of our worlds’ mythical female water-beings. There are of course Sirens and Lorelei as well as England’s own water hags: Peg Powler and Jenny Green-teeth.

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“The Siren”, Edward Armitage, 1888

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“Loreley”, Ludwig Thiersch, c. 1860

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Perhaps most intriguing of all British water-maidens are ‘The Lady of the Lake’ and Morgan le Fay of Arthurian legend.

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“The Taking of Excalibur”, John Duncan, c. 1897
(Morgan le Fay holds Excalibur aloft)

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“The Lady of the Lake”, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Morte d’Arthur
Illuminated by Alberto Sangorski, 1912

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I will have much to say on these two on another occasion. But for now, it is obvious that all these beings also have traces of Goldberry in their legendary make-up and demeanor. Given a wide-ranging collection of European female water-entities, it is now the appropriate point to consider how all of them have happened to be ladled out of the “Cauldron of Story”. Even more importantly – what ingredients were thrown into the pot in the first place to make the delicious soup of our world’s mythology?

Tolkien’s lucidly declared that at the center of a fairy tale was an inventor. How the invention migrated across different lands and times was termed the processes of: ‘diffusion’ and ‘inheritance’. But the important point to note is that there must have been a source:

“At the centre of the … diffusion there is a place where once an inventor lived. Similarly with inheritance (borrowing in time): in this way we arrive at last only at an ancestral inventor.”
– On Fairy-Stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

And so fairy tales as we know them today were all a result of:

“… three things: independent invention, inheritance, and diffusion, …”.
– On Fairy-Stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

All three:

” … evidently played their part in producing the intricate web of Story.”
– On Fairy-Stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

Unfortunately because distortion, exaggeration and misrepresentation naturally occurred through:

“… diffusion at various times from one or more centres.”,
– On Fairy-Stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

to obtain a true source, the “web of Story” had become exceedingly complex and: 

“… beyond all skill … to unravel …”.
– On Fairy-Stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

To Tolkien, of the three processes:

“… invention is the most important and fundamental, and so (not surprisingly) also the most mysterious. To an inventor, that is to a storymaker, the other two must in the end lead back.”
– On Fairy-Stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

In creating the mysterious ‘invention’, Tom:

“… he is just an invention …”,
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131

and likewise Goldberry, it is theorized that Tolkien exercised his immense creativity and knowledge to formulate two special ‘ancestral’ beings. These entities, placed within a mini fairy tale of the great fairy tale, would be the imagined latent progenitors from which many different folk-tales and legends of early Europe were derived. The Professor, no doubt, desired a fair amount of enigmatic originality; no single archetype would be able to fit to a tee. Because that was not his aim. Indeed quite the opposite. Tom and Goldberry, I believe, were meant to be the historical source material for some of our ancient legends and myth, not the other way round.

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The Diffusion of Goldberry8,9 

A – Ireland: Washerwoman at the Ford, The Banshee
B – Scotland: The Washerwoman (Bean Nighe)
C – France: The Washerwoman, Pressina10, Melusine10  
D – Denmark: The Little Mermaid11,12  
E – Germany: Nixies, Undine, Lorelei 
F – Greece: Water-nymphs, Oceanids12, Nereids12, Naiads, Sirens12
G – Wales: The Lady of the Lake,12,13 Morgan le Fay12,13
H – Italy: Water-nymphs14
O – England: Peg Powler, Jenny Greenteeth

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Inevitably in inventing sources, Tolkien had been left with just one logical choice. Only certain characteristics and snippets from the merry couple would diffuse across. Perhaps this can be gathered from:

“These tales are ‘new’, they are not directly derived from other myths and legends, but they must inevitably contain a large measure of ancient wide-spread motives or elements.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131

To Tolkien at the very least: 

“… there was always a kernel of fact behind a legend …”.
– The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, Chronology Hammond and Scull, 14 Feb 1938

And sometimes just a kernel. For it would be an exceptional matter for a legend to have matched all the original facts and been handed-down through the ages without any distortion. And that is precisely why no existing archetype matches Goldberry exactly. Gleaning what we can from On Fairy-Stories, and taking a small leap of faith – ‘out of box’ thinking gives us a remarkably sensible, logical and bow-wrapped answer that just about fits all the known facts.

Can I be absolutely sure? Unfortunately when it comes down to it, only the Professor would have been able to provide a rubber stamping. Nonetheless I believe he left us more than enough clues. Particularly compelling are his ideas in On Fairy-Stories which, as he stated, were put to practical use. The:

“ ‘Andrew Lang’ lecture at St Andrews on Fairy-stories; … was entirely beneficial to The Lord of the Rings, which was a practical demonstration of the views that I expressed.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #234

Even more telling was a suggestion that for the case of the half water-nymph Melusine, he had a grasp of how both diffusion and inheritance occurred:

“It is indeed easier to unravel a single thread in the web – that is a detail, or motive or incident – than to trace the history of the picture by many threads.”
– Tolkien On Fairy-Stories, Manuscript A, Flieger & Anderson

Clearly the “detail” and single “thread” he had in mind was his jotting of the previous sentence, namely the:

 “Story of Raimondin and Melusine.”
– Tolkien On Fairy-Stories, Manuscript A, Flieger & Anderson

Had the Professor tracked forward in time to see that tale evolve as Undine and The Little Mermaid? Then backwards, were Melusine’s predecessors Arthurian nymphs and those tracing all the way to Greek legend? 

Possibly so; given the clues – even probably so. For in an update he heavily implied her case was unique. To unravel a thread was humanly impossible:

 “Except in particularly fortunate cases or in a few details.”
– Tolkien On Fairy-Stories, Manuscript B, Flieger & Anderson

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Melusine – Original Starbuck’s Logo

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So if by good fortune, Melusine’s roots were indeed historically traceable – one can easily fathom the last step. For us, a most important one. Because it was one designed to send us even further back in time.

Expanding on my earlier conclusion, I believe that the intricate oral and literature-based “web of Story”, historically stemming  from various cultures and tribes across Europe, had been imaginatively unraveled by Tolkien himself. Supposedly for this unique case – fairy tales, myth, legend and folklore were all linked. In a place geographically close to Oxford, in a bygone mythical era, was the center of diffusion for a very particular invention. Yes, the source behind the legends of many mystical female water-entities of our world was ultimately Goldberry herself. On the Professor’s part, how neat a “practical demonstration” was that!

Footnotes:

1 Investigating the Role and Origin of Goldberry in Tolkien’s Mythology, Mythlore, Vol. 27, 2008.

2 Tolkien Studies 8.

3 Finding Woman’s Role in The Lord of the Rings, Melissa Hatcher, Mythlore Vol. 25, 2007.

4 Cuchulain of Muirthemne, Death of Cuchulain, Lady Augusta Gregory, 1902.

5 Le Folk-Lore de France, P. Sébillot, 1904 & 1905.

6 Comus was known to Tolkien – see The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, Chronology Hammond and Scull, March 1940, Lecture by Charles Williams. It is unknown whether Tolkien had ever seen Arthur Rackham’s 1921 illustrated edition.

7 According to Letter #33, by the end of August 1938 Tolkien had finished drafting all three chapters involving Goldberry. By the beginning of December 1938 per Letter #35, these chapters were revised to the point (as Christopher Tolkien reports in The Return of the Shadow) that they had all but reached their final form. The ‘Andrew Lang’ lecture was delivered 8 March 1939. Much of the preparation for the paper delivered by Tolkien was done in the year before its delivery From the beginning of 1938 through early 1939:

“Tolkien spends considerable time in research and composition. He writes many pages of manuscript, in at least two versions, most of which are heavily revised.”
– The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, Chronology Hammond and Scull, 1938 – early 1939

The overlap for developing the paper’s content and the formation of Goldberry’s character in The Fellowship of the Ring, is thus hardly deniable.

8 The intent of the ‘Diffusion Map’ is to show that all roads eventually lead back to Goldberry. The directness of the paths should not be taken literally. Tolkien pointed out that it is quite possible to have different centers of diffusion. For example, though a legend might have migrated to Germany from England, its progression to Denmark might have resulted from Germany only. This would make Germany a sub-center for further diffusion.

9 The map is fittingly of today’s resultant European geography. It is intended for conceptual illustration only.

10 Melusine – Half serpent & half woman (see Tolkien’s reference in Tolkien On Fairy-Stories, Flieger and Anderson). Pressina is Melusine’s mother and a true water-nymph. Characters are European but particularly associated to France. 

11 The Little Mermaid – Fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. 

12 Goldberry appears to relate knowledge, in song, of waters more expansive than the Withywindle river:

“… and they saw in their minds pools and waters wider than any they had known, …”, The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil.

13 France (Breton) is probably also an appropriate source.

14 Water-nymphs – Per Ovid’s Metamorphoses which is acknowledged as his greatest work. See Tolkien’s oblique reference to Ovid in Letter #163.

 

Revisions:

1/23/2017 – Added picture of Melusine on Starbuck’s Logo.

 

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