Goldberry: The Enigmatic Mrs Bombadil

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Part IV: Elementary My Dear … What’s It?

Even at the very early stages of drafting The Lord of the Rings chapters depicting Tom and Goldberry, Tolkien put considerable thought into the characters he wished to include in addition to the depth of the narrative. In February 1939 he confessed:

“The writing of The Lord of the Rings is laborious, because I have been doing it as well as I know how, and considering every word.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #35

Much later he confirmed the book:

“… was written slowly and with great care for detail, …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #328

No doubt, just like The Hobbit, much of the initial effort for the new fairy tale was directed towards:

“… the construction of elaborate and consistent mythology …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #19

And the end result was a:

“… coherent structure which it took … years to work out.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #190


20 Northmoor Road, Oxford – where The Lord of the Rings began


Yet at first read there seems to be ample incoherence and many inconsistencies when it comes to our idyllic couple. Indeed many readers have felt the side adventure between the borders of Buckland and entrance to Bree was unnecessary. Opinions have often been voiced that it was a distraction which never added much value to the tale. It has been argued an omission would have rid Middle-earth of two of its weirdest characters. And to some – that would have been no major loss.

However Tolkien’s purpose was for the hobbits to experience:

“… an ‘adventure’ on the way.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153

Yet what an adventure! As we shall see in a future article – there was much more to it than meets the eye. Much more than any reader has realized to date. But to truly understand what happened and unveil Tolkien’s deepest secrets – we will first need to study our odd couple in microscopic detail, because vital clues have been missed by all and sundry.

Now when it comes to the merry duo – quite rightly the reader is entitled to be a little perturbed. Here we have the unusual situation of a rambunctious wrinkly old man cohabiting with a beautiful young maiden who exhibits a degree of worrisome servility1. The contrast in looks and dress code from ancient and stout with a wardrobe of inelegance, to youthful grace with stylish garb – cannot be missed. Most peculiarly, both of them almost continuously sang while oddly even their talk seemed to rhyme. And some of this ineloquent nonsensical verse is decidedly annoying. To make matters worse, comic relief was added of the strangest kind in belittling the power of the Ring. Crassly put maybe – still it is understandable how one can enjoy The Lord of the Rings overall, yet actively dislike Tom and Goldberry.

The age disparity between the merry pair is certainly a matter which has been frowned upon. Without foreknowledge of the 1934 The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, a casual reader could have been easily confused over their exact relationship. One can sympathize how for a mid-50’s BBC broadcast, with perhaps just The Lord of the Rings at-hand, a presenter might automatically have assumed a non-marital relationship. Tolkien was obviously aghast at the misinterpretation:

“… worse still was the announcer’s preliminary remarks that Goldberry was his daughter (!), …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #175

Yet another point of mixed feelings is signs of a scandalous abduction or even elopement! In the poem: The Adventures of Tom Bombadil – Tom forcibly removes Goldberry from her habitat and then seemingly coerces her to be his wife. The situation is a little muddy as some view her as a tad flirtatious and the departure from her river abode as a happy event. Her mother, the ‘River-woman’, although falling short of voicing disapproval, clearly misses her presence:

“… on the bank in the reeds River-woman sighing …”.
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1934 (& 1962) poem

Whether we readers like it or not, there exists the slightest undertones of kidnapping and brainwashing resulting in a subtly sinister aspect to the episode. Tom had a ruthless streak in him as evidenced by the way he dealt with Old Man Willow and the Barrow-wight. Hints of this trait can be glimpsed in the Bombadil goes Boating poem. Though much was said in jest, the hobbits of Buckland were certainly wary of him with their verbal raillery being:

“… tinged with fear …”.
– Preface to: The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1962

Undeniably the implication by the phrase:

“ ‘… you’ll find no lover!’ ”,
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1934 (& 1962) poem

is that Tom would become Goldberry’s lover. Whatever the sexual connotations, negatively compounded by mismatched ages, to Tolkien – Tom was not the proverbial ‘dirty old man’. Far from it I do deem. As a devout Christian, Tolkien may never have realized that an issue would even arise in the minds of some readers.

To the Professor – Tom and Goldberry represented an ideal couple blissfully in love, and in harmony with all good and natural creatures within very discretely defined lands. Many have compared the pairing to Adam and Eve in their first dwelling; and maybe such an arrangement was deliberately portrayed that way. Married in the eyes of God, with the local animals being auspicious witnesses, is not too unlike the state of the first couple in the Garden of Eden. And this biblical face is perhaps more so reflected in Goldberry. For being a source, per my proposal of Part III, she is indeed Eve-like.


Image result for adam and eve broughton church

Adam Digging and Eve Spinning, Medieval Painting on Wall of Broughton Church, England


Beyond companionship, Tom offered Goldberry a great deal. He provided wisdom, knowledge, protection, laughter, a new home and importantly a new way of life. Instead of aquatic fare, the food on Tom’s table was from the soil and animal produce. It was a different type of existence – which nonetheless Goldberry neatly slotted into while still being nearby her old haunt. There are absolutely no signs that ‘Master’ Bombadil constrained Goldberry in any way, or that she was unhappy. She displayed tolerance to her husbands’ songs and complemented them with her own. For the reader at least, the one verse explicitly recited was far less irritating than his oft repetitious lilt.

Despite all of these interesting matters, when it comes to Goldberry, there are still a couple of loose ends that need tying up. One of these is identifying the type of creature she represented in Tolkien’s mythology. The other is the River-woman. Beyond the obvious, who was she? What was she? And if Goldberry was a mythological source as I suggested in Part III, was her mother something even more basic?

We must ask ourselves, why is there no sign of her blessing the wedding. Why does Goldberry visit her mother’s pool only once a year? Had Tom forbidden her attendance at the marriage ceremony? Had he quarreled with his future mother-in-law? Was Goldberry a bad daughter in forsaking kin for Tom? Why had she become so estranged when the pool was relatively close by? And where in all of this is Goldberry’s father? Questions upon questions arise – if we choose to let them!

To attempt to tackle these seemingly unanswerable mysteries we must employ logic and once more try to fathom Tolkien’s underlying purpose. In particular we must once again heed his remarks on myth and invention:

“… I am interested in mythological ‘invention’, and the mystery of literary creation (or sub-creation as I have elsewhere called it) …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #180

“But an equally basic passion of mine ab initio was for myth …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131   (Tolkien’s italicized emphasis on ‘ab initio’)

From its inception Tolkien desired to create a new tale which not only linked to our history but also our mythology:

“After all, I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth’, and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131

And so for Goldberry being a forerunner from deepest antiquity, as I surmised in Part III, ‘Myth and Fairy tale’ could be reasonably added to the statement:

“Legend and History have met and fused.”
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

Just like his creation of Sellic Spell, which was an attempt to imaginatively reconstruct what lay behind the fairy tale element of Beowulf, I believe the Professor tried to make sense in his own mind of our world’s fairy tale water-entities. But I have a sneaking suspicion, as I have already alluded to in Part II, that there was a little more to the essence of Goldberry and her mother. To piece together the few rudimentary clues available – we must examine the case for these two creatures ultimately belonging to the legendary race of ‘elementals’.




Mankind’s belief in elementals goes back to a time before the known beginnings of religion. Ancient peoples held a doctrine that inanimate things (and even animals and plants) had souls of their own. However such soul-forms return to chaos, as the components of their constitution are incapable of manifesting any higher spiritual activity upon death.

Early Christians took this a step further by developing theologies of dichotomy and trichotomy. All living beings possessed body (soma) and spirit (pneuma) but it was only man to whom God had gifted a soul (psyche). At physical expiry, all spirit and body would disperse or dissolve back into the basic elements of nature. However man being a special life-form meant his unique soul – an imprint of his very essence – was predestined to depart the world and reach a higher plane of existence.

A slightly different and more complex flavor developed in Teutonic mythology:

“… of men the spirit is immortal, but the body mortal, and of beasts both body and soul are mortal; so Berthold …. allows being to stones, being and life to plants, feeling to animals. Schelling says, life sleeps in the stone, dozes in the plant, dreams in the beast, wakes in man.”
-Teutonic mythology, Chapter XXI, Vol IV, Jacob Grimm – translated by James Steven Stallybrass

In any case by the time of the European Renaissance, some of those mythical unnatural forms of life, seemingly not of flesh and blood or plant-matter, were termed elementals and, perhaps wrongly so, cast under the general designation of fairies and fays. Paracelsus in the 16th century classified his elementals as belonging only to inanimate matter – specifically four of the ancient Aristotle elements: air, water, earth and fire.



Paracelsus (Philippus von Hohenheim), 1493-1541


Given such mythology has roots in some our world’s most ancient literature, and undoubtedly Professor Tolkien’s knowledge of that – we are obliged to consider whether he included elemental-type entities in his writings. If so, we ought to consider whether there is sufficient evidence implicating Goldberry and maternal kin to be of that race too. Exactly why should we follow such a path? Well – because Paracelsus’ elementals of water were water-maidens that he’d titled: Undines!

Now to the best of our knowledge in very early hierarchy Tolkien had already pigeon-holed many of our world’s mythological creatures – though inhabiting our physical planet – as originating outside of it:

“… the Mánir and Súruli, the sylphs of the airs and of the winds.”
– The Book of Lost Tales I, The Coming of the Valar and the Building of Valinor

“… brownies, fays, pixies, leprawns, … for they were born before the world …”.
– The Book of Lost Tales I, The Coming of the Valar and the Building of Valinor

Almost certainly belonging to the mix were mythological water-spirits. Because The Book of Lost Tales I tells us aquatic entities (the Oarni, Falmarini and Wingildi) accompanied the greatest of the Ainur upon their arrival in Arda. 

One can thus reasonably conclude that at this early stage of development:

(a) Tolkien had familiarized himself with elementals, for ‘sylphs’ was a word invented by Paracelsus.
(b) An origin outside of the physical Universe made such creatures semi-divine.

In this same time period, but somewhat later, we have a telling clue in that he pondered on classifying some mythical female water-beings, namely mermaids2, as either:

“… earthlings, or fays? – or both …”.
– The Book of Lost Tales II, The Tale of Eärendel

If I were to take an educated guess, pre-The Lord of the Rings Tolkien wasn’t quite sure where mermaids should be placed because of possibly belonging to another wholly different category to fays3; a category he obviously termed: “earthlings”. But exactly what were they?

Our best evidence can be found in a ~1920’s document called The Creatures of the Earth. Within, he labeled ‘Earthlings’ as ‘wood-giants, mountainous-giants4, pygmiesand dwarves‘. Listed below ‘Earthlings’ in a pseudo-hierarchical ‘chain of being’ were: ‘Beasts and Creatures’ and then ‘Úvanimor/Monsters’. If I were to hazard another guess, ‘Earthlings’ were mentally grouped with others (I suspect with those further down the chain) as those whose bodily matter was destined to remain within the confines of the planet but whose spiritual essence eventually dissolved into nothingness or spread into nebulous impotency. Indeed if that were the case ‘Earthlings’ would be highly befitting terminology.


The Salamander – Elemental of Fire, Paracelsus’ Auslegung von 30 magischen Figuren


When it came to drafting up the Bombadil chapters, there is more evidence that Paracelsian-type elementals were intended to be part of Middle-earth’s rich racial diversity. Old Man Willow was referred to as a:

“A grey thirsty earth-bound7 spirit …”.
– The Return of the Shadow, Tom Bombadil   (my emphasis)

And then a description of trolls was given as:

“… stone inhabited by goblin-spirit, …”, 
– The Treason of Isengard, Treebeard   (my emphasis)

with the point being that even inanimate matter in Tolkien’s world could be possessed by a spiritual essence.

Even more telling is a preliminary note for his Fairy-Stories paper. While in the process of gathering thoughts on the Bombadil chapters, Tolkien was also engaged in preparing for the Andrew Lang lecture of 1939. It is notable that when discussing a tree-fairy, he acknowledged that though spiritually originating before creation, and:

“… immortal while the world (and trees) last …”,
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Flieger & Anderson

most revealingly for us:

“It is possible that nothing awaits him – outside the World and the Cycle of Story and of Time.”
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Flieger & Anderson

Again, this evokes the fate of a Paracelsian ‘elemental’, and perhaps parallels the destiny of ‘Earthlings’. Sadly though, for such creatures, he felt from a Christian belief and an after-life perspective – this state of affairs was:

“… a dreadful Doom …”.
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Flieger & Anderson

Still one can understand how the genus of tree-fairies might be debatable and fall into a couple of different classifications. Just like mermaids – they might have been:

“… earthlings, or fays? – or both …”.
– The Book of Lost Tales II, The Tale of Eärendel

Which from a historical perspective aptly reflected blurred borders present in medieval accounts of supernatural creatures:

“Such things do not admit of clear classifications and distinctions.”
– Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, Sir Israel Gollancz Memorial Lecture, 1936


Tree Fairy, Cindi and Mama Tree, Grimm’s Fairy Tales – Illustrated by Arthur Rackham


As to the published The Lord of the Rings, again there are further hints that an inert substance could possess a latent ‘fea’. In Legolas’ words during the Fellowship’s journey through Hollin:

“ ‘… Only I hear the stones lament them: …’ ”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Ring goes South

As if to provide emphasis, italicized in the voices of the stones themselves:

“… deep they delved us, fair they wrought us, high they builded us; but they are gone.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Ring goes South

Legolas wasn’t lying here – but though these particular elementals were innocuous to the quest, others were not so benign. Tom Shippey goes as far as finger-pointing the storm on Caradhras to be the work of presumably malevolent:

“… elementals …”.
– J.R.R. Tolkien Author of the Century, Chapter II, T.A. Shippey

Perhaps the strongest evidence and most obvious elemental candidate comes from Tolkien expounding on the nature of Stone-trolls. Worked on by dark powers, such creatures were fundamentally pre-existing spirits inhabiting stone. These barbaric monstrosities of our world’s mythology were readily included into his writings, yet he heavily hinted they lacked the same as that which typified elementals, namely – a soul:

“… when you make Trolls8 speak you are giving them a power, which in our world (probably) connotes the possession of a ‘soul’. But I do not agree (if you admit that fairy-story element) …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153   (Tolkiens italicized emphasis on ‘speak’)


‘Meeting the Troll’ illustrated by Theodor Kittelsen,
from ‘The Boy Who Had an Eating Match with a Troll


Tolkien’s association of ‘speech’ to being a requisite for possessing a ‘soul’ reflects the lasting influence of his renowned Oxford predecessor – Max Müller, Professor of Philology. An academic who had even challenged Charles Darwin, Müller’s views and works ought to have been well-known to Tolkien:

“There is in man a something, I am not afraid to call it for the present an occult quality, which distinguishes him from every animal without exception. We call this something reason when we think of it as an internal energy, and we call it language when we perceive and grasp it as an external phenomenon. No reason without speech, no speech without reason. Language is the Rubicon which divides man from beast, and no animal will ever cross it.”
– Max Müller and the Philosophy of Language, Darwin and Max Müller, 1879

Evidently Tolkien disagreed:

“In summary: I think it must be assumed that ‘talking’ is not necessarily the sign of the possession of a ‘rational soul’ or fea.”
– Morgoth’s Ring, Myths Transformed

Nonetheless the heart of the matter is that from a mythology/fairy tale standpoint trolls as life-forms had ‘mother-nature’9 spiritual origins. All four Paracelsian elementals had life:

“… by means of the Vulcanus indwelling in them, which is not a personal spirit, but a virtus, which is the power of nature …”.
– The Paracelsus of Robert Browning, Robert Browning, ‎Christina Pollock Denison, 1911

Quite possibly – Tolkien thought there was no place for the spiritual essence of Trolls beyond the physical circles of the World. There was no hall where their spirits were to be gathered upon Earth, and there would be no place for them Outside at the end with Eru Ilúvatar. In effect they were soulless creatures, and ones associated to the ‘earth’ of Paracelsian lore. 

Such was the impact of Paracelsus’ teachings that they began to spread – eventually to become embedded in north-European folklore:

“… Katrine knew well that the Troll has no soul. He may live a thousand years; but at the end of them he must die forever.”
– Katrine and the Troll, H. Holdich, The Independent, Volume 31, 1879   (my emphasis)

“Now of old the isle of Rügen was full of Dwarfs and Trolls,
The brown-faced little Earth-men, the people without souls; …”.
– The Works of J.G. Whittier – Vol. 1, The Brown Dwarf of Rügen – Originating from Arndt’s Märchen of 1816   (my emphasis)

Nonetheless the theology dictated that elementals still:

.“… have flesh10, blood and bones; they live and propagate offspring; they eat and talk , act and sleep, etc. …”.
– The Life and the Doctrines of Paracelsus, Pneumatology, F. Hartmann, 1910

All in-line with Tolkien’s portrayal of Troll physical vulnerability:

.“Frodo … stooped, and stabbed with Sting at the hideous foot. … the foot jerked back, … Black drops dripped from the blade …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Bridge of Khazad-dûm


The Children and the Stone Troll, Illustration by John Bauer, 1882-1918


Now the “fairy-story element” for a soulless ‘water’ entity is best illustrated by the tale of Undine. Because of her resemblance to mermaids of myth and Tolkien’s connecting referral to “earthlings”, it is to her and duly Goldberry that I must next turn.




Tolkien once expressed that he felt:

“… nymphs, … had quite distinct mythological or imaginative origins …”.
– Jack: A Life of C.S. Lewis, Into Narnia, George Sayer

His friend C.S. Lewis was well aware of Fouqué’s nymphean tale of:

“… Undines who acquired a soul by marriage with a mortal”.
– Letters to Malcolm, C.S. Lewis   (my emphasis)

And no doubt Tolkien with his extensive interests in fairy tales and mythology knew it too.


Fountain of Undine, Kurpark, Baden, Germany


Fouqué himself best summarizes Undine’s dreadful plight and that of other types of elemental11:

“ ‘… We should be far superior to you, who are another race of the human family, for we also call ourselves human beings, as we resemble them in form and features had we not one evil peculiar to ourselves. Both we and the beings I have mentioned as inhabiting the other elements vanish into air at death and go out of existence, spirit and body, so that no vestige of us remains; and when you hereafter awake to a purer state of being, we shall remain where sand, and sparks, and wind, and waves remain. Thus we have no souls; the element moves us, and, again, is obedient to our will, while we live, though it scatters us like dust when we die …’ ”.
– Undine, F. de La Motte Fouqué, Project Gutenberg E-book, produced by Sandra Laythorpe   (my emphasis)

The mortality of ‘man’ was thus an unappreciated bestowal by our Maker. Something which even long-lived legendary creatures (including undines and mermaids) found supremely desirable. For being truly human meant intrinsic possession of a ‘soul’, a ‘ticket to an after-life’ and a guaranteed ‘eternal’ existence. At least that was the case in Fouqué’s and Andersen’s classic fairy tales. Two tales whose principles were faithfully followed in The Lord of the Rings, and I strongly suspect very much on his mind when he stated:

“… ‘mortality’ is thus represented as a special gift of God … a legitimate basis of legends.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153   (my underlined emphasis)

If we “admit that fairy-story element” – then indeed we can see how and why Tolkien meshed an Undine-like Goldberry into the 1934 The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, and then her entirely land-based married portrayal in The Lord of the Rings. Within the latter there are perhaps just the faintest of clues indicative that her make-up and consistency was something special.

Tom poetically described Goldberry as:

“… clearer than the water. …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Old Forest

And then as if to reinforce the point, Tolkien had Frodo practically repeat it:

“ ‘… clearer than clear water! …’ ”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Hmm … in acquiring a soul had she transformed from a ‘water elemental’ into an akin embodied creature, yet retained much of those intrinsic former qualities? Had she become what we might term – a fairy being?

Perhaps additional evidence of an elemental type essence is revealed by the light of a candle which shone through Goldberry’s hand:

“… like sunlight through a white shell.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Unusual I deem for a hand shielding the flame from a draft – for fingers ought not to be splayed open!

All of these are interesting observations aid a needed reconciliation of the River-woman. Because a possible reason why the mother or mother-in-law situation was not an issue to Tolkien is that in the sense of a physical anthropomorphic being (as we might imagine) – the River-woman simply wasn’t one! For perhaps she had yet to fully transmute? Or perhaps she was invisible12 to all but gifted beings – such as Tom and Goldberry herself?

Rivers in European mythology13 were often inhabited by female spiritual forms. In English tradition – as set down by Michael Drayton in his Poly-Olbion – daughter, mother, and father spirits inhabited both minor and major waterways. With the daughter spirits depicted as water-nymphs – one can understand why such literature readily provided a mythological link back to Tolkien’s world.


Image result for poly-olbion map oxfordshire

Extract from M. Drayton’s ‘Poly-Olbion’ (courtesy of The Bodleian Library)


Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings refers to Goldberry as the river’s ‘daughter’ four times and explicitly the ‘River-woman’ is mentioned once. But it is possible the river was viewed as housing a non-conventionally embodied entity, yet also a source of shelter and nourishment for a more conventional fully morphed human-like being. Therefore it effectively acted maternally in the sense of being a provider and source of comfort and shelter. The river itself was likely there before Goldberry and is thus the elder of the two. Goldberry simply became attached to it after its formation. If that was the case, then most sensibly she can be termed its ‘daughter’.

So the Withywindle (in Tolkien’s mind) may have had another resident/visiting female spirit but not a flesh-clad tangible one as mortals could see. For it is quite possible that at the time of writing the early Bombadil poetry, Tolkien thought that the ‘mother’ spirit of the river (or an adjoining one) was elemental in form and permanently locked within the water itself (yet able to move with the flow or against it). Just like the malevolent willow wasn’t really a ‘man’, perhaps she did not display herself as an anthropomorphic ‘woman’. 

Against this, in the poem The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, Goldberry’s mother is seemingly situated outside of river waters when lamenting her loss:

“… on the bank in the reeds River-woman sighing …”.
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1934 (& 1962) poem


Image result for undine mary mcgregor

‘The little waves seemed to sob as they whispered, ‘Alas! alas!’14, Undine, F. de La Motte Fouqué, Editor: Mary Macgregor, 1907 


We have to remember that when it comes to poetry, every matter should not be taken literally. We must also remind ourselves that many details of the hobbit composition must have come from Tom himself – some of which might have become slightly distorted in translation to jest-ridden rhyme. Especially as the final result was:

“… made up of various hobbit-versions of legends concerning Bombadil.”
– Preface to: The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1962

Quite possibly Tolkien viewed the reeds on the bank, whose roots connected down into the water, as osmotically acting like the ears of the River-woman’s spirit. News from afar carried by the wind and reverberating in the flora may have been a way of capturing the river “sighing” in mourning its loss. And so the departure of Goldberry, a being who had added such merriment and beauty to the local habitat, would have been sadly detrimental to the whole river-valley’s essence in a spiritual way.

If we choose to adopt a ‘looser’ reading of the poetry and text and follow English tradition ala Michael Drayton, the many problems associated to Goldberry’s parentage can be wholly eliminated. If we choose to embrace the evidence and view Goldberry and her mother as ‘elementals’ – some puzzling text in The Lord of the Rings becomes readily explainable.

Of course, with what we know today, once again I reiterate that absolute proof remains elusive. However I’m positive this four part series has meaningfully added to our understanding of Tolkien’s very mysterious little water-lady. The good news is that I am far from finished with Goldberry. In articles to come we will see how she, through an inspirational water-lily theme, is connected to Welsh lake-fairies15, more strongly to religion16 and finally to Estonian fairy-tale17. Indeed there are many more interesting secrets Tolkien concealed – and the revelations to come about this couple will surprise even the most attentive and scholarly among us!


Onward to the next set of articles in the series: What a Colorful Pair!


Footnotes :

1  Goldberry refers to Tom as ‘Master’ or ‘master’ four times. In this day and age such a term of address between husband and wife has distinct subservient undertones.

2  It is quite possible that ‘Oaritsi’ which mermaids were first designated under (see The Book of Lost Tales I), was simply a sub-classification of ‘Oarni’ – classified as ‘spirits of the sea’. The Oarni were, per early mythology, semi-divine in originating before the creation of the world. Mermaids, we must note, were also equated as Oarni in The Book of Lost Tales II.

3  ‘Fays’ – usage probably as in the sense of ‘fairy-folk’. Again, creatures of a divine nature originating outside of the Universe.

4  The giants of the Misty Mountains (also known as stone-giants) per The Hobbit may have possessed linkage to this hierarchical classification document and category. Tolkien’s source* underpinning his own mythology appears to have been an Edward Knatchbull-Hugessen publication: River Legends or Father Thames and Father Rhine and the tale of The Giant Bramble-Buffer. There are distinct similarities and strong resonances when comparing descriptions.

From The Hobbit:

“… the stone-giants were out, and were hurling rocks at one another for a game, and catching them, and tossing them … They could hear the giants guffawing and shouting all over the mountainsides. … ‘… we shall be picked up by some giant and kicked sky-high for a football.’ ”.

From River Legends:

The giants of interest were described as ‘mountain giants’ and vocal ‘Daddyroarers’:

“Sometimes they would … fling enormous stones at each other in sport, which was pastime anything but delightful to their neighbours whose lives and property were thereby grievously imperilled.”

One particular mountain giant, Bramble-Buffer:

“… if he met a man he generally gave him a kick, which sent him off fifty yards up in the air, and in most instances proved fatal.”

However by the end of the story Bramble-Buffer became a reformed character, echoing Gandalf’s words in The Hobbit where it was conveyed that not all giants were bad, and his hope of finding:

“… a more or less decent giant …”.


item image #83

Extract from ‘River Legends’ by E. H. Knatchbull-Hugessen, Illustrator Gustave Doré, 1875


Another relevant observation is that Tolkien’s description of the Misty Mountains ascent can be concluded to stem from a 1911 trip across/nearby some of the Alps. In Letter #306 from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, he related:

“The summer of that year had melted away much snow, and stones and boulders were exposed that (I suppose) were normally covered. The heat of the day continued the melting and we were alarmed to see many of them starting to roll down the slope at gathering speed: … just in front of me (an elderly schoolmistress) gave a sudden squeak and jumped forward as a large lump of rock shot between us.

His adventurous account mirrors that in The Hobbit:

“Boulders, too, at times came galloping down the mountain-sides, let loose by mid-day sun upon the snow, and passed among them (which was lucky), or over their heads (which was alarming).”

Now The Giant Bramble-Buffer tale is portrayed as taking place near the sector of the Alps adjacent to the Alpine-Rhine valley. Notably from Knatchbull-Hugessen’s fairy-story, there are matters which ought to have stirred memories of the 1911 expedition, which then might have carried across to The Hobbit mythology:

“… in the old, old times, the men of Rhineland were grievously troubled with giants of different sorts and sizes. Tradition tells us that they all sprang from the mighty giant Senoj, who … was born … among the loftiest peaks of the Alps … Certain it is that his descendants, if such they were, proved exceedingly troublesome to mankind … they took a fancy to snowball each other, which the survivors of them still practise, especially in some parts of Switzerland, where the avalanche, which occasionally overwhelms the unhappy traveller, although mistakenly attributed to natural causes is in reality nothing more than the fall of a larger snowball than usual, hurled by the mighty arm of one of those mountain giants.”   (my emphasis)

The last underlining resonates with the description of the Carrock in The Hobbit:

“… it, was a great rock, … like a last outpost of the distant mountains, or a huge piece cast miles … by some giant among giants.


Extract from ‘River Legends’ by E. H. Knatchbull-Hugessen,
Illustrator Gustave Doré, 1875
(indeed Senoj is a giant among giants!)


It is also possible that the attempt to cross over Caradhras in The Fellowship of the Ring was foiled by an unseen stone-giant. The “shrill cries, and wild howls of laughter” are never pinpointed. Nor are the origin of the stones “whistling over their heads, or crashing on the path beside them”, or more significantly the ‘great’ boulder which “rolled down from hidden heights above them”. The final fall of “stones and slithering snow” is perhaps an allusive referral to the mythological avalanche caused by the giant’s throwing of a snowball as Knatchbull-Hugessen described above. As to the name ‘Caradhras’ (one of three peaks below which Khazad-dûm lay), it translates across ‘Red horn’ which bears a fractured echo of the fairy tale: The Red Etin – about a cruel three-headed giant, and his horned monsters (see The Blue Fairy Book by Andrew Lang).

When it comes to authors, certainly Knatchbull-Hugessen was one Tolkien had encountered during his youth (Puss-cat Mew in Stories for My Children, 1869 – see The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #319 and accompanying footnote). However though Knatchbull-Hugessen was a writer Tolkien favored, no record exists of a familiarity with River Legends.

* Michael Drout in J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment documents Tolkien’s stone-giants as possibly stemming from the Eddic poem Grottasöngr. This may indeed have been a source for Knatchbull-Hugessen – though the evidence is decidedly weak. The Grottasöngr translation by Guðbrandur Vigfússon in Corpus Poeticum Boreale has two ‘giant maidens’ hurling rocks seemingly ‘below’ ground:

“We two playmates were brought up under the earth for nine winters.
We busied ourselves with mighty feats; we hurled the cleft rocks out
of their places, we rolled the boulders over the giants’ court, so that
the earth shook withal.”


Giantesses Fenja and Menja, Illustration by C. Larsson and G. Forssell 
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)


The proposal by Douglas Anderson of the stone-giants stemming from the gnome Rubezahl in Andrew Lang’s The Brown Fairy Book (see John Rateliff’s The History of the Hobbit) appears tenuous. Especially in light of the newly unearthed River Legends material.

At least one notable authority in Tolkien scholarship has hinted that the stone-giants could have been allegorical and represented natural storm phenomena. Although their textual specificity within The Hobbit makes that unlikely – particularly for a children’s fairy tale – until this article no likely mythological antecedent for the stone-giants had been uncovered.

5  Pygmies here, were likely thought of as in the context of being mythological creatures, for they are indeed a term employed by Paracelsus for an elemental of the earth. Tolkien was clearly aware of this as pointed out in Letter #239 in emphasizing ‘gnome’ and ‘pygmaeus’:

“… the word gnome used by the 16th-century writer Paracelsus as a synonym of pygmaeus. Paracelsus ‘says that the beings so called have the earth as their element …”.

It is theorized that Tolkien set apart ‘Earthlings’ from the category of ‘Monsters’ due to the former inherently possessing moralistic free will. In other words ‘Earthlings’ were capable of being both evil and good. This seems to be have been reflected in The Hobbit – where in the journey over the Misty Mountains, Gandalf commented about finding a more or less decent giant”. A ‘mountainous-giant’ under the category of ‘Earthlings’ might well have been what Tolkien had in mind.

In any event the fact that the group designated ‘Earthlings’ appears to contain one Paracelsian type elemental, makes one wonder whether other creatures of that lore were deliberated to belong too. It is possible that water-nymphs, mermaids and undine-like entities, were also considered to – if not wholly belong – at least overlap into that same mythological grouping.

6  Before The Lord of the Rings dwarves were also considered to be elemental entities. In the Annals of Beleriand (The Lost Road and Other Writings):

“… Dwarves have no spirit indwelling, … and they go back into
the stone of the mountains of which they were made.”

7  Tolkien stated that the spirit had become “imprisoned” in the Great Willow. The implication is that the tree was not its natural habitat.

8  The implication is that Tolkien’s pronouncement about ‘souls’ is applicable to all types of Troll. The comment in Letter #153 of Trolls being “counterfeits” might be associated with the inability of the Dark Powers truly being able to create, thus reflected (for the Stone-trolls) in an unstable design able to be destroyed by sunlight.

9  Best thought of as equivalent to the ‘Flame Imperishable/Secret Fire’ in Tolkien’s mythology, perhaps! 

10  Paracelsus described the constituent flesh of elementals as transubstantial. Not being directly derived from Adam – this flesh (unlike the corporeal kind endowed to mankind) was able to revert to its basic constituent form. In taking such an idea, Tolkien certainly followed early pagan thinking when it came to The Hobbit. Trolls therein were essentially portrayed as elementals of the earth:

“Doubtless ancient pre-Christian imagination vaguely recognized differences of ‘materiality’ between the solidly physical monsters, conceived as made of the earth and rock (to which the light of the sun might return them), …”.
– Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, Sir Israel Gollancz Memorial Lecture, 1936

11  Stated as the ‘salamanders’ amid flames , ‘gnomes’ of the earth, forest ‘spirits’ of the ‘air’ and the race of ‘water spirits’. All of these elementals are perfectly aligned with Paracelsian mythology.

It is probable that as well as mermaids and undines, the race of soulless water-spirits included the closely related Scandinavian/Germanic neck, nickar, nicor, nixie or nokken. The male nickar was versified by Sebastian Evans (Macmillan’s Magazine, Cambridge Vol. 9, Iss. 49, Nov 1863) as ‘soulless’ thus: 

Where by the marishes Boometh the bittern,
Nickar the soulless One Sits with his ghittern.
Sits inconsolable, Friendless and foeless,
Wailing his destiny, Nickar the soulless.


Related image

‘Nokken’, Illustration by Theodor Kittelsen, 1904
(note the presence of yellow water-lilies)


12  Paracelsus’ elementals were generally invisible to mortals.

13  In classical 16th Century English poetry, Drayton’s Poly-Olbion allegorically describes the marriage of the rivers Thame and Isis, from whose union is born the Thames:

“Now Fame had through this Isle divulged in every ear,
The long expected day of marriage to be near,
That Isis, Cotswold’s heir, long woo’d was lastly won,
And instantly should wed with Thame, old Chiltern’s son.”

In Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene the Isis is the female partner and she is a “weak and crooked creature” requiring the support of her attendants – the rivers Churne and Cherwell. These are both feminine being assigned water-nymphs in Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion (see footnote 5 of Angel and Demon, Gospel and Fairy-story Part III). So in effect there is a tradition within English mythology of rivers possessing Mother, Father and younger water-spirits.

Tolkien studied both Drayton & Spenser as part of his undergraduate course material at The University of Oxford. It appears he took an interest in the etymology of ‘Thame’ (derived from ‘Ham and ‘Tame’) per his amusing fairy tale Farmer Giles of Ham. Assigned to a mythical period a thousand years earlier than Drayton’s poetry the story was set in the valley of the Thames. Thus we have a tenuous link that Tolkien indeed knew of Drayton’s Poly-Olbion. If so it would have been natural for him to review the river maps of Oxfordshire. In which case he might have concluded that from a mythological standpoint, water-nymphs are not out of place as river-residents in a region meant to mimic Oxfordshire in an epoch long ago. 

14  Reminiscent of the sighs expressed by the Withywindle River-woman.

15  See Angel and Demon, Gospel and Fairy-story Part II.

16  See Angel and Demon, Gospel and Fairy-story Part III.

17  See The Last Stage – Part II.


Revisions :

2/6/17  Replaced paragraph after: “But exactly what were they?” with entirely new paragraph.

Incorporated new Footnote 1 and re-ordered existing Footnotes.

Is: Again, this evokes the fate of a Paracelsian ‘elemental’, and perhaps parallels the destiny of ‘earthlings’., Was: “Again, this evokes the fate of an ‘earthling’ and parallels a Paracelsian ‘elemental’.”.

Removed from Footnote 3 : “As ‘monsters’ they would have come under the umbrella of ‘earthlings’ per The Creatures of the Earth.”

Is: “racial diversity”, Was: “bio-diversity”.

12/2/18  Is: “Tolkien clearly put considerable”, Was: “Tolkien clearly put considerable”.

Is: “Indeed many readers have felt that the side adventure between the borders of Buckland and entrance to Bree was unnecessary.”, Was: “For many readers have felt that the side adventure between the borders of Buckland and Bree was unnecessary.”

Is: “could have been easily confused”, Was: “could have been confused”.

Added new paragraph: “However Tolkien’s purpose … have been missed.”.

Is: “Now when it comes to the merry duo – quite rightly the reader”, Was: “Quite rightly the reader”. 

Is: “It was a different type of existence”, Was: “It was a different type of life”.

Added section break “*****”.

Is: “Mankind’s belief in elementals”, Was: “A belief in elementals”.

Is: “four of the ancient Aristotle elements”, Was: “the ancient Aristotle elements”.

Is: “found in a ~1920’s document”, Was: “found in a document”.

Added: “Such was the impact …” followed by two quotes.

Added: “Nonetheless the theology …” followed by two quotes.

Is: “However I’m positive this four part series”, Was: “I hope this four part series”.

Is: “Frodo practically repeat it”, Was: “him practically repeat it”.

Added new Footnotes 1, 2 & 7 – reordered others.

12/18/18  Added: “Besides The Book of Lost Tales I tells us … arrival in Arda.”.

Added: “the same as that”.

Is: “connecting referral to “earthlings” ”, Was: “referral of “earthlings” ”.

Is: “akin embodied creature, Was: “embodied creature”.

Added new Footnote 1 – reordered others.

Is: “, because vital clues have been missed by all and sundry.”, Was: “; all because vital clues have been missed”.

1/1/19  Is: “merry pair is certainly a matter which has been frowned upon.”, Was: “merry pair is a matter which has also been frowned upon.”.

Added sentence beginning: “Which from a historical perspective …”, followed by M & C quote.

Added new footnote 8 reordered other.

Is: “observations which aid”, Was: “observations which aid”.

Is: “In articles to come … the revelations to come about Tom and Goldberry”, Was: “and Tom. There are many more interesting secrets Tolkien concealed – and the revelations to come about this couple”.

Added footnotes 10, 11 & 12.

1/27/19  Completely revised footnote 8.

2/16/19  Added new footnote 4, reordered others.

3/7/19  Removed: For prior to this, in the Qenya Lexicon Tolkien had compiled a list of mer-folk and nymphs – mermaids being among them.”.

Is: “Because The Book of Lost Tales I”, Was:“Besides The Book of Lost Tales I.

3/15/19  Added: “The mortality of ‘man’ … when he stated:”, followed by new quote from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

4/12/19  Removed: “Elementals as they are now termed have been”.

Added: “Early Christians … were termed elementals and”.

5/4/19  Added new footnotes 8 and 9, reordered others.

5/15/19  Is: “No doubt, just like The Hobbit, much of the initial effort for the new fairy tale was directed”, Was: “No doubt much of the initial effort was directed”.

Is: “these two creatures ultimately belonging”, Was: “these two creatures belonging”.

5/21/19  Added: “Exactly why should … he’d titled: Undines!”.

Is: “fractured echo of the fairy tale”, Was: “somewhat faint echo of the fairy tale”.

6/4/19  Added new Footnote 6 – reordered others.

Added: “In English tradition … back to Tolkien’s world.”.

Added snapshot of Drayton’s Poly-Olbion.

Added: “and follow English tradition ala Michael Drayton”.

6/7/19  Added: “Tolkien was clearly … as their element …”.

6/22/19  Is: “resident/visiting female spirit”, Was: “resident female spirit”.

Added: “(or an adjoining one)”.

Is: “of river waters ”, Was: “of the river’s waters”.

Added: “(indeed Senoj is a giant among giants!)”.

 Added: “The proposal … unearthed River Legends material.”.

6/27/19  Added: “Tolkien’s association of ‘speech’ … Pollock Denison, 1911”.

Is: “Trolls beyond the physical circles”, Was: “such creatures beyond the physical circles”.

Added new Footnote 9 – reordered others.

7/19/19  Added photo of 20 Northmoor Road.

Added Troll illustration by Theodor Kittelsen.

Added illustration of Fenja and Menja.

Added Nokken illustration by Theodor Kittelsen.