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 clearly 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 much of the initial effort 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

Yet at first read there seems to be ample incoherence and many inconsistencies when it comes to our idyllic couple. For many readers have felt that the side adventure between the borders of Buckland and 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 that an omission would have rid Middle-earth of two of its weirdest characters. And to some – that would have been no major loss.

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 servility. 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 one matter which has been frowned upon. Without foreknowledge of the 1934 The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, a casual reader could have been 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

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 brain-washing resulting in a subtly sinister aspect to the episode. Tom had a ruthless streak in him as is 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.

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

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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 life – which nonetheless Goldberry neatly slotted into while still being nearby her old haunt. There are absolutely no signs that Tom constrained Goldberry in any way, or that she was unhappy. She displayed tolerance to Tom’s 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    (Tolkiens 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 he 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 belonging to the legendary race of ‘elementals’.

A 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. Elementals as they are now termed have been, 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 the ancient Aristotle elements: air, water, earth and fire.

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Paracelsus.jpg

Paracelsus (Philippus von Hohenheim), 1493-1541

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Given this 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.

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 Manir and Suruli, 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. For prior to this, in the Qenya Lexicon Tolkien had compiled a list of mer-folk and nymphs – mermaids being among them.

One can 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-entities, namely mermaids, 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 fays; a category he obviously termed: “earthlings”. But exactly what were they?

Our best evidence can be found in a document called The Creatures of the Earth. Within, he labeled ‘Earthlings’ as ‘wood-giants, mountainous-giants, pygmies1 and 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.

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

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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-bound2 spirit …”.      
– The Return of the Shadow, Tom Bombadil     (my underlined emphasis)

And then a description of trolls was given as:

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

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

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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 that which typified elementals, namely – a soul:

“… when you make Trolls3 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’)

Quite possibly – Tolkien thought there was no place for the spiritual essence of such creatures 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 soul-less creatures, and ones associated to the ‘earth’ of Paracelsian lore.

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

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Now the “fairy-story element” for a soul-less ‘water’ entity is best illustrated by the tale of Undine. Because of her resemblance to mermaids of myth and Tolkien’s referral of “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 CS 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 underlined emphasis)

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

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Fountain of Undine, Kurpark, Baden, Germany

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

“ ‘… 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 underlined emphasis)

If we “admit that fairy-story tale 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 him 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 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 draught – for fingers ought not to be splayed open!

All of these are interesting observations which 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 invisible4 to all but gifted beings – such as Tom and Goldberry herself?

Rivers in European mythology were often inhabited by female spiritual forms. 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 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 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 the rivers’ waters when lamenting her loss:

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

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, 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 hope that 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 and Tom. 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!

Notes :

1 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. 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 grouping 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.

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

3 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.

4 Paracelsus’ elementals were generally invisible to mortals.

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”.

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