What a Colorful Pair!

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Part II: Fayvorite Colors – Early Influences to the New Plot

By the time Tolkien initiated the gargantuan effort of writing The Lord of the Rings – the idea of fairies being of diminutive size had been virtually abandoned. For many years, there were no signs that little flower-fairies in the Qenya Lexicon of circa 1915 would be part of the developing mythology:

“Ailinóne … a fairy who dwelt in a lily on a pool” …
“Nardi ‘a flower fairy’ ” …
“Tetillë is a fairy who lived in a poppy”.
– Parma Eldalamberon 12, Quenya Lexicon, c. 1915

If there was any reconsideration – it happened after The Lord of the Rings had been published, and it is by no means certain that Tolkien was firm on the matter1For all intents and purposes, remarks in his 1939 ‘Fairy Stories’ lecture governed his thoughts. And they were not altogether flattering.

Among extensive notes that never made it to the actual delivery, he admitted how he had once suffered acute embarrassment at the hands of a little boy:

“I was walking in a garden with a small child. I was only nineteen or twenty myself. By some aberration of shyness, groping for a topic like a man in heavy boots in a strange drawing room, as we passed a tall poppy half-opened …”. 
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Flieger & Anderson

The question was then posed:

“ ‘Who lives in that flower?’ ”
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Flieger & Anderson

The child knowledgeably retorted:

“ ‘No one’ … ‘There are Stamens and a Pistil in there.’ ”
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Flieger & Anderson

It seems Tolkien was quite taken aback. Perhaps such a blunt encounter cemented his position in the published account where he openly admitted a strong aversion to miniature fairies – ala Michael Drayton or William Shakespeare:

“… that long line of flower-fairies and fluttering sprites with antennae that I so disliked as a child, …”.
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf


Rabbit Among the Fairies, John Fitzgerald, 1823-1906 


Tolkien was not alone among his compatriots in dismissing the notion of the ‘wee-folk’ being really tiny. C.S. Lewis seems to have been very much on the same page:

“I have found no trace of anyone believing or ever having believed (in England or Ireland) in the tiny fairies of Shakespeare, which are a purely literary invention. Leprechauns are smaller than men, but most fairies are human size, some larger.”
– Letter from C.S. Lewis to Mary W. Shelburne, 9 Oct 1954

As evaluated in Part I, Bombadil and Goldberry were not quite human-size, but neither were they far off. If as I have surmised the couple really were conceived as fairy creatures, they certainly weren’t diminutive. However on one matter Tolkien kept some consistency. He refused to drop the fairy-flower theme altogether. There was so much material already engraved in the hearts and minds of the English that there had to be some valid mythological link; and Tolkien wasn’t willing to completely discard a firmly established Edwardian and Victorian fad. And so as previously shown – Goldberry, though petite, could still be modeled after a flower-fairy – a ‘fairy of the yellow water-lily’.


Water-Lilies and Water Fairies, Richard Doyle, 1824-1893


With the topics of ‘fairies’ and ‘mythological links’ fresh in our minds, by now readers ought to have grasped that The Lord of the Rings from the very beginning had its roots in:

“… myth … fairy-story, and … heroic legend on the brink of fairy-tale …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131

Few realize how deep those roots went when it came to Tom Bombadil. On that matter I will save an enormously interesting and entirely new revelation for the next essay. But for now Bombadil’s connection to fairy-story will continue to focus on ‘colors’. In picking up from where I left off at the end of Part I, long overdue is a much needed re-look at the symbolism Tolkien imbued.

An unearthing of credible and pertinent information required only logical and minor ferreting on my part. Unsurprisingly it was once again necessary to zoom in on remarks made by Tolkien for the 1939 Andrew Lang Lecture: ‘Fairy Stories’. However before I visit that crucially important part of the puzzle – I will deliberate a little on Tolkien’s 1925 note on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

“… green was a fairy colour …”.
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon., 1925. pg. 86 line 151

Why, we must ask ourselves, did the Professor feel that way? What made him come to such a conclusion? Surely it couldn’t have been just the Sir Gawain and Green Knight tale?

“If we are introduced to a green man, with green hair and face, on a green horse, at the court of King Arthur, we expect ‘magic’; and Arthur and Gawain should have expected it also, we think. As indeed most of those present seem to have done: ‘a phantom and fay-magic folk there thought it’ …”.
– “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, Tolkien, J. R. R., The Monsters and the Critics


The Green Knight and his Green Horse, The Cotton Nero


Because the man was green obviously meant there was something amiss; but why indeed should “we expect ‘magic’ ” ? What conditioned Tolkien and Gordon to think along such lines? Well – the answer probably lies in the multitude of times ‘green’ has been mentioned in association with fairy beings. Particularly when it came to those of the British Isles.

According to English folklore, the ‘Greencoaties’ were the names of fairies that dwelt in the countryside of Lincolnshire. Nearby the ‘Greenies’ were fairy residents of Lancashire. And of course the Scottish Highlands and Ireland both have many Celtic inspired tales of fairy-type creatures clothed in ‘green’. The medievalist Lisa Spangenberg provides three catching and more specific examples:

“I think Tolkien is right about green as a fairy color. We have many references to fairies and green, but I shall be charitable and only refer to three. In the ballad “Thomas the Rhymer” the fairy Queen’s skirt “was o’ the grass-green silk”. In the twelfth century Ralph of Coggestall and William of Newbridge tell stories about mysterious green otherworld children. The Sídhe, the Irish otherworld residents, have a pronounced fondness for green, second only to red …”.
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Tolkien’s ‘game with rules’, Lisa Spangenberg


Thomas The Rhymer and Fairy Queen, The Scottish Fairy Book, E.W. Grierson, 1918


As Spangenberg points out, “legions of scholars” have written about “the meaning of green” and on “green as a fairy color”. Of her cited examples, we know Tolkien almost certainly knew of all three2. Just as important – they are quite sufficient to prove the point. Given that – it’s now that I would like to turn attention back to The Lord of the Rings. The emphasis will be placed on scrutinizing a time period between 1938 and 1940. This being an acutely critical developmental period for the new plot and cast.

So some four years after the published poetry: The Adventures of Tom Bombadil – Tom, Goldberry and some accompanying characters were revived for what became The Fellowship of the Ring. ‘Green’ and its links to Faerie (and so to our couple) is conjectured to have been very much on Tolkien’s mind for those formative Bombadil chapters sketched out in the late 30’s. A glimpse of this peeks through from Tolkien’s revelation of a new Celtic fairy-tale he had been working on.

In August 1938, not too long after embarking on The Lord of the Rings, The King of the Green Dozen:

“ … an unfinished pseudo-Celtic fairy-story”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #33

was offered to Allen & Unwin. It was about:

“… the King of Iwerddon, whose hair and the hair of his descendant’s twelve sons is coloured green.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #33, Footnote 2

Yet another glimpse can be seen in a slightly earlier lecture Tolkien gave in February of the same year. From out of his coat pocket, and conveyed in all-seriousness to a post-lecture gathering at Oxford’s Worcester College, was pulled a supposed real leprechauns’ shoe. Smaller than a human’s (but not tiny) and reptilian in feel, the shoe was of course green. Presumably in Tolkien’s mind it was: ‘fairy-green’:

“One undergraduate asked about the truth underlying all legends – he referred especially to Dragons – and Tolkien said, “Yes – there was always a kernel of fact behind a legend.” He pulled out of a pocket… a leprechaun’s shoe! It measured about six to seven inches and was very green, as if lizard’s skin, with a long thin pointed toe.”
– Lecture of 14 February 1938, Report in Amon Hen 28, August 1977


The Leprechaun and his Legendary Pointed Shoes (Courtesy of Wikipedia)


Yes significantly it was in this time period (circa 1938 to 1939) that the early chapters, which included Tom, were both being written and undergoing revision in the process of his assimilation. It was also in this same period that Tolkien preparedfor his landmark March 1939 lecture: ‘Fairy Stories’.

Realistically in prepping for the lecture, The Lord of the Rings must have been at the front of his mind. One can imagine that if Tolkien had constructed ‘the Bombadils’ to be fays – then some of his ideas may have seeped through to the presentation itself. And so they did– as best as we can tell!

When it came to ‘fantasy’ and ‘color’ it appears Tolkien was heavily influenced by the introductory words of Maisie Ward for G.K. Chesterton’s 1938 posthumous release: The Coloured Lands. No amateur to science and given his love of painting, the Professor was palpably familiar with the fact that:

“… there are only three ‘primary’ colours.”
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

Those in art being:

“… red, blue and yellow, …”.
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript A, Flieger & Anderson  (Tolkien’s underlined emphasis)

Before even introducing the “ ‘primary colours’ ”, general colors and their adjectival importance to both Faerie and the creation of ‘fantasy’ were voiced:

“We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such “fantasy,” as it is called, new form is made; Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.”
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf   (my underlined emphasis)

More pointedly after talk of a need to ‘escape’ through the act of sub-creation, and using an example of blending colors, he then decided to place special emphasis on green:

“We should look at green again and be startled anew …”.
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

But then after asking us to ponder on that color, he tells us not to be:

“… blinded … by blue and yellow and red.”
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

Remarkable indeed – because of course green is not made from red. Just yellow and blue are. Which in itself is quite startling. Because individually blue and yellow are so different from green.

In writing these thoughts, the Professor’s mind appears not to have been clouded by alcohol intake. Absinthe – a popular drink at the turn of the 19th Century – had led many (even some academics) to experience the hallucinogenic effects of the ‘Green Fairy’!


Absinthe – ‘The Green Fairy’, Albert Maignan, 1895


Joking aside, following on in the essay from these initial thoughts on color was the process described as ‘Recovery’. To achieve this one must regain:

“… a clear view.”
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

To see:

“… things as we are (or were) meant to see them … freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity …”.
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

Laid bare then, the action he ever so subtly asked from us is: to regain a “clear view” of what comprised ‘green’. Left for us to unravel was to distinguish from ‘green’ – the colors: ‘blue’ and ‘yellow’. A stance that might well have been applicable to his own newly developing fairy-like tale:

“Fantasy is made out out of the primary world. So Green is made out of Yellow and Blue; but redirects attention to them, throws indeed a new light on them.”
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Flieger & Anderson

Given such an opinion, there is no reason why we cannot apply the principle in reverse to his fantasy character: Tom Bombadil. We ought to take a fresh look at his primary clothing colors of blue and yellow and redirect attention to them. Yet once we do so, we are led full circle in that:

“… we must hark back to … green”.
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript A, Flieger & Anderson    (Tolkien’s underlined emphasis)

For of course to the Professor:

“… green was a fairy colour …”!
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon., 1925. pg. 86 line 151

And Tolkien was right. In a way a sensation of ‘joy’ was experienced by this writer in:

“… a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth.”
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

Hard to believe? Well much later Tolkien confessed that some of what was contained within The Lord of the Rings:

“… was a practical demonstration of the views … expressed”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #234

in his ‘Fairy Stories’ lecture of 1939.

The comment was directed at the adult nature of the book – it being one with fairy-story elements, yet styled unlike those traditionally written for children. However one cannot help but feel that the essays’ points about ‘green’, the ‘mixing of colors’, and the importance ‘of others’ was reflected by another “practical demonstration” for the tale. In particular, for us, an application of coloring that symbolized the fairy side of this very unusual couple.


The Blue to Golden-Yellow to Green Progression from the Heart of the Peacock Feather5


Let us not be fooled, the supplementary evidence is far from weak. Tolkien must have known the pairings’ color of clothing handily made a coding for fay-creatures. Really then we should stand up and applaud with aplomb. How inventive! That fertile and lithe mind had managed to figure out a path justifying Tom and Goldberry as from another realm – namely that of Faerie. What we have to do now is verify whether this hidden design was carried through to final form.


1 As the mythology developed to the point where spirits from before the creation of the Universe were termed the Ainur and sub-categorized as the Maiar and Valar, Tolkien appears to have subsumed some of the earlier fays into the Maiar. Notably he did conceptualize that:

“… the Maiar robed themselves like other lesser living things, as trees, flowers, beasts.”
– The History of Middle-earth, Morgoth’s Ring, Myths Transformed    (my underlined emphasis)

Though of course being robed as a flower is not quite the same as a diminutive fluttering fairy.

2 Thomas the Rhymer is mentioned in the On Fairy-stories essay. The story of the green children of Woolpit is documented in E.S. Hartland’s English Fairy and Other Folk Tales (see ‘Works consulted or cited by J.R.R. Tolkien’ per Tolkien On Fairy-stories by Flieger and Anderson). The ‘Sídhe folk’, the Irish Otherworld residents also known as the the Tuatha Dé Danann are mentioned in The Lost Road and Other Writings and documented in J. MacDougall’s Folk Tales and Fairy Lore in Gaelic and English (see ‘Works consulted or cited by J.R.R. Tolkien’ per Tolkien On Fairy-stories by Flieger and Anderson). His grasp of this core part of Celtic mythology is patently evident from his 1932 essay: The Name ‘Nodens’.

3 Chronologically, Tolkien began writing The Lord of the Rings (~ December 1937) before an invitation (November 1938) to be the keynote speaker for the ‘Andrew Lang’ lecture at St. Andrews. Just one month prior to lecture delivery (March 1939) we know he had completed the chapters involving Tom Bombadil and Goldberry and had revised them several times (Letters #33 & #35).

4 The original content of the lecture delivery was altered and expanded upon in 1943 and later published as an essay (On Fairy-stories) in a memorial to Charles Williams (Letter #145) in 1947.

5 Bombadil in the 1934 The Adventures of Tom Bombadil had his hat adorned with a peacock’s feather. Paulolapetus of ‘The Lord of the Ring’s Plaza’ in thread ‘Tom B. Peeling the Onion’ has suggested that the feather endowment was modeled after the fairy figure in Estella Canziani’s painting ‘The Piper of Dreams’.


‘The Piper of Dreams’ by Estella Canziani, 1914


According to my proposed theory, the color symbolism of the feather is again one appropriately reflective of a fairy being.