What a Colorful Pair!

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Part III: Fayvorite Colors – The Plot Firmed Up

Our best evidence portraying how the Bombadil chapters developed in The Fellowship of the Ring results from The History of Middle-earth series. Except for some minor matters, text that concerns Tom and Goldberry In the House of Bombadil and Fog on the Barrow-downs more or less reaches final form by the early 40’s. Unfortunately hardly any clues within The Return of the Shadow or The Treason of Isengard point to when Tolkien actually finished fiddling. Though The Lord of the Rings was laid aside for quite a while upon Tolkien’s said completion in 1949, there is virtually nothing to suggest any emendations (of interest to us) were incorporated afterwards. Some frantic editing was certainly performed just prior to The Fellowship of the Ring being published in 1954 – but nothing specific has been reported regarding the merry pair. There is a good chance then, that however Tolkien viewed our couple in the early 40’s ended up being the same as at publication in the mid 50’s. That or any evolution to the legendarium mythology allowed them to neatly slot in anyway.

When it came to the published account, the color ‘green’ was extensively employed in the chapters involving Tom and Goldberry. Whether from mixing or not, green was doubly suitable. Because as well as signifying a deeper and secret function, it also nicely meshed in with the predominant hue found in nature. Wasn’t that dandy! Tricksy Tolkien had in a way created a clever distraction that fooled the reader into a false sense of comfort. How can I be sure? Well I really can’t be one hundred percent. Yet the evidence at the end of this color analysis leads me to believe my hunch is totally correct.

So upon review of the issued The Fellowship of the Ring, we can see that Tolkien made no changes to Tom’s boots of yellow or the blue hue of his jacket. In one change of outfit during the hobbits’ stay, a familiar color was once again assigned. Tom came newly and aptly garbed:

“… all in clean blue, blue as rain-washed forgot-me-nots, …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Having already linked forget-me-nots to Goldberry, Tolkien the fond and learned botanist – I’m sure would have been thinking of the blue-petaled English marsh variety scientifically known as:

Myosotis scorpioides: Water Forget-me-nots.
– The Flora of Oxfordshire, by Killick, Perry, Woodell


The Blue & Yellow Blooms of Myosotis scorpioides: Water Forget-me-nots 


Tom’s other new clothing is consistent with my opinion of the Professor’s ‘fay-mentality’; Tom unsurprisingly:

“… had green stockings.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Goldberry, on the other hand, left the reader a little puzzle. At our first encounter, her dress is mainly green shot with beads of silver just like her wedding outfit from the 1934 poem. But her belt is described to be of:

“… gold, shaped like a chain of flag-lilies set with the pale-blue eyes of forget-me-nots.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

We must take a step back here and question whether the belt truly was formed of metallic gold, or whether the hobbits were initially mistaken, or whether Tolkien took adjectival liberties.

There is certainly some confusion on this point. At the threshold of the entryway into the house, in the “golden light”, the belt may indeed have looked like gold. Be that as it may, after a few steps into the room she is then said to be:

“… clad in living flowers.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Also Tom later tells us:

“Here’s my pretty lady … with flowers in her girdle!”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Given some conflicting and ambiguous text, the reader is left to wonder whether the belt, as initially described, was truly forged from precious gold. For indeed it would be a marvelous piece of workmanship truly worthy of a queen if “shaped like a chain of flag-lilies”. Seemingly something so ostentatious is not entirely at odds with a very stylishly portrayed female. Nevertheless what puts the matter mightily in doubt is that flag-lilies and forget-me-nots also arise in Goldberry’s wedding garland per the 1934 The Adventures of Tom Bombadil poem. In that case they were most definitely flowers:

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

The likely answer is that Tolkien had those very same flowers now modeled into a girdle for Goldberry. Though the flag-lilies were near-enough to gold, they were really yellow:

“… glædene ‘iris’, in my book supposed to refer to the ‘yellow flag’ growing in streams and marshes: sc. iris pseudacorus …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #297


Yellow Flag Iris

Yellow Flag Iris, by Francis Russell, 1820-1915


In any case, what we have then with blue/yellow forget-me-nots and a gold or yellow flowered belt is a combination of colors that when mixed make up either plain green or metallic green.

Later on in the episode the ‘gold’ belt was exchanged, along with robes, for equally stunning exterior wear. The lady of the house came clad all in silver with a new white girdle. Her shoes were described to be like fish scales; presumably then of silvery coloring. Visually the outfit must have looked spectacular. To use a modern-day phrase: out of this world!

No other clothing or accessories were ever mentioned again in connection to Goldberry except the gifted brooch from the barrow. Here once more, quite intentionally, Tolkien via Tom chose ‘fairy-mixable blue’:

“… a brooch set with blue stones, many-shaded like flax-flowers or the wings of blue butterflies.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

In summary, for The Lord of the Rings, the colors of clothes/adornments were as follows:

Tom: Blue, Yellow and Green
Goldberry: Green, Blue, Yellow (Gold), Silver and White

Thus we can see how the only color added to the duo’s attire after the published poetry was ‘white’. And both ‘silver’ and ‘white’ are distinct enough not to be readily associable to green. So what may we inquire, was their significance?

Given Tolkien’s extensive Celtic and medieval book collection and clues bound up in On Fairy-stories, undoubtedly it was known that there were colors other than green strongly connected to the realm and peoples of Faerie. It was the particular variety of fairy-folk mythologized within the British Isles that he was most interested in. The earlier the recorded material the better, and so it is thought that white and silver featuring prominently in Celtic legends and English medieval texts was concluded as also apt for fay-beings. Some pertinent examples are:

White: Arawn’s dogs, Morgan le Fay’s ermine cape and chalk veils, blossom from the sacred apple tree

Silver: The bough of the apple tree, the Banshee’s comb, Nuada’s hand

Deliberately then, white and silver were colors assigned to Goldberry too. Perhaps we should not be surprised because just as Tolkien had doubly provided a coded and nature related color to Tom, so had he for Goldberry. Symbolized then were:

“… real river-lands in autumn. Goldberry represents the actual seasonal changes in such lands.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #210

The whole Withywindle valley underwent seasonal changes in coloration as waters dwindled and surged and as the climate changed through the year. One can easily imagine how river-land flora naturally sprouted, expired and renewed through the seasons. Special emphasis was placed on the color of Withywindle aquatic plants tying them directly in with Goldberry’s colors. Without restressing the flora making up her belt, other examples are:

“… on a tray a small pile of white water-lilies”,
“… her gown was … green as young reeds, …”,
“The floor was … strewn with fresh green rushes.”,
“… water-lilies, green leaves … to please my pretty lady.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil   (my underlined emphasis)


The European White Water Lily, Nymphaea alba


Water itself – the life-force of the Withywindle and its borders, was alluded to be both silvery and white hued before the hobbits even reached Tom’s house:

“… the white glimmer of foam, where the river flowed over a short fall”,
“… white mists began to rise and curl on the surface of the river …”,
“… glad water flowing down … came falling like silver to meet them: …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil    (my underlined emphasis)

Imagery of silver connecting water to Goldberry’s clothing became strong once inside:

“… her gown was … shot with silver like beads of dew; …”.
“… she was clothed all in silver with a white girdle, and her shoes were like fishes’ mail.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil   (my underlined emphasis)

There is no doubt that Tolkien wanted Goldberry firmly intertwined with the river, its margins and its flora. Commensurately the Professor specially brought-out the fay associated seasonal colors of the region. Goldberry’s clothing was destined to become an ideal medium for reflecting that.

Lastly when it came to attire – the hosts of the house had a special luxury item for welcoming guests. Even though hardy-soled hobbits might not have needed them, all four were provided with pairs of soft slippers. Guess what color? Oh yes once again how extraordinarily ‘convenient’ for fairy-folk: green, green, green and green!

Perhaps for some, the point has been made – but the story doesn’t quite end there.

It is now an opportune moment to switch from clothing and adornments to examining other symbolism involving color. Yes it’s time to take another look at Tom himself. What exactly was the reader’s first impression of him? More pertinently, what perception did Tolkien want to leave at first sight? Perhaps that initial imagery (as I surmised of Goldberry – see ‘Goldberry – The Enigmatic Mrs Bombadil, Part I’) was intended to be highly significant?

If I am right – indeed first looks were intended to count. Apart from the worn blue and yellow, Tom was also described as having a:

“… face … red as a ripe apple, …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Old Forest    (my underlined emphasis)

And there we have it!

In a nutshell Tolkien’s masterpiece riddle both exposed and solved. For the red, blue and yellow are reducible to just ‘red’ and ‘green’. Which is, as Spangenberg and many other scholars have noted, in line with otherworld residents having :

“… a pronounced fondness for green, second only to red …”.
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Tolkien’s ‘game with rules’, Lisa Spangenberg 

Yes, the two most beloved colors of fairies – were reflected in Tom. Dealt so deftly was a masterstroke by Tolkien. There in front of our very eyes were open clues telling us Tom was of the fairy race. And I have little doubt that indeed this was Tolkien’s intent because of the way the riddle was echoed in On Fairy-stories. Once again after stating:

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

Tolkien tells us not to be:

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

Which is an equation that, when solved, inevitably leads us back to the two foremost fairy colors: ‘green’ and ‘red’!


Jack and the Beanstalk, Victorian Cautionary Tales c. 1869
(Note the predominantly green and red attire of the Giant)


Then what about Tom’s ‘brown’ beard? How did that come into play?

Well ‘brown’ is traditionally the color of the soil – giving him an earthy side. Which attunes well with Shippey’s perception of Bombadil being:

a kind of exhalation of the earth …”.
– J.R.R. Tolkien Author of the Century, Chapter II, T.A. Shippey

Which makes me think Tolkien originally also intended him to be a sort of ‘earth-fairy’ possessing Paracelsian elemental qualities reflected by an ability to travel underground. For quite pointedly, Frodo when trapped in the Barrow heard Tom’s voice: 

“… far away, as if it was coming down through the ground …”. 
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs  

Am I done? Is that it? The answers are decisively no. Because now we understand that there is a strong liklihood of concealed color symbolism – we must endeavor to root out the rest. And so when it comes to ‘green’ and ‘red’, Tolkien once again cunningly gave away that indeed the hobbits were in the presence of fairies. Exactly how? Simply by restricting the colors in Tom’s vegetable patch or flower garden to only ‘red’ and ‘green’. Singled out were ‘green’ for the runner beans1 and their leaves, and ‘red’ for their flowers:

“… the red flowers on the beans began to glow against the wet green leaves.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil


Jack and the Beanstalk, Warwick Goble c. 1890


Yes here was a plant that had the quality of Faerie intrinsic to its very essence. Understandably though, one still might question and comment: ‘Is that all? Seems a bit of a weak ploy.’

But oh no it wasn’t! Now that we recognize a ‘fairy connection’ we must put the proverbial two and two together to solve a mystery. Why of all the possible vegetables in an English vegetable garden did Tolkien include only one? And that of a kind whose stalks shoot up vertically:

“… the view was screened by a tall line of beans on poles; …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Why did the Professor neglect to mention any flower types in the flower garden, yet happily related the bean vines had ‘red’ blossoms? Was there more than just color symbolism involved?

To provide an overarching reason for seemingly the most innocuous of insertions – again we must hark back to mythology; in particular – English folk tales. Though it might sound like I’m repeating myself ad nauseum, really the coupling of our myths and folklore to his own story is a founding principle of Tolkien’s work. Speechified as downright English – Tom was deliberately connected to that most English of fairy tales: Jack and the Beanstalk2 .

Who was that odd-looking old man whom Jack had traded with? Might he have been Tom?

“He hadn’t gone far when he met a funny-looking old man, who said to him, ‘Good morning, Jack.’ ”
– English Fairy Tales3, Jack and the Beanstalk, Joseph Jacobs 1890

Surely only a fairy4 being would have been in possession of magic beans?


The Queer Old Man, Jack and the Beanstalk, English Fairy Tales, F. Steel, 1890 (Illustration by Arthur Rackham)


Then after the swap what happened to Jack’s cow: ‘Milky-White’?

Hmm … for our tale clearly Tom has access to a providing farm animal. After all, the extent of dairy produce on the dinner table was substantial:

“… yellow cream and honeycomb, and white bread and butter; milk, cheese, and green herbs and ripe berries …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil   (my underlined emphasis)

Given the length of the stay of four ravenous hobbits – not to mention the isolation of Tom from neighbors5 – one can readily deduce that there was plenty of fresh milk available on site. Obviously Tom must have had a large barn type structure to shelter the hobbits’ five ponies with room for Fatty Lumpkin too. Along with them must have been stored a copious quantity of hay. Then it is surmised Tom must have had ample room and feed for a cow6. And why a bovine and not a herd of goats? Well that is because Tolkien explicitly amplified the cream was “yellow” by stating it twice. Goats produce only cream which is white in color, whereas cows produce (like butter) the yellow sort.

So we can see that there was no shortage of food during the hobbits’ respite. With presumably much of it being milk based, we might ascertain Tom’s cow was a prodigous producer. Resonating with:

“… Milky-White, the best milker in the parish, …”.
– English Fairy Tales, Jack and the Beanstalk, Joseph Jacobs 1890

And one can readily imagine that legends of Milky-White and her ample output originated in hobbit folklore to be passed along through the ages to our own world’s myth through blended and corrupted tales of Tom’s residence being awash in ‘white’ ‘milk’:

“Frodo … watched the white chalky path turn into a little river of milk and go bubbling away down into the valley.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil    (my underlined emphasis)

To search for further findings to bolster the Jack and the Beanstalk link requires digging into adjacent material; for Tolkien, in Conan Doyle fashion, spread out the evidence.

To the hobbits who exactly were these black men, so much larger than them (and thus in comparison – of ogreish size), who had invaded a thoroughly English Shire with such animosity for its inhabitants? Many of the rustic little people had never encountered the Big Folk; from their viewpoint they must have looked gigantic:

“Sam … was finding his first sight of Men … quite enough, …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, At the Sign of the Prancing Pony

Apart from the ‘ogre’ fueled chase echoing Jack’s experience, what about that heightened sense of smell? What was all the sniffing about?

“…inside the hood came a noise as of someone sniffing …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Three is Company


The Ogre in Black, Jack and the Beanstalk, English Fairy Tales, F. Steel, 1890 (Illustration by Arthur Rackham)


Presumably it was connected to Aragorn’s revelation:

“… at all times they smell the blood of living things, desiring and hating it.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, A Knife in the Dark

Hmm … the smelling of blood combined with raw hatred!  Now where have I seen that theme before? Yes we must hark back once again to Jack and the Beanstalk and that most famous of English rhymes:

I smell the blood of an Englishman,
Be he alive, or be he dead,
I’ll have his bones to grind my bread.

– English Fairy Tales, Jack and the Beanstalk, Joseph Jacobs 1890

Isn’t the similarity becoming obvious now? Isn’t it obvious how The Lord of the Rings mirrors Jack and the Beanstalk in that both heroes look out from a window on to beanstalks first thing in the morning!

“So Jack jumped up and dressed himself and went to the window. And what do you think he saw? Why, the beans … had sprung up into a big beanstalk …”,
– English Fairy Tales, Jack and the Beanstalk, Joseph Jacobs 1890

“Frodo ran to the eastern window, and found himself looking into … a tall line of beans on poles; …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Most cleverly, Tolkien had interwoven well-known English folklore into his story with a combination of affinity and diffused variance. For to the Professor, to repeat what has already been emphasized:

“… there was always a kernel of fact behind a legend.”
Lecture of 14 February 1938, Report in Amon Hen 28, August 1977

And in that process of oral hand-down some inevitable corruption had occurred. It turns out that it was the Horn of Buckland which mustered the hobbits against the ogreish Black Riders. And the likely order for it to be blown came from The Master of Brandy Hall. Which is all too similar to Jack rallying his people by sounding a horn at the Ogre’s gate in Lang’s version of the tale:

“The men … pressed forward to say that they would serve Jack … to the castle, … they marched … and Jack blew the horn …”.
– Jack and the Beanstalk, The Red Fairy Book, Andrew Lang, 1890

Even more remarkable – the hobbits of Buckland were supposedly the originators of the ‘Fee-fi-fo’ part of the rhyme7:

– The Fellowship of the Ring, A Knife in the Dark

Just maybe in Tolkien’s mind the missing ‘fum’ was a distorted: “run”. Perhaps this had all got jumbled up in ‘The Cauldron of Story’, leaving a ‘run to safety’ as a little puzzle for the reader to sort out!

“Fatty Bolger … knew that he must run. And run he did …”. 
– The Fellowship of the Ring, A Knife in the Dark    (my underlined emphasis)

Hmm … the aural resonances leave much to ponder! But objectively there are simply too many coincidences for the prognosis not to be true. The evidence is incriminating. Especially as left was much more than ‘a kernel’, and yet further connections to Jack and the Beanstalk are going to be revealed.

Also yet to be exposed are new revelations of Tom being entwined in at least two more traditional fairy tales. The stuff is hidden. Hidden exceedingly deep. But in the end – when all is extracted – much that is new will come to light. More importantly after all this time – we will finally understand Tolkien’s master-plan for the plot!


1  The beans were originally and explicitly described as ‘green’ themselves – see The Return of the Shadow.

2  Tolkien certainly knew of Jack and the Beanstalk. He mentions the tale in his 1936 Beowulf lecture.

3  Jacob’s rendition is generally acclaimed as the one closest to the original tale. Benjamin Tabbart’s moralized version of 1807 and the 1734 Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean are not as well recognized.

4  In Benjamin Tabert’s, Andrew Lang’s and Edwin Hartland’s versions of Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack did meet a fairy – but after climbing the beanstalk.

5 According to Bombadil goes Boating, the Bucklanders were not altogether friendly towards Tom. The distance between Tom’s house and the Marish was too far to allow Maggot as a source for fresh and regular dairy produce. Besides Tom appears to have no viable means of transport between the two residences, let alone anything to trade.

6  Just as Hammond and Scull (The Lord of the Rings – A Reader’s Companion, pg. 113) have pointed out that by eating bacon at Maggot’s – the Shire-Hobbits must have kept pigs – an application of similar logic leads to the deduction of Tom having access to a cow.

7  Mark Hooker has similarly pointed out a rhyming resonance to the Jack and the Beanstalk tale in A Tolkienian Mathomium.