What a Colorful Pair!

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Part V: Fayvorite Colors – Much Later Days

By no means am I done discussing hidden fairy tale within The Lord of the Rings. Nor unveiling its innermost secrets. Perhaps its beginning to dawn that not everything’s been discovered within Tolkien’s masterpiece. Yes the book still holds many intimate secrets. Secrets so subtly placed and adeptly interwoven that they appear to give the story an air of three-dimensional depth – yet in reality their true function was to provide a layer of deeper meaning.

As an active teaching Professor, Tolkien knew all about the inquisitiveness of students. As an accomplished philologist his mind was naturally attuned into inquiring on sources and rooting out connections through the use of logic. With the tables turned, here was an opportunity for students to try their skills out in a slippery exercise of his devising:

“I fear you may be right that the search for the sources of The Lord of the Rings is going to occupy academics for a generation or two.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #337

And we know such a thought train was present from the outset, because in 1938 he passed the following remark about academic inquiries pertinent to The Hobbit:

“But would not that be rather unfair to the research students? To save them trouble is to rob them of any excuse for existing.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #25

What he took from our world’s ‘Cauldron of Story’ and transmuted into his own literature could most definitely be tracked down and extracted. Although he didn’t fully approve, he knew researchers would try to break the ball to seek its bounce. After all hadn’t he followed such a path throughout his philological career? How then could he justifiably complain? So the only sensible proviso, I believe, was for the researcher to employ judicious logic and attain sensible answers within the confines of mythology, folklore, fairy tale and the early history of his beloved land. Only then could sense be made of many baffling details within the story.

After Beowulf, perhaps the literature of ancient England Tolkien was most impressed with were Arthurian legends. As we shall see, the combination of such legends with the motif of color was put to good use. For stunningly it is incidentals well after The Lord of the Rings that we must particularly heed. We must remind ourselves of the fairy-color ‘green’. Then in tandem we must focus on more poetry. In particular, poetry about Tom. Because in 1962, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil poem was republished along with a new one about Tom within a booklet of rhymes in fulfilling a request from Tolkien’s aunt, Jane Neave.

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The Adventures of Tom Bombadil – 1962 Edition,  Illustrated by Pauline Baynes

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The stated purpose for the new poem, and no doubt minor changes made to the original, was:

“… it performs the service of further ‘integrating’ Tom with the world of the L.R. into which he was inserted.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #237

Make no mistake – Tolkien thought very carefully about the suitability of all the selected poetry – going to considerable lengths in ascribing Middle-earth authorship throughout the booklet. When it came to Bombadil, though stated that he was known to Buckland-folk, there was relayed a tempered warning that:

“… they had … little understanding of his powers …”.
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, Preface, 1962 release

Despite many of the poems being:

“… on the surface, lighthearted or frivolous, …”,
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, Preface, 1962 release

Tolkien gave away that if one was to listen carefully:

“… one may uneasily suspect that more is meant than meets the ear.”
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, Preface, 1962 release

In 1965 the same message was repeated but the tone suggested something decidedly recondite:

“… these things have a serious undercurrent, and are not meant at any point to be merely comic …”.
– The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, Chronology 25 June 1962, Hammond & Scull

To insert this “serious undercurrent” and hint at what lay behind some of “his powers”, Tolkien made some purposeful and ever so subtle alterations to the original Adventures poem. One of these, inexplicably, has not caught the eye of Bombadil scholars acquainted with Arthurian lore.

Two extra lines were formulated for the very first verse. To the second new line, one difference to Tom’s look was an assignment of a new feather to his hat. Not so remarkably Tolkien chose a white plume which, as explained in the preface, was a result of rivalry between the Swan and Kingfisher. Still as already discussed, white is ‘a fairy color’. So no big deal – the hue was good and suitable.

Of much more significance was the first new line to the updated poem. To Tom’s apparel was an acquisition of leather breeches. In itself this is not so odd as the garment was not designated any coloring. It is what held them up which is far more important. The first four words to the first new line Tolkien inserted are utterly astounding. Tom was now the proud owner of a belt. Not any old belt – but one described as a girdle. Not any old girdle – but a green girdle:

“green were his girdle and his breeches all of leather;”
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1962 release

If anyone in the world should have known the ramifications of a ‘green girdle’ and its connection to beings of Faerie – it would have been Tolkien! It is incomprehensible that his update was accidental. And thus it is to the legendary green girdle of the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight tale that I will soon turn.

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The ‘Green Girdle’ symbolically wrapped around Gawain’s Pentangle from ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’

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But before I hammer home that Tolkien knew exactly what he had done; I need to firstly provide a synopsis of the medieval tale and then sensitize the reader to Tolkien’s indisputable intention of connecting Tom to our own world’s myth and history.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a medieval poem of unknown authorship dating from around 1,400 A.D. It is over 2,500 lines long, preserved on vellum parchment, and is also known as MS Cotton Nero A.x in honor of a former owner: Sir Robert Cotton. It tells the tale of King Arthur’s fabled knight Gawain, and his encounters with a man of gigantic proportions, but bodily of green hue and attired with the same colored clothing. After openly riding into King Arthur’s court, a challenge was issued to all present to deal him a blow in return for one a year later. Gawain takes up the challenge and beheads the Green Knight only to find that he is not a man but a fay creature who picks up the head and rides away.

Gawain constrained by his oath to seek out the Green Knight, nearly a year later partakes in a quest to find his home – the Green Chapel. After facing much adversity during his journeying, Gawain finally comes upon a castle whose lord and lady welcome him warmly, and inform him the Green Chapel is close-by. However he is enticed by the lady while her husband is away hunting. Gawain resists her advances multiple times – but in the end he takes an offering of her ‘green girdle’; a magical object that will save him from from any deadly or injurious blow from the Green Knight. He accepts the girdle and on this one occasion breaks a promise to the lord of exchanging winnings at the end of each day.

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Illustration from ‘MS Cotton Nero A.x’

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At the Green Chapel the Green Knight reveals himself to be none other than the lord himself who is fully aware of his wife’s actions. Indeed this is just a plan by Arthur’s half-sister, Morgan le Fay, to dishonor the King’s court. The axe blows dealt by the Green Knight were mere feints and Gawain leaves basically unharmed but the final swing nicks his neck. This is explained as the price of not keeping his promise in failing to disclose the gift of the girdle. Gawain perceives a moral failure on his part – though the Green Knight declares the fault is small. The famous green girdle is thereafter wrapped as a baldric around his shoulder as a mark of failure and shame. Upon his safe return to Arthur’s court the tale is told and Gawain is greatly honored for his loyalty and courage.

Tolkien was extremely impressed by the ‘Gawain’ tale. The text was studied in great detail and for students, a book comprising a pseudo-annotated version of the work was published in 1925. This was done while at at Leeds University and in conjunction with his associate: Professor E.V. Gordon. Therein the tale was described as:

“… an excellent one for the purposes of the romancer.”,
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Introduction, Tolkien & Gordon, 1925

being a story:

“… shaped with a sense of narrative not often found in Arthurian romance.”
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Introduction, Tolkien & Gordon, 1925

Some twenty eight years later Tolkien delivered a scholarly lecture in Glasgow titled Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and voiced similar sentiment.

There is zero doubt of Tolkien’s expertise on this medieval work. As well as producing scholarly publishings on the subject, he taught it as part of his lecturing classes at Oxford University. Nor can we doubt his awareness of the motif and importance of the green girdle to the tale and its crucial role in the final outcome. But where did it come from one might ask? How did the lady of the castle come to possess it? Was it a gift from Morgan le Fay? If so, was the magic imbued by her or was its lineage far older? These are not altogether unnatural questions that the Professor ought to have asked himself.

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Morgan Le Fay by John R. Spencer Stanhope, 1880

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The trouble is the answers could not be extracted from the manuscript itself. Nor from any other source. And though from a scholastic standpoint a dead-end had been reached, that wouldn’t be constraint enough to prevent him from linking the same green girdle to his mythology. Tolkien knew that in Arthurian romance – the givers of great gifts were English water-nymphs. The Lady of the Lake bestowed Arthur his legendary sword Excalibur and its enchanted scabbard. And then we have Morgan le Fay1,2 who has her embryonic roots in Breton folklore as a water-fay. Though cast as Arthur’s half-sister, she is the cause of much mischief in plotting his downfall. For example, she sent out the gift of a magical drinking horn which reveals infidelity. Also she is cast as the provider of a richly jeweled mantle used in an attempt to trick Arthur – for wearing it causes death. Though she did not succeed on that occasion – she is said to snatch Excalibur upon his actual demise.

The gifting of magical objects and clothing by water-nymphs (or those that had transitioned to land beings – ala Goldberry) in anglicized versions of the Arthurian myth is then by no means uncommon or unusual. Thus with reasonable logic we can answer how came Tom to possess a girdle of invincibility.

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‘The Lady of the Lake’ by Lancelot Speed, (1860-1931) from: ‘The Legends of King Arthur and His Knights’ by Sir James Knowles

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The most obvious route is a bestowal from Tom’s consort: Goldberry. Cast as a water-nymph in the poetry, Hammond & Scull comment:

“Goldberry in The Lord of the Rings has stature, and powers, not even hinted at in the 1934 poem.”
– The Lord of the Rings, A Reader’s Companion, In the House of Tom Bombadil, Hammond & Scull

Though I cannot prove it – I suspect Tolkien had even more in mind for Tom’s fair lady. By logically creating a simple path – left in the poetry was the slickest of clues that those knowledgeable in Arthurian tales could easily digest. Yes he mistakenly left it late. But better late than never. Once again the researcher could logically fathom out a path that completed the circle of mythos, legend and historia.

Throughout these essays I have drummed home Tolkien’s desire to connect modern day folklore/fairy tale with ancient northern Euro-centric stories and somehow link them into his mythology. An awareness of a desirable blend was there from the days of The Hobbit and certainly he sought-for such qualities to be part of The Lord of the Rings:

“I found the blend of vera historia with mythos irresistible.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #26

To Tolkien:

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

Woven into his tales would be nuggets of Europe’s most ancient legends. To make my point about the inclusion of elements from the Sir Gawain and Green Knight tale, a couple of alike insertions first used in The Hobbit and all but repeated in the sequel are:

“ ‘Third time pays for all. …’ ”.
– The Two Towers, Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit

“ ‘…Thrice shall pay for all, …’ ”,
– The Return of the King, The Field of Cormallen

echoing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

“ ‘third time, turn out best’ ”.
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Tolkien & Gordon, 1925, Notes to Line 1680

And believe it or not – Tolkien prolifically added in such elements when it came to Bombadil too. One highly probable inclusion in The Lord of the Rings is based on the manner ladies were introduced in medieval times. Per The Fellowship of the Ring Tom presents Goldberry as follows:

“ ‘Here’s my pretty lady!’ … ‘… clothed all in silver-green …’ ”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Which follows traditional medieval introduction:

“… ‘that lovely one under linen’ … ‘fair under garment’ …”.
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Tolkien & Gordon, 1925, Notes to Line 1814

Though a resonance exists, it is Tolkien’s poetry about Tom that has undeniable historical linkage to our world. The brand new poem of 1962, and the second in the booklet to feature Tom, had hidden undercurrents only knowledgeable scholars would have been able to detect.

In Letter #240 Tolkien disclosed three specific insertions:

“… the otter’s whisker sticking out of the gold, …”: from the Norse Nibelung legends (Völsungasaga);

“… the three places for gossip, smithy, mill, and cheaping …”: from The Ancrene Wisse;

“… the hanging up of a kingfisher to see the way of the wind, …”: from Vulgar Errors (1664) by Sir T. Browne

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‘Ancrene Riwle’ Cotton MS Cleopatra C VI, f. 4r’  (later adapted for other communities of anchorites under the title ‘Ancrene Wisse’)

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It is possible that there was at least one more:

“… bogies from the Barrows”,
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1962, Bombadil goes Boating

manifesting his own attempt at recreating a segment of English history:

“And your eyes fancied barrow-wights and bogies.”
– The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son by J.R.R. Tolkien, based on a fragment from the Battle of Maldon

For the purpose of rooting Tom into our world as well as more firmly into the mythology, Tolkien used hobbit folklore as a pretext. The good news was that even the original 1934 poetry depicting Tom’s invulnerability would now become fully compliant and explainable with his new ‘green girdle’. Yet a chance to create a little mischief could not be missed. When it came to the Bombadil goes Boating poetry the admitted historical connections were a supposed:

“… donnish detail …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #240

But make no mistake – they were all deliberate. Tom’s connections to real-world historical folklore/legends were intentionally hidden. And their revelation was intended for the eyes of the Illustrator and Publishing House owner only. We must not lose sight of that.

Nor must we lose sight of the admissions themselves (Letters #237 & #240). In that light, how can we possibly view ‘the green girdle’ addition to the original Adventures poem as a mere accident?

“green were his girdle and his breeches all of leather;”
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1962

How could the invention of a wholly new line possibly have been an absent-minded slip?

Footnotes:

1   The Breton name for a water-nymph is a ‘Morgan’. Antecedents are thought to include Morrigan – an Irish Celtic water goddess, ruling over rivers and lakes, and Modron a Welsh water goddess.
2   ‘Le Fay’ is an ancient word for a ‘fairy’ in french form.

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