The Road to Fairyland

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Part II: Sir Tom and the Green Hill at Night

‘Belt-up Tom! Belt-up as a knight should when going into battle against the forces of evil. And wear that precious belt every day – for you know not when the wicked will strike!’

Is that the advice Tolkien would have given his beloved creation? Hmm … what exactly lay underneath that bright blue jacket? What held up his green stockings that The Lord of the Rings reader should have known – and that Tolkien full well knew?

The Professor belatedly revealed the source of Tom’s near-invincibility in 1962 many years after The Lord of the Rings was published. Still the updated Adventures poem cannot be ignored. It is unquestionably part of the mythology and most definitely inseparable from it. Tom’s possession of a very particular belt meant a hidden power was with him when worn:

“… green were his girdle …”.
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1962

Because the girdle was undoubtedly, in Tolkien’s mind, the same as the one owned by the wife of Lord Bertilak of Hautdesert – a fay creature from the medieval Sir Gawain & The Green Knight tale. The legendary girdle itself was a potent source of defense, shielding its wearer (under specific terms) from being slain in combat or else how:

“ ‘… For whoever goes girdled with this green riband, while he keeps it well clasped closely about him, there is none so hardy under heaven that to hew him were able; for he could not be killed by any cunning of hand.’ ”
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Sir Orfeo – Tolkien’s translation

Taught by Tolkien at Oxford over many years and the subject of his own published academic views, the Arthurian romance was one which he could justly claim to be an expert of. It seems that once again Tolkien’s desire to link ancient fairy tale to his own myth is exhibited through selection of this fabled article. Who was the original owner, he must surely have pondered while studying Sir Gawain & The Green Knight? Where did it come from and how was it passed on? Though I have speculatively provided answers, perhaps it doesn’t really matter. What we now know with almost absolute certainty is that Tom once possessed it.

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Sir Gawain & The Green Knight, Tolkien & Gordon

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Tom in the tale was so cock-sure of himself. Maybe some of the swagger came from a concealed item of clothing. Endowed with a miraculous quality, its magic could only be overcome by someone mightier than the one who had placed the enchantment or by deceitful guile. Despite Lady Bertilak’s claim, those were the usual provisos.

Yet the chances are it wasn’t just the green girdle which was pulled from Sir Gawain & The Green Knight and surreptitiously absorbed into The Lord of the Rings. A strong suspicion exists that Tolkien also represented Sir Gawain’s quest destination: the ‘Green Chapel’. Subtly placed in the Barrow-downs adventure are indications of a similar holy feature in the landscape.

In Sir Gawain & The Green Knight – the Green Chapel in Tolkien’s own words was:

“… nothing else than a fairy mound; …”.
– Sir Gawain & The Green Knight, Tolkien & Gordon, Note to Line 151

It was barely more than a hillock of grass at which the hero would meet his doom. Nevertheless the eerie location resonates with the shallow hill which the hobbits encountered soon after leaving Tom and Goldberry.

“About mid-day they came to a hill at noon whose top was wide and flattened, …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

The slope being mild enough to ride their ponies up meant that it was just a gentle tumulus. Be that is at may, this too was a sacred place with its single stone standing ominously atop. Yet not sacred to pagans (or obviously Christians) – but instead to fairy-folk. For I believe this was pictured as another ‘fairy mound’. And it was to Celtic legends that Tolkien turned for the halt in the journey.

Exactly why? Well I can do no better than articulate using established scholars’ words. At a higher level:

“Tolkien’s works are deliberately complex and multi-layered, drawing on many traditions, … The principal conceit of Tolkien’s legendarium is that it stands as a lost prehistoric tradition, of which the many myths and legends we know in our primary world are meant (fictively, by Tolkien) to be echoes fragments and transformations.”
– Tolkien and the Study of His Sources, What Does It All Mean, Jason Fisher

At a lower level seeding was accomplished through:

“ … the author’s habitual practice of working through early English texts to trace their “deep roots” back to some hypothetical prehistory.”
– Tolkien Studies Vol 8, Tolkien’s Goldberry and The Maid of the Moor, John Bowers

Thus it should come as no surprise (as we have already seen) how both sophisticated and unsophisticated fairy tale textual fragments were subsumed into The Lord of the Rings. Effectively this meant we were left with an enveloping work containing the germs of others whose shoots would eventually grow and intertwine into the Tree of Tales. For fundamentally Tolkien’s opus:

“… is a ‘fairy-story’, but one written … for adults.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #181    (Tolkien’s emphasis)

With the premise that the focus would be :

“… ‘English’ … that is because I am English … no one of us can really invent or ‘create’ in a void, we can only reconstruct and perhaps impress a personal pattern on ‘ancestral’ material …”.
– Letter to L.M. Cutts, 1956

And that ancestral material would have to include Celtic facets. Simply because the most ancient surviving prehistory of England (particularly Oxfordshire and Berkshire) visibly are neolithic mounds, barrows and stone monoliths left behind by the primeval forefathers of those peoples. Including Celtic tales fundamentally made sense since such records form some of the oldest written links to these monuments and features.

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Lambourn Seven Barrows, Berkshire

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Some scholars will no doubt point to Tolkien’s aversion to Celtic myth for which he felt:

“… a certain distaste: largely for their fundamental unreason. They have bright colour, but are like a broken stained glass window reassembled without design. They are in fact ‘mad’ … but I don’t believe I am.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #19

However given an extensive collection of books in his personal library – we know the Professor was well-versed in the individual tales of the ancient inhabitants of the British Isles:

“I do know Celtic things (many in their original languages Irish and Welsh), …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #19

Obviously his proficiency was sufficient to warrant award of the inaugural lecture under the O’Donnell Trust in 1955. Titled: English and Welsh, the published piece covered much specific to Welsh Celtic legends.

The Professor was absolutely right. Celtic tales were in many cases disjointed, repetitive and of overlapping themes without ordered structure (unlike those of the Greeks). A lack of coherency bothered Tolkien – because these were legends fringing his own beloved land of England. Yet he had no choice but to deal with them as much had seeped across porous borders; especially when it came to fairies:

“The English fairy … has borrowed more and more … from Ireland and Scotland, … from the daoine sithe … ”.
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Flieger & Anderson  (Tolkien’s emphasis)

Without getting into detailed reasoning, let it just be said that Tolkien tried to make sense of many of the stories. In the end he failed, as all scholars have, to give them ordered consistency. Nonetheless some sense could be grasped and cleverly he blended select pieces together to make a cogent narrative for his own book:

“… this is an ‘imaginary’ world …”,
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #190   (Tolkien’s emphasis)

created to possess:

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

As well as the standing stones and associated rings, part of the plan was to transfer the rolling hills and gentle tumuli of his local countryside to a similar zone in the book. Indeed there are several on the Lambourn Downs, just a few miles from his home town of Oxford, which he could have based the scenery of the Barrow-downs chapter upon. One famous mound in Oxfordshire – the bowl barrow Dragon Hill, is highly reminiscent of Tolkien’s design. In any event, it was particularly important that a hill was included – for from a fairy tale standpoint, time and again, this would be the place where magical happenings first sprung.

Bearing all this in mind I cannot help but believe that Tolkien largely based the shallow hill of the Downs on one slightly further afield; indeed one sited in Ireland: the famed ‘Hill of Tara’. As legend has it within hollow hills dwelt the race of the Fairies. Here in Irish folklore lay the entrance to the underground land of the Celtic daoine sithe (Tuatha-Dé-Dannan). A spiritual place which in folklore is acknowledged as simply a fairy mound under the guardianship of the Celtic god Lugh (also spelled Lug).

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The Historic Hill of Tara, County Meath, Ireland

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The hill of the novel was not meant to be an identical copy – but one whose resemblance was unmistakably akin to the knowledgeable. The Irish hill in County Meath was ‘slightly’ modified in terms of architectural features for the tale. Instead of two distinct mounds at the top, Tolkien merged them together to make one:

“… shallow saucer with a green mounded rim.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

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Two rimmed mounds at the top of the Hill of Tara
(Mound on right with round saucer-like inner bowl,
Mound on left with the ‘Stone of Destiny’)

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The ditches and outer humps were discarded while the hollow turfed circle at the hill’s summit was kept. Perhaps the circle was the source of the legendary ‘fairy ring’ – the place where the fairies would come out to dance. This then, was no innocuous tumulus. Close by were barrows and underneath all this region lay fabled ‘Middle-earth Faërie’. So significantly the dished hill was marked by a special stone. In the middle of the hollow Tolkien placed the equivalent of Tara’s ‘Stone of Destiny’.

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Lia Fáil: The ‘Stone of Destiny’ – atop Hill of Tara

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This was Frodo’s destiny – to lie above the realm of the fairies oblivious of the matter. Yet to slumber against a sacred stone was no accidental act. The reader was made aware that for the hobbits it was:

“… a sleep they had never meant to take.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

Described as a “warning finger” and imbued with magical powers the enchanted standing stone was characterized to resemble the one at Tara. Furthermore it shared commonality with the one the Irish hero Cuchulainn1 fell asleep against:

“Cuchulainn went away to a menhir where he sat down and fell asleep.”
– The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, The Sick-Bed of Cuchulainn, Walter Evans-Wentz

Unfortunately the hobbits knew not what peril they were in. Foolishly they had not heeded the first of Tom’s warnings:

“ ‘… Don’t you go a-meddling with old stone …’ ”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Even more unfortunately they had slept on the wrong side:

“… they set their backs against the east side of the stone.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

Positioning themselves on the ‘trigger’ side had unleashed a magical fog – starting the process of opening up a way for mortals to enter the Perilous Realm. As the Sun’s power waned thick fog rolled in much like that encountered by the Irish hero Conn at Tara. Irish legend has it that when touched (by Conn the rightful king of Ireland), the stone:

“… screamed all over the land. This was followed by a thick fog, out of which rode a fairy prince, …”.
– Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion, The Insular Celts, John Rhys, 1888

Swiftly this was followed by teleportation to Lugh’s house, suggesting a magical link between Tara and the demi-god’s residence.

In any case, when it came to the Lia Fáil – for all others who touched it, there would be nothing but complete silence. And so quite appropriately (presuming similar modeling) the hobbits sensed no immediately obvious effect slumped up against the standing stone of the dished hill. Nevertheless that Middle-earth ‘otherworld’ for the novel (which the Celts termed as the Annwn or the Sidhe), and whose entrance was to be heralded by the sudden appearance of two magical standing stones, would soon be accessible. For Frodo:

“… suddenly he saw, towering ominous before him and leaning slightly towards one another like the pillars of a headless door, two huge standing stones.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

This mysterious hill with its ominously erect stone was the key to opening a portal linking two different planes of reality. A dangerous place it was for common folk, amid equally dangerous barrows close by. But no matter what the peril – aid would be there for those who asked. For the hobbits had a fairy on their side. An angelic knight would emerge from between two magical menhirs – perhaps modeled on those real ones adjacent to Tara.

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On the fringes of the Hill of Tara beside a Church are two standing stones

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With his legendary seven-league boots2 he would be there in a flash:

“Bright blue his jacket his and his boots are yellow. …                                           His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

Belted for battle with an enchanted green girdle – Tom would save them from disaster. In the nick of time he would arrive, but less like a mortal knight and more like a divine fairy. For the legend of Conn at Tara tells us that the “fairy prince” from the fog:

“… disclosed the future history of his country …” and “… is stated to have been called Lug, …”.
– Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion, The Insular Celts, John Rhys, 1888

Because the disclosure was about future Irish monarchs we have a situation paralleled in The Lord of the Rings. Another fairy-being similarly transmitted to the hobbits a faërian projection of lordly men and a Gondorian king perhaps to come. When Bombadil:

“… spoke they had a vision as it were of a great expanse of years behind them, like a vast shadowy plain over which there strode shapes of Men, tall and grim with bright swords, and last came one with a star on his brow.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

As myth handed down from time immemorial perhaps the Barrow-downs scene became distorted. Perhaps the fairy prince that rode out from the fog was really Tom on Fatty Lumpkin! And just maybe the legend morphed even more from a fairy-rescue to one made by a demi-god:

“… Lug … as a sun-god occupies a distinguished place in Irish legend.”
– Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion, The Insular Celts, John Rhys, 1888

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Lugh, shown triple-faced, Reims region, France

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Indeed it is not hard to see shades of the hypothetical origin of the Celtic solar god Lugh in The Lord of the Rings. For, very powerfully depicted, there was a ‘red-faced’ Tom at the barrow:

“… framed against the light of the sun rising red behind him.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

Adding to such semblance was Lugh’s other role as a Storm-god:

“I’ll sing a wind up and blow leaf and branch away.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Old Forest

From what we can tell from surviving statues, Lugh was crowned with leaves just like Tom’s:

“… thick brown hair was crowned with autumn leaves.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Last but not least is that the Celtic god was titled Lugh Lámfada meaning ‘Lugh of the Long Arm’. Once again this was cleverly characterized in The Lord of the Rings. This time through Master3 Bombadil immobilizing the hobbits beyond arm’s length:

“… holding up one hand, and they stopped short, as if they had been struck stiff.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Old Forest   (my underlined emphasis)

Hmm … yes I know there is a lot to ponder upon; yet a mixture of fairy tales and Celtic legends allows us to solve and finally fully comprehend another mysterious happening in the fog-laden chapter. We should acknowledge that there is still much to uncover, and remind ourselves only Tolkien knew it all. Even the most renowned of scholars has noted there are things in the novel that appear inexplicable:

“… the incident in the barrow is most mysterious …”.                                             – J.R.R. Tolkien Author of the Century, pg. 67, Tom Shippey

What exactly was the green light in the Wight’s barrow that seemed to emanate from the ground about Frodo and then slowly intensify?

... a pale greenish light was growing round him. … the light seemed to be coming out from himself, and from the floor beside him, …”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

The scholar John Garth has put forward a theory4 that the scene may have been linked to Tolkien’s World War I trench warfare experiences and the combative deployment of poisonous gases. But this appears tenuous, especially because Tolkien refers to the aura as ‘light’. A far better and more believable explanation is that here we have simply a continuation of a fairy theme. In tandem with my fairy tale approach advocated all along, very succinctly – the green light was part of Tolkien’s vision of Middle-earth faërie. Here by the tumuli of the barrows, where two different worlds came closest to touching, the veil was thinnest. It was here why we can truly understand why:

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

And that was because Tolkien added to its folklore importance by giving his Middle-earth faërie a ‘green sun’! A sun which was beginning its ascent5 in fairyland below!

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A Rising Green Sun (or thereabouts!)

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Have you fallen over? If not read on, because quite astoundingly it is all codified in On Fairy-stories.

In perhaps his most interesting paper, advice from a personal perspective on secondary world-building remarkably flowed down into his own novel. For an inexperienced novelist trying to invent a fantasy world, Tolkien lectured: 

“Anyone … can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it. But that is not enough …”.
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

Surely Tolkien took the words of St. Augustine who mused upon the creativity of man. Emphasizing that though he had never seen a ‘green sun’ nevertheless it was within his:

“… power to conceive of it as square, …” or “… what color I please, …”,        
– The Doctrinal Treatise of St Augustine of Hippo, Chapter 8

Picking up from where St. Augustine left off, Tolkien warned intense effort would be necessary:

“To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun6 will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, …”.
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

Otherwise it would not possess “an inner consistency of reality”. The reader would disengage and be thrust back into the primary world. However if sufficient ‘realism’ was input, at the end of the exercise would be success:

“Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.”
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

A virtual confession was thus voiced in his paper On Fairy-stories. Tolkien in no roundabout way told us his intentions for The Lord of the Rings. How could he not practice what he preached? Especially as to all intents and purposes confirmation was openly aired: The Lord of the Rings:

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

in that ever so revealing ‘Fairy Stories’ lecture of 1939. A ‘green sun’ for Middle-earth Faërie was Tolkien’s creative artistry at its very best!

Lastly (for this essay) when it comes to Tara, Bombadil and Celtic fairy tales, it is really not that surprising that Tolkien strengthened the trio’s relationship by deliberately including an archaeological artifact of relevance. The famed ‘Brooch of Tara’, although descriptively dissimilar to the one described in Fog on the Barrow-downs, is nonetheless a brooch.

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The Celtic Brooch of Tara

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Being arguably the most treasured of all Ireland’s ancient jewelry it is the only significant piece associated to the Hill of Tara. Again in a remarkable parallel, the most precious item of jewelry from the barrow hoard was a brooch7:

“He chose for himself from the pile a brooch …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

Hmm … a case of history repeats itself!

“These tales … must inevitably contain … ancient wide-spread …. elements. … long ago certain truths and modes … were discovered and must always reappear.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131   (my underlined emphasis)

So in finishing off Part II – out of all of this we should note a couple of things in readiness for Part III. One matter is how Tolkien much preferred not to discuss all that he had hidden within The Lord of the Rings. The second is that without doubt Tolkien did indeed conceal matters in the novel. Clyde Kilby’s report on Tolkien passing on:

“… if I would hold it confidential, he would “put more under my hat” than he had ever told anyone.”
– Tolkien and The Silmarillion, Clyde Kilby, Summer with Tolkien (Kilby’s emphasis)

has the ring of truth. Thankfully Tolkien left us a discernible path; and that truth is at last emerging. Because without doubt Tom and Goldberry are gelling together thematically with fairies, fairy-stories and Faërie. The links are becoming strong. However for the fog-bound hill episode there is one vital piece of the puzzle missing. One link is still needed to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

When it comes to fairyland – Tolkien’s masterstroke has yet to be revealed. It is so subtly concealed that the embedding is a piece of literary genius to be marveled at. In the next essay we shall finally understand the mechanism behind ‘the way in’. We will finally understand the ‘Open Sesame’ command and how masterfully Tolkien linked it to English fairy tale!

Footnotes:

1  Recorded as a reincarnation of Lugh. Tolkien was certainly aware of Cuchulainn – see Sir Gawain & The Green Knight, Tolkien & Gordon, Note to Line 2452.

2  Tolkien’s awareness of such a magical item cannot be doubted. See – Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B pg. 250, Flieger & Anderson.

3  Lugh was also described to be a ‘master of all trades’ which is perhaps reflected by Tolkien’s assignation of a ‘master’ title to Bombadil.

4  Frodo and the Great War, in The Lord of the Rings, 1954–2004: Scholarship in Honor of Richard E. Blackwelder, ed. Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2006).  

5  As opposed to it having ‘set’ when Frodo entered Middle-earth Faërie in passing between the standing stones. The Wight’s spell in retaliation of Frodo’s sword-stroke instantaneously sealed off the barrow from Middle-earth Faërie (and thus the green sun’s light) in a presumed attempt to cutoff external aid.

6  The idea seems to have intrigued Tolkien at least since 1931: “You may say green sun or dead life and set the imagination leaping.” –  The Monsters and the Critics: And Other Essays pg. 219. Also see comments by Flieger & Anderson – Tolkien On Fairy-stories, pg. 111.

7  Another famous Celtic brooch from Scotland is perhaps closer to what Tolkien had in mind:

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Rogart Brooch ~ Celtic 8th Century – set with blackish-blue stones in butterfly wing pattern (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

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