The Road to Fairyland

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The ensuing essays form a three part interconnected series that discuss Tom Bombadil through the lens of a suppositious affiliation to ‘fairyland’ – specifically with respect to The Lord of the Rings. In employing such an angle several slightly odd textual matters begin to fall into place. When combined these articles end up providing us with more meaning to the Bombadil segment of the tale, as well as exposing a layer of depth not appreciated before.

Revealed will be Tom’s further tie-in to three other classic fairy tales. Also a re-look at the initial leg of the journey across the Barrow-downs from a dual viewpoint of Celtic mythology and fairy tale will grant the reader a vastly new perception of Tolkien’s contrived landscape. It is quite possible much more was put into the midday halt and accompanying scenery than has so far been understood. Accordingly, we will finally grasp the cardinal essence of the story line behind the Barrow-downs mini-adventure. Bared will be a woven-in intricacy so paramount and so subtly finessed, that it has escaped every single reader of Tolkien’s masterpiece since publication. And I do not make so bold a claim lightly!


Part I: On the Border of ‘Middle-earth Faërie’

Before the reader gets too involved in thinking about the merit of Part I’s title, it is emphasized upfront that this essay is not meant to be a generic discussion of ‘faërie’. Nor is it one that delves into the Elven kingdoms in Middle-earth. Rather it is one tailored to considering the idea of Tom’s residence possibly being situated nearby or within a faërie of sorts itself. However before we get too deep, some discussion of terminology ought to come in useful.

Now the Professor employed the term ‘faërie’ (in capitalized or lower-case form) many times within his works. Thankfully he furnished us his with own definition at a time closely coinciding with the early formation and editing of The Lord of the Rings chapters depicting Tom. In his March 1939 On Fairy-stories lecture, Tolkien told us:

“Faërie is a perilous land.”, a
– On Fairy-stories, Andrew Lang Lecture, March 1939  (my emphasis)

“… land, full of wonder …”, serving as
– On Fairy-stories, Andrew Lang Lecture, March 1939  (my emphasis)

“… the realm or state in which fairies have their being.”
– On Fairy-stories, Andrew Lang Lecture, March 1939  (my emphasis)


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Andrew Lang, 1844 – 1912


For him, faërie was primarily a place – the so-called ‘Perilous Realm’. Putting aside the question of whether fairies really exist outside of imagination, Tolkien believed the concept and perhaps origin of faërie began with man as a sub-creator in the so-called ‘invention’ of a fairy tale. And that tale might have been born indirectly from hearsay or directly from personal experience; yet it would likely have possessed at least a nugget of truth. A genuine fairy tale always exhibits a magical face and is more often than not set in the land of faërie. A place which is not only the natural habitation of fays (fairies) but also contains creatures such as:

“… elves and … dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: …”.
– On Fairy-stories, Andrew Lang Lecture, March 1939

Tolkien made plain that for humans with a natural bent towards make-believe:

“Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was the heart of the desire of Faërie.”
– On Fairy-stories, Andrew Lang Lecture, March 1939

Of great significance is the employment of the term: “Other-worlds”. Most notably it is delineated in plural form. And thus the case can be made that ‘faërie’ was not in his mind limited to a singular ‘Other-world’ where all these fantastic creatures existed in some corner or at some time within its own chronological history. For us, it is essential to grasp the concept and possibility of several other-worlds being present in Tolkien’s literature. These can simply be equated to secondary worlds, being distinct from our primaryone.


In Fairyland, Andrew Lang, Originally illustrated 1870 (above 1979 reprint)


The most definite and obvious other-world of his sub-created mythology is voiced in Bilbo’s poetic recital at Rivendell:

“from Otherworld beyond the Sea”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Many Meetings, Poem: Eärendil was a mariner

The fabled realm of the ‘gods’, also known as ‘Elvenhome’, and once part of the primary world had, due to the transgressions of men, been sundered away into a separate other-world. Initially termed as ‘Faëry’ in some of the earliest works of the mythology (see The Book of Lost Tales Vols. I & II) – by the time of The Hobbit it had become titled:

“Faërie in the West”.
– The Hobbit, Flies and Spiders

Naturally, as the publication of The Hobbit was swiftly followed by the inception of The Lord of the Rings which in turn early on was hindered by preparation for the Andrew Lang lecture, one might wonder whether multiple worlds in the forefront of Tolkien’s mind actively led to another jump in a developing mythology. After all, though witches, trolls, giants, dragons2 and other such fantastical beings ‘might’ intrude into our primary world – they really belonged to faërie; but for Tolkien, certainly not the ‘Faërie in the West’. Because the idyllic ‘Blessed Realm’ where:

“… naught faded nor withered, neither was there any stain upon flower or leaf in that land, nor any corruption or sickness in anything that lived.”,
– The Silmarillion, Of the Beginning of Days

was wholly incompatible.

And so where exactly was the faërie of all those monsters and fay creatures? Was it just a place that resided in his mind, or the minds of other fairy tale inventors? I do not think so. Rather I believe that for The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien sub-created a faërie in Middle-earth consistent with existing real-world mythology from the soil of England and nearby lands. Intimately connected to ‘Middle-earth Faërie’ (my expression) and central to the plan, was Tom Bombadil.

Yet one might ask: ‘Why bother? Was it absolutely necessary to create another faërie? And where is the proof?’

The simple answers, to the first two of the above, again revert back to Tolkien’s basic desire to blend in some of the most ancient folklore and legends of the European continent and thus provide coherent mythological roots. Absolutely necessary would be the presence of historical connections to our own world. After all if there was little to nothing ancestral in common – we might as well be reading a story set on an entirely make-believe planet. Yes, maybe one similar to Earth, but certainly not authentic, nor one we could happily relate to or empathize with. It was those historic links which were so essential. And this could best be achieved by entangling our world’s ancient myth and fairy tales deeply into his own story line.

Then what were the instances where the land of faërie pops out to the forefront in our early literature? Where exactly does faërie loom large?

Actually the examples are reasonably numerous and there is sufficient evidence Tolkien knew all below and others too:

(a)  Thomas the Rhymer being carried off into fairyland upon the Queen of Faërie’s milk-white steed.
(b)  Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, entering Annwn while lost in a magical fog and spending a year in the Welsh otherworld per the Mabinogion.
(c)  Sir Orfeo entering the realm of Faërie.
(d)  King Arthur’s Avalon – described as both across the water in the west but also at Glastonbury Tor.
(e)  The ‘Land below Woolpit’ where two legendary green children emerged according to Ralph of Coggeshall.
(f)  The fabled realm below hilly mounds in the legends of the Celtic Tuatha-de-Dannan.


The Riders of the Sidhe

 Riders of the Sidhe, John Duncan (1911)


This might be all fine and dandy – but again one might ask: ‘Where is the evidence of a ‘Middle-earth Faërie’ in The Lord of the Rings, and how does Bombadil fit in?’

The answers to both questions have already been touched upon in Tom Bombadil: Cracking The Enigma Code, but will we greatly expanded on in Part III of this series. From my part, Tom has consistently been advocated as a fleshed-out manifestation of a faërie-being throughout the series of essays output so far. However in order to aid our understanding, I need firstly to revisit Tom’s dwelling and its location.

As I deduced in Tom Bombadil: Cracking The Enigma Code, Tom’s residence lay on the very boundary of two worlds. Those being our primary world and the one I loosely described as the ‘auditorium’. But in my view the ‘auditorium’ is an abstract concept serving multiple purposes. One of these was functioning as an alternate world – effectively another plane of existence. Another purpose is that it illustrated in simple terms how different worlds could overlap and how portals can potentially connect them to each other.

For us considering the matter – a leading remark in The Lord of the Rings, which other scholars have picked up on, is the crossing of a seemingly magical threshold in passing through Tom’s doorway. The manner of description has a teasing hint of the supernatural to it:

“… the hobbits stood upon the threshold and a golden light was all about them.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Another hint is the ‘coincidental’ meeting of the hobbits and Tom in the Old Forest:

“Just chance brought me then, if chance you call it.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

In discussing fairies, seemingly this encounter was echoed in On Fairy-stories:

“Our fates are sundered, and our paths seldom meet. Even upon the borders of Faërie we encounter them only at some chance crossing of the ways.”
– On Fairy-stories, Andrew Lang Lecture, March 1939   (my emphasis)

Perhaps Tolkien had Tom in mind; especially because he was simultaneously drafting him into The Lords of the Rings as well as preparing his Andrew Lang thesis:

“Most good ‘fairy-stories’ are about the adventures of men in the Perilous Realm or upon its shadowy marches.”
– On Fairy-stories, Andrew Lang Lecture, March 1939

Was the hobbits’ escape from the malevolent Old Forest followed by a dreamlike trek to Tom’s abode – effectively on the shadowy marches of a Perilous Realm? The problem faced by the inquisitive scholar, trying all too hard to extract the truth from The Lord of the Rings, and summarized so neatly by Tolkien is that:

“It is difficult to define the boundaries of this realm …”.
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Anderson & Flieger

Unfortunately there was:

“… no password or signpost that will announce infallibly when the border is crossed.”
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Anderson & Flieger


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A Non-directional Signpost 


.All on offer, as a meager clue, that a crossing had been made was:

“Magic (even if not explicitly named) is one of the tokens by which you shall know it: …”.
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Anderson & Flieger

One had to recognize that:

“Over the border there will be magic though it will not always be opened or named.”
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Anderson & Flieger

Some readers will likely disagree – but arguably the most magical place depicted in any part of the novel was Tom’s residential zone. Though what appears to be ‘magic’ is used elsewhere, never was it employed so often or as astonishingly as during the travelers’ short stay.

To those not in the know, potent magic must have been invoked by Tom to keep rainfall off all but his boots. Making the ring vanish having rendered it ineffectual must have astounded the hobbits. It must have seemed like the most powerful sorcery of all. And then there is that dreamlike vision of the Undying Lands which only happened once throughout Frodo’s quest. Its description matches better than anything else, Tolkien’s own definition of a ‘Faërian Drama’ in On Fairy-stories. So collectively, surely these were unmistakable trademarks of faërie! Surely Frodo and company had crossed over the border? If not – they must have been really, really close!

Subtle is the best way to describe Tolkien’s methodology. A substratal hint such as the smell of ‘apple-wood’ burning in Tom’s hearth – a tree connected to both the fairy lore of the Celts and even more strongly with the Arthurian otherworld Avalon: The Island of Apples – is too soft an undertone to use as proof.


The Death of King Arthur in Avalon, James Archer, 1860


Equally subtle is how both Tom and Goldberry were portrayed as being so close to the ‘magic’ of Nature, possessing much knowledge and power over some of its elements. Frodo sensed this unusual harmony fairly early on:

“… the spell that was now laid upon him was … nearer to mortal heart; marvellous and yet not strange.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

If in the presence of fairy-folk, this gels with:

“For it is man who is, in contrast to fairies, supernatural … whereas they are natural, far more natural than he.”
― On Fairy-stories, Andrew Lang Lecture, March 1939

Then there is attire, size and location attestation (corroborated by eyewitnesses) in English folklore that Tolkien probably knew about3 :

“I had often heard, of Fairies … At some times they would seem to dance …The place near which they most ordinarily showed themselves was on the side of a hill … appearing like men and women, of a stature generally near the smaller size of men. Their habits used to be of red, blue, or green, according to the old way of country garb, with high crowned hats. One time a person living at Comb saw, …”.
― English Fairy and Folk Tales, The Fairy Fair, Edwin Sidney Hartland, 1890  
(my underlined emphasis)

Don’t the emphasized words resonate with the book? Tom too is a being smaller than a man who danced along in his blue jacket and tall crowned hat while heading back to his home nestled below a hill not far from the village of Combe!

Furthermore Tom’s green girdle – may not have been his only magical garb. An ability to travel fast may have been fairy tale linked to those standout big yellow boots. It would not be at all surprising if Tolkien had endowed Tom with a pair of legendary ‘seven-league boots’. These adjust to the wearer, allowing him, when needed, to traverse seven leagues for every stride taken. Was myth and fairy tale behind why:

“… His feet are faster.” ?
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

Is that how he appeared so quickly at the barrow?


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Tom Thumb stealing a pair of seven-league boots, courtesy of Wiktionary


Hmm – you can see where I’m heading. We are inexorably drawing nearer to a conclusion that the whole mini-episode revolved around faërie and fairy-beings. So taking the above into account, perhaps in combination with other factors such as fairy tale linkage, the evidence is becoming too strong to ignore. Yet there is more. Indeed much more.

We have already seen in What a Colorful Pair – Part IV, how almost certainly Tolkien applied the widespreadtheme of the ‘little old man as a fairy’, thus connecting Tom to Jack and the Beanstalk. Quite remarkably there are at least two more examples buried (and never uncovered before) in The Fellowship of the Ring. It is theorized Tolkien’s own accumulated knowledge and minor research led him to reinforce the same theme by including elements of the tale of The Blue Mountains as recorded in Andrew Lang’s The Yellow Fairy Book. Within is the character of an extremely long lived (hadn’t seen a soul for three hundred years) old man (presumably of fairy race) who has the ability to rapidly travel vast distances, and with a whistle can call the birds of the world. It is theorized that this last aspect was alluded to by the following:

“And there was Tom whistling like a tree full of birds.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

Just as likely is the inclusion of snippets from a Grimm fairy tale: The Little Folks’ Presents. Once again the tale involves the proverbial little old man, and just like the Bombadil episode – disappearing gold. Two innocent travelers comically have their heads shaved after accidentally stumbling upon a fairy gathering upon a hill. For us an important point is that they allow the old man (presumably a fairy) to proceed without complaint. Afterwards they are told to fill their pockets with coal which later turns to gold. However one of the men wants to return for more – but due to his greed loses everything and is disfigured as punishment. The tale not only highly moralizes the folly of avarice. but it also highlights what the fairy wants – which is a set quantity of human hair in exchange for a set portion of gold. However, the most interesting part for us is the implied ‘fairy pact’7  between the two mortals and the little old man. In order to seal the agreement:

“… the old man clapped them both on the shoulder, in a friendly manner …”.
– The Little Folks’ Presents, Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm   (my emphasis)

Such an act is also present in The Fellowship of the Ring where Tom, as an old man, taught the hobbits a summoning verse. Then via a specific motion:

“… he clapped them each on the shoulder with a laugh …”,
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil   (my emphasis)

 his side of the ‘fairy pact’ was thereby sealed in agreeing to answer a distress call.


Presents of the Little Folks, Anne Anderson, 1930


Hmm … three fractured fairy tales involving little old men possessing fairy-like powers all bundled closely together within the text appears too much to be pure coincidence. Leaving us to wonder whether this cluster was echoed by:

“These tales are ‘new’, they are not directly derived from other myths and legends, but they must inevitably contain a large measure of ancient wide-spread motives or elements. 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   (my underlined emphasis)

Hmm … so Tom appears and reappears via fairy tale perhaps? Be that as it may, undoubtedly the text’s most interesting and well-disguised fairy tale of all is yet to be exposed. To come – we will finally see the ‘missing’ link that gives the entire plot of the Barrow-downs adventure both meaning and purpose!


1  Which is cast by Tolkien in his mythology as ours, but in a bygone fictional epoch.

2  Tolkien’s following remark is of significance:The dragon had the trade-mark Of Faërie written plain upon him. In whatever world he had his being it was an Other-world.”On Fairy-stories.

3  See ‘Bibliographies’ in Tolkien On Fairy-stories. Edwin Hartland’s English Fairy and Folk Tales is listed as a source of information.

4  These boots also crop up in a plethora of European fairy tales. The most notable English one is: Jack the Giant Killer.

5  For example, there are at least four instances in Grimm’s Fairy Tales where a little old man plays a magical role in the story.

6  Much the same theme is also present in Joseph Jacob’s The Swan Maidens per Europa’s Fairy Book.

7  A ‘fairy pact’,  seems also to have occurred in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight between the fairy Bertilak and Gawain. Within that tale the agreement to exchange winnings at the end of the day was sealed via the action of a drink.



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


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’


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.


Illustration from ‘MS Cotton Nero A.x’


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


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


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



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


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?


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.

What a Colorful Pair!

This essay is best viewed in single page format. If it appears in two column style – an adjustment can be made by selecting zoom at 125% to 175% under the ‘Settings’ tab.
Part IV: A Necessary Interlude

Due to its length, this essay is split into two distinct sections. The subject discussion is groundbreaking as are the revelations and conclusions. Once again many new matters are exposed for the first time. We are left to marvel at both Tolkien’s genius and surprising life-long resolve to withhold intriguing secrets about his most famous works.


Part IVa: A Giant Step Forward 

As imparted at the beginning of this set of essays, approaching matters from an unfamiliar angle sometimes yields unexpected benefits. Much as I would like to continue the discussion on color symbolism – for the moment a short break is appropriate. The time is now ripe to further look into Jack and the Beanstalk and comprehend its deeper enmeshment within The Lord of the Rings as well as expose elements of its presence in other Tolkien works.


Jack Escaping from the Giant, The History of Jack and the Beanstalk, B. Tabart, 1807


‘Why would Tolkien have chosen Jack and the Beanstalk?’ – I can imagine the doubtful reader question.
‘Surely that would be the wrong kind of fairy tale. Isn’t it a nursery tale?’

Hmm … that would be speculative; and a pronouncement of a definitive prognosis would be quite wrong. Agreed – fairy tale qualities The Lord of the Rings undoubtedly had – and it certainly wasn’t for young children. Nevertheless in looking at the big picture – nursery tales are in some instances a mere subset of fairy tales, and Tolkien wasn’t altogether convinced that an adult link to them should be casually cast aside. Indeed this attitude is reflected by the inclusion of The Man in the Moon Stayed Up Too Late in The Lord of the Rings. Echoed by our modern day Hey Diddle Diddle – even nursery rhymes could have links to long lost English lore!

Now the first known recording of Jack and the Beanstalk dates from 1734. Under the title of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean the story was printed in Round about our Coal Fire. Forming one of several ‘Jack tales’1 the hero is a quintessential part of traditional English folklore from whom many phrases, rhymes and sayings have sprung2. However the Professor knew that historically, elements of the Beanstalk narrative went back much further than the early 18th century. In remarking upon it in his famous Beowulf lecture, clearly he implied the tale preceded John Milton who died in 1674:

“Milton ‘might have done worse’ than retell Jack and the Beanstalk in heroic verse”.
– Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, 1936

Most likely the tale went back even further with the written connection being lost in all but traces from the Elizabethan/Jacobean eras – where the famous ‘fe-fi-fo-fum’ rhyme was imbued in the dramatic plays of George Peele, Thomas Nashe and William Shakespeare:

“Fee, fa, fum, here is the Englishman, …”.
– The Old Wives’ Tale, George Peele, 1595

“ … Fy, fa, fum, I smell the blood of an English-man”.
Have with you to Saffron-walden, Thomas Nashe, 1596

“Child Roland to the dark tower came,
His word was still, Fie, foh, and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man.”
King Lear, William Shakespeare, 1605

In more modern times it is the tale’s 1890 recital by Joseph Jacobs in English Fairy Tales that has established itself as the one closest to the original story-line. And so it is the one, for comparative purposes, that has been dwelt on most. To peel away Tolkien’s exterior literary facade and expose matching underlying structural patterns, the drafts of The Lord of the Rings will be examined first and then a step back further in time to The Hobbit will be seen to be extraordinarily fruitful.

So firstly I will turn to The History of Middle-earth series. To piece together a credible yarn, there is also factual matter to consider – namely Tolkien’s childhood experiences. It is the run-ins with the ‘Black and White Ogres’ of Sarehole, Birmingham that are most interesting. We need to be particularly mindful of these formative years, especially as Tolkien himself said:

“… it is the particular use in a particular situation of any motive, whether invented, deliberately borrowed, or unconsciously remembered that is the most interesting thing to consider.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #337

As young boys, both Ronald and his brother Hilary were fascinated by the mill at Sarehole and the nearby pond which they on and off frequented. Equally they were terrified by the miller who they nicknamed the ‘White Ogre’ and his father who ran a local farm – dubbed the ‘Black Ogre’. Once used to grind grain for flour, it appears that the mill’s trade in those times fell to pulverizing bones which subsequently found usage as farm fertilizer. The ordeals with the ‘White Ogre’ covered in bone dust and the more aggressive ‘Black Ogre’ were vivid childhood memories that remained solidified in Tolkien’s mind and thus one may rightfully hypothesize that such experiences carried through into his books.


Image result for sarehole mill black white

The Mill and Pond at Sarehole, Birmingham


What was the origin of the last two lines of the classic English rhyme? :

I smell the blood of an Englishman
Be he alive or however be dead
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.
– English Fairy Tales, Jack and the Beanstalk, Joseph Jacobs 1890

Tolkien probably knew that in medieval times, bone-meal was used as a nutritional supplement and was sometimes mixed in with bread. Perhaps he also knew of Shakespeare’s rather macabre recipe for a pastry based pie:

“Hark, villains! I will grind your bones to dust
And with your blood and it I’ll make a paste,
And of the paste a coffin I will rear
And make two pasties of your shameful heads…

Receive the blood: and when that they are dead,
Let me go grind their bones to powder small
And with this hateful liquor temper it;
And in that paste let their vile heads be baked.”
– Titus Andronicus, William Shakespeare, c. 1588-1593

What were the real origins of the ‘Jack tales’? Was there a simple explanation? These are the sort of questions that rattled around in a philologist’s mind. Could it possibly be that the sources of the ‘fe-fi-fo-fum’ rhyme and English ogres lay in the trades of farming and milling? Yes milling was a dangerous job; if by mishap an unlucky person got caught in machinery or trapped by a millstone – there was no escape. Even those alive would be ground to pieces. As for farming – what would the uneducated have thought of sacks of bone bits lying about in a farmer’s barn? 

Whatever the truth, the boys were certainly frightened by the black-bearded farmer and his son; and it’s this fragment of knowledge that leads to an insightful supposition that Farmer Maggot was intended as the original Jack and the Beanstalk linking ogre for The Lord of the Rings. Mark Hooker in The Hobbitonian Anthology has examined the etymological origin of ‘Maggot’ and offered ‘Goemagot’ as a possible source.

Goemagot (also known as Gogmagog and Goemagog) is a giant in the legend of the founding of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth (see Historia Regum Britanniae). Apart from etymological similarity, Hooker offers other evidence of the farmer being quite an ‘ogre’ from The Return of the Shadow, where in one draft variant Maggot was:

“… a violent and intransigent character …”
– The Return of the Shadow, A Short Cut to Mushrooms, The Second Phase

and possessed an appearance different to hobbits.

Piecing together another snippet leads to a credible idea that Tolkien intended the farmer’s lands, known as Bamfurlong, to be the legendary site of Jack’s beanstalk:

“… Bamfurlong … probably from ‘bean’ … + ‘furlong’3 …”.
– The Lord of the Rings, A Reader’s Companion, A Short Cut to Mushrooms, Hammond and Scull

Did Tolkien envision a long line of farmed beanstalks intertwining into each other giving rise from afar to one that looked singular and gigantic?


A Field of Runner Beans


In an area of the Shire where the micro-climate was particularly rainy – on an overcast day, when the clouds were low – would Jack (whoever he was) on a trek towards the Maggot residence have felt from a perspective standpoint that he was climbing alongside an endless beanstalk reaching into the sky? Was the path to Maggot’s high-walled residence seen as an approach to a forbidding mansion occupied by an ogre-like individual? One maddened by the theft of his treasure – his precious crops. So taken together, were these set of circumstances contrived ideas (adding to those discussed in Part III) to stitch in much of Jack and the Beanstalk?

The answers to all the above is – we can’t say for sure – but quite possibly: yes! Until of course Tolkien abandoned the idea of making:

“… Maggot not a hobbit, but some other kind of creature …”,
– The Return of the Shadow, Tom Bombadil The First Phase

and supplanted him by the Black Riders as the real ‘ogres’ in the final story. A story which in a way paralleled the ‘Jack tales’ in that little people lived in proximity to beings much larger than themselves. This was after all an attempt:

“… to restore to the English an epic tradition and present them with a mythology of their own: …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #180

In the end Tolkien was left with little choice when it came to “epic tradition”. Some of the elements of the widespread stories about Jack had to be embedded within his mythology to obtain specific English fairy tale linkage. The path I have proposed, once again, is undeniably a guess – based of course on logically connecting disparate information. Out of more than curiosity, for it would be a dereliction of a researcher’s duty, the right thing to do now – is to take another look at The Hobbit. Had Jack been subtly buried in there too?

Funnily enough right at the beginning of the book the careful reader is alerted to a possible reference to the eponymous English hero through the unexplained background of:

“… tales … about … giants … and the unexpected luck of widows’ sons?”
– The Hobbit, An Unexpected Party

Though it’s insinuated the persons and events are within ‘The Hobbit mythology’, given how Tolkien desired to engage the young reader – the placement may have been made with the intent to get his audience to think about their own world’s fairy tales. As perhaps the insertion of: 

“Poor Bilbo sat in the dark thinking of all the horrible names of all the giants and ogres he had ever heard told of in tales, …”,
– The Hobbit, Riddles in the Dark

was to remind them of the likes of Blunderbore, Thunderdell and Cormoran. 

Thus ever so subtly, an undertone of Jack creeps in. Because Jack of course is a widows’ son in the Beanstalk tale and a multiple ogre/giant slayer of all the above. Which leads one automatically to think back about Bilbo himself. Why? Because Bilbo was once a widows’ son too. And so with that as a starting point, once we probe deeper – some further remarkable likenesses emerge.

As ‘simple’ (perhaps we can say naive) bachelors – both Bilbo and Jack embark on a quest with courage but no personal heroic pedigree behind them. Both have adventures, return home and then live happily ever after. More pointedly, endowed with extraordinary luck – both become highly successful burglars.

The purpose behind both tales was not to portray the heroes as common thieves or robbers – rather as something more acceptable, almost to the point of the dubious profession having a chivalrous side. Stealing from a house (The Ogre’s or Smaug’s lair) was really not that insidious a crime – because both Jack and Bilbo were taking back stuff that was rightfully a former owner’s who no doubt had been forcefully dispossessed. In each case there are three ‘significant’ thefts (or attempts):

Jack: Bag of gold, The Hen that lays golden eggs and a Magic Harp
Bilbo: Troll Purse, Gold Cup and the Arkenstone.

Remarkably bags of gold, magic harps and a jewel that is perhaps not too far off in size or shape to a hen’s egg, feature in The Hobbit thus resonating with Jack’s takings. And while the purse doesn’t show up in the Beanstalk tale, it does appear in another English fairy tale involving giant folk called Mollie Whuppie:

“… if ye would … steal the purse that lies below the giant’s pillow, …” And Molly said she would try. So she set out for the giant’s house, and slipped in, … and waited till the giant … was snoring sound asleep. She … slipped her hand below the pillow, and got out the purse; but just as she was going out the giant wakened, and ran after her …”.
– Mollie Whuppie, English Fairy Tales, Joe Jacobs 1890


Mollie Whuppy steals the Giant’s Sword, English Fairy Tales, J. Jacobs, 1890


Mollie is the female equivalent to Jack – who bit by bit similarly steals an ogre’s treasure and outwits him too. What we see then is a blended amalgamation for the ‘Troll scene’ in The Hobbit. Therein the purse acts like the harp from Jack and the Beanstalk in its vocal alert. Yes a talking harp and a talking purse. Both knew they were being stolen from their current owner!

Also noteworthy is that in both Jack and the Beanstalk and The Hobbit – the main monstrous denizens are at home and asleep when first burgled and that both become aware of the presence of foes through the act of sniffing. And if Tolkien had taken up his initial story-line – Bilbo, like Jack – would have been the one to directly slay the enemy.

Whether Tolkien shaped his plot intentionally to subtly give the young reader a sense of comforting familiarity is unknown. It is quite possible that this was all accidental or even subconsciously present. However the possibility also exists that the theme of The Hobbit has purposely woven in features reminiscent of classic English fairy tale. Whatever the truth – as near to certainty as one can reasonably be – what was deliberately contrived was Tolkien’s trolls.


Part IVb: Cheesy Trollery

If one peruses through John Rateliff’s The History of The Hobbit, it becomes abundantly plain that Tolkien included much which had an academic background for various aspects of the children’s tale. Perhaps missed is the most academic piece of all – namely a parodied scene involving a mixture of ‘Jack’ related fairy tale and native period history.

Now there are several ‘Jack stories’ and they are thought to have originated in Cornwall. Probably Celtic in origin they are interwoven in part with Arthurian tales and feature ogres/giants prominently. Trolls were not so abundant in English folklore but Tolkien himself lumped them together with ogres per their man-eating portrayal in The Hobbit:

“ ‘Never a blinking bit of manflesh have we had for long enough,’ …
‘You’ve et a village and a half between yer, since we come down from the mountains’.”
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

Many readers have wondered about the discordant trolls. Not the trolls themselves – rather their names (and vulgar tone of speech). Given how carefully Tolkien selected the wizard and majority of dwarf names from the Norse Elder Edda, and how others would have been equally unfamiliar to the child reader – Beorn, Elrond and Bilbo being prime examples – the ones for the trolls seem distinctly out of place. When it came to Smaug, Tolkien confessed:

“The dragon bears as a name – a pseudonym – the past tense of the primitive Germanic verb Smugan, to squeeze through a hole: a low philological jest.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, #25

What hasn’t been investigated is whether Tom, Bert and Bill were also named in jest. In fact I can find neither this angle being examined by scholars, or any credible proposals on why Tolkien opted for those particular names. However the answer I believe is actually quite simple. Indeed Tolkien chose them in fun – for they make up a Renaissance parody. It was one which ridiculed three English giants of the Elizabethan era – those being giants in the fields of English drama, poetry and classical acting. Bill (William) satirically represented William Shakespeare, Tom spoofed Thomas Nashe and Bert parodied Robert Greene.

The fracas involving Shakespeare and Greene is a well-known part of Elizabethan history. It culminates in a posthumously published play of Robert Greene’s called a Groats-worth of Witte. Within he purportedly attacked a young and increasingly successful Shakespeare through the following lines:

“Yes trust them not: for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tigers hart wrapped in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.”
– Groats-worth of Witte, bought with a million of Repentance, 1592


Robert Greene, from the title page of the pamphlet Greene in Conceipt, 1598.

Robert Greene, from the title page of the pamphlet Greene in Conceipt, 1598


Robert Greene’s friend, Thomas Nashe, denied involvement in the affair. Nevertheless it is fairly well established that these three were part of a handful of great Elizabethan playwrights who at times collaborated with one another but were also intense rivals. Indeed the literary jealousy is quite famous among historians. Famous enough that the BBC aired a comedic six part television series titled Upstart Crow in 2016.

The history lesson will not be repeated here for there are several interpretations of what actually took place and how the evidence can be read. Nonetheless within the correspondences and play pamphlets there are subtle allegations of plagiarism and sneerings at Shakespeare’s lack of university education and his currying of favors through underhand dealings with the aristocracy. Tolkien no doubt thought such shenanigans were hilarious. Indeed he showed no particular deference to the Bard. Actually quite the opposite. For some of his documented thoughts actively voice criticism.

So if we look carefully at The Hobbit, it is quite obvious that the main antagonism is between Bill and Bert. Having already started the needling:

“ ‘Mutton yesterday, mutton today, and blimey, if it don’t look like mutton again tomorrer,’ …”,
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

it is Bert that continues to escalate matters and then lands the first blow – just as Robert Greene historically lashed out at Shakespeare:

“ ‘You’re a fat fool, William,’ said Bert, ‘as I’ve said afore this evening.’ … ‘And I won’t take that from you. Bill Huggins,’ says Bert, and puts his fist in William’s eye.”
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

And if we look even more carefully – Tom seems to be much more aligned with Bert than William, mirroring the actual relationship between the playwrights:


A crudely printed, full-length picture of a standing man. He is in Elizabethan-style clothing and chains are around his ankles

Thomas Nashe, Wood-cut (Source: Wikipedia)


“ ‘Mutton yesterday, mutton today, and blimey, if it don’t look like mutton again tomorrer,’ said one of the trolls. ‘Never a blinking bit of manflesh have we had for long enough,’ said a second. ‘What the ‘ell William was a-thinkin’ of to bring us into these parts …’ …

Bert and Tom went off to the barrel. …

‘There’s more to come yet,’ said Tom … ‘I reckon you’re right,’ said Bert, …

‘Now stop it!’ said Tom and Bert together.”

– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

Bill clearly thought that there was plenty of tasty fare for them all – and this might echo a sentiment that the Elizabethan Renaissance era was more than rich enough to accommodate a small bunch of decent playwrights. The rivalry was laughable and fully deserving of caricaturist mockery. To the point that these three rural born men – now earning their fortunes in London – could be made fun of by being endowed with buffoonish cockney4 accents. Indeed the whole situation was positively farcical as the question of who plagiarized who was made part of the parody:

“ ‘Who’s a-arguing?’ said William, who thought it was. Bert that had spoken. ‘You are,’ said Bert. ‘You’re a liar,’ said William; …

‘No good boiling ’em! We ain’t got no water, and it’s a long way to the well and all,’ said a voice. Bert and William thought it was Tom’s. …

‘I made sure it was yellow,’ said Bert. ‘Yellow it was,’ said William. ‘Then what did yer say it was grey for?’ said Bert. ‘I never did. Tom said it.’ ‘That I never did!’ said Tom. ‘It was you.’ ”
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

Though the ‘borrowing’ of literary writings from others had become common-day practice, it still should be seen for it was. In Elrond’s wise-words, these dramatists were no different to others:

“… your trolls had plundered, other plunderers, …”.
– The Hobbit, A Short Rest

Even more incriminating is a readily recognizable association of the Troll encounter to Robert Greene’s famed ‘Conny-catching’ pamphlets. Issued between 1591 and 1592 the articles provide detailed examples of the cunning methods used by vagabonds, thieves and petty criminals (termed Conny-catchers and Cross-biters) in preying on the innocent public of Elizabethan London. A hierarchy and rivalry within and between gangs sometimes even led to the ‘catchers’ becoming victims.

A ‘conny’ of course is another name for rabbit, and most interestingly Greene’s pamphlets had both the criminals and victims drawn as such. While the ‘catchers’ were sometimes dressed in human attire, the victim was always stripped. Our novice burglar Bilbo, in Elizabethan terms, would have been identified as a pick-pocket and similarly caricatured pictorially in the manner Greene devised. For Bilbo in this parody had been caught by his own sort:


A discourse, or rather discouery of a Nip and the 
Foist, laying open the nature of the Cutpurse 
and Pickpocket

From The Second and Last Part of Conny-catching, Pamphlet by Robert Greene, 1592


When asked by William what he was, Bilbo’s blurted out in fright: “bur-a hobbit”. Although it appears Mr. Baggins managed to stop himself from saying ‘burglar’ – the cockney accented trolls likely took ‘bur-a’ as slang for ‘burrow’; at least that seems a sensible way of interpreting Tolkien’s intent. Because indeed this would then match well with Bert calling Bilbo a:

“ ‘… nassty little rabbit, …” as he looked down at our hero’s “… furry feet; …”.
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

In other words the trolls mistook Mr. Baggins for some kind of burrowing rabbit. Leaving us to laugh at how Tolkien’s literary genius portrayed the villainous trolls as ‘Conny-catchers’ – quite literally!

Thus satirically melded into the tale was a lampooning of Greene’s work. And though Tolkien artfully punned:

“Calling him a ‘nassty little rabbit’ was a piece of vulgar trollery.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #25

There was likely more to the matter than just:

“… the trolls’ use of rabbit was merely an obvious insult …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #319

The successful ‘catch’ and subsequent asset stripping by ‘cut-throats’ and the like was known in the underworld as ‘skinning’ and ‘boning’ – again satirized by The Hobbit lines:

“ ‘I don’t want to have me throat cut in me sleep! …’ ”
“ ‘He wouldn’t’ make above a mouthful” … “not after he was skinned and boned.”
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

Yet even more telling is the how Tolkien had Bert hold Bilbo the ‘rabbit’ upside down. A scene that was symbolically mirrored from an illustration in one of his pamphlets.


The Third and Last Part of Conny-catching, Pamphlet by Robert Greene, 1592


From all of this – it is evident that the term ‘conny’ – had evolved by Elizabethan times to represent ‘con-men’. The words’ actual etymological roots are uncertain – but there is some evidence it was introduced into England from Wales. Caught up in the mix is the Welsh love for a delicacy they call ‘Caws pobi’ – funnily enough known to them as ‘Welsh rarebit’. But to Englishmen it’s best known as ‘Welsh rabbit’. The dish is actually toasted cheese and Tolkien’s awareness of St. Peter ‘conning’ the Welsh out of place in heaven through an enticement of ‘caws pobi’ is an old joke brought up in his lecture: English and Welsh. So subtly included in The Hobbit was his own punning jest about the scarcity of ‘rabbit’ (via the motif of ‘rarebit’) when confusing the trolls:

“ ‘… lots and none at all,’ ”.
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

Tolkien was well aware of the influence of Welsh in Elizabethan literature:

“ … Welsh rabbit, pobi is the Welsh word for ‘cook, roast, toast’, and (if Andrew Boorde got it right) it has changed p- to b- because pobi is used as an adjective, after a noun. London was for a while very Welsh-conscious at the time (as seen in Shakespeare), and bits of Welsh crop up in plays and tales.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #241

And we can see this arising in a parody of some famous lyrics originally written by Ben Jonson (another renowned Elizabethan dramatist):

“Have you smelt Cauf-bobby tosted
Or a shipskin roasted”
– Bodleian MS Harley 6917, fol. 41

So who knows? Perhaps Tolkien thought there was a close enough association of ‘shipskin’ (meaning sheep skin) to warrant both the ‘Roast Mutton’ chapter title as well as ‘bobby’ with ‘hobbit’ (I will comment further on this connection in a later essay) to lampoon Renaissance playwrights using Bilbo and the trolls. Because of course the trolls liked to ‘cook’, ‘roast’ and ‘toast’ their meat. Which neatly ties in the scene with Tolkien’s Letter #241 alternate definition:

“… pobi is the Welsh word for ‘cook, roast, toast’, …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #241

And so both definitions were encapsulated in Mr. Baggins, as the ‘rabbit’, for he also offered to be a cook:

“ ‘ … I am a good cook myself, and cook better than I cook, …’ ”,
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

Last of all is the powerful imagery that Tolkien left behind. There at ‘curtain call’ it was Shakespeare that took the final bow6:

“William never spoke for he stood turned to stone as he stooped; …”.
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton



William Shakespeare (Source: Wikipedia)


The other two ‘trolls’: Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe were left to forever stare at the Bard’s much greater success.

“… Bert and Tom were stuck like rocks as they looked at him.”
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

Immortally symbolized were three giants in the same field with their corpus’ set in stone! And also symbolically – it was the troll Bill that literally held the key. Expanding his name to William was the clue that would allow the reader to solve the puzzle. For once we correctly expand the other two troll names – it’s a ‘giant’ step forward to unraveling the whole mystery!

The jest was now complete. But at that time, Tolkien had no idea that a sequel would happen. Linking the world of The Hobbit to that of The Lord of the Rings would obviously become problematic. No wonder he admitted that he:

“… should not have called the troll William.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153 

Nevertheless Tolkien couldn’t help but continue the prank by mockingly assigning a bird’s nest to one of the trolls. He left it to us to deduce the nest was a crow’s and the accusing culprit was Bert. Not extractable from the final version – but from the drafts, it’s confirmed:

“ ‘… Bert has got a bird’s nest behind his ear.’ ”
– The Return of the Shadow, From Weathertop to the Ford, The First Phase

Which by no co-incidence lines up exceedingly well with The Hobbit witticism left by the Professor. Because it was Robert Greene that titled Shakespeare: ‘Shake-scene’ – which of course is literally acted out by Bert (with Bilbo) when the troll:

“… picked him up by the toes and shook him.”
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

Now the other connection of these playwrights (at least two out of the three) to the world of The Hobbit as well as Jack and the Beanstalk was that inbred English verse. Nashe’s and Shakespeare’s inclusion of variants of the rhyme into their plays are practically two of the most ancient written records existing:

“… Fy, fa, fum, I smell the blood of an English-man”.
Have with you to Saffron-walden, Thomas Nashe, 1596

“Child Roland to the dark tower came,
His word was still, Fie, foh, and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man.”
King Lear, William Shakespeare, 1605

The most ancient known reference is a year earlier than Nashe’s and was made by fellow dramatist George Peele. It was spoken by the character Huanebango (roughly translated from Spanish as ‘Jack the Braggart’) to the character ‘Booby’!

“Fee, fa, fum, here is the Englishman, …”.
– The Old Wives’ Tale, George Peele, 1595


Image result for george peele the old wives tale text

Title page of the Old Wives’ Tale, George Peele, 1595


One cannot help but make a connection to the troll Bill who accused Tom of being a sore loser:

“You’re a booby,”.
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

For a ‘booby’7, as well as being a clown, of course is a losing player; and a ‘player’, for those working in dramatic circles, can be taken as either an actor or writer of a play’!

Now one of the last known incorporations of the ogre-verse into an English fairy story (separate to a ‘Jack tale’) was possibly why Tolkien chose the surname ‘Huggins’ for Bill. Puss-cat Mew was a firmly favorite fairy tale of the Professor’s. As a very young child pre-1900:

“… one story I was then very fond of called ‘Puss Cat Mew’.”
-The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #319

In it was once again English ogres and that spine-shivering phrase:

“Spiflicate those Fairies!” again said the Ogre in an angry tone … And he then moved sulkily off, muttering the well-known “Fe-fi-fo-fum,” which is so popular a song among Ogres.”
– Stories for my Children, E.F. Knatchbull-Hugessen, 1869

Written by Hugessen. It would not be at all surprising if Tolkien in mock appreciation took a corrupted form of that Teutonic rooted name to transpose it into an English ‘Huggins’ instead. Doubly appropriate it might have felt because of the implication of ‘huge’ within its make-up.

So now in reflection, since the overall ‘Elizabethan playwrights’ solution fits like a glove8, it may help us in understanding more about Tolkien’s own character. If he could do this once – then why not again? Peering forward to The Lord of the Rings it is noteworthy that Sam sings a song about a troll and includes a ‘Tom’ and a ‘Tim’ too. Could Tolkien have taken his jest further?

But that is material for another time. To come in a future essay will be the connection of The Root of the Boot characters to William Shakespeare and Thomas and John Heywood. We’ll take another look at the origin of the names ‘Bilbo’ and ‘Baggins’ – for the possibility exists that there was a little more to the matter than Tolkien disclosed, or that other scholars have guessed!


1  Other well-known ‘Jack tales’ include: Jack the Giant-Killer, The House that Jack Built and Lazy Jack.

2  For example: Jack be Nimble, Jack and Jill, Jack of all trades, Jack-o-napes, Jack-in-the Box, Jack the lad, All play and no work makes Jack a dull boy … and many more.

3  A furlong is a unit of length based on a standard furrow in a farm field. One furlong = 660 feet.

4  Tolkien himself read out aloud Roast Mutton and impersonated the Troll voices in a rural English country accent (The Hobbit – E-book, 75th Anniversary Edition). Possibly Tolkien could not put out a decent cockney accent. Alternatively he may have felt The Hobbit employed slang was applicable to country-folk.

With regards to Tolkien’s employment of slang and its connection to the playwright proposal, Renaissance drama constituted some of the earliest known uses of the term ‘cockney’. Notably for:


King Lear, “… as the cockney did to the eels, …”, 
Twelfth Night,  “I am afraid this great lubber, the world, will prove a cockney …”.

Robert Nashe:

Pierce Penilesse, “A yoong Heyre or Cockney, …”.

5  Also spelled : Cony, Conie and Coney. Even though Tolkien knew that coney was the more correct term for ancient times – he deliberately avoided using it in The Hobbit – apart from, as John Rateliff comments in The History of The Hobbit, with the view of the “innate crookedness of fur-traders”. For a children’s book, perhaps Tolkien avoided its use throughout as a protest against its debasement by the Elizabethans. In that era, non-drawing room talk arose in literature/plays as the word was pronounced ‘cunny’ – which found dual usage as a vulgar term for a sexual zone of the female anatomy.

6  The Hobbit text nor The Lord of The Rings text matches well with Picture 100 in J.R.R. Tolkien Artist & Illustrator, Hammond & Scull. The text describes William as stood turned to stone” while stooping. Here only one troll is on his feet but he doesn’t appear to be stooping. Neither can the troll on the right be reasonably attributed as William – for most young readers would ascribe his posture as kneeling. These may have been the reasons for Tolkien removing it from consideration in the set of illustrations he put forward to the publishers.

7  As in ‘booby-prize’.

8  Another rather telling clue that Nashe, Greene and Shakespeare were indeed the intended targets of a Tolkien spoof, is the manner in which the first few phrases uttered by each troll bear similarity to lines/scenes in the corresponding playwright’s work. Notably there is no case of cross-matching.

Thomas Nashe:

“… neither is there anything to be consumed, save “one single, single kilderkin of small beer,” served out in “little farthing ounce-boxes …”.
– Pierce Pennilesse His Supplication to the Devil, 1592

Compare with The Hobbit where the drink is stated to be beer:

Tom: “… and the drink runnin’ short, what’s more,”


Robert Greene:

“Enter a woman with a shoulder of mutton on a spit, and a devil.”
– Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, c. 1589

Compare with The Hobbit, where the trolls were toasting mutton on long spits:

Bert: Mutton yesterday, mutton today, and blimey, if it don’t look like mutton again tomorrer,”


William Shakespeare :

“Shut your mouth, …”
– King Lear, 1605

Compare with The Hobbit cockney accented utterance:

Bill: “Shut yer mouth!”


6/2/17 – Added introductory paragraph. Split essay into two parts – Parts IVa & IVb.

Added quote: ‘Now stop it!’ said Tom and Bert together.”

Added section from “Even more incriminating …” to quote “ ‘ … I am a good cook myself, and cook better than I cook, …’ ”,
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton.

Added new Footnote 5 and re-ordered others.

What a Colorful Pair!

This essay is best viewed in single page format. If it appears in two column style – an adjustment can be made by selecting zoom at 125% to 175% under the ‘Settings’ tab.
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.

What a Colorful Pair!

This essay is best viewed in single page format. If it appears in two column style – an adjustment can be made by selecting zoom at 125% to 175% under the ‘Settings’ tab.
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.

What a Colorful Pair!

This essay is best viewed in single page format. If it appears in two column style – an adjustment can be made by selecting zoom at 125% to 175% under the ‘Settings’ tab.

What follows is a five part series of essays that mainly discusses a unique approach to looking at Tom and Goldberry from a color-coding standpoint. The conclusions are intriguing. If true, they show another aspect of the author’s highly agile and creative mind – once again one that could think ‘outside the box’!

Part I: Fayvorite Colors – Early Days

Though in Part IV of ‘The Enigmatic Mrs Bombadil’ I have suggested that Goldberry has Paracelsian roots as an ‘elemental’, I have also hinted that Tolkien dually viewed her as a fairy being – a fay. Such a prognosis behooves a second look at Tom. Why revisit the matter – one might ask? After all wasn’t Tom neatly wrapped up in ‘Cracking the Enigma Code’?

The answer to the last of the questions above is a definite: No! Because though I’ve established within the confines of my theory that Tom eventually became a ‘Maia’ – he almost certainly wasn’t originally conceived as so. We can be reasonably certain of that simply because the term ‘Maia’ first appeared in Tolkien’s vocabulary in the 50’s – close to two decades after Tom’s first unveiling to the public. Undeniably Tolkien’s hierarchy of his own legendarium beings evolved. Given this pertinent fact, we ought to try and establish whether Tom evolved too. Progressive tracking might help us understand not just more about the merry pair, but also provide us with further insight into the story and perhaps Tolkien’s own character.

In a way we need to divorce ourselves from the final results and try to understand Tom and Goldberry over distinct phases. That way we may be able to reconstruct an evolutionary pattern. To work towards that goal, in this first phase I will try to attack the period up to publication of the original The Adventures of Tom Bombadil poem. What indeed did Tolkien consider these two in 1934 while completely oblivious of The Lord of the Rings to come? Unfortunately the clues are scant and we must rely much on guesswork.

All we have is the Doll, the ‘King Bonhedig1 fragment’, the ‘Germ poem’, the 1934 The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and perhaps one remark made by Tolkien prior to starting The Lord of the Rings in earnest, where Tom was referred to as:

“…the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside, …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #19

Michael Tolkien’s doll does lend us some threadbare clues. We know it was probably wood-jointed, likely pretty hardy2, atypically Dutch in design and possibly manufactured in Holland too. It wouldn’t be a stretch to presume that Tolkien’s son played with it not only inside the house – but also in a garden setting while resident at Northmoor Road. One can easily imagine a sunny Spring day with daffodils blooming in the grass and the children at play with their toys and father, while Oxford church bells faintly tolled in the background – an ever present reminder of Christ Church College’s Great Tom.


Garden of 20 Northmoor Road, Oxford, J.R.R. Tolkien Artist & Illustrator, Hammond & Scull


Perhaps this sort of circumstance triggered the doll’s naming, for it is quite possible that a spontaneous idea arose. Particularly as the Professor admitted that:

“… it is the particular use in a particular situation of any motive, whether invented, deliberately borrowed, or unconsciously remembered that is the most interesting thing to consider.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #337

With that thought in mind, I’m going to suggest a new origin for Tom’s surname which I think is equally as plausible as Hooker’s in The Hobbitonian Anthology.

Tolkien may have just imaginatively put together a faux history. Though the doll was now a fixed inhabitant of England, unquestionably it had some Dutch heritage which just may have been acquired along a journey accompanying England’s ancestors in Germany – the Saxons. Just like the ‘Tollkühn’s’ – the toy had been on a migratory trek but was now firmly an Oxonion. In effect, the doll was part English, part Dutch and part German and thus deserved a name that reflected all three chunks of its heritage. Perhaps he felt that the doll had some mythological history and was the long lost image of a nature spirit which had now become attached to his local countryside?

Anyhow, the ‘Tom’ – I am guessing was the English appropriation, while the ‘dil’ came from the Dutch de affodil (English asphodel) – very befitting from a man who, as we saw with Goldberry, enjoyed involving a botanical side to naming etymology. But what about the ‘Bomba’? Where did Tolkien get that from? Which German would he have selected?

For that I am going to suggest a person I have already introduced – namely: Paraclesus. A man whose real name was: Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim. And so to honor a sub-branch of ancient mythology, my proposal is that the partial name of a renowned medieval mythologist, botanist and alchemist was subtly incorporated into a mix. For Tom in the 1934 poetry reflects a being highly reminiscent of a Paracelsian ‘Earth Elemental’. A spirit that Tom Shippey has not only described as:

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

but also referred to specifically as an:

“… elemental ….
– New Learning and New Ignorance: Magia, Goeteia, and the Inklings, T.A. Shippey


The Paracelsian Elemental of the Earth (Gnome) – Gjellerup’s Den Ældre Eddas Gudesange (1895)


One can quite understand how the staunchly Germanic surname of von Hohenheim, or the Grecian rooted Phillipus, Aureolus and Theophrastus, would have been immediately discarded for consideration – as would have been the Greek and very German sounding ‘-stus’. But ‘Bomba’ was really the most intriguing and unique sounding portion of Paracelsus’ actual full name, as well as that of the doll, echoing Tolkien’s assertion:

“… I should not have given him so particular, individual, and ridiculous a name …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153

Is there a possibility that Tolkien kept his naming for our merry fellow at a very simple etymological level? Were the English ‘Tom’, The German ‘Bomba’ and the Dutch ‘dil’ all combined to simply give ‘Tom Bombadil’? Who knows? At the end of the day – I freely admit my solution is just a guess. An educated guess perhaps. But nevertheless just as likely as many others.

Before I move on to the main thrust of this essay – there is one other interesting detail we can extract from the early writings – and that relates to the size of both Tom and his consort. 

From the ‘Bonhedig fragment’ we know Tom was well below normal human height and stocky in build:

“Four foot high in his boots he was, and three feet broad.”
– Tolkien A biography, The storyteller, Humphrey Carpenter

Then later in his published 1934 poetry Goldberry was described as a ‘little’ water lady.

Obviously she was slighter in build – and we can reasonably assume she was shorter than Tom too. Otherwise it would be odd for him to refer to her as ‘little’. Despite being petite Goldberry appears fully compatible with Tom. This would put the couple as somewhere between hobbits and humans in height – seemingly closest to dwarves. Though of course, that they were most definitely not. Does this get us anywhere? Probably not very far. All we can say is that even at this early stage – the pairing had a puzzling peculiarity about them. A peculiarity that might be revealed by skipping forward for a moment and investigating color symbolism in The Lord of the Rings.

Despite me promising not to do so, in this case it is advantageous to look forward in order to look back. For one matter which stares us in the face, yet puzzlingly has been pretty much overlooked, is how vividly Tom and Goldberry were described compared to others in The Lord of the Rings. A review of the entire ‘trilogy’ reveals that no other characters were singled out with so much emphasis placed on the color of their clothes and worn accessories. An intriguing thought thus surfaces. Could Tolkien have had a special underlying reason in mind for the happy couple? To probe whether there is significance to this observation, we must now rewind back to early times and investigate those historical depictions.

The first textual mention of color occurred in the so-called ‘King Bonhedig fragment’ from the late 1920’s or early 1930’s (exact date unknown). Tom had a:

“… blue feather, his jacket was blue, and his boots were yellow”.
– Tolkien A biography, The storyteller, Humphrey Carpenter

This rendition is consistent with Michael Tolkien’s wood-jointed doll which was confirmed by his elder brother John to really:

“… wear the same bizarre clothing mentioned in The Lord of the Rings.”
– Conversation reported in Mallorn 5


A Vintage Dutch Doll – perhaps in the style of Michael Tolkien’s


Because the doll and ‘Bonhedig fragment’ colors are identical, Tom’s genesis colors are concluded to be: Blue and Yellow. To the best of our knowledge this is the case from both toy and textual standpoints.

Our next encounter with Tom where color arose is in poetry per The Adventures of Tom Bombadil from 1934. Tom was again described as owning yellow boots and a blue jacket. But now the feather in his hat specifically became a greeny-blue peacock’s. Whether this was the one and same bird which donated the apparently pure blue feather of the ‘Bonehedig fragment’ is unknown. In any case, no other clothing colors were acknowledged outright except Tom was crowned for the wedding with buttercups. Not to be missed then, was how Tom had more yellow gracing him.

We can see that if anything – Tolkien stayed steady (color-wise) in taking Tom from his origin as a toy into jottings and then full-fledged published verse. There appears to have been little desire to radically alter him despite the fact that yellow for male boots is quite odd, and a rarity in both fiction and fashion of the pre-40’s.

Turning our attention to fair lady Goldberry, her first mention to the public was also in the same 1934 rhyme. Therein she was described as wearing a gown of green by the rushes at capture and then silver-green matrimonial robes. Her wedding garland was of entwined flowers – flag-lilies and forget-me-nots, however their colors were not explicitly revealed.

The designated coloring of apparel and adornments at first published poetry and pre-The Lord of the Rings was thus:

Tom: Blue, Yellow and Green
Goldberry: Green and Silver

At this point it might be fruitful to kick back and pontificate on what sort of beings Tolkien envisaged Tom and Goldberry to be. A mystery it is, and one which does not have an immediately obvious answer. Nor is it easily resolvable. Because at the time of this early literature, the evidence that there is points to ‘The Adventures’ poetry having been written in good part for personal pleasure. It seems that at the poem’s conception and during its creation, there had been no intent to bring the pair into the already existent Silmarillion mythology.

Exactly what Tom was in Tolkien’s mind right then is uncertain. Obviously he wasn’t human. His ability to interact and communicate with both animals and unnatural beings, coupled with a potent power of command, put him in an entirely different category to mortals. If I were to take a stab, I think a reasonable guess is that Tom was imagined as a fairy-creature – meaning one from the land of Faerie. And if I were to further speculate, it is possible Tolkien cleverly justified such an attribution by realizing that as outfitted – the combination of blue and yellow made green3.



For in his own words:

“… 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 it is this pronouncement which is of greatest significance. Though green is also the color of nature, to Tolkien who was wrapped up in the subjects of fairy-stories and mythology – it was more. Indeed much, much more. Leaving us obligated to look at matters, that might seem trite, from a bold new perspective.

So what is to come will focus heavily on looking at the enigmatic pair from an angle of ‘color’ not explored before. And re-assuredly more evidence on the matter of color-mixing will duly follow, though first I must briefly turn back to a 1934 Goldberry.

Our yellow-tressed lady though predominantly clad in fairy-hued green, also had one garment tinged with beaded streaks of silver. Nonetheless, as I will emphasize later, silver was also ‘a fairy color’. Then as a compatible couple with compatible dress, there is every reason to believe Goldberry and Tom initially came from the same bucket. In other words, the probability is high that the merry couple were intentionally created as otherworldly fays. Once again, as far as we can tell – this was done independent to the legendarium mythology.

So to summarize, though it is not readily apparent: Tom is virtually in a splintered state. His entire attire when looked at in reverse through the lens of a painter’s prism – is ‘fairy-green’. Goldberry of course – in plain sight – is mainly dressed in ‘fairy-green’!



1  The 2014 revised and expanded re-release of The Adventure’s of Tom Bombadil by Hammond & Scull provides no further significant information about Tom himself.

2  The doll is known to have survived being thrown into a toilet by John – Michael’s elder brother.

3  In ‘artistry’ – not in ‘light’.

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.


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


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.



Paracelsus (Philippus von Hohenheim), 1493-1541


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.


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


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


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


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.


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


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.


Fountain of Undine, Kurpark, Baden, Germany


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”.

Goldberry: The Enigmatic Mrs Bombadil

This essay is best viewed in single page format. If it appears in two column style – an adjustment can be made by selecting zoom at 125% to 175% under the ‘Settings’ tab.
Part III: Sirenading in the Rain – A Ban she Washed Away

‘No … No … No!’ – I can imagine scholarly voices crying foul.

‘Those water-nymphs and Undine of Parts I & II – they’re not the best of fits. There are gaping holes. There’s many an instance where Goldberry bears no resemblance to such beings whatsoever.’

At first glance these types of complaints appear quite valid. Thus I can sympathize with a tendency towards the reader being leery. Furthermore I can understand the argument:

‘But water-nymphs are Greek in origin – whereas Tolkien focused on northern myth, so why would he have brought in a southern gal? And besides, Goldberry can’t have been an undine seeking a soul – because Tom wasn’t human. Only marriage to a mortal would have sufficed.’

Such points cannot be summarily dismissed. Oh most certainly Tolkien knew his mythology and was equally well acquainted with fairy tales. An Oxford professor could not possibly have made such elementary mistakes.

Or could he?

One is certainly entitled to doubt the infallibility of an elite university’s don. Yet in this case I concur with naysayers. Yes Tolkien could not possibly have depicted Goldberry erroneously. Unless he did so deliberately. Unless he had a purpose in mind.

But why? What possibly could have led to the poetry echoing a Germanic Nixie when Goldberry tugged at Bombadil’s dangling beard pulling him into her pool:

“… Goldberry, the River-woman’s daughter;
pulled Tom’s hanging hair. In he went a-wallowing …”.
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1934 & 1962


“The Nixy”, Andrew Lang’s The Yellow Fairy Book, illustration by H.J. Ford, 1894


Or why a shimmering dress complete with fish mail-like footwear which has resonances to a mermaids’ scales and forked nether fins?

“ … Goldberry … the hobbits saw that she was clothed all in silver … And her shoes were like fishes’ mail.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

.Image result for john waterhouse mermaid

“A Mermaid”, John William Waterhouse, 1901


On top of water-nymphs and undines of Parts I & II, why so many more faces? Why this mishmash? Why no singularly coherent archetype?

To understand Tolkien’s reasoning, loose threads will need to be drawn together and then tied with a knot of logic. In this currently unraveled state one needs to ‘think outside the box’. So instead of producing a Gordian Knot – the aim will be for a neat little bow. A bow ready to be wrapped around a believable answer which not only provides a plausible explanation – but one that links into his documented thoughts. Such an encompassing solution would be especially powerful if those ideas coincided with Goldberry’s chronological development in The Fellowship of the Ring. But before evidence and a new proposal are supplied – some discussion on other antecedents will emphasize the many guises of Goldberry.

Now much excellent effort has already been spent excavating literature from which Goldberry might have been sourced. Taryne Jade Taylor1 and others have performed admirable work in looking at the Proserpina/Persephone link. Likewise John Bower2 has associated aspects of her to The Maid of the Moor – a medieval poem of unknown authorship which Tolkien might have been aware of.

More convincing likenesses have been made to Celtic folklore figures. One of these is the Goddess Etain of Irish myth which Leslie Jones in The Making of Middle-earth has uncovered. But I will focus on Hatcher’s3 mystical maiden: the Celtic ‘Washerwoman at the Ford’ – another character from Irish myth, and one which perhaps is the source of the legendary ‘Banshee’.


“The Washerwoman”, Artist Unknown


Both the ‘Washerwoman’ and ‘Banshee’ are mythical creatures linked to Faerie. That hidden land of folklore in turn is closely associated to tumuli and mounds found in many regions across the British Isles. To the best of our knowledge the legends of Faerie migrated across from Ireland where a magical underground realm inhabited by fairy-folk was known as the ‘Sidhe’.

The bean sídhe from Irish folklore and the bean sìth from Scottish Gaelic folklore both mean ‘woman of the sídhe’. Both also translate across as ‘fairy woman’. The fabled Washerwoman was a variant of the female fairy known as the bean nighe. She was often described as young and fair, though modern day depictions of both her and the Banshee can take either hideous or beautiful forms. Her doom was to wash blood-stained grave linen ominously portending the death of the one she lamented.


“La Belle Dame sans Merci: The Banshee”, Henry Rheam, 1897


“Bunworth Banshee”, Fairy legends and traditions of the South of Ireland, Thomas Croker, 1825


For The Lord of the Rings, the location of Tom’s house in proximity to the tumuli of the Barrow-downs as well as the Withywindle river, ideally positions Goldberry to play the character of both the Washerwoman and Banshee. A comparative review exposes Celtic lore likenesses in several instances and matters. Individually they might not mean much, but collectively their significance should not be underplayed.


(I) In Cuchulain of Muirthemne4 – translated by Lady Gregory, we have the Irish hero Cuchulain journeying to his last battle:

“And presently they came to a ford, and there they saw a young girl thin and white-skinned and having yellow hair, washing and ever washing, and wringing out clothing that was stained crimson red, and she crying and keening all the time. ‘Little Hound,’ said Cathbad, ‘Do you see what it is that young girl is doing? It is your red clothes she is washing, and crying as she washes, because she knows you are going to your death against Maeve’s great army.’ ”

In terms of look: Goldberry being “young” having “yellow hair”, “white arms” and “slender grace” matches.

In terms of function: Goldberry’s “washing day” ritual technically makes her a ‘washerwoman’.

(II) In Breton Gaelic, Folk-lore de France5: “She appears on the banks of streams, and calls to passers-by to aid her to wash the linen of the dead. If any refuse, he is dragged into the water and has his arms broken.”

In terms of actions: Goldberry pulling Tom into the water in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil matches.

(III) Per the Irish House of the O’Brien Clan (Banshees & the O’Briens):

When the Banshee decides to appear she may take the form of: “A beautiful woman with silver-white hair wearing a long shimmering silver dress.”

In terms of clothing: Goldberry’s “silver dress” matches.

(IV) By the late 19th century, the possession and use of a comb was firmly rooted to the Banshee. It possibly originated from its employment by the Irish Goddess Etain or got mixed-up through the legends of basking sirens and mermaids who similarly have been portrayed straightening their hair.



 “Fair Ligea”, Illustration for John Milton’s: Comus6 by Arthur Rackham, 1921 


 “The Mermaid and the Dolphin”, Illustration for William Shakespeare’s: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Arthur Rackham, 1908


Interestingly the mermaid ‘set-piece’ pose is partially reflected in Bombadil poetry:

“… while fair Goldberry combed her tresses yellow.
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1934 & 1962

Though the Banshee’s comb is always a silver one, in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil its material was not revealed.

In terms of implements: Goldberry’s ‘comb’ matches.


Thus, given these four numbered observations, we can conclude there are some definite similarities to Goldberry in ancient stories of the ‘Washerwoman at the Ford’ and the ‘Banshee’. Which all the more confusingly leaves us two more faces to add to the list. But what was the purpose behind such a perplexing list in the first place?

Hmm … to answer that question requires us to ponder on ‘roots’!

To understand Tolkien’s thinking on how legends and myths arose and how orally they had migrated and diffused across northern Europe, we should pay particular heed to an example laid out in On Fairy-Stories. Meticulously charted was his thought train when it came to the Norse God: Thórr.

Proffered up was how the legend of Thórr might have arisen based on a large, exceptionally strong red-bearded farmer. In broad summary, Tolkien asks how might he have been viewed by a passer-by when out in the fields at a time lightning flashed and thunder sounded? Perhaps a fearful outsider might have thought that a wrathful demi-god had come down from upon high to remind mortals homage was due? Of course the take-away from all of this, is a scenario that shows us a possible ‘root’ to a myth.

Tolkien’s logic trail is not unimportant. Because we can use it to think along the same lines for Goldberry. We need to put ourselves in the Professors’ shoes as best as we can; it’s our best chance for success. Besides the comparison is good – because both ‘Fairy Stories’  material and Goldberry’s ontological evolution in The Lord of the Rings was being sorted out at much the same time7.

How might a traveler from Bree lands or the Shire viewed a yellow-haired maiden washing (presumably clothes) next to a stream in the middle of a downpour? Because without doubt Goldberry was out in the elements. After Tom tells the hobbits:

“ ‘This is Goldberry’s washing day, … Too wet for hobbit-folk …’ ”,
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

our pseudo water-nymph came in from outside after singing from:

“… above them”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Because the song was “the tale of a river” one might conclude that Tolkien placed Goldberry a little further upstream and adjacent to the flow to do her washing. It was nearby as Pippin noted from a westward facing window:

“The stream ran down the hill on the left …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Further downstream the waters had earlier been reported to be brown. Would newly washed-away silt off the hilltop have made a muddy-bottomed rivulet seem reddish from afar?

To a wayward local – perhaps a Shire or Bree hobbit passing by, the sight of Goldberry engaged in washing would surely have seemed bizarre. Washing clothes in near blood-colored waters might have been imagined as the case. Even stranger would have been the singing. So would that have appeared sweet from a distance? Or would the pitter-patter of rain and an added wind have muffled and distorted Goldberry’s melodious tones? From afar, the song might have sounded more akin to Banshee-like wailing or even Washerwoman mourning than one of gladness. What would a terrified passer-by have reported to family and friends?

Just as one can imagine a washerwoman at work, one can also imagine the stream setting as being rocky and boulder strewn to lay clothes upon. There is every reason to believe that Goldberry went out in her silver dress and scaly shoes to perform the washing chore. The Fellowship of the Ring text gives no indication that a change in attire occurred after entering back into the house and before the hobbits reported on her striking outfit. Again, how to a stray traveler would Goldberry have appeared sitting on a rock in a silvery gown blending into similar hued footwear? Coupling such garb with her singing, conceivably could she have resembled what we, in this day and age, would term a ‘mermaid’ ?

Hmm … from Tolkien’s depiction, one can easily imagine how elements of the ‘Washerwoman at the Ford’, the ‘Banshee’ and ‘Mermaid’ legends might have arose. 

Though I have discussed the ‘Washerwoman’, ‘Banshee’, ‘Water-nymph’ and ‘Undine’ while touching on the ‘Nixie’ and ‘Mermaid’, there definitely are other related creatures to this broad spectrum of our worlds’ mythical female water-beings. There are of course Sirens and Lorelei as well as England’s own water hags: Peg Powler and Jenny Green-teeth.



“The Siren”, Edward Armitage, 1888



“Loreley”, Ludwig Thiersch, c. 1860


Perhaps most intriguing of all British water-maidens are ‘The Lady of the Lake’ and Morgan le Fay of Arthurian legend.



“The Taking of Excalibur”, John Duncan, c. 1897
(Morgan le Fay holds Excalibur aloft)



“The Lady of the Lake”, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Morte d’Arthur
Illuminated by Alberto Sangorski, 1912


I will have much to say on these two on another occasion. But for now, it is obvious that all these beings also have traces of Goldberry in their legendary make-up and demeanor. Given a wide-ranging collection of European female water-entities, it is now the appropriate point to consider how all of them have happened to be ladled out of the “Cauldron of Story”. Even more importantly – what ingredients were thrown into the pot in the first place to make the delicious soup of our world’s mythology?

Tolkien’s lucidly declared that at the center of a fairy tale was an inventor. How the invention migrated across different lands and times was termed the processes of: ‘diffusion’ and ‘inheritance’. But the important point to note is that there must have been a source:

“At the centre of the … diffusion there is a place where once an inventor lived. Similarly with inheritance (borrowing in time): in this way we arrive at last only at an ancestral inventor.”
– On Fairy-Stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

And so fairy tales as we know them today were all a result of:

“… three things: independent invention, inheritance, and diffusion, …”.
– On Fairy-Stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

All three:

” … evidently played their part in producing the intricate web of Story.”
– On Fairy-Stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

Unfortunately because distortion, exaggeration and misrepresentation naturally occurred through:

“… diffusion at various times from one or more centres.”,
– On Fairy-Stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

to obtain a true source, the “web of Story” had become exceedingly complex and: 

“… beyond all skill … to unravel …”.
– On Fairy-Stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

To Tolkien, of the three processes:

“… invention is the most important and fundamental, and so (not surprisingly) also the most mysterious. To an inventor, that is to a storymaker, the other two must in the end lead back.”
– On Fairy-Stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

In creating the mysterious ‘invention’, Tom:

“… he is just an invention …”,
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131

and likewise Goldberry, it is theorized that Tolkien exercised his immense creativity and knowledge to formulate two special ‘ancestral’ beings. These entities, placed within a mini fairy tale of the great fairy tale, would be the imagined latent progenitors from which many different folk-tales and legends of early Europe were derived. The Professor, no doubt, desired a fair amount of enigmatic originality; no single archetype would be able to fit to a tee. Because that was not his aim. Indeed quite the opposite. Tom and Goldberry, I believe, were meant to be the historical source material for some of our ancient legends and myth, not the other way round.



The Diffusion of Goldberry8,9 

A – Ireland: Washerwoman at the Ford, The Banshee
B – Scotland: The Washerwoman (Bean Nighe)
C – France: The Washerwoman, Pressina10, Melusine10  
D – Denmark: The Little Mermaid11,12  
E – Germany: Nixies, Undine, Lorelei 
F – Greece: Water-nymphs, Oceanids12, Nereids12, Naiads, Sirens12
G – Wales: The Lady of the Lake,12,13 Morgan le Fay12,13
H – Italy: Water-nymphs14
O – England: Peg Powler, Jenny Greenteeth


Inevitably in inventing sources, Tolkien had been left with just one logical choice. Only certain characteristics and snippets from the merry couple would diffuse across. Perhaps this can be gathered from:

“These tales are ‘new’, they are not directly derived from other myths and legends, but they must inevitably contain a large measure of ancient wide-spread motives or elements.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131

To Tolkien at the very least: 

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

And sometimes just a kernel. For it would be an exceptional matter for a legend to have matched all the original facts and been handed-down through the ages without any distortion. And that is precisely why no existing archetype matches Goldberry exactly. Gleaning what we can from On Fairy-Stories, and taking a small leap of faith – ‘out of box’ thinking gives us a remarkably sensible, logical and bow-wrapped answer that just about fits all the known facts.

Can I be absolutely sure? Unfortunately when it comes down to it, only the Professor would have been able to provide a rubber stamping. Nonetheless I believe he left us more than enough clues. Particularly compelling are his ideas in On Fairy-Stories which, as he stated, were put to practical use. The:

“ ‘Andrew Lang’ lecture at St Andrews on Fairy-stories; … was entirely beneficial to The Lord of the Rings, which was a practical demonstration of the views that I expressed.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #234

Even more telling was a suggestion that for the case of the half water-nymph Melusine, he had a grasp of how both diffusion and inheritance occurred:

“It is indeed easier to unravel a single thread in the web – that is a detail, or motive or incident – than to trace the history of the picture by many threads.”
– Tolkien On Fairy-Stories, Manuscript A, Flieger & Anderson

Clearly the “detail” and single “thread” he had in mind was his jotting of the previous sentence, namely the:

 “Story of Raimondin and Melusine.”
– Tolkien On Fairy-Stories, Manuscript A, Flieger & Anderson

Had the Professor tracked forward in time to see that tale evolve as Undine and The Little Mermaid? Then backwards, were Melusine’s predecessors Arthurian nymphs and those tracing all the way to Greek legend? 

Possibly so; given the clues – even probably so. For in an update he heavily implied her case was unique. To unravel a thread was humanly impossible:

 “Except in particularly fortunate cases or in a few details.”
– Tolkien On Fairy-Stories, Manuscript B, Flieger & Anderson


Melusine – Original Starbuck’s Logo


So if by good fortune, Melusine’s roots were indeed historically traceable – one can easily fathom the last step. For us, a most important one. Because it was one designed to send us even further back in time.

Expanding on my earlier conclusion, I believe that the intricate oral and literature-based “web of Story”, historically stemming  from various cultures and tribes across Europe, had been imaginatively unraveled by Tolkien himself. Supposedly for this unique case – fairy tales, myth, legend and folklore were all linked. In a place geographically close to Oxford, in a bygone mythical era, was the center of diffusion for a very particular invention. Yes, the source behind the legends of many mystical female water-entities of our world was ultimately Goldberry herself. On the Professor’s part, how neat a “practical demonstration” was that!


1 Investigating the Role and Origin of Goldberry in Tolkien’s Mythology, Mythlore, Vol. 27, 2008.

2 Tolkien Studies 8.

3 Finding Woman’s Role in The Lord of the Rings, Melissa Hatcher, Mythlore Vol. 25, 2007.

4 Cuchulain of Muirthemne, Death of Cuchulain, Lady Augusta Gregory, 1902.

5 Le Folk-Lore de France, P. Sébillot, 1904 & 1905.

6 Comus was known to Tolkien – see The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, Chronology Hammond and Scull, March 1940, Lecture by Charles Williams. It is unknown whether Tolkien had ever seen Arthur Rackham’s 1921 illustrated edition.

7 According to Letter #33, by the end of August 1938 Tolkien had finished drafting all three chapters involving Goldberry. By the beginning of December 1938 per Letter #35, these chapters were revised to the point (as Christopher Tolkien reports in The Return of the Shadow) that they had all but reached their final form. The ‘Andrew Lang’ lecture was delivered 8 March 1939. Much of the preparation for the paper delivered by Tolkien was done in the year before its delivery From the beginning of 1938 through early 1939:

“Tolkien spends considerable time in research and composition. He writes many pages of manuscript, in at least two versions, most of which are heavily revised.”
– The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, Chronology Hammond and Scull, 1938 – early 1939

The overlap for developing the paper’s content and the formation of Goldberry’s character in The Fellowship of the Ring, is thus hardly deniable.

8 The intent of the ‘Diffusion Map’ is to show that all roads eventually lead back to Goldberry. The directness of the paths should not be taken literally. Tolkien pointed out that it is quite possible to have different centers of diffusion. For example, though a legend might have migrated to Germany from England, its progression to Denmark might have resulted from Germany only. This would make Germany a sub-center for further diffusion.

9 The map is fittingly of today’s resultant European geography. It is intended for conceptual illustration only.

10 Melusine – Half serpent & half woman (see Tolkien’s reference in Tolkien On Fairy-Stories, Flieger and Anderson). Pressina is Melusine’s mother and a true water-nymph. Characters are European but particularly associated to France. 

11 The Little Mermaid – Fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. 

12 Goldberry appears to relate knowledge, in song, of waters more expansive than the Withywindle river:

“… and they saw in their minds pools and waters wider than any they had known, …”, The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil.

13 France (Breton) is probably also an appropriate source.

14 Water-nymphs – Per Ovid’s Metamorphoses which is acknowledged as his greatest work. See Tolkien’s oblique reference to Ovid in Letter #163.



1/23/2017 – Added picture of Melusine on Starbuck’s Logo.


Goldberry: The Enigmatic Mrs Bombadil

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Part II: Undineiably a Fishy Story

Many readers have thought of Goldberry as being a relatively simple character. Compared to Tom that seems quite true – at least superficially. But was there more to Tom’s bride than just a passing resemblance to the water-nymph of Greek myth? Did Tolkien stop right there – or were there other facets to her, of a subtler nature, requiring more intense thought and deeper exploration?

One needling matter that triggers further pondering is: how did a water-being leave her river abode to become a domesticated land-based wife? There certainly are isolated cases of akin creatures in Nordic and Teutonic mythologies doing so, but the instances are rare. And so the question must be begged – did Tolkien follow in similar footsteps when shaping Goldberry? Or did the Professor create an entirely new type of life-form from that incredibly fertile mind?

To help answer all of these questions we will need to examine several mythological archetypes, ponder on their applicability, and then in finality try to thrash out whether Tolkien had an underlying purpose. Indeed was there a ‘method to his madness’ or a ‘master plan’? However before we go there we need to remind ourselves how the characters of Tom and Goldberry go hand-in-hand. The complexity of Tom has both frustrated and intrigued many of the books’ fans. Be that as it may, once we probe below the surface, it will become apparent Goldberry was no mere tag-along. Though textually much of her time was spent in the background – she was only a couple of complex and enigmatic steps behind!

An interesting group of archetypes worth looking into that bear some similarity to aspects of Goldberry, and touched upon by Ruth Noel in The Mythology of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, are the “Undine, the Lorelei and the Siren”. Noel only superficially addresses these mythical merwomen, but I shall dig deeper. In particular the spotlight will be directed on the ‘undine’ (also known as the ‘ondine’).

George MacDonald of whom Tolkien was a quite an admirer once wrote:

“Read Undine: that is a fairytale … of all fairytales I know, I think Undine the most beautiful.”
– The Fantastic Imagination, 1893

Published in 1811 and the work of a German novelist, Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué – the tale of Undine was an established and quite beloved fairy-story by the late 19th century. Centered around a water-entity who fell in love with a mortal knight, it recounted how the creature married the man to gain a soul.



Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué


Well what has this all got to do with Tolkien one might ask? In reply I will say that the strands of web are circuitous; for the direct ones are missing. It is here we must observe a convoluted, though some might view fanciful, circle.

The popularity of Undine was great enough to allow the renowned English artist Arthur Rackham to illustrate a re-issue in 1909. Tolkien much admired Rackham’s style and once admitted a drawing he had made of Old Man Willow:

“… probably came in part from Arthur Rackham’s tree-drawings”.
– Tolkien A biography, The storyteller, Humphrey Carpenter



Arthur Rackham


Rackham’s link to Bombadil went deeper than the Great Willow mention, for Tolkien when doling out advice to Pauline Baynes, for illustrating The Adventures of Tom Bombadil booklet of 1962, brought in a comparison specifically naming the artist.

Neither Rackham’s or Blyton’s creative tones were optimal. But ‘caught between the Devil and the deep blue sea’ – the Professor preferred Rackham’s artistry.

“I have not much doubt, however, that you would avoid the Scylla of Blyton and the Charybdis of Rackham – though to go to wreck on the latter would be the less evil fate.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #235

It seems reasonable to presume that Tolkien had at least some familiarity with Rackham’s drawings. And not only that – familiarity at the time work was initiated on The Lord of the Rings. Because Hammond and Scull (per J.R.R. Tolkien Artist & Illustrator) indicate that ‘Old Man Willow’ was sketched for reference purposes at the time of writing The Old Forest chapter.

Nevertheless there is no known record of Tolkien ever having viewed Rackham’s illustrations in Undine. Even though quite a collection of fairy-story books were purchased for his children – none have reported Undine being among them. Nor has the book surfaced in the Professor’s personal library. So for us, the case is speculative – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because we can take comfort in salutary advice:

“… many facts that some enquirer would like to know are omitted, and the truth has to be discovered or guessed from such evidence as there is …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #268

Somewhere along the line (pre-1934), I am guessing Tolkien ran across some drawings of a particular Rackham water-being that ended up being wholly inspirational. Of course given the vast resources at his disposable at Oxford University’s multiple libraries, it is quite possible Undine was accessed there. Equally possible is that C.S. Lewis introduced his friend to the fairy-story given his admiration and familiarity with it:

“He loved the drawings of Arthur Rackham in Undine …”.
– Jack: A life of CS Lewis, Into Narnia, George Sayer

Five of Rackham’s Undine sketches are shown below. All five of them have reasonable connections to Goldberry either in The Fellowship of the Ring or The Adventures of Tom Bombadil poem (1934 or 1962 version).



Drawing 1

[Resonances: Gold belt, yellowy-gold long rippling hair, silvery colored clothes, house prominently positioned next to river waters per TLotR.]



Drawing 2

[Resonances: Yellow hair, stone cottage positioned next to river waters, implied TLotR textual scene of Goldberry passing by a window.]



Drawing 3

[Resonances: Yellow hair, greenish and silvery clothing, river abode below waters per The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.]



Drawing 4

[Resonance: Implied TLotR textual scene of Goldberry out in the rain for her ‘washing day’.]



Drawing 5

[Resonance: Moment before capture by Tom on the river-bank beside the rushes per TLotR and The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.]


Now before I go on to further discuss Undine, it must be emphasized that this writer is well aware of the pitfalls to definitively linking the pictorial art of Rackham to Tolkien. Such dangers were outlined by the Professor himself in Letter #328. Some scholars will also no doubt point to Tolkien’s self-admitted weakness in remembering images and his preference for pure literature. Albeit Michael Drout in his Encyclopedia has noted the inconsistency of though:

“… declaring himself “not well acquainted with pictorial Art”. However on other occasions he admitted a literary debt to visual art.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment, Artists and Illustrators’ Influence on Tolkien

In truth, as an owner myself of Rackham’s illustrated edition – with much of the artwork occupying an entire page – the eye cannot help but be drawn there. Rackham’s drawings are indeed magnetic and possess a unique charm. Partly my own personal experience lends me to believe Undine artistry might well have been subliminally or even consciously present in Tolkien’s mind when Goldberry was first conceived and then later for The Lord of the Rings.

Yes Rackham’s art has a distinct signature to its style. Once one spots a face in the surf – one cannot help but look for more. And it is the Professor’s invention of the Foam-maidens and Foam-fays – the ‘Wingildin’ for the The Lost Tales of the early 20’s that perhaps leaves the barest of vestigial clues. The presence of such beings makes me think Tolkien had encountered the Rackham edition of Undine well over a decade before our first introduction to Bombadil’s fair water-lady.



Four Faces in the foamy water – see Drawing 1 above



Two Faces in the foamy water – see Drawing 2 above


Another link of Undine to Tolkien appears at the outset of his mythological writings. In 1920 after recounting The Fall of Gondolin to Oxford University’s Exeter College Essay Club, the recorder made the following note:

“… a discovery of a new mythological background Mr Tolkien’s matter was exceedingly illuminating and marked him as a staunch follower of tradition, a treatment indeed in the manner of such typical romantics as William Morris, George Macdonald [sic], de la Motte Fouqué etc. …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Note to Letter #163  
  (my underlined emphasis)

Despite the passage of a century, the tale had lost none of its charm among English scholars of mythology and folklore. Counted alongside other notable romantics, perhaps we can glean that Tolkien already knew of Fouqué’s Undine as a young adult. 

Now the term ‘undine’ originates from mythological related theory suggested by a 16th Century European alchemist who went by the pseudonym ‘Paracelsus’. It’s usage became so common that it made its way into all major dictionaries:

“Undine: a female spirit or nymph imagined as inhabiting water”.
– Oxford Dictionary of English, OUP, 2006

The word itself is sourced from the Latin unda, meaning ‘wave’ or ‘water’. We know that Tolkien was familiar with this Swiss-German’s work for at least two reasons. One was that Tolkien mentions him in Letter #239. The second is that Paracelsus was the inventor of the word ‘sylphs’ which Tolkien borrowed for The Lost Tales of the 20’s. Thus it seems reasonable to assume that Tolkien became familiar, well before The Lord of the Rings, with what Paracelsus essentially described as ‘elementals’. Of course, if at this early time the term ‘sylph’ was known to a young Tolkien – undoubtedly ‘undine’ would also have registered. 

As for ‘elementals’, they were proposed to be spirits of the four ancient elements: air, water, fire and earth. Except for the salamander, they took roughly humanoid shapes yet largely assumed and subsumed the form of matter that they were associated to. Undines were of beautiful feminine appearance (when visible to mortals) and explicitly bonded to water – sometimes tailed and sometimes not. 

Then were what Fouqué and we might term water-nymphs, really elementals?

“ ‘Pure and fair, more fair even than the race of mortals are the spirits of the water. Fishermen have chanced to see these water-nymphs or mermaidens, and they have spoken of their wondrous beauty. Mortals too have named these strange women Undines. …’ ”
– Undine, F. de La Motte Fouqué, Project Gutenberg E-book, Editor: Mary Macgregor, 1907     (my underlined emphasis)

For Fouqué, we almost certainly can deduce so – for right at the end of the tale Undine reverts back to her basic form:

“ … she went slowly out, and disappeared in the fountain. … a little spring, of silver brightness, was gushing out from the green turf, and it kept swelling and flowing onward with a low murmur, till it almost encircled the mound of the knight’s grave; it then continued its course, and emptied itself into a calm lake, which lay by the side of the consecrated ground. Even to this day, the inhabitants of the village point out the spring; and hold fast the belief that it is the poor deserted Undine, who in this manner still fondly encircles her beloved in her arms.”
– Undine, F. de La Motte Fouqué, Project Gutenberg E-book, produced by Sandra Laythorpe

More importantly had Tolkien latched on to such an idea and initially thought of Goldberry in her river abode as an undine? Were water-nymphs and undines one and the same in the Professor’s mind too?

In Fouqué’s tale the only way for one particular undine to gain a soul was to marry a man. Tom, though man-like in looks, was an immortal; but it is curious how Tom found Goldberry by the rushes:

“… and her heart was beating!”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Why wouldn’t it be? But was it merely fluttering in affection for Tom or was it the onset of a metamorphic transformation to acquire a soul? It might have been both, because in mythology the heart and the soul have always had strong linkage.

Yet even more curious is how the ending for the earliest full Bombadil poem resulted in marriage:

“Old Tom Bombadil had a merry wedding, …”.
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1934 (& 1962) poem

Hmm – it is interesting to speculate how Tolkien might have fitted our favorite water-being into his mythology. And more so to examine the evidence and case for other elementals. An affirmative conclusion would strengthen Goldberry’s position in the hierarchy of mythological entities connecting ‘his world’ to ours. A hierarchy that perhaps has yet to be fully understood. However such a discussion will be tabled for later.

As far as when Tokien first encountered the word ‘undine’ – it is quite possible he ran across it in Andrew Lang’s Olive Fairy Book in The Story of Little King Loc:

“ ‘He is sitting in the palace of the Undines, under the great Lake; …’ ”.
– Olive Fairy Book, Andrew Lang, 1907 

Issued a couple of years before ‘Rackham’s Undine’, there is little doubt that Tolkien had read this fairy-tale before embarking on the Bombadil chapters in The Lord of the Rings. His preparatory notes for On Fairy-Stories (see Tolkien On Fairy-Stories by Flieger and Anderson) made it quite plain that he had perused all of Lang’s colored books before lecture delivery at St. Andrews in 1939.

Now Arthur Rackham was not the only artist to visualize Undine. The popularity of the tale had spread across the Atlantic to be physically immortalized by two of America’s greatest sculptors.



Isamu Noguchi with ‘Undine’, 1925



‘Undine Rising from the Waters’, Chauncey Bradley Ives, 1884


In terms of portraits, once again the name of John Waterhouse crops up. His enamor with the water-nymph propelled him to paint Ondine in the heyday of Pre-Raphaelite art.



‘Ondine’ by John W. Waterhouse – exhibited Society of British Artists, 1872


Clearly Fouqués’ story had embedded itself in the hearts of the English speaking world by the turn of the 20th century. Even a play was written – notably connecting yellow water-lilies to the tale’s heroine:

“… Among the yellow lilies of the pool.
To greet me with thy kiss. …”.
– Undine: A Lyrical Drama, E. Hamilton Moore, 1902

A couple of years before Rackham’s issue, another British artist named Katherine Cameron had illustrated Undine. The cover of an 1907 edition depicts Undine with a flower garland in her hair – presumably just like Goldberry at her wedding:

“… his bride with forgetmenots and flag-lilies for garland …”.
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1934 & 1962 poems



‘Undine’, F. de La Motte Fouqué, Cover by Katherine Cameron, 1907


And then preceding both Rackham and Cameron, the English artist Rosie Pitman had also taken a crack at drawing Undine. Against one of Pitman’s internal drawings – the following comment was made:

“ … a full blown water-lily, symbolical of Undine’s perfected and spotless soul.”
– Undine, F. de La Motte Fouqué, Illustrations by Rosie M. Pitman, 1897

Were the water-lilies gathered by Tom and brought to Goldberry intended symbolism too? A sign perhaps of another water-nymph’s spotless and perfect soul? A soul which had been acquired through marriage and carnal union?

“ ‘… Never mind your mother
in her deep weedy pool; there you’ll find no lover!’ ”
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1934

Whatever the truth, going back to one of the questions posed at the beginning – at least we have a reasonable mechanism for the transformation of a water-being to one at home on terra firma. In itself this is a vital step. For we must acknowledge, Fouqués Undine is the closest model we have of a fairy-tale creature to which Goldberry might have been partly patterned on. Yes, a river-being Tolkien might have thought as being a link connecting the mythology of our real world to his bygone age.

Though we should not disregard the strength of the discussed peripheral clues, it is the sheer number of pictorial poses in the various issues of Undine which match up to details and hinted events surrounding Goldberry that is most remarkable. Perhaps taking all these matters in combination – we can now head towards unraveling some of the mystery surrounding Bombadil’s little water-lady. However if I am mistaken and everything is truly coincidental – then Goldberry herself might have told me to rapidly dismiss this train of thought and:

“ ‘… Make haste while the Sun shines!’ ”
– Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

I however believe otherwise, and that there is no coincidence – only more purposeful linkage. I have this odd feeling Goldberry’s advice was just a donnish touch – a deliberate insertion of an undiffused forerunner of an ancient English idiom:

‘Make hay while the Sun shines!’

Goldberry: The Enigmatic Mrs Bombadil

This essay is best viewed in single page format. If it appears in two column style – an adjustment can be made by selecting zoom at 125% to 175% under the ‘Settings’ tab.

A four part series that discusses a wholly new approach to looking at Tom Bombadil’s fair lady: ‘Goldberry’.

Part 1: Names, Nymphs and Nature’s Lilies

When it came to origins and sources Tolkien clarified that:

“The etymology of words and names in my story has two sides: (1) their etymology within the story; and (2) the sources from which I, as an author, derive them.”
– Letter to Gene Wolfe from Tolkien, November 1966

Now according to notes in a booklet of poetry issued after The Lord of the Rings, ‘Tom Bombadil’ as a name within the story was likely hobbit inspired – being:

“… Bucklandish in form … ”.
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1962

However we know through the 1934 Adventures of Tom Bombadil, the Professor:

“… had already ‘invented’ him independently …”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153

and prior to The Lord of the Rings.

Because the name had been originally assigned to a toy, we can also reasonably infer that it arose from outside of the Silmarillion mythology. Moreover that it was Tolkien himself who had come up with it:

“… I should not have given him so particular, individual, and ridiculous a name …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153   (my underlined emphasis)

But what exactly prompted such a ludicrously sounding and unique title is far the more interesting question.

Mark Hooker’s ground-breaking thesis: Magnus Thomas Bombadilus Oxoniensis in The Hobbitonian Anthology is perhaps the closest we can currently get to understanding the out of mythology source of ‘Tom Bombadil’. In short, Hooker believes that ‘Tom’ was derived from Oxford’s Christ Church Tower bell – known as ‘Great Tom’. Certainly there is complementary synergy in the exposed Latin inscription and its rhythmic peal; the ‘Bim Bom’ of the bell matches well with Tom’s seemingly nonsensical verse in The Lord of the Rings. Hooker has also suggested that apart from the bell’s ‘Bom’, Bombadil might have been derived from such words as ‘bombio’ to buzz, ‘bombo’ for bass drum – among numerous other offerings.

Equally puzzling as ‘Tom Bombadil’ is the etymological origin of ‘Goldberry’. From where, what, or whom did Tolkien derive that name? Yes exactly what was the history behind its development? Strangely enough, given its simplicity of construction, answers have been elusive. Nonetheless as academics would surely universally agree – Tolkien must have had his reasons, and they undoubtedly would have been well thought out.

Admirably Hooker has researched the Welsh language and resulting translations of ‘Gold’ and ‘berry’ as a possible source (Tolkien and Welsh). The ‘English calque of a Welsh theonym’ as Hooker suggests is perhaps a little difficult to get one’s head around. Happily for the less academically inclined, I will offer up something much simpler and a wholly different viewpoint.

My own inclination is that ‘Goldberry’ would probably have been named after a particular plant because of the ‘berry’ ending to her name. Most likely it would be an aquatic plant; and if so – one native to Oxford and Berkshire river environs. Goldberry is of course associated to the Withywindle in the novel which in turn, as some eminent scholars have remarked, was almost certainly modeled on Oxford’s River Cherwell.

Tom’s singing leaves us a decent clue in hinting that the color ‘gold’ is interchangeable with ‘yellow’:

“Goldberry, Goldberry, merry yellow berry-o!”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Old Forest

So perhaps what we should focus on is vegetation that yields yellow berries common to river-lands in two specific English counties.

Speculating further, Goldberry is strongly linked to water-lilies in the tale. These plants are of the Nymphaeaceae family, where the Latin based scientific designation, as Tolkien almost certainly knew, was inspired by Greek nymphs and sirens. Thus we intriguingly have the water-lily as being synonymous and intricately linked to the legendary female ‘water-nymph’.

For Goldberry – the river-daughter, outwardly nymph-like qualities were strongest in early Bombadil poetry where she was depicted as comfortably at home in her water-dwelling, notably among the lilies:

“… up came Goldberry, the River-woman’s daughter;
pulled Tom’s hanging hair. In he went a-wallowing

under the water-lilies, bubbling and a-swallowing.”
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1934

Complementing Greek mythology, later Teutonic and other North European legends have many examples of mythological merfolk making their abodes in fresh waters below lily-pads. Whether mermaids, water-nymphs, sirens, nixies or undines – these naiad-like creatures were usually young, beautiful and invariably female. Indeed artistic renditions abound depicting them in close association to river flora across a wide pan of European myth.


Fritz Hegenbart – etching from The Journal of Applied Arts and Crafts, 1851

siren_b‘Nordic Thoughts’ – Siren among the lilies



‘Hylas and the Nymphs’, John William Waterhouse, 1896


Absolutely no evidence exists that Tolkien ever viewed any of the above artwork, nonetheless Michael Drout has mentioned Waterhouse and the strong probability of Pre-Raphaelite influences in J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment. Among Waterhouse’s works, ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’ is one of the more renowned portraits. If it had ever made its way to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (where some of his paintings indeed have been exhibited) and perchance the Professor had seen it – I’m sure with his eye for detail he would have noticed two different colored lilies.



Zoom in on Yellow & White Water-lilies, ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’


Getting back to specific flora of Oxfordshire waters – though the lilies Tom brought Goldberry were white, the River Cherwell also happens to seed a more profuse yellow variety.



‘The History of Banbury’, Alfred Beesley, pg. 575


Notably alba and lutea are feminine forms of the Latin words for ‘white’ and ‘yellow’ respectively. Given that the masculine equivalents exist, not unreasonably it can be concluded that these plants spawned from life-giving waters are effectively ‘daughters of the river’.


William Baxter’s ‘British Phaenogamous Botany’, Oxford, 1838

Nuphar Lutea.PNG

Yellow water-lily, Nuphar lutea


Unquestionably Tolkien knew of the yellow water-lily’s existence. It is mentioned in the Appendix to The Book of Lost Tales I as ‘Nénu’ in Elvish form. In all likelihood that derivation was sourced from the lily’s medieval Latin name: Nenuphar, which of course had subsequently led to the scientific Nuphar extraction. In taxonomic descriptions, this plant is also commonly titled the ‘Brandy Bottle’ due to the flask shape of its spent fruit. The flower itself smells like alcohol – and so the ‘dregs of wine’ is an often employed phrase both capturing and conveying its slightly noxious aroma.



‘Brandy Bottle’ – Yellow Water-lily Fruit


A subtle and deliberate inter-connection of Nuphar lutea with the Withywindle tributary and then further to the naming of the “golden brown” ‘Brandywine’ river by Tolkien should not be downplayed. Not everything was in the book and not everything was fully explained.

At this point, with an alcoholic whiff in the air, we need to return to The Fellowship of the Ring text. At our first encounter with Goldberry, I suggest we read her description, then close our eyes and visualize unconventionally. We should try and think in terms of the imagery put out by Tolkien.

Perhaps we should try employing the ‘mooreeffoc’ principle Tolkien recommended in On Fairy Stories and attempt to see what might have become banal from a new perspective. And so if we focus on that very first paragraph, a metaphorical portrait of something other than a woman might mentally form:

“… yellow hair rippled down her shoulders; her gown was green, green as young reeds, shot with silver like beads of dew; … About her feet … white water-lilies were floating …”.  
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

In Goldberry’s initial posture what the Professor predominantly depicted was a mass of wavy yellow hair shouldered atop a green gown raised above what seemed like a watery bed of buoyant white lilies:

“… so that she seemed to be enthroned in the midst of a pool.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Her face was not mentioned, nor the color of her eyes, nor her limbs at this initial description. All of this is so much in contrast to Tom, whom Tolkien happily described at outset as possessing: “thick legs”, “eyes” that “were blue”, and a “face … red as a ripe apple … creased into a hundred wrinkles”. Yes we have a curious divergence for Goldberry from past practice.

So if we think thoughtfully, our slender figured hostess, I deem, epitomized the very essence of a water-lily. Not one of the white variety – but a full-bloomed wavy-petaled yellow lily on a single green water-spattered stalk raised well above the water with roots (represented by her feet) that reached below its surface. By leaving out (in that first paragraph) facial features, the color of her skin and any mention of her limbs – Tolkien left us articulate worded artistry emblematic of a special flower. The gold belt and chair seem to figuratively signify that she was indeed an “enthroned” “queen” of all Withywindle water-lilies, who had once reigned supreme in her shady pool. Such a motif can be reasonably perceived for our fair Goldberry – of course with some lateral imagination!

Perhaps Tolkien enhanced such visual imagery by audible means in her departure from the center of the ‘indoor pond’. To greet her guests, for they were on ‘land’, Goldberry had to metaphorically first pass the water’s edge:

“… her gown rustled softly like the wind in the flowering borders of a river.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Given the linkage observed so far -we are left with little choice but to probe deeper. At this point it is worth scrutinizing the plant and the species, in question, in more detail.

One interesting matter resulting from word origin research, is that the Nymph in Nymphaeaceae also has a dual meaning. Its Latin etymological source: nymphe, also means ‘bride’.

How curious! One can’t help but suspect that Tolkien as a professional philologist knew of this duality. After all, both aspects of nymphe are reflected in the 1934 The Adventures of Tom Bombadil poem. For after early water play, its culmination resulted in a wedding with Goldberry becoming Tom’s spouse:

“Old Tom Bombadil had a merry wedding, …”.
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1934

Perhaps even more remarkable, is that the Greek equivalent of nymphe is numphe; and that nubere in Latin means: ‘take a husband’. Maybe then for a Greek/Latin mix, that is stretchable to ‘nymph – take a husband’. In that light, if bere can be extrapolated to ‘berry’, the ending to ‘Goldberry’ appears highly befitting. Hmm – one can only wonder if Tolkien thought along such lines!

Despite some etymological progress, we must realize that it is our most ancient records of the northern hemisphere that seemingly connect to Tolkien’s mythology. Though we have the beginnings of an ‘external’ linkage of our world to his (from a philological standpoint), what about the ‘internal’ connection? What might have been the derivation of ‘Goldberry’ internal to the tale?

For that, I have a straightforward possibility. Namely that ‘Goldberry’ was simply a Common Speech corruption of the Sindarin: ‘Golodh bereth’ – meaning ‘Elvish Queen’. These alike words tie in with text where at first impression Frodo writes of being:

“… answered by a fair young elf-queen”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

It is quite probable that the Elves knew of Goldberry’s existence before the hobbits. Whether the corrupted rendering was Bucklandish in origin – we do not know. Nonetheless, one can easily imagine the scenario where Sindarin became distorted, and the Buckland hobbits being the first among their kind to have knowledge of her.

External to the tale, there also might have been more than just etymological roots to the name ‘Goldberry’. To establish whether this was the case, we need to once again look at our suspect floral candidate – but from a seasonal standpoint.

And so if we scrutinize the plant – there is most definitely one noteworthy feature to its life-cycle. In Oxfordshire in late spring and early summer is when the yellow water-lily begins its budding. At this point it strongly resembles a berry. Yes a yellow berry; conceivably one might even say: a gold berry!



Yellow Water-lily Buds


Goldberry being “young” and vibrant closely associates her with both early seasons where the ‘berry’, in slow-flowing English rivers, takes shape from a single stem. It is at this point we should recall that ‘nymph’ also means something ‘young and budding’. Despite such a word being used to entomologically describe the larvae of certain insects, it is not wholly inappropriate to think of it in terms of the initial stage of a flower’s development.

Now though full flowering may continue through to September – the yellow water-lily’s budding season is basically over by the end of summer to renew in the following spring. This slots in comfortably with the text’s rhyme:

“Fair River-daughter!
O spring-time and summer-time and spring again after!”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Towards the end of autumn the flower, leaves and stem die away leaving just the root rhizome. It is likely that Tolkien – who had a marked penchant to flora, and who had considerable botanical knowledge, would have known these details. A glimpse of this shines through in one of Warren Lewis’s diary entries where he recorded Tolkien:

“… with his botanical and etymological interests …”
– J.R.R. Tolkien: The Making of a Legend, The Struggle to Publish, Colin Duriez

would take time to note the countryside in long strolling walks in the Malvern Hills. Again in that same vein:

“All illustrated botany books … have for me a special fascination.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #312

When it came to local species, the Professor ought to have regularly espied the more common yellow water-lilies floating on the Cherwell’s surface. Over many years at Oxford, the seasons for emergence of shoots and flowering, and those in which they were absent should have been readily apparent in equally lazy brown waters as those of the book.

During their budding phase the lilies would have been hard to miss – especially on July and August afternoons while on the Cherwell:

“ … floating in the family punt hired for the season …”.
– Tolkien: A biography, Northmoor Road, Humphrey Carpenter

And so this is perhaps an opportune moment to recall that when it came to ‘sources’:

“… it is the particular use in a particular situation of any motive, whether invented, deliberately borrowed, or unconsciously remembered that is the most interesting thing to consider.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #337

Handily for The Lord of the Rings, some of Tolkien’s inspiration literally lay just outside his doorstep. The rivers Isis and Cherwell running through the heart of Oxford had a special bond when it came to its history and connection to water-lilies. William Turner, a renowned local artist, had painted two nationally acclaimed portraits of lilies on the Cherwell.



‘Waterlilies in the Cherwell’ by William Turner (of Oxford), c. 1850’s


Right next to Magdalen College and its campus, where C.S. Lewis had taught and resided, is the famed Lily House. Part of the the oldest botanical garden in England it is one of the few which grows the giant Amazonian Victoria Cruziana lily.



Victoria Cruziana Waterlily, Lily House, Oxford University Botanical Gardens


In addition to the city’s history, the rivers of Oxford certainly played a role in the family’s ‘adventures’. Besides the danger of tripping over willow roots, lily-beds would also have presented tricky obstacles to navigate past. Family man Tolkien certainly was, but he also knew how to look after his children when confronted by the lurking dangers presented by the Isis and Cherwell. In a way Tom was family-oriented too – and if my hunch is correct Goldberry was no different.

Unless further factual information comes to light we can only guess the truth behind why Tolkien had Tom gather white water-lilies for Goldberry. At first sight the given reason is plain enough:

“… to please my pretty lady, …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Nevertheless the real motive might have been more subtle. Goldberry, as ‘queen of the lilies’ – I surmise, was not just monarchical but also had a semi-symbiotic relationship with her subjects (and no doubt friends): the lilies. The health of various river domains ought to have been much dependent on them. Oxygenation of the waters and the provision of a unique sub-ecosystem by the leaves, was of vital importance. And so it is suggested that Goldberry was just taking care of the eldest and most vulnerable ones from impending winter frosts – something which she did annually. White lilies were her focus simply because their blooms last slightly longer into the season; and yes indeed they survive and can even thrive in containers:

“… in wide vessels of … earthenware, white water-lilies were floating, …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Tom’s task was clearly urgent:

“Tom had an errand there, that he dared not hinder.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Moreover gathering lilies (leaves and all) was a rare event; it had nothing to do with house beautification:

“Each year at summer’s end I go to find them … ”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

So it seems Tom’s bride had not completely forsaken the pool. Consequently the ritual of bathing in it every year at spring-time was perhaps to welcome her new subjects – the buds of new lilies, both white and yellow. Far from abandoning the river’s special inhabitants – she was there to help the aged and nurture the very young!

Of course the above is conjecture. Nevertheless the connection of Goldberry with a flower is impressed upon us at not only at our first meeting, but also our last. There at farewell, once again Tolkien left us with a similar vision of a yellow-headed lily stood proud yet in a green pool like that in Once Upon a Time:

“ ‘Goldberry!’ … ‘My fair lady clad all in silver green’ … her hair was flying loose caught in the sun it shone and shimmered. A light like the water on dewy grass flashed from under her feet.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

And at last sight:

“ … they saw Goldberry, now small and slender like a sunlit flower against the sky: …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs    (my underlined emphasis)

When Tolkien stated that:

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

more than anything else – she symbolized the changes experienced by a flower: the yellow water-lily; another nymphean “daughter of the River”. This native Oxfordshire plant, when budding, I believe – is the ‘external’ and true inspirational source of the name: ‘Goldberry’.


11/11/2016 – Added from : “Despite some etymological progress …” to “… but from a seasonal standpoint.”

Added: “there is most definitely one noteworthy feature to its life-cycle.”

Is: “I believe – is the ‘external’ and true inspirational source …”, Was: “I believe – is the source …”.

12/16/2016 – Added: “And so this is perhaps an opportune moment to recall that when it came to ‘sources’:” & Letter #337 quote.

1/7/2017 – After quote: “… answered by a fair young elf-queen”, replaced paragraph with: “It is quite probable … knowledge of her.”