Reading Middle-earth – Chapter 6: The Old Forest
Dark woods, creeping roots and reaching branches, and a wind that whispers with the willow’s voice. The haunted forests of children’s tales have always clutched at my imagination, and as much as they frighten me they also beckon me. This is why I’m overcome with nervous excitement whenever I leaf through the pages of The Old Forest. Part of the anxiety comes from how sure I am that the trees aren’t a fan of paper!
The Forest or the Trees?
The fear of the woods has largely left urbanites, except perhaps for the darkest corners of our imaginations. I was reminded in a small way recently why the woods are fit to be feared. I was walking in Mont-Royal park at dusk and turned into the woody hillside as the light was failing; the feeling of being watched was inescapable. I stood on the threshold of a park, not a forest, yet the tall trees fended off the last of the daylight and made their own night, closing ranks in silence. I didn’t want to go in any further, and I didn’t. All forests are full of living things, it’s true, but I can’t help but believe every forest itself is alive. This must mean every forest has a character, and the Old Forest’s defining characteristic is a strong dislike of strangers.
The hobbits have heard all sorts of stories about the Old Forest but remain rather optimistic about getting through it without any trouble. Most would probably agree with Frodo when he downplays Pippin’s anxiety by suggesting they’ll be lucky “if there are no worse things ahead than the Old Forest.” Of course things will get much worse on their journey before long, but the forest will also prove more trouble than they bargained for.
Enchantment and the Environment
Sometimes I think I could put my time to better use than thinking about stories full of people, places, and things that don’t exist. Whenever this utilitarian mood strikes I like to bake or brew something because food combines enchantment and utility in a satisfying and mysterious way. We could reduce food to fuel and all go on living life, but we would be poorer despite our full bellies.
I see this same mysterious relationship at play in our relationship to the environment. Enchanted stories about places and creatures engender respect and a desire to protect those places and creatures. If the trees talk to each other and have a life we can understand then we can’t easily destroy them, even when we find them vaguely threatening. Instead we learn to live beside them.
Tomm Moore, the Irish animator and director behind The Song of the Sea was inspired by this kind of faerie folklore that enchants the natural world. He recounts this story in an interview with Cartoon Brew:
“When we asked why there were so many dead seals on the beach, our landlady said local fisherman were killing them out of frustration with falling fishery stocks. She said it wouldn’t have happened years ago, when there was a belief system that deemed seals sacred because they were the souls of people lost at sea, or actual selkies. That started me thinking that folklore and superstitions serve functions beyond entertainment, or quaint stories for tourists. They bind people to the landscape, and that is being lost.”
This gets at the heart of why I love the Old Forest, even if I would be terrified to it. Of the hobbits Merry is the least enchanted by the Old Forest. Despite this, he does accept that the forest is “queer” and that the trees are not merely material, but have their own dispositions and moods. There is an unspoken acceptance that the Old Forest isn’t quite like other woods; I would also say that all woods have a bit of the Old Forest in them.
If the woods and creatures (and all creation) are enchanted, if they’re alive, then I can’t simply abuse my use of them. A tree may need felling or a seal killing, but if they’re more than material it can’t be done without reckoning the cost: be it angering the woods or murdering the selkie mother of a lonely seaside child.
It would be better, as Tom Bombadil demonstrates, to take a more conciliatory approach to the natural world, as he does when he rescues the hobbits from Old Man Willow. Indeed, Sam and Frodo’s well-intentioned attempts to burn the old tree just made things worse before Tom showed up.
Fear neither root nor bough! Tom goes on before you.
This topic may have gotten away from me slightly. I’m still convinced it’s a point worth making though, whether it serves to convince some to reconsider the good that can come from folklore, faerie stories, and what could be derided as superstition. At bottom, I want to re-enchant the woods so more people might see our abuse of the world for what it is: a tragedy.
Don’t worry though, I’m not finished with Tom Bombadil, I’ll have lots to say (and even more questions) in Chapter 7: In The House of Tom Bombadil.