In The Hobbit Party, the authors discuss Tolkien’s nostalgia for his childhood, country home, and his aversion to the Industrial Revolution. I am definitely a product of that Industrial Revolution.
I just read the section in The Fellowship of the Ring where the hobbits meet Old Man Willow and Tom Bombadil. First the hobbits find themselves blocked from going their desired pathway, instead the bramble only clears for them when they head in the opposite direction. Then the hobbits become very sleepy. Merry and Pippin fall asleep at the base of Old Man Willow and it swallows them with its roots. Frodo falls asleep while sitting on a root over the river, and the tree knocks him into the water and then holds him under.
As someone who grew up in the desert (El Paso, TX), the oppressive, suffocating feeling of deep forest described by Tolkien is completely foreign to me. Furthermore, as a life-long city girl, the power of the natural world to consume the products of human civilization is equally foreign. As I read this section I tried to imagine what it would be like to live at the edge of wilderness. Even the hobbits who live in an agrarian society, which is governed by mother nature, are uncomfortable in the Old Forest. Goldberry invites the Hobbits into Tom Bombadil’s home, saying:
‘Come dear folk!’ she said, taking Frodo by the hand. ‘Laugh and be merry! I am Goldberry, daughter of the River.’ Then lightly she passed them and closing the door she turned her back to it, with her white arms spread out across it. ‘Let us shut out the night!’ she said. ‘For you are still afraid, perhaps, of mist and tree-shadows and deep water, and untame things…’
My best understanding of “untame things” comes from when I worked as a dog trainer. Dogs are domesticated because they look to humans for guidance. No other animal does that. So when I first heard Patricia McConnell’s story about her encounter with a wolf-dog hybrid, it just clarified, for me, the difference between a domestic dog and a wild animal:
Instead of taking back the chew toy he stopped and looked straight up into my eyes with a cold, hard stare. I remember every pixel of his face as he, like lightening, bit down hard on my right hand. It was the second most painful bite I’ve ever had, but it was more the calculated message behind the bite that shook me most. “Don’t you EVER touch my stuff again.”
I used to have a dog who would sometimes growl and threaten to bite if I approached her while she was eating, but I could trade her for something better and she would snap out of it and become my sweet dog again. That growling was abnormal for her, but it would be totally normal from a wolf, or a wolf-dog hybrid. I could communicate with my dog when she was in that state– it took a lot of work, but eventually she learned to trust me, because she essentially needed me. She needed a human to care for her. There’s no communicating with a wild animal, you’re either a threat, food, or something to ignore. That communication barrier is frightening because there’s no way to compromise, and that’s the same barrier that the Hobbits had with Old Man Willow. The tree decided they were a threat and attacked, only Tom Bombadil could stop it, because he’s the “master.” We never learn what Tolkien meant by that.