He caught her, held her fast! Water-rats were scuttering
reeds hissed, herons cried, and her heart was fluttering…
You shall come under Hill! Never mind your mother
in her deep weedy pool: there you’ll find no lover!
The Adventure of Tom Bombadil (1934)
From its beginnings in very late 1937 through to the end of 1939, Tolkien envisaged a new story of around the same length (number of pages) as The Hobbit. The sequel was to tell a similar sort of journey – to Rivendell, then over the mountains to a final destination, the fiery mountain (as opposed to the Lonely Mountain). By late 1939 Tolkien had composed an early version of the Council of Elrond and introduced Boromir of the land of Ond, and so imagined a siege of the City of Ond on the other side of the mountains; but as yet this was the only adventure envisaged for the other side beyond the fiery mountain itself. In contrast to the original story of Bilbo Baggins, the sequel was to weight its adventures to this side of Rivendell.
But to imagine the original story, which I identify with the mirror of the ghost index, we also have to cut out Weathertop. When Tolkien first reached the house of Tom Bombadil, around the very end of August 1938, he envisaged before Rivendell only a passage through Bree followed by a final confrontation with the Black Riders at the ford, in which Gandalf and the Elves rescued Bingo.
We thus see an initial imagination of the sequel in which the magic ring was made by the Necromancer yet necromancy is held at bay. The adventure with the Barrow-wights was to provide as vivid a picture of the evil fruit of necromancy as Tolkien ever penned. But while one of the hobbits awakes from his trance state within the barrow with a memory of being dead, the story as yet has no thought that a hobbit would begin to become one of the undead (as happens after Weathertop).
When the early drafts are viewed within their intended frame we see that what we regard as the first part of the first book of The Fellowship of the Ring – through the woods of the Shire, the Marish, to Buckland, and then in the Old Forest, and Barrow-downs, and in the house of Tom Bombadil – was initially imagined as making up the lion’s share of a new story. The Necromancer and one of his magic rings is indeed at the center but both ring and undead servants could be escaped and overcome by hobbit high spirits (Bingo as the mirror of Gollum) and the rhymes of a mythical aboriginal spirit (Tom Bombadil as the mirror of the Necromancer).
Tom Bombadil is at the very heart of this imagination of a new hobbit story. Consider also:
(a) Tom Bombadil first appeared in print in an Oxford periodical in 1934, in a poem in which he is caught by and then commands his release from Goldberry, Old Man Willow, and a Barrow-wight (and also a badger).
(b) In the early drafts of late summer 1938, Tolkien considers that Farmer Maggot is not really a hobbit but kin of Tom Bombadil, who declares himself an ‘aborigine‘ and older than the Necromancer. Furthermore, Tolkien considers Black Riders simply Barrow-wights on horseback.
In other words, Tom Bombadil enters the story bringing with him Old Man Willow and the adventure in the Withywindle Valley, also Goldberry, and also the Barrow-wights, who are to provide a closer encounter with the Ringwraiths already met in the Shire. And Tolkien is even considering that he belongs to a greater aboriginal race that includes Farmer Maggot in the Shire.
When Tolkien started writing again in late summer 1938 he rapidly penned – largely in the published form – the adventures that led from Crickhollow to Bree. He began by taking a party of hobbits under the hedge, into the Old Forest, and so into a landscape made queer by Tom Bombadil’s 1934 adventure.
Where Tom Bombadil had been pulled into the water by Goldberry and then trapped within the willow tree, Old Man Willow now engineers both a plunge in the river and imprisonment in his tree. Bombadil rescues the hobbits from the willow tree, and also from the Barrow-wight he had escaped from in his earlier adventure.
In the first draft the hobbits stay only one night at the house of Tom Bombadil. But rapidly the idea was added of a rainy day spent in the house with the hobbits’ host telling them the lore of the willow and the Old Forest:
… how that grey thirsty earth-bound spirit had become imprisoned in the greatest Willow of the Forest. The tree did not die,though its heart went rotten, while the malice of the Old Man drew power out of earth and water, and spread like a net, like fine root-threads in the ground, and invisible twig-fingers in the air, till it had infected or subjugated nearly all the trees on both sides of the valley. (Shadow 120-1)
In this sequel, Tolkien alludes to but never tells the 1934 tale of the courtship of Goldberry and Tom Bombadil, but as soon as we recall it we see what happened to the hobbits was not simply a repeat of Tom Bombadil’s escapades with Old Man Willow.
As they first make their way into the Old Forest one hobbit names the Withywindle Valley “the source of all the queerness.” Queer is a key word in The Hobbit: in the first pages the narrator tells us Bilbo Baggins likely inherited a queer Took quality from his mother and Gandalf scratches a queer sign on his round door. The naming of the hobbit turns on the coming out of Bilbo’s queer quality in a way that makes sense of Gandalf’s sign (burglar). Now we are in a sequel in which the hobbits find themselves drawn to the source of all the queerness in an ancient forest.
The source of all the queerness turns out to be a story involving four people. Long, long ago, Goldberry caught Tom Bombadil’s attention and Tom Bombadil then captured Goldberry, taking her from the weedy river pools of her mother, the river-woman, to his own house. Evidently, this has disturbed the Withywindle Valley, Goldberry’s original home. We are never told the relationship of the river-woman and Old Man Willow, and we can only wonder whether the willow is the father of Goldberry or merely a jealous admirer. In any case, Goldberry’s mother is peeved and has allowed rotten Old Man Willow to run riot, casting his spell in a net of root and twig over nearly all the Old Forest, bearing hostility to all who walk on two legs.
The party of hobbits thus enter a different sequel – the sequel to Tom Bombadil’s earlier story. First they visit the scene of the two encounters of the two lovers, and then they meet the two lovers in the house in which they now dwell together. The source of all the queerness in a place turns out to be an ancient love story, which left two spirits of a place quietly seething over all the long ages to come.
The incorporation of this mini-sequel within the hobbit sequel allows Tolkien to hold a mirror to the theory of naming of The Hobbit. In the original hobbit story the person (Bilbo) is clear before us and the story is about the queer business of attaching a new name to the person. In the new story the names are already present and what the story is about is the queerness of the person behind the name.
At this point in the imagination of his story, Tolkien envisages two sets of relationship. On the one hand, Bingo (heir of Bilbo) and the young Gollum are to provide two mirror character sketches that together serve to reveal the hidden qualities of the magic ring. Both are hobbits, and so neither fade like the Ringwraiths, and both leave the human community, following in the steps of the ancient English helrún. But where Gollum used the magic ring for sneaking and was cast out by his family, Bingo uses the magic ring only for joyous pranks and jests and takes voluntary exile upon himself to save his people from the servants of the Necromancer. Between this pair of opposite hobbits Tolkien is drawing a picture of the magic ring, which is not yet the One Ring and which, in this mirror ghost index, is still something that can be used wisely and without harm.
On the other hand, Tolkien imagines that the magic ring has a mythical maker and imagines also a mythical being, Tom Bombadil, who cannot be caught by the servants of the Necromancer. What the Necromancer is to the Ringwraiths who enter the woods of the Shire Tom Bomadil is to the Old Forest – an ancient (aboriginal) person who stands behind the queerness happening around the hobbits of the story.
Tom Bombadil allowed Tolkien to work out an initial idea of what it meant to find a person as the source of a queer thing (or, in his case, place) without having to delve into the unspeakable business of necromancy.
After Weathertop, when the process by which necromancy made an undead servant of the necromancer out of a living person had begun in the story, Tolkien found that he had to delve much deeper into the magic of the ring, and he now avoided the unspeakable by imagining the true relationship of words and persons in relation to the elves. Galadriel would come to fulfil the role that Tom Bombadil played in this original imagination of the sequel. Yet this mirror ghost index remains in the final index of The Lord of the Rings, an earlier strata of the story that contains within it the underlying themes of the story as first imagined; themes that would remain but be superseded once the magic ring had become the One Ring and Bingo Bolger-Baggins, the hobbit prankster, had become two hobbits with very different characters, namely Sam Gamgee and Frodo Baggins.