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Goldberry, Tom Bombadil and Magic in Plain Sight

Updated: Jan 13



Painting of Goldberry from the Lord of the Rings, by Miriam Ellis
"I am Goldberry" - Miriam Ellis

"I'd dearly love to see some Elf-magic, Mr. Frodo," says Sam Gamgee as he sits in the heart of Lothlórien, quite surrounded by enchantment.


Sam is the hobbit I love best, and so I have to forgive him for waiting for the "magic" to start. He has spent the night above Woodhall with Gildor's folk who have the glimmer of moonrise all about their feet, has dwelt in hidden Rivendell with a host whose father is seen as a star and whose mother can turn into a bird, and has walked all the way from Imladris though Moria with a Maia, waiting for something really magical to happen!


But readers must ask if our Sam was sleeping like a contented log all the way through chapters 7 and 8 of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring if he sees nothing spellbinding about Goldberry and Tom Bomabadil. These two unclassifiable figures may not have Elf-magic, exactly, but what they have is either so intensely un-earthly - or earthly! - that it defies categorization. Is the magic hiding in such plain sight that Sam can't fully reckon with the Faërie in these 7 wondrous things?



Painting of Tom Bombadil from the Lord of the Rings, by Miriam Ellis
"Wake Now, My Merry Friends!" - Miriam Ellis


  1. Tom Bombadil sings almost continuously. He seems quite unusual from the start.

  2. Some of his songs are something like spells that cause trees to spew forth hobbits and Barrow-wights to flee.

  3. Goldberry came out of a river and appears to be in some way associated with water and weather. The exact nature of her "washing day" remains one of the great mysteries of Middle-earth.

  4. Speaking of water, Tom is so ancient, he says he existed before the first raindrop and the first acorn.

  5. Unaccountably, Tom and Goldberry have furnished a delightful, snug room with four beds and little green slippers for four pairs of hobbit feet. It must have been the fastest home improvement ever enacted in Middle-earth. They say they've had news of the travelers...but from whom? Could it have been Farmer Maggot, or Gildor Inglorion sending a message, or does the forest, itself, communicate the presence of visitors to this wonderful couple? Tom's entire medium of communication is altogether unusual and he knows the names of the hobbit ponies.

  6. Few common folk would choose to live in such a weird wood as the Old Forest, but Tom and Goldberry appear impervious to the eeriness and nothing perilous is permitted to pass through their doors and windows. It's nearly girdle-of-Melian-level protection in the house of Tom Bombadil, much to our relief!

  7. While Galadriel's Elf-magic is, indeed, worth seeing, her power is not so great as to preclude her from being tempted to possess the Ring. Goldberry evidently suffers no such dilemma and, as for Tom, the Ring can't even make him disappear! He makes sport of it, much to Frodo's alarm, and we see quite clearly why Gandalf says the Ring can't be sent to Tom because he might carelessly throw it away since "such things have no hold on his mind." And this, more than anything else, makes the magic of Tom and Goldberry unlike anything else we see in all of The Lord of the Rings.


The truth is that Sam has seen more "magic" under the Bombadil roof than all of Gandalf's firework displays put together, and what I love so much about how Tolkien wrote both In the House of Tom Bombadil and Fog on the Barrow-downs is that almost everything astonishing that Tom and Goldberry do can almost be mistaken for nothing more than hospitality and friendship by Sam...and by us.


Yes, Pippin and Merry are rescued from Old Man Willow by Tom, but he makes so light of it and behaves to drolly, we readers almost overlook how scary and strange it all is. And then we practically melt into the glow of warm golden light, crossing that marvelous threshold at the welcome of a hostess who sits by her fireside surrounded with flowers. It is all so consoling and delightful, we almost forget to ask who the River-woman is and what it means to be her daughter. All in all, we take Tom and Goldberry as a matter-of-course, because the hobbits rather seem to. How can we account for this and speak to Sam still hoping he'll see real Elf-magic someday?


We know that Merry has been in the Old Forest in the daytime, but only near the hedge, and Tolkien's Bombadil poems make it clear that some hobbits have known of Tom's existence for many years, but it's hard to imagine that if he came bounding and singing up Bagshot Row, the Gaffer would throw open his door in instant welcome. Remember, Bilbo fondly recalled Gandalf's fireworks, but he didn't really want to take tea with him and only made the invitation to try to end a conversation he found rather dangerous. Encountering beings like Tom and Goldberry simply isn't an every-day occurrence for the majority of hobbits at the time of The Lord of the Rings, and I think I may see a clue in this to Sam's state of mind.


Sam has determined to stick by Mr. Frodo come what may, and he had been raised to understand that anything beyond the borders of the Shire will be outlandish. Even the hobbits of Buckland are "queer" folk, he's been told, and as for Bree, the news from such parts is downright strange. In a sense, Sam is expecting the unexpected, and so the merry, salvific, unique, unclassifiable, unforgettable meeting with Tom and Goldberry is taken somewhat in his stride. It just doesn't match whatever his idea is of Elf-magic is. But, then, neither does Glorfindel, the re-embodied elf whose very hand acts as an instant pain-reliever to Frodo's wound.




Portrait of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings, by Miriam Ellis
"Portrait of J.R.R. Tolkien" - Miriam Ellis

Sam is vague about magic and so is Tolkien. I'm not sure the Professor was entirely satisfied with the word. Even his wizards cast very few spells, and Gandalf's obvious enchantments are mostly confined to setting pinecones ablaze and providing pyrotechnics for birthday parties. And I simply adore that. It's the unseen power that conveys the most majesty, making Olórin into the stooped Grey Pilgrim, and transforming stunning Tom Bombadil and Goldberry into mere gracious hosts in a woodland cottage all of us would love to visit. We are lulled and charmed and almost see them so. Almost, but not quite - because the hints are all there of so much more. The magic is hiding in plain sight.

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