Riddles, Rhymes and Lilies: The Mystery of Tom Bombadil (Part V)

If you thought Tom Bombadil was a tough character to crack, wait until we try to understand the equally-cryptic Goldberry.


Analysis of Goldberry

2.0 Introduction

Like and unlike Tom Bombadil, Goldberry has her own mysteries within Tolkien’s mythology. But she is also described to us in more detail (or in clearer terms) than Tom. In this post, GoldberryI have tried to collect all relevant information on her character, in an attempt to shed some more light on yet another ambiguous individual from The Lord of the Rings.

 2.1 Appearance and Character

We first encounter Goldberry right in the last page of ‘The Old Forest’, when the hobbits are about to enter Tom Bombadil’s house. To be correct, they do not actually see her, but rather hear her voice; which is described:

“… as young and as ancient as Spring, like the song of a glad water flowing down into the night from a bright morning in the hills”

When reading this phrase, it is clear that just like Tom Bombadil, Goldberry has a strong connection with the natural world. With the opening of the following chapter (‘In the house of Tom Bombadil’) we get a physical description of the river-daughter as the hobbits see:

“Her long yellow hair rippled down her shoulders; her gown was green, green as young reeds, shot with silver like beads of dew; and her belt was of gold, shaped like a chain of flag-lilies set with the pale-blue eyes of forget-me-nots.”

GoldberryHer appearance closely resembles the vision of an elf-queen in her own palace. She seems someone who is deeply fond of the nature around her. There is also no question that Goldberry had a particular fondness for water-lilies, which is why – when the hobbits first meet Bombadil – he isin fact collecting lilies from the Withywindle especially for her.

As said in the introduction, Tolkien seems to have left his readers with more information regarding Goldberry, than Tom Bombadil. In fact, when the hobbits first meet, she introduces herself to them: “I am Goldberry, daughter of the River.”

At the same time, “River” is not so clear – but considering the Withywindle passes through the Old Forest (and as we shall see in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil), she was indeed an incarnation of that stream.

2.2 Her Origins and Being

So who, or what, is Goldberry really?

And why is she constantly being linked to the River?

What we know about Goldberry can be found in The Lord of the Rings or The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. The latter gives us a broader picture about her history and how she came to live with Bombadil.

In The Lord of the Rings, she is first mentioned in one of Tom’s songs, as he approaches the endangered hobbits at the hands (or roots) of Old Man Willow. He sings about collecting water-lilies for his “pretty lady” whom he refers to as being the River-woman’s daughter.

Tom Bombadil meets GoldberryThis link with the river (and the river is certainly referring to the Withywindle in the Old Forest), can be explained through another song by Bombadil:

 “By that pool long ago I found the River-daughter,

Fair young Goldberry sitting in the rushes.

Sweet was her singing then, and her heart was beating!”

The “pool’” in fact, as Tom Bombadil explains, was “deep and clear, far down Withywindle” and it is there that he had his first encounter with Goldberry.

This  very same event described in the above verses, can be found in the first poem of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.

“But one day Tom, he went and caught the River-daughter,

in green gown, flowing hair, sitting in the rushes,

singing old water-songs to birds upon the brushes.”

Apart from this encounter, we also know that she used to lived with her mother; the supposed River-woman.

“Back to her mother’s house in the deepest hollow

swam young Goldberry…”

Her mother seems to have been some sort of water-spirit in charge of the river in the Old Forest, and her daughter, during certain season periods, used to wander Old Forestbeside its deep pools and sing.

With regards to what she was representing within Middle-Earth, Tolkien himself gives us a clear answer. In a letter (no.210) replying back with comments about a possible film treatment for The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien had the following phrase to say about her:

Goldberry represents the actual seasonal changes in such lands.”

There is no need for discussion on such a clear answer, provided by the author himself. With “such lands”, Tolkien was referring to “real river-lands in autumn”. So like Tom Bombadil, she had a connection with the natural essence of Middle-Earth. This is also the reason why Bombadil, in his songs, constantly links Goldberry to summer, spring, etc – a rightful indication of her real nature.

2.3 Her relation to Tom Bombadil

So what is Golberry in relation to Tom Bombadil? Was she a relative? A friend? Or someone else?

Once again, our answers can be found in the poem ‘The Adventures of Tom Bombadil’. But before that, it would be wise to tackle a short quote in a letter (no.175) written by Tolkien, after the BBC dramatization of The Lord of the Rings (1955-1956).  Here follows Tolkien’s furious remarks on the portrayal of the two characters:

“I thought Tom Bombadil dreadful – but worse still was the announcer’s preliminary remarks that Goldberry was his daughter (!)…”

As shocking as that might have been to Tolkien, it allows us to rule out the possibility that she is in fact Tom’s child.

Therefore, we must proceed with our analysis on ‘The Adventures of Tom Bombadil’’. The second part of the poem reveals the true identity of her relation to Tom.

“Said Tom Bombadil: ‘Here’s my pretty maiden!

You shall come home with me! […]

Never mind your mother

in her deep weedy pool: there you’ll find no lover!’

 Old Tom Bombadil had a merry wedding,

crowned all with buttercups, hat and feather shedding;

his bride with forgetmenots and flag-lilies for garland

was robed all in silver-green …”

Beyond the Old Forest by Ted Nasmith

It is clear that Bombadil, apparently capable of love (the way we humans understand it), married Goldberry and the two became husband and wife.

From The Lord of the Rings it is not so easily understood whether they were in fact a couple – except for odd and subtle hints scattered here and there in the text.

After their wedding, it seems she left her “deep weedy pool” and stayed in the house of Bombadil; leaving “on the bank in the reeds River-woman sighing …”

3.0 Final Thoughts

And that brings to conclusion this 5-part article. I really hope you found something interesting in these posts – even though you may not agree with everything (or anything) that has been presented.

Having just fired up your imaginations or instilled some counter-arguments and debates of your own, is ultimately the purpose of all this.

Writing this article has been a great experience and a learning curve: not only on these two characters, but also in the way Tolkien manages to escalate his readers’ interests into discovering more and more about Middle-earth.

As always, I’d be very grateful if you shared with us your own thoughts. There’s already been some very insightful feedback over these past few days with regards to this particular topic – so please keep it up!

I’m currently working on the next set of posts – the topics of which are … uhmm … surprisingly thought-provoking! 😉

Stay in touch 🙂

Copyright of  all photos, illustrations and artwork shown here, belong to their respective artists/owners.

8 thoughts on “Riddles, Rhymes and Lilies: The Mystery of Tom Bombadil (Part V)

  1. Excellent summary of the available evidence and again I learned something new about Tolkien’s world. I think your ideas of who these beings are make sense. Looking forward to your next article. I would personally enjoy some more stuff on military organisation (maybe of the good guys this time?)

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