Goldberry | Eve Unfallen; Consoler of the Afflicted

This post is dedicated to Daniel Côté Davis, a friend I’ve waited years to meet.

Meditation of the Day

After only narrowly escaping from the pursuit of the Black Riders in Buckland, the hobbits (now four, with the addition of Merry) make the decision to head into the Old Forest–a place of enchantment, known in the Shire from old tales of animate trees with a hostility to creatures that go on two legs (and wield axes). It is a risky gamble, and their course soon begins to go astray, despite their best efforts. They find themselves inexorably drawn by a seductive magic emanating from the dark heart of the forest. Finally they yield to the desire to sleep, whereupon Merry and Pippin are entrapped within an evil tree, Old Man Willow, which also attempts to drown Frodo. They are saved, in the very nick of time, by one of the most enigmatic characters in the novel[1]: Tom Bombadil, who seems blissfully unconcerned about the malevolence of the enchanted trees . . . and just about any other potential threat, at least within his own domain. He laughs, he sings, he makes silly rhymes, he gathers flowers.

These and other traits that we learn about later, at the Council of Elrond, lead many readers and interpreters of Tolkien to see in Tom a kind of Adam figure; that is, Adam before the Fall, still endowed with supernatural and preternatural gifts, and fully exercising his dominion over the created world. “‘Eldest, that’s what I am. Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn'” (Bk1 Ch8). Like our first parents, Tom is simply “the Master.” Nothing frightens or dismays him—not even the One Ring, which can tempt even the wisest and most powerful beings among the Free Peoples of Middle-earth. He lives in a little earthly Paradise.

This Adam has a “helper fit for him” (Gen. 2:18): Goldberry, who identifies herself as a “daughter of the River.” Although she has features in common with the nymphs of Greek and Roman mythology, this River-daughter is much closer to humankind: both noble and down-to-earth. Frodo’s spiritual sensitivity picks up the difference between her and the Elves he has met: “Less keen and lofty was the delight, but deeper and nearer to mortal heart; marvellous and yet not strange” (Bk1 Ch7). Upon entering the cottage where she and Tom live and catching sight of her, the hobbits immediately and instinctively bow low, even though they have no idea who she is, and hobbit society is relatively non-hierarchical. Yet we see her fully engaged in the very concrete tasks of domestic life (including the laundry!), and she is more attuned to the material and emotional needs of her guests than Tom at least gives the appearance of being. With a Christian lens, we can easily see her as Eve Unfallen, tender of the Garden, living in the fullness of the gifts with which the Creator endowed her.

In their traumatized state, no doubt the hobbits would have seen her as a mother figure, someone completely safe, whom they could trust to take complete care of them. It is significant, in this context, to recall that Frodo and Sam (at least) among the four hobbits were motherless. To encounter a mother figure after such a narrow escape from mortal peril would have been all the more consoling.  Frodo’s mother died by drowning in a river, in a tragic boating accident, and he has just barely escaped drowning himself. Since Goldberry is the River-daughter, it may even be plausible to see in this encounter an even deeper source of emotional healing: The River is giving Frodo back a mother when he most needs one. It is not surprising that the hobbits instinctively feel closer to Goldberry and trust her more than Tom (as shown when they ask her to explain who he is).

Tom and Goldberry have complementary gifts, that combine to make their simple cottage a haven of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty in close proximity to places of extreme danger for ordinary mortals. While Goldberry is symbolically associated with the element of water, Tom is associated with the element of fire (light). In the natural world, the union of the two elements produces a rainbow, the Biblical sign of God’s primeval covenant of peace with creation. This is fittingly depicted in Alan Lee’s painting of the House of Tom Bombadil:

It may seem like a sharp contrast to go from venerating the high Queen of Heaven a few short chapters earlier to receiving very concrete care from a maiden in a cottage. Yet Mary is both of these together, for us. She is at once exalted and close to us in our humanity. Her freedom from the stain of sin should not make us think of her as aloof and indifferent. She is the most eminent member of our race, after the Son of God, but she is still one of us. She belongs to us, and we to her. She is the Consoler of the Afflicted, the one we should be quick to turn to in every need, big or small. We can feel completely safe in her presence, as safe as the hobbits did at Goldberry’s table. She wants to be called upon with that degree of ease and simplicity. She wants to say to each of us, no matter what we’re facing: “Fear nothing! My Son, the New Adam, has redeemed you.”

Prayer

Arise! the cold blasts from earth have receded,
And in the fields are lovely flowers smiling,
For thee, O gracious Mother, bearer of Life.
Arise, O Mary!

Beautiful Lily blooming ‘mid the brambles,
Death’s haughty author thou alone didst conquer,
Plucking life-giving tree of fruits the fathers
By sin did not taste.

Ark of sweet wood not destined for ruin,
Holding the manna, whence springs forth the power
Summoning forth the bones arisen again
From depths of the tomb.

Thou handmaid, faithful to the Ruler of hearts,
Thy flesh cruel decay could never even touch,
Thy soul of Spirit partaking without end,
Has winged to the stars.

Leaning on thy beloved, arise, go heav’nward!
Accept the crown with stars for thee bedecked,
List to the hymn thy children sing on this day,
Calling thee blessed.

Praise to the Triune Godhead everlasting,
Who hath caused thee, O Virgin, to be crowned,
And providently willed our Queen thou shouldst be
Also our Mother. Amen.

– From: An Approved English Translation of the Breviarium Romanum. London: Burns & Oates, 1964

Musical Selection

Where Are You Mother? feat. Isabel Bayrakdarian

Action Points

  • If we have arbitrarily and unilaterally excluded certain areas of our lives from our Blessed Mother’s care, especially hurts and areas of struggle, let’s consciously choose instead to entrust them to her, today.
  • We can learn more about the medieval wordplay “EVA–AVE.”
  • Like Tom gathering flowers for his lady, we can decorate an image of Our Lady with flowers, or even make a crown of flowers for her.

To Go Deeper

Bonus: Audio Recording

In the House of Tom Bombadil
Old Tom Bombadil and the River Daughter © 2020 by Daniel Côté Davis. Used with permission.

[1]“To one reader, Tolkien said that he did not know Tom’s origin, though he could make ‘guesses’, if he chose to do so, but preferred to leave Tom a mystery. To another, he commented that some things in the world of The Lord of the Rings should remain unexplained: ‘even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally)’” J.R.R. Tolkien, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (p. 9), HarperCollins, Kindle Edition.