The Great Willow in the Old Forest

Anna Isaacs '07, English 65, Fantasy, Brown University, 2003

In The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, the Ring, a deadly burden, forces Frodo to flee his comfortable life in the Shire with three companions. Frodo and his friends soon reach the Old Forest, a place greatly feared by Hobbits. They fall into an unnatural sleep at the foot of a huge willow tree after hours of fearful and tense journey through the forest. The willow attempts to murder the company, but Tom Bombadil, Master of the Forest, stops him. Tom Bombadil takes the Hobbits back to his home, feeds them, and tells them many things about the Forest.

He then told them many remarkable stories, sometimes half as if speaking to himself, sometimes looking at them suddenly with a bright blue eye under his deep brows. Often his voice would turn to song, and he would get out of his chair and dance about. He told them tales of bees and flowers, the ways of trees, the strange creatures of the Forest, about the evil things and good things, things friendly and things unfriendly, cruel things and kind things, and secrets hidden under brambles.

As they listened, they began to understand the lives of the Forest, apart from themselves, indeed to feel themselves as the strangers where all other things were at home. Moving constantly in and out of his talk was Old Man Willow, and Frodo learned now enough to content him, indeed more than enough, for it was not comfortable lore. Tom's words laid bare the hearts of trees and their thoughts, which were often dark and strange, and filled with a hatred of things that go free upon the earth, gnawing, biting, breaking, hacking, burning: destroyers and usurpers. It was not called the Old Forest without reason, for it was indeed ancient, a survivor of vast forgotten woods; and in it there lived yet, ageing no quicker than the hills, the fathers of the fathers of trees, remembering times when they were lords. The countless years had filled them with pride and rooted wisdom, and with malice. But none were more dangerous than the Great Willow: his heart was rotten, but his strength was green; and he was cunning, and a master of winds, and his song and thought ran through the woods on both sides of the river. His grey thirsty spirit drew power out of the earth and spread like fine root-threads in the ground, and invisible twig-fingers in the air, till it had under its dominion nearly all the trees of the Forest from the Hedge to the Downs. [pp.127-128]


1. How is the Great Willow comparable to the Ash Tree in George MacDonald's Phantastes? Is this comparison effective? Are there any differences?

2. What does Tolkien accomplish with his use of antithesis and parallel structure in the end of the first paragraph? What is he emphasizing with his diction when he says "about the evil things and good things, things friendly and things unfriendly, cruel things and kind things?"

3. Does Tolkien use phrases such as "moving constantly in and out of his talk was Old Man Willow" to further characterize Old Man Willow or to show a connection between Old Man Willow and Tom Bombadil?

4. How does Tolkien use the extended metaphor in the second paragraph to make the abstract concepts of the Great Willow's strength and power more concrete in his readers' minds?


Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. Houghton Mifflin, Boston: 1966.

Victorian Web Overview J. R. R. Tolkien Victorian courses

Last modified 26 February 2004