Gandalf Visits Bombadil

by Vison

XXII
.

They spoke little more that night. The frost settled on log and leaf, and when the pale,
wintry sun rose it revealed a world white as if made of sea-spray. The sun rose as red as a ripe apple or a rosehip, round and bright in the low Southeast. The sky above shaded from rose at the horizon to gold and then to a thin, clear blue. There were no clouds. It
would be a fine day.

The two Hobbits woke with the sun and put a blackened pot near the fire to make porridge. The thickening grain bubbled and hissed as Harry stirred it, and the good, wholesome smell mingled with the woodsmoke and the brisk morning air. They had, besides, some strips of dried meat, savory and well-salted. Tom found yet more waybread in his pack, and the very last of the dried fruit. They made a good breakfast, sharing all among all, and drinking yet more of the strong black tea.

Barry grumbled somewhat about having to scour the porridge pot. “You always make it stick,” he groused at Harry. “I keep telling you, don’t put it so near the flame!” He knelt by the stream and rubbed a handful of sand around and around the inside of the pot. “This water is cold!” he complained.

But when their gear was packed, the tent rolled and slung over Harry’s shoulder, Barry’s good humour had returned. He offered to take the heavier pack, and was as careful as anyone could desire about putting out the fire.

“Not that there is any danger this time of year,” he explained, as he pushed earth over the firepit. “But it is ever better to be safe than sorry. A good master but a bad servant…..or, no!” he laughed. “A good servant but a bad master is fire.” His cheerful Hobbit face was rosy-cheeked with the chill morning air, and his breath steamed as he bustled about the camp.

Then the four of them set out, walking East and somewhat South, following the stream for a time. About mid-morning they came to a tumble of great boulders and here the watercourse turned to the North. There was a ford, evidently not used for some time, as the stepping stones were greenly cushioned with thick old moss.

Gandalf gestured. “We do not cross here, then?”

“We do not cross at all,” Harry answered. “That way is closed to us.” He went on, his voice betraying his fear, “No one who has gone that way has ever returned. We do not know what became of them, and we do not search any more. It is too dangerous. They say there are Monsters in the rocks, that lay in wait for any who pass by.”

“What kind of monsters?” Gandalf asked, curious.

“Why, you know, beasts that devour folk,” Barry answered. “Great slavering beasts with long fangs and sharp talons, that kind of monster. Do they not have any monsters where you come from?”

Gandalf nodded. “Not so many as before, though,” he said. “We have killed rather a lot of them in late years.”

The two young Hobbits looked doubtful. “But you are old, sir,” Harry said at last. “Surely an old fellow like you would not be going about slaying monsters?”

Gandalf laughed. “I am tougher than I look, young Harry.”

“Indeed he is,” Bombadil said. “He is a mighty wizard, do not forget that, either.”

“I am not perfectly sure what a Wizard is,” Harry confessed. “I took it to mean that he was old, with a long beard.”

Now both Bombadil and Gandalf laughed, and Gandalf said, “Well, that is one meaning, to be sure! No, I am more than that, but how much more?” He became serious. “When we have reached your home, and when we are speaking to the Elders, you may learn more of me. But be sure of this, such powers and talents as I still possess make me only more your friend, not less. While you are with me, you need fear no Monsters. And Master Tom here will keep you safe from the Trees.”

Barry shuddered. “The Trees! Then you know about them?” His voice dropped. “Have you ever heard of -- Old Man Willow?”

“Don’t, Barry!” Harry urged. “You know we are never to speak of him!”

Tom Bombadil stopped in his tracks and frowned at the two Hobbits. “Old Man Willow! Tell me, youngling, what do you know of him?”

Harry shook his head. “Only that he is Bad. They will say no more. They warn us, they teach everyone, never go to sleep near a Tree. Always sleep in a clearing. Never sit on the ground under a Willow Tree, especially near water. But then, they always grow near water, anyway. What do you know of him, Sir?”

“That he is as you say, Bad. Bad to his black heart,” Tom answered. “But when you are with me, you are safe! Tom is Master.” He clapped his hands, and sang, “Willow Man, I hear thy song! I hear thee singing all day long! Tom is Master, Tom will see
these Hobbits stay safe from the trees!” Then he laughed, and swept his blue-feathered hat off and bowed. “Bombadil, Bombadillo!”

Harry and Barry stared, then laughed with Tom. The fear left their eyes. “Who are you?” Harry asked. “Who are you, really?” Then, with quick understanding, “You are the Spirit of the Wood! You are!”

“Thou mayst say that,” Tom answered. “But not the Spirit, rather the Guardian. And now, meeting with thee and with thy brother, I see that I have neglected this part of my Ward for too long! Hobbit folk should not go forth in fear. There is much I must learn, so let us go quick, and so come to thy home the sooner.”

Awe, mingled with curiosity, shone on their faces. “This is like a Tale,” Barry said. “It is like being in a Tale!”

“Maybe we should not believe him,” Harry said, ever the careful one. “Maybe it is all a trick. But I doubt it, too. I think we have come to strange times, as the Lady Silverfoot says. Strange folk for strange times. Still,” he added hopefully in his firm young voice, “strange or not, I know that you are trusty fellows and will bring good fortune to us all.”

That day and the next they walked. The two young Hobbits easily kept pace with the longer legs of Bombadil and Gandalf, and they were woodcrafty and watchful always. Young they might be, but the woodland trails were their place, and as they neared their homeland, they knew every rock and shrub, every trickle of water that became a stream.

They were dressed in rusty brown and green, and could disappear into the undergrowth in a twinkling. Gandalf recalled that even the Shirefolk could move with astonishing silence, and were quick of eye and hand.

Late in the morning of the third day they were walking down a slope into a deep dell when suddenly Barry stopped and put up his hand. “Quiet!” he hissed. He strung his bow and crept forward, and Harry did likewise, going to Barry’s left. Though the trees were largely leafless, and so was the underbrush, the two seemed to vanish into the tangle of green and brown that was the winter forest.

Gandalf and Bombadil stood silent. Then they saw a stag stepping cautiously along the flat bottom of the dell. He raised his head, tasting the air, and his large ears flicked forth and back.

But for the stag it was too late to be cautious. He fell, pierced in his chest by the sharp arrows of the two Hobbit bowmen. They raced forward, bows slung quickly over their shoulders, their long, keen knives already drawn.

Now Bombadil and Gandalf followed, coming up to where Harry and Barry knelt by the dead deer.

“This is good fortune, indeed!” Harry said. He touched the animal’s face with bloody fingers. “Go you now to the Mother of the Deer,” he said. “Give her our thanks.”

Barry did likewise, his face for once truly serious. “A fine fat stag,” he said to his brother. “And it was your arrow brought him down, brother. A good shot.”

The two youths dressed the deer quickly and expertly. Neither Gandalf nor Bombadil offered to help, but watched with interest. Again these two young Hobbits surprised them by their competence. Soon the carcass was quartered and lying on the hide, and the entrails neatly disposed of in a pit.

“Well,” Bombadil said at last, “we can at least help thee carry this meat to thy folk. It is far too much for you two.”

“We can hang what we can’t carry,” Barry answered. “It is only a half a day’s march now to our home, and tomorrow morning some of our fellows can come back for it.”

“Oh, won’t they be pleased!” Harry said, grinning. “This is a windfall, indeed, and I think we can see already that these strangers have brought us good fortune!”

“We can have a proper feast for once,” Barry answered. “Plenty for all!”

Gandalf noticed again what he had noticed when he first saw these two, that they were thin for Hobbits, and he guessed that times were hard in their home place. “Come, come, you two. Master Tom and I must help you! This old cloak of mine will do very well as a wrapping, and my ancient shoulders are not too ancient to bear such a burden! Here, see? We shall sling it on a pole, and carry it as with a yoke.”

“Why, that is our way, too,” Harry said. “If you are sure you don’t mind?”

“What is there to mind?” Tom asked. He took his axe and neatly trimmed two strong and not too limber poles from a stand of Hazel. “Bombadillo! Hazel, not Willow!”

Thus they were soon trudging up the slope on the far side of the dell, into the afternoon and the coming darkness. But the two Hobbits scarcely needed light to find their way, for every bush and twig was familiar to them. They sang as they walked, and the two following, Gandalf and Bombadil, listened in silence.

Gandalf felt as though he was not only in a strange place, but a strange time as well. These two sons of Bento, whoever he might be, were nothing like the farmfolk of the Shire. They moved like Rangers, and had all the woods-skill that Strider ever had. Their bows and arrows were nothing like the graceful bows of the Elven archers of Lorien, but their eyes were as keen and their aim as sure.

The air changed, becoming sharply cold, and a keen wind whistled through the bare trees. The sky lowered with the coming night, and with the grey clouds that meant snow. Down another slope, and along the winding course of a stream. Here and there Willow trees hung over the black winter water, and where there were Willows the trail skewed away in a curve.

It was easy for even so poor a woodsman as Gandalf to see that this was a well-used path. He spoke to Bombadil who walked behind, “We are not far from their home now, I think. Do you smell smoke?”

“I do,” Bombadil answered. “I wonder what they will make of us, these Elders of theirs?”

Gandalf laughed. “Well, Elders they might be, but in a contest of years, I think we have them beat, between us!”

Snow began to fall, light flakes sweeping softly before the wind that was gentler down in the bottoms where they walked. Gandalf felt it on his face and thought of the snow on Caradhras, on the Redhorn Pass. He heard Hobbit voices now, as he had heard them then. So long ago it seemed!

Then there they were before him, a dozen or so Hobbit men, dressed as were Harry and Barry, with bows strung and drawn……………
 


Return to top of page