Gandalf Visits Bombadil

by Vison

V

The rain had ceased, although the sky was low and grey, and a chill wind blew steadily now from the North. Gandalf stood on the porch of Tom’s house and looked to the West. The forest, which on a clear day would have rolled away endlessly, was now veiled in clouds. The barrow-downs were unseen to the East.

He followed Master Bombadil to the stable and could not help but be heartened by a welcoming whicker from Shadowfax. “Greetings, my friend,” he said to the horse. He opened the gate of the stall and the great grey horse stepped quietly behind him down the short aisle to the open door. Behind Shadowfax came Fatty Lumpkin. The two horses trotted past the end of the stable and out into the pasture, then they touched noses and set off at a gallop to the far end.

Bombadil’s flock of sheep scattered, bleating, and his red and white spotted cow kicked up her heels and ran clumsily up a hill, her tail in the air. The foolish antics of the animals made both Tom and Gandalf laugh. They leaned, farmerlike, on the rail fence. A flock of crows came noisily out of the South and made for their rookeries in the Old Forest.

“More rain to come,” Bombadil said. “The crows seek shelter.”

“Not the crows only,” Gandalf said. He pointed to the West, and there was a V-shaped flock of Geese coming toward them. “Maybe not shelter, I suppose. They are going to the Southlands, are they not? Is it not late in the season?”

“It is late, but not too late. They will rest the night in the marshes down Withywindle. See, they bear to the left now. Hear them! That is a sound one never wearies of. They will come over us so near we shall hear their wings. Be still, Mithrandir, they will not come close if they see thee move.”

Gandalf obeyed. In a few moments the Geese were overhead, and indeed he could hear the beat of their mighty wings, and, once or twice, the commands of their leaders. He closed his eyes, trying to imagine the thoughts of these birds. They sought their Winter grounds blindly as it were, their journey already charted in their hearts when they broke their way out of the egg.

Was it so with the Eldar? He had never heard of any setting sail to the Uttermost West with a chart in hand. Elves sought the Havens, Elves sailed to the West. For a moment he allowed a horrid fancy to form in his mind, that these Elves who sailed so trustingly and blindly away from Cirdan’s shipyard sailed into oblivion or worse. That the grey ships vanished, and fell over the edge of the Earth. But he knew it was not so. The Elves needed no chart, for they were going Home. Like the Geese, the chart was in their hearts.

He searched his own heart, and knew it was a mystery to him. Would he ever be able to read it? There had been hours, even days, in the last years when he longed for escape, to be free of care and fear. Waking from his battle with the Balrog, he had, for the space of one or two heartbeats, imagined that he was safe, that he need struggle no more. Yet he had gone on, reborn, even strengthened by the sojourn Away. And now? Now it was over. Duty done, task accomplished. Why could he not be at peace?

Bombadil had been in the right of it, he knew. “I have not been free of pride and amibition,” Gandalf said to himself. “Did not Curunir himself point it out to me, that I must needs always be the best, putting myself upon some pedestal of purity? He saw what he called my pretence that I was never tempted!” Then he shook himself in his mind. “But tempted or no, I stayed true when he did not.”

Bombadil busied himself with forking dirty straw from the stalls onto a pile, trundling it up a narrow ramp in a wheelbarrow. He ran, his yellow-booted feet quick and sure on the plank. Trotting back, he nodded at Gandalf. “Mithrandir! Do you know one end of a pitchfork from another? Then do you get up in that loft, if you please, and throw some hay down for our four-footed friends.”

Gandalf laughed, and climbed up into the haymow. Here it was dark under the low roof and he stood for a moment while his eyes became used to the dimness. Something brushed against him and he looked down and saw a cat winding herself about his leg. She miaowed demandingly.

He bent and stroked her head, and she rolled over, purring. He saw that she was a mother, and looked about himself. There they were, three of them, asleep behind the pitchfork that was thrust into the pile of hay. Kneeling, he picked one kitten up and held it to his face. The queencat sat, her eyes wide and golden, watching as he picked up the other two kittens. The three blind things lay in his hands, soft and warm. They were marked like their mother, sooty black with a white bib and white paws. Tenderness for these helpless beings washed over him and tears stung his eyes. There the mother sat, looking at him, knowing her babies were safe in his stranger’s hands. He set them gently down, and the mother lay beside them and they began to suckle. He thought he could sit there for hours.

The day would come, not far off, when the queencat would cuff her kits away, and hiss at them if they came close. She would know the time had come, and she would withdraw herself, thus sending her young out into their world. She would turn herself about herself and curl into the hay and never be tormented with doubt or worry. Nature had fitted her for this task and when it was done, she would be content. Why was this cat wiser than he, who was accounted one of the Wise?

“Art thou asleep up there?” Tom shouted up the ladder.

“No, no,” Gandalf answered, standing up. He took the fork and began to toss hay down along the edge of the haymow. It was open to the mangers below. “Tell me when there is enough,” he called.

“Two more forkfuls like the last, Mithrandir, and that will do,” Tom said.

Done with the fork, Gandalf stuck it in the pile, but not near the mother cat. He climbed down, and on the ladder began to sneeze.

“My word, Mithrandir,” Tom said, his voice full of concern. “Methinks that the top of thy head will blow off! I would never have sent thee up into the hay had I known it would bring on such a fit of sneezing!”

“Well, I did not know either,” Gandalf managed. “I have never tossed hay about before, you see.”

“That was not taught at Wizard school, then?” Tom teased. He went to the stable door and whistled. Soon the horses returned, coming up at a thunderous gallop right to the door. “Lumpkin,” Tom said, “art thou not ashamed, showing off to Shadowfax like that? Thou art too old and fat to race about in that manner!”

The horses went into the clean stalls and set to their corn right away. Gandalf went in with Shadowfax and stroked the proud neck and forehead. “Is there aught else I can do for thee?” he asked the horse. “Here is hay and corn and sweet water, and clean straw to thy feet.”

But Shadowfax said naught, only lifted his head and looked at Gandalf with his great soft dark eyes, and returned to his dinner.

Tom was pouring grain from a sack into a bin. The golden kernels fell like water almost, making a soft hushing noise. Gandalf put his hand under the falling grains. “Where is this corn from?” he asked. “Is it of thine own growing?”

“Nay, nay. A kitchen garden we have, but no fields of grain. I buy what grain I need from Farmer Maggot of the Marish.” Tom took up a few grains and popped them in his mouth.

Doing likewise, Gandalf said, “It tastes somewhat like wheaten bread.”

“It makes fine flour,” Tom responded. “And the flour makes good bread, the bread we had toasted for our breakfast. My lady Goldberry grinds it herself, we are too far from the mill.”

Gandalf stirred a few grains about in the palm of his hand. “A seed is a wonderful thing, is it not? I have heard my brother Radagast on this subject many a time, but I confess it never really struck me till now.”

Walking back to the house, they walked into the teeth of a savage wind. It carried the bite of cold from the far-off mountains. Leaves blew before their feet, sailed through the air. They were hurried through the door by the wind, and Tom slammed it behind them and dropped the bar into the slots.

Goldberry sat near the fire and she looked up smiling as they came in. Gandalf looked to the window. Here in the candlelit room, the windows now looked out into blackness, yet outside it was not yet really dark. He saw the mellow candlelight reflected in the polished wood of the long table, and saw that the vase of autumn leaves glowed in that light, too. In a little bowl were some Beechnuts, a few Walnuts, and a handful of Acorns; they had been rubbed with oil until they shone, a pretty notion of the Riverdaughter.

He took up three Walnuts and four Acorns and began to juggle them. Tom and Goldberry looked on in astonishment as he tossed the nuts spiralling into the candlelight, catching each in turn and tossing it again so quickly it was but a blur. His hands had not lost this skill, he was pleased to find. He walked toward the fire, still juggling, and at last set the nuts on the mantle in a row. But one Acorn he held, as he sat, and he turned it about and about in his hand.

“How Radagast would go on,” he said. “A Marvel, Gandalf, it is a Marvel! See, here, folded in some fashion inside this tiny nut, is a whole Oak tree. What are all the towers and battlements and citadels of your cities compared to that?” He looked at Tom, who was now seated across from him and pulling off his yellow boots. “And I would scoff at my brown brother, thinking him simple and a bit of a fool, to care so much for an acorn. Of course it would grow into an Oak tree! What else could it do?”

He smiled somewhat ruefully. “I feel like an acorn that grew into a daisy, or something against its nature. Whatever was folded into me at my creation, it has not unfolded into one of the Wise, as I had once fancied. Just now, I am not sure what I have become………..”

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