The action is a bit slow to start in LOTR, which is no doubt why Peter Jackson left a good deal of these beginning parts out of the movie. In today’s book market, I’d guess that if LOTR was an unknown quantity, many people would read a bit of the beginning while standing at the bookshelf and then put it down. Not interesting enough at the start.
So far, much of the interest of the book has been in the sense it creates here of a deep background, a story behind the story so rich you’d slog through paragraphs describing the trees and hills besides the road.
With that said, I remembered from my previous six readings that the Old Forest chapter began to create in my mind a sense of the darkness that can be in the world. It is a creepy chapter. A modern editor might criticize it for overdoing the repetition. The trees feel heavy. The air is thick. The trails seem to move. The close branches are oppressive. It is hard to breathe in this air. The path should have been here. Oh, there it is.
Of course, the forest, which we learn in the next chapter is under the sway of Old Man Willow, draws them inexorably to the Withywindle and to sleep at the roots of Old Man Willow’s base.
But the chapter can be forgiven not only for being effective in spite of some overkill, but also because it introduces Tom Bombadil. In my opinion, the omission of Bombadil from the LOTR movies was the worst decision Jackson made. And that’s not just because I’d like to see which actress they’d have chosen to play Goldberry.
Tom Bombadil is a mystery, a mysterious force. A number of puzzling questions about him will arise in the next chapter. For now we simply learn about his appearance, that his power takes the form of songs, and that he is married to the River Daughter (a water-sprite).
The forest is not, as one might have guessed Tolkien would portray it, benevolent. The spirits of trees, we will find, are susceptible to pride, hatred, and evil just as other creatures. But the Master of the wood is a purely good little man, bigger than a Hobbit, smaller than the Big People, with a red face, yellow boots, a blue coat, and a brown beard.