07 September 2017

Two Quick Observations on Goldberry

Claude Monet -- Water Lilies, 1920-26

In a chair, at the far side of the room facing the outer door, sat a woman. Her long yellow hair rippled down her shoulders; her gown was green, green as young reeds, shot with silver like beads of dew; and her belt was of gold, shaped like a chain of flag-lilies set with the pale-blue eyes of forget-me-nots. About her feet in wide vessels of green and brown earthenware, white water-lilies were floating, so that she seemed to be enthroned in the midst of a pool.
(FR 1.vii.123)
Thus for the first time see Goldberry, who introduces herself to them as 'daughter of the River' (1.vii.122). As with her spouse, Tom Bombadil, it is hard to say what and who she is. In both cases, an answer is likely impossible to attain, and, if there is one, it almost certainly has no specific bearing on the plot of The Lord of the Rings. Is she one of the Maiar, or something else entirely? We don't know. We should likely view the question of the nature and identity of Goldberry in the context of the other evidence for the natural world of Middle-earth being far more alive and aware than we often recognize. In addition to the Ents and trees, we find, for example, the thinking fox* (FR 1.iii.72), the birds and beasts whose languages Gandalf and Radagast know (FR 2.ii.257; vii.359), Caradhras (2.iii.289-294), and the stones of Hollin (FR 2.iii.283-84). We should also not forget Treebeard's statement to Merry and Pippin:
But some of my trees are limb-lithe, and many can talk to me. Elves began it, of course, waking trees up and teaching them to speak and learning their tree-talk. They always wished to talk to everything, the old Elves did. 
(TT 3.iv.468, italics mine)
Into all this evidence for a world filled with consciousness, let us introduce two observations that seem to fit Goldberry. First, we meet her enthroned, as it were, among the water-lilies Tom has brought home for her this day, the last he will be able to fetch before Winter closes in (FR 1.vii.127). Water-lilies belong to the family Nympheaceae, an adjective formed from the Ancient Greek noun νυμφαία, which refers to both the yellow and the white water-lily, plus the Latin taxonomic suffix -aceus, 'resembling'. It should be equally obvious, moreover, that this word is also related to νύμφη, which means 'young bride' as well as 'nymph', the minor female divinities of Greek Mythology closely associated with nature in many forms

Second, as Alaric Hall has discussed at length in his Elves in Anglo-Saxon England, Latin 'nympha', a direct borrowing of Greek νύμφη, is glossed in Old English as ælfen, that is, 'female elf' (Hall, 2009, 78-88). So, to the Anglo-Saxons female elves shared enough of the qualities that the nymphs of Greek and Roman mythology possessed, for the one word to translate the other. Now a caution is here in order. Whatever Tolkien may have envisioned Goldberry to be, it was not an Elf as he portrayed them. Rather she was something 'resembling a nymph', something that an Anglo-Saxon might have called an elf, but which Tolkien, having restored the Elves from Victorian silliness and redeemed them from the race of Cain, cannot. And it is from precisely the ineffability of Goldberry's nature that Tolkien drew the stunning inversion of an epic simile that he uses to describe the inability of the hobbits' to define her.** In an epic simile the unfamiliar is explained by reference to the familiar. Not so here:
‘Enter, good guests!’ she said, and as she spoke they knew that it was her clear voice they had heard singing. They came a few timid steps further into the room, and began to bow low, feeling strangely surprised and awkward, like folk that, knocking at a cottage door to beg for a drink of water, have been answered by a fair young elf-queen clad in living flowers.
(FR 1.vii.123)
Not so anywhere, except perhaps in Faërie.



* It is common to dismiss the thinking fox as a left-over from the The Hobbit's style of story-telling, but the other evidence for some kind of sentience in many different creatures and things suggests either that that is not true, or that, if it is, Tolkien has retconned it by the inclusion of the other examples of sentience in nature.

** My thanks to Corey Olsen for pointing out that Tolkien has here inverted what is normal in a simile of this kind.

Hylas and the Nymphs -- John William Waterhouse, 1896


  1. I always find it telling what sort of words Tolkien invented for his world-building languages as they reflect his view of his own subcreated world at any point of its development very well.
    For instance we find the Q(u)enya nouns tavaril "dryad, spirit of woods" and wingil "nymph, foam-spirit_ in the vocabulary; these were created quite early (before the writing of LotR), and although we can't really find beings categorized as such in LotR, it indicates that these featured in Tolkien's imagination and it is quite possible that Goldberry belonged to this "class".

    1. Thanks, Tamas, that's a great catch.