Some weeks ago, following up on discussions in the class Meredith McEwen refers to below, I posted some observations on Goldberry. Soon thereafter Meredith had some astute remarks of her own to add to the conversation, and she has been gracious enough to allow me to share them with everyone. My thanks to her for allowing me to post them here.
While discussing Goldberry and Tom Bombadil in Corey Olson’s intrepid Exploring the Lord of the Rings class, several of my fellow readers commented that “Goldberry” doesn’t sound at all like an appropriate name for a water-spirit. I wholeheartedly agree and got to thinking about who the River-woman’s daughter might truly be. What does the river nourish? Many things along its course: the flora and fauna surrounding the Withywindle. Perhaps “berry” is metaphorical for the “fruit” of the river plants- a golden flower among the reeds and lilypads. In particular, water-lilies can produce a yellow flower and the yellow iris grows in reed beds (reeds and water-lilies being the two plants explicitly named in connection with Goldberry). If you came across such a flower in the woods, might it look like a golden berry floating upon the river or swaying along the riverbank?
Goldberry’s role in Middle-Earth has always been a mystery to me, but I now strongly suspect she’s the spirit of the river flowers (the “daughters” of the river). The comparisons to a “reed by a pool” and a queen “clothed in living flowers” or wearing a gown “green as young reeds” create an undeniable connection to flowers and plant life. Tom recounts to the hobbits that he first met Goldberry “sitting in the rushes” by the pool of the Withywindle where water-lilies first bloom in the spring and “linger latest” in the autumn. The longevity of the lilies may be due to her influence as a flower spirit. Tom’s errand to collect lilies is more than the simple act of a husband bringing flowers to his wife: he uniting her home with his.
I also have to note that Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book contains an Estonian story called “The Water-lily, the Gold-Spinners”. The story is of a maiden who, after escaping a wicked witch’s cottage where she was forced to spin gold thread, is transformed by that witch into a yellow water-lily. The Prince who helped her escape asks a Finnish wizard how to rescue the maiden. The wizard explains that the Prince must transform into a crab, swim down into the river to where he can reach the water-lily’s roots, and cut the roots to remove the flower from the river. Then the prince will be able to transform both himself and maiden back into their natural forms and live happily ever after.
While it’s a tenuous connection, we know that Tolkien read Lang’s collections as a child. In Tolkien’s original Adventures of Tom Bombadil, the hero’s plunge into the river is involuntary, however he does succeed in “uprooting” Goldberry from the river bottom when they marry and she moves into his house. Perhaps the seeds of their relationship were planted in the Estonian fairy tale.