FOTR: Bk 1, Ch 6
Merry takes Frodo, Sam and Pippin through a secret entrance to the Old Forest. It is located through a small tunnel beneath the High Hay that separates Buckland from the encroaching woods. After they pass through, the iron gate closes behind them "with a clang, and the lock clicked. The sound was ominous." The hobbits discuss the old legends of this forest and describe the trees as having the kind of properties one does not usually associate with sedentary flora.
Merry warns that it is told that the trees actually move. Add this to the story of walking trees that Sam recounts back in Chapter Two and it is clear that Tolkien intends to plant the seed of such ideas into the reader's head to prepare him for the later introduction of Ents and Huorns in The Two Towers. But we shall soon see the capabilities of the trees that inhabit the darkest corners of Middle-Earth.
The trees seem to be moving in on them as they make their way through the forest. The hobbits begin to wonder whether they had made a mistake in taking this route. Noticing the path that follows the River Withywindle, Merry warns that they must avoid that direction for the valley along that way is legendary for its "queerness" - in fact he describes it as "the centre from which all the queerness comes, as it were" and it also leads ultimately to the Barrow-Downs, which hobbits have avoided since the founding of the Shire. Despite their attempts to veer North, the trees seem to be manipulating the path to move them exactly in the direction they wish to avoid.
Before long they come upon the Withywindle. Each of the hobbits begins to feel sleep tugging at them and they decide to at least take a brief rest. Merry and Pippin lay themselves against on old willow trunk. Frodo, too, feels he needs to stop and get his bearings. The passage that describes his stop to rest shows Tolkien's brilliant ability to create pictures with words:
"Half in a dream he wandered forward to the riverward side of the tree, where great winding roots grew out into the stream, like gnarled dragonets straining down to drink. He straddled one of these, and paddled his hot feet in the cool brown water; and there he too suddenly fell asleep with his back against a tree."Sam, being too suspicious to relax, is fortunately able to come to his friends' rescue. For all three had fallen under the spell of the Old Forest and were in peril. Frodo falls into the water and his held under by one of the roots. Sam pulls him out and they both are alarmed to discover that Merry and Pippin seem to have disappeared. The cracks of the tree that they were nestled into had engulfed them to the point where only Merry's legs are visible.
After an attempt to free Merry and Pippin by lighting a fire, Frodo and Sam realize they are only making matters worse as the willow is tightening its grasp on the two hobbits in protest. Feeling quite helpless at this moment, cries of "help" erupt from Frodo and Sam as they frantically run along the path holding out hope that someone will assist them. And someone does...
Enter Tom Bombadil, singing his merry song and showing up in the nick of time at the very spot where the hobbits have run into danger. And just who the heck is Tom Bombadil? Well, we'll get to that in the next chapter. But suffice to say this cheery chap was just what the doctor ordered.
"There appeared above the reeds an old battered hat with a tall crown and a long blue feather stuck in the band. With another hop and a bound there came into view a man, or so it seemed. At any rate he was too large and heavy for a hobbit, if not quite tall enough for one of the Big People, though he made noise enough for one, stumping along with great yellow boots on his thick legs, and charging through grass and rushes like a cow going down to drink. He had a blue coat and long brown beard; his eyes were blue and bright, and his face was red as a ripe apple, but creased into a hundred wrinkles of laughter. In his hands he carried on a large leaf as on a tray a small pile of white water-lilies."Tom sees the trouble and begins talking to Old Man Willow who has imprisoned Merry and Pippin within his own wrinkles.
Now, having pulled this entire chapter from the screenplay for Fellowship of the Ring, the writers Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens desperately wanted to include some of this in the Extended Cut of The Two Towers. So while in Fangorn Forest, Merry and Pippin fool around with the Entdraughts and find themselves in a similar situation. Their rescuer turns out to be Treebeard who scolds the "Old Man Willow" of Fangorn:
"Away with you! You should not be waking! Eat earth! Dig deep! Drink water! Go to sleep! Away with you!"
This verbiage is taken almost word for word from the text as Tom Bombadil uses his enchanting speech to command the Willow to release the hobbits. In the documentary portions of the Extended Two Towers, Boyens expresses her belief that Tolkien would likely have approved giving these lines to Treebeard.
Previously, I've always viewed the manipulations of the trees and the undergrowth in the Old Forest as having a purely malevolent purpose - driving the hobbits deeper into the forest along the line of the Withywindle towards greater danger. However, recently I've thought that maybe all of this changing of the terrain was also intended to lead the hobbits to Tom Bombadil. Tom saves them twice - once here in the Old Forest and again on the Barrow-Downs, where more sinister forces under the spell of the Nazgul pose an even greater danger to the quest.
This begs the question: if the trees are affecting the hobbits' direction towards Tom Bombadil then is it by their will or that of another source? When they meet Tom, he says their meeting is "by chance" but was this meeting influenced by forces outside of Middle-Earth, perhaps even by Eru Iluvatar himself? The idea is plausible considering the later intervention with Gandalf after his encounter with the Balrog. It is also ironic that the hobbits' decision to journey by way of the Old Forest in the first place was directly influenced by the presence of the Black Riders. This detour will lead them to the Barrow-Downs where Merry will come into possession of the blade of Westernesse which will play a part in destroying the Witch-King on the Pelennor Fields. The actions of the chief Nazgul (as a Black Rider) at this part of the story have a direct bearing on his ultimate fate.
Once the hobbits are freed, Tom invites the hobbits to join him at his home where "The table is all laden with yellow cream, honeycomb, and white bread and butter." Considering the gloom of the Old Forest combined with their weariness, old Tom made them an offer they couldn't refuse. They follow after Tom until they come upon his little house, and they discover that he was nice enough to leave the light on for them.
[Chronology: September 26th 3018 T.A.]