Because the Black Riders may be closing in again, the hobbits leave Crickhollow at first light the next morning. Frodo wants to avoid established roads, so they enter the sinister Old Forest, where Merry has a vague idea of the paths that lead through the trees. However, he soon finds that the Forest has a mind of its own, and the paths and landmarks have changed since he last entered. Eventually the despondent hobbits realize that the trees have closed in on them, forcing them to travel southeast rather than their intended northeast movement.
The hobbits’ progressively dreary outlook matches the gloomy and foreboding atmosphere of the Old Forest, where trees actively herd them in the wrong direction. This a pattern that continues throughout The Lord of the Rings series, in which the physical landscapes reflect characters’ states of mind.
Eventually the group descends into a steep valley in the heart of the forest, coming to the River Withywindle. As they follow the river’s winding path, Frodo, Merry, and Pippin are overcome by an unnatural tiredness and fall asleep beside the river. Sam barely stays conscious, when two distinct noises startle him. Checking on his friends, he sees that a great willow tree is holding a motionless Frodo in the river, while Pippin and Merry have been almost wholly swallowed within the willow’s great trunk.
The hobbits are introduced to an example of the danger that is regularly experienced beyond the Shire and Buckland. The supernatural willow is the stuff of fairytales, experienced in real life. Sam is the only hobbit to resist the willow’s magical drowsiness, perhaps because he is the most pragmatic and down-to-earth member of the group.
Sam swiftly rescues Frodo from the water. Frodo immediately wakes up, but the two cannot free their trapped friends from the tree’s grasp. It becomes apparent that the willow tree is a malevolent being who will not let go of Merry and Pippin. In a state of absolute panic, Frodo runs down the riverbank calling frantically for help. He is surprised to be answered by the comical character of Tom Bombadil.
Sam’s first loyalty is always to Frodo, and he rescues him first. After they unsuccessfully try to rescue Merry and Pippin from the willow tree, Frodo gives in to sheer terror as he wildly yells for help. It is highly fortuitous that the one person who can help them in the desolate Old Forest happens to be walking nearby at this moment.
Bombadil approaches the distressed hobbits while loudly singing nonsensical songs. He is quite a sight, dressed in a tall crown, blue coat, and yellow boots, and he hops and dances as he sings his silly tunes. He appears to be familiar with the dangers of the tree that he identifies as Old Man Willow, and sings into its trunk to order its release of Merry and Pippin; the tree complies.
Tom Bombadil is a magical and almost childish entity who can seem out of place in the events of The Lord of the Rings. This can be explained by the fact that Bombadil was an earlier fictional creation that Tolkien transplanted into The Fellowship of the Ring. Here, he stands in as one of the many allies who aid the hobbits in their times of need.
The relieved hobbits follow Tom Bombadil back to his home, which is perhaps the only abode in the Old Forest. Tom and his wife, Goldberry, have invited them to stay for supper. As the hobbits approach the charming home, they are welcomed with a beautiful duet as Tom and Goldberry sing together.
Tom and Goldberry’s welcoming nature sharply contrasts the perils of the Old Forest, and is reminiscent of the Shire’s good cheer, which the hobbits need on a spiritual level after falling into a frightening situation beyond their capabilities in their encounter with the willow tree.