“Merry got down and unlocked the gate, and when they had all passed through he pushed it to again.  It shut with a clang, and the lock clicked.  The sound was ominous.‘There!’ said Merry.  ‘You have left the Shire, and are now outside, and on the edge of the Old Forest.’”

I wonder what it says about Tolkien’s understanding of Nature that the Shire, that quiet bourgeois homeland of unadventure, is bordered by a place as unruly and queer as the Old Forest.  And what, indeed, does he intend by having the Hobbits slip out the back door of this comfortable Shire only to find themselves lost in such a place?  I think that the Old Forest is more than a way of simply transitioning the Hobbits into the world of Men, and in any event it is more than a hiccup in Tolkien’s plan for getting the Hobbits to Rivendell and the real quest.  The Old Forest and the House of Tom Bombadil are what must be learned about Middle Earth before anything else:  namely, that the natural foundation of Middle Earth is old, untame, and living.

I bring this up here because evidently this point was important enough to Tolkien to bear repeating.  All of Middle Earth is alive.  Elves once taught trees to talk.  Legolas hears stones speaking.  The mountain Caradhras bears ill-will towards creatures that go on two legs.  Tree-herders go to war.  The reality of Nature being alive seems so important to Tolkien that he wants his readers to grasp it at once, and he contrives it by losing his readers with the Hobbits in the shifting paths of the Old Forest.  What they learn there is that, in the terminology of Martin Buber, it will not do to confront anything in Middle Earth with an I-It distinction.  Leaf, stock, and stone must be hailed with an I-Thou.

I think that Tolkien confronts us with this view of Nature so early in the Fellowship because it is fundamental to our understanding of the Ring.  The evil of the Ring is possible only if men and trees and grass are not the only things that live in Middle Earth.  Stone and gold also live.  The Ring lives.  If it did not live, and if Sauron did not live through it, it could neither rule nor find nor bring nor bind.  Magic in Middle Earth depends upon what we normally call “objects” actually becoming living “subjects” with their own wills, desires, and ends.  Not insignificant is the moment when Tom Bombadil, the first of the living men and the master of living things, puts on the Ring and does not vanish.

In short, the Old Forest, Old Man Willow, the Withywindle, and Tom Bombadil form the web and weft of the rest of The Lord of the Rings.  They are the only kind of Nature in which the tale of the Ring is possible.