Having now written three posts on Tom Bombadil, I suppose it would only be fair to include at least one on Goldberry.  I do not know if it is significant that Bombadil and Goldberry are the first married couple we meet with any degree of thoroughness in the Lord of the Rings.  Now that I think of it, they are the only married couple, except for Celeborn and Galadriel.


This in itself may be odd.  What strikes about the long tale of the Ring is the general and perhaps intentional lack of women, and especially of wives.  Elrond’s consort Celebrian (Galadriel’s daughter) was mortally wounded some centuries before our story starts, and passed into the West.  Theodon’s wife, the Queen of Rohan, we never hear of.  The same goes for Denethor’s lady.  Dwarf women never show up at all, except in Gimli’s scant remarks about them; and Treebeard laments the disappearance of the Entwives.


In general, I think this lack of wives—the lack, if you will, of the sources of life and renewal—contributes to an atmosphere of exhaustion and decay in Middle Earth.  Of course, the end of the tale (as for all comedies) brings revitalization and a number of auspicious marriages.  But in the midst of the decay, Tolkien does give us these two glimpses of Goldberry and Bombadil on one hand, and Celeborn and Galadriel on the other.  I am still puzzling over why he does this—it may, in fact, not turn out to be very important to the story—but perhaps it constitutes some reason for dwelling a little on Goldberry herself.


Goldberry is a strange combination of a housewife and a great lady.  I call her a housewife because she has no servants and therefore presumably does all the housework herself.  (She prepares the meals and holds washing day and autumn cleaning.)  However, in the House of Goldberry, the work of the house hardly sounds like drudgery.  Even when she and Tom Bombadil lay the table, they do so as if it were a dance.


Outside the house, incidentally, Goldberry appears to do little or nothing; she is not one of the doers of great deeds in Middle Earth.  Even in the matter of gathering water lilies, it is Bombadil who undertakes the mission.  Perhaps this is why Bombadil, besides calling her pretty River-daughter and clearer than clear water, refers to her frequently as waiting:


Tom has his house to mind, and Goldberry is waiting!


In short, Goldberry seems to embody the old ideal of feminine domesticity.


Of course, Goldberry is also a great lady.  Her voice is clear, her speech is half-poetic (like Bombadil’s), and she inspires an Elvish wonder in the Hobbits.  When they first see her, she is sitting in her house in the midst of bowls of water-lilies, as if in state.


This Elf-like queenliness, when rolled together with the huswifery above, results in the initially paradoxical impression that she is a domestic queen, a princess of the hearth.  In a sense, I wonder if Tolkien is awakening us to something here:  the realization that domesticity and queenhood need not be opposed in Middle Earth.  Goldberry (unlike Eowyn, for example, and perhaps in deliberate contrast to her) lives her life by the home hearth, in elegance and merriment.


I bring this up as a counterpoint (though I don’t know if Tolkien intended it so) to those scholars who construct a philosophy of women in which housework and domesticity always function as a sort of oppression.  There is no doubt that many women do love the work of the house; and I think that Tolkien’s portrayal of Goldberry is true to such women.  He has struck, in fact, a role that seems quite natural to many women, while giving it a quasi-enchanted air; and that, no doubt, explains part of why Goldberry is (in Frodo’s words) “deeper and nearer to mortal heart; marvelous and yet not strange.”


As a concluding caveat to all this, I do not wish to extrapolate anything about Tolkien’s “view of women,” or views on feminine domesticity, from such a small vignette of Goldberry.  There are too many other things to take into account:  Arwen as the bella donna of courtly romance, Galadriel as fairy godmother, Eowyn as the reincarnation of a Nordic demigoddess.  I would guess that it would be as tricky to discuss Tolkien’s view of women as it would be to discuss his view of literary genres.  I only wish to point out that, in Goldberry, we find Tolkien seamlessly knitting up two qualities that our current age tells us are unreconcilable.  Goldberry is, indeed, both a housewife and a queen.