6

From book 1, Chapter 6,of The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien:

Tom Bombadil's Song

Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo!
Ring a dong! hop along! fal lal the willow!
Tom Bom, jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo!

Hey! Come merry dol! derry dol! My darling!
Light goes the weather-wind and the feathered starling.
Down along under Hill, shining in the sunlight,
Waiting on the doorstep for the cold starlight,
There my pretty lady is, River-woman's daughter,
Slender as the willow-wand, clearer than the water.
Old Tom Bombadil water-lilies bringing
Comes hopping home again. Can you hear him singing?
Hey! Come merry dol! derry dol! and merry-o,
Goldberry, Goldberry, merry yellow berry-o!
Poor old Willow-man, you tuck your roots away!
Tom's in a hurry now. Evening will follow day.
Tom's going home home again water-lilies bringing.
Hey! come derry dol! Can you hear me singing?

  • 3
    Which part are you looking for an explanation of? I assume you aren't seeking hidden meaning in "Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo!"? – Rand al'Thor Feb 23 at 10:29
  • I know the meaning of some of its parts but I don't know what it about is. – S E Feb 23 at 10:35
  • That's what I'm asking you: which parts do you understand, and which parts do you want help with? – Rand al'Thor Feb 23 at 10:36
  • 3
    I think it's pointless to seek meaning in things like "Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo!" - this is literally nonsense rhyme, with no more meaning than "la la la". (I could be wrong though.) – Rand al'Thor Feb 23 at 10:42
  • 2
    If you look at a much longer poem Tolkien wrote about Tom Bombadil, "The Adventures of Tom Bombadil", you will notice that whenever Tom tells somebody to do something, they do it. So there's probably nothing about the structure of the poem that makes it a magic spell, and most of it is just nonsense. It's just the line "Poor old Willow-man, you tuck your roots away!" that made Old Man Willow let the hobbits go. – Peter Shor Feb 23 at 17:35
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Here’s a bit more context from chapter 6:

He [Frodo] turned round and listened, and soon there could be no doubt: someone was singing a song; a deep glad voice was singing carelessly and happily, but it was singing nonsense:

Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo!
Ring a dong! hop along! fal lal the willow!
Tom Bom, jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo!

Half hopeful and half afraid of some new danger, Frodo and Sam now both stood still. Suddenly out of a long string of nonsense-words (or so they seemed) the voice rose up loud and clear and burst into this song:

Hey! Come merry dol! derry dol! My darling!
Light goes the weather-wind and the feathered starling.

The narration says that Bombadil is singing “carelessly and happily” and that the song consists of “a long string of nonsense-words”. The impression we get is that Bombadil simply loves to sing as he goes about his activities. His song expresses his joy in the natural world about him (the starlings and willows, the wind and sun and starlight and so on), and declares his love for Goldberry. When Frodo meets Goldberry he says,

“Fair lady Goldberry! Now the joy that was hidden in the songs we heard is made plain to me.”

We can imagine that Bombadill makes up his song as he goes along, using a stock of phrases that he has composed over the years, and that sometimes he runs out of sense and fills up the tune with nonsense-words. However, these words are not completely nonsensical, and in fact most of them can be explained.

  • “Hey” is “an exclamation expressing exultation, incitement, surprise, etc.” (OED) In Bombadil’s song it seems to express his joy. The OED goes on to add that it is “sometimes used in the burden of a song with no definite meaning”, for example in Balthazar’s song from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing:

    Converting all your sounds of woe
    Into Hey nonny, nonny.

  • “Derry” is “a meaningless word in the refrains of popular songs” (OED), for example the folk ballad ‘The Three Ravens’:

    There were three ravens sat on a tree,
    They were as black as they might be.
    With a down, derry, derry, derry, down, down.

  • “Dol”, “fal” and “lal” are solfège, that is, conventional syllables that are assigned to notes of the musical scale: the usual spellings are “do re mi fa sol la”. These come from the initial syllables of the phrases of an 8th century Latin hymn Ut queant laxis which was set to a rising scale:

    Ut queant laxīs resonāre fībrīs
    ra gestōrum famulī tuōrum,
    Solve pollūtī labiī reātum,
    Sancte Iōhannēs.

    (The syllable “ut” was found to be hard to pronounce and was substituted by “do” in the 17th century.)

    The syllables “fa” and “la” are popular fill-in words in English songs: indeed, a common form of song has a refrain consisting only of these words. Well-known examples are the madrigal ‘Now is the month of Maying’ by Thomas Morley:

    Now is the month of maying,
    When merry lads are playing,
    Fa la la la la la la la la,
    Fa la la la la la la la.

    And the carol “Deck the halls”:

    Deck the halls with boughs of holly,
    Fa la la la la, la la la la.

  • “Ring a dong” is onomatopeia for the sound of bells, and similar words are a common motif in English nursery rhymes (“Ding dong bell / pussy’s in the well”) and carols (“Ding dong! Merrily on high”).

  • “Dillo” is an abbreviation of “Bombadillo”, which is just “Bombadil, O”, the “O” being “Added after the rhyme word at the end of a line in a ballad, song, etc., for metrical reasons” (OED), as for example in the folk song ‘Green grow the rushes, O’:

    I'll sing you one, O
    Green grow the rushes, O
    What is your one, O?

So the effect of these nonsense words and phrases is to strongly associate Bombadil’s song with the tradition of English folk songs and ballads, fitting Bombadil’s role as a kind of archetype or spirit of the English countryside.

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  • 2
    good answer - and also worth possibly adding as further alignment more w/ the old English aspect of the answer vs. Lord of the Rings is that Tom and much of his poem was written well before LotR proper in The Oxford Magazine in 1934 and bore the title "The Adventures of Tom Bombadil" – NKCampbell Feb 24 at 15:39

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