There is one stream there, I know, black and strong which crosses the path. That you should neither drink of, nor bathe in; for I have heard that it carries enchantment and a great drowsiness and forgetfulness.
(Hobbit, p. 155)
This warning from Beorn sounds ominous as Bilbo Baggins and the Dwarves are about to leave his cosy halls and embark on their journey through Mirkwood. While venturing into the forest itself will soon prove rather dangerous and, for Bilbo in particular, character-changing, the prospect of having no proper source of water, should their supplies run out, makes the road sound even worse.
Waters of forgetfulness are not rare in mythologies and legends. Some of them have a rather macabre air, as they belong to the lands of the dead. For instance, the river Lethe from Greek mythology is believed to be in the Underworld in the realm of Hades. Its crossing causes souls to forget all the memories of their past lives which can connect them to the world of the living. Thus Lethe separates the present from the past, where the dead are relocating, and their past lives from what is in store for them after death (1).
Other streams of forgetfulness belong to the Otherworlds unconnected with the realms of the dead. Mirkwood’s Enchanted Stream, which Beorn is referring to in the aforementioned quotation, may be rooted in the Irish folklore. In this respect Douglas A. Anderson mentions the tales concerning the travels of Saint Brendan (2). He embarks on a long voyage with his brethren, and one day the travellers land on an island with a source of clear water. Being hungry and thirsty, the brethren ignore Saint Brendan’s warnings not to drink from the stream and call deep sleep upon themselves. The length of their slumber depends on how much water they drank.
Tolkien was well familiar with the story of Saint Brendan. His own interpretation of the saint’s voyages appeared in the form of the poem The Death of Saint Brendan, which was later changed, re-named Imram and published on 3 December, 1955 in Time and Tide. Both versions can be found in the ninth volume of The History of Middle-earth – Sauron Defeated. Tolkien’s variant of the poem about Saint Brendan involves the traveller’s recollections of his journeys before his death, some of which are closely connected with Professor’s own mythology.
In The Hobbit the fate of Saint Brendan’s brethren befalls Bombur. Walking through Mirkwood, Bilbo and the Dwarves encounter a stream:
… one day they found their path blocked by a running water. It flowed fast and strong but not very wide right across the way, and it was black, or looked it in the gloom.
(Hobbit, p. 165)
Having been warned, the travellers do not drink from the stream even despite their thirst, which Saint Brendan and his monks also experienced severely. However, in spite of their care, Bombur stumbles into the water and immediately falls into a deep sleep. Nothing and nobody can wake him up for a rather long period of time, which presents a serious difficulty to the company’s further road.
At first sight Bombur’s sleep does not seem to be evil. He looks happy in his forgetfulness and upon waking up and learning that there is no food, the Dwarf grumbles that he had good dreams about a great feast, bright lights and a woodland king. However, the Enchanted Stream has the effect similar to that of Lethe and erases some of his memories as Bombur “could not make out where he was at all, nor why he felt so hungry; for he had forgotten everything that had happened since they started their journey that May morning long ago” (Hobbit, p. 174).
There is a special significance to the Enchanted Stream here. Right after crossing it, Bilbo and the Dwarves encounter several things they have not come across in the wood before. First, they hear the sounds of a great hunt. Though they do not know it at that moment, it is the Wood-elves hunting. The motive of the Fairy hunt is a common one in folklore. Douglas A. Anderson refers to Sir Orfeo’s similar experience while he was wandering in the wild in search for his wife (3):
There often by him would he see,
when noon was hot on leaf and tree,
the king of Faërie with his rout
came hunting in the woods about
with blowing far and crying dim,
and barking hounds that were with him;
(Sir Orfeo, p. 135)
In The Mabinogion, Pwyll sees a pack of white hounds with red ears – the sign of the Otherworld, too – before coming face to face with a lone hunter Arawn, the king of Annwvyn in the Otherworld. This happens not far from the king’s realm, so led by Arawn, Pwyll is able to see his lands with his own eyes. This encounter leads to Pwyll’s ruling the kingdom in the Otherworld for a year and one day.
Just like Pwyll sees the white dogs, so Bilbo and the Dwarves encounter a white hind with her fawns soon after hearing the hunt. The peculiar unearthly glimmering white of the animals is another hint at the kind of territory the travellers have ventured into: it is the kingdom of Faërie. In case of Mirkwood, it is the realm of the Wood-elves to the north-east of the forest the Bilbo and the Dwarves are drawing nearer to.
Thus, the Enchanted Stream here plays a very interesting double role. First, it serves as the border between the Elvish realm and the rest of Mirkwood. By crossing it, the travellers walk into a different territory – the lands of the Elves that the sounds of the hunt, the white deer and the Stream itself hint at. Another role of the Enchanted Stream here seems to be a protective one. Falling into the Forest River, it makes a loop and joins the river not far from the dwellings of the Wood-elves, thus working as a guarding line in the way of unwanted visitors wishing to approach the Elves.
I express my gratitude to Shawn Marchese for directing my attention towards the relevance of Lethe in the present discussion.
(1) H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness – p. 30
(2) The Annotated Hobbit – p. 198
(3) Ibid. – p. 199
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Hobbit; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012.
- J. R. R. Tolkien, Douglas A. Anderson – The Hobbit or there and back again: revised and expanded edition annotated by Douglas A. Anderson; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2003.
- J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – Sauron Defeated; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo translated by J. R. R. Tolkien and edited by Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2006.
- Jeffrey Gantz (transl.) – The Mabinogion; Penguin Books; 1976 (E-book edition).
- Ivan Illich – H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness; The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture; Dallas; 1926.
Featured image – Creative Common Licence found at Pixabay.