Understanding Sam and Frodo’s inexplicable dialogue at Old Man Willow


New Member
There is some very strange dialogue right after Old Man Willow attempts to drown Frodo. Both Professor and Class were somewhat baffled by this dialogue back when this event was covered.

Sam has already been suspicious of the Tree. He hears a splash, runs back to the bank and finds Frodo being held underwater by a root. Sam pulls him out.

“Do you know, Sam,” says Frodo, “the beastly tree threw me in! I felt it. The big root just twisted round and tipped me in!”

Then the strange dialogue starts:

“You were dreaming I expect, Mr. Frodo,” said Sam. “You shouldn’t sit in such a place if you feel sleepy.”

What is up with Sam? Why this response? It seems a very bizarre comment, from Sam, who is already suspicious of the Tree, and has just pulled Frodo out from under a root that was holding him down.

A few second’s later, Frodo and Sam find that Merry and Pippin have been swallowed into cracks in the trunk of the Willow. Trying and failing to pull them out, Frodo cries wildly, “What a foul thing to happen! Why did we ever come into this dreadful Forest? I wish we were all back at Crickhollow!”

Also, an odd dialogue in the circumstances. Sam and Frodo seem like idiots.

This all becomes much more feasible, however, if we just assume that in the course of transcription or translation, a phrase was inadvertently dropped from the text. Here is the possible missing text, in italics:

“You were dreaming I expect, Mr. Frodo,” said Sam in an exaggerated tone, while furtively, but urgently, holding up a finger before his lips. “You shouldn’t sit in such a place, if you feel sleepy.”

Now, all is clear. Sam is signaling that we should not let on to the murderous Tree that we know it is a killer, while we are standing right under it.

Frodo gets it, rides with the plan, and does not accuse the Tree or scream at the Tree when he cannot get Merry and Pippin out. However, no point in this any longer. The Tree is an enemy and it is time for open war against it. Which Frodo realizes as he kicks the tree and then starts talking about axes and fire.

So, if we just assume a descriptive phrase, illuminating Sam’s response to Frodo’s accusation of the Willow, that was dropped in transcription, the whole dialogue stops being idiotic, and becomes totally understandable. Also, totally in character for the street-wise, common sensible, Sam.

Of course, if one was reading the text aloud, it might be possible to convey the reason for this odd dialogue through intonation alone.


Active Member
I always assumed that Sam was chiding Frodo for sitting somewhere from which , if he nodded off in the warm sun, he was likely to fall—whether onto the ground or into the water—and that he didn't believe that the tree had moved until they went around and discovered their friends missing.


New Member
Hi NotACat,

Your suggestion is the most obvious first way to read it. But it is also the way that makes Sam sound like an idiot.

Sam is already suspicious of Old Man Willow. He has said, "There's more behind this than sun and warm air. I don''t like this great big tree. I don't trust it. Hark at it singing about sleep now! This won't do at all!"

Then he hears a splash, rushes over, finds Frodo held underwater by a tree root, but not struggling.

Frodo tells him that the tree attacked and threw Frodo into the water.

So, if Sam does not believe Frodo, or if Sam really thinks that Frodo is wrong about the Tree attacking him, and that Frodo was just dreaming and fell into the water, Sam does seem like an idiot.

That is why the obvious way to read this dialogue is so problematical. We know that Sam is not an idiot. He is, in fact, quick witted, street smart, and almost always suspicious (indeed, more apt to be overly suspicious than overly trusting - though, of course, he is always apt to be trusting of Frodo, rather than suspicious). The thought that Sam would disbelieve Frodo, especially when he has just said (out loud even, though to himself), "I don't trust it (the Tree)", would be totally weird according to everything we know about Sam.

The obvious reading of the dialogue makes no sense at all, and is certainly not in character for Sam (likewise Frodo's line of dialogue shortly after).

However, the dialogue does make sense, and conform to Sam's character, if it is said in the right intonation so that Frodo can understand; "Shut up Mr. Frodo! No point in letting the deadly tree know that we suspect it. Let's just act dumb and innocent and maybe we can slowly back away! It was a dream - get it. We suspect nothing. We know nothing. Let's get out of here!"

I think that is exactly how Sam would likely react to Frodo blurting out accusations of attempted murder against the tree while the two hobbits are standing right underneath it.

If Sam said his line with the right intonation, and with the right gestures, Frodo would understand what he was meaning immediately.

If there had been a modifying clause, describing Sam's tone and gestures, then we the reader would also understand immediately. That's why it is neat to speculate that there was once exactly such a modifying clause, but that sometime during the various transcriptions or translations of the Red Book of Westmarch, some scribe or typesetter carelessly omitted it. These things regularly happen to manuscripts that have gone through multiple transcriptions.
Last edited:

Jim Deutch

Active Member
Sam is signaling that we should not let on to the murderous Tree that we know it is a killer, while we are standing right under it.
One of the things I especially love about this Exploration and the forums is these times when one little insight can totally change the interpretation of a sentence in the text. Just like when Frodo says "if this goes on much longer, I shall turn into a wraith!", where the emphasis on "shall" implies so much about how they have been thinking and talking that didn't make it explicitly into the book.

Not 100% sure I buy this one about Sam, but I thank you tremendously for posting it; this is a beautiful alternate explanation of the dialogue.