Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Reading along with the Lord of the Rings: In the House of Tom Bombadil

Chapter 7 of The Fellowship of the Ring

After being chased by Black Riders, lost in the Old Forest and molested by a malignant tree, the hobbits take a break. They spend this chapter singing, bathing and catching up on their sleep. At the centre of it all is the enigmatic figure of Tom Bombadil, undoubtedly the most controversial figure in The Lord of the Rings. Tom has a polarizing effect on people. He seems to be especially hated by screenwriters. As Peter Jackson said of his decision to give Bombadil the shove
The main reason is not just time or pace, but one of simple narrative focus ... the Bombadil sequence has so little to do with Sauron or the Ring, it is difficult to justify the screen time. It simply doesn't give us any vital new information. A very simplest rule of thumb that I use in movie storytelling is to try and further the story with each new scene.
Perhaps it's true that Tom doesn't advance the narrow story of the destruction of the Ring. But if that's all there is to The Lord of the Rings, then you have a pretty impoverished view of the trilogy. I mean to say, once they're captured by the Uruk-hai, Merry and Pippin don't advance this storyline either, but no one goes around slicing their detour through Fangorn and Isengard out of the frame. So why does Tom take it in the neck?

I think that one of the reasons that people don't like Bombadil is because he is a deeply ambiguous figure, and people (in general) don't like ambiguity. Ambiguity is especially bad in a screenplay, where it tends to confuse the Members of the Academy. However, it is precisely this ambiguity that makes Tom such an important element in The Lord of the Rings. Tom may not be important to the plot narrowly construed, but he casts a fascinating light on the larger, richer story of Middle-earth.

There are a lot of theories about who Tom Bombadil actually is. A lot of theories. Is he a Maiar -- that is to say, a semi-divine being (like Gandalf)? Is he the physical embodiment of the song of the gods? Is he God himself? Some fans look for clues in Tolkien's letters, where the author describes him (somewhat awkwardly) as "an exemplar, a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science." (Letter 153, Sept. 1954). In my view, trying to slot Tom Bombadil into a tidy map of Tolkien's mythology is approaching the issue precisely backwards. The question isn't how we use Tolkien's other writings to understand Tom, but how does Tom help us understand Tolkien's mythology.

First off, I think the best way to encounter Tom Bombadil is the same way that the hobbits encounter him: as a living being who comes "charging through the grass and rushes like a cow going down to drink." Like us, the hobbits also want to understand exactly who and what Tom is. But Tom resists their interpretations as stoutly as he does ours. In response to Frodo's inquiries, Goldberry says, "He is, as you have seen him." The next day, when Frodo asks Tom directly, he replies, "Don't you know my name yet? That's the only answer. Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless?"

That last answer reminds me of the Zen koan, "What was your original face before you were born?" And indeed there's something of the stench of Zen hanging around Tom. Like in Zen, his immunity to interpretation isn't an accident -- it is his essential quality (Indeed, in the letter quoted above, Tolkien says "I don't think Tom needs philosophizing about, and is not improved by it.") All that we, or the hobbits, can know about Tom is that we don't know about Tom. Even his immunity to the Ring of Power shows that he seems to exist outside the established order of things (As one astute commentator has noted, Tom literally "looks through" the Ring).

So what does this zero add up to? Anyone with an interest in Tolkien and an internet connection knows that there are thousands of fans who seek to understand the "Legendarium" of Middle-earth. Tolkien himself invites this practice, by carefully constructing in The Silmarillion and other works a complex but cohesive mythology -- so internally consistent that it seems to come alive. As one of my favourite commentators on this site, Zhu, has pointed out, part of Tolkien's mythology is a hierarchical Chain of Being, with the creator god Iluvatar at the top and Valar, Maiar, Elves etc. cascading on down. Thus, there is a strong temptation for readers and fans to want to systematize every character and element in The Lord of the Rings -- to understand where it comes from and how it fits into the Chain of Being.

The only problem with this approach is that a truly systematized world is a dead world. Real world mythologies are always populated with the irrational and inexplicable: How come Zeus transforms into a swan to have sex? Why do the Norse gods keep listening to Loki's advice? Where do Cain and Abel's wives come from? I think Tolkien grasped this point. Although he clearly had a powerful impulse to organize his own world, he also understood that there must be enough room for the mysterious, the irrational and the unknowable to let the whole thing breathe.

Tom plays that part. He lets us know that Middle-earth will always defy our full understanding. Nor is he the only one in Tolkien's writings. I would argue that in The Silmarillion, Ungoliant takes a similar role. Consider: after a carefully laid out cosmology which seems to explain the origins of absolutely everything ("The Music of the Ainur"), Tolkien abruptly presents this giant, malevolent void-spider. Ungoliant tears into the story. She has no origin, no place on the Chain of Being and seemingly no death. She literally comes out of nowhere. Just like Tom.

In sum, Tom Bombadil teaches us something vital about Tolkien's mythology: that it can never be fully comprehended. His ambiguous and mysterious nature let us know that ambiguity and mystery are at the heart of The Lord of the Rings.

To read on, here is my commentary on Chapter 8. Or you can find my commentary on Chapter 6 here.

[Image credit: The Brothers Hildebrandt "Tom Bombadil" Acrylic on Board (1976).]


  1. Interesting thoughts. If I ever get to write a PhD thesis it will be on Tom Bombadil. I think he is also a view into a "prefall" world the way it should have been before Melkor.
    I also wish PJ had taken his own advice about keeping stuff out when he ruined the hobbit!

  2. Oh god I'm sorry Sully, I hate this bastard, at age 7 I read the fellowship and getting through his segments were unbearable, I remember having the impression he was omnipotent within Middle Earth but after reading your post I realize I must've been wrong.
    Great post as always, though provoking and well written. Looking forward to more (not of Tom)

    1. Hah! I'm so glad that the Tom haters are making their voice heard. I'm sure you are not alone, 24_C.
      I don't think you're the only one who thought Tom was omnipotent. Even Tolkien seemed to have turned his mind to that, since at the Council of Elrond, they consider the possibility of just giving the Ring to Tom for babysitting. And apparently the reason they didn't give it to him was not because he wasn't powerful -- but because "he might lose it". Omnipotent... maybe! But also absent minded.

  3. Much has of course been written about the enigmatic Bombadil. At the Council of Elrond, the Lord of Rivendell says, 'But I had forgotten Bombadil, if indeed this is still the same that walked the woods and hills long ago, and even then was older than the old. That was not then his name. Iarwain Ben-adar we called him, oldest and fatherless. But many another name he has since been given by other folk: Forn ['ancient'] by the Dwarves, Orald ['eldest'] by Northern Men, and other names beside. He is a strange creature, but maybe I should have summoned him to our Council.’ Tom's great age - greater than that of even the Elves - suggests that he is a deity of some sort. Most commonly he is associated as being a “nature spirit”. Indeed, in a letter of 1937 (ie. contemporaneous to his beginning work on the 'Lord of the Rings') Tolkien explained that Tom was meant to represent, '...the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside'. In this respect he might be seen as a commentary on the modern marginalisation and destruction of the British countryside: Tom's domain and power is now confined to wilderness areas like the Old Forest and the Barrow-down, which can be perilous places to tread.

    One of Tom's more enigmatic yet potentially revealing comments is, 'Eldest, that's what I am. Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn. He made paths before the Big People, and saw the Little People arriving. He was here before the Kings and the graves and the Barrow-wights. When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent. He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless - before the Dark Lord came from Outside.'

    It is generally accepted that the closing line refers to Melkor's entry into Arda, who was the first of the Valar to reach the world. This would suggest that Tom is a spiritual embodiment of Arda, bought into being when Eä was realised by Eru Ilúvatar and thus there before the Valar arrived. However, such beings are only hinted at in Tolkien's mythopoeia. Perhaps one of the most tantalising glimpses as to Tom's true identity is provided in a quote from The Book of Lost Tales: Part I, which talks of the Valar being accompanied to Arda by '...sprites of trees and woods, of dale and forest and mountain-side' … 'the Nermir and the Tavari, Nandini and Orossi, brownies, fays, pixies, leprawns, and what else are they not called, for their number is very great: yet they must not be confused with the Eldar, for they were born before the world and are older than its oldest, and are not of it, but laugh at it much, for had they not somewhat to do with its making, so that it is for the most part a play for them.'

    1. On reading my comment back I realised that Tom's comment about '...before the seas were bent' is a reference to the Downfall of Númenor in the late Second Age, where Arda was transformed from being 'flat' to 'bent' (ie. round).

  4. Delightful piece of thought. When I first read Lord of the Rings, I guess Bombadil appeared like quite a confusing character to me, I bet that is the main reason for that Bombadil-hate, not being quite sure of what his role was in the main plot of the book. But of course that happens when you look at the Lord of the Rings as a closed piece, out of reference and in no context.
    With the pass of years, as I've been re-reading the book and widening my lectures to the rest of Prof. Tolkien's writings, you begin to aprehend much better the character. Not only Bombadil himself, but the qualities of such a character and how that category embroids in the Middle Earth legendarium.

  5. I think you're spot on identifying Tom with the more irrational elements we find in myth, mysteries are important.

    We know from both Carpenters Biography and Christopher Tolkien HoMe that Tom Bombadil was a childrens toy (Tom and Goldberry), flushed down the toilet (down the Withywindle) by his son Michael. The stories and poems of Tom Bombadil come from Tolkiens "Family Lore" - that strange imaginative space that families with young children grow - half make-believe, half rationalisation, lullabys to defend from nightmare. It's a completely different 'story-telling' mode that fits with the Nursery Rhyme to Fairy Story to Legend to Myth to History that Tolkiens creative writing encompasses.

    It's worth noting that tis kind of story-telling doesn't receive much academic or media attention (and perhaps that's a good thing, there are places greedy story-thieves should not pry). Fans trying to refactor Tolkiens writing as a "Legendarium" - are over-reaching, attempting to force the story into one kind of tale - usually a kind of grandiose Germanic mythology - but the actual text isn't that kind of story at all, sure it has some influence, but all sorts of modes of story-telling and influences are woven into the text.

    I think one of the issues people have is that Tom resists the idea of an internally-consistent imaginary world - he breaks the fourth wall and invites the 'real world' into the text - and the world is not a traditionally 'adult' one, it's one of Tolkien and his children, and as C.S.Lewis said "When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up."

    I'm glad you've found applicability in the Chain of Being - of course Tom doesn't 'fit' - and I do think part of Tolkiens thinking was to have a hierarchical model and then disrupt it with key figures, although I'll wait to think about the great void-spiders until we reach Shelob, or maybe the eldrtich tentacled thing that is the Watcher in the Water.

    But for me it was the dreams (another kind of reported story) that stood out this time: Frodo has psychic powers.

    1. 'Fans trying to refactor Tolkiens writing as a "Legendarium" - are over-reaching, attempting to force the story into one kind of tale...'

      This is undoubtedly true and presumably Tom was written into the story when the Professor was still developing it as a "straight" sequel to The Hobbit, ie. a children's novel (I may be wrong on this point). However, it should also be pointed out that Tolkien is himself guilty of latter attempts to justify Tom's presence both in the The Fellowship of the Ring and his wider creation (that is, to some extent place him in the Chain of Being). Presumably these attempts were primarily due to interest on the subject amongst fans and possibly even a personal desire to reconcile this fantastical figure - derived, as you point-out from Tolkien "family lore" - with his burgeoning mythopoeia. Of course a fictional fantasy world don't need to be consistent, but I simply love delving into the more arcane "histories" and “lore” of Arda such as Unfinished Tales or The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien in an attempt to glean a deeper perception, despite being perfectly cognisant that the world need not abide to any system recognised in reality.

    2. I think you're correct that Tom entered the tale in the very early compositional period, before Sam came in and when Strider was still a hobbit, if I remember correctly. There is more 'family lore' coming in a chapter or two and it runs through the Silmarillion, in many ways it is the beating heart of his mythopoeia, rather than an outlaying island.

      Similarly On Fairy Stories dismisses a division between Childrens and Adult stories, it's not a duality Tolkien was interested in - Andrew Langs coloured fairy books are one of Tolkiens chief sources of inspiration, as much as the works of William Morris. At one point I think Tolkien says the inclusion of Bombadil was important on some level and that the story would suffer from his absence, I think that was a (quite rightly) masked allusion to including the 'family lore' in the sweep of story-telling that Tolkien encompassed. But Tolkien tends to change his mind a lot about things over the course of time, and isn't a very reliable source for details or meaning of his own work.

      Similarly Tolkiens reference to Toms 'great age' may not be a reference to an 'in-universe' but simply that Tom was the first imaginary character shared between Tolkien and his children. I think the toilet incident predates the composition of Roverandom and the Christmas Letters.

      Just to provoke Matthew a little, I think we're given a glimpse here of what Moorcock finds detestable - Bombadil is very much of the nursery, even his house with his clean white bedsheets, the burbling of nursery rhyme, he is a childrens toy come alive, like Tigger or Eeyore.

    3. Well, it's pretty hard to argue with you that Moorcock would loathe Bombadil. I have this vision in my head now of Elric stalking and killing Bombadil with Stormbringer.

      I think Gaz's point about Bombadil being a relic of an earlier (more Hobbit-like) stage in the evolution of the LotR is a good one. Notwithstanding my own defence of Bombadil's role in the trilogy, I think it's also possible to view him as an artifact of the creative process. Lots or writers think of one character or episode as central to their book when they first conceive it. But as the book changes in the writing, this once central characters becomes less and less relevant. Some writers can acknowledge this process and excise the character --- and some writers cling to the character out of loyalty to their original vision.

  6. An interesting post and comments too.

  7. How interesting! Having never read LotR I find this sort of concordance fascinating =)