Nov 14, 2016

Let's Read Tolkien 26: In the House of Tom Bombadil

The four hobbits stepped over the wide stone threshold, and stood still, blinking.

Last time, the hobbits got lost in a forest and were nearly eaten by a tree, only to be rescued by what appears to be a wandering magical hippie. In case any young people are reading this, I want to make it very clear that the official position of this blog is that if you are in a forest and you meet a strange man singing his own name, do not go with him to his house. Because adventuring hobbits have approximately as little sense as adventuring dwarves, however, Frodo and company do exactly that.

Arriving at Tom's house, the hobbits meet Goldberry, the River-daughter, nowadays Mrs. Bombadil, who inspires Frodo to freestyle about her beauty. The exhausted hobbits get a chance to freshen up before enjoying a vegetarian meal with lots of singing, after which they and Tom retreat to what almost gets called a drawing-room for a little postprandial rest and chat. It's almost cute how Tom initially appears in the story as a bizarre magical hippie, only to lead the protagonists to such a gemütlich reception that it ends in armchairs with little footstools, and slippers. In the Hobbit, the decidedly modern and bourgeois Bilbo Baggins was contrasted to the archaic dwarves with great success, and the same device is used at times elsewhere in the Lord of the Rings, but here it's just odd.

That night, Frodo dreams of a white-haired figure pacing atop a dark tower, while Merry and Pippin have nightmares of their ordeal with Old Man Willow. Only the simple Sam doesn't get a dream, instead sleeping like a content log. In the morning, heavy rainclouds are rolling in, giving the hobbits license to spend the day at Tom's instead of moving on immediately. In a repeat visual from the previous chapter, they again find themselves on a hilltop that appears as an island in a sea of mist, soon to be replaced by a steady rain. If river-crossings represent a sort of symbolic transition for Tolkien, fog also plays a liminal role: the crossing of the Brandywine and the entry into the Old Forest were accomplished in a blanket of fog, and now fog and rain momentarily isolate Frodo and company from the forest around them.

In the strange world of Tom Bombadil, rain means it's Goldberry's washing-day, which in proper patriarchal fashion means that all the men in the house hide away from the work and loaf around telling stories. Tom tells the hobbits all about the Old Forest and its inhabitants. The woods are a remnant of the huge forests that once covered a far larger area, populated by trees that remember when they ruled and resent the two-legged usurpers. Willow-man is apparently their chief, dominating most of the forest. Tom tells the hobbits about the time when men came and built their little kingdoms, which fell into ruin and left only their haunted barrows behind. Having come this close to the present, he then talks about the very beginnings of time on Middle-earth, prompting Frodo to ask him who, exactly, he is. The only answer Tom has to that is his name, but he does venture some biographical information: "Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn."

After a whole day of story-telling, Goldberry serves supper, and after they've eaten, Goldberry sings for them. Apparently, being the daughter of the river is a pretty shit job. Afterwards, the men retreat for more conversation, this time Tom asking the hobbits all about the Shire and themselves, all of which they gladly tell him about. Tom even goes as far as to ask for the Ring, and Frodo amazes even himself by simply handing it over. Tom clowns around with the Ring for a bit, even putting it on and failing to turn invisible.

Eventually Frodo gets his Ring back, and he decides to test it. While Tom is busy telling a story about badgers, Frodo puts the Ring on and starts to sneak out of the room. Merry is shocked to find he's disappeared, proving that the Ring does still work, but Tom sees him and calls out. Frodo pretends he was just playing a joke, and the conversation next turns to the hobbits' journey. Tom advises them to head north, avoiding the Barrow-downs and the worst of the forest, and teaches them a song to sing so they can call him to their aid if they fuck up. "If", you're thinking. With that, the hobbits are off to bed for their last night in the house of Tom Bombadil.


Who is Tom Bombadil? As much as I like Robert Foster's characterization of him as "a Maia gone native", this can't be squared with his own words in this chapter: "He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless - before the Dark Lord came from Outside." The Dark Lord here is not Sauron but his master of old, Morgoth, and the Valaquenta tells us that "Melkor too was there from the first". If we take Tom at his word, he was on Arda before the Valar ever descended on it. For those of you who like the fan theory that Tom is Eru, i.e. God, not only has Tolkien expressly denied this, but there's also Tom's reply to Frodo:

At last Frodo spoke:
"Did you hear me calling, Master, or was it just chance that brought you at that moment?"
Tom stirred like a man shaken out of a pleasant dream. "Did I hear you calling? Nay, I did not hear: I was busy singing. Just chance brought me there, if chance you call it. It was no plan of mine [...]"

This is Tolkien's theology of luck again; simply put, nothing less than divine providence sent Tom to gather water-lilies just then. Note, however, that divine providence was no plan of Tom's, so Eru Ilúvatar he ain't. Because of the strong influence of Finnish on Tolkien's elvish, by the way, I keep thinking his creator god is female because of that -tar suffix. If only!

There's a good discussion in Shippey's Author of the Century on the idea of Tom Bombadil as a genius loci; in Tolkien's words, "the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside" (Letters, 19). In other words, Tom is a sort of avatar of the Old Forest, if not of a wider area. Shippey sees Tom's singing as an analogue to the Kalevala. I agree, but given that he's just mentioned the way Tom "catches" Goldberry, I'm surprised he doesn't mention the other striking similarity between Tom and Väinämöinen: their aquatic predation of women. To me, the mention of Tom catching Goldberry in the river immediately brought to mind Akseli Gallen-Kallela's striking triptych Aino (1891).

Väinämöinen is less succesful in his endeavours, as Aino drowns herself rather than be the wife of a dirty old man like him. Like countless other Finnish schoolchildren, I was exposed to the triptych at a tender age in the name of nationalism, and always found the spectacle of a beautiful nude woman escaping a senior citizen in a watercraft both visually compelling and disturbing in its evident lechery. While the otherwise earthy Bombadil doesn't seem to share Väinämöinen's proclivities in this direction, both of them are basically wizards who overcome their enemies with song, and have been around since the world was made.

By contrast, unlike Shippey and others I can't really see many similarities between Väinämöinen and Gandalf. To me, Gandalf has always been a clear Merlin figure, who occasionally takes a hand in the action but is mostly content to point the mythical king in the right direction. The only real connection between them is that both of them take a boat to the land of the dead when no longer needed, sparing Gandalf Merlin's fate (below: Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Väinämöisen lähtö, 1906).

I've never thought of it in those terms before, but Tom Bombadil and Gandalf are basically desexualized versions of Väinämöinen and Merlin respectively. That's Tolkien for you!


So in a sense, Bombadil is something like the insufferably rustic mascot of a country fair. But why is Tom Bombadil? What function does he serve in the story? Is the adventure of the Old Forest superfluous to the Lord of the Rings, easily and sensibly omitted in favor of more gripping stuff? Tolkien himself explained Tom in a couple of different ways in his letters, first as an "enigma" (Letters, 144):

And even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).

Tolkien repeats his insistence that he doesn't do allegory, but later in the same letter, he takes up the subject of Bombadil again. Noting that "Tom Bombadil is not an important person - to the narrative", Tolkien explains his as a "comment" representing something he feels is "important, though I would not be prepared to analyze the feeling precisely".

I might put it this way. The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power, and so on; but both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of control, but if you have, as it were taken 'a vow of poverty', renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless. It is a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war.

Whew. I will never feel bad about the length of my sentences again. Just typing that out crashed my browser. But if we take this at face value, then the joke I started this post with is spot on: Tom Bombadil is a hippie before hippies. An urhippie! In fact, he seems to be an... allegory.

As many Tolkien fans know, he was very vocal in his opposition if any and all allegorical readings of his works. The best-known example is the angry denounciation of a parallel between the Lord of the Rings and the Second World War in the preface to the second edition. There's also a particularly excellent letter (229) in which Tolkien eviscerates the introduction to the infamous Swedish translation to the Lord of the Rings. The translator, incidentally, went on to claim that the Tolkien fandom is a Nazi occultist sex cabal, so that project seems to have gone well. One of the least silly presumptions quoted by Tolkien is the suggestion that Sauron represents Stalin. Tolkien rejects this, quite reasonably pointing out that "the situation was conceived long before the Russian revolution", which I think is true, and continuing: "Such allegory is entirely foreign to my thought".

Given what he said about Bombadil in 144, though, is it? With reference to Tolkien's views on politics, which I discussed in connection with the first chapter, in letter 154 Tolkien refers to his conception of evil - the Machine - as "Sarumanism". So the ethical dilemma set out above, which is in a sense central to the whole work, could be phrased as Bombadil versus Saruman. Certainly no allegories here! I could quote innumerable examples from Letters, like 190, which escaped me earlier, where Tolkien directly states that the Shire is a parody of rural England. To say nothing of the way in which several aspects of Tolkien's mythos, from Eärendil to such slightly obscure things as the precise dating scheme of the Lord of the Rings, are directly intended to prefigure Christ, in the way Christians have wanted to see him prefigured in the Old Testament, or in the sense that the Tribunal Temple maintained that the so-called "good Daedra" anticipated the Tribunal. Is Tolkien's rejection of allegory inconsistent, then?

In the foreword to the second edition of the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien draws a distinction between allegory and applicability: "the one [applicability] resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author". Intuitively, this makes sense, but what's the real difference? Tolkien consistently insisted that the Lord of the Rings is a Christian work. Surely this, if anything, is the purposed domination of the author, laying down the terms in which his text must be interpreted. In practice, though, I at least managed to red not only the Lord of the Rings but the rest of Tolkien's legendarium as well, and come away with no notion whatsoever of a sensus spiritualis. Intent is not magic; the plans and purposes of the author aren't recorded into his words. There is only the text and the reader. On its own terms, Tolkien's disinction is false; applied to his work, it's a double standard that lets him both insist that he has no message (e.g. Letters, 208) and that he has a profoundly Catholic message (e.g. 142).

My feeling is that when Tolkien decries allegory, what he means is a kind of reductionism. This is just my hypothesis, but to Tolkien, allegory in the negative seems to be the idea that the allegory is just a simple substitution: Eärendil is Jesus, Tom Bombadil is pacifism, the Ring is nuclear weapons. In a scheme like this, there would be no reason for the Lord of the Rings to exist, since it would just be a retelling of the Second World War, but with orcs instead of Germans. I'm reminded of Neill Blomkamp's Elysium, which fell flat because the story was topical and powerful as an allegory, but made no sense whatsoever on its own terms.

If this is what Tolkien means by allegory in the negative sense, then what he's saying makes sense. The difference between allegory and applicability would be that in allegory, there is one obvious and intended interpretation; to take a completely random and entirely unrelated example, Aslan is Jesus. Applicability, on the other hand, suggests several references instead of trying to dictate a single one. In the Silmarillion, Eärendil in many ways suggests Jesus: he's part human and part divine, he bridges the gulf between time and eternity, and he achieves a reconciliation between the gods and their creations. However, in certain crucial ways, Eärendil is not Jesus. For starters, he's not sent down from heaven but makes his way up from earth, which would be a Gnostic heresy if he was just intended to be a word-substitution for Jesus. But this is the point: he's not. Saying "Eärendil is Jesus" would give someone unacquainted with Tolkien a completely misleading impression of the character. Eärendil is Jesus, but he's also more than that. In general, Tolkien's characters and settings are very rarely direct, reducible analogies. Theologically, Eärendil anticipates Jesus, but is a distinct character; in many ways, he's also St. Brendan the Navigator, and in others, purely a Tolkien creation. In this sense, Tolkien's rejection of allegory isn't necessarily dishonest, just poorly phrased.


To return to the chapter at hand, in letter 153, Tolkien presents another allegory for Bombadil: science. "He is then an 'allegory', or an exemplar, a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science: the spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature, because they are 'other' and wholly independent of the enquiring mind, a spirit coeval with the rational mind, and entirely unconcerned with 'doing' anything with the knowledge: Zoology and Botany not Cattle-breeding or Agriculture."

So here we are, then: according to the author, Tom Bombadil is an embodied spirit of the English countryside, an enigma, an analogy for pacifism, and science. Which is it?

In keeping with my interpretation of Tolkien's attitude to allegory, the answer is all of them, and then some. Like Eärendil, Bombadil is an older creation of Tolkien: "In historical fact I put him in because I had already 'invented' him (he first appeared in the Oxford Magazine), and wanted an 'adventure' along the way" (Letters, 153). The story about badgers is a reference to this previous appearance. So one answer to why Tom Bombadil is in the story is simple: because something had to happen between Buckland and Bree, and Tolkien had a character ready. Anyone who's ever run a role-playing game will recognize this! As for being an analogy of this or that, I think the crucial point here is that Tolkien seems to have attached quite a number of ideas to Bombadil, from Berkshire to science and pacifism. None of them are the one correct answer to the who and why of Tom Bombadil. At the end of the day, I think Tolkien's simplest answer is the best: Tom Bombadil is in the story so that the hobbits can have an adventure on their own before they get fully caught up in the greater drama of the Ring. In that sense, there's no particular reason why the adventure of the Old Forest should include Bombadil at all; it could easily have been something completely different.

Personally, though, I like the Old Forest and old Tom, and I do think they have a part to play in the Lord of the Rings beyond providing the hobbits with an adventure. To quote again from letter 153:

But I kept him in, and as he was, because he represents certain things otherwise left out. [...] Also T.B. exhibits another point in his attitude to the Ring, and its failure to affect him. You must concentrate on some part, probably relatively small, of the World (Universe), whether to tell a tale, however long, or to learn anything however fundamental - and therefore much will from that 'point of view' be left out, distorted on the circumference, or seem a discordant oddity. The power of the Ring over all concerned, even the Wizards or Emissaries, is not a delusion - but it is not the whole picture, even of the state and content of that part of the Universe.

Of all the interpretations Tolkien gives in his letters of Bombadil, this is the only one that resonates with me. It's characters like Tom who are such an integral part of why Tolkien's world-building is so succesful. Bombadil is important precisely because he doesn't, in the brutally mechanistic language of script-writers, "advance the plot". Instead, he builds the world of Middle-earth. Bombadil is a reminder that Sauron and the Ring aren't the only things that matter in Middle-earth. From Bombadil's perspective, even Sauron is an interloper; an ephemeral figure in the long tale of the hills and forests. Bombadil is, in a way, a parallel figure to Beorn in the Hobbit: both are singular, almost atavistic characters living out in the sticks who offer the protagonists a vegetarian meal. Both of them could be said to represent an older world than that of the main story.

This, to me, is the fundamental "message" of the adventure of the Old Forest, and of Bombadil. He gives the story a wider alternative context; he makes the world in which it's set have a life of its own. Willow-man isn't an agent of Sauron put there to capture the Ring, nor is Bombadil a proxy of Gandalf sent to look after them. In a sense, the hobbits have stumbled out of their story into someone else's, and a thing of incalculable importance and deadly peril in theirs is an amusing bauble in the other. So while I completely understand why Tom and the Old Forest may seem pointless and ridiculous to many people, to me, the whole book would be much poorer without them.


One final question: what are we to make of the Ring having no effect on Bombadil? First, one misconception has to be dismissed: the Ring is not, strictly speaking, a ring of invisibility. It made the hobbits who wore it invisible, and judging from Gandalf's version of the story in the second chapter, Isildur also. But these ringbearers were all ordinary mortals. Certainly the Ring didn't make Sauron invisible! Nor was invisibility the power that Gandalf feared would corrupt him. The Ring is far more powerful than that. So the simple fact that Bombadil doesn't become invisible might not be significant at all.

It's Tom's attitude to the Ring that makes all the difference. He treats the Ring playfully, as an amusing bauble but nothing more. It seems to have no power over him whatsoever. The various analogies of Bombadil all suggest different reasons for this. If Tom represents pure science, a curiosity in things as themselves, then the Ring is just another object of study. If he represents a pacifism that renounces power, then power holds no temptation for him. However, there's also a theological interpretation. In Tolkien's theology, the Ring is the ultimate Machine, produced by the Fall as an attempt to conquer death. Bearing in mind what Bombadil said about remembering the night when it was fearless, i.e. before Morgoth, should we see Tom as a representative of nature before the Fall? Is he, in fact, unfallen? This would explain why he has no interest in the Ring: it's simply completely foreign to him, an irrelevant artifact of another world. In this case, his benign playfulness and unproblematic relationship with nature would represent nothing less than Paradise. Tom would be a sort of counterpart and antithesis of the Lilith of Jewish folklore. This is downright suspicious if not damn near heretical from a dogmatically Christian standpoint, but applying Tolkien's theological scheme here does suggest it, at least to me.


That ended up being a bit longer than I expected! I should say that although a full chapter of a woodland eccentric telling stories doesn't exactly sound gripping, this is a far better chapter than I remembered. Moving on, stop me if you've heard this one before, but next time, the hobbits leave their place of refuge and set off across the Old Forest, only to end up in desperate trouble, crying out for some mysterious inhabitant of the enchanted wood to rescue them.


Leon said...

The first time I read this chapter I was completely flummoxed by Tom. Re-reading it later I hit upon another interpretation that made sense to me (this is before I read the Silmarillion) - Tom represented the old gods, the pagan spirit before Eru and all those other newcomers arrived, he is older than time and has always been there. That suddenly made him interesting. I know that's not what Tolkien meant but its an interpretation that works for me to this day.

The other reason I like Tom is because he ties in with the Barrow Downs and is one of my favourite parts of Fellowship. Looking forward to the next chapter.

Michael Halila said...

I think the only bit that Tolkien would seriously quarrel with is the idea of Tom being there before Eru. God, after all, created everything. Having said that, though, it doesn't matter what Tolkien would think or not think. I realize that many of these posts are pretty heavy on biograpical interpretation, but I try to present Tolkien's intentions as curiosities, not guides for interpretation, let alone authoritative meaning. If you ask me, Tom Bombadil as a pagan spirit makes a hell of a lot more sense than Tom Bombadil as Science...