Thursday, March 31, 2011

Fear neither root nor bough! Tom goes on before you.

I have a confession to make: I’ve always quite liked Tom Bombadil.

Nearly every other person I’ve talked to who’s been a fan of Lord of the Rings has found him irritating at best and more than enough reason to entirely skip his section of the book at worst. I heard that he was ridiculous, that he was obnoxious, that people couldn’t stand his songs—but mostly, I heard that he was out of place in Lord of the Rings. These friends read Tom Bombadil as a holdover from nursery rhymes and fairy-tales, from simple, childish works, and because of that, they felt that he had no place in a sweeping high-fantasy epic like Lord of the Rings.

I never read Bombadil that way. He seemed silly and strange when I first read the book, a mysterious man who spoke in song and talked to trees and wore clothing in funny colors, but what he never seemed was out-of-place. I had been mystified by his presence, yes, but although it was confusing, it still seemed to me as if he was a necessary part of the story.

It was only upon rereading the section before Wednesday’s class that I realized why, exactly, Tom Bombadil was a necessary character, and why he was, in fact, not out of place in his appearance. Quite likely, it was because I’d finished On Fairy-Stories about five minutes beforehand, but Bombadil’s presence suddenly made sense, and the lecture later on only reinforced my ideas of his purpose. Tom Bombadil is storytelling made incarnate—simultaneously completely powerless and more powerful than gods or wizards, utterly nonsensical but in possession of the deepest wisdom, silly and strange but somehow deeply familiar, and a necessary bridge between the ‘ordinary’ world of the Shire and the fantastical world of the lands beyond. As he tells the Hobbits,

‘Don’t you know my name yet? That’s the only answer. Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless? But you are young and I am old. 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”. (LotR, 131)

Tom knows the stories of the beginning, the stories of the world’s creation and of the Vala and of all of the various peoples of Arda. He is the storyteller, the master, and what he does is essentially magic, placing the hobbits into a trancelike state that allows them to accept the strangeness of the world that they’ve just entered into. Without Tom’s guidance, without the guidance of stories to ease them into their new reality, the hobbits would be much less successful in making the change from their familiar, comforting, ordinary lives to the adventure and danger and seemingly impossible occurrences that await them.

Tom is telling stories within the main story of Lord of the Rings, and within this framework—inside Tolkien’s secondary reality, telling stories relating to that same secondary reality—they are true. He acts as an educator and as an all-knowing force with one leg inside the narrative and one outside of it, able to see the turn of the world and everything that happens or has happened in Arda. And the Ring has no power over him—because Tom is storytelling incarnate, he cannot be corrupted or otherwise affected by evil. Taking the Catholic imagery that Tolkien uses into account, because Tom is a concept, an entity that existed before the Fall, evil has no effect on him; storytelling itself, although it is done and touched and changed and corrupted by imperfect humans, as is everything else, is in itself somehow above mortality. And so is Tom—he is permanent. He was there before, and he will be after; timeless, unaffected by the millennia, he exists, imparting his wisdom to others and forever building on himself, forever learning and hearing and collecting in order that he may tell. In that sense, Tom is not just an embodiment of the act of storytelling, but he is the embodiment of the history and the tradition that go along with storytelling. And, like storytelling, Tom is permanent and everlasting in a world that is constantly shifting. Being everlasting does not mean that he is unchanging, but it does mean that what changes he, as storytelling, does undergo do build themselves from the traditions, stories, and historical or legendary events that came before then.

Tom’s odd, supernatural (even for Middle-earth) nature gives him an additional element: while he is certainly a representative of storytelling as a whole in his all-seeing nature and timelessness, when taken out of the secondary reality and looked at from the point of view of our own primary reality, Tom seems to take on another role as a representative of fairy-stories themselves, and he reinforces all of the arguments that Tolkien makes in favor of fairy-stories in his essay. Tom is powerful. Tom can bring the hobbits—or us humans—into another world entirely. Tom is ancient, there to tie all the ages of Middle-earth together.

Perhaps most importantly, though, Tom remembers. Tom knows. Tom knows history and myth and the inner workings of souls. And what better mirror of reality is there than fantasy?
- Michaela Jandacek


  1. Brava, Michaela! What a wonderful post with which to begin our blog conversation! Tom as story-teller, our introduction to the world of faerie--yes! Thank you for getting us off to such an insightful start!


  2. I think your interpretation of the Bombadil character as an incarnation of storytelling is very plausible, but does not by itself address so many readers’ concerns about his existence. What bugs people about his presence in LOTR is that he is supposed to serve a narrative as well as a symbolic function (in keeping with Tolkien’s dislike of allegory), and while he may function well as a storyteller, he is poorly incorporated as a character. It’s worth noting that Tom is in fact a hold-over from an early fairy tale, “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil” composed in 1934 (and appears even earlier in unfinished works), before the Lord of the Rings. He is not clearly situated into the middle earth mythos until later, and resides at least somewhat outside of it (not clearly fitting any category of supernatural being described in the Silmarillion, and apparently pre-dating Sauron, if not also the Valar).

    In a world as deeply constructed and internally consistent as middle earth, any element that stands out has the potential to bother. Compounded with the usual objection that his only relevance to the plot seems to be saving the hobbits from the barrows (and the significance of them acquiring the barrow swords is not revealed until Book 5), and you can see why some readers, myself included, wish he had been left out, or at least minimized. However, I should stress that this is not a failure of Tolkien’s writing so much as a disagreement between the intentions of the author and the desires of the reader. As Tolkien himself wrote in his letters (#144): “Even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).” If he doesn't make perfect sense, its because he doesn't need to.

  3. Sorry for the double post, but I left off my name!

    Is there an edit feature, I couldn't seem to find one.

    David Gittin

  4. I just want to start by saying that I, too, have always liked Bombadil much better than most other people seem to, and I still mourn the fact that he’s absent in the movies.

    I agree with David’s comment that Bombadil certainly does stick out within LOTR amongst Tolkien's masterful inner consistency of reality, but rather than bothering me, that has always fascinated me. I always saw him as a bit of a window into the greater complexities of Tolkien's legendarium outside of LOTR. Because the book is written “as seen by the Little People” the great detail and mystery of Middle-Earth is not fully expiated. If, as readers, we were lead through Middle-Earth with more insights and perspective of the likes of Aragorn or Gandalf, and the full importance of events that the Little People can’t fully understand were made clear, I think the book would lose some of its magic. Bombadil is an element of that. He sticks out, yes, but simply as a part of Tolkien’s secondary reality that we cannot understand. As his purpose within the plot becomes clear, when Merry puts the sword from the Barrow-downs to use in Book 5, his magic, for me, is reinforced. He is this ineffable enigma that harkens to an age so distant to the Middle-Earth that I, and that the hobbits, know that he comes to be somehow representative of the wonder of the history of the world we do know.
    I have always felt a bit like the hobbits; Bombadil makes me feel as though I am under a spell, awed by his unique and, really, odd presence. I always thought of the hobbits as waking up from a dream when they head into the Barrow-downs after their encounter with Bombadil. Perhaps Tolkien would dislike that, as he rejects dreams as faёrie stories. But, regardless, I think Bombadil gives the hobbits an important secondary reality, beyond their primary reality of the Shire, before they embark. His house is like Niggle’s Parish, a land of creation and nature, and “the best introduction to the Mountains”, if the Mountains can be read as Middle-Earth outside of the Shire. (That is dangerously close to allegory; Tolkien would not be pleased. My apologies.) They are better able to appreciate the wonder of the world around them after they leave Bombadil, and, by extension, readers are likewise introduced to the vast extents of the world Tolkien created.

    Emily Minehart

  5. I would like to expand on your characterization of how Tom Bombadil facilitates the hobbits’ transition from their ordinary to their adventurous lives through his role as storytelling personified. While his ability to enchant the hobbits by telling them stories is certainly evidence of his power, his true importance in the plot of The Lord of the Rings is in physically saving the hobbits –and the Quest –at both Old Man Willow and the Barrow-downs. Despite the risk of allegorizing, I think this fact is significant: it means that the power of storytelling derives from its efficacy not when the story is being told, but when it is most needed, and often when it is unexpected. Like in the Barrow-downs Tom Bombadil saves the day when “All at once back into [Frodos] mind…came the memory” of Tom (FotR, “Fog on the Barrow Downs”), so storytelling is powerful because the listener can apply its lessons to life when needed. This certainly fits into Tolkien’s views on the value of storytelling, particularly the telling of fairy stories. If they were merely fantastic tales with which to pass the time but with no power to “comment on the world,” they would be much less worthwhile (Letter 215). Similarly, if Tom Bombadil told wonderful stories but was unable to save the hobbits from Old Man Willow or the Barrow-downs, his value to the story would be significantly diminished.

    Lisa Pawlowicz

    P.S. I have a different LotR edition, so I didn’t bother with the page number for the quote.

  6. I think that Tom Bombadil is a character who is important to the book, but that it made sense to leave him out of the movie. He's simply not a cinematic character. That's not a bad thing, it's just part of what he is. We have concluded, rightly I believe, that Tom represents storytelling. As such, he is most appropriate for a book, which is the closest modern approximation of a storyteller telling his stories to an audience. A movie is part storytelling, but it is also in large part Drama. Tom is just not a Drama kind of guy.

    --Luke Bretscher

  7. Good point about Tom being story telling incarnate; I think that’s the perfect way to phrase Tom’s role in LotR! I’m with Emily in that I always liked the episode with Tom for the very reason that it did seem like something outside the main story line. It seems to have no real affect on the path of the Hobbits, but it is essential to the universe of the story. It has a strange, mystical feel to it, which almost makes me feel the way the Hobbits feel under Tom’s influence: entranced, separate from the passing of time, in a cocoon of story weaving.

    You also made an excellent observation about Tom existing before evil entered the world, and therefore being immune to it; I have often puzzled over who/what Tom really is because it’s not an easy thing to define or understand; perhaps, in addition to being story telling incarnate, Tom is also the spirit of Arda? My thinking on this is that 1) he was around when the earth was first created and before the first Children of Iluvatar awoke, but 2) he does not seem to have ever had any connection with Valinor – he was always a being of Arda, and 3) he has a memory of all the events of Arda but doesn’t often seem to have an effect of them (or perhaps chooses not to interfere) – he is the witness to the history, the same way the earth witnesses, but does not actively participate in, history.

    CDK Jacobson

  8. When I had first read Lord of the Rings, I was also fascinated by the fact that the Ring had no power over Tom. Initially, I had taken this to mean that Tom was simply one of the most powerful people in Arda. However, I think you bring up a good point: that Tom is “simultaneously completely powerless and more powerful than gods or wizards." I agree that Tom is powerless—but powerless in the sense that he seems to be outside power itself. Like you said, Tom existed before the Fall and is therefore not corrupted by evil—hence, he is unaffected by the Ring. I think that the reason Tom isn’t affected by the Ring is because he is completely outside—he is beyond notions of power (power seems, to me, to be very much connected to sin and corruption in Tolkien’s works), and beyond the differentiations of good and evil. He simply is.
    I thought that another point you brought up—that Tom “is not just an embodiment of the act of storytelling, but he is the embodiment of the history and the tradition” itself—was also quite insightful. I wonder how much we can think of Tom, the storyteller incarnate, as simply a vessel for the transmission of stories and history. Rather than being a concrete entity, I wonder if Tom could be perceived as a mere vehicle, something completely abstract which connects us to Faery.