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