Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Tom Bombadil and the Morality of Free Will

In the Middle Earth portrayed by Peter Jackson, the One Ring is universally potent. No character or creature remains entirely immune from its corrupting effects. As a result, the conflict surrounding the Ringbearer’s quest encompasses all that there is. Frodo fails, and the world is lost. Frodo destroys the Ring, and the world is saved. Generally speaking, Tolkien paints a similar picture with regard to the Fellowship and its allies – their individual worlds do indeed existentially depend upon the result of Frodo’s errand. However, a key difference remains, one whose illustrative importance clearly separates original from adaptation regarding the concept of will and choice. That difference is Tom Bombadil.

Though he is a narrative oddity, the utter separation of Bombadil’s little world from the cares and tribulations of Middle Earth at large merits some scrutiny. The hobbits’ sojourn into the Old Forest, Bombadil’s residence, and the Barrow Downs represents a significant break from both overall plot and locational narrative. During this time – and it is no accident we receive no clear idea of the span the travelers spend as Tom’s guests – the tantamount importance of the Ring and its master are summarily brushed aside. The object itself becomes trivial in Bombadil’s hands, a prop for his playful legerdemain. The question inevitably arises: who is Tom Bombadil? If one examines Bombadil in an analytical light, several cases become possible, each substantiated to an uncertain extent by the text. Is he Nature itself, Arda personified? Perhaps he is an avatar of the Vala spirit Aule, and Goldberry his wife Yavanna. Is Bombadil Iluvatar? Or perhaps he is some mysterious Maia spirit. Every attempt to positively locate Bombadil within the ontology of intelligent life Tolkien provides must inevitably be left open-ended. Tolkien emphasizes this point in his letters: “he needs no philosophizing about”. His role is peripheral to the primary story arc, and his fundamental enigmatic nature demonstrates that the Lord of the Rings is in no way all encompassing, or reported by omniscient narration (Letter 153).

Though we must be content with Tom’s vague ontological status, Tolkien in the same letter does give Tom leeway to be interpreted as a representation of certain ideas and traits otherwise left unconveyed. Tom is no simple allegory – the story offers an array of such threads that may be picked up. There is one in particular I would like to focus on. Repeatedly, Bombadil is referred to as “Master”. In his letter, Tolkien explains what this entails: “he has no desire for possession or domination at all,” (Letter 153). In the chapter “In the House of Tom Bombadil”, Frodo yields the Ring to his host, who is triumphantly unaffected by its corruption and enchantment (Bk. 1, Ch. 7). Later on, during the Council of Elrond, Gandalf asserts that the Ring is powerless over Tom, because “he is his own master,” (Bk. 2, Ch. 2). For all his immunity to the Ring’s power to instill a desire for dominance, Bombadil is a supremely dominant character. The means by which he divests Frodo of the Ring is a peremptory command: “Show me the precious Ring!” Frodo’s obedience is instantaneous, and it “astonishes” him, (Bk. 1, Ch. 7). The Ring’s attraction is this: it can bend others to the holder’s will. Tom appears to possess that power even without the Ring. But doesn’t this act signify ultimate evil?

I for one am unwilling to view Bombadil as a creature of malice. His intentions – if they exist at all – are indistinct, clouded by untold depths of time. He is inherently selfish – he cares not for the problems of the world outside, but his attitude assumes an inherent conservatism and respect for the lives and wills outside of his own. Though it is unlikely Tolkien viewed Nietzsche’s works with high regard, one particular interpretation of the “will to power” concept is particularly relevant here. While the traditional interpretation of Nietzsche’s words, enigmatic as Bombadil himself, is that the natural morality of humanity is based upon dominance over others, it is possible Nietzsche intended his dominant figure to sublimate even that impulse, achieving dominance over the self, the highest form of mastery. Bombadil has achieved perfect mastery over himself. The self in this case is split between master and servant, with each fulfilling its eponymous role. A reflexive conception of an individual’s mastery necessitates continual negation of free will (the power to choose) – every time a choice is made and an action embarked upon, the other choices are irrevocably lost. If the negation of free will is Evil, then conscious life is a continual succession of evil, which seems a patent absurdity.

Recall Tolkien’s words: Tom has no desire for domination. In other words, the perfect master has no desire for mastery, as that mastery is already in place (over, first and foremost, the self). Bombadil thus illustrates a vital component of the morality of free will and choice in Tolkien’s secondary reality: patterns of mastery and domination already exist, are intrinsic to the natural and social reality of Middle Earth, and cannot be meaningfully classified morally. Sam is the servant of Frodo. A knight of Rohan owes service to King Théoden. Bombadil may command Old Man Willow. These relationships are neither explicitly good nor evil – they simply are, as, presumably, Iluvatar intended them. The Bombadil character thus necessitates a revision in the morality of free will and choice. Denial of free will, not as an act but as a state of being, is not evil unless it contradicts the hierarchical equilibrium of Arda as envisioned by Iluvatar. Melkor’s dominance was perverse because he desired more of it than he was originally allotted. The Ring’s dominance shares this perversion: it stimulates a desire for dominance beyond what is right and proper. Gandalf using the Ring, for example, “would make good detestable and seem evil” by assuming undue dominance over the wills of others, even for the purpose of defeating Sauron (Letter 246).

Tom Bombadil is triumphantly free from all desire for dominance and power, and paradoxically appears all the more omnipotent. His self-mastery ensures he remains in keeping with the hierarchical equilibrium of Middle Earth, and he cannot fall into Evil. The depth of the interlude in which he is Master, however, extends far beyond this one point. Bombadil is also both storyteller and Elf-friend, and husband to Goldberry, whose identity is yet another puzzle. He has the power of naming (the ponies) and control over the weather and the land. In Letter 153, Tolkien describes Tom as a kind of muse of pure knowledge. Finally, during Bombadil’s chapters, the hobbits are beset by spells of sleep and strange visions and vistas of time, the most portentous possibly being the vision of ancient Men after the adventure of the Barrow-Downs, the last with a star on his brow (Bk. 1, Ch. 8). Make of that what you will.

-Philip R.


  1. A fascinating portrayal of Bombadil’s role in the grand scheme of things; well played, sir. The concept of mastery you illuminate does indeed seem to be a promising point of contact between the enigmatic Bombadil and Tolkien’s larger point about the so-called “morality of free will.” That said, I’m not entirely sure I understand your characterization of the act of choosing as a “continual negation of free will.” I’ll grant you that every choice necessitates a not-choice, so to speak. But the claim that choosing the former over the latter is a restriction—rather than an exercise—of free will seems problematic, especially considering your own working definition of the concept at hand. If this truly the case, is a “choice” really a choice at all?

    As it stands now, the latter half of your fourth paragraph to me implies a sort of predestined, Homeric doom—i.e. the choice one makes is the only choice one could have made, and free will is naught but candy-coated, thoroughly inevitable Fate. I doubt whether that’s the target you were aiming for, but it may well be worthy of consideration in its own right. The Bible speaks often of mankind as not being choosers so much as chosen. God—omnipotent, omniscient, beginning and end—is the architect of our very existence, minutiae and all. He has foreseen our every move; all that remains is for us to follow the path laid out before us to whatever end awaits.

    But then, I’m no Calvinist. (Nor was Tolkien, for that matter.) Maybe we’d be better off taking a page out of Kant’s moral framework: if the kind of mastery you envision is roughly akin to flawless, internalized adherence to a moral (or, better yet, divine) imperative, Bombadil’s disregard for the cares of this world might be attributed to his immunity to the myriad impulses (Ring-induced or otherwise) which threaten our “hierarchical equilibrium” with God on a daily basis. In this way, authenticity of choice is maintained along with Bombadil’s transcendental Goodness.

    —H.M. Glick

  2. I agree with H.M. Glick: very well played! This is an excellent account of why Tom is unaffected by the Ring. And yet, your discussion makes me wonder, too, what perfect self-mastery would mean precisely in Christian terms. I'm not sure I follow your Nietzschean explanation (the self split into master and servant), nor am I convinced that all relationships of mastership and servantship involve dominance as such. Sam is Frodo's servant, but I would not say that Frodo dominates him, only that Sam willingly serves.


  3. I have some more guesses as to what/who Tom Bombadil and Goldenberry might be. How about Tulkas and Nessa or Oromë and Vána? Tulkas is described as ever-laughing, able to “outrun all things on feet” (Silmarillion 29), and “is of no avail as a consellor, but is a hardy friend” (Silmarillion 29). His wife is equally fast and graceful, and loves dancing. An even better better fit, perhaps, is that of Oromë, who loves Middle-earth, loves trees, known as “Lord of Forests” (29), and his wife is Vána, Ever-young who causes flowers to bloom and birds to sing. Plus, if Tom Bombadil were to have Valar status, it is unlikely that the work of a twisted Maiar such as Sauron would have any effect on him. Just a thought…


  4. One of the most interesting aspects of class, which you did not address in detail when discussing Bombadil, is the way choice plays such an important role in Lord of the Rings. Bombadil, I think, holds a very unique and intriguing place in this discussion of choice, as he does with most other Lord of the Rings-related discussions. Obviously, Bombadil has many fewer difficult decisions to make than any other character in Lord of the Rings. All the other characters in positions of high power, or high knowledge, which might fit into a category that would best approach that of Bombadil, are constantly confronted with difficult decisions. Bombadil seems to be above decisions such as the ones that characterize the lives of figures like Aragorn, Elrond and Gandalf; his aloofness, however, can also be seen as a decision in itself. Bombadil's one choice is the choice to stay out of the affairs of Middle-earth. Clearly, other, unfamiliar factors might go into this choice, like Bombadil's occupation of a place in the hierarchy of the Arda that is definitively above the rest of the characters we meet in the Lord of the Rings. Yet he clearly has some degree of freewill himself, and thus has some sort of decision-making process that resulted in his neutrality in the war of the Ring, even if he elected not to participate merely because he did not care, or the result was not relevant to him. This choice, however, is vital in our understanding of him as The Master. He does possess the power to control other wills, as you point out, but he is able to, in general, control it and elect not to use it. It is thus his exercise of freewill that makes him good and, as is the case with many of the characters, his morality is both exhibited and defined by his choices.

    Ro Ca

  5. I’m not sure that Bombadil is an example of Nietzsche’s will to power (my ignorance of Nietzsche), but you make a great case for Bombadil’s exceptionality. Nor I am sure that free will has a morality, though an agent can choose to do with it what is good. Self-mastery is a strategy of many philosophical (e.g., Stoic) and ascetic disciplines. So what of Sam? As with many things I recur to the Middle Ages. Freedom in the Middle Ages could be realized in the context of obedience and dependence. For instance, among humans (buildings had libertas too) monks would have realized the greatest freedom, but still remained in the service of a cult saint. I think that most people today conceive of freedom as unlimited power to do anything, freedom from restraint, freedom from service. But sometimes, freedom is about actual powerlessness, or the choice to be powerless (Sam’s choice). It is this powerless that produces an understanding. Back to your main theme, what understanding does Bombadil offer? Perhaps that the quest to destroy the ring might belong to another context. I don’t know that he is selfish, though he is a kind of detour. He doesn’t absorb the quest into himself at all. Instead, he tells the story of the world, and reminds the hobbits, in effect, that there are parallel plots, even that there are bigger plots. It is an ancient wisdom.

  6. Oh Tom Bombadil, ever the puzzle. The moment he makes the Ring disappear and then reappear as in a simple magic trick is startling and comical -- Tolkien is somehow making light of the object that lies at the crux of LotR, and even this action is irrelevant in the end, as once the hobbits leave Tom's house, their quest is every bit as real as before.

    But one question: What about Sam?? He, too, bore the Ring for some time, seemingly without being affected. True, he noticed its weight, and he was reluctant to return it to Frodo, but only because he knew the grief it was causing his master. During their time in Mordor, too, the master/servant roles of Frodo and Sam are somewhat reversed. I don't think that Sam has the "self-mastery" that you describe, but his actions around the Ring cannot be ignored.

    Jen Th.