Thursday, April 3, 2014

Our Right: Used and Misused

Who is Tom Bombadil?

When I walked into class on Wednesday and saw that this was a question we were going to address, I was thrilled. Every since I first read the books I have been enchanted by the character of Tom Bombadil. Why was he there? What does he mean? What is his role? He always remained a character of intrigue because it is seemed so clear to me that he is important but it was not always clear to me why he is important.

A few years after I had first read the books, I was in my high school Latin class and we were discussing Philosophy that day, specifically the story of the “Ring of Gyges”. For those of you unfamiliar with the myth, Gyges was a shepard in Lydia who one day discovers a ring in a tomb. He decides to put it on and realizes that rotating the ring 180 degrees around his finger causes him to become invisible. After discovering this he goes to report to the king on the status of the flocks. Upon his arrival he uses the ring to seduce the Queen and murder the King, eventually becoming the King of Lydia himself. He uses the ring to gain power and wealth. This story related to us in Plato’s Republic to call into question whether anyone would be able to resist the temptation of the ring, to resist the ability to gain power and wealth through immoral acts if they were positive that there would be no consequences. To me the answer was yes, Tom Bombadil. Tom Bombadil was unaffected by The Ring, it had no power over him, temptation had no power over him.

However, it was not until discussion on Wednesday that I began to understand why. Why Tom Bombadil was important? and why he was able to resist the temptation of The Ring? After discussion I believe I have found some of the answer to these questions that have been haunting me for years. We discussed the role that Tom Bombadil plays is that of the storyteller. He tells the hobbits stories of different times and different places, and through these stories he enchants them. He employs Fairy-Stories to create Fantasy just how Tolkien believes it should be used, as related to us in his essay "On Fairy Stories". And so, the hobbits upon the moment of Recovery, or returning to their Primary World, are able to see the world in a new light, they are strangers entering the Perilous Realm. It is at this point also that the reader begins to become enchanted, begins to enter the Perilous Realm herself.

“Tom Bombadil is the Master” Goldberry explains to the hobbits, “He has no fear,” (Lord of the Rings, 124). While this statement is never fully explained in the text, we are just told that is does not mean that he owns the “wood, water, and hill,” but rather that each thing belongs to itself. Tolkien never seemed to believe that the Middle-Earth belonged to him but rather that he was writing down something that already existed. Tolkien seems to criticize the idea of the sub-creator owning his sub-creation in the story “Leaf by Niggle.” In the story Niggle became obsessed with his painting, his creation, however he did not think of it as something that others would appreciate and never looked to others for help or advice, and thus he never finished or was satisfied with his work. It wasn’t until Niggle let Parish give him help and advice that his creation could be fulfilled, he had to denounce the fact that it did not belong solely to him in order for the creation to flourish. Tom Bombadil is the storyteller, he is the master, he is Eldest.

“Tom was here before the rivers 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.” (The Lord of the Rings, 131).

Tom was there before Middle-Earth existed. His role is the sub-creator of the land. It is because of this that he is not only unaffected by The Ring, but also able to make it disappear. As the sub-creator he is fulfilling the most innate of rights given to men, he has already created his world, he does not need power or wealth. He has no reason for wanting to disappear, nothing he could gain from it. He is content because he has seen his creation grow and flourish. It is this unselfish creation that Tolkien endorses and believes to be so important to human existence.

Tolkien juxtaposes this type of creation to the creation of the rings of power by Sauron. Sauron claims ownership over The Ring, he also has a distinct purpose of gaining power when he forges the rings. There is nothing unselfish about his sub-creation. It is because of this that Sauron cannot fully exist without his creation and his creation is always seeking to come back to him, they depend on each other and in this way neither is fully satisfied. This type of creation seems to be harmful, yet also innate in humans.  In Tolkien's poem to C.S. Lewis Mythopoeia, he writes,

"... though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seeds of dragons - 'twas our right
(used or misused). That right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we're made." (Tolkien, Mythopoeia)

In this passage, Tolkien is acknowledging that creation can be misused, but argues that misusage of creation is still our innate human right. Sauron may have misused creation and he did suffered for his misuse, but it was still his right to create. Humans constantly are making things that they believe will help them to get ahead, creating things that we come to rely on and that in return could not operate without us, like cars and weapons. However, these things rarely leave us feeling content. Not in the way that Tom is satisfied with his world, or Niggle ultimately is with Niggle’s Parish. It becomes clear that while it is human tendency to be sub-creators, what we chose to create and our intention behind our creations matters. Tom Bombadil is the ideal image of a sub-creator. He does not take ownership, he is unselfish with his creation, and therefore he is content.



  1. I am intrigued by this idea that Tom Bombadil is a storyteller. While I agree that Tom holds no desire for power, wealth, and has no wish to disappear, I do not think it is because he is a sub-creator within Middle Earth. Rather, I think he serves as a sort of Platonic story reader. Tom existed before Middle-Earth, and men and Dark Lords, just as story readers existed before Lord of the Rings was imagined. The Ring has no power over him because to affect the story would be to break the tale’s Enchantment. If he is a truly active participant in the War of the Ring, the Secondary Reality loses some of its weight as an Escape, and becomes more of a Primary Reality, with obligations and consequences. I do agree that he is a sub-creator in a sense though, even if he is a story reader. We touched on the idea of Tertiary Realities in class, and I think that is what Tom Bombadil represents. His myths and tales to the hobbits are no different than any of our idle day dreams as brave orc slayers or guardspersons. Essentially, his fables and tales represent LotR’s legacy within a reader’s mind: an original creation set in a pre-existing Secondary Reality.
    This schema is slightly complicated by Tom’s rescue of the Hobbits from the Barrowwights. I am not entirely sure how to reconcile this episode with my musings. It could be that his rescue was only such that the story could go on to its natural conclusion. This would be similar to an avid reader overcoming some sort of obstacle in order to continue reading: an ornery sibling, library due dates, things like that. This isn't a perfect explanation, so I am intrigued what others think.

    Griffin Brunk

  2. Thanks for the very good post. I agree with your assessment of Tom Bombadil as a storyteller and subcreator. This raises some interesting questions, though. If Tom is as powerful and ancient (the two are usually linked in these parts, no?) as he is, and completely immune to the baleful power of the Ring (and therefore Sauron himself), isn't he a bit of a narrative inconvenience?

    Gandalf’s discussion at the Council of Elrond of why they can't just give Tom the ring seems (to me as a sometime writer) to betray an effort by Tolkien to square this circle: having provided a (lower-case) deus, why not have him come out ex machina? His rationale, that somehow Tom would lose the ring out of heedless inattention, doesn't satisfy me on many levels, since if we're to understand Tom as a storyteller—or a reader—we would tend to think in terms of his investment in the story and the characters. While a storyteller has to get his characters up a tree, it requires an Olympian detachment rather inconsistent with an apparently benevolent character in a story to remain indifferent to the fates of others, or indeed “the doom of the age.”

    I suspect Tom is a remnant of an earlier conception of the tale that Tolkien may have left in out of affection—or perhaps he is a link to the larger cosmogonic project in some way that remains obscure to me. Tom and Goldberry, appealing though they are, tend to pull me out of Middle Earth’s reality into a more traditional, less-grounded fairy-tale style of reading (in a way that Lórien, say, does not), and I've always found that problematic.

    But that fault likely lies not in Eärendil & Co., but in myself…

    Bill Walsh

  3. The importance of Tom Bombadil is certainly one of the greatest mysteries of Tolkien’s works, a fact acknowledged by Tolkien himself, and the curiosity of Bombadil’s evident lack of connection to the ring is perhaps the most intriguing component of that mystery. However, one question I was left with coming out of this class’s discussion was this: what is the significance of Tom Bombadil appearing at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings--just as the Hobbits begin their trek into the Perilous Realm and beyond what they know--and why does such a seemingly powerful figure, if that is what we believe him to be, remain virtually absent beyond the beginning of a long journey? If Bombadil is truly the subcreator of this realm and the storyteller of distant places and times, then he is an integral part of the beginning of the Hobbits tale. By appearing at the beginning and giving them refuge in his faerie stories at the beginning of their adventure, Bombadil is drawing the Hobbits into his subcreation, all of Middle Earth, which they have lived their lives never knowing. In doing so, he beckons them into the throes of a story their actionswill beginning telling. It may be a stretch, but I am almost reminded of Eru Ilúvatar bading the Ainur to sing.

    - Megan Porter

  4. I enjoyed reading your musings on Tom Bombadil. I thought the quote you chose describing Tom Bombadil had some interesting Christian parallels and I want to think about this might relate to the notions of storytelling and subcreation/creation. Tom Bombadil in that quote is described as being there from the beginning of Middle Earth, before the rivers and trees. This idea of being there before creation on Earth itself is reminiscent to me of the passage from John 1 that reads, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life,[a] and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." (verses 1-5). I see the parallel here between the idea of being there at the beginning and of him having the knowledge of everything that happened since that time. He tells the hobbits these histories. So in the way that he is a storyteller, he is a subcreator, but also, as you say, he is a subcreator in other ways as well. He in fact functions a lot like Christ in this way, especially as explicated in the John 1 passage. Christ is a storyteller, as seen throughout the gospels, but very literally for John, the Word. That is, he is akin to the music of Iluvatar, both fully a part of him but somehow separate. I do think in this way there is something holy about Tom Bombadil and that this might help explain his immunity to the ring. That is not to say that holiness can't be corrupted because we have seen over and over again in the Silmarillion (and in all of Tolkien's works) that that it surely can. But I think this emphasis on Bombadil's knowledge of the history of Middle Earth and his position as "master" of the nature around him suggests that this parallel of Christ is intentional and useful for thinking about him as a character.