Friday, April 4, 2014

Tom Bombadil and Fantasy as Reason

What amazes me about Tom Bombadil, and what I think amazes everyone else who tries to answer the question, “Who or what is Tom Bombadil?” is that there is not a clear answer. Tom Bombadil, unlike every other creature that one encounters in the Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit, does not fit into the neatly defined categories of beings that inhabit Middle-Earth. One of the things that Tolkien says about Fantasy in “On Fairy-Stories” is that it is an exercise of reason, and that it is hard because of this. It is hard to create a world that is as orderly as our own, but that has key differences, because those differences tend to breed paradoxes. Tom Bombadil appears to be one of those paradoxes, inserted into the otherwise extremely orderly Middle-Earth. This is what draws many people to look at Tom Bombadil more closely and to attempt to figure out where he fits in the classification systems that Tolkien set up. Theories that Tom Bombadil is Eru Ilúvatar himself, or one of the angelic Vala or Maia, have abounded. A personal favorite theory is that Bombadil is in fact the spirit of the land itself, explaining his lack of care for the One Ring as being a matter for the beings who inhabited the land, not the land itself.
But Tolkien never let those theories take hold. He is always quoted as saying that Tom Bombadil is one of those mysteries that will never be solved, like the Entwives. This of course has not stopped anyone from trying to figure out whom and what Tom is of course, but the fact remains that we will never truly know, simply because it seems likely that even the storyteller himself didn’t know. Tolkien’s universe is notable, if for nothing else, for its strict internal consistency. Yet even a storyteller as consistent as Tolkien allowed a few inconsistencies to slip through. It is curious that the one thing that eludes even Tolkien himself is another storyteller within Tolkien’s story. Tom is a kind of sub-sub-creator. He uses the power that Tolkien says the realm of Faerie is filled with: enchantment, which is very specifically mentioned as Tom tells stories to the hobbits fresh out of the Shire.
Tom uses the power of fairy-stories, the power of the stories of Middle-Earth, to give the hobbits the same things that we gain from fairy-stories. The stories allow the hobbits to recover their sense of the Shire and the world that they are used to, and prepares them for their journeys ahead in realms they hadn’t even begun to imagine. It allows them to escape, not only from their perilous encounter with Old Man Willow, but from their secluded little lives that cannot grasp the gravity of their errand. And it gives them consolation, showing them that even though there is danger, and history, and danger in that history, there is always the possibility that they will succeed. Yes, there is a possibility that they will fail, that everything will end in catastrophe and the Dark Lord will rule over Middle-Earth to the detriment to every living creature, but there is also the possibility that they will win, they will not just get past the Barrow-wights that await them just beyond Tom’s humble home, but that they will make it all across the land and becomes legends themselves. Both possibilities exist within the story, but that is a hopeful fact, not a disheartening one.
And it’s all of that, the heart of Fantasy with a big F that makes Tom Bombadil’s enigmatic nature so important. The realm of Faerie, also known as the Perilous Realm, is supposed to be enigmatic, beyond description. Each person can experience Faerie in their own way, but there is no way for a person to truly capture that experience with mere words and give their experience to another person. Tom Bombadil is the gateway to the Perilous Realm. Just beyond him are the Barrow-Wights, but beyond that is a land of other perilous and wondrous adventures. Tom Bombadil couldn’t be anything classifiable because he is the storyteller and the realm the storyteller transports the hobbits and the reader to all in one.
Tom Bombadil is in many ways the most magical thing in Middle-Earth. Whereas the feats of wonder that the Elves or other creatures perform can be considered merely “Art”, Tom’s power over language and his ability to enchant the hobbits is just as supernatural as Gandalf’s staff. For Tolkien the most powerful Art of all was words, rhetoric, and storytelling. There is not god or being that inhabits this power though, no force that can explain it. It is merely something that is innate in the creation we find ourselves in, and so we create ourselves, Tolkien’s sub-creation. So how could Tolkien, in any good conscience, make the storyteller, the one who leads the hobbits into the Perilous Realm for the first time, and who is the maker of Fantasy in Tolkien’s created fantasy, into anything other than a figure as enigmatic as Tom Bombadil?
Tom Bombadil is unclassifiable, but that is because he is something so true to the experience of living, of being human (or hobbit or elf or what have you), that he can stand on his own as nothing more than the embodiment of storytelling, of sub-creation, perhaps not in the allegorical sense but in the sense of his presence being applicable to our lives. Readers will continue to wonder for generations where Tom fits into the mythology of the Lord of the Rings, and I don’t think Tolkien would have it any other way. Tom is that sense of wonder we get from any truly excellent fairy-story. He gives that wonder to the characters in the story, and to the readers of that story. Tom Bombadil is wonderful, both because he enchants us so, and because he shows us that that enchantment isn’t just for great men, or for children, or for any specific group, but for anyone who is willing to be enraptured by his story.

-Josh Greenberg

10 comments:

  1. Josh,

    Thanks for your thoughts and for tackling head-on the question ‘Who is Tom Bombadil?’ I like how you cover some of the popular theories of who Tom might be–points debated among lore-masters–but that you do not then make a stand to advocate for a certain theory over others. In my humble view, you are quite right to recognize that Tolkien “never let those theories take hold,” that is, never capitulated to curiosity to pin down the bouncing Bombadil.

    Here you seem to claim that despite his otherwise internal consistency, “even a storyteller as consistent as Tolkien allowed a few inconsistencies to slip through. It is curious that the one thing that eludes even Tolkien himself is another storyteller within Tolkien’s story.” Do you really think that Tolkien is “inconsistent” with leaving Tom a mystery, that Tom “eluded” JRR?

    Earlier you seemed to express that Tom represents a “paradox” with the fantasy world. You wrote: “It is hard to create a world that is as orderly as our own, but that has key differences, because those differences tend to breed paradoxes.” Do you really think that our world is so orderly that no enigmas or mysteries remain? If so, I would love to hear your insights into things! Perhaps, our world has some general rationale but contains much that remains unknown and unknowable by its nature. If that is so, then perhaps Tom’s enigma represents not a ‘key difference’ but a kind of likeness with those parts of our reality that we cannot circumscribe? What do you think?

    But your discussion here turns out to be a feint, for you take a turn and argue just in this direction: In virtue of Tom’s enchanting story-telling, he is necessarily enigmatic. You wrote: “Tom Bombadil couldn’t be anything classifiable because he is the storyteller and the realm the storyteller transports the hobbits and the reader to all in one.”

    But here I am confused. I do not see Tolkien claiming that the story-teller is enigmatical by nature, but that the story-land, Faërie, cannot be netted with words. Do you really think that the story-teller who takes his listeners or readers into the Perilous Realm thereby also makes herself an enigma? But if so, then should we not expect to find that enigmatic character cropping up among the other story-tellers in LoTR? Bilbo, Frodo were contributors to the Red Book of Westmarch and so, are they not story-tellers? Do they share in the Bombadillian enigma? Do not Gandalf (“Shadow of the Past”), Saruman (“Voice of Saruman”), and others (“Council of Elrond”) participate in story-telling, yet without quite the same enigmatic charater?

    Robert/Radegundus the Green

    P.S. You wrote: “[Tom’s] ability to enchant the hobbits is just as supernatural as Gandalf’s staff.” What might the word “supernatural” mean within the secondary world of Middle-Earth?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Your post reminds me of a training my parents told me about. My parents, high school English teachers seeking to become counselors, took a training focused on giftedness. While society in the U.S. and other Western Countries generally consider giftedness as having a high I.Q. or intelligence, many other societies of the world measure one’s giftedness with other considerations. For example, one can be a gifted doctor, gardener, or storyteller. There are societies that revere their storytellers and see them as highly gifted, regardless of their I.Q.
    Relating back to Tom Bombadil, he is a gifted storyteller, and the world of Middle Earth highlights this. In a world in which song, history, and stories are revered by the many races of the world, Tom Bombadil’s words are exceptional. When the hobbits visit Tom, it is as if they are transported into a whole other world. Perhaps Tolkien had a message to say here. He wished to create a fantastical world via his writing that could appeal to a broad audience. Maybe he felt that society was lacking an essential art: that of stories. And via stories, that of escape from the present world into a ‘faerie’ world. Such escape can be beneficial in helping one use lessons from said faerie world to better understand their present world.

    ~Cynthia C.C.

    ReplyDelete
  3. You consider the "strict internal consistency" of Tolkien's novels and discuss their use of "reason" in the construction of his Fictional universe. Yet, you also write about how, "Tom Bombadil, unlike every other creature that one encounters in the Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit, does not fit into the neatly defined categories of beings that inhabit Middle-Earth" You conclude, "Tom Bombadil is unclassifiable," yet you do not question how Tom Bombadil can exist in a Tolkien-esque world. Tom and the old forest exists as a break in the story, a jarring interlude between the chase in the Shire and the encounter at Bree. Tom's manner is lighthearted, singing rhyming songs mostly of nonsense and whimsy, and hearkens back to The Hobbit more than the earlier chapters of Lord of the Rings, which is darker and more somber than either The Hobbit or the Bombadil chapters. This tear in the fabric of the story, which results from a rending of the internal logic of the story, a misapplication of Art, so that it does not convert Imagination into Story, is a deliberate attempt to mystify middle earth. As you point out, "Tolkien never let those theories take hold. He is always quoted as saying that Tom Bombadil is one of those mysteries that will never be solved, like the Entwives," but you attempt to dismiss it, saying, "The realm of Faerie, also known as the Perilous Realm, is supposed to be enigmatic, beyond description. Each person can experience Faerie in their own way, but there is no way for a person to truly capture that experience with mere words and give their experience to another person." In your interpretation, Bombadil becomes an error, an inexplicable flaw in an otherwise perfect gem. I suggest, however, that it is not so much a flaw as a feature. Nobody would say that "1 + 1 = 2" is a particularly compelling story, for the simple reason that there is no mystery involved. We are not stricken by a sudden lack of knowledge and a need to understand the answer to the problem upon reading "1 + 2 =". There is no intake of breath, no hushed silence as we await the thrilling conclusion, "2". Tom Bombadil hints at a deeper current than that expressed in LOTR, a mystery that keeps Tolkien's world infinitely compelling, infinitely dramatic as it is the build-up without a recognizable conclusion so, whatever conclusion the reader comes to, the world is not fixed. It, like our primary world, is not reducible to a single, concrete fact, such as "1+1=2"
    --Elliot Mertz

    ReplyDelete
  4. While I enjoyed your theory that Tom is unclassifiable, I have always viewed him as the representation of Tolkien in the narrative. Tom’s ability to produce a sense of wonder, bliss, and timelessness from his stories mimics the effects Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings creates. In addition, we can view anything pre-Tom (the shire, Bilbo’s birthday) as the equivalent of The Hobbit and everything post-Tom as The Lord of the Rings. The Shire represents a state of unadulterated innocence. Bilbo’s adventures, while they can be dangerous at times, are more of a whimsical nature especially when compared with the large scale death and destruction witnessed in the wars against Sauron. Thus, Tom’s storytelling is an attempt by Tolkien to separate the two works and create a dichotomy between the safety of The Hobbit and dangerousness of The Lord of the Rings. The immediate danger faced by the hobbit’s after their departure from Tom’s is meant to emphasize to the reader that the world is much larger and scarier than the Shire and Bilbo’s adventure.
    In addition, the nature of Tom’s existence, being present perhaps before the awakening of the Elves, would further the Tolkien theory. Tom is there for the entirety of Arda and will be there until its end, seemingly immortal. Also, if Tom were the author, his disinterest in the ring, unlike Eru Ilúvatar when he makes Gollum trip, would be explained by his inability to take an active role in the narrative. He would be merely the storyteller.
    It is quite possible that I am completely wrong however. Grasping at straws as so many other Tolkien fans have before me as to the true nature of Tom. Alas, we will never know.
    -Elliott Snyder

    ReplyDelete
  5. I would argue against the idea the Tom is a kind of author surrogate. While he is certainly a story teller and perhaps the most powerful of the sub-creators Tolkein writes into his epic, he is hardly alone and seems an unlikely choice to read Tolkein into the story. While Tom is an early example of Tolkein's theory of story telling and its restorative powers, he is also the most susceptible to the charges of Tolkein's critics. Tom is disinterested in the world around him, "careless" and often found "singing nonsense." Tom quite literally lives in his own little fantasy world divorced from many of the realities of Middle Earth and from which he is not often known to step out. Singularly among Tolkein's story-tellers in the Lord of the Rings, Tom does not venture beyond himself and his home. This detail is particularly important when compared to other sub-creators such as Bilbo, who is inspired by stories to go off on and adventure, is changed for the better and returns to the Shire to set down his adventures as tales continuing a cycle of story telling. Story tellers in Tolkein's work are quite notable for taking part in the stories they are themselves telling; Tom's separated almost narratorial stance is at odds with this. Tom's adventures as has been noted by others above are far more whimsical in nature then the rest of the story and read to me as having greater similarities to popular conceptions of fairy stories than those which Tolkein was noted for writing. Far from being the ultimate embodiment of Tolkein's own theories of the role of fantasy, sub-creation and fairy-stories, Tom Bombodil seems a uniquely easy target for critics of the genre that find it to be little more than childish nonsense that encourages not merely escapism but desertion from reality and its consequences. Tom certainly expounds aspects of Tolkein's own views but he is hardly alone in this regard and would appear to be an unlikely choice for an authorial surrogate within the context of the Lord of the Rings.
    -JTH

    ReplyDelete
  6. Very interesting read! I agree with a lot of what you have to say about Tom - in a way I see him as the Tolkien of Tolkien's world - one of the most important parts of fantasy, I think, is that it tells truths about our world in clever, creative, and entertaining ways. Sometimes we choose to believe them, other times we just dismiss them as part of a story. But when we take a step back to realize that the story of the world and everything we go through is just one long story, we just might have some Tom Bombadils of our own walking around, spinning stories about stories. Or I could be completely off on this point, if I'm even conveying it in a way that makes sense. That being said, I think it would be interesting to give other characters in the series the same treatment as Tom receives, if it's possible. We assume that a lot of Tolkien's other characters are grounded in reality and take many of them for face value, when that might not necessarily be the case.
    -LMM

    ReplyDelete
  7. This is a great post! I think you hit the nail on the head in describing Tom Bombadil as being “the most magical thing in Middle-Earth”. In some ways, even though he is one of my favorite characters, he frustrates me. Tom always has seemed a little oddly out-of-place in the story, especially, upon reflection, how fantastical he is relative to the beginning of Book I of the Lord of the Rings. The abrupt emotional shift from fear in fleeing the Shire to the goofy joy that is Tom Bombadil brings me perilously close to having to suspend my disbelief rather than believing, although that might just be a personal response. I think it’s very possible that Tom is a Tolkien surrogate; there certainly seems to be a parallel between the author as the creator of the world (therefore unrestricted in potential) and the unique powers of Tom. I think an interesting follow-up question to “Who is Tom Bombadil?” is “Who is Goldberry?”. If Tom is an author surrogate, is Goldberry intended to represent something similar or is she intended to represent some aspect of fantasy that is closely coupled with the creative ability of the Tolkien?

    ReplyDelete
  8. Fantasy is indeed difficult, because it must be ordered and reasoned much like our own world, but also dissimilar enough for the reader to recognize as fantasy
    Tom Bombadil’s existence disrupts the consistency and order of Middle Earth; this is why he is so intriguing, and why when I read the books in elementary school, I was fascinated with him (and was subsequently furious when Peter Jackson left him out of the film adaptation of Fellowship; Tom Bombadil was one of my favorite characters).
    I like how you brought up Tom’s telling of fairy-stories to the hobbits. The idea of using fairy stories as a way to regain normalcy is an interesting one; fairy tales are usually seen as a form of escapism, not as a way to regain one’s footing in a terrifying world. However, fairy tales are innately comforting; much in the way Tom told stories to the hobbits, I myself reread The Lord of the Rings as a source of comfort in a child. In a way, Tolkien’s sub-creation and creation came full circle. Enchantment is available for anyone willing to listen.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Many speculations have been made on who Tom Bombadil and Goldberry are, but what does Tolkien think of this question? Some answers he gave out include:
    1. "the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside" (Letter 19)
    2. "And even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally)." (Letter 144)
    3. "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." (Letter 153)
    4. "Goldberry represents the actual seasonal changes in such lands. " (Letter 210)

    I am actually surprised by the fact that I could find explicit explanation from Tolkien--I would imagine that the controversy exists because there is no answer from the author. But Tolkien's reply in letter 153 seems quite definitive. Then why are we still feel puzzled by Tom's existence? Is it because "representation of a purely inquisitive mind" is an explanation too allegorical? Is it because we do not find such an explanation satisfactory? This ties back to the enigma of relationship between the reader and the writer: to what extent shall we accept the author's intention as the ultimate law? To what extent should we listen to our response to a piece of work even though it does not necessarily correspond to the author's intention? Is there such thing as over interpretation? How can we know the boundary?

    Tom comes even before the conception of Aragorn (Letter 163), so he cannot be created for the sake of completeness of the story. Tolkien plainly says that "In historical fact I put him in because I had already 'invented' him independently...But I kept him in, and as he was, because he represents certain things otherwise left out." (Letter 153) So with Tom also comes the enigma of creation: does Tolkien have any remote conception of Tom as a spirit of anything when he creates him? Or does Tolkien give these meanings and interpretations after such a shape took place by chance? Does that mean "meaning" and "shape" are separable in the process of creation...?

    Combining the two sets of questions: is it possible that the author himself does not always recognize the implications of his creation?

    I found it interesting that Frodo obtains a foresight of his departing from Middle Earth at the House of Tom Bombadil, and he comes to this foresight without any aid (unlike the Mirror of Galadriel). So maybe Tom Bombadil is indeed the perspective of a being outside Time, a position described in Notion Club Paper that can see the timeline in its entirety. Curiously he marries the "representation" of Change, which is manifested through the flow of Time but itself timeless exactly because its omnipresence in time (Perhaps that can help us to think about the concept of God?).

    (On a rather irrelevant note, as someone who is easily influenced by visual representations, I am fascinated by Tom also because he does not have a film equivalent that would interfere with my own imagination. Perhaps I should thank Peter Jackson for leaving him out of the picture so I can enjoy his enigma in completeness.)

    The wonder of Tom continues. So does the wonder of Middle Earth.

    ReplyDelete