It goes without saying that words are of the utmost significance to the world of Middle Earth. Obviously Tolkien’s languages form the foundation of his work, and as such are more prominent in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion than languages typically are in modern novels. However, even in this world of poetry and eloquence, not all phrases are spoken equally. The utterances of certain characters wield an incredible power some readers may refer to (incorrectly) as magic. Yet just as the ropes and cloaks of Lorien are works of craft imbued with fantastic powers, and not, in fact, magic, so too certain words, when loosed from the mouth of certain individuals, have power in and of themselves, power to shape the world in a much greater capacity than the feeble words of ordinary humans.
In all the creatures of the mortal lands of Middle Earth, the character whose words wield the most power is the enigmatic Master of the Old Forest, Tom Bombadil. Certainly the stories and songs of Tom captivate and amaze his hobbit visitors. However, time and again our hobbit protagonists prove themselves easily impressed by the speech of larger folk than they, so their impressions cannot stand as definitive proof of Tom’s mastery of the spoken word. However, if we examine a few key instances of Tom’s eloquence, and consider just how profoundly he uses it to alter the world around him, we can peer a bit deeper into the incomprehensible character of Tom, and, perhaps a more practical endeavor, better understand the nature and power of words in Tolkien’s world.
For one, the mode in which Tom Bombadil communicates is of special importance to Tolkien. The fact that Tolkien’s life work was to construct a narrative history for the world of his languages indicates that story telling was also one of the primary foci of Tolkien’s philological interests. This interest manifested itself in the many fantastic lore-masters, poets, and storytellers that inhabit Middle Earth. However, none are quite as proficient at story telling as the Master himself. Take, for instance, one of Frodo’s more transcendental story-experiences. In the hall of Rivendell, Frodo is enraptured by the words of a song sung by elves in their own language. Frodo does not understand any of the words, yet the songs “took shape, and… he wandered long in a dream of music that turned into running water” (Book II, Chapter 1). The music has a transporting effect, and although Frodo remains seated in Elrond’s halls, he is described as wandering, wrapped up in the physical experience of hearing pleasant words.
This experience was triggered by the sound of elven words foreign to Frodo’s ears, and seems to be a result of the mere euphony of the language and the tune of the music. Certainly Frodo never seems to be put into a similar trance by the words of any of the elf-songs that he actually understands; during those songs, Frodo is too focused on the story to be quite as swept away by the effects of euphony. Tom, however, achieves an even greater effect with the power of mere prose, prose in the common tongue no less. Tom’s stories, with which he entertains the hobbits for an evening, are even more transporting than the song of the elves. Tolkien describes Tom’s story as if it were a living thing that moved from one part of the world to the next, “leaping up the young stream, over bubbling waterfalls, over pebbles and worn rocks, and among small flowers in close grass and wet crannies, wandering at last up on to the Downs” (Book I, Chapter 7). The exact meaning of the “movement” of Tom’s story is a bit vague; certainly we can assume that Tom is describing things or events that occurred in the geographical areas his story covers. However, the fact that Tolkien uses the metaphor of the story moving gives us a sense of the hobbits moving too, as if, instead of describing the world to the hobbits, Tom was guiding them through it. The narrative becomes lost in the elaborate metaphor, just as the hobbits become lost in the story and completely lose track of the passage of time.
Clearly, Tom’s use of language surpasses that of the elves, the greatest race of storytellers in Middle Earth. But what does that tell us that we did not already know? We have already seen that Tom is a remarkably powerful being, this is evident to any reader of the Fellowship. However, the specific ways in which Tom uses his language gives us further insight into the potency of words in Middle Earth.
When first we meet Tom in the depth of the Old Forest, the hobbit companions require his assistance to rescue Merry and Pippin from the clutches of Old Man Willow, one of the most terrifying villains in the entire story. As soon as Frodo appeals to the odd-looking stranger for assistance, Tom asserts the power of his voice: “I’ll sing his roots off. I’ll sing a wind up and blow leaf and branch away.” However, when he approaches the offending plant, he merely speaks into its ear, “You should not be waking. Eat earth! Dig deep! Drink water! Go to sleep!” (Book I, Chapter 6). What Tom is doing is stating to the tree what it is that the tree should be doing. He is reminding the tree of its place in the natural order of the world, and this assertion produces the desired affect. The Willow releases his prisoners and resumes its regular tree activities.
Elsewhere Tom uses similar assertions of natural order to influence the adventures of the hobbits. Notably, he gives new names to the company’s ponies, and the creatures never answer to any other names again. Tom saw more deeply into the nature of the ponies than the people around him, and new the proper names to describe each one of them. The ponies recognized in the new names an accurate description of their nature, and adopted the words as a much dearer name than their former titles. Another, final work of Tom’s tongue in this story was the banishment of the weight that captured the hobbits for a time. Here, he seems almost to be scolding the spirit, telling it to be swept far away by the wind and leave its barrow empty. This is again an assertion of natural order; Tom is chiding the spirit to depart the world, as good spirits do, and leave unhaunted the mortal soil.
In none of these examples does Tom use anything resembling a spell or incantation of the type we occasionally hear Gandalf mutter, or words of power like the cry of “Elbereth” in the darkness of the Morgul pass. Tom merely states things, describing them as they should be, and that which he addresses falls into line, reassuming its natural place in the world. The tree returns to biological processes more natural to trees than hobbit-stealing, the ponies discover new senses of identity in a world often insensitive to the feelings of ponies, and the restless weight departs to a (hopefully) more restful end. Even the hobbits gain a better understanding to the nature of their world, sitting enraptured by Tom’s voice in action.
Can we assume that this gift is a power unique to Tom? Is it merely some aspect of his person that gives his words their potency, or is it a property of the words themselves? There is one other character whose oratory abilities do feebly imitate those of the Master. Saruman, leader of the Wise, is seen to have a voice that can greatly influence the behavior of those he addresses. He fools the greatest and oldest minds of Middle Earth for years, enslaves one of the mightiest kings of Rohan’s history, and organized a disciplined army from the most unruly race in Middle Earth. However, at the end of the Two Towers, Saruman’s voice has lost most of its potency. His words, spoken through the proxy of Wormtongue, had suppressed the will of Theoden for years, but after Helm’s Deep, he could not even turn Theoden’s wrath through direct confrontation. Significantly, though, Saruman’s decline in power followed a similar moral degradation. Once, he had been a benevolent wizard, ordering the world in the proper fashion, like Tom. However, as his mind turned to evil, he abandoned nature, and devoted his words to his own ends, twisting the minds of his minions with a veil of half-truths and subtle lies. As the Third Age progressed, his lies became deeper and darker, and soon turned to almost total evil. Perhaps, in Middle Earth, those who speak the truth, who see, understand, and speak of the order of the world wield the power to order their surroundings after the nature of that truth; for those who lie, their words turn lose their potency, and the works of the speaker are lost in the degradation of the truth.
- George Townsend