Friday, April 25, 2014

Tom is the Master

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


  1. Tom Bombadil's storytelling is an excellent example to demonstrate this point! Intent and use are no less important than the language itself. The Lhammas mention that Morgoth "perverted willfully to evil" the language that he taught to the Orcs, "but Morgoth himself spoke all tongues with power and beauty, when so he wished" (The Lost Road 194). Tom can similarly make the Common Speech sound even more fantastic than the high Elvish languages, and Saruman can use it to enchant in a less innocent way, until his usage is so far from what the language is supposed to do that his power diminishes. Like Morgoth corrupted language by sound, perhaps Saruman did so by meaning.

    You have shown that we are not so limited by the number of languages we can or cannot understand, or by the apparent plainness of our native tongue when compared to something loftier. One must embrace the language one is speaking and learn to utilize it for one’s purposes, be they as benevolent as Tom’s or as mischievous as Saruman’s, without completely straying from its nature. Yes, it is wonderful to hear the Elvish languages, whether or not one knows the meaning, but one does not need to speak mysterious words to be able to captivate an audience. Tolkien manages to enchant us even with his English translation of Westron.

    -Laurie Beckoff

  2. A huge strength of this post was that it recognized the distinction between Tom's use of language in "an assertion of natural order" and Saruman's use of language to pervert that order. It might be worth noting that as a result the former proves himself master of the forest (and the denizens within it like Old Man Willow) whereas the latter, Saruman, is overrun by the Ents of the forest that he first neglected and then systematically destroyed in favor of his own twisted aims. Clearly the natural world responds to proper and improper uses of language in kind.

    The heart of this distinction seems to be, as you acknowledge in your post, their roles as subcreators within the frame of the narrative. As we saw in Tree and Leaf, Tolkien has a preoccupation with the 'discovery' of true things through art as opposed to their fabrication. Several times throughout the letters, he also admits that his art is one of discovery not invention. The languages he creates for his legendarium are ones he unearths. Since Tom is directly in touch with this spirit of discovering the true, hidden life beneath the surface of things, his facility with language trumps Saruman's and the end of the LOTR narrative reminds us of this: Saruman is robbed of his facility with language (and the powers it gave him) while Tom remains the unseen but ever-present and ever-powerful Master of the Old Forest.

    - Prasan Srinivasan

  3. I disagree with the sentiment that "Tom's use of language in "an assertion of natural order" and Saruman's use of language to pervert that order," as you so clearly put it, are distinctly at odds with one another. Whereas you point out that Saruman uses language to pervert order, I do not think that it is so much a need to pervert order that compels him. He has a vision, which Gandalf relates to the the council of Elrond, which includes a persevering sense of "progress." Yes, he might be perverting a natural order, but his vision is as orderly as the natural order, just not natural. It is incorrect to say that Sarumon uses speech to contribute to disorder while Bombadil uses speech to further order. It is the adjective natural which is different.

    Saruman and Bombadil share a very distinct style of speech, which is ultimately very persuasive. They speak in images, sharing colors of the speech and describing imagery. Both of them have "flowery" speech, in that it is decorated with the trappings of fancy. However, Bombadil's imagery is the imagery of a world that actually exists, which is the basis of his power, while Saruman describes worlds that are skewed and attempts to convince the listener that this is the world which actually exists.

    I think that the assertion that "the former proves himself master of the forest... whereas the latter, Saruman, is overrun by the Ents..." is a faulty cause and effect. The reason that Tom has speech-power is because he is the master, not as you presume that the reason that he is the master is because he has speech-power.

    This colorful language, much akin to an impressionist painting, where the emphasis on light and color draw the viewer in, directly contrasts with Tolkien's own, stark writing style, which seems more realist than impressionist. The only time when Tolkien really switches over and takes hold of the style of Bombadil and Saruman is is the passage regarding the fox in book I, where the narrator suddenly jumps into a head of a passing fox, who wonders what three hobbits are doing sleeping on the ground so far from home. I wonder, although I do not have a ready answer for why it is that Tolkien gives the titles of most convincing and perfect speakers to two characters who have a style very different from the one that he, himself, employs?

    --Elliot Mertz

    1. Certainly Saruman is working towards ordering the world in his own way. However, is it not an important distinction that this is his order, rather than the natural order, the way the world is supposed to work? In general, it seems hard to deny that Tolkien encourages the cooperation of humanity with nature as one of the main themes of his work. Saruman's evil, while evident in his works, is also displayed in the perversion of his machinations, the way in which he destroys the natural order of the forest to fuel his machines of war. While you could certainly argue about the validity of a "natural order," that there is some preferable way that the world should operate, I think Tolkien would maintain that there is. The Elves and wizards defend not only the people of Middle Earth, but also the land itself, the woods and creatures. Tom encourages trees and ponies alike to behave as other trees and ponies do, while Saruman convinces his servants to utilize nature for his own purposes, and I think this is a fundamental difference between the two.

  4. Tom Bombadil is one tricky fellow! I very much like this analysis of his powers as being one of naming and restoring natural order. He indeed has great power of speech, but it does not seem to be the same sort of power that Saruman has with his rhetorical prowess—and as you note in your comparison with elves, there is a power in the speech that goes beyond the euphonious sounds of elven tales. I particularly like this line, in which you link Tom's power of speech with his power of discernment: “Tom saw more deeply into the nature of the ponies than the people around him, and [k]new the proper names to describe each one of them.”

    This is perhaps the true difference between Saruman and Tom. There is a very medieval idea that lies are more persuasive and poisonous when they contain an element of truth, and this is perhaps Saruman's great ability—to mix truth and plausible lies so as to persuade. As your other commenters note, T and S's speech has power over the “order of things,” though your commenters disagree as to whether Saruman encourages “disorder.” I will add to the mix this question: Do you think that Saruman and Tom share the same level of discernment? Are they both equally able to see the nature of things, either to name them or persuade them?


    1. Great questions Jenna, and sorry for the delayed response. I think Saruman's level is discernment is fundamentally very different from Tom's in that he understands only how to manipulate the order of things rather than maintain it. Tom understands the world as it should be, and sings it into shape based on the proper roles assigned to things by nature. Saruman, then, does not serve "disorder" so to speak, but a different order, a more industrial system that serves his own ends. As such, Saruman does not require the deep, fundamental understanding of things such as Tom has, he only needs to know how to coerce them to his own ends. In other words, shaping the actions of others is the easy part, something both Tom and Saruman can do. What takes true wisdom is understanding what purpose that power should be directed: Tom knows how things should be, while Saruman can only comprehends how he wants them to be.

  5. Much attention has been paid to the intentions of Saruman and his effects in LOTR regarding what is and is not natural. Not knowing what Tom Bombadil is, can we actually assert that his changes to the order of things are natural? He seems to be a part of nature, having tamed the River-Man's Daughter (if the Adventures of Tom Bombadil are to be believed) and married her, but could easily be a foreigner to the land, one of the Ainur or Maiar for example. The temperament of Old Man Willow is natural. He seems to be a reaction to the maltreatment of the Old Forest by the hobbits, leading the violent charge against things not of the forest. To subdue him, while very beneficial to the story, may not really be the most natural course of events. This leads to another discussion of whether Arda itself is perverted (which it is, I think) and whether or not intervening in the name of Good against nature itself is natural. This is not a discussion I wish to have right now, but it is definitely something to consider.

    On the matter of Saruman... he was originally a Maia and said to be the chief of all the Istari that came to Middle Earth. According to the essay presented in Unfinished Tales, he was also regarded my many in Valinor as being one of the greatest Maiar (though not said explicitly, it is notable that it seems Radagast was forced on Saruman by Yavanna and that only Varda saw that Gandalf was the First). Saruman's initial purpose was one of good, as he volunteered to aid the people of Arda in their quest against evil though it cost him wisdom, knowledge, clarity of feeling, and exposed him to other ailments of the flesh. He and his voice are not inherently evil and did not necessarily always subvert people to his plan. This goes back to the discussion of whether or not intervening in the course of events for Good is a manipulation of what is natural. If the Ainur were created by Illuvatar and Arda was created by the Ainur, isn't it only the Ainur that are natural? Is the product of subcreation part of nature?

  6. When I read your post about Tom, I immediately thought of Saruman and I am glad you did not neglect to mention him. However, I disagree with you that his words lost their potency as a result of the degradation of the truth. Even after the fall of Isengard, and the Company meets him at Orthanc, his voice is still a force to be reckoned with, one must not let your guard down. It said that the voice was “low and melodious” and even if “little power remained in them”, it was still a “delight” to hear the voice speaking, for it “seemed wise and reasonable.” It had different effects on people, some were enthralled, some were only held for a moment, while others were conquered even from far away, but Tolkien writes that “none were unmoved” Even though eventually none are fooled, it was clearly still a struggle for them. Furthermore, Saruman’s power in his voice was still potent enough to wreak havoc in the Shire. Merry rightly comments, “If I had known all the mischief he had caused, I should have stuffed my pouch down Saruman’s throat.” Indeed it was Saruman’s voice that held his power, and he used it to enrapture his minions into doing his will.

    Hence, while I do agree with you that Tom Bombadil has a certain way with words unmatched by any other character we’ve seen in Middle Earth, Saruman doesn’t necessarily fall “feebly” behind. Even after he has lost much power and control in Isengard, he continued to retain a voice which strongly tempted Theoden and those in the Company, and eventually used this voice to control and scare the hobbits. He may have lost his powers or control or armies, but his words still did not lose potency – in fact, his words are all that’s left that is potent about him. I am not confident about your claim that the potency of one’s words are a result of your nature (whether good or bad), but rather it is merely a gift that some have (Tom, Saruman) and some do not.

    G Zhang