Friday, March 31, 2017

Tom Bombadil and the Human Condition

If there’s anything that I have learned during my first-time Tolkien journey, it’s that fans of The Lord of the Rings absolutely love Tom Bombadil. “He’s the best character,” gushed a friend. “I’m still mad he wasn’t in the movies.” I was somewhat surprised to find this character, who inspired such devotion, to be a truly minor character: Tom enters the narrative on pg. 119 and all but departs from it on pg. 148. Although his role is largely unexplained within the text, his story’s confusing relationship with the mythology regarding the Garden of Eden as well as the ways that he reflects Tolkien’s own views on storytelling as an innately human project.

            Tolkien actively invokes the Genesis account of the creation of man in the section where the hobbits take temporary refuge with Tom, but it’s the mythos of Adam and Eve twisted in very specific ways. Tom is aligned directly with Adam:

            “Who are you, Master?” [Frodo] asked.
“Eh, what?” said Tom sitting up, and his eyes glinting in the gloom. “Don’t you know my name yet? That’s the only answer. Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless? But you are young and I am old. Eldest, that’s what I am. Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the river 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.” (Tolkien 131)

Tom is the first person, he says, and was a present spectator throughout all of the early history of Middle Earth. Although he sees all and knows all, he is not the originator or participant in any of these acts, which enhances his Adam-ness because Adam too was just a caretaker and resident of Eden. Like Eden, the Old Forest is also threatened by a powerful evil from the “Outside”: Satan is replaced with Sauron, but neither of them belong in the land they menace. The Old Forest, like the Garden of Eden, is a place where things can grow and prosper, and prior to the encroachment of Sauron, they do so without fear or restraint because evil does not yet exist there. More broadly, the similarities between Adam and Tom are numerous: he has a wife who serves as his sole non-plant or animal companion, he enjoys a privileged relationship with nature, and he lives in a bounded natural space (just like Adam doesn’t leave the Garden until he’s kicked out, Tom refuses to leave his Forest). Besides all that, both also contend with an evil tree.

Tolkien is consciously drawing upon these parallels, and in so doing, he transports the hobbits to an older time, an ur-world, if you will. In this most ancient, basic setting, Tolkien gives storytelling and especially poetry primacy. Tom speaks in verse, and often breaks into song. I think this is a large part of what makes him seem so magical: everything he says feels half like a spell or incantation. However, it also has the effect of making verse seem an older mode of speaking than prose: prose is the way the “young” hobbits speak, not “old” Tom. And indeed, one of his most important roles in the book is as a storyteller. His tales ground the hobbits in the lore of Middle Earth at the beginning of their epic quest, becoming foundational to their later understandings of the lands and people they come across. The process of understanding they go through serves to widen and contextualize the world the hobbits are venturing into: “As they listened, they began to understand the lives of the Forest, apart from themselves, indeed to feel themselves as the strangers where all other things were at home.” (Tolkien 129-130). Tom’s storytelling, as stories generally, has the power to show them different perspectives and thereby lend them a sort of empathy: in order to “feel themselves as the strangers where all other things [are] at home,” the hobbits must be able to see the Forest the way its inhabitants see it. They must leave behind their impressions and fears of it in exchange for a greater truth.

Tolkien’s strongly defined views on storytelling, especially the genre of mythology or fantasy, are clearly the driving force behind the Tom Bombadil episode. Storytelling has this power and this importance because it is a basic response to the very condition of being human. In his “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien writes, “Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.” Fantasy is fundamental to the human condition because to be a human is to reflect a greater creative process on a divine scale. The process of creation that goes into storytelling is a sacred and worshipful act, so Tom Bombadil’s purpose within the story is a consecrated one. Tolkien foregrounds this urgent need to create stories within the very story that he himself is creating: this nesting of creation in itself echoes the Creator-creator relationship he describes. This is also magnified to a general human construct by Tom’s position as the “Eldest” because Tom represents the most basic, natural impulses of humanity. Nothing about Tom is contrived, nothing he does reflects the corrupting potential of society or modern life: he is pure in a way no other character can be, except perhaps Goldberry, by sheer virtue of the fact that she also exists within this sphere. If Tom values storytelling so highly, then, how can it be otherwise?


The Limits of the Sub-Creator

    J. R. R. Tolkien put a lot of effort into making characters that are fun to analyze. The choices each person makes in the narrative, the emotions they show, the relationships they form, these are all sources of interest and exploration enough for any reader and/or scholar. However, Tom Bombadil is a fascinating character to analyze, simply because he is less characterized than almost any other being in the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien's characters are, to most readers, almost real, with a depth of emotion, thought, and experience that make them seem like they could so easily exist in our world and not only in Middle Earth. This strength of Tolkien's writing is one of many things that makes Lord of the Rings a great book. However, it is just as interesting to analyze when Tolkien did not give that amount of character depth. Tom Bombadil is introduced as a mysterious being. He is deliberately given no history or origin. His powers go unexplained. His thoughts and emotions are rarely stated and never analyzed. In many other stories less well-executed, he would be what we call a one-dimensional character, badly written and uninteresting. And yet, readers continue to love his character, and his lack of existence in the films is still a source of bitterness for many a fan. Why? Because that mystery is what makes his character so real, and so interesting.
    We will probably never get an answer for who or what Tom Bombadil is supposed to be, either in the internal world's history or as an author's device. As was discussed in class this week, however, a reader may make a shrewd guess that Tom Bombadil is meant to represent the creator; he is, in a way, Tolkien himself. This guess opens up several lines of thought for future discussion, but I was most drawn to one I had questioned when first reading the story: why does Tom not accompany the Hobbits to Bree?
    His explanation in-story makes a good enough sense in that world, I suppose:
           "...he laughed and refused, saying: Tom's country ends here: he will not pass the borders. Tom has his house to mind, and Goldberry is waiting!" (The Fellowship p. 159).
As a mysterious character, Tom does not need more explanation than that. He has his land and that is what he concerns himself with. He need not and does not want to extend his influence further. However, it seems to me that there may be meaning beyond a simple plot device. If we accept that Tom is at least somewhat representative of Tolkien himself, the idea that Tom cannot leave his land, or, better stated, that Tom does not feel he can or should influence or control events outside of his set sphere, illuminates some of Tolkien's ideas about sub-creating. In a letter to a student, who wrote to ask him questions related to her thesis, Tolkien spoke some about his writing process. She likely asked him something along the lines of 'How did you determine how the plot would go? Did you plan the whole story ahead of time, or write as the story unfolded?'. Tolkien's answer was that it was a mix of both:
           "The general idea of the Lord of the Rings was certainly in my mind from an early stage...From time to time I made rough sketches or synopses of what was to follow, immediately or far ahead; but these were seldom of much use: the story unfolded itself as it were" (Letters p. 258).
Here, Tolkien explains that his story was, in many ways, not under his control. He wrote as the story came to him, rather than planning ahead to a controlled ending. This restraint reminds me of Tom and his refusal to go beyond his sphere of influence.
    Tom is presented in Lord of the Rings as a sub-creator. Tolkien defined Fantasy as the result of a person combining the Sub-Creation Art (sub-creation being the creation of a Secondary World  and Art being the transference of that world to the reader) and the "quality of strangeness and wonder" that makes Fantasy so otherworldly (Reader p. 68). This process is mirrored in the chapter of the Lord of the Rings in which the hobbits stay in Tom Bombadil's house. In fact, most of the chapter consists of Tom telling the hobbits the history of Middle Earth, telling the tales of the world. These stories are a Secondary World in two ways: to the hobbits, the past of Middle Earth may as well be another world, so different is it to their own; and to the reader, the stories are background for the book they are currently reading. Tom is weaving stories of fantastic other world and telling them to the hobbits and the reader. Consequently, Tom is a sub-creator within his own creation, he is Tolkien in Middle Earth.
    But that influence does not extend past the present moment; Tom, while having a good deal of control that other characters do not have (e.g. he can touch the ring without being affected and see Frodo while the ring makes him invisible (Fellowship p. 144), does not tell the hobbits the future. He does not set their path or even advise them beyond a few more general maxims and suggestions; he is only a guide. Like Tolkien, much of the story is unveiled to him as it is to the other characters: in time. He is not all-knowing. Tolkien's writing style, that of having only vague plans if any, matches well with Tom's simultaneous power and control over his domain (power over what is already written) and lack of power and control over anywhere else (uncertainty about what will be written next) [whether this is by inability to or choice not to interfere does not matter to this argument; Tom's influence does stop. As does Tolkien's knowledge].
    Most of our guesses as to Tom Bombadil are exactly that: guesses. Tolkien purposefully did not define him within the story, and if there is further explanation of his existence in supplementary texts, I am not aware of it. This lack of information should be annoying; as Tolkien has said, the mark of a true Fantasy is internal consistency, which cannot be created without world-building. A reader should not be blind-sided by unexplained or random aspects of the Secondary World that remove them from the story, and Tom Bombadil is introduced rather suddenly and never explained. But in fact he is intriguing to so many readers of the book, including myself. One of the best parts of reading a well-created Secondary World is that rather than be distracted by the mysteries that should already have been explained, you are distracted by the mysteries the author made to catch your attention. Tom is one such mystery. He does not need to be explained to make sense in the world, but he was created to catch our attention and make us wonder. And in that way, too, he is very like Tolkien. Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings to make us think and wonder, and Tom Bombadil is both an exemplary microcosm and a reflection of the writer's mind.

- Fiona Helgren

Works Cited
Tolkien, J. R., & Tolkien, C. (2000). The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (H. Carpenter, Ed.). Houghton Mifflin.
Tolkien, J. R. (1966). The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine.
Tolkien, J. R. (1978). The Fellowship of the Ring (2nd ed., Vol. 1). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Elrond vs. Elric: Situating Tolkien in Modern Fantasy

Some people do not like The Lord of the Rings.

 This, of course, is as it should be. I for one would be far more concerned if there were not a certain difference of opinion on the matter, and indeed I harbor certain reservations about Tolkien's work myself. What is more striking is the reason many give for their dislike: they find Tolkien unserious, even juvenile. Andrew Rissik's biting "Middle Earth, middlebrow" is a fairly typical criticism of the kind, in which references to "the twee doggerel of Tom Bombadil," Middle-earth as a "strangely simplified mock-Teutonic never-never land," and Tolkien's own "essential simplicity of temperament" make it clear that the author considers The Lord of the Rings a children's novel at best. It would be easy to dismiss Rissik as the very sort of literary gatekeeper Tolkien himself decries in "On Fairy-Stories," a biased critic who believes that tales about elves and dragons are fit only for the nursery. In Rissik's case, this may indeed be so, but such a defense of Tolkien generally is undermined by the fact that his work has been subject to similar criticism from other fantasy writers. I am speaking, of course, of Michael Moorcock, a critic so vocal that a 2014 profile in The New Yorker was simply titled "The Anti-Tolkien."

Before I turn to his criticisms of Tolkien, I would like to take a moment to evaluate Moorcock. So far as name recognition is concerned, he's hardly Tolkien, or even Pratchett or Le Guin, and yet Moorcock's influence on fantasy as a modern genre is equal to any of them. Tellingly, while Tolkien's elves, dwarves, and hobbits—excuse me, halflings—were always an important part of the Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game, the RPG's original cosmology was based primarily on Moorcock's, and the first edition of the Deities and Demigods sourcebook included an entire section on his mythos and characters, particularly Elric of Melniboné, his signature fantasy antihero, until a lawsuit forced its removal. Modern luminaries of the genre regularly cite Moorcock as an influence—see, for example, Neil Gaiman's story "One Life, Furnished in Early Moorcock." In 2000, the same year Tom Shippy declared Tolkien the "author of the century," Moorcock was awarded the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement. His qualifications to criticize even a fantasist of Tolkien's reputation are beyond doubt, and criticize he does.

Moorcock's most significant piece of Tolkien criticism is the essay "Epic Pooh," in which, as the title suggests, he unflatteringly likens The Lord of the Rings to an elf-filled version of A. A. Milne's children's classic. "The sort of prose most often identified with 'high' fantasy," he writes, "is the prose of the nursery-room." He proceeds to rip into Tolkien on this front, with textual examples, then moves on to complaining about his politics. Eventually, he returns to the point, even more strongly than before: "The Lord of the Rings is much more deep-rooted in its infantilism than a good many of the more obviously juvenile books it influenced." At this point, one gets the sense that Moorcock's complaint runs deeper than the quality of Tolkien's prose, or the conservatism of his politics. And, indeed, it does, though he dithers a while longer before finally spitting it out:
Tolkien, going against the grain of his subject matter, forces [a happy ending] on us—as a matter of policy.
The great epics dignified death, but they did not ignore it, and it is one of the reasons why they are superior to the artificial romances of which Lord of the Rings is merely one of the most recent.
 Moorcock goes on, but he hardly needs to. This, here, is the beating heart of his objection to Tolkien. It is, I think, the true heart of all of them, even Rissik's, if they could but get past their petty biases and articulate it properly.

As Moorcock's objection has its roots, ultimately, not in The Lord of the Rings, but rather in the philosophy of the "eucatastrophe" which underlies it, I shall turn now to "On Fairy-Stories," the essay in which that claim is articulated, in order to examine it. Tolkien's discussions of the definition and origins of fairy stories are irrelevant to us here, and can be safely ignored for the present. The first section of note is the one entitled "Children," for though his objection to the classification of fairy-stories and fantasy as children's things indicates that he aspires to something more, both Rissik and Moorcock suggest that he has failed to achieve it. Here, it may be helpful to compare the literary backgrounds of Tolkien and Moorcock's respective works. Tolkien's deepest sources are, of course, the ancient myths and epics, but his treatment of fairy-stories as having been tragically relegated to children's literature, along with his self-classification as a writer of fairy-stories, transitively suggests that he sees himself as arising from a literary tradition most recently incarnated in the form of tales for children. Moorcock, by contrast, got his start as a writer and an editor in pulp magazines, in the tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, and H. P. Lovecraft, and although his creation of Elric was a deliberate attempt to cast aside a number of Conan-era pulp conventions, even this refutation served to further cement him as heir to a tradition in which children had precious little place. Thus, Tolkien, unlike Moorcock, is in the position of trying to move beyond the childishness of his predecessors. As Rissik and Moorcock claim, he is not wholly successful.

Reading further in "On Fairy-Stories," certain contradictions begin to emerge. Close to the end of the essay, Tolkien writes that "one cannot conceive of a house built with a good purpose—an inn, a hostel for travellers, the hall of a virtuous and noble king—that is yet sickeningly ugly" as existing in Faerie. Here, Tolkien errs, first because I can most certainly conceive of such a place, and second because he reduces Fairy to simple binaries. But Fairy resist such easy categorization; it is an in-between place, full of tangled briars and crooked trees and twisting paths, and it is no easier there to tell good from evil at a glance than it is in our own world. One wonders if Tolkien is not here mistaking Fairy for Heaven or Hell, which are much neater places, despite his own admonition that it is neither of those. In this oversimplification, we can see that yes, perhaps, the charges against Tolkien—that he has failed to avoid the childishness he himself railed against—are merited, and that Moorcock's objection stands: the eucatastrophe is not the particular triumph of Tolkien's fantasy, but rather its undoing.

However, it would take a measure more misanthropy than I possess to simply leave the matter there, with Tolkien's idealism broken like some once-loved doll, for while I must conclude that Tolkien's methodology was flawed, even Rissik had to recognize a measure of nobility in his intentions. Perhaps there is something to be built from the wreckage. I am not a Christian, but I shall attempt to formulate my argument in the terms of that faith, in order to better be in dialogue with Tolkien. Before I begin, however, I must briefly two vital sources of criticism which shall inform my reconstruction.

First, in his essay "The Death of the Author," Roland Barthes writes that "every text is eternally written here and now;" that is, every reader, indeed, every reading, brings a new formulation, created in the moment. If we take this to be true, we find that suddenly not only the architect of a given secondary world but rather every reader to inhabit that world must be considered as a sub-creator of that world, generating a unique instance with each reading. For while, as in Tolkien's example, every reader may see a green sun, no two of them will see it the same. Each must take their own green—from grass, or from trees, or from some beloved's eyes—and apply it to their own sun. Though such is beside the point, this formulation also presents a far better argument than any that Tolkien actually gives against dramatic or visual representations of fantasy: that in creating such representations definitively, they deny the audience their own sub-creative power. I do not necessarily agree with that particular argument myself—I've seen too many fine works of visual fantasy to wholly believe it—but I cannot help but feel that Tolkien would have approved of the sentiment.

My second source is "The Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde, and while I may not use it in the way that Wilde intended, my earlier citation of Barthes should make it quite clear that I do not especially care. Wilde writes:
No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved.

No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.

No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything.
At first, these lines seem to suggest that art must have no relationship with what is ethical at all. However, as Wilde notes just a single line earlier, "the moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist." Rather, these lines are a caution against judgement. A writer of fiction, for example, I may create characters I find morally repugnant, and yet it is my duty as their creator to write them, if not dispassionately, then at least without judgement, for if I judge them in my own person, I am not writing justice, merely a scripted, predetermined farce. I must not yield to a desire to prove anything wrong in my fiction, but rather portray it as fairly and honestly as I am able—which will, of course, still be somewhat subjectively—and let it condemn itself on its own. I must, as Wilde says, have no ethical sympathies. I must express everything. In Christian theology, this forbearance of judgement and gift to the condemned of their own fates has another name. There, it is called grace.

Just as grace is an essential function of the Creator, it must also be understood as an essential function of any sub-creator. In this, we find Tolkien's eucatastrophe obsoleted by something yet grander, for, following my earlier point, grace must be a function of every sub-creator, reader and author alike, and thus a well-built fantasy will induce it in all who come into contact with it, bringing them closer to a supreme understanding and mercy. Whether the end of the story is happy or sad is irrelevant, because, as Tolkien notes early one, it is in fact the human beings in Fairy who hold our interest, and if they are rendered well, their tragedy will elicit as much a depth of feeling in us as their triumph. And perhaps, just perhaps, a sub-creator might carry some of this grace with them out into the Primary World. Just a sliver would be enough to justify the whole exercise.

So, Tolkien was not perfect. He was not, perhaps, the greatest author of the 20th century. But his methods, while flawed, were quite a step beyond what he was coming from, and moving in the right direction. He may not be the be-all and end-all of modern fantasy, but he nevertheless deserves the credit he receives for having shaped it, and if nothing else, we can forgive him for not getting everything right on the very first try. The Road, after all, goes ever on and on.

—Nathaniel Eakman