Friday, March 31, 2017

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.


  1. Tom as limited as story-teller in the same way Tolkien was--I like it! This is as good an explanation as any I have seen for why Tom says he cannot leave the Old Forest: although he knows the history of Middle-earth, he cannot see the future, he cannot know how the story is going to turn out. He is inside it as much as the characters are. RLFB

  2. You are right in saying that Tom Bombadil is very much a storyteller within the story. He tells the story but does not have any influence on how the actual plot plays out or how it ends. I think that Bombadil has those restrictions on where he can go because Tolkien is, in a way, putting those restrictions on himself. In doing so, he actually grants the characters more freedom. Tolkien dislikes allegories mainly because it causes too shallow of a reading and limits the depth of the characters. In order to avoid setting boundaries for his characters like allegories do, he instead sets boundaries for himself and grants his characters more freedom.
    Bombadil’s character is meant to show the hobbits a transcendent view of Middle-earth. It is only after meeting him that all of the hobbits, save Sam, begin to dream. They are able to take a rest from their long journey and join the reader in listening to Tom Bombadil telling many tales of history.

    Peter L. (Blog post #1)