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?



  1. Another way in which Tom fulfills a kind of "sacramental" function: the day he spends telling the hobbits stories is Goldberry's washing day, a kind of baptismal image. Augustine has a wonderful description of catechism as being brought into the story of salvation, which in effect is what Tom does as he tells the hobbits the history of Middle-earth. After the telling, the world is washed clean! RLFB