Thursday, July 19, 2012

In Defense of Tom Bombadil

"Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow;
Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow.
None has ever caught him yet, for Tom, he is the master:
His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster."
The Fellowship of the Ring "Chapter 8: Fog on the Barrow-Downs."

Tom Bombadil is a mystery. Whenever I come to his brief cameo in The Lord of the Rings, I leave him feeling somewhat confused and definitely amused. Most of the time, I’m content to let him fall into the Tolkien’s Loose Ends category, along with the entwives and the secret of hobbits' origin, which, if we’re honest, is probably exactly where they belong.

 Just a cursory search on Google is enough to show that many people have devoted considerable time to cracking the Bombadil code. I don’t pretend to be one of them. I’m not really a Tolkien scholar; I’ve never even read Unfinished Tales (though I really want to), and I only read The Silmarillion once a few years ago. I try my best not to be drawn into stories to the extent that I start quoting and cross-examining them like the Bible (see the Baker Street Irregulars), all the same, it’s always fun to speculate about these things.

But in several of these speculation websites, it’s mentioned that Tom somehow doesn’t fit into the books, or that he’s someone that is uncomfortable to fans. That’s hard for me to swallow – he’s always been one of my favorite characters, and certainly I’m not the only one out there. (Am I?) He’s an unusual person, but I would’ve been disappointed if Tolkien had cut him out.

My father read The Lord of the Rings to me when I was around eight or nine. Reading the books again (for the umpteenth time), Tom’s voice always sounds like my dad’s - bouncing and rolling in a light-hearted and jolly poetry-speech. Always, those days are in the back of my mind, so perhaps I’m a little biased in Tom’s favor, but now that I’m nearly seventeen, the character still manages to grasp my imagination and run off with it, yelling comical couplets as he goes.

There’s something inexplicably charming about Tom’s careless carefulness. Always, very subtly, Tolkien shows us that even when Tom is laughing, he laughs the laughter of someone who knows what’s up. Tom’s is not an empty laughter.

In some ways, he reminds me of G.K. Chesterton’s absurd sage, Innocent Smith. Cavorting through life, Innocent’s task is to waken people to the essential beauty of the world and existence itself. Most despise him for a fool; his childlike wonder is seen as naivety, while his philosophical premise that “it really is a wonderful life” causes cynical moderns to label him ignorant and sheltered.
"Don't you see that everything in this garden looks like a jewel? And will you kindly tell me what the deuce is the good of a jewel except that it looks like a jewel? Leave off buying and selling and start looking! Open your eyes, and you'll wake up in the New Jerusalem."
Manalive "Chapter III: The Banner of Beacon"

In many ways, Tom feels like he could have walked right out of a Chesterton novel. Possibly, he did – for while C.S. Lewis was more the Chesterton buff, Tolkien, being a good Catholic, had to have read some Chesterton. So it’s just possible that some of the elements of Innocent Smith filtered into Tom Bombadil.

That's not to say that Tolkien stole the character. There are major differences, and Tom is certainly a Tolkien original invention – his love and kinship with (and slight distrust of) nature is enough to show that he came right from Tollers' mind. But there’s something to be said for Tom’s appearance of ridiculousness – underneath, like Innocent, he’s a very shrewd individual.

Unlike a Chesterton character, but very much like a Tolkien character, Tom possesses an aura of primeval wisdom - of youthful appearance but ancient understanding. He makes light of many things, but knows and recognizes the darkness of the world.
“Tom’s words laid bare the hearts of trees and their thoughts, which were often dark and strange, and filled with a hatred of things that go free upon the earth….They heard of the Great Barrows, and the green mounds, and the stone-rings upon the hills and in the hollows among the hills….There were fortresses on the heights. Kings of little kingdoms fought together, and the young Sun shone like fire on the red metal of their new and greedy swords….A shadow came out of dark places far away, and the bones were stirred….Stone rings grinned out the ground like broken teeth in the moonlight….he had now wandered into strange regions beyond their memory and beyond their waking thought, into times when the world was wider, and the seas flowed straight to the western Shore; and still on and back Tom went singing out into ancient starlight, when only the Elf-sires were awake.”
 The Fellowship of the Ring "Chapter 7: In the House of Tom Bombadil”
This is not the talk of a fool. Tom is not ignorant of the world outside, present or past. He keeps up with the Middle-Earth equivalent of the Drudge Report (the Maggot Report? or perhaps the Butterbur Post?), and at the same time, knows tales of times past that one would normally expect of only the Dunedain, the elves, or the Istari. His culture-savvy attitude reminds of Gandalf in some ways – as an aside, perhaps he is one of the missing wizards – Alatar or Pallando? Probably not, but I detect elements of Radagast in Tom as well.

Even Tom’s house is not what it appears. What we might expect to be a merry and safe shelter in a savage land (which it is, somewhat), is not entirely free of the darkness itself. It is a place of disturbing nightmares, yet also of a deep longing for the sea. What lies over the sea if not the Undying Lands, Tolkien’s vision of heaven?

"...times when the world was wider, and the seas flowed straight to the western Shore..."

In the house of Tom Bombadil, Frodo dreams of “a song that seemed to come like a pale light behind a grey rain-curtain, and growing stronger to turn the veil all to glass and silver, until at last it was rolled back, and a far green country opened before him under a swift sunrise.” (FOTR, C.VIII)

It is moments like these that make me wonder how anyone couldn't be fascinated, bewildered, and enchanted by the man(?) Tom Bombadil. He doesn't fit in? Read of his tales again, the stories from of old, and repeat your criticism.
I say, to the contrary, Tom fits perfectly into The Lord of the Rings. There will always be some mystery to him, for as Tolkien said “even in a mythological Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).” Yet Tom, though baffling, is an intriguing and endearing fellow, one of J.R.R.’s best, in my humble o. As a character, he’s a brilliant invention – his sing-song way of talking, his joking seriousness, the sense that beneath all the rhyming is a very shrewd reason.

If, God (or should I say Eru?) wills that I someday spend a week touring Middle-Earth, then, after meeting Gandalf and having him autograph my copy of LOTR, I’ll head straight for The Old Forest.

There I shall wait for the Master, follow him to his house, that place of half-true dreams, and ask him to tell me a story. And it will be “as if, under the spell of his words, the wind had gone, and the clouds had dried up, and the day had been withdrawn, and darkness had come from the East and West, and all the sky was filled with the light of white stars.”

Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo!
Neo-Mayberry, Middle of Nowhere, America

More thoughts on the Loose Ends:

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