Monday, January 16, 2012

on Tom Bombadil

Several days ago, I sent out an email to two friends:

Have either of you seen this theory about Tom Bombadil?

I'm with some of the commenters: I disagree with the theory, but find it interesting all the same.

One friend replied:

I disagree with it completely, but it is definitely interesting. More later (if I remember) when I'm not on my iPhone.

I said:

I sympathize with those who responded to the post by saying that Bombadil is best thought of as something like a nature-spirit in the Celtic sense. Then again, after reading that author's hilarious Star Wars piece (R2-D2 and Chewbacca are the real masterminds of the Rebel Alliance, with C3PO and Han Solo as their respective, and unwitting, front men), I'm now convinced that he's writing with tongue at least somewhat in cheek.

My friend wrote:

On the nature of Bombadil, there is a much better discussion at There is a lecture called "On Wingless Balrogs and Tom Bombadil" that can be found via iTunes U for free. I'm not sure where it is on his web site.

I tried to cut and paste the lecture link from iTunes and this is what came out. The lecture is about the 5th one down. Look for the mp3 file.

Ultimately, from the point of view of Tolkien, I think Bombadil is an anomaly. He fits in as a potential Maiar or Valar spirit, although there are only 14 Valar, so if he is one of them, he has to be a specific one. If he is a Maiar, then that opens up what he is because he's at the same level as Gandalf, Sauron, etc. My understanding, from reading fan pages and Tolkien's essays, is that Bombadil is an artifact from an earlier story that Tolkien loved, so he included him in LOTR. He doesn't fit nicely in.

However, I dispute the article on several levels. First of all, it's my understanding that Bombadil is one of most readers' favorite characters. He doesn't make sense in the large scheme of things, and he provides a side adventure that does little to advance the plot, with the one exception that the side adventure eventually leads to Merry's possession of the only sword in existence that can defeat the king of the Nazgul.

I also think the writer of the article gets another thing wrong. The wise (i.e. Gandalf, Elrond, et al.) seem to have some idea of who and what Tom Bombadil is, although they aren't sharing their knowledge. The main concern of the wise is that Bombadil is not an acceptable alternative for aid in the war of the ring, therefore consideration of him is irrelevant. Gandalf rides off to have a long talk with him once all is done. My own personal take on it was Gandalf was catching up with a long-lost friend or acquaintance.

I replied:

I'll have to check these references out when I'm home from work tonight. Thanks.

My other friend wrote:

Feel lost on the Bombadil talk.

I wrote back to this friend:

re: Tom Bombadil

I've been slowly rereading LOTR, for the first time in years. The last time I read the trilogy was probably in late high school or early college, which is why I wasn't too enthralled by Peter Jackson's "The Fellowship of the Ring" when I first saw it. I'd forgotten all the place names and character names. "The Horn of Gondor" had no significance for me. But now that I've seen the Jackson trilogy-- several times, in both its short and its long versions-- it's been an interesting exercise to go back and read Tolkien's text.

Tom Bombadil, who originally struck me as something of a nonsense/nuisance character years ago, makes a lot more sense to me now, especially after my experience as a student in religious studies. He is indeed a mysterious and awesome figure, very much in the mold of a "holy fool" in Catholic Christianity: his relentless good cheer, his inane poetic babble, his seeming obliviousness to the goings-on outside of his patch of forest-- these are all smoke screens obscuring the fact that he's an ancient figure of great power, very likely the first of the exalted beings ever to set foot on the physical Earth. Like some other readers, I thought I saw hints that Bombadil might actually be a sort of god incarnate, perhaps even the God in Tolkien's universe (Eru/Eä). But after listening, yesterday, to the lecture by the prof that [Friend #1] linked me to, I came away convinced that Bombadil, while assuredly a cosmic figure, doesn't have the stature of a deity. (You might like that lecture, which begins with a discussion on whether Balrogs have wings. The prof argues that they don't, which makes Jackson's rather literal depiction inaccurate.)



Elisson said...

When I saw The Fellowship of the Ring all those years ago, I thanked Gawd that Tom Bombadil had been sliced out of the script. I'd call him Tolkien's answer to Jar Jar Binks had Tolkien not come along well before George Lucas. Feh.

John McCrarey said...

I liked ol' TB and was sorry he didn't make the cut in the motion picture version.

I can't add much to the discussion other than my recollection that Treebeard (who was dated back to the very beginning of Middle Earth) called Bambadil "ancient".

He never struck me as divine, I took him as the embodiment of mother Earth.

Although, wouldn't that make his marriage to the river's daughter incest?

Nathan B. said...

Hmm. I really enjoyed the Martin take on Star Wars, and I basically agree with it. I take it as tongue in cheek, but serious at the same time.

Martin's Bombadil piece really takes the cake for interpretational creativity and insight. That said, I think Martin's final paragraphs go much too far, and I don't agree with a lot of his analysis.

The "Maiar" category covers a lot of forces--many of which are in things for themselves or for that which they love. I don't see why Bombadil really needs to be anything other than a Maiar.