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© 2010 Festival in the Shire Journal. All rights reserved.

Tom Bombadil A Romantic Hero For Our Times

J.Storer (with A.Taylor, T.Tailby)Ironville & Codnor Park Primary School, England


1 Introduction :  The World Is Yours – Imaginary Wonder
2.  Who and Why :  Keep An Ear To The Ground

Parts 3. and onwards shall be published in the July and August editions of the online journal of the Festival in the Shire.    

1. Introduction :  The World Is Yours : Imaginary Wonder

“ The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things …”
People frequently ask us why do we love Tolkien’s work so much.
What about Harry Potter and other more contemporary works ?
Surely at your age, wouldn’t these be more enjoyable ?
The answer revolves on the concept of imaginary wonder.

Central to Tolkien’s vision is the creation of a separate universe, crafted step by step through the magic of language, wherein it is possible to design your own mental tapestry and give life a new dimension of meaning.

Developing an infinite sense of wonder is why we read Tolkien; why we are here – which is such an immense privilege  – and lies at the heart of this paper, which examines the relationship of Tom Bombadil, arguably one of the most potent examples of imaginary wonder in Middle-earth, to romanticism (both modern and classical) and 21st century environmental ethics. Heroism, freedom, moral choices, good and evil, technological progress and man’s relationship with nature are just some of the important philosophical, theological and literary issues which will be discussed.

Alongside this comes what amounts to an unashamedly personal view of how the renaissance in Tolkien’s popularity among today’s younger readers provides a golden key of learning, opening the door  to a greater appreciation of so many areas of study. To paraphrase Tom Shippey’s timeless quote, J.R.R.Tolkien, for us,  may well be “ the author of the (21st) century “ as well as the 20th in which he lived.

Imaginary wonder is what binds Middle-earth to the lyrical ballads of the lake school poets, especially Coleridge’s highly personal visions of the relationship between nature and inner consciousness. Is it possible that Tom Bombadil is the mirror through which the hobbits and other characters from  Lord of the Rings can glimpse the connection between the physical universe and supernatural powers ?

“there was a echo of song all the evening long down in the valley; many a thing running to and fro: hare as white as snow… I heard dancing there… answer my call! Come forth all!” 

The land of faerie is full of  dangers unseen and Tolkien was always careful not to over-sentimentalise his work. The imagined universe reflected both the good and bad to be found in the real world in which he lived: this is an affirmation rather than a rejection of romanticism. For example, think of the mariner shooting the albatross; the sometimes harsh realities of rural life in Clare’s poetry:

“ When midnight comes a host of dogs and men
Go out and track the badger to his den …..
….. Till kicked and torn and beaten out he lies
And leaves his hold and cackles, groans and dies. “ 

and further back to ancient myths and legends such as The Kalevala:

“and I cannot  … nor e’en imagine how I finally shall perish” 

Why is it so important in this technological age to still value fairy stories? Tolkien would surely argue that purging the human imagination of wonder, romance, adventure and comedy will greatly reduce quality of the world in which we live. He shares in Coleridge’s “suspension of belief” with the creation of a separate world for each one of us to interpret and enjoy in our own way. Yet, crucially, this imagined universe is in no way designed to replace reality and human logic,  but instead enrich it with wonder and:

“primordial desires animating human existence.”  

In this paper, the personal interpretation of Tolkien’s sub-creation will focus on Tom Bombadil’s role in  his wide ranging romantic vision. In particular, we will reflect on his relevance to the modern environmental movement and the attempts to protect the natural world and its resources from destructive forces :

“ I’ve got things to do …. My making and my singing, my talking and my walking, and my watching of the country. “ 

2.  Who and Why :   Keep An Ear To The Ground ….

“ Even in a mythical age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally). “
With the last tree destroyed, the last badger and hare chased to oblivion, and a new bypass rapaciously gobbling up swathes of Berkshire green, is it still possible to detect a faint echo in the bulldozers’ dust ? Maybe it is Yeats’ …

“ rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born “

drawn once again from its lair by the despoiling of nature and the post-millennium “ story so far “ - September 11th in New York, July 7th in London,  Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanemo Bay, Sudan and elsewhere, which  history books in years to come may suggest match or even surpass the horrific visions Yeats drew from the 1914-18 conflict.

But wait … maybe it is  the footsteps of Tom Bombadil :

“ hopping  and dancing along the path “

sent by Professor J.R.R.Tolkien from his celestial Rivendell to bring much needed happiness and grace to the modern world.  The early 19th century Poet Laureate, Robert Southey, talked about the creation of a communal republic in Philadelphia as a model of the romantic new world he and Coleridge wished to create. Based on a belief – no doubt influenced by the French Revolution - in  the poet’s power to bring motion, spirituality and life into the world, through emotion, thought and imagination projected into the beauty of language from man’s own consciousness, this idealistic notion unsurprisingly never came to pass.

However, are there not similarities with the desire to “ drop out “ from 21st century society seen from people right across the globe ?  Those who are disenchanted with what they see, to echo one of Tolkien’s letters, the losing battle of :

“ beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power. “ 

It is in this context that we will begin our discussion of Tom Bombadil’s role in Middle-earth, spending a little time (but not too much) on who exactly Tom might be. For, as Tolkien himself stated:

“ I don’t think Tom needs philosophising about, and is not improved by it. “

In Gene Hargrove’s interesting analysis of Tom Bombadil, the distinction between Tom as an “ anomalous “ or  “ enigmatic “ character is discussed. Perhaps this is the central issue, rather than trying to find irrefutable textual evidence that Tom and Goldberry are Maia or even specific Valar (Aule and Yavanna respectively) as Hargrove argues. Tom has the mysterious qualities of a true enigma, and is definitely not an out of place anomaly: ill fitting and against the natural order of things.

It is so hard, therefore, to understand why in the film versions of Lord of the Rings (and some radio serialisations) Tom has no part to play. Can you imagine filming Great Expectations without Pip’s benefactor ? It would detract from the whole structure of Dickens’ thesis ; The Fellowship of the Ring without Tom Bombadil has the same discordance.

Let us reflect on the generic theme of this conference for a brief moment. It is arguable that the films do scant justice to Tolkien’s romantic heritage, and function mainly as (overly  long)  swashbuckling adventures. But reservations about Peter Jackson’s interpretation of Middle-earth would take far more than the time generously allotted for this paper. So perhaps we had better move swiftly on !

Tom is an enigmatic character, embracing man’s conscience with nature: how he wishes for a more primitive relationship with the environment, based on a reverence for trees, plants, animals and the landscape, as a reflection of the goodness in one’s soul. This goodness is a matter of will, similar in part to Kant’s theory of categorical imperatives, where perfection and moral virtue are a priori constructs.  More on this presently.

Arguably, Tom can be seen as Tolkien’s own alter-ego at work, trying to justify his powerlessness to prevent the ruination of rural Oxfordshire and Berkshire through the remorseless advance of mechanisation during the mid 20th century. Tolkien looks back fondly to a simpler life centred on a love for nature, especially trees, friendship, good beer, literature and, above all, family ties.

Peter Mitchell, in an illuminating comparison of Tom Bomabil and Beorn, describes how Tom banishes the Barrow Wights with a song of life which overcomes the Wight’s song of death; and how Tom sang into the cracks of Old Man Willow to free the trapped Hobbits.  Whether this echoes Iluvatar’s  magical creationist singing at the start of 

The Silmarillion, or has closer parallels with more recent destruction of trees and whole forests, which drew much chagrin from Tolkien in various  letters to newspapers, is hard to decide.

This vision of an Arcadian-style England, long gone even during Tolkien’s later lifetime, has drawn criticism from some commentators as idealising an imagined past but, of course, they miss the point. It is all about imaginary wonder, as we said at the outset.

In Tolkien’s world, Tom is able to ensure goodness (in the Kantian sense) is attainable and can be applied to ensure the natural order is one of simplicity, virtue, joy and good cheer  ; whilst recognising the dangers of faerie lurk close by and must never be underestimated.

Viewing Tom as Tolkien’s alter-ego may only be part of the story, however. Is Tom a reflection of us – the spirit of humanity ? There are so many enigmas in just being alive: try puzzling out international complacency at climate change in the light of the deeply disappointing Copenhagen summit (or should it be nadir ?) , the Moscow metro atrocity and so many other issues of today and yesterday. Tom is a puzzling character, simultaneously serious and light-hearted, and it is his inherent sense of mystery which makes him such a wonderful and valuable part of Tolkien’s mythical world and  mirrors the never ending mysteries of human relationships:

“ Now that I have your heart by heart, I see
The wharves with their great ships and architraves;
The rigging and the cargo and the slaves
On a strange beach under a broken sky.
O not departure, but a voyage done. “

This extract from a lovely poem by the new-romantic American poet, Louise Bogan captures the  way words are an utterance for the passion  and beauty we search for in ourselves and each other.

Tolkien  achieved this in every last syllable, including Tom telling :

“ many remarkable stories, sometimes as if half speaking to himself, sometimes looking at them (hobbits) suddenly with a bright blue eye under his deep brows. Often his voice would turn to song, and he would get out of his chair and dance about. He told them tales of bees and flowers, the ways of trees … about evil things and good things … and secrets hidden under brambles. “

Following these after breakfast tales, the hobbits all felt a sense of the imaginary wonder every reader who unlocks the key to Middle-earth’s door experiences and, as Tolkien himself says :

“ He (Tom) represents something that I feel important, though I would not be prepared to analyze the feeling precisely. “

This paper will not, therefore,  linger on a debate about Tom’s exact place in the social structure of Middle-earth, although  Elrond’s reminiscing on a previous meeting with Tom, who he knew as Iarwain Ben-adar, (oldest and fatherless) does indeed suggest he goes way back to the dawn of the first age. Moreover, as Gandalf rides back west after Sauron’s defeat in The Return of the King, he decides to have :

“ a long talk with Bombadil: such a talk as I have not had in all my time ….. we shall have much to say to one another. “

Once again, this suggests Tom’s origins go right back to the early days of Ainulindale; but whether he is Maia, Valar, or even  God himself  others can (and already have at copious length !) argue, but are unlikely to ever resolve. After all, that is the very essence of Tom’s timeless enigma !

Parts 3. and onwards shall be published in the July and August editions of the online journal of the Festival in the Shire.    

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