The Ring and Tom Bombadil. So is the Ring Really Such a Big Deal?

The Fellowship of the Ring (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 126-131

I am sure that I am among many readers of The Lord of the Rings who on their first reading share the hobbits’ delight on realising that they could not travel onwards after staying the night at the house of Tom Bombadil but had to stay there one more day. Sometimes the weather calls us to journey onwards and we are delighted to do so. The poem by Patrick Kavanagh that I quoted last week, an autumn poem, ends joyously. “Son, let’s go off together in this delightful weather”. But sometimes the weather tells us that it is a day on which we should stay put and this is such a day for the hobbits.

Frodo begins the day full of energy, running to the window and looking out over Tom’s garden. It is a moment filled with poignancy as we think of the broken hobbit at the end of the story and long for his healing in the Undying Lands even while filled with sadness that this cannot come for him in the Shire. But now Frodo is alive and ready for another day in this wonderful place.

Tolkien’s description of this day spent here is deceptively simple, filled as it is with Tom’s doggerel, but we would do well not to fall into the trap of confusing simplicity with foolishness. Tom’s simplicity is the simplicity of the earth, wind, fire and water and all that grows or moves upon the earth. “He told them tales of bees and flowers, the ways of trees, and the strange creatures of the Forest, about the evil things and good things, things friendly and things unfriendly, cruel things and kind things, and secrets hidden under brambles.”

In the house of Tom Bombadil from a diptych by Eiszmann

As the hobbits listen to him they begin to realise that the world about them has its own life and is far far more than an extension of their own. Tom may be Master but that is because he has dwelt among the creatures of the world for long, long years and because they and he have come to share one life together. Unlike them he is a shaper of the world but he is a gardener and in all humility he keeps his gardening and so his shaping also to a minimum. He grows enough to feed himself and Goldberry and the occasional passing guest and no more. Not for him the production and the marketing of surplus. He lives for sufficiency alone and a pleasure in what he has and not in what he might have.

Compare him with the one who made the treasure that Frodo now bears. If Tom is content with what he has got, Sauron is almost defined by his discontent. “Who are you, alone, yourself and nameless?” Tom says to Frodo in answer to the question, “Who are you?” Sauron would answer with the things that he has made, the power that he exercises and all that he desires. Bombadil laughingly speaks of his own lack of control over the weather and immediately readers of Tolkien’s great tale will think of Sauron’s attempts to do precisely that in order to win the great battle before Minas Tirith. And the Ring is his ultimate tool, the technology with which he will rule everything, reducing all to submission to his will.

If Tom Bombadil is about the enjoyment of things and creatures in themselves, content to have enough and no more, Sauron is about the gaining and exercising of power through technology and about never having enough. Not enough power and not enough of the things that power can give him. If Tom is ever hungry it is all part of the pleasure that he takes in the satisfaction of that hunger. Sauron by contrast is always hungry and never satisfied.

And so when Tom Bombadil asks Frodo for the Ring, showing thereby that he is indeed Master, he just plays with it as he might do with any tool.

“The Ring seemed to grow larger as it lay for a moment on his big brown-skinned hand. Then suddenly he put it to his eye and laughed.” Tom is much more Master of the Ring than Sauron could ever be, even placing it upon his little finger with no effect on him. Sauron by contrast gives his entire being into the tools that he makes, seeking thereby to extend that being but succeeding only in diminishing it. Tom is Master but Sauron is slave.

“Heed no Nightly Voices”. The Hobbits in the House of Tom Bombadil.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 123-126

The day that began in Crickhollow and has been lived in the Old Forest where the great journey came almost to a catastrophic end now draws to a close in the house of Tom Bombadil with hunger satisfied and songs poured joyously from hearts that have been warmed by a drink that seems only to be water and yet feels more like wine. This is a house that lies on a threshold between worlds. It is as safe and snug as any that a hobbit could ask for and yet it is presided over by one who embodies nature in its joy and wildness and one who possesses a queenly beauty in a state of complete simplicity.

"I will have love, have love 
From anything made of
And a life with a shapely form
With gaiety and charm 
And capable of receiving
With grace the grace of living
And wild moments too
Self when freed from you."
Bombadil and Goldberry by Mareishon

So wrote the great Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh, in his poem, The Self Slaved, and Tom Bombadil could be the perfect embodiment of his vision of one, so freed from the slavery of the small self, that he can enjoy gaiety, charm, grace and wildness all in one moment or, should we say, all in one festive evening.

Frodo delights in the feast with his companions but he is always one who is trying to construct a narrative bigger than the present moment.

“Did you hear me calling, Master, or was it just chance that brought you at that moment?”

Was it just chance that brought you?

And Bombadil’s answer takes Frodo to a narrative so great that all the events that take place within it feel like chance, “if chance you call it.” Tom had been there to collect water-lilies for Goldberry from the very pool where he had first met her long ago. Perhaps the feast that the hobbits have shared with their hosts was intended first to be an anniversary celebration. And then Tom says,

For now I shall no longer 
go down deep again along the forest-water,
not while the year is old. Nor shall I be passing 
Old Man Willow's house this side of spring-time, 
not till the merry spring,  when the River-daughter 
dances down the withy-path to bathe in  the water. 

The rhythms of Tom’s life are the rhythms of the seasons and have always been so for he is Eldest. On the night of the feast it is the 26th of September in the year 3019 of the Third Age of the world. The pace of events in the world outside begins to hurry forward eventually reaching a terrifying climax on the 25th March just six months later in a battle before the Black Gate of Mordor and in a lonely struggle in the Cracks of Doom. Does any of this matter to Tom Bombadil? It would appear that it does not. In spring time he will make his journey down the river once more. Do we chastise him for his carelessness? If we do then it would seem to have as much point as it would if we were to become angry at the seasons themselves for not caring about what takes place within them.

Tom Bombadil lives his life at the pace of the passing seasons. Frodo recalled this when he recited the poem about Goldberry with which he greeted her.

O spring-time and summer-time, and spring again after! O wind on the waterfall, and the leaves’ laughter!

The beasts and birds, the trees and flowers, all live their lives in complete disregard for the great events of any time and Tom Bombadil and Goldberry live their lives in rhythm with them. Whether Frodo succeeds in his task or not Tom will go down the Withywindle with Goldberry in the spring time. Now they will make preparation for winter. If Frodo fails how many more springs and autumns will there be? The pace of events in the world outside and in the world in which Tom is Master will eventually meet and as Elrond will say, “If all else is conquered, Bombadil will fall, Last as he was First; and then night will come”.

But not tonight. On this night only the hobbits’ fears can enter the house. They are safe and need not heed any nightly noises.

Heed no nightly noises

Who is Tom Bombadil? Is There an Answer to the Mystery?

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.121-123

As the four hobbits step over the threshold into the house of Tom Bombadil they meet Goldberry for the first time and begin to bow low, “feeling strangely surprised and awkward, like folk that, knocking at a cottage door to beg for a drink of water, have been answered by a fair young elf-queen clad in living flowers”.

Nothing about Tom Bombadil and Goldberry seems quite to fit into any way that the hobbits have learned to see the world and as the hobbits are our eyes upon Middle-earth so we too are invited into their surprise and awkwardness. Bombadil is rustic, an expression of pure simplicity. Goldberry is queenly and yet entirely at home in a cottage that is similar to Crickhollow and familiar to the hobbits.

A king and queen living in a simple cottage

Frodo is moved to give a gracious speech in which we learn that the story of Goldberry is not unknown to him or, perhaps, to his fellows either. But a woman who until now has only lived in song and imagination has just entered his living breathing world. Next week we will think a little more about Tom Bombadil and Goldberry but this week we will ask the question that Frodo asks of Goldberry.

“Who is Tom Bombadil?”

“He is,” said Goldberry, staying her swift movements and smiling.

He is as you have seen him

Frodo looked at her questioningly. “He is, as you have seen him,” she said in answer to his look. “He is the Master of wood, water, and hill.”

There are some readers of The Lord of the Rings who have seen Tom Bombadil as the I AM of the Hebrew scriptures in reference to Goldberry’s answer. While this is a charming thought in many ways it is also rather worrying! Tom’s absent mindedness might lead to a forgetting of the cosmos with catastrophic consequences. As Gandalf says of Bombadil at the Council of Elrond, “If he were given the Ring, he would soon forget it, or most likely throw it away. Such things have no hold on his mind. He would be a most unsafe guardian; and that alone is answer enough.”

No, Tom Bombadil is quite simply himself. In response to my recent post Ho, Tom Bombadil! The Hobbits Meet a Strange Wonder in The Old Forest, some readers commented that he is one who is innocent and without sin. I resisted this thought at first until I read this passage about Bombadil from one of Tolkien’s letters.

“If you have, as it were taken ‘a vow of poverty’, renounced control, and take delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless”.

Tom Bombadil is such a person. He has renounced ego and possession. Perhaps neither of these things ever had any meaning for him. Thomas Merton wrote of Adam before the fall that “he walked the earth… as one who had no master under God. He could be conscious of his own autonomy, under God, as the priest and king of all that God had made. Knowing no rebellion in the simplicity and order of his own being, he was also obeyed by all creatures. His mind had a perfect knowledge of himself and of the world around him and his will acted in perfect accordance with his vision of truth.”

These words of Merton’s could almost be a description of Tom Bombadil. He is simply himself. Indeed the answer is far too simple for some readers of Tolkien’s story who require greater complexity because that is the world that they live in. Simplicity is far too much for them. For them, mastery is related first and foremost to what Tolkien termed “the means of power”, the possibility of having mastery through the renunciation of those means is almost intolerable. They have given everything in order to achieve power and possession and the emptiness that they have achieved has been so hard won that they have to believe that their own illusion is real.

So is there an answer to Frodo’s question? Yes, there is but it may be too simple to grasp. Tom Bombadil is simply himself.

Master of Wood, Water and Hill

“A Golden Light was All About Them”. Arriving at the House of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.118-120

I have always found that the trials and tribulations of a day’s travel, however difficult, however wearying, are forgotten swiftly if the day ends well. Even, on one occasion, arriving at a police station in a small Zambian town at 3 o’clock on a bitterly cold morning in pitch blackness and being permitted to sit on a chair next to a charcoal brazier felt like an arrival in a place of safety, welcome and comfort.

The arrival of the hobbits at the house of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry is in some ways like my memories but it far surpasses them in its wonder. As they arrive at the house and its open door they hear a voice singing, “as young and as ancient as Spring, like the song of a glad water flowing down into the night from a bright morning in the hills”. It is Goldberry, the River Daughter.

And then, words that read like a benediction which end the chapter.

“And with that song the hobbits stood upon the threshold, and a golden light was all about them.”

The House of Tom Bombadil by Joe Gilronan

I think that we need to remind ourselves what a day the weary travellers have had; beginning before dawn at Crickhollow and the first wary steps into the Old Forest, then the terrifying encounter with Old Man Willow and then the bewildering yet wonderful rescue by Tom Bombadil. That would be enough by itself but there is a strangely unsettling passage before the chapter reaches its beautiful resolution. If we were to use a musical analogy we might describe it as a coda, the Italian word for a tail. A coda is a concluding section of a piece of music that either extends or re-elaborates themes heard earlier in the piece.

This coda is the brief passage that describes the journey that the hobbits take along the path by the Withywindle in the direction that Bombadil has outlined to them. So strange and unsettling is this passage that some readers have described a feeling of doubt when reading it for the first time. Can the hobbits really trust Tom Bombadil? Are they being lured into a trap? Far from the fears of the day being at an end they seem to return with renewed intensity.

“It became difficult to follow the path, and they were very tired. Their legs seemed leaden. Strange furtive noises ran among the bushes and reeds on either side of them; and if they looked up to the pale sky, they caught sight of queer gnarled and knobbly faces that gloomed dark against the twilight, and leered down at them from the high bank and the edges of the wood. They began to feel that all this country was unreal, and that they were stumbling through an ominous dream that led to no awakening.”

A darkening forest

Should we try to reassure the hobbits by telling them that far worse terrors lie ahead for them or shall we let them be? Perhaps it is just as well that all that has happened to them in this day has been easily solved and that the fears of this last part of the journey all lie in their imaginations. The hobbits are learning one step at a time so that when real dangers come and there is no one to rescue them they will stand bravely, ready to go to their deaths if need be.

But “today’s trouble is enough for today” as the gospels put it and so we will leave them in peace even though they do not know it is peace. The golden light flowing from the door of the house to which they wearily stumble still awaits them. And when they have been fed and are sitting at their ease they will not be thinking of the fears of the last part of the journey, the strange coda to a fearful piece of music that they had hoped had been resolved completely when Tom Bombadil had first appeared. But now, at last it is resolved and they are safe from all that can harm them. The glad water in the hills has reached down into the terrors of the night and has completely transformed them.

Another vision of the House of Bombadil and Goldberry

I have done my best to find the names of the artists who have produced the artwork displayed in this week’s post. I hope they will forgive me where I have not found the name. I am more than happy to include it where I am informed. Do look at the many imaginings of the House of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry in your search engine. It is well worth doing.

Ho, Tom Bombadil! The Hobbits Meet a Strange Wonder in The Old Forest.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 116-118

I love all the times in The Lord of the Rings when someone enters the story mysteriously, wonderfully and decisively. Think of Gildor Inglorien and his companions appearing on the woodland path upon which Frodo, Sam and Pippin have just encountered the Black Rider or think of the moment when Merry and Pippin, fleeing from their orc captors and a deadly battle are swept up into the arms of Treebeard. Without warning, we like they are caught up into a world so wonderful that we want to give it the name, magical. The same is true at this moment when “suddenly, hopping and dancing along the path, there appeared above the reeds an old battered hat with a tall crown and a long blue feather stuck in the band.”

Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest

It is Tom Bombadil and in moments the terrifying experience with the malevolent Old Man Willow is at an end and the hobbits are free.

Now, those who only know The Lord of the Rings through the fine films made by Peter Jackson will know little or nothing about Tom. He is a secret shared only by the initiates who have read Tolkien’s books and we clasp this secret close to our bosoms and share it only with other initiates. It marks us out from those “lesser” mortals who have not shared what we know. Now we hear that a small screen version of the story is in preparation and might Tom Bombadil make an appearance?

Now, I do not wish to comment on whether this might be good news or not. I enjoyed the films that Peter Jackson made of The Lord of the Rings with all their flaws. I disagreed with some of the ways in which certain characters were portrayed but I felt that the films were largely true to what Tolkien had given to us in his great work.

Now Bombadil might be given to us through the mind and imagination of a writer other than Tolkien and just as with the movies millions of people may meet him for the first time through that medium. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I happen to think that it is neither. It is an inevitable consequence of writing a great story that it will be passed on by other means and by other hands. It has always happened and every time that it does it brings new people to an experience that has been loved by those who have enjoyed the story in its original form. It also allows people who have known the story and the character of Tom Bombadil to compare their understanding of him with the character that is brought to them by this new means. They may or may not like this new character. For myself I rather expect that he will fall short of the Bombadil that exists in my imagination but I will not resent the experience that others will have by encountering him for the first time on the small screen. I will nurse my own hope that they will go on to pick up the books and meet him through Tolkien’s imagination and his masterful character drawing.

For the hobbits who meet him on the path along the Withywindle on that autumn afternoon the experience is overwhelming. This is partly because of the terror that they have just been through and which Bombadil has brought to an end so suddenly and so completely. And it is because of the utter strangeness of the creature that has done this. Tom Bombadil brings an overwhelming gladness with him that is unique within this story and which I find difficulty in being able to recall from any other character in literature that I know. Is the character of Jesus as portrayed in St St John’s gospel like this? You know that bit in the gospel when he prays for his disciples that his joy may be in them and that their joy may be full. Is this the kind of joy that we see in Tom Bombadil? I do not have answers for certain but for those of you who love this character as I do I hope that you will enjoy the next few weeks in which we explore him together and please do use the ability to leave a comment so that we can talk together.