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.”
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.
4 thoughts on “The Ring and Tom Bombadil. So is the Ring Really Such a Big Deal?”
Stephen, this is great stuff, as always. Love your work! Keep going! Your comment on Sauron’s Ring being his tech brought to mind this insight from Jacques Maritain: “Technology is good, as a means for the human spirit and for human ends. But technocracy, that is to say, technology so understood and so worshiped as to exclude any superior wisdom and any other understanding than that of calculable phenomena, leaves in human life nothing but relationships of force, or at best those of pleasure, and necessarily ends up in a philosophy of domination. A technocratic society is but a totalitarian one.”
– Jacques Maritain, French philosopher
Bill, thank you so much for leaving this comment and for your encouragement. Your quotation of Jacques Maritain is absolutely what I have been looking for and his distinction between technology and technocracy perfectly expresses the difference between Bombadil and Sauron. Tom uses tools but Sauron makes idols of them. I remember watching a YouTube video on the “posthuman” and what struck me was that the human was being reduced to relations of power and nothing more by the proposals being made in a film.
I always liked the way the Ring grows as big as it can, when Bombadil is holding it. Bilbo tells us that’s its trick for leaving a person. We can almost hear the Ring screaming, “Get me out of here!”
That is really good, Jo! As big as it can get in the palm of his hand and yet it only fits on Tom’s little finger. Can you imagine Sauron ever putting it on there?