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.

Gandalf Speaks of How Sméagol Took the Ring and So Became Gollum.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 51-53

Gandalf is answering a question that Frodo asked him fearfully and desperately.

“How on earth did it come to me?”

Gandalf Rejects the Ring

Frodo is speaking of the Ring of Power forged by Sauron so that he might become lord of all the earth. In a few short minutes Frodo has journeyed from being a hobbit enjoying a comfortable if rather a dull life to one at the very centre of the great events of his age. He has already protested against the apparent injustice of his fate. If Gandalf had invited him to be a part of an adventure he might have responded with more enthusiasm. To go on an adventure would have been a conscious and carefully considered choice, although when Bilbo made that choice it had to be done in haste before the possibility passed him by for ever. Frodo is given no choice. The Ring has come to him and its maker is searching for it.

And so Gandalf gives him a brief overview of the history of the Second and Third Ages, of the evil desire of Sauron and the brave resistance of Elendil of Gondor and Arnor and Gil-galad, the High King of the Elves. He speaks of how Isildur, son of Elendil, cut the Ring from Sauron’s hand but how he failed to destroy it, eventually losing it in an orc ambush in the Gladden Fields in which he lost his life. He tells Frodo how the Ring remained hidden for long years there until it was found by hobbit like creatures near their ancestral home.

Isildur-Takes-Ring

The Ring was found by Déagol, friend of Sméagol, a friend, that is, until the moment in which Sméagol murdered him because the Ring “looked so bright and beautiful”.  And so began Sméagol’s unhappy career as a creature of power and menace, a career in which he began as a hobbit and ended as Gollum, a name given to him in contempt by his fellows but one that eventually he took for himself, or at least for that expression of himself that was entirely under the power of the Ring.

In Peter Jackson’s films we are given the impression that Sméagol’s decision to murder his friend was because of the overwhelming and entirely malicious power of the Ring and it is true that the Ring plays a key role in the whole unhappy affair. But Tolkien would not allow so simple an explanation. Before the moment of the Ring’s discovery and the murder, Sméagol had a career. We learn that he “was interested in roots and beginnings; he dived into deep pools; he burrowed under trees and growing plants; he into green mounds”. In other words he was a scientist.

smeagol before the ring

Now before all the scientists who are among my readers cry out in protest let me say that I do not believe that Tolkien was against the scientific method in and of itself. What he tried to get us to see is that knowledge can never take the place of wisdom. Poor Sméagol may have learnt all that there is about the roots and beginnings of things but he never learnt how to find love, or joy, or peace. He may have stolen a tool that could give him power but he had to trade happiness in order to gain it. As Gandalf was to say later to Saruman, those who break a thing in order to find out what it is leave the path of wisdom. Sméagol, like Saruman, was a breaker, a manipulator, and a fool!

Sméagol’s journey took him deeper into the roots of things, away from the warming sun, the gentle breeze and the kind company of friends and kinsfolk. He went down into the tunnels underneath the mountains, down into the dark. It is the inevitable end for one who chooses power over others in stead of the service of others. The dark may not be physical as it was in Sméagol’s case but it is utterly isolating. It is the reality that comes when someone turns inward, centreing only upon themself, turning away from others.

Gollum-Smeagol

But at last a moment of grace broke into Sméagol’s dark world in the form of a hobbit who was utterly lost. But would Sméagol recognise it when it came?

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Bilbo’s Magnificent Party

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 25-28

Readers of works of literature from the mid 20th century might notice that food seems to play a particularly important role in many stories of the time. Later in The Lord of the Rings a clue to this is given by Beregond of the Guard of the Tower in conversation with Pippin. Pippin is anxious to find something to eat after his uncomfortable interrogation by the Lord Denethor. Beregond regretfully informs a rather disappointed Pippin that he has already broken his fast as well as any in the city but adds “They say that men who go warring afield look ever for the next hope of food and drink”.

The Lord of the Rings was written largely through a time of food rationing. Hobbits, in particular, are creatures of feast and fast and have a particular enthusiasm therefore for feasting. The description of the food and drink at Bilbo’s party is full of delight and pleasure.

Last week’s reflection led to a lively conversation in the Comments Section on Gandalf’s relationship with the Shire. The debate centred on whether Gandalf acted in the way he did in the Shire as a strategy to win the hearts of the hobbits or whether it was all unplanned and entirely providential. I think that eventually it was agreed that Gandalf did consciously seek to warm the hearts of those among whom he travelled. It was this quality that first drew Círdan of The Grey Havens to him. Círdan gave the Ring, Narya, to Gandalf, saying “Take this ring, Master… for your labours will be heavy; but it will support you in the weariness that you have taken upon yourself. For this is the Ring of Fire, and with it you may rekindle hearts in a world that grows chill.”

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Gandalf walks the lonely roads of Middle-earth doing just this work so that when Sauron begins his great war to regain the One Ring and to achieve mastery he is opposed by all the free peoples despite his efforts to divide them. But I would add something more and that is that the hobbits touch and awaken something in Gandalf’s heart too. They teach him how to play. It would be hard to imagine Elrond of Rivendell or Dáin of Erebor or Denethor of Gondor playing in the way that Gandalf does. I could imagine Galadriel dancing among hobbit maidens but it would be a queenly dance.

Gandalf is not lordly when he is in the Shire. He is childlike in the way in which a grandfather is childlike. He has seen life and he has been marked by it. From the Lady Nienna he has learned pity. From hobbits he has learned pleasure. And he knows that deeper even than sorrow lies a joy that cannot cloy.

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“The fireworks were by Gandalf: they were not only brought by him, but designed and made by him; and the special effects, set pieces, and flights of rockets were let off by him. But there was also a generous distribution of squibs, crackers, backarrappers, sparklers, torches, dwarf-candles, elf-fountains, goblin-barkers and thunder-claps. They were all superb. The art of Gandalf improved with age.”

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I would encourage readers to read that passage aloud and to savour each word and sound. Each name of a firework is meant to be musical but it is not the music of Elrond’s halls but the music of a country party with lots of laughter and a little mischief too. Peter Jackson captures this well in his films by introducing the characters of Merry and Pippin here. Their soot covered faces as they emerge from the smoke of the exploded rocket, one of Gandalf’s hands tightly gripping each of their curly heads, conveys this well.

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A serious life can be a playful life too. Rowan Williams describes his friend and colleague, Archbishop Desmond Tutu in this way, saying that Desmond Tutu loves being Desmond Tutu. The same man who risked his life in the struggle against apartheid and who wept openly as he listened to the many stories of suffering during the time that he chaired South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, also knows how to enjoy a good party.

Near the end of The Lord of the Rings Gandalf announces to the four Travellers that he is going to visit Tom Bombadil for a good long talk. I suspect that a lot of that talk was full of laughter.