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.

As The Hobbits Are About to Return to The Shire Gandalf tells them, “That is what you have been trained for”.

On first thoughts it seems a strange thing for Gandalf to say.

“That is what you have been trained for.”

After all, as we thought about last week in the piece on the talk with Barliman Butterbur, the hobbits have just passed through the great events of the age and they have played a decisive role in them. Surely if there had been a need for training it would have been before they left the Shire in the first place and yet there was none. Frodo and his companions set out as if they were friends on a walking holiday. If it had not been for Tom Bombadil they would not even have reached Bree. If it had not been for Aragorn they would not have reached Rivendell. If being rescued by others is what we call training then in the early stage of this journey they had plenty of it. What they had little or nothing of was experience of getting themselves out of their own troubles. That did not really come until after the breaking of the Fellowship at Parth Galen.

After that Merry and Pippin were prisoners of the Uruk-hai of Isengard and they had to make their own escape using the confusion of battle as their cover. Frodo and Sam found their own way out of the Emyn Muil and then they captured Gollum and made him their guide.

We do not need to rehearse all the events that followed but we can agree that when Gandalf said to them, “You will need no help. You are grown up now. Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear for any of you,” he is not trying to flatter them. Not that Gandalf has ever been given to flattery!

The hobbits are among the great. Their deeds bear witness to this. But they do not know that they are. They still see Aragorn, Faramir, Éowyn, Éomer and, of course, Gandalf, as great, but not themselves. Despite all that they have accomplished when Merry hears that Saruman may be behind the strange goings on in the Shire of which they have heard rumours he declares that he is glad that Gandalf is with them to sort everything out.

Perhaps what we see here is the common behaviour of young people who, having had their first taste of serious responsibility, return home and want their parents to take charge again. If that is so then Gandalf does what good parents should do. He tells them that it is time for them to be true adults now and to sort out their own problems. And then he says something that is even a little shocking. He tells them that he is done with being a parent.

“My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk to do so.”

Gandalf is off for a long talk with Tom Bombadil. The hobbits will have to sort out their own problems. Later on Saruman will draw attention to this supposed irresponsibility on Gandalf’s part. “When his tools have done their task he drops them,” he says.

But Gandalf is entirely correct. The hobbits have been trained to sort out the problems of their own country. They have endured great suffering and they have done great deeds. The challenges posed by the power grab that Lotho Sackville-Baggins makes after Frodo and his companions leave the Shire and the destruction wreaked by Saruman and his band of robbers are easily dealt with. They learn how strong and how wise they are. They have increased while Saruman has been diminished.

But these are events that we will turn to in coming weeks. Now we are with Frodo and his companions as Gandalf races away upon Shadowfax and they have that strange feeling that no one is going to come to solve all their problems, that they will have to do it themselves. But soon they will recall who they are and what they have done. It will not be long before they have put all to rights.