Ride to Meet Your Fortune. A Final Thought From the Wisdom of Tom Bombadil

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 143-145

I had intended to be safely within the hospitable walls of The Prancing Pony in Bree by now but I will have to leave that pleasure until next time. You see, one thing kept niggling at me after last week’s post. I was reasonably satisfied with my thoughts on Tom Bombadil’s encouragement to the hobbits to keep up their merry hearts but I had said almost nothing about the last words that he said to them.

“Ride to meet your fortune.”

Back in August 2017 I wrote about Sam Gamgee’s decision to trust to luck on the roads of Mordor, the last place you would think where any luck might be found. If you click on the tag, luck, at the end of this post, you will be taken to that piece. I wrote about Tom Shippey’s musings upon the subject of luck in his magnificent The Road to Middle-Earth (Harper Collins 2005 edition pp.170-74) and I wrote about the way in which Sam understood what it meant to trust his luck.

Tom Shippey

In these pages, Dr. Shippey refers to the translation of The Consolation of Philosophy ascribed to King Alfred the Great and written originally by the 5th century philosopher, Boëthius. My own personal choice for the founding myth of the English nation is the winter that Alfred and his small group of loyal followers spent on the Isle of Athelney in the Somerset marshes hiding from the Danish invaders. Eventually Alfred overcame t invaders and established the kingdom that became England. Alfred (like Faramir in The Lord of the Rings?) was both a warrior and had a deep love for scholarship. As well as making the greatest work of early medieval philosophy available to his people in the English language he also had Pope Gregory the Great’s treatise on pastoral care translated into English for his clergy. Now that is how to found a nation. Would that we had more of his kind among us in our own times.

An imaginining of Alfred the Great

Boëthius gives much thought to the subject of fortune or wyrd. Tom Shippey quotes this passage from his great work.

“What we call God’s forethought and his Providence is while it is there in his mind, before it gets done; but once it gets done then we call it wyrd.

Boëthius is thinking about the fall in his personal fortunes. Once he was a senator of Rome but now he is a prisoner of King Odoacer the Goth and he awaits his death. The wheel of fortune is inexorable but philosophy enables him to bear either good or bad. We still speak of someone as being of a philosophical disposition in this sense today. The hobbits too have little control over what lies ahead of them. They cannot prevent the wheel of fortune from turning. They have no choice but to ride to meet it. Actually, they do have a choice. They could follow the advice of Fatty Bolger and hide in Crickhollow but if they had followed that advice they would merely have waited for the Black Riders to arrive and find them. Either you ride to meet your fortune or it comes to meet you. Either you can meet it with a merry heart and while being wary you ride boldly or you try to hide from it.

Even as Tom Bombadil speaks these words the hobbits are afraid. They are on the Road once more and it is on the Road that the Nazgûl seek them. “The shadow of the fear of the Black Riders came suddenly over them again. Ever since they had entered the Forest they had thought chiefly of getting back to the Road; only now when it lay beneath their feet did they remember the danger that pursued them.” Danger lies behind and before them and they have little control over it. All that they can do is to keep on going, to keep up their merry hearts, to be bold but wary and to ride, not away from their fortune, but towards it, to meet it.

Frodo before The Witch King of Angmar

Keep Up Your Merry Hearts. Tom Bombadil Bids the Hobbits Farewell.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 141-145

Tom Bombadil tells the hobbits that he will accompany them on their journey from the barrow in which they have been imprisoned until they reach the Road once more. As Tom puts it, the hobbits are “so good at losing themselves” that he will not feel happy until he has “seen them safe over the borders of his land”.

The hobbits are delighted that they will have Tom’s company for a little while longer. They enjoy his joy and they feel safe with him. He has rescued them from disaster twice; once from Old Man Willow and once from the barrow wight. On both occasions they stumbled into danger entirely unawares. We should not blame them. Until now they have all lived lives entirely free from danger, the kind of lives that we all wish for our children, for no-one wishes that their children’s lives should be deliberately put at risk, but now they will often be in danger and they need to learn how to live with this.

Farewell Tom Bombadil

Tom gives them sound advice. Probably, as with most advice that we are given, the hobbits will soon forget what Tom has told them, but somewhere his words will take root within them. In the days that lie ahead they will face many dangers, toils and snares and each experience will make Tom’s words more real until both word and experience will be woven together as one. When they are finally returning to the Shire, and begin to hear ominous news about what awaits them, Gandalf leaves them to enjoy a good long chat with Tom Bombadil and tells them that they do not need looking after any longer.

Tom’s words to the hobbits are both a celebration of what they already are and, at the same time, a warning of the qualities that they need to develop if they are to have a chance of surviving what lies ahead.

“Be bold, but wary! Keep up your merry hearts, and ride to meet your fortune.”

The hobbits understand this kind of wisdom. It is a wisdom shared through proverbs that are easy to teach and to recall. It is a wisdom well known in non-literate peasant cultures but no-one should make the mistake of mistaking simplicity for shallowness. Tom Bombadil’s wisdom is profound.

The quality that Tom celebrates in the hobbits is their “merry hearts”. He recognises this quality within himself and he approves of it in them. Throughout the story others will both remark upon the hobbits’ childlikeness, seeing this especially in Merry and Pippin, and many will enjoy it. Even Denethor, in all his world-weariness and cynicism, will for a brief moment seek to keep Pippin near him, surely recognising as he does so something that he has long lost but misses still. Throughout The Lord of the Rings there is the feel of a world grown old and sad, a world that is passing away. Merry and Pippin will make others glad that they are alive or at least remind them of a time when they were glad and, perhaps, rekindle within them the hope that they might find such gladness again.

Concerning Denethor by Luke Shelton

But merriness will not protect them from harm. Already they have encountered terrible danger and on each step that they take they will be surrounded by it. Their merry hearts will enable them to endure dangers but they will need to learn boldness tempered by wariness if they are to have a chance of surviving them. As we have seen, wariness is most certainly something that they have not yet learned.

Keep up your merry hearts

I am not sure that Merry and Pippin will ever learn wariness and Frodo and Sam will be forced to place their entire lives into the care of someone who wishes them nothing but harm. Simply by going on with this journey the hobbits are embracing boldness. Simply by riding eastwards along the Great Road they are facing their fortunes, separately and together. And simply by being themselves they are riding towards their fortunes with merry hearts.

For those interested in exploring the use of proverbs in The Lord of the Rings I would warmly recommend The Proverbs of Middle-earth by David Rowe.

“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.

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.”

hobbiton_204

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.