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Bombadil Discovered

From: Barb Beier
"Frodo and Sam stood as if enchanted. The wind puffed out. The leaves hung silently again on stiff branches. There was another burst of song, and then 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. With another hop and a bound there came into view a man, or so it seemed."

["The Old Forest," The Fellowship of the Ring]
He seemed to be a man, but who or what was Tom Bombadil really? From his first appearance here in The Lord of the Rings, speculation about his identity and role in the story has been widespread, and no clear consensus has ever been reached on it. That this uncertainty is the writer's intention is apparent in an excerpt from one his letters: "As a story, I think it is good that there should be a lot of things unexplained (especially if an explanation actually exists);... And even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally)" (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 174).

It seems that we must live with the puzzle. However, an intentional enigma is nothing other than a riddle, and we know from The Hobbit that J.R.R. Tolkien was very good at devising and solving riddles. Indeed, in this letter he seemed to be hinting that there was an answer to the riddle of Bombadil. Could he have been challenging his readers to find it?

Many have tried to figure it out. Two of the best essays on this that I've read are "Who or What Was Tom Bombadil?" by William D.B. Loos and "What is Tom Bombadil?" by Steuard Jensen. I will refer to these two essays later on.

My approach has been from a slightly different direction, from outside of the story's internal logic. I gave up counting how often I had read the entire trilogy after 13 times, and that was many years ago. Partly, I suppose, to justify this interest, but mostly because it is a rich legacy of writing craft set forth by a professor, I've most recently been using it as an informal private curriculum in creative writing. There is much to learn about the storyteller's art in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. And while looking at Tom Bombadil in this light, as the creation of a storyteller, I believe I've found the answer to the riddle: Tom Bombadil (or Goldberry, depending on gender)is the reader, and the House of Tom Bombadil is meant to be a haven of safety and an eyrie from which the reader can follow the story without feeling threatened by some of its darker or more poignant parts. I would go further and say that the whole scene with Tom Bombadil is a necessary gateway between the child's world of The Hobbit and the adult adventure of The Lord of the Ring.

This can be demonstrated; I will do so, although on first thinking it over, I wasn't sure that I shouldn't just drop it. Wouldn't it diminish Tolkien's work to take it apart in order to show how he caught the reader in his nets so neatly and completely? That risk is present, of course, but I see now, balanced against it, a somber fact: today's readers have become so used to being brutalized and insulted by the entertainment of their choice, they have begun to expect it; soon it will be very difficult for them to realize that entertainment in general and writing in particular, especially fantasy writing, haven't always been like this. I'm writing this now because it seems not unlikely that the perceived motives behind the professor's careful delineation of everything we see "In The House of Tom Bombadil" (and a bit before and after that chapter) might soon be forgotten, and it's too wonderful a work of craft to miss.

J.R.R. Tolkien was very protective of his readers. Even if the times had permitted splatter stories, trash talk, gratuitous sex, violence, feces, etc.; even if he hadn't had his academic seat and reputation to consider (a consideration which makes his inclusion of the word "ain't" in the epic very daring indeed); yet still would he have made sure his readers were constantly reassured and felt safe, no matter what they were reading. He understood something many fantasy writers have yet to come to grips with, that the reader's trust must come before the complete suspension of disbelief required to accept and enjoy a 'neverland' sort of tale about elves, dwarves, dragons, orcs/goblins, glow-in-the-dark eyes, wizards, hobbits, shapechangers, and the like.

This is not the same thing as internal consistency, which today's writers usually do quite well. That sort of mechanical thing can satisfy the intellect, but if you want the reader to also get involved emotionally and sensually, to get passionate about what you are yourself passionate over, then you first have to somehow get them to trust you. Tolkien did this so well, he succeeded in creating something along the lines of what he was an expert in--those seemingly dry epic poems and songs - but modernized: a lengthy song in prose that captivates and moves us as mere words never could.

This essay was originally posted on "The Grey Havens" board, and so at this point I was able to break the essay into smaller pieces by claiming that what had come thus far was approaching the maximum post length. It wasn't, but as it was becoming quite lengthy I felt it necessary to use a Tolkien technique to keep readers interested in it: introducing things a little at a time. In The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien introduced 13 new, unfamiliar, yet major characters to the reader in just a few pages by having them arrive at Bilbo's door a few at a time. Later he introduced them to Beorn within the story's framework in the same way and so neatly that we didn't consciously recognize it as the same trick that had already been played on us, even when Bilbo told us how "clever" Gandalf had been.

Why did Tolkien run the risk of showing the reader his technique like that and possibly ruining the illusion? I think partly because he had the devilish humor of true genius, but mostly because it draws the reader into the story better than anything else he could have devised. It works.

Beorn is a really fearsome Godzilla-like character (in the sense of a natural force, if you saw the original Godzilla), one strong enough to eventually end the Battle of Five Armies simply by showing up there, and so the writer faced a double dilemma: not to intimidate the reader when they first meet Beorn and also to believably get Beorn to help Thorin and Company. The former problem is solved by our learning that he lives on milk and honey, likes animals, gardens, and builds neat log houses; the latter problem is solved as mentioned above, by introducing the dwarves a few at a time; it works for Beorn precisely because it previously worked for us.

Don't worry, though - this particular piece of writing doesn't come in 13 parts, and I WILL get to Tom Bombadil eventually.

But first I had to lay another Tolkien technique on you, and you have just experienced it: reassurance and foreshadowing of a good ending. It's very noticeable and simple in The Hobbit: look for it in Bilbo's recurrent thoughts of his cozy, safe home and wish to be there, followed by the phrase "Not for the last time." Another such touch is a bit more carefully hidden: while the company is in the eagle's eyrie we learn that the dwarves will get their gold (as they will eventually give some of it to the eagles) and also that there's going to be a splendid battle, if we keep reading. This eyrie scene is very interesting, and I will return to it later in the context of Tom Bombadil.

A more subtle example in The Hobbit of reassurance and foreshadowing of a good ending that's even closer in style to the sort of subtle work done in The Lord of the Rings occurs just as the Battle of Five Armies starts. The Battle, which we are told is going to be "...[t]he most dreadful of all Bilbo's experiences" is also the high point of the story, and the writer wants us to enjoy it; therefore, he signals the good ending by telling us, immediately after the above phrase, that it will also be the part of the adventure that the hobbit, our avatar, will be "most fond of recalling long afterwards [reassurance #1 - he will live through it], although he was quite unimportant in it [reassurance #2 - he won't be caught up in the fighting]." Being Tolkien, and so most concerned about his reader's comfort, he makes it even more clear by placing Bilbo next to both the Elven King and Gandalf [reassurance #3 - proximity to apparently immortal and authoritarian figures], and making him invisible [reassurance #4 - actually spelled out in the text], all before the real battle against the goblins and Wargs is joined.

Quite neatly done, but all this respect and TLC for the reader sounds ridiculous in these times, doesn't it, when cynicism is often a survival skill and children can and do see many murders, rapes, assaults, etc., on TV and in the news from a very young age on. But believe it - the times used to be much gentler and kinder, and this wonderful story and the world of Middle Earth still have the power to capture our imaginations and move us because, deep down, we really don't like the times we now find ourselves in. We now and will always yearn for a 'golden age' that never was and never can be, the world perhaps as we thought it was when we were children and still innocent.

I believe that Tolkien understood this yearning very well; too, as a professor and a family man he was very used to dealing with the young. I submit it for your consideration, therefore, that he succeeded in gaining that all-important reader trust by directly addressing the child, even when the child was reading with an adult's eyes, comprehension and experience.

And now, having explored two of the many techniques J.R.R. Tolkien used in his work, we can finally start to look at Tom Bombadil and how he fits into the overall picture.

Of special note in the essay by William D. B. Loos is the information that Tom was originally a doll belonging to Tolkien's son, Michael. Steuard Jensen takes a very scientific approach in his essay toward solving the enigma of Bombadil. It was after reading this and then more 'scientifically' contemplating the two clues Elrond and Gandalf gave us (Elrond, that Tom is "oldest and fatherless," and Gandalf, at Isengard, that Treebeard is "the oldest of all living things") that the light began to dawn. As Jensen himself says, "... if we [a]re able to find a unique and convincing theory that explain[s] all of the known facts in a simple way without any substantial problems of its own, then a claim that this was Tolkien's unstated intent would probably be justified." I would add that, if the theory also explains something that one hadn't even considered as part of the original problem, that claim would certainly be strengthened; I'm thinking here of the standing stones Frodo sees just before getting trapped by the barrow-wight, and the odd stress the writer gives to the fact that Frodo can't see them the next day.

First, as previously stated, I believe that J.R.R. Tolkien has given us a riddle in Tom Bombadil that can be solved; the solution is that Tom (or Goldberry, depending on gender) is the reader, and that The House of Bombadil is meant to be a safe place for the reader in Middle Earth.

The 'short answer' to Bombadil's identity can be found in a single excerpt from "In The House Of Tom Bombadil," when Frodo calls him Master and asks him who he is:
'Eh, what?' said Tom sitting up, and his eyes glinting in the gloom. 'Don't you know my name yet? That's the only answer. Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless?'
If Tolkien is stating the riddle here and then hiding its answer, so to speak, in plain sight, the solution can be arrived at by a process of elimination using child-like logic (which we adults still carry around with us and which is active, even though we consciously ignore it now that we are 'grown-up' and can figure things out intellectually). Frodo has a name and therefore is not "nameless." He is also sitting in the room alongside three other hobbits when Bombadil speaks, so he certainly can't be said to be "alone." The answer, therefore, is "you, yourself," i.e., the reader. Moreover, Tom demands something of the reader ("tell me"), thus drawing the reader into the conversation, and by extension, into his home.

Pretty farfetched, isn't it? OK, let's take the long way home then. First, the known facts about Tom Bombadil include:
  • "Tom Bombadil is the Master. No one has ever caught old Tom walking in the forest, wading in the water, leaping on the hill-tops under light and shadow. He has no fear. Tom Bombadil is master." (Goldberry, just before she reminds Tom that he hasn't tended to his guests' needs yet, i.e., Tom may be Master, but she is Mistress).
  • "Eldest, that's what I am... Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn. He made paths before the Big People, and saw the little People arriving. He was here before the Kings and the graves and the Barrow-wights. When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent. He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless-before the Dark Lord came from Outside." (Bombadil himself, in a flight of riddling fancy reminiscent of Bilbo's efforts while talking to Smaug.)
  • He is in touch with Farmer Maggot, whom he thinks very highly of.
  • The Ring has no power over him, and he can make it disappear and reappear intact. He can also see Frodo when the hobbit puts the Ring on. However, "he cannot alter the Ring itself, nor break its power over others," according to Gandalf.
  • He knows how to deal with barrow-wights.
  • He can arrive instantaneously to help the hobbits, if they recite a certain verse he has taught them.
  • Afoot, he can't keep up with four hobbits on ponyback.
  • He can inspire visions in those who listen to him: "... as he spoke they had a vision as it were of a great expanse of years behind them, like a vast shadowy plain over which there strode shapes of Men...and last came one with a star on his brow." (Just before Bree.)
  • "Out east my knowledge fails. Tom is not master of Riders from the Black Land far beyond his country." (Tom, just before Bree.)
  • "... he is withdrawn into a little land, within bounds that he has set, though none can see them." (Gandalf)
  • He might take the Ring if all the free folk of the world begged him to, "but he would not understand the need" and might forget it or even throw it away. "Such things have no hold on his mind." (Gandalf)
  • If Sauron wins even without the ring, then Bombadil even with the ring will be "[l]ast as he was First; and then Night will come." (Glorfindel - emphasis added)
  • He does not have the power to defy Sauron, "unless such power is in the earth itself." (Galdor)
I would also include in this list of known facts about Tom Bombadil the inference to be drawn from the clues given to us by Gandalf and Elrond, who are two unimpeachable sources: Treebeard can be the oldest living thing while Tom is truly "oldest and fatherless," but only if Tom is not alive. Since he's there anyway, dancing around and singing to beat the band, we should rephrase that a bit: Tom does not live in Middle Earth, though he has a house there.

There are the known facts, as I see them. Does my theory of Tom/Goldberry as reader explain them all? It does, if one understands that Tolkien is actually trying to get the reader's trust and make him/her comfortable before going into the main story.

He had had a relatively easy time of it in The Hobbit (see above for two samples of the techniques he used), as it was a children's story, but now he had a big problem. He had just invested considerable time and energy into writing a sequel to that story, and so couldn't simply tear it up and start all over again; however, it wouldn't do.

At about the time the four hobbits were leaving the Shire (if I understand the sources I've read), he was beginning to see that this was turning into an epic, one in which he could bring in his whole invented world and its history but also one in which the main character would not live happily ever after. It would also take the reader far away from the delightful Shire where Bilbo's heart (and therefore the reader's) had been centered in The Hobbit; in fact, the Shire would be changed and in need of rescue when the hobbits returned. And, along with Frodo, the reader would not only have to confront The Nine, he would be expected walk all the way to Mordor through many perils, enter The Black Land, and challenge Sauron... and, unlike Frodo, the reader had to enjoy every single minute of it.

Quite a predicament for any writer, and a worse one for the sort of extremely thoughtful and considerate writer that Tolkien was, as I have described. The techniques and reassurances he had used in The Hobbit wouldn't work, as he now had an adult story on his hands. What could he do?

Clearly the reader had to have a safe place in Middle Earth, one from which all the action could be viewed but was itself unassailable; unfortunately, it couldn't be in the Shire, as that was going to be attacked too. Yet it couldn't be very far from the Shire, either, as Tolkien's readers were already 'centered' there.

He was already at a point in the story somewhat reminiscent of the position Thorin & Co were in at the eagle's eyrie in The Hobbit, poised on the edge of wild adventure and yet in need of some assistance in getting started. It's a pleasant fantasy to think Tolkien might also have been inspired just at this point by the sight or memory of a very young Michael hugging his Tom Bombadil doll for reassurance, but that's only conjecture. At any rate, it would appear that the writer chose to establish the house of Bombadil as the reader's 'eyrie' or safe place, as well as a workable 'gate' through which he could channel what was already written into the higher and darker adult adventure that was to come.

Are Bombadil and Goldberry the reader, male and female respectively? I think so. As a woman, and one who has met her share of professional flatterers, Frodo's impressions of Goldberry as well as the writer's descriptions of her fluidity and neatness are guaranteed to win the female heart (at least one centered in the mid-20th Century). She's no pushover, though; it's made quite clear that she's equal to the challenges of living with a Tom Bombadil. Frankly, J. R. R. Tolkien is about the only male writer I've read who actually has a handle on a woman's world and who can create authentic female characters. And as for Bombadil, isn't he every man's fantasy ego?

Like Tom, the reader is not affected by the Ring, terrible implement of evil though it is, and can make it disappear and reappear at will (simply by stopping reading and then restarting). The reader can also see Frodo whenever the hobbit puts the Ring on. However, the reader cannot change the story line, or "alter the Ring itself, nor break its power over others," as Gandalf put it. The reader's knowledge, like Tom's, fails East of the Shire, because that part of the story hasn't been told yet. And, this being written for an audience in the kinder, gentler days that weren't so very long ago, it is certain that the reader would stop reading and close the book in disgust if Sauron won... and to a character in the book, that would certainly look like Night falling.

Well, there is more, but think about it and see what it looks like to you. It's time to examine the second proposition, that the whole scene with Bombadil is also a gateway from what had been intended as a sequel to The Hobbit to the larger world of Middle Earth, which was largely unknown to the public at the time, and to the specific adventures of the Quest and its aftermath in The Lord of the Rings.

For one thing, there is Tom again, talking about odd stuff like the Kings, the Elves passing westward, the seas being bent, the Dark One coming in from Outside. It is the first hint we have that there is much more to this world than we first imagined.

But we should look for more mechanical things to show that this was indeed a 'gate.' I believe I've found them, starting at about the time Frodo, Sam and Pippin pause for lunch on their second day out from Hobbiton on the way to Buckland, "looking across lands [they] had never seen to a new horizon." I think the whole business with Farmer Maggot reassures the reader that they are still rooted deeply in the essential nature of the Shire, and since Tom thinks highly of the farmer, Tom is our link back whenever we need it.

Further, I would suggest that there is actual gate imagery used here. The entrance gate is disguised as the Ferry to Buckland, where Sam feels that "his old life [lies] behind in the mists, dark adventure [lies] in front," and to which there can be no return once across the river (i.e., through the gate), because we've seen a Black Rider back there on the landing.

The first description of an actual gate after that is the tunnel-gate through which the hobbits enter the Old Forest: it "shut with a clang, and the lock clicked" ominously. At the superficial level (reinforced by Merry here), the hobbits have now left the Shire; however, Merry doesn't say, as Gandalf did in The Hobbit, that they are in the Wild now and likely to get into all sorts of adventures. Rather, the hobbit says that they are "on the edge of the Old Forest," i.e., merely on the edge of adventure.

This tunnel-gate, I believe, isn't a 'gate' in the storyteller's sense at all, but rather a sort of 'valve,' one designed to keep the hobbits moving forward. It does, however, prepare the reader for the true gateway up ahead.

That real end gate through which we pass into the rest of The Lord of the Rings story, now that we have been comfortably settled into our "eyrie," does indeed lead at first to a dark adventure, but one from which we are reassuringly rescued quite easily by Tom Bombadil (thus reinforcing the reader's confidence in the writer). Only Frodo actually sees it: "towering ominous before him and leaning slightly towards one another like the pillars of a headless door, two huge standing stones. He had passed between them almost before he was aware: and even as he did so darkness seemed to fall round him." Interestingly, after the rescue as the hobbits and Tom set off once again, the writer actually tells us that "though Frodo looked about him on every side he saw no sign of the great stones standing like a gate..." He wouldn't, of course, if this theory of Bombadil as gatekeeper is actually the case.

Well, there it is. I think J.R.R. Tolkien was a skilled writer who used many techniques to bring his readers into his stories. He knew that gaining their trust was vital, as without it they could not suspend their disbelief in the sort of fantastic creations he intended to put before them. He did this by addressing them on a child's level, even when they were adults, and always making them feel secure. It worked quite well. Tom Bombadil and Goldberry likely are intended to be both gatekeepers and reader avatars, and the House of Bombadil the reader's safe place in Middle Earth where the reader can feel comfortable at a subconscious level even when the story moves to Mordor and beyond, and the main characters are changed so dramatically.

On this page you can read about things that I don't have enough material to make whole section or couldn't decide where to put some texts.
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