Sunday, June 27, 2010

"Tom Bombadil is not an important person - to the narrative"

His boots are yellow.

There's a fascinating structural moment in Lord of the Rings, where JRR Tolkien breaks a very fundamental rule of narrative construction: he stops the plot cold to explore something that has no ultimate bearing on the story.

The plot Tolkien has established at this point is relatively straightforward.  Frodo has inherited the Ring, and Gandalf has discovered that it is an evil and powerful object.  Now, Frodo and his hobbit friends must carry the Ring to Rivendell, and the Black Riders are in hot pursuit.  

Here, Tolkien takes a digression for several chapters in the home of Tom Bombadil, a whimsical, singing character who dwells in the forest with Goldberry, his river-spirit bride.  Bombadil is indifferent to the Ring; the object has no power over him, even though it can tempt and corrupt other powerful figures like Gandalf and Galadriel.  Similarly, Tom isn't especially concerned with the conflict that threatens to engulf Middle Earth.  

The hobbits spend a couple of chapters in his house.  Then they move on with their quest, passing through the Barrow Downs where they almost get eaten by zombies.  Frodo invoke's Bombadil's name, and Bombadil appears to smite the monsters.  However, Bombadil refuses to accompany the hobbits beyond his woods; he is unwilling to serve as their guide or protector.   

Later on, when Elrond's council at Rivendell is trying to figure out a solution to the story's central problem of keeping the Ring out of the clutches of evil, they consider giving it to Bombadil.  Bombadil is incorruptible, and Sauron's armies aren't strong enough to take the Ring from him.  

But the Elves can't make Bombadil care about the wars of men and elves and orcs, about the fate of the world, or about much of anything.  Gandalf believes Bombadil is incapable of understanding how important the Ring is to the mortal races, because it isn't important to him. If they entrust the most important object in the world to Tom Bombadil, he might get bored and lose it.

Bombadil doesn't appear again in Lord of the Rings after this.  He plays no significant role in the plot.

So what's the point of stopping at Bombadil's house?  Arguably, there isn't one.  Peter Jackson cut Bombadil out of the film adaptation, precisely because he stops the story.  Further, Bombadil's indifference to the Ring undercuts the central idea that the Ring is enormously powerful, and influences and corrupts everyone who encounters it.

Tolkien fans have been vexed for decades by the question of what Bombadil is, and what his presence means in Lord of the Rings.  In Tolkien's encyclopedic cosmology of Middle Earth, there is no explanation for Bombadil.  This omission is clearly intentional.  Tolkien said:  "I don't think Tom needs philosophizing about, and is not improved by it."  When Frodo asks Goldberry what Tom is, she says "He is."  Tom describes himself as the "Eldest" and "The Master," and says he remembers the first raindrop on the first acorn.

Some readers postulate that he may be a Maiar, a wizard, like Gandalf, or some kind of nature spirit.  But the only interpretation that makes sense to me is that Bombadil represents the role of God in a global conflict between nations of good and evil mortals.

Whether or not Bombadil can be read into the Tolkien cosmology as an angelic Vala or as a manifestation of Eru-Illuvatar, the creator-god of Tolkien's fictional universe, his purpose in Lord of the Rings is to explore the question of where God fits into the events of the narrative.  Middle-Earth is not an allegory like C.S. Lewis's Narnia, but it nonetheless draws themes from Tolkien's experience, and from his beliefs.  Lord of the Rings was written during the 1940's when Nazism and fascism threatened to overrun Europe; Tolkien's England was besieged by the Nazis just like Helm's Deep and Minas Tirith were besieged by the forces of Isengard and Mordor.  

The reader isn't likely to wonder why Illuvatar doesn't intervene to destroy the Ring or break Sauron; that's not the way readers relate to stories.  But Tolkien likely struggled to reconcile his belief in a benevolent, omnipotent God with the horrors of World War 2, and the apparent silence from the heavens in the face of the monumental wrongs of that age.  Lewis imagines his Aslan as a benevolent protector who is in control of the situation even when He seems, from the characters' viewpoint, to be absent.  Aslan always arrives to deliver His assistance when the heroes truly need it.  Lewis might have seen the Allied victory as proof of a Divine plan, working invisibly but inexorably on the side of the good guys.

But Frodo must succeed or fail on his own.  Bombadil, as a stand-in for God in Middle-Earth, is benevolent, but aloof and indifferent to the waxing and waning fortunes of Men and Elves and Hobbits.  What's important to the characters is not important to him.  Even as darkness threatens to swallow the world, he cannot be persuaded to care; he predates light.  

But this isn't a theme of Lord of the Rings, it's a digression.   Tom is an appealing character and the chapters about him are beautiful to read.  But he doesn't belong in the story.  Tolkien set Middle-Earth outside the world and outside of his own faith; Middle-Earth is not a place where people invoke deities and expect intervention.  On the contrary, it's about the waning of mythic powers and about magic things giving way to the age of men.  So, the exploration of divine indifference isn't organic to this story.  Whatever Tom Bombadil is, he is not what Lord of the Rings is about, and that's what Peter Jackson realized when he cut Tom out of the films. Tolkien's letters on the subject essentially admit that Bombadil has no place in the structure; his inclusion is pure authorial self-indulgence.  Perhaps Tolkien's deliberate refusal to assign Bombadil a place within the cosmology can be read as an admission that the character doesn't belong in the story.   

For writers, the lesson is this:  Tolkien gets away with it, because he is Tolkien.  He can stop the plot because he can hold onto the reader until the story resumes.  But even Tolkien can't make this work.  Tom Bombadil is a loose end, left untied at the story's resolution.  He confuses readers.  They search for ways to tie the digression into the plot and into the theme, and they draw wrong conclusions.  They get distracted from the real point.  

If you're a lesser author than Tolkien (and you are, I promise), you will lose your reader in a digression like Frodo's visit with Tom Bombadil, especially if that reader is an agent or an editor.  Learn from the mistakes of great authors; don't use them as excuses to build flaws into your own stories.


  1. Very well supported essay, but I think it deserves to be said that Tolkien has gone on record multiple times as expressing frustration, even exasperation at people seeing World War parallels in the Lord of the Rings. He went so far as to deny any connection there.

    Of course, one can argue that Tolkien didn't need to be aware of those parallels to embed them in his writing (He did, after all, serve in the first World War and witness the second - how much can he extricate those life experiences from his writing?), but if one chooses to trust the author in this case, it really throws a wrench in a lot of analyses.

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  3. As to the subject of Bombadil himself...My understanding from a few undergraduate Tolkien/Inklings studies courses is that by creating the LOTR legendarium, Tolkien was attempting to resolve the British Isles' pre-Christian traditions, predominantly the norse culture that bled down through Scotland, with Christian myth (My term, of course, not his).

    He was penning a connective narrative. A literary missing-link, if you will. Looking at it from that context, Bombadil strikes me as having a lot more in common with certain (occasionally plot-irrelevant) dvergar/dwarves that occasionally poked their heads into the sagas, essentially plot devices that helped or harmed the hero/god the story revolved around.

    Though, to take that thought further, there is no reason Bombadil could not fit both proposed rolls at once.

    I will say that the existence of a God who doesn't get involved simply because he can't be bothered to care or empathize with the plight of suffering thousands does strike me as a pretty modernist outlook, though a bleaker one than I'd expect from Tolkien, given his evident preference for heroic archetypes and happy endings.

  4. Well, Tolkien discourages allegoric interpretation; for example, it's incorrect to analogize the muster of Rohan to the U.S. entrance into the war, or to interpret the madness of Denethor as a commentary on English politics.

    But thematically there are obvious parallels between two worlds on the brink of exciting and frightening changes, embroiled in war.

    I think Tolkien's deliberate vagueness about Tom's place in the cosmology supports an interpretation that Tom represents an digression into mythology that doesn't have a place in the Silmarillion.

    It would have been really easy for Tolkien to just tell everybody that Tom is a Valar, and I think the author refused to do this because Tom represents something personally important to him. And I think Tolkien's subsequent exasperation with readers' obsession over Tom's nature reinforces my conclusion that including the character was a mistake.

  5. Fair enough, but why not remove the Bombadil chapters entirely, in that case? I'm -far- from a Tolkien expert but my understanding is that LOTR went through several published revisions in his lifetime.

    This is chiefly a rhetorical question, but I think it's worth considering. If he put something deeply personal into his book and was upset by the way it was received/misused, why not take it out in preparation for the American edition(s)? I know the prevailing attitude, as evidenced by Philip Pullman in his introduction to the Dark Materials "Lantern Slides" is that once you've published a book, it exists in the public imagination and you can no longer tweak it. But isn't Tolkien's body of work, by contrast, something that's been subject to tweaking and review quite a lot?

    I recognize that there are flaws in my premise, here. But I really am just playing devil's advocate, in the interest of casual blog-debate.

  6. When I say that Bombadil was a mistake, I don't mean he was an accident. I mean I disagree with a very deliberate decision Tolkien made to include this element, and I think other writers who attempt similar constructions will derail their novels in the process.

    Tolkien knew pre-publication that Bombadil was confusing. He left him in for thematic reasons.

    From Tolkien's letter 144, to Naomi Mitchison, an editor or proofreader who was looking at page proofs in 1954:

    "[E]ven in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally)....
    Tom Bombadil is not an important person - to the narrative. I suppose he has some importance as a 'comment'. I mean, I do not really write like that: he is just an invention (who first appeared in the Oxford Magazine about 1933), and he represents something that I feel important, though I would not be prepared to analyze the feeling precisely."

    Almost nothing else in "Lord of the Rings" is a "comment." Everything else has a geographic place on Tolkien's painstaking maps and a history laid out in the appendices or the Silmarillion. Bombadil stands outside the Middle Earth mythology just as he stands outside the Ring plot.

    And Tolkien's mistake is that so much discussion of the book hinges on this extraneous "comment" rather than the deeper themes of the story.