In the House of Tom Bombadil
Blog articles always seem to start with some catchy hook – a ‘lede,’ we used to call them in my college writing class. A reader will only persist in finishing the article, so said my professor, if the earliest lines are pithy, terse, and challenging, like the turn in a sonnet, or the rhetorical question in a stump speech.
I don’t have one of those this time around. I do, however, have a rambling thought or two about human nature brought on by contemplating one of my favorite characters in all of literature: Tolkien’s master of the woods, Tom Bombadil.
The Bombadil interlude in Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring reads like an odd little aside—Tolkien needed an extra episode to round out the ring-bearer’s journey to the village of Bree, and so he dreamed up a jolly, twinkly-eyed character to put the Hobbits up after they lose themselves in a wood. It’s a strange narrative, so much so that I’ve always treated it as its own little vignette, thematically separated from the rest of the saga. I won’t speak for all Tolkien lovers, but I for one read Tom’s narrative, enjoy the sunny whimsy of it all, and then “get back to work” reading the real story.
I confess, however, that I should have given Tolkien credit for more than imagination, because on my most recent re-reading a purpose for Bombadil presented itself, and the more I think about it, the less the rest of The Lord of the Rings could possibly do without it.
Here’s my observation: Tom Bombadil is Tolkien’s unfallen man.
We meet Bombadil when Frodo, Merry, Pippin, and Sam get lost and trapped in a malignant, magical forest. He meets their obvious terror with a hearty laugh, and casually rebukes the stock and stone that afflict them, shepherding them unharmed to his home in the outskirts of that same forest. Awed by his power over seemingly untamed forces of nature and magic, the Hobbits immediately offer Bombadil their burden: the Ring of Power.
Tolkien describes the power of the One Ring sparely, an essential device which allows myth to develop as a matter of course. We are left to deduce its particular properties by its effect on the people who encounter it. One constant, and deeply symbolic, effect of its use is that it makes one disappear.
Tom’s response to the Ring gives us the first clue to his identity. To the hobbits’ surprise, he slips the Ring on his little finger, and…doesn’t vanish! He then pops it off, peers through it curiously, and has another hearty laugh at their shock. The reader wonders, as do the hobbits, how on earth he can touch the Ring and yet remain unaffected by its power, when no other character, great or small, in the story can even be in its presence un-scathed!
The more I read, the more I think that perhaps Tom is unaffected by the Ring because he, unlike every other character in the story, is not prey to human nature at all.
Human nature, according to Tolkien, is fraught with the question of self: who am I, and what is my purpose? Frodo struggles to stay a simple hobbit, rather than allowing the Ring to lend him importance. Gandalf struggles to maintain his humility when offered the Ring’s unbridled power, as does Galadriel. Aragorn struggles to shoulder the immense burden of his identity as King in the West, as Arwen labors over her decision to choose Elven immortality or a mortal life of family and love. Boromir struggles to live up to his father’s noble name, while Faramir likewise struggles to live up to his brother’s legend. You catch my drift.
In their own way, every character in this story looks to their actions, presuming them to define their identities, which is the source of the Ring’s allure. It meets their insecurity with the power to make something of themselves and of their world, and so tempts them into service. With it, they can, finally, BECOME.
Tom Bombadil, alone among the rest, cannot be tempted to become anything, because he knows, perfectly well, who and what he already is. He is entirely secure in his identity, and refuses to consider any changes to it. He is not the savior of the world, and will not be made responsible for it. He wields power, but only over that small portion of the world in which he has spent his days. He lives under the shadow of the deadly Barrow Downs, but refuses to be awed by the death they represent. He is wise, but his wisdom makes him youthful, rather than heavy with cares. He is, briefly put, man as he was meant to be: aware of his limitations, but aware too of the contours of God’s image in himself. He is master of the woods, but self-consciously not their creator, and thus not their owner. And with that knowledge comes freedom.
You see, Tolkien set out to create a complete universe, with a creation story, a fall from grace, a spiritual war, and mankind torn by sin nature, frail as it is noble. Eden, however, provides necessary context for the gravity of the Fall. A deep understanding of the inheritance of mankind as bearers of God’s very image is what allows us to see our world and ourselves as broken, and in need of saving. I believe Bombadil to be an image of Adam in the garden, and perhaps more importantly a whisper of Tolkien’s hope for man’s eventual resurrection into eternal life.
Read this way, this short episode draws the rest of the epic into focus. Already a pitched battle between good and evil in the human heart, the saga doubles as a prescription for a life of contentment and joy amid our own battles, no matter how dark: the truly humble need fear no evil. One day, Lord willing, we will hear our names spoken by One who has defeated death on our behalf, and we will no longer doubt our identities. Between now and then, Bombadil’s merry laugh offers a tonic that can vanquish any fear.