The Riddles of Tom Bombadil

[ Because The Hobbit comes out this week and I can’t think about anything else, all week long on my blog I’ll be posting meditations on some of my favorite moments from The Lord of the Rings, both novel and film. Today we venture into the Old Forest. ]

In September 2002, as I was beginning my junior year of high school, my best friend called me up on the phone.

“Boze, I have the most amazing movie,” he said. “You have to see it.”

I was immediately skeptical. Eric Booth and I had vastly different taste in movies. I preferred mystery-thrillers from the 1950s and ‘60s, which put him to sleep. And his one attempt to show me The Matrix hadn’t gone over well.

“What’s it called?” I asked, more out of politeness than genuine curiosity.

Fellowship of the Ring,” he said in a tone of wonder.

I was vaguely familiar with the story from having read The Hobbit. And I knew Tolkien had been a friend of C. S. Lewis, whom I read with religious devotion. The next day Booth smuggled the VHS into school in his backpack. Dutifully I took it home that night and put it in the VCR after everyone else had gone to bed.

It was like I had been living my whole life in black and white, and suddenly everything was in color. At first there was only blackness; and then a woman’s voice whispering: “I amar, prestar…” And then gold letters and the swelling of eerie but instantly unforgettable music.

The world was changed.

*           *           *

Booth and I became Tolkien evangelists. For a while, to the consternation of our friends and teachers, we would only speak in Lord of the Rings quotes. One morning I awoke to hear myself saying, “Lord… thank you for Frodo!” in a dreamy voice. In May during our school-mandated multicultural day, when every punk with his own garage band played screamo on the school lawn, Booth drove his truck onto the mall and subjected the entire school to the flutes and strings of Howard Shore’s Hobbiton.

It wasn’t long before I realized I had to read the books. On a memorably sunny spring day near the end of the year I sat down at the base of a huge oak at the back of the school with a tattered old copy of Fellowship, one of those old ones with a beige cover and a crudely illustrated Shire. I felt like Frodo reading a book in the film’s opening, unaware that he’s about to be whisked off on the most wonderful adventure.

So of course, you can imagine my surprise when I actually started reading it.

It’s not that The Lord of the Rings was a terrible story, even for a boy of sixteen. But the tone and pace is vastly different from the movies. The entire first chapter is a long and meandering account of Bilbo Baggins’ one-hundred-and-eleventh birthday, the central tension of which is wondering whether he can get away from those confounded old Sackville-Bagginses. Even the arresting moment where Gandalf scolds Bilbo for holding onto the Ring is subdued and un-dramatic.

Suspense begins seeping into the story when Frodo and Sam leave the Shire, pursued by the terrifying Riders in Black. This extended sequence was one of the highlights of the movie, as the wraiths cut across country, through farms and along the highway, killing as they go. Along with their two friends Merry and Pippin, the hobbits cross the Brandywine River towards the Inn of the Prancing Pony.

Except in the book it doesn’t quite happen that way. The wraiths do pursue them, yes. But the hobbits simply take a detour into the Old Forest, where they encounter a singing, dancing old fellow in a bright blue jacket and yellow boots.

*           *           *

54156  Tom Bombadil. He is perhaps the most mysterious and enchanting of Middle Earth’s inhabitants. There’s just something about him… Maybe it’s the way he breaks all the rules Tolkien has so carefully laid out in the preceding chapters, showing no interest in the Ring and being able to see Frodo even when he puts the Ring on. Maybe it’s his hilarious and weirdly moving devotion to Goldberry, the River’s daughter, or his ongoing feud with Old Man Willow. Or maybe it’s his insistence on speaking in Old English meter, making him a kind of early rapper:

Now let the song begin! Let us sing together

            Of sun, stars, moon and mist, rain and cloudy weather

            Light on the budding leaf, dew on the feather,

            Wind on the open hill, bells on the heather,

            Reeds by the shady pool, lilies on the water:

            Old Tom Bombadil and the River-daughter!


            Peter Jackson opted to leave him out of the Lord of the Rings films (he doesn’t even appear in The Hobbit), perhaps because his gentle and whimsical spirit is ill-suited for a violent blockbuster. But also, I suspect, because no one is really clear on who or what exactly he is. Some have argued that perhaps Tom is an incarnation of Iluvatar, the creator god of Middle Earth. One person has even suggested that Tom is supposed to be you, the reader—an idea which I’m sure he would appreciate.

But if Tolkien knew what he was, or the purpose he was supposed to serve in the story, he never gave utterance to it. “Even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas,” he wrote, and while conceding that Tom did play an important role in the narrative, he never bothered to explain what he had in mind, just as he never revealed the location of the Ent Wives and the ten cats of Queen Beruthiel, or the identity of those “nameless things” mentioned by Gandalf that gnaw on the world. Rational explanations can sometimes cheapen our sense of wonder; and there are some mysteries that should never be explained.

*           *           *

One final memory.

It’s the summer of 2010. *Rebecca and I have been living in Kansas City for about a year now. You can see it in our faces, the unhappiness, the lost innocence. We used to love fantasy as a clear mirror in which reality shone with astonishing brightness. Now we love it for what it can tell us about ourselves: that we’re chosen; that we’ve been entrusted with a special purpose of saving the world from destruction—perhaps by destroying it ourselves. There’s a cold malice that shines in our faces. We’re arrogant, contemptuous, angry.

It’s rare that we even have time to talk. Rebecca’s boyfriend *Timothy is always about now, maneuvering and enchanting.

So whenever we have a quiet moment to ourselves, I’m quick to seize it.

“Rebecca,” I tell her one afternoon as we’re sitting in the kitchen together, “I found an audio recording of Fellowship.” Without any further prompting I begin playing a scene from the Old Forest chapter. As Rob Inglis sings the songs of Tom Bombadil, we sit there for a moment enraptured.

Hop along, my little friends, up the Withywindle!

            Tom’s going on ahead, candles for to kindle.

            Down west sinks the Sun: soon you will be groping.

            When the night shadows fall, then the door will open,

            Out of the window-panes light will twinkle yellow.

            Fear no alder black! Heed no hoary willow!

            Fear neither root nor bough! Tom goes on before you…

But at that moment the front door opens and Timothy appears in the kitchen.

“Boze, if that’s not off in three seconds,” he says, “it WILL be.”

Rebecca leans forward and turns off the music.

There may never have been two people less suited for each other than Timothy and Tom. Tim wanted to create a world where everyone was just like him, miniature replicas of himself, with no shading or complexity or nuance. But old Tom is the Master: forever breaking out, defying all categorizations, the patron saint of all that’s extravagant and weird and unnecessary: singing and rhyming and fair Elven voices and water under starlight, “yellow cream and honeycomb,” white bread and butter, “wind on the waterfall, and the leaves’ laughter.”

All the things that make these novels worth reading; all the things that repel and annoy their detractors—lavish descriptions, long digressions, the sense of some deep truth hovering half-glimpsed behind him, like a star in a city of clouds—are all somehow bound up and embodied in Tom Bombadil.

But the real meaning of his character, as is true of all the colossal archetypes that people this diverse and inexhaustible story, can’t be put into words. They’re numinous. They can only be looked on and contemplated. They’re icons radiating realities that transcend language.


One thought on “The Riddles of Tom Bombadil

  1. Pingback: The Secret of Good Fantasy is to Write Honestly | thetalkingllama

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