LOTR 8: You are Here
This post's title may sound a little ambiguous and disconnected from the theme of these posts. However! By the end of the post you will understand its first reference. The second reference simply sprung from my recent and unexplainable need to link Tolkien to musicals. #ComeFromAway #YouAreHere
In a drafted letter to Peter Hastings in 1954, Tolkien warned: 'I really do think you are being too serious . . . I don’t think Tom needs philosophizing about, and is not improved by it’ (Letters, p. 192). Hastings had considered Tom Bombadil to be God. Just the raging debates and deeply ’serious’ ‘philosophizing' his fandom has generated up to this moment would be enough to make the Professor turn in his grave.
So our four weary hobbits reach their second resting stop: the house of Tom Bombadil. It would not be a half-decent blog post if I did not dip my toe into the inferno that rages around the question of who Tom Bombadil really is? I will be providing some interesting highlights from The History of Middle-earth about the chapter’s development before launching into the hot topic.
1. Who is this Farmer Maggot?
Maggot’s history during the drafting of The Lord of the Rings is almost as mysterious as that of Tom himself. In an effort to make Maggot as foreign and queer to the four hobbits, Tolkien noted in Phase One: ‘Make Maggot not a hobbit, but some other kind of creature - not dwarf, but akin to Tom Bombadil’ (Return, 117). Considering Tolkien did not know (and never found out!) what race Bombadil was, this appears most peculiar.
Without touching too much on the nature of Bombadil, at this early point Tolkien considered him an ‘Aborigine’ of the Old Forest and Barrow-Downs (Return, p. 121). If we consider the more popular understanding of the word that identifies a native to a geographical location, this could suggest that Maggot was the first being to dwell in the land that we commonly know as the Shire. As we know, this line of enquiry was not followed because Maggot is confirmed as a hobbit in the published edition. However, Tolkien’s concern over racial differences and the perception of ‘otherness’ and queerness is telling here. We may recall that Tolkien positioned Maggot as a threatening force in the early phases of ‘A Shortcut to Mushrooms’ and that the hobbits did not feel at ease in his house - especially Bingo, who had a conflicted past with the Farmer.
Although Bombadil is presented as a benevolent pacifist, the possibility of Maggot at this point being ‘akin’ to Bombadil raises questions over what race exactly they could have belonged to. Alas, in the Second Phase Tolkien marked this connection with an X, putting an end to my enquiry (Return, p. 303).
2. In the Dead of Night
Frodo’s dream of Gandalf’s escape from Orthanc underwent a good deal of experimentation. In its first version, it was not even a dream, or about Gandalf or Orthanc. In my last post I noted that Tolkien at one point swapped the sequencing of the story around: the hobbits make their way through the Old Forest and onto the Barrow-Downs before coming to Bombadil’s house.
Tolkien initially seized this opportunity in Phase One to probe into the nature of the Black Riders: ‘Barrow-wights related to Black-riders. Are Black-riders actually horsed Barrow-wights?’ (Return, p. 118). This note is followed by the following:
In the dead night Bingo woke and heard noises: a sudden fear came over him
[?so that] he did not speak but lay listening breathless. He heard a sound like a
strong wind curling around the houes and shaking it, and down the wind
came a galloping, a galloping, a galloping: hooves seemed to come charging
down the hillside from the east, up to the walls and round and round, hooves
thudding and wind blowing, and then dying away back up the hill and into the
"Black riders," thought Bingo. "Black riders, a black host of riders”. (Return, 118).
The undead nature of both is enough to pique one's curiosity as to how related they both are at this point in the story’s developments. Also, although this would later become a dream, at the moment this is very much a live event that Bingo wakes up to. The Black-riders/Barrow-wights are charging around Bombadil’s house, it is not a dream in Phase One.
It is not until the Third Phase when this shifts. Here Frodo ‘lay in a dream without light’ (Return, p. 328). The dream does keep much of the same phrasing and structure, however. Even in the Fourth Phase, Christopher holds his hands up and admits that ‘it is often difficult or impossible to say with certainty when changes to the manuscripts that are unrelated to movements in the narrative structure (or to movements in names) were made’ (Treason, p. 36). He speculates that ’the introduction of Frodo’s dream of Gandalf on Orthanc is obviously later’, suggesting that this happened at some point during the Fourth Phase. He does not give any further details. No version of the dream that Frodo has in the published version appears in The History of Middle-earth.
3. The Assualt on Crickhollow
The whereabouts of Gandalf is consistently sketchy and Tolkien clearly struggled with slotting the dates together. Dreams are reassigned to different chapters and moments of action are cut and pasted. One such moment is the Black Riders assault on Crickhollow. Although in the published version it appears at the start of ‘A Knife in the Dark’, it was first introduced in ’The House of Tom Bombadil' in Phase Two and remained there until Phase Four. Not only that, the characters involved are different. Before the Black Riders slink up to the house, Gandalf actually arrives to check if the hobbits have yet left. When the Black Riders are trying to break in, Gandalf is the one who blows the horn and delivers the line ‘Awake, awake, fear, fire, foe! Awake!’ (Return, p. 303). Rather peculiarly Gandalf at this point is carrying not a staff but a wand. I wonder if Tolkien was unsure of how Gandalf was supposed to cast magic. In the Hobbit he does use the ’spike of his staff’ to inscribe his symbol on Bilbo’s door (Hobbit, p. 18). Any thoughts on this would be much appreciated.
4. Master of wood, water, and hill.
So we come to the big question: who is Tom Bombadil? I honestly do not know and believe that we never will. In her own research into the enigmatic figure, Jane Beal has summarising some theories:
the Creator of Arda, Eru Iluvatar and, by extension, a parallel to the Judeo-Christian God
one of the Ainur, “the offspring of Eru Iluvator’s thought”
a Vala (a specific one, Aulë)
a Maia (like Gandalf or Sauron) and, by extension, parallel to an angel
an elf or a dwarf
the first man (and by extension, a parallel to the Adam of the Genesis account)
a man with a dual-nature and a protective role (like Beorn)
a man or a hobbit
a nature-spirit or spirit of the earth
a pagan god, such as the Norse divinity, Wayland the Smith (i.e., Weland), or the Greco-Roman faun, Pan, or a Finnish deity, such as Väinämöinen, from the Kalevala
the personification of an abstract concept, such as time or music (or an embodiment of the music of the Ainur)
the representative of Tolkien himself (pp. 15 - 17).
The first ever description of Bombadil comes from the first version in Phase One:
I am an Aborigine, that’s what I am, the Aborigine of this land . . . Tom was
here before the River or the Trees. Tom remembers the first acorn and the
first rain-drop. He made paths before the Big People, and saw the Little People
arriving. He was here before the kings and the graves and the [ghosts >]
Barrow-wights. When the Elves passed westward Tom was here already -
before the seas were bent. He saw the Sun rise in the West and the Moon
following, before the new order of days was made. He knew the dark under
the stars when it was fearless - before the Dark Lord came from Outside.
(Return, p. 121).
Beal explains that by ‘Aborigine’ Tolkien is not referring to our modern understanding of a native being, but to the Latin ab origine ('from the beginning’). This link Bombadil to Adam quite strongly and Tom Shippey has additionally commented on the link. Christopher speculates that during the Fourth Phase Tolkien changed the word to ‘Eldest’ (Treason, pp. 36-7).
So it is clearly established that Bombadil is his own origins, he is fatherless and witnessed all of the ‘firsts’ of Arda. Kristine Larsen has gone on to comment on the organicism that Bombadil embodies. He sees the world around him as alive and each creature must take responsibility for its own place within the natural order. It is a part of the whole. Old Man Willow, for example, is master of itself, Bombadil does not control him and neither does he uproot him. To Larsen Bombadil therefore 'embodies the organicist understanding of alterity as being different from yet a part of nature’ (p. 102). Liam Campbell has additionally described Bombadil as representing “the harmony of nature itself—the spirit of humanity as it was meant to be: in complete union with the natural world, seeking understanding without control” (p. 80).
Tolkien’s own letters justify these approaches. In his letter to Naomi Mitchison from 25th April 1954, he says that Bombadil is 'almost the opposite, being say, Botany and Zoology (as sciences) and Poetry as opposed to Cattle-breeding and Agriculture and practicality’ (Letters, p. 178). He is the:
'spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature,
because they are “other” and wholly independent of the enquiring mind, a
spirit coeval with the rational mind, and entirely unconcerned with “doing”
anything with knowledge'seeks knowledge and wisdom for its own sake, not
for the power it would give him over nature itself. (original emphasise,
Letters, p. 192).
These characteristics were clearly thought out from the first version as Bombadil’s interactions are very much the same at the beginning of the writing process as they are at the end. His ability to see Bingo/Frodo is early on established and through the implication of Christopher’s words, we understand that Bombadil puts the Ring on in the first version as well.
Although I could go down the road of discussing why Bombadil is not affected by the Ring, I would prefer to take a moment as I near the end of this post to question our understanding of Bombadil’s origins.
As we have seen, Bombadil has generated a vast expanse of critical discussion. 'Who is he’ is the hot topic. But rarely (it would appear - if I have overlooked a critical discussion of this then please do bring it to my attention!) do we seem to focus on the detail that Bombadil is bound to the land surrounding him. He explains that he does not stray beyond the borders of the Barrow-Downs and we get the impression that he has never actually travelled. If this is true then how does he remember the ‘first raindrop and the first acorn’ (Lord, p. 131). Two pages earlier he tells the hobbits ‘many remarkable stories’ that help them to ‘understand the lives of the Forest, apart from themselves’ they begin to 'feel themselves as the strangers where all other things were at home’ (Lord, pp. 129 - 130). All of this, however, are tales of the Forest and the Barrow-Downs and the connected war between Angmar and Arnor. When the hobbits re-focus, they find he has ‘wandered into strange regions beyond their memory and beyond their waking thought, into times when the world was wider, and the seas flowed straight to the western Shore’ (Lord, p. 131). How did Bombadil learn any of this if he cannot stray beyond his borders?
There is sufficient room to argue that these are not Bombadil’s stories. In the early drafts, Bingo ‘found himself telling him more about Bilbo Baggins and his own history and about the business of his sudden flight than he told before even to his three friends’ (Return, p. 122). This stuck because this is how the passage sounds in the published version: ’so cunning was his questioning, that Frodo found himself telling him more about Bilbo and his own hopes and fears than he had told before even to Gandalf’ (Lord, p. 132).
Bombadil cannot actually travel beyond his lands so it would make sense that he has become skilled in squeezing his visitors and neighbours for all the knowledge and information they have. With this in mind, when he says he remembers the first raindrop and acorn we should not overlook the fact that Bombadil is not talking about the first raindrop or acorn in existence, but the first raindrop and acorn in his own region. He will have ‘made paths before the Big People’ in his realm (Lord, p. 131). His use of ‘here’ does not refer to Arda as a whole, rather to his own pocket of the world (#YouAreHere). He will of course been in this area before the rivers and trees of this region first grew, not the first river or tree of Arda. The very word he uses to describe himself clearly identifies that he is the ‘Eldest’ living thing in this area. Elrond later mentions that the elves call him 'Iarwain Ben-adar’: ‘oldest and fatherless’ which, although mysterious, creates a similar level of scepticism (Lord, p. 265). Who gave Bombadil this name? When? Where? Considering how far and wide the Elves travel, it is not beyond reason to consider this name to have come from an elf who met Bombadil in the Old Forest.
Additionally, Gandalf explains that he will not have come to the Council of Elrond because ‘he is withdrawn into a little land, within bounds that he has set, though none can see them, waiting perhaps for a change of days, and he will not step beyond them (emphasis added, Lord, p. 265). Bombadil is fixed in the lands of his choosing and will not stray. Any news of the outside world must come to him.
Again, if someone has already theorised any of this then please bring the paper to my attention - I would love to read it.
Here ends this blog post. This is also where we say farewell to Phase Two. After reaching Bombadil’s house, Tolkien went back to the start of the story and began what we know as Phase Three. Namárië!
Beal, J. (2018). 'Who is Tom Bombadil?: Interpreting the Light in Frodo Baggins and Tom Bombadil's Role in the Healing of Traumatic Memory in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings'. Journal of Tolkien Research, 6 (1) 1 - 34.
Campbell, L. (2011). The Ecological Augury in the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Zurich: Walking Tree Publishers.
Gay, D. E. (2004). ‘J. R. R. Tolkien and the Kalevala: Some Thoughts on the Finnish Origins of Tom Bombadil and Treebeard’. In Jane Chance (Ed.), Tolkien and the Invention of Myth. (pp. 295 – 304). Lexington: The University of Kentucky University Press.
Larsen, K. (2017). 'Medieval Organicism or Modern Feminist Science? Bombadil, Elves, and Mother Nature’. In Christopher Vaccaro & Yvette Kisor (Ed.), Tolkien and Alterity. (pp. 95 - 110). Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.
Tolkien, J. R. R. (1988). The History of Middle-earth: The Return of the Shadow. [Ed. Tolkien, C.]. London: HarperCollins.
Tolkien, J. R. R. (1989). The History of Middle-earth: The Treason of Isengard. [Ed. Tolkien, C.]. London: HarperCollins.
Tolkien, J. R. R. (1995). The Hobbit. London: HarperCollins.
Tolkien, J. R. R. (2006). The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. [Ed. Carpenter, H.]. London: HarperCollins.
Tolkien. J. R. R. (2007). The Lord of the Rings. London: HarperCollins.