Vison's inkling about
Tom Bombadil makes me wonder, who is he anyway?
I mean, I know the character in LOTR, but he
has a section to himself where he rescues the hobbits (twice) and
generously entertains them, but it does not seem to have anything to do
with the narrative of the Ring. He's very nice, and Goldberry is even
nicer, but what are they doing in the book?
The story of LOTR starts off in quite a
leisurely manner; after the Birthday Party and Bilbo's disappearance
nothing happens for 17 years. So Bombadil could be seen as just another
digression to enrich the background. The sequences with Tom, and Old
Man Willow, and the barrow wights, are however written in quite a
different style to the rest of the book; a sort of half-humorous
fantasy, a dream sequence. When Old Man Willow traps the hobbits you
never really believe they will be killed; contrast this with the
ferocious massacre of Uruk-hai by the Huorns later in the book. It is
clear Tolkien's story not only grew in the telling but changed style
and pace and emphasis. Perhaps this is why when he sold the film rights
Tolkien said Bombadil could be left out; he seems to belong to another
Perhaps Tolkien was inspired to create Tom by
his own studies in Old English, especially Sir Gawain and the Green
Knight, and rural legends of the Green Man. The Gawain story also has
an atmosphere of dream, with a strange host and a sense of mystery. But
Frodo is no Gawain, and his stay with Tom is not a mini-quest where he
has to unravel a mystery, even though Tom's abode bristles with
mystery. The hobbits never unravel it. In fact, what does Frodo, or any
of them, learn from their stay with Tom? They have visions in the
barrow, but these are of past wars, not of the future. The only
concrete reference to this episode later in the book is when Denethor
sees Pippin's sword, which he took from the barrow, and recognises it
as Numenorean. But Pippin is wary of telling the Steward where he got
it so the connection is not explored.
Tom is not really the Green Man, either, as
he is too genial, more like an English country squire although he is
associated with plenty, and he has a beautiful consort. Ancient
fertility spirits of wood and swamp were indifferent or even hostile to
the fate of mortals, who tried to propitiate them. Old Man Willow is
more like Green Man.
Tom is however neutral, a fence-sitter. When
someone at the Council of Elrond suggests giving him the ring Gandalf
points out he would just lose it or throw it away. He is indifferent to
it. Like Treebeard he 'has not bothered about the wars of men and
Wizards for a very very long time.....'
if he ever did.
Perhaps that is why Tom has no further part
in the book, for after the Council of Elrond the world is polarised,
divided into those for and those against Sauron. Elrond himself drives
this home with great force; 'you must unite or you must fall'
Neutrality is not an option.
Pippin puts it best 'whose side are you on?'
he demands of Treebeard, and the Ent's reply 'I am on nobody's side
because nobody is entirely on mine...' could be Tom's, except for the
fact that it soon becomes clear the Ents are very firmly on the side of
the earth and the trees and against anything 'burning, hacking,
biting....' which rather covers Sauron and Saruman.
In fact, Tom's 'voice' is very similar to
Treebeard's, which makes me wonder if Tolkien developed the idea of the
Bombadil character into Treebeard, a much more active, dramatic and
powerful earth figure who takes destiny into his own hands (or
branches) by going to war beyond the boundaries of his forest, as Tom
will never do.
In The Lord of The Rings nature is synonymous
with good. Sauron and Saruman can easily be seen to be evil by their
environmental destruction; they are 'minds of metal and wheels'. The
Elves are seen as good because of their spiritual closeness to nature,
their connectedness to tree and star and river. Legolas almost weeps
when he sees the trees torn by passing orcs. Yet Bombadil seems
curiously uninterested in protecting that very nature which he so
loves. Safe in his forest he lets the world and its wars go by.
I wonder, in that 'long talk' that Mithrandir
promises himself with Tom, there might be some bad news for the jolly
lover of bright clothes; that his enclave will not last much longer, a
new age is beginning....