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PostPosted: Mon Nov 03, 2008 2:53 am 
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Few characters of Tolkien's have generated more controversy than Tom Bombadil. Many readers find him out of place in the narrative, and even skip this chapter. Some find him silly, or even absurd. At the same time, he is also perhaps the most difficult character to place within Tolkien's legendarium, and there has been many a debate as to Tom's nature. He is a character that already existed outside of the mythology before LOTR was created, and Tolkien made a point of finding a place for him in the narrative.

I have seen (and participated in) many discussions about Tom here and at other sites (see, e.g., There can never be enough Bombadil!). But I've never seen anyone comment on the first line of this chapter:

The four hobbits stepped over the wide stone threshold, and stood still, blinking.

To me, this sentence says it all. Or at least, it says all that needs to be said. The chapter is about entering into another world. If LOTR is to be considered a feigned history, than in this chapter we step out of that history for a while, and into an alternative alternative reality. Lothlórien is like this, too, in its own way, but even Lothlórien with it distortion of time and magical air doesn't compare to the house of Tom Bombadil in its other-worldliness. This point is emphasized when Tom puts on the Ring and it has no effect on him (nor does Frodo escape Tom's sight when he puts it on it). It further emphasized by Goldberry's words that "nothing passes door and window here save moonlight and starlight and the wind off the hill-top." It is truly a refuge from the outer world.

But the best example of this is the point that AJ made in the last chapter where he reminds us that Shippey points out that everything that Tom Bombadil says can be read as verse. Here's an example:

Tom, Tom your guests are tired,
and you had near forgotten!
Come now, my merry friends,
and Tom will refresh you!
You shall clean grimy hands,
and wash your weary faces;
cast off your muddy cloaks
and comb out your tangles!

This passage isn't written as verse, but certainly reads as verse, just as all of Tom's dialogue. And Goldberry's, too, though she has a different rhythm.

The Hobbit's dreams, too, emphasized the otherworldly nature of the House. Nowhere else in the entire narrative is there so much concentrated focus on different characters' subconscious minds. I don't think that is accidental. Like with the rest of the chapter, there is much to talk about regarding these dreams, but I'll leave that to another post: of mine or of someone else's!

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PostPosted: Mon Nov 03, 2008 3:37 am 
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Personally, I loved Tom and Goldberry and the other-other-worldliness of their home (and their part in the story). Having seen the movie before reading the book, I was surprised by Tom, but then I was sad that he was left out of the movie.

He is a place of utter refuge--a physical refuge and a mental refuge, too, I think.

Yes, who is Tom? Who is Goldberry?

I know very little of this subject, so I speak from a very humble lay-reader of the books. To me, Tom and Goldberry are the earthy, hobbity-esque equivalents of the ethereal, uber-elven Celeborn and Galadriel. (As you said, there are some similarities in the feel of Tom's abode and Lothlórien.)

(I know. "Uber-elven?!" "Hobbity-esque?!" :D Cut me some slack. I'm sick and not thinking clearly.)


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PostPosted: Mon Nov 03, 2008 3:41 am 
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Lali, I love that comparison! (And I hope you feel better soon. :hug:)

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PostPosted: Mon Nov 03, 2008 4:34 am 
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One reason I resist Tom's charm is the rhythm of his speech. I caught that it was verse the first time I read the book, and would not have minded except that Tom's specific rhythm sounds awkward to me: a kind of stumbling beat that nags at my mind and eventually feels tiresome. Speech doesn't fall naturally into it, to my ear, and so some syllables have to be rushed or dragged out to "fit." It feels like walking on uneven ground with your feet loosely tied together.

There, I have just declared my utter lack of taste. I know people do love Tom.

I think if I had been properly introduced to Tom and had been given some idea of his real power and mystery, I would have been more patient with his eccentricities (and less annoyed by his faintly patronizing moments with the hobbits). I do love the refuge his house represents; the wonderful first meal; the lazy day telling tales while the rain falls outside; and Frodo's dream.

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― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King


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PostPosted: Mon Nov 03, 2008 5:08 pm 
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I understand, Prim. I've been there myself. I have vacillated a lot about Tom over the years, but I have definitely come to appreciate his place in the story. Or rather his out-of-place-ness in the story.

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PostPosted: Thu Nov 06, 2008 8:01 pm 
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Hmm, Prim: I rather like the rhythm: it's a sort of foot-stomping peasant dance feel. BOOM BOOM dum-dum-dum (with tertiary syllables ad libitum). YMMV.

I agree with most all the above. For me this chapter is marred, though, by Tolkien trying too hard with his prose in places, esp. with regard to Goldberry (and Frodo's addresses thereto): treacly and awkward IMHO, like a bad greeting card. But then LR was really OJT for this gifted amateur writer: he really wouldn't achieve complete mastery over his idiosyncratic style until 1945-6 (Notion Club and RK).


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PostPosted: Sat Nov 15, 2008 4:46 pm 
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Perhaps the most interesting thing about Tom Bombadil is that he is the one element of LOTR that existed completely independent of the legendarium before the book was written. So why was he added in? There are multiple different answers that Tolkien has given to that question, primarily that Tom represented nature and added an important element to the narrative (though not to the plot) that otherwise was missing. Some of gone so far as to suggest that Tom is God (pointing to Goldberry's answer to Frodo's question about who Tom was being saying "He is"), but Tolkien himself rejected that interpretation. I think the basic reason why Tolkien added Tom was simply because he liked Tom. Also, Tom gave him an opportunity to add an element to the story that was deliberately left unexplained, contributing to the mystery of the story.

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PostPosted: Mon Nov 17, 2008 4:10 am 
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That's interesting. :)

Even if it truly was any of the first three explanations (represented Nature, represented God, Tolkien just liked Tom), it has certainly fed into the fourth explanation (added to the mystery of the story)!

It's that kind of thing that I find delightful.


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PostPosted: Mon Nov 17, 2008 4:58 am 
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I sometimes think that Bombadil and his house are a kind of gateway, a passage from the Shire to the Outer World. Or to the Larger World. Or something. And I also like the idea of "alternative".

I like the love story of Tom and the River Daughter, too. THAT Tom, the Tom that saw the River Daughter bathing and fell in love with her, that's the Tom I like.

I could do without his dancing down to the water, but beyond that, I like him a lot. I ignore the dancing.

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PostPosted: Mon Nov 17, 2008 2:30 pm 
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I thought I'd reprise two comments I made a while back on the Barrow-downs forum regarding Bombadil and his role, which may be relevant.

Quote:
But a character doesn't have to "advance the story." There's more to fiction than mere plot! Bombadil is a comment, if you like: a conception of a truly free, especially care-free, being. It's one with this that Bombadil appears rather ridiculous, even goofy- because he just doesn't care. He's all id, no ego.

He also serves to point out that in the real world, even the imagined 'real' world, there are always Exceptions: anomalies, bits that don't fit, things that can't be shoved into pigeonholes.

But if we're looking for Bombadil's function in the narrative- he is there to develop Frodo's (and thus the reader's) growing awareness of Middle-earth, its strangeness and its vast weight of history. Gandalf began this process, but Bombadil reinforces and widens it: especially since he uses no names or dates or specific events, just a great sweep of Time. Tolkien after all reveals his canvas gradually; he does not drop the reader into a slam-bang prologue full of epic sound and fury. That can wait.
Quote:
They heard of the Great Barrows, and the green mounds, and the stone-rings upon the hills and in the hollows among the hills. Sheep were bleating in flocks. Green walls and white walls rose. There were fortresses on the heights. Kings of little kingdoms fought together, and the young Sun shone like fire on the red metal of their new and greedy swords. There was victory and defeat; and towers fell, fortresses were burned, and flames went up into the sky. Gold was piled on the biers of dead kings and queens; and mounds covered them, and the stone doors were shut; and the grass grew over all. Sheep walked for a while biting the grass, but soon the hills were empty again.

Here, 'one brushstroke at a time' as Radagastly so aptly put it, Tolkien masterfully begins to open his wider canvas to the reader via Frodo. This is not historical narrative a la Gandalf in Ch 2, it really isn't history at all: but it's a visual (and audio) montage of the vast weight of history that bears down on the story, that curious bedrock of 'reality' which makes Tolkien so distinctive. And the imagery! Sheep not merely grazing, but 'biting' tha grass. Can't you hear it, and the underlying silence necessary for hearing it? It's a very cinematic passage and brilliantly effective in itself and in its metanarrative role.


(I should apologize to JRRT- while in this chapter he could write some pretty saccharine passages, OTOH he was also in places absolutely superb).


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PostPosted: Mon Nov 17, 2008 2:34 pm 
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Sometimes it's best to ignore the dancing. For example, it would be best to ignore me if I were dancing. :blackeye:

You know, vison, the whole scene does have a very strong feel of a gateway to another world. Skipping ahead to the next chapter, though, I still feel as if they're in an otherworldly place; iow, they don't quite get through the passageway just yet even when they leave Tom's. There is a nice symmetry of malevolence, then peace and safety, and then back to malevolence again. (I won't get into it too much, so I at least have something to say for the next thread. :) )


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PostPosted: Mon Nov 17, 2008 2:34 pm 
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Lovely, soli. Thanks for sharing that.

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PostPosted: Mon Nov 17, 2008 2:45 pm 
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Cross-posted with soli. That was very insightful, thanks!


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PostPosted: Mon Nov 17, 2008 3:18 pm 
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I like Tom and the chapters with him in them. The verse can be annoying and I generally skip them, but I do like the enigma that Tom is.


Given Tom and Goldberry's description of him, I am inclined to think he possesses somewhat of a Maian or Valarin characteristic.


I may be reading into this, but these passages have always struck me;

"...and there was Tom whistling like a tree full of birds..."

"Tom was moving about the room whistling like a starling."

"He is the Master of wood, water and hill."

I'm not sure Tom can really be pinned down, but I am fairly sure he is not mortal or elven. That doesn't leave a lot of choices in Tolkien's world.

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PostPosted: Mon Nov 17, 2008 3:40 pm 
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I've been thinking about exactly that, Holby, and I'm realizing that even though Tom is not the aspect of LotR that speaks to me best, just his existence in the story enriches Middle-earth: he is a mystery, and he doesn't fit neatly into the categories of that world. Which only makes Middle-earth seem more messily real.

I've known for a while that created worlds often fail for me because they are so neat, all the edges filed off, nothing that just plain doesn't fit. And this is on purpose, because their writers don't want the reader distracted by questions about something that doesn't ultimately affect the story. Perfectly reasonable—but in LotR, Tom breaks that rule utterly. Some readers like me fuss about this. And yet the story without Tom in it would lose a dimension that matters. The sense that, as in our own world, not everything adds up, cancels out, balances; that there's mystery deep enough that it won't be explained in the final chapter.

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― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King


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PostPosted: Mon Nov 17, 2008 3:46 pm 
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As Shippey puts it (in a completely different context): "There is more to Middle-earth than can immediately be communicated."

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PostPosted: Mon Nov 17, 2008 4:04 pm 
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Quote:
Many readers of the Lord of the Rings consider Tom's presence in the first book to be an unnecessary intrusion into the narrative, which could be omitted without loss. Tolkien was aware of their feelings, and in part their judgment was correct. As Tolkien wrote in a letter in 1954, ". . . many have found him an odd and indeed discordant ingredient. In historical fact I put him in because I had already invented him. . . and wanted an 'adventure' on the way. But I kept him in, and as he was, because he represents certain things otherwise left out" (Ibid., p. 192). Judging by these remarks, critical readers are correct about the arbitrariness of Tom's introduction into the story; however, as Tolkien continues, he deliberately (nonarbitrary) kept Tom in to fulfill a particular role, to provide an additional dimension.

In a letter written to the original proofreader of the trilogy in 1954, Tolkien reveals a little about what Tom's literary role or function might be. Early in the letter he writes that "even in a mythological Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally)" (Ibid., p. 174). Later he adds that "Tom is not an important person - to the narrative. I suppose he has some importance as a 'comment'." He then goes on to explain that each side in the War of the Ring is struggling for power and control. Tom in contrast, though very powerful, has renounced power in a kind of "vow of poverty," "a natural pacifist view." In this sense, Tolkien says, Tom's presence reveals that there are people and things in the world for whom the war is largely irrelevant or at least unimportant, and who cannot be easily disturbed or interfered with in terms of it (Ibid., pp. 178-79). Although Tom would fall if the Dark Lord wins ("Nothing would be left for him in the world of Sauron," Ibid.), he would probably be "the Last as he was the First" (Rings, 1:279).

In trying to grasp what Tolkien has in mind here it is very important, I believe, to distinguish between an enigma and an anomaly, for Tolkien's interest in Tom involves the former while reader dissatisfaction treats Tom more in terms of the latter. An anomaly is something discordant, unrelated, out of place. It is in this sense that someone might claim that Tom could be left out. An enigma, on the other hand, is a mystery, a puzzle, something which seems to be discordant, unrelated, out of place, but isn't. This distinction becomes pivotal in the discussion of Tom Bombadil when one considers that on three occasions in the story the question of Tom's identity or nature is pointedly brought up, twice by Frodo in Tom's house and later at the Council of Elrond. If there is no answer to the question, then Tom is anomalous. If there is, then he is, as Tolkien claimed, enigmatic.


Taken from this page.
http://www.cas.unt.edu/~hargrove/bombadil.html

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PostPosted: Mon Nov 17, 2008 4:21 pm 
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Tolkien is very careful to remind us from time to time that there is no picture-frame. "...where nameless things gnaw the earth. Sauron does not know them: they are older than he."

In many ways Gandalf is Tolkien's alter ego- and partcularly in the sense that even Tolkien-as-narrator is not omniscient. His knowledge, or at least what he reveals, is limited in effect to that which is known by the Wise. So Bombadil is "a queer creature." Nobody knows what happened to the Entwives. The Watchers of Cirith Ungol are never explained, nor is the Watcher in the Water.

Tolkien after all was a medievalist, and was thus very much aware that even real history is full of gaps and inconsistencies: and it is often those crevices in which Myth takes root. If there happened to exist, known and never lost, the fifth-century Annales Arturi Rex Brittonorum, Arthur would be just a pedestrian historical semi-footnote, like Clovis the Frank. Arthurian legend exists precisely because we know nothing about him, not even if he really lived.


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PostPosted: Mon Nov 17, 2008 5:08 pm 
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Tom Bombadil is satisfactory to me, as to others (obviously) because he is inexplicable. But the best part of Tom is Goldberry.

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PostPosted: Mon Nov 17, 2008 5:30 pm 
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Oh, I agree with Prim on how nice it is that there are loose ends in Middle Earth! And I disagree with vison about Goldberry! :D You know what Goldberry always makes me think of? (This is very wicked, I'm afraid.) Of those poofy-haired blondes from the 60's and 70's that would show up on everything from Star Trek to -- well, everything. Not that Goldberry as written is one of those mascara-heavy poofy-haired blondes, but that somehow I can't help thinking that if they had made a movie of the book (at the time I was first reading it), they would FOR SURE have cast one of those creatures in the role. and then: dreadfulness! :)

Anyway, as many have already said, this chapter creates an oasis in a place very much Elsewhere to the rest of Middle-earth. Tom doesn't fit into the theology; Goldberry is a sort of pagan "interference" where Galadriel is concerned; why, even the Ring rules are broken here.

But do I mind it? No. I enjoy having lovely vicarious vegetarian feasts and sleeping in comfy beds for a few pages. And something about that day they cannot travel because of the rain outside, but must stay cozily and comfortably inside hearing Tom's Alternate Universe view of the history of everything makes me much more able to face the hard road ahead.

The odd nod to Farmer Maggot, "whom he [Tom] seemed to regard as a person of more importance than they had imagined," remains, each time I get to it, odd.

The working of the Ring on Frodo ("he was perhaps a trifle annoyed with Tom for seeming to make so light of what even Gandalf thought so perilously important. He waited for an opportunity, when the talk was going again, and Tom was telling an absurd story about badgers and their and their queer ways -- then he slipped the Ring on. Merry turned towards him to say something and gave a start, and checked an exclamation. Frodo was delighted (in a way): it was his own ring all right..." ) in what otherwise is such an oasis, such a place apart, is chilling.


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