Jesse Thorgersen and I have dialogued some be on the role of Bombadil in Tolkien’s LOTR. His latest is worth everyone seeing. His text is in italics–mine will be “normal.”

This is an interesting discussion, thanks for hosting it and dragging me over!

Here’s what I agree with:
“If Bomabdil is tied to Middle Earth, then when Middle Earth falls, so will he. And yet I can’t help but wonder if Tolkien is suggesting that there’s a world beyond Middle Earth that remains untouched by time”. Right, Tolkien does suggest that (and in Silmarillion states it).

Good. I thought that was where we agreed.

But I still do not accept the next step in your argument: “pleasures beyond Bombadil’s domain that Bombadil cannot (or will not, as I have suggested) attain.” We agree that Bombadil is tied to the earth, and we also agree about the role his home plays in the journey for Frodo: for Frodo to remain there WOULD be to be consumed by “natural loves” as you term them.
Your statement about Frodo is right.

To clarify where what we disagree on, it is the goodness or fate of Bombadil’s person — I see him as the guardian, you seem to see him as both that, and also an incarnation of the “tied to earth” or “consumed by natural loves” man. Bombadil is on the earth to be the “guardian of nature” (I’m just going to stick with that for simplicity). That is his end. For him to leave that, even for the sake of the quest, would be to go against his proper purpose and role in the great plan. That would be to sin. For Frodo to try to be Tom Bombadil, or hide with Tom Bombadil would be just as much of an error. Tom is loving what he is meant to love, and because of that, he has ascended to what you are labelling Divine Love. Bombadil has not chosen to remain where he is, doing what he does because he is consumed by a lower love. Rather, it must be a higher love that drives him otherwise (in Tolkien’s world) there would be visible signs of his being consumed.

This is the clearest expression of the interaction between “divine” and “natural” loves that I’ve seen in some time. I’m not going to push my interpretation any farther, in fact, simply because (a) this is very persuasive and (b) I have no idea if “it must be a higher love that drives him otherwise (in Tolkien’s world) there would be visible signs of his being consumed.” I’m not nearly familiar enough with Tolkien’s world to be able to reject it, and it doesn’t seem the sort of thing that you could really give an instance of. I’d be interested to know what you make of Gandalf’s return to Bombadil.

Here is a question, how under your interpretation do you deal with the Barrow downs scene immediately following?

I’m not sure. I’ve thought about it some, but I don’t know what to make of the Barrow-Wights themselves. In fact, even on your account I don’t know what to make of the Barrow downs.

I think your argument is interesting and points out something profound about Bombadil that I had not thought through before. But, your main arguments for something being “wrong” with Bombadil are not convincing for me. He merely strikes me as strange or enchanted, and from my experience with Tolkien, strange and enchanted things are usually good in an unexpected way rather than a hidden and unlikely source of evil.

And you obviously have much more experience with Bombadil than I do, but when I say “wrong,” I don’t mean out-and-out evil. Rather, he strikes me as the sort of “good” that left on its own would end up evil. However, if Bombadil is pre-adamic, then perhaps he passes his test when he takes the Ring. Maybe my contention is simply that though innocent, he is not incorruptible. This seems to make sense of his “Adamic” position in the book. Perhaps I’m still clinging too closely to elements of my interpretation, but the episode of the Ring I find too disturbing to simply write-off as Frodo’s lack of maturity.

The conversation reminds me of Chesterton’s analysis of what happens when people appeal worship “nature”. In St. Francis of Assisi, he writes:

No sooner did the Greeks themselves begin to follow their own noses and their own notion of being natural, than the queerest thing in history seems to have happened to them. It was much too queer to be an easy matter to discuss. It may be remarked that our more repulsive realists never give us the benefit of their realism. Their studies of unsavoury subjects never take note of the testimony they bear to the truths of traditional morality. But if we had the taste for such things, we could cite thousands of such things as part of the case for Christian morals. And an instance of this is found in the fact that nobody has written, in this sense, a real moral history of the Greeks. Nobody has seen the scale or the strangeness of the story. The wisest men in the world set out to be natural; and the most unnatural thing in the world was the very first thing they did. The immediate effect of saluting the sun and the sunny sanity of nature was a perversion spreading like a pestilence. The greatest and even the purest philosophers could not apparently avoid this low sort of lunacy. Why? It would seem simple enough for the people whose poets had conceived Helen of Troy, whose sculptors had carved the Venus of Milo, to remain healthy on the point. The truth is people who worship health cannot remain healthy on the point. When Man goes straight he goes crooked. When he follows his nose he manages somehow to put his nose out of joint, or even to cut off his nose to spite his face; and that in accordance with something much deeper in human nature than nature-worshippers could ever understand. It was the discovery of that deeper thing, humanly speaking, that constituted the conversion to Christianity. There is a bias in a man like the bias on a bowl; and Christianity was the discovery of how to correct the bias and therefore hit the mark. There are many who will smile at the saying; but it is profoundly true to say that the glad good news brought by the Gospel was the news of original sin.

At any rate, the conversation has been good. Thanks for participating!

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • Very interesting debate. It would come on the day after I swear off blogging for a while. It’s similar to the meme Himes throws out that the Ents were morally cupable for not acting sooner, but it’s less obvious than that and so more attractive to discuss.

    Anyway, I agree with Thorgerson. What I want to point out is that there are a number of illuminating comments from Tolkien in his letters (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Carpenter), but the following one (letter 144) seems especially relevant. Tolkien’s in italics; I’m not.

    Tom Bombadil is not an important person — to the narrative. I suppose he has some importance as a ‘comment’. I mean, I don’t really write like that: he is just an invention . . . , and he represents something that I feel important, though I would not be prepared to analye the feeling precisely.

    Tolkien seems to have created Bombadil for the express purpose of being enigmatic. [Earlier in 144 he writes that “even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).] Given this, I’m not sure of what the interpreter should do with Bombadil. I’ve always said, “Bombadil is enigmatic; moving on . . .”

    I would not, however, have left him in, if he did not have some kind of function.

    Not a good sign of approval for Jackson’s decision to cut it.

    I might put it this way. The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power, and so on; but both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of control. but if you have, as it were taken ‘a vow of poverty’, renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless.

    I think Thorgerson mentioned that Bombadil seems to be a saint. Tolkien’s language here evokes that. But we are encouraged to emulate saints, and I don’t see that emulation of Bombadil is possible or desirable. He does seem to have a completely different nature than any others in the story; perhaps that explains what reduces the disposition to emulate him.

    It is a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war.

    I hadn’t thought of this before. Perhaps this is an avenue for further reflection. Denethor and other characters (foolishly) favor appeasement and counsel against war, but perhaps Bombadil represents a truly genuine pacifist position. Is Bombadil Switzerland?

    Matt’s piece also made me think of the comment by the stranger in Plato’s Sophist that the sophist and the philosopher are difficult to distinguish, though not because they’re so near one another. The sophist is below us in shadows of falsehood and imitation and is difficult to make out. The philosopher is above us in the light and is also difficult to make out. Since Bombadil is at the far end of our understanding, he’s difficult to distinguish, and I think Matt’s interpretation makes us alive to the possibility that our inability to discern him clearly can be due to the fact that he’s shrouded in either shadows or light.