I’m going to enter unfamiliar territory for Mere-O: Lord of the Rings. I am no expert in the matter–in fact, I have just finished only my second read through.
Yet below is an article that I have written for the Torrey Honors Institute Symposium, the newsletter they send out. There’s no guarantee they’ll publish it–right now, it’s still in “rough draft” fashion. However, my conclusions are dangerously novel (I think) for those who know LOTR.
Just for clarification’s sake, everything below has to do with the books, not the movies.
Update: Thanks to Milton Stanley, I’ve corrected an error in the essay.
In the Fellowship of the Ring, a clear and unmistakable transformation occurs in Frodo. He undergoes a process that involves assuming responsibility and fulfilling his duty. When Gandalf reveals to Frodo the nature of the Ring and Frodo’s responsibility, Frodo responds:
‘I do really wish to destroy it!’ cried Frodo. ‘Or, well, to have it destroyed. I am not made for perilous quests. I wish I had never seen the Ring! Why did it come to me? Why was I chosen?’
It is easy to hear strains of adolescent whining in Frodo’s complaint. Reluctant to assume the task of taking the Ring to Mount Doom, Frodo instead agrees only to remove the Ring from the Shire and maintains hope that Gandalf will find a better keeper for the Ring. Frodo’s fear of the Enemy is only overcome by a “great desire to follow Bilbo” that “flamed up in his heart.”
Only at the council of Elrond does Frodo actually accept his quest:
An overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace by Bilbo’s side in Rivendell filled all his heart. At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice.
‘I will take the Ring,’ he said, ‘though I do not know the way.’
The same desire that had “flamed up in his heart” and motivated him to act now “fills all his heart” and must be overcome. Frodo’s ability to accept his task is described both as an “effort” and “as if some other will was using his small voice.” The final impulse to overcome the now prohibitive love of Bilbo seems to come from outside of himself—yet Frodo seems to understand enough to make the effort to take it.
It is through this process of accepting responsibility that we see Frodo maturing. By the end of the Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo has the wisdom and courage to leave the Fellowship behind and take only his helper with him to Mordor, taking upon himself the whole burden of the quest’s success. Frodo’s decision is crucial, as one gets the sense that the rest of the Fellowship is preparing to force him to Minas Tirith as he deliberates. It is Aragorn who later commends Frodo’s decision as “courageous.” Yet the chief obstacle to the maturation process is Frodo’s natural love for Bilbo. His decision opposes his natural affections.
The chief episode between when Frodo decides to leave the Shire and when he decides to take the Ring to Mt. Doom is the episode of Tom Bombadil. One of Tolkien’s most enigmatic and attractive characters, interpreting Bombadil can be hazardous. Yet set in the context of Frodo’s maturation process outlined above, we discover that Bombadil is someone who has rejected responsibility in favor of what I will call his “natural loves.”
At first glance, Bombadil is an immensely attractive character. Clad in a blue jacket and yellow boots, Bombadil’s rhymes creating a bounding sensation, and delight the most unsophisticated ear. When we first see him, he is gathering flowers for his wife, the Lady Goldberry. Though very old, both Bombadil and Goldberry have an exuberance and gaiety that suggests they are young lovers.
Just as we readers find ourselves drawn in by Bombadil’s merry rhymes, so the Hobbits experience an irresistible attraction to Bombadil and Goldberry. When we first meet Goldberry, Tolkien writes:
‘Fair lady Goldberry!’ said Frodo at last, feeling his heart moved with a joy that he did not understand. He stood as he had at times stood enchanted by fair elven-voices; but the spell that was now laid upon him was different: less keen and lofty was the delight, but deeper and nearer the mortal heart; marvelous and yet not strange.
Additionally, when Frodo and Bombadil discuss the Ring, he finds himself telling Bombadil more than he even told Gandalf. When Bombadil asks to see the Ring, “to his own astonishment,” Frodo consents.
Yet the sense of enchantment Bombadil produces is also a touch disturbing. When Frodo hands him the Ring, Bombadil toys with it, causing Frodo to become a “trifle annoyed” because he “makes so light of what even Gandalf thought perilously important.” When Frodo attempts to slip away by putting on the Ring and becoming invisible, Bombadil sees him—yet Frodo’s laugh is one “trying to feel pleased,” suggesting a high level of self-consciousness and discomfort on Frodo’s part.
Additionally, it seems Bombadil has rejected any responsibility for acting in the outside world. He has intentionally fenced himself in, and limited his cares to tending his land and Goldberry. When Gandalf discusses Bombadil at the council of Elrond, he suggests that if given the Ring, Bombadil would forget it or “most likely throw it away.” Gandalf hints that he is “perhaps waiting for a change of days.” There is a sense that Bombadil is not trustworthy, that he lacks the sense of responsibility and gravitas necessary to help the Fellowship with the Ring. In short, he is nearly a foil of Frodo—he is someone who will not give up the life he has for a greater responsibility, even if it means saving Middle Earth. He will not put the perpetual springtime of his natural loves behind him for the sake of a greater and higher calling.
This approach to Bombadil accounts for Bombadil’s position as “Master of wood, water, and hill,” as it does the fact that Frodo’s experience is in Bombadil’s house points toward the deeper joys that are coming, but cannot be had with Bombadil. When Bombadil instructs in Middle Earth’s lore, Frodo tastes the timelessness that will be had in full at Lothlorien (and presumably the Gray Havens):
Whether the morning and evening of one day or of many days had passed Frodo could not tell. He did not feel either hungry or tired, only filled with wonder. The stars shone through the window and the silence of the heavens seemed to be around him.
It’s hard to not hear an echo of Genesis 1 in the above passage: “And there was evening and morning, one day.” Even if there is not, there are enough other Adam-like characteristics to draw the parallel—Bombadil is, after all, master of the earth, and he is the one who names the Hobbit’s horses. The Genesis-esque character of Bombadil reinforces the ‘natural loves’ interpretation. Furthermore, it is Frodo’s dream of “a pale light behind a grey rain curtain” that Frodo returns to when he reaches the Grey Havens:
And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.
It is in the house of Bombadil that Frodo has dreams of his life in the Grey Havens, just as it is in the experience of Adam and the natural loves that we get hints of the deeper joys to come.
The joys of Bombadil’s house are real, just as the joys of this world are real, yet they are not the highest or the deepest available to us. They are “less keen and lofty,” and “nearer the mortal heart”—so much nearer that we are tempted to remain with them, as Bombadil has chosen. Yet Frodo will not remain with them—through what might be called grace (“It was as if some other will was using his small voice”) Frodo is able to set aside his love for Bilbo and fulfill his responsibility. Yet we are called to join Frodo on his quest, and to mature along with him. It is no surprise that Bombadil’s rhymes are the most-accessible and enjoyable of the book—our enchantment with Bombadil simply suggests that our delights are yet immature, and that we must strive harder to seek the “keen and lofty” joys that Tolkien’s work contains. It is nothing less than a calling to mature with Frodo, to set aside the lower things and to earnestly seek the higher.