M.J, Downing Influences: #7. The Necessity of Bombadil.

Tom Bombadil isn’t essential to the plot of getting the One Ring to the fire, or at least that’s a paraphrase of an idea that Jackson and his team of writers used to adapt The Lord of the Rings to the screen. In the extra material to the extended editions of those movies, Phillipa Boyens claimed that Jackson’s team condensed the story down to a ninety page treatment to get Frodo and Sam to the Cracks of Doom, get them home in the stability of Aragorn’s Gondor, and get the principal parties off to the Undying Lands. So, plot elements like the hobbits in the Old Forest and the Scouring of the Shire can be left out and get the story told without each episode running four hours.
Plus, in those remarks, one can usually detect the “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” about Tolkien not having a stable plot outline to follow as he wrote LoTR. In his letters, he confesses such things as not knowing Strider’s identity when that character shows up at The Inn of the Prancing Pony. And, in further letters, I read that Tolkien stopped for protracted periods of time before he reached a suitable end and, in comments to his publishers, often seemed not to know how much more he had to do to reach that end. It’s common knowledge that Tolkien’s most famous tale grew in the telling. I know about such books. I’ve written them. They are too big, too unwieldy and undisciplined. And, because most people would find them tedious, I know better than to begin a book before I know, within reason, where I want it to end up. But I am not the writer or scholar Tolkien was. My ramblings have no legendarium behind them, as Tolkien’s does, and it is because of the beauty and grace of that legendarium that seemingly unnecessary things like the Scouring of the Shire and Bombadil are absolutely necessary to the story that manages to exist within Jackson’s movie. One can leave Bombadil out of the story, but the heart of the story that Jackson tells needs Bombadil as badly as it needs the One Ring.
I’ve read Professor Tom Shippey’s struggles with Bombadil in The Road to Middle-Earth, and it seems clear that Bombadil will remain a mystery in the legendarium. Shippey even wonders if his presence is an “inconsitency,” since Elrond dubs Old Tom as “Iarwain Ben-adar, oldest and fatherless,” despite Gandalf referring to Fangorn, Treebeard, as “the oldest living thing that still walks beneath the sun.” Shippey even resorts to a bit of mystery—who wouldn’t?—in his comment that perhaps Bombadil isn’t living, as the Barrow-wights and the Nazgul aren’t dead, as the living creatures of Middle-Earth who die are dead. As interesting as that may be as a speculation, it still proceeds with a nudge and a wink and takes us back to the notion that Tolkien’s work is flawed, albeit in a lovable way.
Bombadil’s age, too, has a history in the growth of LoTR in the author’s mind. Physically, Bombadil was part of Tolkien’s life because Tom owes his origins to a much abused toy of Michael Tolkien’s, rescued by the author and used as a character in the stories he made up for his children. Bombadil’s description, according to biographer Humphrey Carpenter, remained consistent. As the hero of “the Adventures of Tom Bombadil, that character retains the image suggested by Michael’s toy: “Four foot high in his boots, he was, and three foot broad. He wore a tall hat with a blue feather, and his boots were yellow.” So, Bombadil finds his way into Tolkien’s growing tale through the author’s desire to tell stories to his children, which connects him to the time during which much of the legendarium was taking shape in the author’s mind. His role in the legendarium remains confused, however, for the kingdom of “King Bonhedig,” where the adventures of Bombadil ensue, has no clear connection to Middle-Earth, except that they spring from Tolkien’s fertile imagination. He is not connected to the tales of Middle-Earth, and simply finds his way into The Lord of the Rings because he existed already in Tolkien’s mind, which seems odd for a figure whom Tolkien describes as “a spirit of the vanishing Oxford and Berkshire countryside” as he describes Bombadil in a letter from 1937.
It seems to me that Bombadil needs to be seen more like a facet of Tolkien’s imagination rather than a creature of Middle-Earth, despite the fact that he shows up there. Bombadil’s presence, perhaps, shows how hard it is to separate Tolkien’s life from his “sub-creation,” and Shippey gives us a better idea about Bonbadil’s necessity to the work when he mentions the Biblical Adam as another fatherless sort of figure, a figure that of “spontaneous generation,” and as an “exhalation of the world.” Eventually, Shippey acknowledges the words of the Master of Middle-Earth, and calls Tom a “genius loci,” a spirit or controlling deity of a specific place. And Shippey takes this investigation into another of Tolkien’s much beloved middle english texts, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. There, however, Shippey does not take his investigation far enough back into the legends from which that poem grew or from which Tolkien drew other ideas for his work. In Norse mythology, there exists a character much like Bombadil in Buri, the first man, who was licked from the elemental ice by Audumbla, the primeval cow, from whose udder flows the three great rivers of the world. As the grandfather of the Aesir, Buri does not have much of a story, although he is the first and eldest and, to borrow Shippey’s terms, “an exhalation of the world.” All that we see of Buri is that he, like Bombadil, is eldest and fatherless, and his children carry out heroic stories of Norse myth. We never know how those children are created, whether Buri had a wife of any kind, either, though Tolkien has his eldest and fatherless Bombadil take a wife in Goldberry, the River’s Daughter. Tolkien’s eldest and fatherless Bombadil seemingly had no children with Goldberry, yet the life they lead together in their own difficult Eden, the Old Forest, continues because of their efforts. There was no “fall” for them, as there was no fall for Buri.
If, like Buri, Bombadil is such an exhalation of creation itself, he rose, then, because he is a pattern within creation, part of the Song of Iluvatar, that is expressed in the making of all things. The One Ring has no power over him because he exists before those who made such artifacts, as part of the fearlessness of creation itself, the power that knows what it means to be connected to creation itself. And this isn’t, in any way I can find, a program that Tolkien set out to reveal in his legendarium. It is, though, part of Tolkien’s mind that is necessary to seeing the love with which the great man made his own sub-creation in honor of the one into which he was born. A “Fall” does exist in the annals of Middle-Earth in the rebellion of the Noldor against the Valar, but it does not touch Bombadil. He has known the races of Elves and Men, and it is implied that he knew them specifically in his remembrance of one unnamed woman whose jewel he finds in the Barrow-wight’s hoard and takes as a remembrance to give to Goldberry. He knew that woman as he knows Farmer Maggot, as he grows to know the hobbits who shelter in his home. He is knowable as a living creature, but his role is that of one who lives in a state of union with the world.
Bombadil is essential to the story because he represents that which Frodo must try and protect through his sacrifice, bearing the One Ring to its destruction, so that people can live free in creation. This is the dream of Middle-Earth in its essence, a world much like ours but one in which Grace functions with greater clarity. When he is left out of the story’s reckoning, we miss something crucial of the mystery involved in the tale: the fearlessness of Grace that bears Frodo through his failure to destroy the Ring and sets in motion the action that preserves life. The plan of Middle-Earth’s creation contains within it an important notion oft caring, of a fearless dependence on Grace. Bombadil carries with him the pattern of this dependence upon Grace, not control. It is his function in the Old Forest and it is implied in the presence of all the free peoples of Middle-Earth, something primary to the role of Wizards, Men, Elves, Dwarves, and Hobbits, the smallest, least powerful of all. Leave Bombadil out of one’s reckoning means that Middle-

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