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January 19, 2005

Chad Orzel Is Wrong!

One of his many complaints about The Lord of the Rings (the book) is:

The Fellowship of the Ring:Throwing in snippets of the story of Beren and Luthien has some resonance for those who have read The Silmarillion, but if you put aside (or simply lack) knowledge of Tolkien's other works, these insertions start become a distraction....

No no no no no no no. For "Luthien" read "Arwen." Every time Aragorn says "Luthien," he means "Arwen." It's one of the (few) things that keeps The Lord of the Rings from being completely female-free...

On the other hand, most of his criticisms are correct, and a few are absolutely brilliant:

The Fellowship of the Ring: The Bombadil sections are even worse than I remembered. What on Earth was Tolkien thinking? "Twee" doesn't begin to describe it. Not only has Bombadil wandered in from another book entirely, he's done so by way of the New Age section, with a brief stop in musical theater. This confirms my opinion that leaving Bombadil out of the movie is quite possibly the best decision the filmmakers will prove to have made....

Posted by DeLong at January 19, 2005 08:30 AM


Absolutely agree on the Bombadil comment BUT I have to confess that when I wandered back to a re-read of LOTR I have found the part with Frodo and Sam alone after the company is split, to be much slower and weaker than the paralel story of the other companions. On the other hand the Luthien story, and other songs and departures from the main storyline, create depth and texture to the book, add that impalpable quality that makes the LOTR so magical.

Posted by: Hannibal at January 19, 2005 08:36 AM

re Bombadil:
We should at least give Tolkein credit for anticipating New Age nonsense. When was the Bombadil piece written? 1950? Tolkein mined a rich lode of Low Germanic myth and folklore. I wonder where Bombadil came from. It is clearly pre-Christian...

As for Orzel's other criticism, Professor DeLong is too kind. To criticize as "distracting" the Beren/Luthien pieces, or other elements of the broader mythology laid out in the Silmarillion, is to miss what I think is Tolkein's point. Tolkein started with the language (which Elvish language it was I cannot recite, I am not enough of a Tolkein-nerd to do that), but soon realized that a language without a mythology, or a people's story of themself, could not exist. So to invent his language he invented a world, as described in the mythology. A true mythology is infinitely rich; it is the common understanding of that people. This mythology is actualized in the songs and stories that people tell. The Lord of the Rings recounts an important "current" part of the history of Tolkein's invented world. His characters live within that world, and so, like we do in our world, they know, and teach each other, pieces of their mythology.

The relationship of language to a people's shared understanding of who they are was Tolkein's concern as a philologist, which he expressed best by allowing his characters to express that common understanding, in snatches of Elvish song and halfling doggerel.

Having now read aloud most of the Lord of the Rings (and after a score or more readings of it over the past 35 years) I am willing to state that I do not think Tolkein was a particularly talented writer. His prose is often turgid and his characters rather flat. And yet I read and love him still. Why?...It is precisely the depth of his world that is genius, that still, after all these years, captures my imagination.

Posted by: Marcus Sitz at January 19, 2005 09:04 AM

Awkward poetry aside, I rather liked the Bombadil passage in Fellowship. It's a departure point for the hobbits from their home into the wider world, and serves as a sort of interlude. Which is why it was easy to drop for the move, of course. One of the charms of LOTR for me is Tolkein's penchant for such side trips, which gives his fantasy world more substance than a straight narrative would have. Jackson's movie gave me a story, but Tolkein's book gave me a world.

Posted by: David W. at January 19, 2005 09:13 AM

To my mind there is one real cost to havign chopped out Bombadil-- other than the sense he creates that Middle Earth is a complicated and mysterious place, made up of more than just warring kingdoms of men, elves, dwarves, and orcs. (In that regard Bombadil is the opposite number of the balrog, or to a lesser extent Shelob.) The real cost is the loss of the Barrow-Downs, when the hobbits face real peril on their own, and Frodo proves his courage, and they emerge with swords of noble lineage that they've earned. Strider handing them a bunch of swords on Weathertop just isn't the same.

Posted by: Jacob T. Levy at January 19, 2005 09:15 AM

David's right. The Bombadil episode is necessary for plot reasons: the entire Old Forest episode sets up the much darker Moria episode later (parallels between Old Man Willow and the Watcher in the Water?), as does the Barrow-downs episode, in which Bombadil, not Gandalf, saves the party from the wights (emphasising that there is more to the story than a sort of guided tour led by Gandalf).

The Old Forest, the Barrow-downs and Moria all have the same theme, namely that there are many malicious things in the world, and not all are linked to Sauron; and many other powers, not all of whom have clear motivation even if they are apparently good, and not all of whom are wholly and unquestioningly behind the Fellowship. Bombadil fills much the same role as Beorn did in 'The Hobbit.' He's a little more benign, and certainly as hospitable, but not entirely trustworthy.

And the existence of this third category beside Good and Evil makes it more difficult for us to judge which way Strider and the Rohirrim will turn out, at least on their first occurrence; otherwise we would be going "well, they're not obviously orkish or otherwise evil, so they must be good guys through and through."

It's also useful as part of the progression in threat level: from the suspicious Black Riders, through the Forest, through the Barrow-downs, then Bree, then Weathertop and the Riders again, then the passage of the Ford... Otherwise it's a hell of a jump from the Riders being just ominous watchers in the Shire to direct threat with mystic lethal knives on Weathertop.

However, Bombadil himself is an intensely irritating character. I clearly remember my first three reactions on hearing about the New Line trilogy. 1) Great! Fantastic! 2) Oh, hell, the Tom Bombadil bit will be really grating. 3) If, as is very possible, Robin Williams is cast as Tom Bombadil, I will have to kill Peter Jackson and everyone else involved with my bare hands. But he was one of Tolkein's favourites (along with the Ents) and one of his earliest ideas. Even Homer nods sometimes. (Sorry about the lack of paragraph breaks: I did try, honestly.)

Posted by: ajay at January 19, 2005 09:33 AM

Oh. Well, the breaks didn't show up on preview. Ignore apology.

And what Jacob Levy said. Also that Bombadil's age is emphasised - he's supposed to be the oldest creature in Middle-Earth - and that, plus the business with the swords left over from an ancient war, gives a great sense of history.

Posted by: ajay at January 19, 2005 09:37 AM

As I recall, there's an Appendix entry in ROTK addressing Bombadil, who and what he is, that suggests - to me, at least - that he's a leftover from some earlier stage of world-creation that JRRT just couldn't bring himself to discard. Maybe there's something about him in the interminable volumes of notes that Christopher Tolkien assembled, but I'm not quite geeky enough to go look.
Sure, the Old Forest/Barrow Downs detour was well left out of the movie script (it's a *long* detour), but it's also an introduction to the host of dangers the hobbits face once they've left the Shire, dangers in addition to being pursued by Black Riders. Nature itself becomes hostile, there's a foreshadowing of Fangorn in the Old Forest, and the Barrow Downs give a peek into the fall of Arnor, and that circles back to the King of the Nazgul, too. Merry's sword from the Barrow was uniquely suited to its job, many months later.
That Bombadil is the one who gets them out of scrapes in this part has no similar payoff - and, yes, it's goofy and silly - but when I read it as a kid it seemed the last bit of comfort before things got REALLY bad. That - and the sheer eccentricity of retaining him - makes me glad he's there.

Posted by: grishaxxx at January 19, 2005 09:37 AM

He entirely misses a larger issue than Sam-as-servant: the theme of "noble blood," of rulership as hereditary, of racial purity generally. The books are a paean to pre-modern models of aristocracy as divinity.

I'm not sure exactly what the point of criticizing the books on these grounds is, but the themes are what they are. (Bruce Sterling or some other luminary did a full exegesis of just how retrograde LOTR's socio-politics are; I'd link to it if I could remember who.)

Posted by: Sam Penrose at January 19, 2005 10:06 AM

He's forgetting something else- Tolkein's Christian beliefs- Bombadil comes from a time before "the fall," before the introduction of evil- and LOTR is, amongst the other things it is, a Christian allegory. Bombadil's there to provide a contrast between the pre-fall and the post-fall worlds.

Posted by: Tommy Gatherion at January 19, 2005 10:22 AM

I'm a bit surprised that Brad would dismiss Bombadil, given his comments about the Ludan episode in "Sailing to Sarantium".

Bombadil is the first (and very benign) glimpse that the hobbits have of things much older than they had ever imagined. Bombadil IS Ludan, although, granted, a rather sappy one. But he does make clear that human concerns are not really his, and that in the end, the universe is a terrifying place.

Posted by: Rob G at January 19, 2005 10:29 AM

As Tolkein said, all of his closest friends but one was killed when they served in WWI. Sam taking over the Shire instead of Frodo is what happened when all those British young upper class people were killed, and some of 'their' places in the establishment hierarchy were taken by working class people. Samwise was the son of Frodo's gardener, and he became mayor of the Shire when Frodo went away over the eastern sea. It's sort of Tolkein's take at the way class structure and succession changed in Britain after WWI.

Posted by: walter willis at January 19, 2005 10:49 AM

"And even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally)."
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No 144, dated 1954

"'When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already...'"
Tom's own words, from The Fellowship of the Ring I 7, In the House of Tom Bombadil

"Then Tom put the Ring round the end of his little finger and held it up to the candlelight... There was no sign of Tom disappearing!"
The Fellowship of the Ring I 7, In the House of Tom Bombadil

"...I kept him in, and as he was, because he represents certain things otherwise left out."
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No 153, dated 1954

"...he represents something that I feel important, though I would not be prepared to analyze the feeling precisely."
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No 144, dated 1954

There is only one answer to the riddle of Tom Bombadil: that there is no answer; and this is surely a good thing.

Part of the wonder of Tolkien's world is its depth and detail, but it needs its mysteries and unknowns too: if we knew everything about the World of Arda and its inhabitants, there would be no joy of exploration and discovery. If nothing else, Tom Bombadil stands proudly as a symbol of the mysterious, and we should be glad that he does so that we have something to jaw about on professor delong's blog that isn't filled with despair.

Here's an interesting essay about Bombadil. And theres always the encyclopedia of arda.

Posted by: sampo at January 19, 2005 11:08 AM

Tim, Tim Benzidrine!
Hash, boo, Valvoline.
Clean, clean, clean for Gene.
First, second, neutral, park
Hie the hence, you leafy nark.

Bored of the Rings

Posted by: Jonathan Goldberg at January 19, 2005 11:20 AM

Hie THEE hence.

Sorry about the typo.

Posted by: Jonathan Goldberg at January 19, 2005 11:27 AM

oops the html link didnt work....


Posted by: sampo at January 19, 2005 11:28 AM

I happen to agree with the decision to leave Bombadil out of the movie. But I think those who dismiss the importance of Bombadil to the story are missing some of the deeper subtexts to Tolkien's work. Bombadil represents the ultimate personification of Tolkien's ideal. Bombadil lives in complete harmony with the way the world is rather than trying to force it in any way to match to what he wants it to be. It is for this reason that the ring has no effect on him. It is a device created to control. Bombadil rejects the entire idea of control. Actually, he doesn't even reject it. He just never even conceives of it.

In Tolkien's universe there is only one being who has true control and that is the creator, Illuvatar. It is when we attempt to impose our own sense of order onto the world as it is that we begin to have problems.

Posted by: Chris Andersen at January 19, 2005 12:45 PM

don't forget that on one level LOTR is just a travelogue, as tolkien introduces us to his world at its end, as the silmarillion was thought unpublishable at the time. hence bombadil, as a bit of weirdness, but also to introduce the barrow-downs, save the hobbits there, and provide them with the "magic" sword to defeat the nazgul-lord.
i don't know if it's still in print, but "the letters of jrrt" explains much of his thought on the books. he wrote sam to represent the small-minded parochialism of most hobbits (also the reason for their small size). sam also demonstrates an overweaning, possessive love of frodo.

Posted by: p.a. at January 19, 2005 03:01 PM

Actually I had a better opinion of Tolkien as a writer after I read it outloud to my son. The LotR was only one of many classics that I read that way, and it was the best.

The LotR is often compared to novels and criticized on that basis. But it's not a novel. It has its faults and limitations (that old-fashioned linguistic-geographic racism) but many of the things it is criticized for are its virtues. It's not like other modern literature, which is why so much of the derivative fantasy that it inspired is so dreadful.

Posted by: sm at January 19, 2005 03:43 PM

The sensibility of nursery rhymes is an important subtext, or sub-theme, or characteristic or something. Thematically, LOTR is a dialogue between innocence and necessity: each of the peoples of Middle-Earth, in their innocence, are about to succumb or have succumbed to the machinations of Shadow; but the would-be wielders of power for good have had to confess their incapability, and must put their trust in innocence. There's the tension. The conviction of the story depends on playing it out squarely on necessity's home turf; there is no question of projecting the qualities of the Shire as an equal and opposite realm to that of war and oppression. But it adds something to the story, that innocence is nevertheless accorded the stature of a Realm - a different way that the world could be. It has to be done almost subliminally, like the thin edge of the highlight of the sun on a cloud, in a painting of an oncoming storm.

Tolkien wrote the Hobbit and much else for children, and started off writing LOTR for children. And Tolkien also had the idea of inventing a mythology with relevance to all English folklore, as if it had been the centre of that lore all along. The idea of a Land of Innocence is part of that. The idea is manifest in Ireland's mythology as the Land of Youth, the Underworld and so on. In English story it is not so definite; there aren't the same wild legends of an otherworld and the faerie order who rule it, except in Arthurian romance. But there is a vague tradition of "Fairyland" in childrens' stories, and the liveliness of English nursery rhymes.

So, when Tolkien sounds his piercing anomalous note of complete-unto-itself innocence, he draws it from childrens' folklore. Tom Bombadil is pure unabashed Mother Goose. I'm sure he's really Tom, Tom the Piper's Son, who stole a pig and away he run. In that rhyme the pig is eat and Tom is beat, but Tolkien can re-imagine old stories as he likes, and magnify a nursery rhyme to make you blink. Nobody catches Tom! The other classic example is the Man-in-the-Moon song in the Prancing Pony: a little bit of nonsense made into an authoritative production, which you could almost imagine was the original. It's like what Greil Marcus said about The Band: "There's no sense of being dragged back into the past for a history lesson; rather the past catches up with us."

In fairytales for really little children, we propose a world to capture their imagination and extend their horizons, but with negligible threat. But imagine that such trifles are the remnants of memories of how it actually was, Once Upon a Time. We can hardly do it. Too twee for words. Almost obscenely irrelevant when we are looking for something to sustain us in the face of harsh necessity. But, not out of keeping with certain rare moments when we turn snd recall our personal innocence.

Tolkien of course can't construct a Mother Goose world for his Middle-Earth to have descended from. He couldn't persuade any of us that anybody but small children could live in it. But he can make a reference, and maybe a reader's imagination will spark on it. And this oblique trick works better than his synthetic creation myth does, to transpose into the key of English folklore the momentary conception of a world Before the Fall.

Posted by: Jonathan Burns at January 19, 2005 04:46 PM

This is the best justification for Tom Bombadil ever:

Game Two
Frodo and Sam mentioned the game to two friends who were also interested. The GM insists that they, too, play hobbits. "These characters suck," notes the fellow playing Pippin. "They have lots of room to grow," the GM insists. "You'll get to see them become heroes." The PCs successfully evade the Nazgul, but a random encounter nearly does them in. The GM is reduced to inventing Tom Bombadil as a deus ex machina to bail them out, so the campaign doesn't end on the second night.

Posted by: Kimmitt at January 19, 2005 05:18 PM

Sam Penrose may be thinking of David Brin's LOTR commentary, here:

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo at January 19, 2005 05:38 PM

I remain convinced that LOTR actually IS an allegory, even though Tolkien insisted it isn't -- specifically, a psychological allegory (whose nature he may not even have been fully aware of while writing it) about the melancholy but ultimately necessary transition that all of us make from the world as seen through the eyes of childhood to the Fourth Age world as seen through the eyes of adulthood -- including the way in we change our conceptions of Good and Evil after we mature. I'm also convinced that its tremendous emotional impact (on those of us who are susceptible, anyway)comes from precisely this fact -- it's a very protracted prose riff on Wordworth's "Intimations of Immortality", and so any attempt by critics to view it any other way ends up being ludicrous and totally missing the point. For the same reason, no imitation of it can ever be successful -- Tolkien simply burned up the literary ground on that whole subject.

As for Bombadil, when I first read the book when I was 13, I had no trouble with him -- he and the Old Forest are the first indications (after Chapters 4 and 5, in which the narrative perceptibly and rather ominously slows down) that the book is going to be one protracted Magical Mystery Tour, in which the hobbits (those relatively "modern, everyday" viewpoint characters that 20th-century readers can fully identify with) are gradually going to discover just how huge, astonishing, unpredictable, and incredibly rich their world really is. (Note that Tolkien went to such lengths to maintain this structure for the book that sometimes it even ends up leading to illogical plot twists, when one of the characters fails to tell the others about some important aspect of Middle-Earth that he already knows about and so ends up leaving it as a pleasant or unpleasant surprise for his companions.) As far as I'm concerned, Chapter 6 is when the book really takes off, and (except maybe for some of the more meditative, emotionally complex parts of the second half of "Two Towers") never slows down again.

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw at January 19, 2005 06:03 PM

The Bombadil/Barrow passages are good for introducing the hobbits to a wider, more menacing world. But Bombadil himself, with his super mensch super powers, is an awkward fit in the LOTR scheme of things and I wouldn't be surprised to learn he was a holdover from a previous draft and discarded worldview. Tom is immune to the power of the Ring, so one of the most unconvincing parts of the book is the council at Rivendell that decides it's wiser to send Frodo into the heart of Mordor than to hand the Ring over to Tom for safekeeping. LOTR works much better when Frodo is compelled by the weakness and vulnerability of all of the people of Middle Earth to hang on the Ring and trudge on to Mordor alone.

Posted by: Peter Lee at January 19, 2005 07:37 PM

Wonderful comment by Jonathan Burns. The only thing I'd add to it is that the Bombadil section plays well thematically in the character development of the Hobbits. They go from being helpless creatures in need of constant rescue to self-aware and confident heroes capable of rescuing others. This is my understanding of why Tolkien ended his novel back at the Shire, anyway.

As Jonathan said though, the beginning of the book is fairly childish (birthday party!), so I wasn't disappointed to see Bombadil gone. The only thing I think the movie really lost from it was the ambiguity inherent in the line about the Ringwraith "not being slain by the hand of man". I'd always assumed Tolkein was implying that Merry struck the telling blow.

Posted by: trevelyan at January 19, 2005 09:07 PM

"than to hand the Ring over to Tom for safekeeping. LOTR works much better when Frodo is compelled by the weakness and vulnerability of all of the people of Middle Earth"

The weakness of the elves. Tolkien was interested in a mytholog for the pre-Norman, pre-Viking,pre-Saon, maybe even pre-Celtic England. The Elves were invaders who were not assimilated.

Bombadil is the earliest statement that the Elves don't belong in Middle-Earth, which is a large part of what the book is about.

Posted by: bob mcmanus at January 19, 2005 09:23 PM

Jonathan Burns sums up the case brilliantly. Bombadil is the personification of English writing for children up to WWI (and perhaps as far as WW2), which I too grew up reading at my Grandfather's house.

He is the homey, cheery heart of Middle Earth against which Sauron and his works are contrasted, and is thus quite indispensible.

I do think the filmmakers were right to leave him out of the movie though, he just wouldn't translate to the screen. If included, the only person I can imagine playing him is Jon Pertwee. Robin Williams might do a decent job though.

Posted by: Andrew Price at January 20, 2005 02:25 AM

Gosh people are kind. Thank you.

Posted by: Jonathan Burns at January 20, 2005 03:20 AM

One of the reasons that LOTR is such a delightful book is the lovely rich descriptions of nature. Tolkien clearly loved the deep dark forests and delightful woods of England. Tom Bombadil can be seen as the personification of a nature god, a celtic god that predated christianity. Maybe the old gods weren't all Lovecraftian horrors, perhaps they were beautiful like Goldberry.

Picking on Bombadil and Goldberry is, IMHO, like kicking puppies.

Posted by: Troy McClure at January 20, 2005 03:58 PM

If you REALLY want to find an alarming loophole in the story -- besides its statement that people can be compelled to be evil, while some other people are naturally good (which, as I say, is connected with the fact that pre-Fourth Age Middle-Earth is the child's vision of Good and Evil, which is replaced at the end of the Third Age by the adult vision of them) -- consider that simple question: why the hell didn't the Fellowship just have the Eagles fly them to Mount Doom, or at least to the outskirts of Mordor? Tolkien himself admitted in a 1959 letter that he didn't have a good answer to this question.

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw at January 20, 2005 08:18 PM

One of the things about Tom, and the Mountain, that's lost in the movie versions, is they're both older than the Ring, and not involved in Sauron's games. There are powers older and different than Sauron in the world, even if he's the biggest threat now. And the Ring has no effect on either Tom or the Mountain.

Which was why it made me sad to see the movie reduce the Mountain to a plaything of Sauraman, though making it a character itself would have probably been hard.

Posted by: Nate at January 20, 2005 10:24 PM

Tom Bombadil was NOT entirely deleted from the movie. He was partially transferred to Treebeard. Didn't anyone catch that? I thought it was one of Jackson's slicker plot tricks.

Posted by: Paul J. Camp at January 22, 2005 11:21 AM

Bruce Moomaw has a point. It´s difficult to see why airborn power was so dispised by the Fellowship, while the Nazgul were unleashing hell at Middlearth. It´s the analogue question of why there are not nuclear weapons in the Star Wars universe.

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