Tom Bombadil: Cracking The ‘Enigma’ Code

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Introduction: Thinking Outside the Box

How utterly ridiculous – a brash diminutive fellow stomping about nearby hobbit lands with hardly a care in the world! Positively preposterous – only four feet tall and three broad1, yet with power to banish a Barrow-wight and command the spirits of trees! And lo and behold there is even more. To top it all – here we have the one and only being who exhibits immunity with impunity to the most dangerous object in Middle-earth: Sauron’s Ruling Ring. What on earth was Tolkien thinking? How risky and how daring to trivialize the object of the quest so early in the tale. Especially with such a comical character!

Beloved by many, yet reviled by some – the powerful, mysterious and famous Mr. Bombadil has defied complete explanation for decades. Sixty years has elapsed since the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring, but still Bombadil tantalizes us …. oh but wait …. until perhaps now. For finally a way has been found to attack his problematic ‘identity’, comprehend his words and explain his actions, in a different manner. As conventional means have all but failed, the time was overdue to ‘think outside the box’. Of course our options are limited and so in taking such a tack the ‘enigma’, as the Professor hinted, was figured to be no more than a puzzle:

there must be some enigmas, Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, #144 (my underlined emphasis)

Yes, a crafted puzzle that has a solution and one not wholly impossible to piece together. And for those entrenched in a belief that Tolkien created an unanswerable mystery – well they may be in for a surprise, for this article should dislodge such a mindset.

Now the strongest theories advanced to date have claimed Tom exhibits characteristics becoming of an Ainu (a Vala or Maia), or that he portrays a nature spirit or a spirit of the Music. Some of the weaker ones propose Tom could represent an unfallen Adam, the Reader, Eru, or even Tolkien himself. Neither the strong or weak go all the way to explaining Tom. Indeed Master Bombadil truly has been a riddle – a riddle for far too long!

Most curiously, Tolkien once named the renowned British war-time politician Winston Churchill in an analogy involving Tom. In a mildly condescending draft response to a reader, Tolkien wrote:

I can say ‘he is’ of Winston Churchill as well as of Tom Bombadil, surely?
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153 

Had the faintest of clues been given away? Even though the letter was never sent, in a most subtle manner had Tolkien wanted the correspondent to first recall and then ponder memorable words from a rather famous war-time broadcast2:

“It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; … but perhaps there is a key.”
– British Radio Broadcast, October 1939 by Winston S. Churchill

Could Tolkien have been hinting that indeed a key existed to the enigma of Tom?

Key or not – ultimately any solution claimed as ‘the answer’ must be able to withstand rigorous examinations, leaving no room for inconsistencies. It must comprehensively address the more curious behavior, deeds and words spoken by Tom (or about Tom) in the novel. And to be viable, it must also embrace noteworthy remarks in Tolkien’s letters. It must be a unifying theory that explains it all – down to the least detail. Well what a challenge – but let’s see how far I can go!

In an attempt to promote an all-encompassing theory, I will branch into subject matter rarely touched upon in ‘Tolkien studies’. An unconventional approach is not a sign of desperation. Rather, as you will see, it could easily be viewed as enlightening – for appealing evidence points to Tolkien’s books having far more in them than others have yet discovered.

Hence to reveal these findings, this essay is split into four parts. The first section will expose and explore the unique role Tolkien placed Bombadil in. Then a section is needed to discuss Tom’s more unusual actions and his inherent power. The third will touch upon certain areas of scholarship which have perhaps been too superficially addressed in the public domain. The last, and probably the most controversial, will identify Tom’s genus.

[Please bear in mind that what follows is a hypothesis, and though sometimes a factual portrayal is presented – this is just literary style and for effect. Also it is recommended that the reader reserves criticism until all has been revealed.] 

Part I – The Secret Role Played by Bombadil

The Cosmogonical Drama

Before delving into Tom in detail, it is necessary to try to ‘climb into’ the Professors’ skin. However to do so, quotes most closely associated with Tom must be extracted then pondered. Such methodology is used consistently throughout, with special care and consideration paid to contextual applicability. Though as one will discover, when it came to Tom – the Professor was deliberately evasive and his words were often cryptically arranged. In this case, it is best to be open-minded about the interpretation of quotes.

Now Tolkien felt:

“… there should be a lot of things unexplained (especially if an explanation actually exists); …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #144, April 1954

Fortunately the explanation does exist, though just as Tolkien stated much later, I found that a longer one was needed:

“There is always something left over that demands a different or longer construction to “explain” it …”.
– Letter to Przemyslaw Mroczkowski, January 1964, private collection     (Tolkien’s emphasis)

To begin to explain – a step back is needed to provide background into Tolkien’s way of thinking about the setting of his legendarium writings. Due contemplation of the arena for The Lord of the Rings is imperative. For it will allow us to eventually place Tom into the cosmology.

Without doubt, all should agree that Tolkien’s focus was Middle-earth. Beyond question the region is center-stage for most of the legendarium. The term ‘stage’ is important, for the historical writings of his myth-based world were, it is reasoned, imagined as part of one long and continuous play: the so called ‘cosmogonical drama’3.

Stage plays were essential to Tolkien’s creative thought process. They allowed a practical way of immersion into another world; a sub-created world full of living people where a pseudo-secondary reality could be intimately experienced while seated within a theater’s confines.

Tolkien and his family are recorded as having enjoyed many theatrical performances – in particular those scripted by Barrie, Milne and of course William Shakespeare. Having been schooled in the Bard’s works and being worthy of appointment as the Professor of English Literature at Oxford University, undoubtedly there was blanket familiarity with the more famed phrases. And so in reflecting on Hamlet’s memorable line: “To be, or not to be, that is the question …”, Tolkien already knew for his own play – Eru would cry out: “Eä!” or “Let it Be4.

At the point “Eä!” was uttered, the Universe was created and the Professor’s great drama could now be imaginatively played out as a theatrical production. But the world needed a stage. Or conversely as so strikingly put in Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’: “All the world’s a stage.”!

The World is not Enough – A Vital but Missing Element

In making the whole world a stage for the ‘greatest’ of performances, Tolkien’s historical chronicles needed to immerse the reader into wholly believable fantasy. Believe it or not, part of the exercise was simply:

“… an experiment in the arts of long narrative, and of inducing ‘Secondary Belief.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #328

Real stage-plays fell short of being able to provide true secondary belief as such creations lacked a needed:

“… inner consistency of reality.”
– On Fairy-Stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

A more potent form of artistry than either live-drama or plain imagination was required. Ultimately it was necessary to meet the requirements of the:

“Faërian Drama – those plays which … can produce Fantasy with a realism and immediacy beyond the compass of any human mechanism. As a result their usual effect … is to go beyond Secondary Belief.”
– On Fairy-Stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

To personally obtain such enchantment, it is hypothesized that his own Faërian drama, and its setting, was made mentally analogous to a theatrical play conducted inside a theater. In fact Tolkien himself, in discussing Tom, stated:

“This is like a ‘play’, … ”.
– Letter to Przemyslaw Mroczkowski, January 1964, private collection   (Tolkien’s emphasis)

So why should we not think of it that way? Adding substance to such a mode of inquiry, is the deep impression permanently but subliminally present from a bygone mesmerizing performance. Written in Tolkien’s diary after a live-showing of Peter Pan:

“Indescribable but I shall never forget it as long as I live.”
– The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, Chronology Hammond and Scull, April 1910

Despite live-drama having limitations, left was a tough to admit residue. The lasting impact of ‘Peter Pan’ allows us to take the ‘play’ premise further and intelligently speculate on why Tolkien placed such emphasis on a stage performance. If we do so, it is not unreasonable to postulate that his entire mythical Universe was conceptualized as housed within the walls of a theater. Outside existed the Void where dwelt Eru and subordinate spirits who had declined to be part of the drama. As for the inside, the majority of the stage can be thought of as Arda – the Earth5, with center-stage being Middle-earth itself. Still as one knows, there is more to a theater than just a stage. There always exist discrete regions, wholly independent of the stage itself, that reach out and touch it.

Such zones, of course, invariably include a backstage area (dressing rooms, a place for props, holding zones for the actors, etc.); side regions for the cast to enter and exit (commonly known as ‘wings’); an orchestra pit and without fail – a spectator seating/standing area (the auditorium). Tolkien envisaged these zones, it is theorized, as independent planes of reality that adjoined the stage, yet existed in tandem. This concept was of utmost importance:

“… the simultaneity of different planes of reality touching one another … part of the deeply felt idea that I had …”.
– Letter to Przemyslaw Mroczkowski, January 1964, private collection

So how does this novel idea concern Master Bombadil? Well if we ‘step into’ Tolkien’s skin, take his advice, and imagine his mythical history acted out “like a ‘play’ ” – we soon come to realize that one vital element was missing. It was something very important to him, but perhaps in a little bit of an idiosyncratic way; because it necessitated Tom to be given a secret role:

“… he represents something that I feel important, …”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #144

“… he represents certain things otherwise left out.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153

And that most “something … important” which would “otherwise” have been“left out” was:

‘the audience’.

 

For yes, even though to some readers Bombadil came across as a “discordant ingredient”6, to Tolkien he was nothing of the sort; Tom had at least one very secret and crucial “function”.

“I would not, however, have left him in, if he did not have some kind of function.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #144

Many producers have said that ‘the audience’ are the most important constituent in a play. Since without them, any play is simply a rehearsal. The showing becomes a practice session – boiling down to no more than a trial run. This undeniable fact bothered Tolkien immensely. To the extent, that in his mind, the drama could not be initiated. However he covertly acknowledged it was a peculiarly personal desire as he:

“… would not be prepared to analyse the feeling precisely.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #144

Tolkien needed a representation of the audience – be it only one member. There simply was no way around the issue; out of necessity, this was to be Tom Bombadil’s primary secret role.

Without Tom, the fantasy-based Faërian drama could not be perfect or complete – but the Professor remained deliberately coy about the matter for many years. For us however, the mystery could not be solved without a crucial correspondence. In a letter to Przemyslaw Mroczkowski, Tolkien finally suggested (in a roundabout manner) that meeting Tom would rather be like meeting someone associated to a theatrical production – but ‘off-stage’. He just about gave the game away with cryptic tips7 such as “producer”, “stagehands”, even “author”. But seemingly8 he left his friend to guess a purposeful omission. Consequently by 1964 he came close to revealing Tom’s most significant role. Except his personal puzzle was amusing to him. In a teasing way, despite several inquiries – he refused to outrightly provide the solution. 

Tom’s Path to Middle-earth

Though I have provided a plausible reason as to why Tolkien assigned Tom a secret role, I have yet to explain how this all fits in with his depiction in the novel and the Professor’s other private remarks. To surmount these barriers, I will need to lay out the process of his assimilation. Because the route Tolkien took to begin his integration is crucial to gain full understanding. Bear with me for a short while longer, and things will automatically start falling in place.

Well before The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien had assigned the name of Tom Bombadil to a Dutch doll belonging to one of his children. Later, a poem was published in a 1934 edition of The Oxford Magazine called The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. Tom had initially been named and largely characterized with no thought to the mythology in mind. It was not until 1937, in a letter to the publisher – Stanley Unwin, that the possibility was aired of including his mischievous invention in a new novel: The Lord of the Rings:

“Do you think Tom Bombadil … could be made into the hero of a story?”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #19

In Letter #19 he mulled enlarging “the portrait”. Tolkien was bound by preplaced constraints in terms of look, dress-sense9 and personality – but not role. Already enamored by his whimsical creation, he decided to incorporate Tom very early on in the production of the ‘trilogy’. However, as we can see in the drafts, he almost immediately began developing “the portrait” by enhancing power and infusing more mystery than in previous rhyme.

Having originated outside of the pre-existing Silmarillion mythology, Tolkien had to first find a way to import Tom into the cosmology, then geographically find him a satisfactory place to dwell, and then integrate him into the plot. In the early poetical work, Tom had essentially been displayed as a care-free nature-loving spirit embodied in flesh, and until 1937 Tolkien had clearly thought of him as an anglicized one dwelling locally: “the spirit of the (vanishing)10 Oxford and Berkshire countryside11. But how could Tom, of the poem, be most easily assimilated into his great play? The answer was a little stroke of genius. The process would be gradual. Tom would first enter the theater through a different door than the other characters. He would be the much needed representation of ‘the audience’ and enter the Universe via the door usually reserved for the public.

tom enters the theatre from outside

The early actors and crew of the ‘great drama’ would, of course, access the theater by a back door meant for the cast, set-producers and stagehands12. Yet singularly for Tom, Tolkien had ingeniously found a way of entry into the cosmology outside of the typical pattern within the legendarium, and consistent with his unique situation. This way – Middle-earth could not be the source of his birth:

“… he has no historical origin in the world described in The Lord of the Rings.”
– Tolkien letter to Christopher Fettes – 1961: Hammond & Scull, The LotR, A Reader’s Companion p.134

Quite clearly, the comment above was doubly applicable, because in expounding on Tom’s origin earlier in the same letter, he confirmed:

“… there are two answers: [i] External [ii] Internal; …”.
Tolkien letter to Christopher Fettes – 1961: Hammond & Scull, The LotR, A Reader’s Companion p.133

Tom’s ‘external’ existence pre-trilogy was factually undeniable. Fortunately the path to allow this charming character into the cosmogonical drama was a dilemma which could be neatly solved. In Tolkien’s mind, ‘internal’ to the tale, Tom would enter the Universe in a separate plane of existence. One that perhaps was his very own. Nevertheless even though the route to Middle-earth had been found, Tom was not yet physically in it, and as said before, nor of it.

Curtains to Poverty

And so upon creation of the Universe (the theater itself), Tom could wander in from ‘Outside’, and make his way via the figurative aisles to his imaginary seat reserved in the auditorium. With the script written, an off-stage pre-play already enacted (the creation of the Ainur, Music and Vision), much of the cast and stage crew were now ready to arrive on stage and help set up. The time was now ripe for the cosmogonical drama to get underway. But before obtaining his ticket from the box office – our Tom was constrained by a certain rule. That rule is the normal one that all theater-goers face when seeking entry. Tom had essentially:

“… taken ‘a vow of poverty’, renounced control, …” allowing him to take “delight in things for themselves … watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #144   (Tolkien’s emphasis)

We, as theater-goers, are there to watch, listen and enjoy our chosen spectacle too. Without fail we cede control, as we are obligated to allow the performers to partake in their duties. In addition, we cannot take any ownership or make claim to anything inside the theater. We most certainly cannot walk out during the play, or even after it, with the props or other fixtures. In effect, strict unwritten rules constrain us to leave empty-handed – just the way we walked in.

This is the ‘vow of poverty’ that Tolkien alluded to in Letter #144. Tom’s pure heart equipped him for this very mission. Tom silently pledged never to keep anything that belonged to another in the theater, for himself13. His role forbid it.

In tandem to such a ‘vow’ – and fittingly in our role as spectators, just like Tom:

“… the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control … become utterly meaningless … and the means of power quite valueless.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #144

This was later reiterated; because just like any audience engrossed in a typical play, Tom did:

“… not want to make, alter, devise, or control anything: just to observe and take joy in the contemplating the things that are not himself.”
– Letter to Nevill Coghill, see Addenda and Corrigenda to The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book (2014) Edited by Scull and Hammond

Quite simply, for on-stage props and happenings, a true member of the audience should have:

“… no desire of possession or domination at all.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153

For patrons are always aware it is just ‘a play’, and of the ensuing marring were control or custody forcefully taken without invite.

Now a vow of ‘poverty’ is quite different from one of ‘non-interference’. Indeed audience participation is not uncommon in plays. We are allowed to laugh, applaud and even boo. Occasionally onlookers may be invited onto the stage to play some minor role and let’s say: ‘help the play along’. As we shall see, Tom eventually made it onto the stage and entered the physical plane of Arda – aiding the long-running narrative in a small way.

But first, Tolkien allowed him to be seated in a separate plane of reality ready for the set-up and then show to begin. That is why per The Fellowship of the Ring he was “First”, “oldest” and “Eldest”; because the curtains cannot be drawn open and the play cannot start until the audience is settled. And that is why he was intended to be “Last” – because once the curtains finally close, Tom will have witnessed its ending. At that point, the play is officially over and the audience must leave. For Tom, the way out would be back via the theater entrance door from whence he came: “Last” through it “as he was First”. Naturally, when the theater lights are put out, we can all understand why: “Night will come”. The great cosmogonical drama set over several Ages (viewable as specific Acts) had a beginning and a perceived end14, and required Tom’s continual presence as the manifestation of the audience.

I'm Here - Let 'The Cosomogonical Drama' Begin!
I’m Here – Let ‘The Cosomogonical Drama’ Begin!

Then finally, as the metaphorical curtains opened, the ‘Time’ for Arda’s clock to start ticking had come. With Tom seated in a different plane of reality, he could watch the early cast/stage-managers/stagehands (The Valar and the Maiar) arrive ‘on stage’ to mold, vitalize and enrich. That is why in Letter #153 he was insinuated to be: “Eldest in Time”; because Time15 began with their descent into Arda. And that is how there is no conundrum of who was the first to Arda. Melkor with his great brethren, were ‘on the stage’ whilst Tom was watching the saga unfold from his own separate dimension. For when the said curtains were pulled aside, the Earth was bare and only “ancient starlight” provided illumination. This is the one time that we can truly say, as Tom did, that “the dark under the stars … was fearless”. Because at the very beginning, its surface was uninhabited by Melkor, his eventual lieutenant Sauron, other loyal spirits, or for that matter – any creatures of evil.

Different Planes of Reality

The contrivance of alternate planes of reality (in literature) is not unique to Tolkien. His great friend C.S. Lewis employed a similar technique in the Narnia series. However what is certainly unparalleled, is the idea of linking them to a play conducted inside a theater.

The first obvious literary occurrence of Tolkien’s own dabbling in extraneous planes of existence is found in The Hobbit. When Bilbo disappeared in wearing the Ring, the Professor attributed the phenomenon down to departure from one dimension and entry into another separate one:

“… he is really in a separate picture or ‘plane’ – being invisible to the dragon”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #27         (Tolkien’s emphasis)

However it wasn’t until The Lord of the Rings that the concept was actively expanded upon. The level of sophistication increased with Tom blazing the trail. Windows into a different world, in relation to our merry fellow, are strongly hinted at through the expressions:

“This is like a ‘play’, … there are noises that do not belong, chinks in the scenery, glimpses of another different world outside …”                                           – Report on Auction of Letter to Przemyslaw Mroczkowski, January 1964 (private collection) – Lotrplaza: Thread ‘Tom B. Peeling the Onion’, 7/6/09.       (Tolkien’s emphasis)

and;

“… there is always some element that does not fit and opens as it were a window into some other system.”
– Tolkien letter to Christopher Fettes – 1961: Hammond & Scull LotR Companion p.134

Tom, on the stage, did “not fit” or truly “belong”. He was part of a bigger story, but as we shall later see – not of an entirely foreign mythos:

“… the world is so large and manifold … there is always something that does not come in to that story …, and seems to belong to a larger story.”
– Letter to Nevill Coghill, see Addenda and Corrigenda to The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book (2014) Edited by Scull and Hammond

One question which naturally arises is: how many different planes of reality did Tolkien conceive within the Universe? From the early days of The Hobbit we know there were initially at least two. Bilbo when placing the Ring on his finger was on his way to fully passing into another world. Even so he was partially still in physical Middle-earth – as his body had yet to completely fade. Gandalf in the sequel confirms the existence of a kind of ‘half-way house’:

“ ‘… while you wore the Ring … you were half in the wraith-world …’ ”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Many Meetings

By the time of The Lord of the Rings we were told that, for some, the planes did not just touch – but they overlapped:

“ ‘… for those who have dwelt in the Blessed Realm live at once in both worlds, …’ ”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Many Meetings

The same manner of existence applied to Bombadil – except Tom also had access to another plane of reality: the auditorium (or ‘Viewing Gallery’ as I will often call it henceforth). Because if we examine the evidence it strongly points to Tom possessing simultaneous admission rights to at least three different dimensions. As well as the Physical World and Viewing Gallery, clearly he could see a Ring-wearing Frodo who had entered the ‘Wraith-world’:

“ ‘Hey there!’ cried Tom, glancing towards him with a most seeing look in his shining eyes.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

To clarify how multi-dimensional worlds can exist within Tolkien’s mythology, and to aid understanding – a Venn diagram is provided below:

‘Flat World & Cosmology’ Venn Diagram
(Tom’s accessibility to different planes of reality, before Númenor’s downfall)

Venn1

A Drama within a Drama

Although I have already mentioned three different planes of reality, two16 more certainly existed. In Eru removing Aman from physical Arda, another plane was created – to which passage could be obtained from Middle-earth via Elven-ships sailing the ‘straight way’.

The clue allowing us to explore the idea of Tom being linked to a fourth dimension is Frodo’s bizarrely tangible vision. While under the merry couple’s thatched roof, the Undying Lands were glimpsed – notably when our fine fellow was close by:

“… either in his dreams or out of them, … a grey rain-curtain, … rolled back, and a far green country opened before him …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

We must ask ourselves, why here and why Bombadil? Why did Frodo not have such a realistic vision of “a far green country” when in the Elven kingdoms of Rivendell or Lothlórien?

The most logical answer this writer can find speculates that Tom’s role, as representing the audience, permitted him to observe happenings anywhere within Eä – even after the removal of Aman from the physical ‘circles of the world’17. Thus Frodo all too fleetingly espied the Blessed Realm through a window purposely opened by Tom.

Our unsuspecting hobbit had been caught in the net of a Faërian drama:

“If you are present at a Faërian drama you yourself are, or think that you are, bodily inside its Secondary World. The experience may be very similar to Dreaming …”.
– On Fairy-Stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

In an enchanted state, his mind was being manipulated without an awareness of the local controller:

“But in Faërian drama you are in a dream that some other mind is weaving, and the knowledge of that alarming fact may slip from your grasp.”
– On Fairy-Stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

Yes, from the: 

“… real river-lands in autumn
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #210

an opening had been conjured to the land of Faëry by a higher entity – giving him hope to stay the course. Somewhere out there was a place the Dark Lord could never assail and it was there awaiting Frodo!

Then given a strong probability that Tolkien envisaged Tom as capable of accessing four different dimensions – the Venn diagram can be appropriately updated. Illustratively another plane of reality is depicted as an out-of-plane circle touching at Point ‘A’ – with the Universe now enclosing all planes in spherical fashion. Notionally – the intersecting planes of Physical Arda, The Wraith-world and Aman can be idealized as multiple overlapping stages within the theater. Some of these stages have paths to each other – yet all adjoin the auditorium.

It must also be noted that the doors of entry into the theater were shut once ‘the play’ properly got underway. Those that had come in from ‘Outside’ (including Tom) were constrained to stay within the theater (Eä) until the drama had come to its ordained end.

‘Bent World & Cosmology’ Venn Diagram
(Tom’s accessibility to different planes of reality, after Númenor’s downfall)

Venn2
 

Are you looking for Belle’s ? – No, I’m just looking!

We must take special care to heed how Tom said: “he remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn”. The Fellowship of the Ring text does not state: ‘felt’ the raindrop or ‘held’ the acorn. How believable is it that Tom was physically in Middle-earth at coincidentally the exact places and times of these monumental scientific occurrences, and then accidentally witnessed them? And nor does it matter whether his utterance was referring to local habitat or to all Arda – for clearly these were primeval short-lived events.

It is far more believable that Tom had a specific purpose and was avidly watching the wonder of creation and then evolution from his own special ‘Viewing Gallery’. It is then no surprise that he came endowed with distinct desires – those atypical of a part-historian and part-scientist, exemplifying a:

“… spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature, because they are ‘other’ …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153     (Tolkien’s emphasis)

More to the point, like a typical spectator in an auditorium, it was his role to watch the play intently. To observe major events, yet be :

“… entirely unconcerned with ‘doing’ anything with the knowledge: …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153     (Tolkien’s emphasis)

For, just like Tom, if you were a member of the audience of a riveting play, the objective would be to focus on the performance:

“… without reference to yourself, …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #144

Ideally you would:

“… take your delight in things for themselves …”,
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #144

and be left with nothing but memories of the acting and the scenes.

Delighted though Tom must have been, he had also passed a stern test. While evolution and creation had rapidly advanced in the ‘Spring of Arda’, he had managed to refrain from interfering. By staying in the auditorium, he had achieved self-mastery and proven self-control.

“ ‘… He is his own master. …’ ”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Council of Elrond

We too, when in an audience, must similarly exercise self-control. No matter how passionate the circumstance – we must absolutely reject any temptation to intrude by leaping onto the stage. We have to master ourselves. And so in this manner, Tom personified the ideal spectator. The good news was that after such perfect behavior he was ready. The reward would lead to a new phase. Unbeknownst to him, a beautiful nymph-like woman would emerge from water: Goldberry was awaiting ‘on stage’!

Tom’s jump to Physical Arda – The Main Stage

After uncounted years, the time for ‘peeping Tom’ was over. He was now destined to achieve marital bliss and live in harmony with other beings, yet still fulfill his all-important purpose. Because at some point in Middle-earth’s history, Tom transitioned from being entirely in the audience dimension to the physical one of Arda.

After shaping and enrichment, sentient anthropomorphic life began to awaken on land and it is conjectured Tom became so enrapt that the viewing zone failed to sate a growing hunger. He wanted to experience ‘the play’ as closely as possible. To physically touch it and interact with the cast was the inevitable next chapter; and in due time he also knew he had a minor part to play ‘on stage’.

Whether Tom was invited onto the stage, as audience members of an actual play can be, is unknown. Usually such a role in the overall story line is designated by the script-writer to be small, yet nonetheless can be of significance. Perhaps this was subtly conveyed per the following quote:

“Tom Bombadil is not an important person – to the narrative.”
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #144

Ultimately Tom was constrained by his ‘vow of poverty’. Yes, he could interfere in a small way, ad lib, but fundamentally he could not claim ownership over anything belonging to someone else. Especially to the main prop of the Third Act18. However in placing himself ‘on stage’, a panoramic vista was forfeited – his focus would now be tied to a local zone:

“He merely knows and understands about such things as concern him in his natural little realm.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #144

Tom would now behave as an “exemplar” – an ideal model of that specific audience whose delight is biased towards nature and evolution. In becoming

“… a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science …”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153

a flesh clad Tom, nevertheless, was still bound by his basic function. Placed in the role of an audience member – to step ‘off the stage’ and run away with the Ring, if given the chance, would be ridiculous. To carry it off into another dimension – where it might have been beyond Sauron’s grasp would have caused incalculable havoc on ‘the stage’. Under the worst scenario it might even lead to ‘the play’ ending prematurely. Given as much:

“ ‘… he would not understand the need. …’ ”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Council of Elrond

for to him – ‘the show must go on’. So even if all the good cast:

“ ‘… begged him, …’ ”,
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Council of Elrond

he was still unlikely to comply.

Likewise, if Sauron could somehow eliminate Tom – then as Glorfindel obliquely commented: “Night will come” – meaning ‘the show is over’ and the theater lights would have to be switched off. However it is highly unconventional for a stage actor to kill off the audience – to say the least. But the point Tolkien covertly made, is that if Sauron had destroyed Tom, justification to the drama continuing would have evaporated. Without a dedicated onlooker watching throughout – ‘the play’ would effectively have come to an abrupt end.

Then in bumping into the hobbits seemingly by accident at their first meeting, an astute Tom recognized the finger of providence. His time had come:

“ ‘ … Just chance brought me then, if chance you call it. …’ ”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil   (my underlined emphasis)

The plea for aid could not be ignored. Star actors were in trouble and only the ‘audience’ was in a position to help!

Dramatic further assistance at the Barrow was to follow. And it would be Tom’s ‘pièce de résistance’ for this performance. In rescuing the hobbits a second time and equipping them to face a particular type of danger – Tom knew that he had done his small part ‘on the stage’. That part which was designated in the Music before the building of the world – had finally been fulfilled. But straight afterwards, he could return to the function he had originally been generated for: watching, laughing, clapping and enjoying the play unfold – but now just in his little chosen land.

Perhaps it might help if one pictures use of a ‘Holodeck’ from the Star Trek series. A play can be programmed and crew members can enter a fictitious setting – yet know that a performance is proceeding around them while fully participating in it. The crew members are as close to viewing the play in a secondary reality as possible. Yet they know they cannot be harmed or affected by the props inside the play (Holodeck). For as and when the need arises, they can simply step out – just as empty handed as when they stepped in. Picture Tom, in comparable fashion, being able to step in and out of his own ‘Holodeck’ (i.e. off ‘the stage’ into ‘the auditorium’) whenever he desired. And just like Star Trek – Tolkien had made sure that this particular user of the ‘Holodeck’, could not be affected by any harmful prop within. The Professor really was ‘light years’ ahead of his time!

Dreaded Allegory – The Plot Thickens

In making Tom a manifestation of the audience, Tolkien ventured into an area that he immensely disliked: that of allegory.

I dislike Allegory – the conscious and intentional allegory ...”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131

In a somewhat convoluted response to a proofreader, Tolkien disguised Tom’s role as a literary device:

“I suppose he has some importance as a ‘comment’.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #144     (Tolkien’s emphasis)

All the same Tom’s secret role was most definitely allegorical, both consciously and intentionally. Just a few months later, Tolkien just about confessed to hidden allegory outright:

“I do not mean him to be an allegory … but ‘allegory’ is the only mode of exhibiting certain functions: …”,
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153   (Tolkien’s emphasis)

 and even more forcefully:

“… he is then an ‘allegory’ …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153   (Tolkien’s emphasis)

One might view a remarkable admission, somewhat camouflaged and couched as a half-hearted apology, as a touch humiliating. Because Tolkien had in a way betrayed one of his own strong convictions. He clearly wasn’t entirely happy about Tom representing an abstract idea:

“I mean, I do not really write like that: …”,
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #144

but it circumvented an equally abstract craving: the ‘lack of an audience’. Unfortunately allegory was the most conveniently available method to exhibit a very unusual function, and in the end – Tolkien capitulated.

One can quite readily understand why there was genuine reluctance on the Professor’s part to reveal more during the years after The Lord of the Rings release. Yet his qualms may have gone beyond any inner guilt from such self-inflicted heresy. A confession to concealed allegory might lead to academics questioning whether other secret meanings were buried within his tale, and who knows what else? Once the cat was out of the bag – who could tell how it would pounce? Such worries might well have gone through his mind; it would be much simpler and less stressful if Tom’s hidden role remained a private affair.

Our sensitive Professor lacked confidence. Despite the resounding success of The Hobbit, there had been worrisome doubt to whether his magnum opus would be equally well received:

“I have never had much confidence in my own work, … I feel diffident, reluctant as it were to expose my world of imagination to possibly contemptuous eyes and ears.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #282       (my underlined emphasis)

Understandably caution prevailed; exposing Tom as another unique layer of imagination to his sub-created world, would become a step too far.

It is theorized that Tolkien placated himself by expanding Tom’s function beyond acting as ‘the audience’ – to include several ideals, one of which was to display a certain mode of pacifism. Tolkien wanted an ‘on-stage’ actor who was not all peace-loving, but one truer to reality. The near-neutral character that knows the difference between right and wrong – who has immense power – but just does barely enough to assist those in trouble and no more. Unquestionably we cannot view Tom as completely pacifist. After all, he armed the hobbits, broke a branch off Old Man Willow and threatened to denude him of his leaves. In addition, he evicted the Wight from the Barrow thus robbing him of his ‘home’.

Unfortunately for Tom, Tolkien also made it clear that once ‘on stage’, even the audience was vulnerable to unforeseen events in the drama. In the fight between good and bad – those on the fence or those that leaned to one side unfavorably, would be fair game for the Enemy. Duly if the forces of evil prevailed, the resulting maelstrom would catastrophically engulf all in Middle-earth. Tom could and would not be an exception. So then a nonaligned stance, though seemingly moral, had issues in that:

“… there are in fact things with which it cannot cope; and upon which its existence nonetheless depends.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #144

Nevertheless despite a semi-impartial role, there was more to the picture. Not to be forgotten, Tom’s depiction in medieval England19 per abandoned snippets20  preceding the 1934 poem could now also be logically justified. For Tom, continuing in his secret guise, is still with us today – as the play’s end has yet to be reached. Hmm …. Tolkien might well have felt there were some distinct advantages to retaining him in The Lord of the Rings with a hidden long-lived mission. Because now loose-ends could be simply tied up and everything about Tom pre-The Lord of the Rings would slot neatly into place.

Lastly, in rounding off this first deliberation on allegory, there exists a distinct possibility of a further twist. Though I have discussed two functions, there is likely to have been a third – another ‘off-stage’ role that will be revealed in Part II. Undoubtedly Tolkien weighed the merits of any allegorical connections very, very carefully; ‘T.B. or not T.B.?’ – was the vexing question. Should the taboo be broken in this one instance? Or could he justify it all as a personal joke?

It is probable the predicament was wrestled with many a time. A decade after publication of The Lord of the Rings, the Professor disclosed he had been tempted to “tinker”21 with Tom to bring him into line with the rest of the written legends. However, as we know, he resisted the urge. This is an important point that I shall come back to in Part IV. Tom’s comical behavior and peace-loving demeanor would help cloak his true and secret role.

Summary: Part I
  • The cornerstone and crux of this theory is that Tolkien contemplated his feigned historical myth (of which The Lord of the Rings is a part) acted out as one continuous theatrical play: ‘the cosmogonical drama’.
  • Tolkien mentally conceived his myth-based Universe as existing within the walls of a theater with physical Middle-earth being center-stage.
  • Different zones of a typical theater were conceptually imagined as different ‘planes of reality’ that existed simultaneously while ‘the play’ was being enacted upon the theater’s stage.
  • Crucially – ‘the play’ needed the audience’s presence to begin – otherwise it could only be thought of as a rehearsal. A ‘practice session’ however, was a wholly unacceptable situation.
  • Tom Bombadil’s secret principal function was to be the sole and continuous representative of ‘the audience’. This is why Tom is an immortal and this is how Tolkien gave him a primary purpose.
  • In 1964 Tolkien surreptitiously hinted that Tom had been given the allegorical role of an off-stage and aloof participant of ‘a play’ in a letter to his close friend Przemyslaw Mroczkowski.
  • Tom was eased into the legendarium, through a different theater door than the rest of the early cast/crew, into a seating area reserved for the audience. This separate mode of entry (in spiritual form) was an acknowledgement of an initial existence independent to the myth, and was part of the process of his assimilation.
  • Metaphorically, the curtains opened and the Arda based ‘play’ initiated once Tom was seated – resulting in him being: “Eldest in Time”.
  • The presence of Tom in an alternate plane of reality at the very beginning of Arda-based Time solves the seeming conundrum of the Valar being the first to Middle-earth and his primeval presence per The Lord of the Rings. The Valar were the first to the stage (physical Arda) while Tom was in his own separate viewing plane.
  • The ‘audience role’ explains the context of both how and why Tom was “First”, “oldest” and “Eldest” per The Lord of the Rings. It answers why he will be “Last” in that ‘the play’ is over once Tom has either seen its intended ending, or can no longer act as a witness.
  • At the very beginning when the curtains first opened, Tom had truly known the dark under the stars as “fearless” – before the arrival of evil. As ‘the play’ progressed he eagerly watched creation take place ‘on the stage’. He beheld the first raindrop and acorn from the audience zone – not felt or captured them.
  • During Arda’s early history, Tom proved self-mastery by resisting the temptation to interfere in any way with ‘the play’. He remained in the zone of the audience as an onlooker only.
  • At some historically unknown point, after Treebeard’s ‘awakening’, Tolkien further integrated Tom into the drama by an incarnation into physical Middle-earth. There he could enjoy ‘the play’ more closely and fulfill a small role ‘on-stage’. This embodiment (birth through union of spirit and flesh) neatly solves the paradox of the Ent being “the oldest living thing … in Middle-earth” and Tom being “Eldest”.
  • Tom’s intervention ‘on stage’ is minimal – as would be expected from an audience member. Thus he is not “important to the narrative”.
  • Tom only intervenes when a major actor (Frodo) requests aid and nobody but ‘the audience’ can help.
  • Most importantly, Tom representing ‘the audience’, provides the only credible theory that not just notes his odd personality, but also automatically explains his behavior. We can now understand why he has “renounced control”; why he delights in “watching” and “observing”; and why he cannot take ownership ‘on stage’ despite being Master of his country.
  • To advance our understanding of Tom, we must shed a ‘natural’ tendency to dismiss an allegorical explanation. Tom is in part: an allegory – a literary device – and begrudgingly admitted so by Tolkien.
  • Tom’s mainly pacifist and comical acting, along with his early out-of-legendarium depiction as a tangible nature-oriented spirit, masked his secret role.
  • Tolkien’s sophisticated plan for integrating Tom into the world of The Lord of the Rings was deliberately cryptic, done extremely carefully and notably – with an element of mischief.

Continue to Part II

Footnotes:

1  As depicted in the abandoned ‘King Bonhedig fragment’ (see Tolkien A biography, The storyteller, Humphrey Carpenter). The Lord of the Rings description is similarly a stout burly being, shorter than a typical human male. There is no indication Tolkien ever changed his mind on physical measurements.

 A potential triangle of Tom, Churchill and the word ‘enigma’ – is a fascinating one. There is actually no definitive evidence that Tolkien ever heard or read about Churchill’s 1st Oct 1939 broadcast. On the other hand, it is known Tolkien took interest in politics and world affairs. Understanding the views of the nation’s respected leaders would naturally have been important for someone who strongly identified himself as English and had fought for its soil. Particularly as such a time in Britain’s history was a very tense and trying one, with a resurgence of the Old Enemy.

Just four weeks before the airing, Britain had declared war on Germany. Priscilla and Edith had tuned in to the announcement on the family wireless (J.R.R. Tolkien Companion & Guide, Chronology: 3 Sep 1939). At that tumultuous period, Briton’s were glued to the radio and eagerly scanned newspapers for tidings of impending conflict. Anxiety and fear was rife. Just one day before Churchill’s broadcast the entire population had been told to register for an identity card.

As a veteran with first-hand experience of the true horrors of war, one might expect Tolkien to have been especially alert. His sadness reported at the 3rd Sep 1939 war declaration no doubt resulted from memories brought back of the terrible suffering and the grievous loss of several close friends from the Great War. One can sympathize at the dreadful blow knowing his able-bodied sons were eligible for duty.

Apart from ‘enigma’ theorized as filed away in a memory of that famous speech, the other curiosity is its seldom employment. Tolkien never used the word ‘enigma’ itself in any known literary works or private correspondences other than the one involving Tom. In terms of variants he did employ:

(a) ‘enigmatic’ : in a personal remark made of C.S. Lewis per Letter #278,
(b) ‘Enigmata’ : to title his 1923 Anglo-Saxon riddle verses – ‘Enigmata Saxonica Inventa Nuper Duo’.

The fact remains that ‘enigma’ (or any variation thereof) was extremely rarely used vocabulary. It is not unscholarly to speculate that Churchill’s speech was recollected in Tolkien’s Letter #144 response. For ‘riddles’ and ‘enigmata’ from his own work should have struck a chord with ‘riddle’ and ‘enigma’ from Churchill’s broadcast. Rightly we should wonder whether the purported triangle’s existence has merit.

3  Letter #131.

 Letter #212 – cited as equally authoritative as The Silmarillion:“Let these things be”.

 Used in the context of the ‘Earth’ within this essay. Tolkien also described Arda as the Solar System with Earth as its center of focus (see Morgoth’s Ring).

6  Letter #153.

7  Letter to Przemyslaw Mroczkowski, January 1964 – Christies Auction, Sale 5822, Lot 76 – partial extracts recorded per website: http://www.lotrplaza.com – Thread: ‘Tom B. Peeling the Onion’ posting: 7th June 2009, ‘Dorwiniondil’ reporting on Charles Noad’s viewing of the letter.

Picture in Footnotes

8  From the extracts, it cannot be deduced whether Tolkien fully revealed Tom to his friend. The available evidence suggests Tolkien just left a trail of strong clues.

9  With the exception of a peacock feather (inappropriate to a European flavored ecosystem for Middle-earth) replaced with a kingfisher or swan feather, in his hat.

10 Letter #19. The “vanishing” aspect was carried over to The Lord of the Rings by portraying Tom’s land similarly much reduced in range from ancient times.

11 It appears the countryside from Tolkien’s home-counties bears distinct resemblances to Tom’s land. The River Cherwell in Oxfordshire sporadically dotted at its edge with Willows resembles the Withywindle. Wytham Woods may have been inspirational for parts of the Old Forest and indeed the naming of the Withywindle Valley. The Berkshire Downs are highly reminiscent of the Barrow-downs with the stone rings of the Rollright Stones and Wayland’s Smithy burial mound bearing similarities to the stone circles and Barrow the hobbits encountered after leaving Tom’s house. Tolkien appears then, to have transferred much of his own local habitat wholesale into a very specific zone for the novel.

12 The analogy proposed is that the Ainur played multiple roles as early actors (The Valar), on-stage directors (The Valar) and stage-crew (The Maiar and The Valar). The set-up of the stage was, in a way, like a mini-prequel with the play starting proper upon the awakening of the Eldar (the Elves).

13 We must note that even when ‘on-stage’, the brooch from the Barrow was given away to Goldberry.

14 Tom’s awareness of the play’s ‘ending’ can be deduced through his words “… till the world is mended.”Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs.

15 Morgoth’s Ring, The Annals of Aman: Time began with the creation of Eä, but its measurement (Year 1) began with the arrival of the Valar in physical Arda. With respect to Tom, “Eldest in Time” appears to make most sense when connected to the latter. Tom does not relay any memories beyond those connected to Arda.

16 Though not sequentially so, a fifth plane of reality (not mentioned in the body of this article) appears to have been created by the Valar in expelling Morgoth from the ‘physical’ Universe. As is well-documented, even the Valar were constrained to remain in the Universe until the drama was complete, but this new plane of reality was likely designed not to violate those bounds. In Tolkien’s mind, perhaps this fifth plane was also metaphorically thought of as a region belonging to a physical theater. In particular, the ‘Door of Night’ through which Morgoth’s spirit was thrust might have been viewed as a one-way door in a theater’s back wall leading to a closed off holding-zone backstage. Guarded over by Eärendil in the heavens, the ‘Timeless Void’ into which Morgoth was thrust might be considered as behind the ‘Walls of the World’ (stage back wall) – but still within the Universe (physical theater). As Tolkien pointed out in Myths Transformed, the Elves were probably mistaken that this prison was the same as the ‘Timeless Void’ from whence the Ainur came.

17 The circles shown in the Venn diagrams have a resonance with the “circles of the world” documented by Tolkien in Letters #131, #212, #245, #297, #338 and The Return of the King, Appendix A.

18 Analogy for the Third Age per ‘The Tale of Years’ – see Appendices, The Return of the King.

19 See The Return of the Shadow, The Old Forest and the Withywindle. Medieval place name: “Stoke Canonicorum” now Stoke Canon in Devonshire was cited in Tom’s journey. “King’s Singelton, Bumby Cocalorum and Long Congelby” appear to be imaginary – but are decidedly rustic and English in make-up.

20 There exists the ‘King Bonhedig fragment’ (a paragraph of an unfinished tale including Tom – see Footnote 1) and the ‘Germ Poem’ (see The Return of the Shadow, The Old Forest and the Withywindle) which precede the first published material about Tom.

21 See Footnote 6.

 

Revisions:

2/6/16 – Added quote: “I mean, I do not really write like that: …”.

3/12/16 – Added: “Tom would now behave as an “exemplar” …”  and quote: “a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science”.

3/28/16 – Footnote 15, Was: “jail-zone”, Is: “holding-zone”.

4/20/16 – Footnote 8, Was: “Middle-earth”, Is: “European flavored Middle-earth”.

Added: “our options are limited and so”.

4/26/16 – Footnote 15, Added: “Though not sequentially so,”.

5/6/16 – Added paragraph beginning: “Unfortunately for Tom …” ending with quote: “… there are in fact things with which it cannot cope; and upon which its existence nonetheless depends.”

5/7/16 – Added: “& Cosmology” to titles of Venn Diagrams.

Added: “Dramatic further assistance at the Barrow was to follow. And it would be Tom’s ‘pièce de résistance’ for this performance.”

6/3/16 – Was: “And that “something … important” which would otherwise have been“left out” was:”, Is: “And that most “something … important” which would “otherwise” have been“left out” was:”.

Was: “a very secret”, Is: “at least one very secret”.

Was: “Tom Bombadil’s secret role.”, Is: “Tom Bombadil’s primary secret role.”

Was: “Tom’s true role”, Is: “Tom’s most significant role.”

6/6/16 – Was: “Faërie”, Is: “Faëry”.

6/8/16 – Was: “And that is how the conundrum of our cheerful chap versus the great Ainur (including Melkor) being the first to Arda is solved.”, Is:”And that is how there is no conundrum of who was the first to Arda.”

Was: “and his brethren”, Is: “with his great brethren”.

Was: “almost”, Is: “just about”.

Was: “cosmogony”, Is: “written legends”.

Summary – Was: “conundrum”, Is: “seeming conundrum”.

Was: “jagged outcrops”, Is: “burial mound”. 

6/18/16 – Added: “but subliminally”.

Was: “mythical”, Is: “myth-based”. 

Was: “stated”, Is “so strikingly put”.

Added: “(in a roundabout manner)”.

6/23/16 – Was: “yellow-haired nymph”, Is “nymph-like woman”.

Was: “would have ended the play prematurely”, Is: “would have caused incalculable havoc on ‘the stage’. Under the worst scenario it might even lead to the play ending prematurely.”

Was: “nature spirit”, Is: “tangible nature-oriented spirit”.

Was: “nature spirit”, Is: “nature-loving spirit”.

7/12/16 – Was: “condescending response”, Is: “condescending draft response”.  

Added: “Even though the letter was never sent”.

“was Tolkien advocating the correspondent first recall”, Is: “had Tolkien wanted the correspondent to first recall”.

7/28/16  – Was: “secondary reality”, Is: “pseudo-secondary reality”.

Added – From: “Real stage-plays …” to: “… plain imagination was required”.

Added: “Despite live-drama having limitations, left was a tough to admit residue.”

Added: New Note 2. Renumbered others.

8/19/16 Added: “throughout”.

Footnote 2, Added: “Anxiety and fear was rife.”

9/13/16 Added: “Believe it or not, part of the exercise was simply: “… an experiment in the arts of long narrative, and of inducing ‘Secondary Belief.”

9/30/16 Added: “part of”.

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Angel and Demon, Gospel and Fairy-story

This essay is best viewed in single page format. If it appears in two column style – an adjustment can be made by selecting zoom at 125% to 175% under the ‘Settings’ tab.
Introduction:

Many months ago I started out by audaciously proclaiming Tom Bombadil was uniquely associated to an abstract concept. That being a role which allegorized the ‘audience’ of Eru Ilúvatar’s great ‘play’. Despite the logic and the evidence – the hypothesis is, for some, a hard one to embrace. Since then, I have taken a much gentler path and slowly introduced new ideas. Yet the intent is to eventually loop back and fuse the somewhat detached theatrical postulation with my later more conventional analysis.

In methodically inching forward it has been advocated that The Lord of the Rings storyline developed with an underlying theme unexplored by scholars. Tom and Goldberry have been exposed to possess links to ‘elementals’, ‘faërie beings’ and even a demi-god – through classic European fairy tales and mythologies. Bit by bit the evidence has accumulated. And slowly but surely Tolkien’s purpose is becoming clearer. So by now it should have dawned upon the reader that these two are among the most complex and secret of all Tolkien’s invented characters. However despite all the ‘new’ stuff, believe it or not there is still plenty more to uncover, and with that – understanding to be had.

The following set of four essays go a long way towards binding the threads already developed into one logical and coherent story. Indeed that is my aim. Yet there is still one major surprise before I begin to do so. There is still one piece of the jigsaw needed to be taken out of the box and brought into the light.

All this time the largest and most central chunk of the puzzle has been hidden right under noses. For the Professor left it well within our grasp. Finally after more than six decades the time is ripe to expose a remarkable secret and consequently the true nature of the light surrounding Tom. The intensity of the halo is bright – yet a cloud has fogged our vision. For we have all been staring blindly, unable to penetrate the billows of mist, when before us the irrefutable answer to the Bombadil enigma requires only blowing away a wispy layer!

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Image result for angel halo wings

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As the reader shall see, new and relevant information has surfaced which cannot be ignored. Its exposure yields and confirms an unrealized deeper substructure to the story affirming my earlier prognosis. To unearth this material requires almost Sherlockian discipline. Likewise its insertion uses a skill set one can quite easily imagine to have been acquired by a master philologist. We must not forget that the art of telling a spellbinding tale, woven with matter that provides the reader with a truly multi-dimensional experience, is difficult enough in itself. But Tolkien possessed both mastery of the English language and specific knowledge to add in an entirely academic side, raising the worth of the work enormously. On a personal basis – it became meaningful to him beyond a pure story. 

Yes, the academic points of tangence are becoming too numerous to overlook. Those who might dismiss the many unique revelations so far as entirely coincidental – will have to reconsider their positions. First and foremost we must not forget that Tolkien was a Professor of a rare sort. If we patronizingly doubt his intellectual ability to include, in the most subtle way, fragments and traces of our world’s fairy-stories/myth – in a latent manner – we are indeed belittling an extraordinary talent. His artful methods should be appreciated and complimented – not doubted. Especially when the evidence becomes overwhelming beyond reason.

 

Part I: Archangel Tom

Despite The Lord of the Rings being:

“… a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; …”,
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #142

by the very end of the edit process – all ‘overt’ mentions of doctrine were removed. Tolkien willfully:

“… cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #142

A change of policy took place; instead a secondary and subtle method of inclusion became entirely preferential:

“… the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #142

It is quite possible the Professor desired to go further than he had, and alter even more material; yet the constraint imposed by an already enmeshed timeline would prove too formidable a hurdle. Such untangling would have cascaded into a horrendous revision affecting a great deal of the text. And the change I am talking about relates to a specific date involving Master Tom.

If I asked the question:

‘Which single day in The Fellowship of the Ring spans across more chapters than any other?’, I bet many ‘experts’ would be unable to fire back an answer without mulling it over and perhaps even consulting the book. It’s a little nugget of information that, in all probability, has never been much thought about.

What was so special about September 29th of the year 3018 that it straddled Fog on the Barrow-downs, At the Sign of the Prancing Pony, Strider and A knife in the Dark? Yes, it is by no accident that I have chosen this very same day and month to issue this essay. And indeed its choice was no accident on Tolkien’s part either.

Within the appendices the date is casually remarked upon in a most nonchalant and unassuming manner:

“29 Frodo reaches Bree at night. Gandalf visits the Gaffer.”
– The Return of the King, Appendix B, 3018, September

But though Tolkien told the truth – there was more he declined to highlight; because purposely omitted was any mention of the Barrow rescue. The sun rose and there was Tom on the morning of September 29th – a day known in England as: ‘Michaelmas Day’. That famed day in English tradition and the Christian faith that celebrates God’s glorious and mighty angel. A day which is holy and one of festivity, coinciding with one of the four historic ‘quarter days’ purposely embedded within the book1.

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Image result for archangel michael

Archangel Michael tramples Satan, Guido Reni, 1636

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For dedicated followers of Tolkien the answer is earth-shattering. So startling that the enormity of it might take time to sink in. Because Tom was modeled, in part, on the greatest of all named Christian angels: the ‘Archangel Michael’2. Never discussed before among scholars or readers is this most significant and indisputable of assertions.

Hopelessly in the grips of a superior foe, our hapless hobbits needed aid from an omnipotent entity to overcome the fearsome Wight. Of all the threats on their journey to Rivendell, the terrifying encounter was:

“… perhaps the most dangerous moment of all.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Many Meetings

With words of rhyming power Tom cast out the demon from his barrow home:

“Get out you old Wight!”,
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

just as Lucifer had been cast out from his home in heaven by Michael.

Such a similar chord is too striking to have been accidental. The journey of the hobbits and the timing of the rescue was meticulously planned. Tom’s dramatic appearance at dawn was no coincidence. Nor was the submerged Christian symbolism. Indeed, as Tolkien more or less confessed, certain core elements of faith were deliberately infused into the narrative. In embedding at least three faith-based ‘quarter days’, Tolkien may have been hinting, that in his mind, distinct dates important to Christianity had been preordained by God (Eru Ilúvatar for the novel) as holy. A kind of foreshadowing of the salvation history to come.

Our knowledge of Saint Michael (as the archangel is also known) is scant. Mentions within the Bible proclaim him as the leader of God’s angelic host and the main protagonist in the heavenly battle against the fallen angel we now call the Devil. Though we know only a little about his character and deeds, many quirky traditions have embedded themselves as part of his celebratory day. Most importantly, for us, much is present within The Lord of the Rings which shares commonality. No other singular date in the novel exhibits such a quantity and degree of folklore and religious parallelism for this particular theme.

Biblical accounts tell us St. Michael fought on Earth against Satan for the body of Moses3 – which when comparing against the Barrow episode, is similar to Tom ‘fighting’ for the bodies of the hobbits. Michael won the contest just like Tom.

He is the guardian over the land of God’s chosen people – Israel. But one can understand Tolkien felt England was just as special. A country that those of Dutch heritage (of which our Dutch doll Tom was one) literally translate to be: ‘Angel Land’4. Just maybe the archangel was also the guardian of England too. For the Bible records that each nation was assigned an angel to protect its inhabitants.

Though there is no biblical warrant, Roman Catholics believe St. Michael is the summoner of the souls of the dead for weighing and judgement. Mirrored indeed through Tom recalling the seemingly ‘lifeless’ trio of Sam, Pippin and Merry back to consciousness.

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 St. Michael weighing souls, Doomsday painting, Wenhaston, England 

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In English folklore St. Michael is the patron saint of horses – echoed by Tom’s close affinity with ponies:

“Sharp-ears, Wise-nose, Swish-tail and Bumpkin,
White-socks my little lad, and old Fatty Lumpkin! …
… they answered to the new names that Tom had given them for the rest of their lives.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

And he is the patron saint of the police – the ‘boys in blue’. Tom’s ‘uniform’ is similarly colored:

“Bright blue his jacket is, …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

In medieval times the quarter days were also lawful occasions to settle debts. Again we see inserted symbolism as Frodo and the innkeeper square accounts for services rendered for the period of the stay. All obligations were intended to be tallied and made good by the ‘start of the new quarter’:

“He’s welcome … so long as he pays in the morning.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, At the Sign of the Prancing Pony

English historical documents record how bills were often settled with bushels of barley – likely joked upon by Tolkien nicknaming Butterbur: ‘Barley’.

Now this was also the time to hire new servants, exemplified by:

“Strider shall be your guide.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Strider

Traditionally the celebration involved a feast at which bread was freshly baked5, and for those who could afford it – a goose was served. At the inn for supper:

“There was hot soup, cold meats, … new loaves, …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, At the Sign of the Prancing Pony    (my emphasis)

And although the types of “cold meats” aren’t stated, nevertheless the importance of ‘geese’ to the overall picture, to my mind, too conveniently appears on this same day:

“… the dogs were yammering and the geese6screaming.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Strider

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The Michaelmas Goose (courtesy of website: catholicallyear.com)

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In line with folklore, we must note the hearty meal at the inn was consumed after the demon’s defeat. The origin of a celebratory tradition perhaps? So with that thought, a most telling detail for us is the legend that after the Devil was cast from heaven on the 29th – the landing site was a thorny blackberry bush. Satan cursed it, scorched the fruit with his fiery breath and stamped and spat upon it (or even worse – urinated on it). Thus the tradition goes – blackberries should not be picked after Michaelmas Day – being unfit for human consumption.

Masterfully inserted into the text – the only mention ever of ‘blackberries’ within the entire novel occurs on September 29th when the hobbits eat at the Prancing Pony. Provided as part of the evening meal:

“There was … a blackberry tart, …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, At the Sign of the Prancing Pony

Of course one can logically assume those blackberries must have been gathered before the 29th of September!

‘Okay there is an awful lot that matches up. But why Archangel Michael?’, the reader should rightfully ask.
‘What was Tolkien’s purpose?’

The reasons are multifaceted. While the main explanation is the one promoted all along – namely Tolkien’s desire to link back to the folklore and legends of our world, others exist which are bluntly obvious. I have little doubt that St. Michael, was near and dear to Tolkien’s heart. His second son was given this same saintly name and as a devout Roman Catholic, Tolkien strongly believed in the existence of guardian angels7. Given as much, we can fully understand why a St. Michael type figure was included as an intercessor on behalf of the good folk of Middle-earth, in situations of dire emergency. We must note, that when Tom Bombadil’s name was invoked in the barrow – to use Tolkien’s words:

“… as a Catholic might on a Saint, …”,
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153

indeed this angelic being responded with aid.

What else is quite plain? Well Michaelmas term was of course the beginning of the academic year at Oxford since founding days. And talking about ancient things – Tom, the ancient spirit of the region, was appropriately and likely deliberately connected to Oxford’s oldest surviving building: the Saxon Tower of Saint Michael’s Church at the North Gate8. Here there exists an intriguing link of ‘lilies’ to ‘Archangel Tom’ as we see in the novel. The church itself contains a renowned medieval stained glass window. In a shape representing the body of Christ are white lilies – the famed: ‘Lily Window’.

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The Lily Window, St. Michael’s Church at the North Gate, Oxford

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So tracking back to the book and Tolkien’s own mythology – effectively, even after the Valar had withdrawn with their entourage to Aman, Eru had not wholly abandoned the Elves and Men of Middle-earth. No indeed – an angelic being was there among them as one of the Ainur ready to intercede if called upon. Looks can be deceiving, and to use Tolkien’s thoughts on simplicity and ordinariness within the divine plan – perhaps a slightly shabby wrinkly little fellow was:

“… a symbol of the real nature of holy things in a fallen world.”
– Tolkien & The Silmarillion, Tolkien as Christian Writer, Clyde Kilby

Angels are of course guardians – at least the ‘good’ ones. As Tolkien reminded his youngest son:

“Remember your guardian angel. … God is (so to speak) also behind us, supporting, nourishing us … The bright point of power where that life-line, that spiritual umbilical cord touches: there is our Angel, facing two ways to God behind us in the direction we cannot see, and to us.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #54

Setting stereotypical looks aside, happy-go-lucky Tom unquestionably behaved as a guardian to the hobbits within his lands. Though he came without a set of wings, warrior or cherubic looks, or the majesty of Gandalf the White:

“Gandalf was … an angelic emissary …”,
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #268

“G. is not, of course, a human being … I wd. venture to say that he was an incarnate ‘angel’ …”,
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #156    (Tolkien’s italicized emphasis on ‘incarnate’)

nevertheless I strongly suspect Tolkien considered Tom as an equivalent. Really then it’s not surprising if Bombadil (just like Gandalf):

“… can act in emergency as an ‘angel’ …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #156

However my real reason for including the wizard as a comparison point, is that the 29th of September is also known as ‘The Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels’. If both are ‘angels’ within the mythology – then one can quite understand why this very particular date is doubly applicable. Again it would be beyond ridiculous to advocate the departure of Gandalf from Middle-earth, exactly three9 years later on September 29th 3021, was merely another extraordinary fluke:

“29. They come to the Grey Havens. Frodo and Bilbo depart over Sea with the Three Keepers.”
– The Return of the King, Appendix B, 3021, September

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Could Gandalf, who played so important a role in the demise of Sauron, be entirely forgotten in our history? Was the feast of ‘All Angels’ the last dim memory of the great hero from the now distant Third Age? Hard to say how the Professor felt about this aspect of connectivity. But without doubt both Gandalf and Tom were considered by Tolkien as angelic beings.

Yes the game is up. The implanted symbolism is too strong. Tom is no longer a huge mystery. And though many will not like it (because let’s face it – we all have our personal ideas), it’s time to shelve non-aligning theories and update those old articles.

Angelic Tom most certainly is. But such a divine order is not mutually exclusive. Tolkien’s casting of him as one of the Ainur does not preclude Tom from also being an incarnate creature of Faërie and a source for much of the myth of our world. In which case we can no longer avoid touching upon the dreaded subject of ‘allegory’ – a topic I have shied away from actively discussing in this essay. Because at this point I have decided that it is unfair to jump to conclusions hastily.

The reader is entitled to understand the whole story, and yes there is quite a bit more. Nevertheless the ‘Michael analogue’ is weighty. It’s hard not to leap to an immediate verdict. Whether Tolkien stepped over the line, and with his own definition condemned himself:

“… ‘allegory’ … resides in … the purposed domination of the author.”,
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Foreword to the Second Edition

is a matter we ought to deeply ponder. Was the selection of September 29th “purposed domination of the author” ? Is the reader (now knowing the significance of this date10) forced to forever associate Tom with Michael the Archangel?

Until Tolkien’s full purpose is known, a stay of judgement is fair. Yet a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. For once we comprehend more of the Professor’s plan, it will almost certainly throw up substantial controversy!

 

Footnotes:

1  Along with Michaelmas Day (September 29th), the three other traditional English calendar quarter days when significant events occur in The Lord of the Rings, in the year 3018 are:

Christmas Day, Dec. 25th:  The Fellowship leave Rivendell. The ‘birth’ of the quest to destroy the Ring. Christians celebrate this day as the birth of Jesus Christ.

Lady Day, March 25th: The fall of Sauron. Catholics celebrate this as Annunciation Day – the angel Gabriel’s visitation to the Virgin Mary announcing she would conceive the Son of God. In medieval England this day was also taken to be the date of the Crucifixion. So in both cases of mankind’s feigned and real history, these are true beginnings of new eras.

Midsummer Day, July 1st: The marriage of Arwen & Aragorn and the unification of the long sundered Half-elven bloodline. Traditionally Midsummer Day was celebrated on the 24th June as an English quarter day. So although called the same name – the dates do not exactly align. Catholics celebrate June 24th as St. John the Baptist Day.

It is probably by no accident that on June 24th 3018 it is Gandalf who takes Aragorn to find a sign reaffirming that a new Age had begun and its future was bright. It is on this day that the journey begins up Mount Mindolluin, culminating in discovery of the precious sapling on the 25th.

In a way, Gandalf acts as a herald and messenger. He is an angelos (see Letter #181) in conveying that the sign of hope and ‘salvation’ is hidden. Arguably there is Christian symbolism subtly inserted that portrays salvation itself will ultimately arise from a simple seed ‘in the wilderness’ at a time unknown to mankind. In the mythology, the seed is a product of a series of events (arguably beginning outside of Time) and with which the fate of the world is bound (meaning the Two Trees, the Silmarils and ensuing events). 

Gandalf thus mirrors some aspects of the story surrounding John the Baptist, whose cries ‘in the wilderness’ heralded that the path of salvation was near at hand. As a messenger, John the Baptist proclaimed that path was through Jesus Christ. 

2  Michael is an angel in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. His name appears in Christian Scripture five times, thrice in the Book of Daniel, and once each in the Epistle of St. Jude and the Book of Revelation.

3  “But Michael the archangel, when contending with the devil he disputed about the body of Moses, durst not bring against him a railing judgment, but said, The Lord rebuke thee.”, The Bible, American Standard Version, Jude 1-9.

4  No doubt the ‘Angel’ has been historically distorted – originally being ‘Angles’ of Danish and North-German extraction.

5  St. Michael’s bread (Michaelmas Bannock in Scotland), is supposed to be made without metal implements, but no one knows why. I suspect Tolkien thought of an apt mythological reason which will be revealed in Part II.

6  There are only two mentions of ‘goose’ or ‘geese’ within the novel. Gandalf at Rivendell raises the same observation as Butterbur does at the reaction of these animals to demonic beings. One might rightly wonder if Tolkien decided the saying: ‘your goose is cooked’ arose in a mythological sense from the Bree episode, with the screaming geese effectively betokening their own sacrificial doom was nigh – in honor of a future Michaelmas Day.

7  See The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letters #64, #89 & #213.

8  Perhaps symbolically intended by Tolkien, the hobbits felt that safety and sanctuary awaited once they had passed by the ‘north-gate’ of the Barrow-downs:

“… the gap in the hills, the north-gate of the Barrow-downs. If they could pass that, they would be free.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

A tenuous link thus exists with St. Michael’s at the North Gate, Oxford.

9  Again in a ‘fairy tale’, here we have another example of the ubiquitous number ‘3’.

10  The various calendars associated to The Lord of the Rings are provided in Appendix D. The situation is complex in trying to relate the Tale of Years calendar with the Shire and Númenórean ones, all back to our current day Gregorian calendar. To cut to the chase – the four dates listed under the Tale of Years which I have specified under Note 1 as matching/approximating to the old English ‘quarter days’ were considered by Tolkien to be of great significance. Indeed holy significance – because as Tolkien said in Letter #142 – The Lord of the Rings is “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work”. As sourced from a mythological era, these particular four dates were meant to be carried forward from prehistory through to fulfillment in biblical times and then to current times, and to be venerated essentially unchanged. And this is regardless of whether the The Lord of the Rings fictional dates exactly match up with our current Gregorian calendar or not. We need look no further than the noteworthy fictional dates, themselves, being prime examples of employed symbolism where:

“… the religious element is absorbed into the story …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #142

Also of interest, Tolkien associates the Númenórean calendar of Middle-earth most closely with our Gregorian calendar (see Letter #176) for which September 29th is designated as Michaelmas Day. ‘Old’ Michaelmas Day under the Julian calendar fell on October 11th (or 10th).

The Road to Fairyland

This essay is best viewed in single page format. If it appears in two column style – an adjustment can be made by selecting zoom at 125% to 175% under the ‘Settings’ tab
Part III: The Opening Command – Simply Childe’s Play

This essay is split into three parts. The themes discussed in parts ‘a’ and ‘b’, aid a deeper understanding of the revelation in part ‘c’. If I am right, for the first time we will grasp much of the true story behind the Barrow-downs adventure. We will finally fully comprehend what happened between the green mounded hill and Frodo’s capture by the Barrow-wight.

 

Part IIIa: Adults and Detail

A matter unrecognized among general readers, and perhaps some scholars, is that at outset Tolkien envisaged The Lord of the Rings to be of roughly similar length1 to The Hobbit. At a point some fourteen months after first putting pen to paper, he felt he was over halfway through as:

“… The Lord of the Rings – had reached2 Chapter 12 (and had been re-written several times), running to over 300 MS. Pages …”,
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #35

requiring an additional:

“… 200 at least to finish the story that has developed.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #35

Aiming for around 20 chapters (assuming ~60 percent had already been written), the book would have run to about where Farewell to Lórien ends up being in the finished item. Anticipated was a relatively short production, and knowing so we must realize that the entire Bombadil episode would have constituted a substantial part of the tale. Given as much, we ought not to be surprised if Tolkien input intense effort into the early chapters. And indeed he did – of a scholastic nature. For far more academic material was inserted than will ever come across no matter how many re-readings are undertaken. That is unless the reader is well-acquainted with fairy tales, Celtic mythology, medieval works – and can connect the ingenious infusion of all three within the text.

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.The Easton Press Editions of Tolkien’s Works
(Side-by-side thickness comparisons are deceptive)

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For these initial twelve chapters Tolkien complained:

“The writing of The Lord of the Rings is laborious, because I have been doing it as well as I know how, and considering every word.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #35

Not that the rest was less diligently crafted:

“It is written in my life-blood, …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #109

The Professor had poured his heart and soul into the exercise. Using immense skill he left an underlying structure which few have fully comprehended; and that is especially true when it comes to Tom and Goldberry. Such attention to detail was particularly necessary because the targeted audience was an older age group – a faction more critical and certainly less forgiving than young folk:

“I really meant it was running its course, and forgetting ‘children’, and was becoming more terrifying than the Hobbit. It may prove quite unsuitable. It is more ‘adult’ …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #34

“I think The Lord of the Rings is in itself a good deal better than The Hobbit, but it may not prove a very fit sequel. It is more grown up – but the audience for which The Hobbit was written has done that also.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #35

Already a flavor of the professional criticism to come had been received from both peer writers and the media in the aftermath of The Hobbit. For example the acclaimed author Arthur Ransome had quibbled about an irksome inconsistency of:

“… Gandalf’s use of the term ‘excitable little man’ as a description of Bilbo. He cited other, similar uses of ‘man’ or ‘men’ to describe dwarves and goblins.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #20 (see notes)

Even more worryingly The Observer had published a letter questioning the originality of the name: ‘Hobbit’. Tolkien vigorously defended the story’s core invention but readily admitted some minor errors had crept in and improvements were desirable. Still he had been primed as to the type and depth of critiquing to come.

Though Tolkien had expected research, only under specific circumstances would it be sanctioned:

“When they have read it, some readers will (I suppose) wish … to analyze it, … they are, of course, at liberty to do these things – so long as they have first read it with attention throughout.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #329    (Tolkien’s italicized emphasis on ‘first’)

It had to be diligently performed, be objective in nature and undertaken with careful thought. Those are obvious baseline criteria for a pedantic philologist – because in no uncertain terms Tolkien demanded we pay attention to the text. However while still alive, he felt independently conducted research was unnecessary as he was always there to be directly asked:

“I do not know why they should research … after all I hold the key.”
– Niekas interview, 1967

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Cover of Niekas Fanzine #18 – containing transcript of Tolkien interview, 1967

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The trouble with all this is that the Professor, though willing to expand on many topics, was reluctant to give us the keys to Bombadil. Whenever asked, the questions were deflected or cryptically responded to. So to ferret out answers we are left with limited options. Nevertheless our quest requires us to take a path.

The path I have chosen – is indeed one that really is not so strange. Indeed it is one we can discern from many of his comments as a valid one. A roadway paved of blended mythology and fairy tale was simply a continuation of the themes underlying The Hobbit. The road headed in the right direction, because undoubtedly noted was the glowing praise published in a highly reputable English newspaper:

“… one of the book’s charms appears to be its Spenserian harmonising of the brilliant threads of so many branches of epic, mythology, and Victorian fairy literature.”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #25

Tolkien confirmed the approach had mostly been correctly interpreted:

“As for the rest of the tale it is, … derived from (previously digested) epic, mythology, and fairy-story …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #25

And so encouraged by success, it is fairly obvious that following a tried and tested route was a no-brainer when it came to The Lord of the Rings. His own tastes echoed the desires of many others. Nor was he afraid to admit the internal seed came deeply implanted:

“But an equally basic passion of mine ab initio was for myth (not allegory!) and for fairy-story, and above all for heroic legend on the brink of fairy-tale and history, …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131

A later admission relates how relieved he felt knowing his long-standing belief was vilified:

“… it remains an unfailing delight to me to find my own belief justified: that the ‘fairy-story’ is really an adult genre …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #159

‘So where are we heading?’ one might ask.
‘There’s nothing radical here – it’s common knowledge Tolkien tailored The Lord of the Rings towards adults, and his extraordinary efforts in formulating the text are equally well-known among scholars:

“Hardly a word in its 600,000 or more has been unconsidered. And the placing, size, style, and contribution to the whole of all the features, incidents, and chapters has been laboriously pondered.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131

Well all I am requesting at this stage is that readers bear the adult nature of the book, as well as Tolkien’s penchant for mythology and fairy-stories, uppermost in their minds when it comes to later revelations in this essay.

 

Part IIIb: Cross-fertilization of English and Celtic Fairy Tales

Moving chronologically back to the story’s beginning, of the many problems Tolkien faced early on in constructing an elaborate tale – there were two that particularly concern us. The first was what was he going to do with Tom Bombadil. The second was a major preoccupation in preparing an ‘Andrew Lang’ Fairy-stories lecture paper. Refreshing his memory on Andrew Lang’s twelve fairy-story books (and no doubt many other fairy tales) must have had an impact in itself. Dealing academically with ‘faërie’ and ‘fairies’, over the course of five months3, might simultaneously have led to contemplating roles and firming-up genera for our merry couple. Particularly as this time period overlapped with his formulation/revision of the chapters involving Bombadil.

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Andrew Lang’s Twelve Colored Fairy Books

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In putting out a thesis about fairyland and fairies – was his new ‘fairy tale’ going to be devoid of such a place and creatures? Were the many historical accounts telling of fairy encounters just mumbo-jumbo? Were the tales of how men and women have disappeared with the fairies, oblivious of a different pace of time in the mortal world, totally fictitious? Hmm … these were issues not easily ruled upon. Though eventually a decision had to be made.

When it came down to it – the choice was quite straight-forward. For The Lord of the Rings key lacunae would need filling. Unfortunately his ‘race’ of Elves just wouldn’t do:

“Elves is an English word, but the nature and history of the peoples so-called in my books has little or nothing to do with the European traditions about Elves or Fairies.”
– Tolkien Letter to L.M. Cutts, October 1958

Such a point cannot be stressed enough; we must divorce ourselves from thinking European fairies and Tolkien’s Elves were synonymous or equivalents. Such a position even appears to exclude the Tuatha Dé Danann, which many scholars would find a touch incredulous.

Now if we look carefully there is not a single explicit mention of ‘faërie’, ‘fay’, ‘fairy’ or similar namesakes in the entire novel. However omission of specific terminology wouldn’t pose too much of a problem as long as the book contained them and buried within were reasonable pointers inferring so. It’s my belief that dwelling on the sub-topics of ‘faërie’ and ‘fairies’ for his lecture essay presented a neat solution about what to do with Tom and Goldberry. The:

“… ‘adventure’ on the way.”,
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153

rendered an ideal plot device.

But there was another problem. Till then he had only ever described one faërie to the public at large, namely the: ‘Faërie in the West’. But that’s not the way it was going to be. He needed to connect our folklore/legends/myths with his mythical age. Thus ultimately he was faced with the dilemma posed by all the accounts of faërie in European historical literature, particularly those tied to the soil of the British Isles. Moreover there existed a plethora of records pertaining to supernatural and very ‘peculiar’ fairy-like beings, ranging from tiny to ~human-size, inhabiting England and nearby lands. These were in no way reconcilable with the demi-gods and High Elves dwelling in a paradise-like otherworld sited across an expanse of water from his pre-existing Silmarillion mythology. Nor were any of the ‘peculiar’ sort anything like the noble Elves of Middle-earth. A thousand years of our world’s history could not be simply brushed under the carpet. There had to be something more to it all.

My personal thoughts are that Tolkien wrestled with such dilemmas actively. Giving due consideration to these matters – a tandem solution was at hand. I believe he thought it best to include faërie-beings into a new ‘Middle-earth Faërie’ specifically created for the novel. With one swipe of logic – a tenable path opened up offering a solution with Tom and Goldberry at the heart of it.

Now the concept of two faëries is by no means an unfamiliar one. For the Celts of Ireland – the land of Tír na nÓg– an idyllic island situated far out west in the ocean is deeply embedded in their lore. It is equally relevant as the one below hills in which the sidhe folk dwelt. Likewise in Welsh Celtic legends there are also two faëries purported to exist. In Arthurian lore (naturalized later to England) – the land of Avalon is also storied to be across a watery expanse, while Annwn is situated under the earth. But it is possibly a direct account of an otherworld below the very soil of England that spurred Tolkien to design in Middle-earth Faërie. The extraordinary account of the famed Woolpit children emerging from underground in Suffolk in the twelfth century is an intriguing tale evoking debate even to this day. It was Ralph of Coggeshall and William of Newburgh who both recorded how two strange green-skinned children were found by locals, lost and unable to communicate in English.

Practically starving, all the boy and girl would eat were ‘green beans’ which they devoured readily. Later after learning the language – the girl claimed they had come from another land and had got lost after stumbling out of a cavern. They had then become disoriented by the bright sun; a sun which didn’t exist in their world. Astoundingly she recounted all the folk in their land were green tinged too.

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Woolpit Village sign honoring The Green Children

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Tolkien might well have been fascinated5. Hmm … ‘beans’ – a legendary item in English fairy tales! Were green beans solely responsible for their pallor? Then were the children from faërie? Were beans regular fairy-food, and is that why the Green Knight (in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) portrayed a similarly hue? Perhaps the account was inaccurately documented. Perhaps there really was a green sun in an otherworld below England and it was the cause of such skin shading. Perhaps it was so low on the horizon – that only at high altitudes could it be directly glimpsed – leaving the general aura of light described by the children as true!

It is these sorts of ideas and thoughts that may well have whirred about in the Professor’s mind. Particularly because he once confessed an attraction towards stories of strange lands below the earth:

“I am extremely fond of the genre, even having read Land under England with some pleasure …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #26

Inevitably and inexorably – one can understand why a Middle-earth Faërie was included in The Lord of the Rings, and as I have suggested – how it came to possess a green sun.

Now Fairyland as a land-based otherworld in historical literature has always had a strong connection to ‘green hills’ in our world. The fairy tale accounts are numerous – and as examples I have listed an assortment below from both Britain and Ireland.

Celtic Tales:

“ ‘… I come from the Plains of the Ever Living,’ she said, ‘there where there is neither death nor sin. … And in all our pleasure we have no strife. And because we have our homes in the round green hills, men call us the Hill Folk.’ ”
– Celtic Fairy Tales, Connla and the Fairy Maiden, Joseph Jacobs, 1892    (my underlined emphasis)

“The Queen o’ Fairies she caught me
In yon green hill to dwell.”
– English and Scottish Ballads, Tam Lin, 1904    (my emphasis)

“On a certain night the old man told him the green round hill, where the fairies kept the boy, would be open.”
– Popular Tales of the West Highlands Vol. II, The Smith and the Fairies, J. F. Campbell, 1890    (my emphasis)

English Tales:

“Away rode the prince and Kate through the greenwood, … They rode on and on till they came to a green hill. The prince here drew bridle and spoke, ‘Open, open, green hill, and let the young prince in …’ ”.
– English Fairy Tales, Kate Crackernuts, Joseph Jacobs, 1890    (my emphasis)

“ ‘Go on a, little further,’ said the henwife, ’till you come to a round green hill, surrounded with terrace-rings, from the bottom to the top; go round it three times, widershins, and each time say:’Open, door! Open, door! And let me come in.’ ”
– English Fairy Tales, Childe Rowland, Joseph Jacobs, 1890    (my emphasis)

“Once upon a time … there was wont to walk many harmless spirits called fairies, dancing brave order in fairy rings on green hills with sweet music.”
– Fairy Gold: A Book of Old English Fairy Tales, Ernest Rhys, 1906    (my emphasis)

Not only ‘hills’, but a connection of ‘mist’ with fairies also existed. The Tuatha Dé Danann concealed themselves at times with the féth fíada or fairy mist (also known as the: ceo Sídhe). The Welsh fairies, the Tylwyth Teg, according to Sir John Rhys’ investigations6 frequented mountainsides covered with mist. And so it might have been a Welsh tale which caught the Professor’s eye:

“One day when it was cloudy and misty, a shepherd boy going to the mountains … came to a hollow place … where he saw a number of round rings. He recognized the place as one he had often heard of as dangerous … He tried to get away from there, but he could not. Then an old, merry, blue-eyed man7 appeared. The boy, … followed the old man, and the old man said to him, ‘Do not speak a word till I tell you.’ In a little while they came to a menhir (long stone). The old man tapped it three times, and then lifted it up. A narrow path with steps descending was revealed, … ‘Follow me,’ said the old man, ‘no harm will come to you.’ …”.
– The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, Einion and Olwen, Walter Y. Evans-Wentz, 1911    (my emphasis)

The blue-eyed old man descended into an otherworld – a merry old man endowed with the characteristics of a creature of faërie – and one Tolkien could reconcile as Bombadil perhaps? Equally interesting is the hollow setting and the menhir, and it being key to entry. Once again we have the usual number of ‘three’ so abundantly common in fairy tales. Perhaps then, there was a way into faërie; perhaps it involved green hills, a hollow place, mist, a solitary menhir and the number three?

What this Welsh Celtic tale resembled in part was The Adventures of Covan the Brown-haired8 – an Irish Celtic fairy tale. And that equally may have resonated with the Professor. Because therein was another old man – the ‘Spirit of old Age’ who was linked to a youthful golden-haired damsel depicted as combing her hair. The story itself centered on three sons who sought for their sister after a mysterious disappearance. It was the youngest who in the end succeeded and saved not only his sister but restored his brothers who had been turned to stone.

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Covan the Brown-haired, The Orange Fairy Book, Andrew Lang, 1906

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Tolkien probably felt much had got mixed up in the ‘pot of soup’. Yet his sympathies appear to have belonged to the English and their fairy tales (as opposed to Celtic ones), believing they reflected a truer account of fairies:

“… the English) have the true tradition of the fairies, of whom the Íras and the Wéalas (the Irish and Welsh) tell garbled things.”
– The Book of Lost Tales, Volume II, The History of Eriol or Ælfwine

His former tutor Sir John Rhys (Professor of Celtic Studies at Oxford) had deduced that much cross-fertilization had taken place between English and Celtic tales. Tolkien might have found it hard to disagree with one particular case. Because The Adventures of Covan the Brown-haired and Einion and Olwen9 certainly resonate with that great English fairy tale: Childe Rowland.

 

Part IIIc: The Lord of the Rings and the Way into Middle-earth Faërie

Now Wilfred Rowland Childe, a poet and critic, was a family friend of the Tolkien’s – and indeed Christopher’s godfather. However, as far as I can tell he had nothing to do with our story of interest: Childe Rowland. Regarded by the great folklorist Joseph Jacobs as his favorite tale, its salubrious historical significance was not lost but instead emphasized:

“ ‘Childe Rowland,’ is mentioned by Shakespeare in King Lear, and is probably, as I have shown, the source of Milton’s Comus. … Certainly no other folk-tale in the world can claim so distinguished an offspring.”
– English Fairy Tales, Childe Rowland, Notes and References, Joseph Jacobs, 1890

The story centers around a quest by the youngest son of a widow to bring back his missing sister, Burd Ellen10, to the mortal world. Two of his brothers had failed trying and in the process been captured by an Elf king in Elfland (also called the ‘Land of Faery’11). Merlin, the famous wizard in Arthurian lore, features prominently in relating the cause behind the mysterious disappearance of the young girl; furthermore advice is provided to all three brothers on how to win her back. In the end it is Childe Rowland who rescues his sister and saves his other siblings too.

There are a number of points in the tale which directly interest us when it comes to The Lord of the Rings. These include a mention of ‘Middle-earth’, a ‘Dark Tower’, the hero being a ‘widows’ son’, a variant of the famous giant refrain: ‘fe-fi-fo-fum’, as well as a ‘restoration of souls’. However I will not dwell on these further – except to state that here we have yet more examples of links to Tolkien’s novel involving classic fairy tale. Instead what I want to focus on is the way Burd Ellen inadvertently entered Elfland and then relate that back to The Lord of the Rings.

Although there are possibly several ways for mortals to stumble into the fabled realm of the fairies, I have a feeling Tolkien was intrigued by Burd Ellen’s accidental entry method in chasing a ball around a sacred site. Childe Rowland seeking an explanation is informed by the ‘Warlock Merlin’ that she:

“… must have been carried off by the fairies, because she went round the church ‘wider shins’ – the opposite way to the sun.”
– English Fairy Tales, Childe Rowland, Joseph Jacobs, 1890

Jacobs explains:

“ ‘Widershins’ is probably … analogous to the German ‘wider Schein,’ against the appearance of the sun, ‘counterclockwise’ as the mathematicians say—i.e., W., S., E., N., instead of with the sun and the hands of a clock; …”.
– English Fairy Tales, Childe Rowland Notes and References, Joseph Jacobs, 1890

Apparently as ancient pagan tradition has it, to travel contrary to the sun’s course is considered unlucky as ones’ shadow is always left behind. To go widershins – meaning to travel around an object counter-clockwise – was an act contrary to God’s design. Burd Ellen ran against the light, so that her shadow was not visible to her – and this left her vulnerable.

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Burd Ellen, English Fairy Tales by J. Jacobs, Illustration by J. Batten, 1890

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Childe Rowland is not the only example of a British fairy tale where the term ‘widershins’ is employed. The prose version of the Tam Lin ballad also uses it:

“ ‘But how did you get there, Tamlane?’ said Burd Janet.
‘I was hunting one day, and as I rode widershins round yon hill, a deep drowsiness fell upon me, and when I awoke, behold! I was in Elfland. …’ ”.
– More English Fairy Tales, Tamlane, Joseph Jacobs, 1894

Yet it seems too easy for mortals to attain a passport to enter faërie simply by completing one widershins circuit around a hill or a place of worship. If my intuition is correct Tolkien thought along the same lines. In pagan worship standing stones were objects central to druid rites, and of course in pre-history there were no churches. Getting into faërie in ancient times was more believable if menhirs were involved, and just like the Childe Rowland depiction, the number of circuits made was that ubiquitous number ‘three’:

“Go on a little further, … till you come to a round green hill, surrounded with terrace-rings, from the bottom to the top; go round it three times, widershins, and each time say: Open, door! open, door! And let me come in. and the third time the door will open, and you may go in.”
– English Fairy Tales, Childe Rowland, Joseph Jacobs, 1890    (my emphasis)

Another case of ‘third time pays for all’! Then perhaps in fairy tale lies the ancient proverb’s source!

In any case it’s time to turn to The Lord of the Rings and understand how cleverly Tolkien manipulated the text when it came to the green rimmed hill and standing stone sitting atop. By including some most mysterious events, he left us a puzzle to solve. Oh no – he wasn’t about to explain each and every point as fairy tales so often do for children. This was a riddle – a riddle meant for adults – in an adult fairy tale. It was up to us to arrive at a solution. And if we look carefully and think like adults – indeed we can!

The Fog on the Barrow-downs text tells us that in coming from the south, the hobbits reached a dished hill with a mounded rim and rode up and across its top. Peering towards the north, presumably when close to or at the northern rim, they decided not to descend but to take a break. At this point it is clear the four friends had bypassed the center of the hollow and the standing stone. The only question we need to concern ourselves with right now is:

‘On which side of the enchanted stone had they passed?’

In looking northwards atop his pony, we are told Frodo glanced towards the east however the sight made him uneasy:

“… on that side the hills were higher and looked down upon them; and all those hills were crowned with green mounds, and on some were standing stones, pointing upwards like jagged teeth out of green gums.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

Given that the text tells us:

“… they turned from the sight …”,
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

in deciding to ride towards the center of the hollow, the logical deduction is that indeed the hobbits had passed by the stone on the eastern side as opposed to the western one. Otherwise they would have turned towards those disconcerting range of high hills. The turn had to be an anti-clockwise one conducted north-east of the stone. Thus they had come from the south, must have ridden past the stone’s eastern side and left it behind them as they had made their way to the hill top’s northern perimeter. So indeed we can safely conclude about a half a circuit had been completed ‘widershins’ by the point the decision was taken to head backwards towards the standing stone from their northern vantage point.

After reaching the stone and unloading their ponies, they set their backs on its east face. Presumably the hollow was deep enough to mask the view of the menacing eastern hills. Anyhow at their awakening, as the fog rolled in, the text tells us they then made a bee-line for:

“… the western rim.”,
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

only to see the sun set before their eyes. The next question we have to ask ourselves is:

‘Which way around the menhir did they go and then which way did they come back?’

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.Plucked from the Fairy Circle, T. H. Thomas Illustration from Wirt Sikes’s British Goblins (1880) – Note direction of travel is counter-clockwise

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The text is not explicit. And Tolkien possibly left it that way intentionally. In this case we must, as adults, make a logical deduction. Did they complete one anti-clockwise circuit and go around the stone widershins or not? Did four hobbits make a total of at least three complete laps? Well he left it for us to deduce knowing full well that those who were prepared to scrutinize the text and who were well-versed in English fairy tales would have been able to astutely guess the correct answer!

Using the lore embedded in fairy tales in combination with faith in our judgement might have been fine with the Professor. There is after all mathematically a 25% chance that an anti-clockwise route was taken – which are odds not to be sneered at. But I believe Tolkien would have both expected and wanted us to use logical reasoning to obtain the most likely answer. As an example it is worth repeating his line of thinking when it came to the question of Shadowfax accompanying Gandalf aboard ship:

“I think Shadowfax certainly went with Gandalf [across the Sea], though this is not stated. I feel it is better not to state everything (and indeed it is more realistic, since in chronicles and accounts of ‘real’ history, many facts that some enquirer would like to know are omitted, and the truth has to be discovered or guessed from such evidence as there is).”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #268

In other words, there is nothing wrong in mentally challenging oneself to solve the ‘riddle’ using intellect, logic and “such evidence as there is”.

‘Which path around the stone would the hobbits have gone after awakening in fright? Which way around would they have gone in heading towards the western rim of the hollow?’

To solve the dilemma one must ask oneself: ‘Would their secondary focus have been northwards towards leaving the Downs or southwards back towards Bombadil?’

Logic tells us that despite heading west their path lay northwards, and one can easily imagine them glancing that way in hope of a glimpse through the fog of that all important:

“… gate-like opening at the far northward end of the long valley …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

Thus one might reason they rounded the menhir on the north side, and in reaching the hollow’s western rim, a three-quarters circuit widershins resulted.

‘But what about on their way back to the stone. For surely they must have returned to gather belongings?’

Again we can employ a dose of logic. The ponies and their positioning are key here. As the text states, after initially reaching the standing stone, the hobbits had removed all packs so that:

“Their ponies unburdened strayed upon the grass.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

Once at the western rim, as the sun set and the fog closed in, clearly conveyed is a hurry to leave that forbidding place. It seems logical the hobbits would have directly headed towards the ponies, then led them back towards the standing stone to re-lade their gear which must have been earlier off-loaded nearby it.

‘But in which quadrant were the ponies?’

Tolkien left us a telling clue in that Bombadil later related the ponies:

“… sniff danger ahead which you walk right into; and if they run to save themselves, then they run the right way.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

After all, a ‘sixth-sense’ gloom seems to have hung over the beasts in being portrayed in the hollow:

“… standing crowded together with their heads down.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

If I were to hazard a guess – I would say they were located in one of the two southern quadrants closest to Bombadil and furthest from the impending danger beyond the hill’s northern slope. Thus in gathering the ponies and then heading back towards the standing stone to collect the pony packs – one complete circuit ought to have been made ‘widershins’ by each hobbit! At least three in total!

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Counter-clockwise – Widershins (Widdershins)

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Finally Tolkien’s masterful ploy, so adeptly inserted that it’s hardly noticeable, is revealed for all to marvel at. This is why Tom didn’t want the hobbits:

“… a-meddling with old stone …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

This was the way for a mortal to open up the way into fairyland. Not three taps on a menhir but three times around one widershins! For indeed the sudden magical appearance of the standing stones, functioning:

“… like the pillars of a headless door, …”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

where there had been none before, provided the entrance into what I term: Middle-earth Faërie!

So for the first time ever and after more than sixty years, we can connect all the pieces of the puzzle and truly comprehend the essence of this portion of the story. But more so we can appreciate Tolkien’s genius in the way English fairy tale was once again woven into the story along with a riddle for adults to solve.

And if you think that the revelations so far are eye-opening, prepare for something even more dramatic in my next essay. It is time to switch full attention back to Bombadil and expose one of his greatest secrets. A secret that enthusiasts should find absolutely astounding. A secret so carefully concealed that once again it’s been missed by every reader of The Fellowship of the Ring since the day it was published!

 

Footnotes:

1  In terms of chapter quantity, but not total number of equivalent pages.

2  The statement is not specific enough to determine whether Tolkien had just started on Chapter 12 or finished it.

3  The Andrew Lang lecture award offer was officially sent to Tolkien on 8 October 1938. Lecture delivery date was 8 March 1939.

4  Tír na nÓg is translated as the ‘country of the young’. It is regarded by some scholars to be equivalent to Hy-Brasil.

5  The tale of The Green Children was published in E. S. Hartland’s English Fairy and Other Folk Tales, 1890. Per ‘Bibliographies’ in Tolkien On Fairy-stories by Flieger and Anderson, Tolkien cited or consulted this work for his On Fairy-stories paper.

6  See Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, Vol. I, Fairy Ways and Words, 1901 by Sir John Rhys.

7  In one version he is a ‘little fat old man with merry blue eyes’ (Welsh Folk-lore A Collection of the Folk-tales and Legends of North Wales, Men Captured by Fairies, 1887 by Elias Owen). Curiously the ‘little old man leading a mortal to an otherworld’ also arises in Owen Goes A-Wooing in The Welsh Fairy Book, 1908 by W.J. Thomas.

8  The tale was published in Andrew Lang’s: The Orange Fairy Book, 1906.

9  The tale was repeated by Sir John Rhys in Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx and appears in The Welsh Fairy Book, 1908 by W.J. Thomas under Einion and the Fair Family.

10  In Flora Annie Steel’s, English Fairytales, 1918, the sister is called ‘Burd Helen’.

11  See Flora Annie Steel’s, English Fairytales, 1918.

 

Revisions:

10/16/2017 – Added: ‘This is why Tom didn’t want the hobbits’. Added quote: “… a-meddling with old stone …”.

The Road to Fairyland

This essay is best viewed in single page format. If it appears in two column style – an adjustment can be made by selecting zoom at 125% to 175% under the ‘Settings’ tab.
Part II: Sir Tom and the Green Hill at Night

‘Belt-up Tom! Belt-up as a knight should when going into battle against the forces of evil. And wear that precious belt every day – for you know not when the wicked will strike!’

Is that the advice Tolkien would have given his beloved creation? Hmm … what exactly lay underneath that bright blue jacket? What held up his green stockings that The Lord of the Rings reader should have known – and that Tolkien full well knew?

The Professor belatedly revealed the source of Tom’s near-invincibility in 1962 many years after The Lord of the Rings was published. Still the updated Adventures poem cannot be ignored. It is unquestionably part of the mythology and most definitely inseparable from it. Tom’s possession of a very particular belt meant a hidden power was with him when worn:

“… green were his girdle …”.
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1962

Because the girdle was undoubtedly, in Tolkien’s mind, the same as the one owned by the wife of Lord Bertilak of Hautdesert – a fay creature from the medieval Sir Gawain & The Green Knight tale. The legendary girdle itself was a potent source of defense, shielding its wearer (under specific terms) from being slain in combat or else how:

“ ‘… For whoever goes girdled with this green riband, while he keeps it well clasped closely about him, there is none so hardy under heaven that to hew him were able; for he could not be killed by any cunning of hand.’ ”
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Sir Orfeo – Tolkien’s translation

Taught by Tolkien at Oxford over many years and the subject of his own published academic views, the Arthurian romance was one which he could justly claim to be an expert of. It seems that once again Tolkien’s desire to link ancient fairy tale to his own myth is exhibited through selection of this fabled article. Who was the original owner, he must surely have pondered while studying Sir Gawain & The Green Knight? Where did it come from and how was it passed on? Though I have speculatively provided answers, perhaps it doesn’t really matter. What we now know with almost absolute certainty is that Tom once possessed it.

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Sir Gawain & The Green Knight, Tolkien & Gordon

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Tom in the tale was so cock-sure of himself. Maybe some of the swagger came from a concealed item of clothing. Endowed with a miraculous quality, its magic could only be overcome by someone mightier than the one who had placed the enchantment or by deceitful guile. Despite Lady Bertilak’s claim, those were the usual provisos.

Yet the chances are it wasn’t just the green girdle which was pulled from Sir Gawain & The Green Knight and surreptitiously absorbed into The Lord of the Rings. A strong suspicion exists that Tolkien also represented Sir Gawain’s quest destination: the ‘Green Chapel’. Subtly placed in the Barrow-downs adventure are indications of a similar holy feature in the landscape.

In Sir Gawain & The Green Knight – the Green Chapel in Tolkien’s own words was:

“… nothing else than a fairy mound; …”.
– Sir Gawain & The Green Knight, Tolkien & Gordon, Note to Line 151

It was barely more than a hillock of grass at which the hero would meet his doom. Nevertheless the eerie location resonates with the shallow hill which the hobbits encountered soon after leaving Tom and Goldberry.

“About mid-day they came to a hill at noon whose top was wide and flattened, …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

The slope being mild enough to ride their ponies up meant that it was just a gentle tumulus. Be that is at may, this too was a sacred place with its single stone standing ominously atop. Yet not sacred to pagans (or obviously Christians) – but instead to fairy-folk. For I believe this was pictured as another ‘fairy mound’. And it was to Celtic legends that Tolkien turned for the halt in the journey.

Exactly why? Well I can do no better than articulate using established scholars’ words. At a higher level:

“Tolkien’s works are deliberately complex and multi-layered, drawing on many traditions, … The principal conceit of Tolkien’s legendarium is that it stands as a lost prehistoric tradition, of which the many myths and legends we know in our primary world are meant (fictively, by Tolkien) to be echoes fragments and transformations.”
– Tolkien and the Study of His Sources, What Does It All Mean, Jason Fisher

At a lower level seeding was accomplished through:

“ … the author’s habitual practice of working through early English texts to trace their “deep roots” back to some hypothetical prehistory.”
– Tolkien Studies Vol 8, Tolkien’s Goldberry and The Maid of the Moor, John Bowers

Thus it should come as no surprise (as we have already seen) how both sophisticated and unsophisticated fairy tale textual fragments were subsumed into The Lord of the Rings. Effectively this meant we were left with an enveloping work containing the germs of others whose shoots would eventually grow and intertwine into the Tree of Tales. For fundamentally Tolkien’s opus:

“… is a ‘fairy-story’, but one written … for adults.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #181    (Tolkien’s emphasis)

With the premise that the focus would be :

“… ‘English’ … that is because I am English … no one of us can really invent or ‘create’ in a void, we can only reconstruct and perhaps impress a personal pattern on ‘ancestral’ material …”.
– Letter to L.M. Cutts, 1956

And that ancestral material would have to include Celtic facets. Simply because the most ancient surviving prehistory of England (particularly Oxfordshire and Berkshire) visibly are neolithic mounds, barrows and stone monoliths left behind by the primeval forefathers of those peoples. Including Celtic tales fundamentally made sense since such records form some of the oldest written links to these monuments and features.

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Lambourn Seven Barrows, Berkshire

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Some scholars will no doubt point to Tolkien’s aversion to Celtic myth for which he felt:

“… a certain distaste: largely for their fundamental unreason. They have bright colour, but are like a broken stained glass window reassembled without design. They are in fact ‘mad’ … but I don’t believe I am.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #19

However given an extensive collection of books in his personal library – we know the Professor was well-versed in the individual tales of the ancient inhabitants of the British Isles:

“I do know Celtic things (many in their original languages Irish and Welsh), …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #19

Obviously his proficiency was sufficient to warrant award of the inaugural lecture under the O’Donnell Trust in 1955. Titled: English and Welsh, the published piece covered much specific to Welsh Celtic legends.

The Professor was absolutely right. Celtic tales were in many cases disjointed, repetitive and of overlapping themes without ordered structure (unlike those of the Greeks). A lack of coherency bothered Tolkien – because these were legends fringing his own beloved land of England. Yet he had no choice but to deal with them as much had seeped across porous borders; especially when it came to fairies:

“The English fairy … has borrowed more and more … from Ireland and Scotland, … from the daoine sithe … ”.
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Flieger & Anderson  (Tolkien’s emphasis)

Without getting into detailed reasoning, let it just be said that Tolkien tried to make sense of many of the stories. In the end he failed, as all scholars have, to give them ordered consistency. Nonetheless some sense could be grasped and cleverly he blended select pieces together to make a cogent narrative for his own book:

“… this is an ‘imaginary’ world …”,
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #190   (Tolkien’s emphasis)

created to possess:

“… coherent structure which it took me years to work out.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #190

As well as the standing stones and associated rings, part of the plan was to transfer the rolling hills and gentle tumuli of his local countryside to a similar zone in the book. Indeed there are several on the Lambourn Downs, just a few miles from his home town of Oxford, which he could have based the scenery of the Barrow-downs chapter upon. One famous mound in Oxfordshire – the bowl barrow Dragon Hill, is highly reminiscent of Tolkien’s design. In any event, it was particularly important that a hill was included – for from a fairy tale standpoint, time and again, this would be the place where magical happenings first sprung.

Bearing all this in mind I cannot help but believe that Tolkien largely based the shallow hill of the Downs on one slightly further afield; indeed one sited in Ireland: the famed ‘Hill of Tara’. As legend has it within hollow hills dwelt the race of the Fairies. Here in Irish folklore lay the entrance to the underground land of the Celtic daoine sithe (Tuatha-Dé-Dannan). A spiritual place which in folklore is acknowledged as simply a fairy mound under the guardianship of the Celtic god Lugh (also spelled Lug).

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The Historic Hill of Tara, County Meath, Ireland

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The hill of the novel was not meant to be an identical copy – but one whose resemblance was unmistakably akin to the knowledgeable. The Irish hill in County Meath was ‘slightly’ modified in terms of architectural features for the tale. Instead of two distinct mounds at the top, Tolkien merged them together to make one:

“… shallow saucer with a green mounded rim.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

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Two rimmed mounds at the top of the Hill of Tara
(Mound on right with round saucer-like inner bowl,
Mound on left with the ‘Stone of Destiny’)

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The ditches and outer humps were discarded while the hollow turfed circle at the hill’s summit was kept. Perhaps the circle was the source of the legendary ‘fairy ring’ – the place where the fairies would come out to dance. This then, was no innocuous tumulus. Close by were barrows and underneath all this region lay fabled ‘Middle-earth Faërie’. So significantly the dished hill was marked by a special stone. In the middle of the hollow Tolkien placed the equivalent of Tara’s ‘Stone of Destiny’.

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Lia Fáil: The ‘Stone of Destiny’ – atop Hill of Tara

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This was Frodo’s destiny – to lie above the realm of the fairies oblivious of the matter. Yet to slumber against a sacred stone was no accidental act. The reader was made aware that for the hobbits it was:

“… a sleep they had never meant to take.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

Described as a “warning finger” and imbued with magical powers the enchanted standing stone was characterized to resemble the one at Tara. Furthermore it shared commonality with the one the Irish hero Cuchulainn1 fell asleep against:

“Cuchulainn went away to a menhir where he sat down and fell asleep.”
– The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, The Sick-Bed of Cuchulainn, Walter Evans-Wentz

Unfortunately the hobbits knew not what peril they were in. Foolishly they had not heeded the first of Tom’s warnings:

“ ‘… Don’t you go a-meddling with old stone …’ ”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Even more unfortunately they had slept on the wrong side:

“… they set their backs against the east side of the stone.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

Positioning themselves on the ‘trigger’ side had unleashed a magical fog – starting the process of opening up a way for mortals to enter the Perilous Realm. As the Sun’s power waned thick fog rolled in much like that encountered by the Irish hero Conn at Tara. Irish legend has it that when touched (by Conn the rightful king of Ireland), the stone:

“… screamed all over the land. This was followed by a thick fog, out of which rode a fairy prince, …”.
– Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion, The Insular Celts, John Rhys, 1888

Swiftly this was followed by teleportation to Lugh’s house, suggesting a magical link between Tara and the demi-god’s residence.

In any case, when it came to the Lia Fáil – for all others who touched it, there would be nothing but complete silence. And so quite appropriately (presuming similar modeling) the hobbits sensed no immediately obvious effect slumped up against the standing stone of the dished hill. Nevertheless that Middle-earth ‘otherworld’ for the novel (which the Celts termed as the Annwn or the Sidhe), and whose entrance was to be heralded by the sudden appearance of two magical standing stones, would soon be accessible. For Frodo:

“… suddenly he saw, towering ominous before him and leaning slightly towards one another like the pillars of a headless door, two huge standing stones.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

This mysterious hill with its ominously erect stone was the key to opening a portal linking two different planes of reality. A dangerous place it was for common folk, amid equally dangerous barrows close by. But no matter what the peril – aid would be there for those who asked. For the hobbits had a fairy on their side. An angelic knight would emerge from between two magical menhirs – perhaps modeled on those real ones adjacent to Tara.

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On the fringes of the Hill of Tara beside a Church are two standing stones

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With his legendary seven-league boots2 he would be there in a flash:

“Bright blue his jacket his and his boots are yellow. …                                           His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

Belted for battle with an enchanted green girdle – Tom would save them from disaster. In the nick of time he would arrive, but less like a mortal knight and more like a divine fairy. For the legend of Conn at Tara tells us that the “fairy prince” from the fog:

“… disclosed the future history of his country …” and “… is stated to have been called Lug, …”.
– Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion, The Insular Celts, John Rhys, 1888

Because the disclosure was about future Irish monarchs we have a situation paralleled in The Lord of the Rings. Another fairy-being similarly transmitted to the hobbits a faërian projection of lordly men and a Gondorian king perhaps to come. When Bombadil:

“… spoke they had a vision as it were of a great expanse of years behind them, like a vast shadowy plain over which there strode shapes of Men, tall and grim with bright swords, and last came one with a star on his brow.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

As myth handed down from time immemorial perhaps the Barrow-downs scene became distorted. Perhaps the fairy prince that rode out from the fog was really Tom on Fatty Lumpkin! And just maybe the legend morphed even more from a fairy-rescue to one made by a demi-god:

“… Lug … as a sun-god occupies a distinguished place in Irish legend.”
– Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion, The Insular Celts, John Rhys, 1888

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Lugh, shown triple-faced, Reims region, France

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Indeed it is not hard to see shades of the hypothetical origin of the Celtic solar god Lugh in The Lord of the Rings. For, very powerfully depicted, there was a ‘red-faced’ Tom at the barrow:

“… framed against the light of the sun rising red behind him.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

By invoking the Sun’s energy – the Wight was evicted from the Barrow:

“Vanish in the sunlight!”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

Adding to a solar-deity semblance was Lugh’s other role as a Storm-god:

“I’ll sing a wind up and blow leaf and branch away.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Old Forest

From what we can tell from surviving statues, Lugh was crowned with leaves just like Tom’s:

“… thick brown hair was crowned with autumn leaves.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Last but not least is that the Celtic god was titled Lugh Lámfada meaning ‘Lugh of the Long Arm’. Once again this was cleverly characterized in The Lord of the Rings. This time through Master3 Bombadil immobilizing the hobbits beyond arm’s length:

“… holding up one hand, and they stopped short, as if they had been struck stiff.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Old Forest   (my underlined emphasis)

Hmm … yes I know there is a lot to ponder upon; yet a mixture of fairy tales and Celtic legends allows us to solve and finally fully comprehend another mysterious happening in the fog-laden chapter. We should acknowledge that there is still much to uncover, and remind ourselves only Tolkien knew it all. Even the most renowned of scholars has noted there are things in the novel that appear inexplicable:

“… the incident in the barrow is most mysterious …”.                                             – J.R.R. Tolkien Author of the Century, pg. 67, Tom Shippey

What exactly was the green light in the Wight’s barrow that seemed to emanate from the ground about Frodo and then slowly intensify?

... a pale greenish light was growing round him. … the light seemed to be coming out from himself, and from the floor beside him, …”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

The scholar John Garth has put forward a theory4 that the scene may have been linked to Tolkien’s World War I trench warfare experiences and the combative deployment of poisonous gases. But this appears tenuous, especially because Tolkien refers to the aura as ‘light’. A far better and more believable explanation is that here we have simply a continuation of a fairy theme. In tandem with my fairy tale approach advocated all along, very succinctly – the green light was part of Tolkien’s vision of Middle-earth faërie. Here by the tumuli of the barrows, where two different worlds came closest to touching, the veil was thinnest. It was here why we can truly understand why:

“… green was a fairy colour …”.
– Sir Gawain & The Green Knight, J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon., 1925. pg. 86 line 151

And that was because Tolkien added to its folklore importance by giving his Middle-earth faërie a ‘green sun’! A sun which was beginning its ascent5 in fairyland below!

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A Rising Green Sun (or thereabouts!)

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Have you fallen over? If not read on, because quite astoundingly it is all codified in On Fairy-stories.

In perhaps his most interesting paper, advice from a personal perspective on secondary world-building remarkably flowed down into his own novel. For an inexperienced novelist trying to invent a fantasy world, Tolkien lectured: 

“Anyone … can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it. But that is not enough …”.
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

Surely Tolkien took the words of St. Augustine who mused upon the creativity of man. Emphasizing that though he had never seen a ‘green sun’ nevertheless it was within his:

“… power to conceive of it as square, …” or “… what color I please, …”,        
– The Doctrinal Treatise of St Augustine of Hippo, Chapter 8

Picking up from where St. Augustine left off, Tolkien warned intense effort would be necessary:

“To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun6 will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, …”.
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

Otherwise it would not possess “an inner consistency of reality”. The reader would disengage and be thrust back into the primary world. However if sufficient ‘realism’ was input, at the end of the exercise would be success:

“Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.”
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

A virtual confession was thus voiced in his paper On Fairy-stories. Tolkien in no roundabout way told us his intentions for The Lord of the Rings. How could he not practice what he preached? Especially as to all intents and purposes confirmation was openly aired: The Lord of the Rings:

“… was a practical demonstration of the views … expressed.”,
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #234

in that ever so revealing ‘Fairy Stories’ lecture of 1939. A ‘green sun’ for Middle-earth Faërie was Tolkien’s creative artistry at its very best!

Lastly (for this essay) when it comes to Tara, Bombadil and Celtic fairy tales, it is really not that surprising that Tolkien strengthened the trio’s relationship by deliberately including an archaeological artifact of relevance. The famed ‘Brooch of Tara’, although descriptively dissimilar to the one described in Fog on the Barrow-downs, is nonetheless a brooch.

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The Celtic Brooch of Tara

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Being arguably the most treasured of all Ireland’s ancient jewelry it is the only significant piece associated to the Hill of Tara. Again in a remarkable parallel, the most precious item of jewelry from the barrow hoard was a brooch7:

“He chose for himself from the pile a brooch …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

Hmm … a case of history repeats itself!

“These tales … must inevitably contain … ancient wide-spread …. elements. … long ago certain truths and modes … were discovered and must always reappear.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131   (my underlined emphasis)

So in finishing off Part II – out of all of this we should note a couple of things in readiness for Part III. One matter is how Tolkien much preferred not to discuss all that he had hidden within The Lord of the Rings. The second is that without doubt Tolkien did indeed conceal matters in the novel. Clyde Kilby’s report on Tolkien passing on:

“… if I would hold it confidential, he would “put more under my hat” than he had ever told anyone.”
– Tolkien and The Silmarillion, Clyde Kilby, Summer with Tolkien (Kilby’s emphasis)

has the ring of truth. Thankfully Tolkien left us a discernible path; and that truth is at last emerging. Because without doubt Tom and Goldberry are gelling together thematically with fairies, fairy-stories and Faërie. The links are becoming strong. However for the fog-bound hill episode there is one vital piece of the puzzle missing. One link is still needed to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

When it comes to fairyland – Tolkien’s masterstroke has yet to be revealed. It is so subtly concealed that the embedding is a piece of literary genius to be marveled at. In the next essay we shall finally understand the mechanism behind ‘the way in’. We will finally understand the ‘Open Sesame’ command and how masterfully Tolkien linked it to English fairy tale!

Footnotes:

1  Recorded as a reincarnation of Lugh. Tolkien was certainly aware of Cuchulainn – see Sir Gawain & The Green Knight, Tolkien & Gordon, Note to Line 2452.

2  Tolkien’s awareness of such a magical item cannot be doubted. See – Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B pg. 250, Flieger & Anderson.

3  Lugh was also described to be a ‘master of all trades’ which is perhaps reflected by Tolkien’s assignation of a ‘master’ title to Bombadil.

4  Frodo and the Great War, in The Lord of the Rings, 1954–2004: Scholarship in Honor of Richard E. Blackwelder, ed. Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2006).  

5  As opposed to it having ‘set’ when Frodo entered Middle-earth Faërie in passing between the standing stones. The Wight’s spell in retaliation of Frodo’s sword-stroke instantaneously sealed off the barrow from Middle-earth Faërie (and thus the green sun’s light) in a presumed attempt to cutoff external aid.

6  The idea seems to have intrigued Tolkien at least since 1931: “You may say green sun or dead life and set the imagination leaping.” –  The Monsters and the Critics: And Other Essays pg. 219. Also see comments by Flieger & Anderson – Tolkien On Fairy-stories, pg. 111.

7  Another famous Celtic brooch from Scotland is perhaps closer to what Tolkien had in mind:

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Rogart Brooch ~ Celtic 8th Century – set with blackish-blue stones in butterfly wing pattern (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

 

Revisions:

10/16/2017 – Added:  ‘By invoking the Sun’s energy – the Wight was evicted from the Barrow.’ Added quote: “Vanish in the sunlight!”.

Is: ‘Adding to a solar-deity semblance was Lugh’s other role as a Storm-god.’ Was: ‘Adding to such semblance was Lugh’s other role as a Storm-god.’

The Road to Fairyland

This essay is best viewed in single page format. If it appears in two column style – an adjustment can be made by selecting zoom at 125% to 175% under the ‘Settings’ tab.

 

Introduction:

The ensuing essays form a three part interconnected series that discuss Tom Bombadil through the lens of a suppositious affiliation to ‘fairyland’ – specifically with respect to The Lord of the Rings. In employing such an angle several slightly odd textual matters begin to fall into place. When combined these articles end up providing us with more meaning to the Bombadil segment of the tale, as well as exposing a layer of depth not appreciated before.

Revealed will be Tom’s further tie-in to three other classic fairy tales. Also a re-look at the initial leg of the journey across the Barrow-downs from a dual viewpoint of Celtic mythology and fairy tale will grant the reader a vastly new perception of Tolkien’s contrived landscape. It is quite possible much more was put into the midday halt and accompanying scenery than has so far been understood. Accordingly, we will finally grasp the cardinal essence of the story line behind the Barrow-downs mini-adventure. Bared will be a woven-in intricacy so paramount and so subtly finessed, that it has escaped every single reader of Tolkien’s masterpiece since publication. And I do not make so bold a claim lightly!

 

Part I: On the Border of ‘Middle-earth Faërie’

Before the reader gets too involved in thinking about the merit of Part I’s title, it is emphasized upfront that this essay is not meant to be a generic discussion of ‘faërie’. Nor is it one that delves into the Elven kingdoms in Middle-earth. Rather it is one tailored to considering the idea of Tom’s residence possibly being situated nearby or within a faërie of sorts itself. However before we get too deep, some discussion of terminology ought to come in useful.

Now the Professor employed the term ‘faërie’ (in capitalized or lower-case form) many times within his works. Thankfully he furnished us his with own definition at a time closely coinciding with the early formation and editing of The Lord of the Rings chapters depicting Tom. In his March 1939 On Fairy-stories lecture, Tolkien told us:

“Faërie is a perilous land.”, a
– On Fairy-stories, Andrew Lang Lecture, March 1939  (my emphasis)

“… land, full of wonder …”, serving as
– On Fairy-stories, Andrew Lang Lecture, March 1939  (my emphasis)

“… the realm or state in which fairies have their being.”
– On Fairy-stories, Andrew Lang Lecture, March 1939  (my emphasis)

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Andrew Lang, 1844 – 1912

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For him, faërie was primarily a place – the so-called ‘Perilous Realm’. Putting aside the question of whether fairies really exist outside of imagination, Tolkien believed the concept and perhaps origin of faërie began with man as a sub-creator in the so-called ‘invention’ of a fairy tale. And that tale might have been born indirectly from hearsay or directly from personal experience; yet it would likely have possessed at least a nugget of truth. A genuine fairy tale always exhibits a magical face and is more often than not set in the land of faërie. A place which is not only the natural habitation of fays (fairies) but also contains creatures such as:

“… elves and … dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: …”.
– On Fairy-stories, Andrew Lang Lecture, March 1939

Tolkien made plain that for humans with a natural bent towards make-believe:

“Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was the heart of the desire of Faërie.”
– On Fairy-stories, Andrew Lang Lecture, March 1939

Of great significance is the employment of the term: “Other-worlds”. Most notably it is delineated in plural form. And thus the case can be made that ‘faërie’ was not in his mind limited to a singular ‘Other-world’ where all these fantastic creatures existed in some corner or at some time within its own chronological history. For us, it is essential to grasp the concept and possibility of several other-worlds being present in Tolkien’s literature. These can simply be equated to secondary worlds, being distinct from our primaryone.

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In Fairyland, Andrew Lang, Originally illustrated 1870 (above 1979 reprint)

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The most definite and obvious other-world of his sub-created mythology is voiced in Bilbo’s poetic recital at Rivendell:

“from Otherworld beyond the Sea”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Many Meetings, Poem: Eärendil was a mariner

The fabled realm of the ‘gods’, also known as ‘Elvenhome’, and once part of the primary world had, due to the transgressions of men, been sundered away into a separate other-world. Initially termed as ‘Faëry’ in some of the earliest works of the mythology (see The Book of Lost Tales Vols. I & II) – by the time of The Hobbit it had become titled:

“Faërie in the West”.
– The Hobbit, Flies and Spiders

Naturally, as the publication of The Hobbit was swiftly followed by the inception of The Lord of the Rings which in turn early on was hindered by preparation for the Andrew Lang lecture, one might wonder whether multiple worlds in the forefront of Tolkien’s mind actively led to another jump in a developing mythology. After all, though witches, trolls, giants, dragons2 and other such fantastical beings ‘might’ intrude into our primary world – they really belonged to faërie; but for Tolkien, certainly not the ‘Faërie in the West’. Because the idyllic ‘Blessed Realm’ where:

“… naught faded nor withered, neither was there any stain upon flower or leaf in that land, nor any corruption or sickness in anything that lived.”,
– The Silmarillion, Of the Beginning of Days

was wholly incompatible.

And so where exactly was the faërie of all those monsters and fay creatures? Was it just a place that resided in his mind, or the minds of other fairy tale inventors? I do not think so. Rather I believe that for The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien sub-created a faërie in Middle-earth consistent with existing real-world mythology from the soil of England and nearby lands. Intimately connected to ‘Middle-earth Faërie’ (my expression) and central to the plan, was Tom Bombadil.

Yet one might ask: ‘Why bother? Was it absolutely necessary to create another faërie? And where is the proof?’

The simple answers, to the first two of the above, again revert back to Tolkien’s basic desire to blend in some of the most ancient folklore and legends of the European continent and thus provide coherent mythological roots. Absolutely necessary would be the presence of historical connections to our own world. After all if there was little to nothing ancestral in common – we might as well be reading a story set on an entirely make-believe planet. Yes, maybe one similar to Earth, but certainly not authentic, nor one we could happily relate to or empathize with. It was those historic links which were so essential. And this could best be achieved by entangling our world’s ancient myth and fairy tales deeply into his own story line.

Then what were the instances where the land of faërie pops out to the forefront in our early literature? Where exactly does faërie loom large?

Actually the examples are reasonably numerous and there is sufficient evidence Tolkien knew all below and others too:

(a)  Thomas the Rhymer being carried off into fairyland upon the Queen of Faërie’s milk-white steed.
(b)  Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, entering Annwn while lost in a magical fog and spending a year in the Welsh otherworld per the Mabinogion.
(c)  Sir Orfeo entering the realm of Faërie.
(d)  King Arthur’s Avalon – described as both across the water in the west but also at Glastonbury Tor.
(e)  The ‘Land below Woolpit’ where two legendary green children emerged according to Ralph of Coggeshall.
(f)  The fabled realm below hilly mounds in the legends of the Celtic Tuatha-de-Dannan.

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The Riders of the Sidhe

 Riders of the Sidhe, John Duncan (1911)

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This might be all fine and dandy – but again one might ask: ‘Where is the evidence of a ‘Middle-earth Faërie’ in The Lord of the Rings, and how does Bombadil fit in?’

The answers to both questions have already been touched upon in Tom Bombadil: Cracking The Enigma Code, but will we greatly expanded on in Part III of this series. From my part, Tom has consistently been advocated as a fleshed-out manifestation of a faërie-being throughout the series of essays output so far. However in order to aid our understanding, I need firstly to revisit Tom’s dwelling and its location.

As I deduced in Tom Bombadil: Cracking The Enigma Code, Tom’s residence lay on the very boundary of two worlds. Those being our primary world and the one I loosely described as the ‘auditorium’. But in my view the ‘auditorium’ is an abstract concept serving multiple purposes. One of these was functioning as an alternate world – effectively another plane of existence. Another purpose is that it illustrated in simple terms how different worlds could overlap and how portals can potentially connect them to each other.

For us considering the matter – a leading remark in The Lord of the Rings, which other scholars have picked up on, is the crossing of a seemingly magical threshold in passing through Tom’s doorway. The manner of description has a teasing hint of the supernatural to it:

“… the hobbits stood upon the threshold and a golden light was all about them.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Another hint is the ‘coincidental’ meeting of the hobbits and Tom in the Old Forest:

“Just chance brought me then, if chance you call it.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

In discussing fairies, seemingly this encounter was echoed in On Fairy-stories:

“Our fates are sundered, and our paths seldom meet. Even upon the borders of Faërie we encounter them only at some chance crossing of the ways.”
– On Fairy-stories, Andrew Lang Lecture, March 1939   (my emphasis)

Perhaps Tolkien had Tom in mind; especially because he was simultaneously drafting him into The Lords of the Rings as well as preparing his Andrew Lang thesis:

“Most good ‘fairy-stories’ are about the adventures of men in the Perilous Realm or upon its shadowy marches.”
– On Fairy-stories, Andrew Lang Lecture, March 1939

Was the hobbits’ escape from the malevolent Old Forest followed by a dreamlike trek to Tom’s abode – effectively on the shadowy marches of a Perilous Realm? The problem faced by the inquisitive scholar, trying all too hard to extract the truth from The Lord of the Rings, and summarized so neatly by Tolkien is that:

“It is difficult to define the boundaries of this realm …”.
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Anderson & Flieger

Unfortunately there was:

“… no password or signpost that will announce infallibly when the border is crossed.”
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Anderson & Flieger

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A Non-directional Signpost 

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.All on offer, as a meager clue, that a crossing had been made was:

“Magic (even if not explicitly named) is one of the tokens by which you shall know it: …”.
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Anderson & Flieger

One had to recognize that:

“Over the border there will be magic though it will not always be opened or named.”
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Anderson & Flieger

Some readers will likely disagree – but arguably the most magical place depicted in any part of the novel was Tom’s residential zone. Though what appears to be ‘magic’ is used elsewhere, never was it employed so often or as astonishingly as during the travelers’ short stay.

To those not in the know, potent magic must have been invoked by Tom to keep rainfall off all but his boots. Making the ring vanish having rendered it ineffectual must have astounded the hobbits. It must have seemed like the most powerful sorcery of all. And then there is that dreamlike vision of the Undying Lands which only happened once throughout Frodo’s quest. Its description matches better than anything else, Tolkien’s own definition of a ‘Faërian Drama’ in On Fairy-stories. So collectively, surely these were unmistakable trademarks of faërie! Surely Frodo and company had crossed over the border? If not – they must have been really, really close!

Subtle is the best way to describe Tolkien’s methodology. A substratal hint such as the smell of ‘apple-wood’ burning in Tom’s hearth – a tree connected to both the fairy lore of the Celts and even more strongly with the Arthurian otherworld Avalon: The Island of Apples – is too soft an undertone to use as proof.

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The Death of King Arthur in Avalon, James Archer, 1860

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Equally subtle is how both Tom and Goldberry were portrayed as being so close to the ‘magic’ of Nature, possessing much knowledge and power over some of its elements. Frodo sensed this unusual harmony fairly early on:

“… the spell that was now laid upon him was … nearer to mortal heart; marvellous and yet not strange.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

If in the presence of fairy-folk, this gels with:

“For it is man who is, in contrast to fairies, supernatural … whereas they are natural, far more natural than he.”
― On Fairy-stories, Andrew Lang Lecture, March 1939

Then there is attire, size and location attestation (corroborated by eyewitnesses) in English folklore that Tolkien probably knew about3 :

“I had often heard, of Fairies … At some times they would seem to dance …The place near which they most ordinarily showed themselves was on the side of a hill … appearing like men and women, of a stature generally near the smaller size of men. Their habits used to be of red, blue, or green, according to the old way of country garb, with high crowned hats. One time a person living at Comb saw, …”.
― English Fairy and Other Folk Tales, The Fairy Fair, Edwin Sidney Hartland, 1890  
(my underlined emphasis)

Don’t the emphasized words resonate with the book? Tom too is a being smaller than a man who danced along in his blue jacket and tall crowned hat while heading back to his home nestled below a hill not far from the village of Combe!

Furthermore Tom’s green girdle – may not have been his only magical garb. An ability to travel fast may have been fairy tale linked to those standout big yellow boots. It would not be at all surprising if Tolkien had endowed Tom with a pair of legendary ‘seven-league boots’. These adjust to the wearer, allowing him, when needed, to traverse seven leagues for every stride taken. Was myth and fairy tale behind why:

“… His feet are faster.” ?
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

Is that how he appeared so quickly at the barrow?

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Tom Thumb stealing a pair of seven-league boots, courtesy of Wiktionary

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Hmm – you can see where I’m heading. We are inexorably drawing nearer to a conclusion that the whole mini-episode revolved around faërie and fairy-beings. So taking the above into account, perhaps in combination with other factors such as fairy tale linkage, the evidence is becoming too strong to ignore. Yet there is more. Indeed much more.

We have already seen in What a Colorful Pair – Part IV, how almost certainly Tolkien applied the widespreadtheme of the ‘little old man as a fairy’, thus connecting Tom to Jack and the Beanstalk. Quite remarkably there are at least two more examples buried (and never uncovered before) in The Fellowship of the Ring. It is theorized Tolkien’s own accumulated knowledge and minor research led him to reinforce the same theme by including elements of the tale of The Blue Mountains as recorded in Andrew Lang’s The Yellow Fairy Book. Within is the character of an extremely long lived (hadn’t seen a soul for three hundred years) old man (presumably of fairy race) who has the ability to rapidly travel vast distances, and with a whistle can call the birds of the world. It is theorized that this last aspect was alluded to by the following:

“And there was Tom whistling like a tree full of birds.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

Just as likely is the inclusion of snippets from a Grimm fairy tale: The Little Folks’ Presents. Once again the tale involves the proverbial little old man, and just like the Bombadil episode – disappearing gold. Two innocent travelers comically have their heads shaved after accidentally stumbling upon a fairy gathering upon a hill. For us an important point is that they allow the old man (presumably a fairy) to proceed without complaint. Afterwards they are told to fill their pockets with coal which later turns to gold. However one of the men wants to return for more – but due to his greed loses everything and is disfigured as punishment. The tale not only highly moralizes the folly of avarice. but it also highlights what the fairy wants – which is a set quantity of human hair in exchange for a set portion of gold. However, the most interesting part for us is the implied ‘fairy pact’7  between the two mortals and the little old man. In order to seal the agreement:

“… the old man clapped them both on the shoulder, in a friendly manner …”.
– The Little Folks’ Presents, Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm   (my emphasis)

Such an act is also present in The Fellowship of the Ring where Tom, as an old man, taught the hobbits a summoning verse. Then via a specific motion:

“… he clapped them each on the shoulder with a laugh …”,
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil   (my emphasis)

 his side of the ‘fairy pact’ was thereby sealed in agreeing to answer a distress call.

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Presents of the Little Folks, Anne Anderson, 1930

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Hmm … three fractured fairy tales involving little old men possessing fairy-like powers all bundled closely together within the text appears too much to be pure coincidence. Leaving us to wonder whether this cluster was echoed by:

“These tales are ‘new’, they are not directly derived from other myths and legends, but they must inevitably contain a large measure of ancient wide-spread motives or elements. After all, I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth’, and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131   (my underlined emphasis)

Hmm … so Tom appears and reappears via fairy tale perhaps? Be that as it may, undoubtedly the text’s most interesting and well-disguised fairy tale of all is yet to be exposed. To come – we will finally see the ‘missing’ link that gives the entire plot of the Barrow-downs adventure both meaning and purpose!

Footnotes:

1  Which is cast by Tolkien in his mythology as ours, but in a bygone fictional epoch.

2  Tolkien’s following remark is of significance:The dragon had the trade-mark Of Faërie written plain upon him. In whatever world he had his being it was an Other-world.”On Fairy-stories.

3  See ‘Bibliographies’ in Tolkien On Fairy-stories. Edwin Hartland’s English Fairy and Folk Tales is listed as a source of information.

4  These boots also crop up in a plethora of European fairy tales. The most notable English one is: Jack the Giant Killer.

5  For example, there are at least four instances in Grimm’s Fairy Tales where a little old man plays a magical role in the story.

6  Much the same theme is also present in Joseph Jacob’s The Swan Maidens per Europa’s Fairy Book.

7  A ‘fairy pact’,  seems also to have occurred in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight between the fairy Bertilak and Gawain. Within that tale the agreement to exchange winnings at the end of the day was sealed via the action of a drink.

 

 

What a Colorful Pair!

This essay is best viewed in single page format. If it appears in two column style – an adjustment can be made by selecting zoom at 125% to 175% under the ‘Settings’ tab.
Part V: Fayvorite Colors – Much Later Days

By no means am I done discussing hidden fairy tale within The Lord of the Rings. Nor unveiling its innermost secrets. Perhaps its beginning to dawn that not everything’s been discovered within Tolkien’s masterpiece. Yes the book still holds many intimate secrets. Secrets so subtly placed and adeptly interwoven that they appear to give the story an air of three-dimensional depth – yet in reality their true function was to provide a layer of deeper meaning.

As an active teaching Professor, Tolkien knew all about the inquisitiveness of students. As an accomplished philologist his mind was naturally attuned into inquiring on sources and rooting out connections through the use of logic. With the tables turned, here was an opportunity for students to try their skills out in a slippery exercise of his devising:

“I fear you may be right that the search for the sources of The Lord of the Rings is going to occupy academics for a generation or two.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #337

And we know such a thought train was present from the outset, because in 1938 he passed the following remark about academic inquiries pertinent to The Hobbit:

“But would not that be rather unfair to the research students? To save them trouble is to rob them of any excuse for existing.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #25

What he took from our world’s ‘Cauldron of Story’ and transmuted into his own literature could most definitely be tracked down and extracted. Although he didn’t fully approve, he knew researchers would try to break the ball to seek its bounce. After all hadn’t he followed such a path throughout his philological career? How then could he justifiably complain? So the only sensible proviso, I believe, was for the researcher to employ judicious logic and attain sensible answers within the confines of mythology, folklore, fairy tale and the early history of his beloved land. Only then could sense be made of many baffling details within the story.

After Beowulf, perhaps the literature of ancient England Tolkien was most impressed with were Arthurian legends. As we shall see, the combination of such legends with the motif of color was put to good use. For stunningly it is incidentals well after The Lord of the Rings that we must particularly heed. We must remind ourselves of the fairy-color ‘green’. Then in tandem we must focus on more poetry. In particular, poetry about Tom. Because in 1962, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil poem was republished along with a new one about Tom within a booklet of rhymes in fulfilling a request from Tolkien’s aunt, Jane Neave.

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The Adventures of Tom Bombadil – 1962 Edition,  Illustrated by Pauline Baynes

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The stated purpose for the new poem, and no doubt minor changes made to the original, was:

“… it performs the service of further ‘integrating’ Tom with the world of the L.R. into which he was inserted.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #237

Make no mistake – Tolkien thought very carefully about the suitability of all the selected poetry – going to considerable lengths in ascribing Middle-earth authorship throughout the booklet. When it came to Bombadil, though stated that he was known to Buckland-folk, there was relayed a tempered warning that:

“… they had … little understanding of his powers …”.
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, Preface, 1962 release

Despite many of the poems being:

“… on the surface, lighthearted or frivolous, …”,
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, Preface, 1962 release

Tolkien gave away that if one was to listen carefully:

“… one may uneasily suspect that more is meant than meets the ear.”
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, Preface, 1962 release

In 1965 the same message was repeated but the tone suggested something decidedly recondite:

“… these things have a serious undercurrent, and are not meant at any point to be merely comic …”.
– The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, Chronology 25 June 1962, Hammond & Scull

To insert this “serious undercurrent” and hint at what lay behind some of “his powers”, Tolkien made some purposeful and ever so subtle alterations to the original Adventures poem. One of these, inexplicably, has not caught the eye of Bombadil scholars acquainted with Arthurian lore.

Two extra lines were formulated for the very first verse. To the second new line, one difference to Tom’s look was an assignment of a new feather to his hat. Not so remarkably Tolkien chose a white plume which, as explained in the preface, was a result of rivalry between the Swan and Kingfisher. Still as already discussed, white is ‘a fairy color’. So no big deal – the hue was good and suitable.

Of much more significance was the first new line to the updated poem. To Tom’s apparel was an acquisition of leather breeches. In itself this is not so odd as the garment was not designated any coloring. It is what held them up which is far more important. The first four words to the first new line Tolkien inserted are utterly astounding. Tom was now the proud owner of a belt. Not any old belt – but one described as a girdle. Not any old girdle – but a green girdle:

“green were his girdle and his breeches all of leather;”
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1962 release

If anyone in the world should have known the ramifications of a ‘green girdle’ and its connection to beings of Faerie – it would have been Tolkien! It is incomprehensible that his update was accidental. And thus it is to the legendary green girdle of the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight tale that I will soon turn.

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The ‘Green Girdle’ symbolically wrapped around Gawain’s Pentangle from ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’

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But before I hammer home that Tolkien knew exactly what he had done; I need to firstly provide a synopsis of the medieval tale and then sensitize the reader to Tolkien’s indisputable intention of connecting Tom to our own world’s myth and history.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a medieval poem of unknown authorship dating from around 1,400 A.D. It is over 2,500 lines long, preserved on vellum parchment, and is also known as MS Cotton Nero A.x in honor of a former owner: Sir Robert Cotton. It tells the tale of King Arthur’s fabled knight Gawain, and his encounters with a man of gigantic proportions, but bodily of green hue and attired with the same colored clothing. After openly riding into King Arthur’s court, a challenge was issued to all present to deal him a blow in return for one a year later. Gawain takes up the challenge and beheads the Green Knight only to find that he is not a man but a fay creature who picks up the head and rides away.

Gawain constrained by his oath to seek out the Green Knight, nearly a year later partakes in a quest to find his home – the Green Chapel. After facing much adversity during his journeying, Gawain finally comes upon a castle whose lord and lady welcome him warmly, and inform him the Green Chapel is close-by. However he is enticed by the lady while her husband is away hunting. Gawain resists her advances multiple times – but in the end he takes an offering of her ‘green girdle’; a magical object that will save him from from any deadly or injurious blow from the Green Knight. He accepts the girdle and on this one occasion breaks a promise to the lord of exchanging winnings at the end of each day.

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Illustration from ‘MS Cotton Nero A.x’

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At the Green Chapel the Green Knight reveals himself to be none other than the lord himself who is fully aware of his wife’s actions. Indeed this is just a plan by Arthur’s half-sister, Morgan le Fay, to dishonor the King’s court. The axe blows dealt by the Green Knight were mere feints and Gawain leaves basically unharmed but the final swing nicks his neck. This is explained as the price of not keeping his promise in failing to disclose the gift of the girdle. Gawain perceives a moral failure on his part – though the Green Knight declares the fault is small. The famous green girdle is thereafter wrapped as a baldric around his shoulder as a mark of failure and shame. Upon his safe return to Arthur’s court the tale is told and Gawain is greatly honored for his loyalty and courage.

Tolkien was extremely impressed by the ‘Gawain’ tale. The text was studied in great detail and for students, a book comprising a pseudo-annotated version of the work was published in 1925. This was done while at at Leeds University and in conjunction with his associate: Professor E.V. Gordon. Therein the tale was described as:

“… an excellent one for the purposes of the romancer.”,
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Introduction, Tolkien & Gordon, 1925

being a story:

“… shaped with a sense of narrative not often found in Arthurian romance.”
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Introduction, Tolkien & Gordon, 1925

Some twenty eight years later Tolkien delivered a scholarly lecture in Glasgow titled Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and voiced similar sentiment.

There is zero doubt of Tolkien’s expertise on this medieval work. As well as producing scholarly publishings on the subject, he taught it as part of his lecturing classes at Oxford University. Nor can we doubt his awareness of the motif and importance of the green girdle to the tale and its crucial role in the final outcome. But where did it come from one might ask? How did the lady of the castle come to possess it? Was it a gift from Morgan le Fay? If so, was the magic imbued by her or was its lineage far older? These are not altogether unnatural questions that the Professor ought to have asked himself.

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Morgan Le Fay by John R. Spencer Stanhope, 1880

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The trouble is the answers could not be extracted from the manuscript itself. Nor from any other source. And though from a scholastic standpoint a dead-end had been reached, that wouldn’t be constraint enough to prevent him from linking the same green girdle to his mythology. Tolkien knew that in Arthurian romance – the givers of great gifts were English water-nymphs. The Lady of the Lake bestowed Arthur his legendary sword Excalibur and its enchanted scabbard. And then we have Morgan le Fay1,2 who has her embryonic roots in Breton folklore as a water-fay. Though cast as Arthur’s half-sister, she is the cause of much mischief in plotting his downfall. For example, she sent out the gift of a magical drinking horn which reveals infidelity. Also she is cast as the provider of a richly jeweled mantle used in an attempt to trick Arthur – for wearing it causes death. Though she did not succeed on that occasion – she is said to snatch Excalibur upon his actual demise.

The gifting of magical objects and clothing by water-nymphs (or those that had transitioned to land beings – ala Goldberry) in anglicized versions of the Arthurian myth is then by no means uncommon or unusual. Thus with reasonable logic we can answer how came Tom to possess a girdle of invincibility.

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‘The Lady of the Lake’ by Lancelot Speed, (1860-1931) from: ‘The Legends of King Arthur and His Knights’ by Sir James Knowles

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The most obvious route is a bestowal from Tom’s consort: Goldberry. Cast as a water-nymph in the poetry, Hammond & Scull comment:

“Goldberry in The Lord of the Rings has stature, and powers, not even hinted at in the 1934 poem.”
– The Lord of the Rings, A Reader’s Companion, In the House of Tom Bombadil, Hammond & Scull

Though I cannot prove it – I suspect Tolkien had even more in mind for Tom’s fair lady. By logically creating a simple path – left in the poetry was the slickest of clues that those knowledgeable in Arthurian tales could easily digest. Yes he mistakenly left it late. But better late than never. Once again the researcher could logically fathom out a path that completed the circle of mythos, legend and historia.

Throughout these essays I have drummed home Tolkien’s desire to connect modern day folklore/fairy tale with ancient northern Euro-centric stories and somehow link them into his mythology. An awareness of a desirable blend was there from the days of The Hobbit and certainly he sought-for such qualities to be part of The Lord of the Rings:

“I found the blend of vera historia with mythos irresistible.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #26

To Tolkien:

“… there was always a kernel of fact behind a legend …”.
– The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, Chronology 14 Feb 1938, Hammond & Scull

Woven into his tales would be nuggets of Europe’s most ancient legends. To make my point about the inclusion of elements from the Sir Gawain and Green Knight tale, a couple of alike insertions first used in The Hobbit and all but repeated in the sequel are:

“ ‘Third time pays for all. …’ ”.
– The Two Towers, Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit

“ ‘…Thrice shall pay for all, …’ ”,
– The Return of the King, The Field of Cormallen

echoing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

“ ‘third time, turn out best’ ”.
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Tolkien & Gordon, 1925, Notes to Line 1680

And believe it or not – Tolkien prolifically added in such elements when it came to Bombadil too. One highly probable inclusion in The Lord of the Rings is based on the manner ladies were introduced in medieval times. Per The Fellowship of the Ring Tom presents Goldberry as follows:

“ ‘Here’s my pretty lady!’ … ‘… clothed all in silver-green …’ ”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Which follows traditional medieval introduction:

“… ‘that lovely one under linen’ … ‘fair under garment’ …”.
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Tolkien & Gordon, 1925, Notes to Line 1814

Though a resonance exists, it is Tolkien’s poetry about Tom that has undeniable historical linkage to our world. The brand new poem of 1962, and the second in the booklet to feature Tom, had hidden undercurrents only knowledgeable scholars would have been able to detect.

In Letter #240 Tolkien disclosed three specific insertions:

“… the otter’s whisker sticking out of the gold, …”: from the Norse Nibelung legends (Völsungasaga);

“… the three places for gossip, smithy, mill, and cheaping …”: from The Ancrene Wisse;

“… the hanging up of a kingfisher to see the way of the wind, …”: from Vulgar Errors (1664) by Sir T. Browne

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‘Ancrene Riwle’ Cotton MS Cleopatra C VI, f. 4r’  (later adapted for other communities of anchorites under the title ‘Ancrene Wisse’)

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It is possible that there was at least one more:

“… bogies from the Barrows”,
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1962, Bombadil goes Boating

manifesting his own attempt at recreating a segment of English history:

“And your eyes fancied barrow-wights and bogies.”
– The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son by J.R.R. Tolkien, based on a fragment from the Battle of Maldon

For the purpose of rooting Tom into our world as well as more firmly into the mythology, Tolkien used hobbit folklore as a pretext. The good news was that even the original 1934 poetry depicting Tom’s invulnerability would now become fully compliant and explainable with his new ‘green girdle’. Yet a chance to create a little mischief could not be missed. When it came to the Bombadil goes Boating poetry the admitted historical connections were a supposed:

“… donnish detail …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #240

But make no mistake – they were all deliberate. Tom’s connections to real-world historical folklore/legends were intentionally hidden. And their revelation was intended for the eyes of the Illustrator and Publishing House owner only. We must not lose sight of that.

Nor must we lose sight of the admissions themselves (Letters #237 & #240). In that light, how can we possibly view ‘the green girdle’ addition to the original Adventures poem as a mere accident?

“green were his girdle and his breeches all of leather;”
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1962

How could the invention of a wholly new line possibly have been an absent-minded slip?

Footnotes:

1   The Breton name for a water-nymph is a ‘Morgan’. Antecedents are thought to include Morrigan – an Irish Celtic water goddess, ruling over rivers and lakes, and Modron a Welsh water goddess.
2   ‘Le Fay’ is an ancient word for a ‘fairy’ in french form.

What a Colorful Pair!

This essay is best viewed in single page format. If it appears in two column style – an adjustment can be made by selecting zoom at 125% to 175% under the ‘Settings’ tab.
Part IV: A Necessary Interlude

Due to its length, this essay is split into two distinct sections. The subject discussion is groundbreaking as are the revelations and conclusions. Once again many new matters are exposed for the first time. We are left to marvel at both Tolkien’s genius and surprising life-long resolve to withhold intriguing secrets about his most famous works.

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Part IVa: A Giant Step Forward 

As imparted at the beginning of this set of essays, approaching matters from an unfamiliar angle sometimes yields unexpected benefits. Much as I would like to continue the discussion on color symbolism – for the moment a short break is appropriate. The time is now ripe to further look into Jack and the Beanstalk and comprehend its deeper enmeshment within The Lord of the Rings as well as expose elements of its presence in other Tolkien works.

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Jack Escaping from the Giant, The History of Jack and the Beanstalk, B. Tabart, 1807

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‘Why would Tolkien have chosen Jack and the Beanstalk?’ – I can imagine the doubtful reader question.
‘Surely that would be the wrong kind of fairy tale. Isn’t it a nursery tale?’

Hmm … that would be speculative; and a pronouncement of a definitive prognosis would be quite wrong. Agreed – fairy tale qualities The Lord of the Rings undoubtedly had – and it certainly wasn’t for young children. Nevertheless in looking at the big picture – nursery tales are in some instances a mere subset of fairy tales, and Tolkien wasn’t altogether convinced that an adult link to them should be casually cast aside. Indeed this attitude is reflected by the inclusion of The Man in the Moon Stayed Up Too Late in The Lord of the Rings. Echoed by our modern day Hey Diddle Diddle – even nursery rhymes could have links to long lost English lore!

Now the first known recording of Jack and the Beanstalk dates from 1734. Under the title of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean the story was printed in Round about our Coal Fire. Forming one of several ‘Jack tales’1 the hero is a quintessential part of traditional English folklore from whom many phrases, rhymes and sayings have sprung2. However the Professor knew that historically, elements of the Beanstalk narrative went back much further than the early 18th century. In remarking upon it in his famous Beowulf lecture, clearly he implied the tale preceded John Milton who died in 1674:

“Milton ‘might have done worse’ than retell Jack and the Beanstalk in heroic verse”.
– Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, 1936

Most likely the tale went back even further with the written connection being lost in all but traces from the Elizabethan/Jacobean eras – where the famous ‘fe-fi-fo-fum’ rhyme was imbued in the dramatic plays of George Peele, Thomas Nashe and William Shakespeare:

“Fee, fa, fum, here is the Englishman, …”.
– The Old Wives’ Tale, George Peele, 1595

“ … Fy, fa, fum, I smell the blood of an English-man”.
Have with you to Saffron-walden, Thomas Nashe, 1596

“Child Roland to the dark tower came,
His word was still, Fie, foh, and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man.”
King Lear, William Shakespeare, 1605

In more modern times it is the tale’s 1890 recital by Joseph Jacobs in English Fairy Tales that has established itself as the one closest to the original story-line. And so it is the one, for comparative purposes, that has been dwelt on most. To peel away Tolkien’s exterior literary facade and expose matching underlying structural patterns, the drafts of The Lord of the Rings will be examined first and then a step back further in time to The Hobbit will be seen to be extraordinarily fruitful.

So firstly I will turn to The History of Middle-earth series. To piece together a credible yarn, there is also factual matter to consider – namely Tolkien’s childhood experiences. It is the run-ins with the ‘Black and White Ogres’ of Sarehole, Birmingham that are most interesting. We need to be particularly mindful of these formative years, especially as Tolkien himself said:

“… it is the particular use in a particular situation of any motive, whether invented, deliberately borrowed, or unconsciously remembered that is the most interesting thing to consider.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #337

As young boys, both Ronald and his brother Hilary were fascinated by the mill at Sarehole and the nearby pond which they on and off frequented. Equally they were terrified by the miller who they nicknamed the ‘White Ogre’ and his father who ran a local farm – dubbed the ‘Black Ogre’. Once used to grind grain for flour, it appears that the mill’s trade in those times fell to pulverizing bones which subsequently found usage as farm fertilizer. The ordeals with the ‘White Ogre’ covered in bone dust and the more aggressive ‘Black Ogre’ were vivid childhood memories that remained solidified in Tolkien’s mind and thus one may rightfully hypothesize that such experiences carried through into his books.

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The Mill and Pond at Sarehole, Birmingham

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What was the origin of the last two lines of the classic English rhyme? :

“Fe-fi-fo-fum
I smell the blood of an Englishman
Be he alive or however be dead
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.
– English Fairy Tales, Jack and the Beanstalk, Joseph Jacobs 1890

Tolkien probably knew that in medieval times, bone-meal was used as a nutritional supplement and was sometimes mixed in with bread. Perhaps he also knew of Shakespeare’s rather macabre recipe for a pastry based pie:

“Hark, villains! I will grind your bones to dust
And with your blood and it I’ll make a paste,
And of the paste a coffin I will rear
And make two pasties of your shameful heads…

Receive the blood: and when that they are dead,
Let me go grind their bones to powder small
And with this hateful liquor temper it;
And in that paste let their vile heads be baked.”
– Titus Andronicus, William Shakespeare, c. 1588-1593

What were the real origins of the ‘Jack tales’? Was there a simple explanation? These are the sort of questions that rattled around in a philologist’s mind. Could it possibly be that the sources of the ‘fe-fi-fo-fum’ rhyme and English ogres lay in the trades of farming and milling? Yes milling was a dangerous job; if by mishap an unlucky person got caught in machinery or trapped by a millstone – there was no escape. Even those alive would be ground to pieces. As for farming – what would the uneducated have thought of sacks of bone bits lying about in a farmer’s barn? 

Whatever the truth, the boys were certainly frightened by the black-bearded farmer and his son; and it’s this fragment of knowledge that leads to an insightful supposition that Farmer Maggot was intended as the original Jack and the Beanstalk linking ogre for The Lord of the Rings. Mark Hooker in The Hobbitonian Anthology has examined the etymological origin of ‘Maggot’ and offered ‘Goemagot’ as a possible source.

Goemagot (also known as Gogmagog and Goemagog) is a giant in the legend of the founding of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth (see Historia Regum Britanniae). Apart from etymological similarity, Hooker offers other evidence of the farmer being quite an ‘ogre’ from The Return of the Shadow, where in one draft variant Maggot was:

“… a violent and intransigent character …”
– The Return of the Shadow, A Short Cut to Mushrooms, The Second Phase

and possessed an appearance different to hobbits.

Piecing together another snippet leads to a credible idea that Tolkien intended the farmer’s lands, known as Bamfurlong, to be the legendary site of Jack’s beanstalk:

“… Bamfurlong … probably from ‘bean’ … + ‘furlong’3 …”.
– The Lord of the Rings, A Reader’s Companion, A Short Cut to Mushrooms, Hammond and Scull

Did Tolkien envision a long line of farmed beanstalks intertwining into each other giving rise from afar to one that looked singular and gigantic?

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A Field of Runner Beans

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In an area of the Shire where the micro-climate was particularly rainy – on an overcast day, when the clouds were low – would Jack (whoever he was) on a trek towards the Maggot residence have felt from a perspective standpoint that he was climbing alongside an endless beanstalk reaching into the sky? Was the path to Maggot’s high-walled residence seen as an approach to a forbidding mansion occupied by an ogre-like individual? One maddened by the theft of his treasure – his precious crops. So taken together, were these set of circumstances contrived ideas (adding to those discussed in Part III) to stitch in much of Jack and the Beanstalk?

The answers to all the above is – we can’t say for sure – but quite possibly: yes! Until of course Tolkien abandoned the idea of making:

“… Maggot not a hobbit, but some other kind of creature …”,
– The Return of the Shadow, Tom Bombadil The First Phase

and supplanted him by the Black Riders as the real ‘ogres’ in the final story. A story which in a way paralleled the ‘Jack tales’ in that little people lived in proximity to beings much larger than themselves. This was after all an attempt:

“… to restore to the English an epic tradition and present them with a mythology of their own: …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #180

In the end Tolkien was left with little choice when it came to “epic tradition”. Some of the elements of the widespread stories about Jack had to be embedded within his mythology to obtain specific English fairy tale linkage. The path I have proposed, once again, is undeniably a guess – based of course on logically connecting disparate information. Out of more than curiosity, for it would be a dereliction of a researcher’s duty, the right thing to do now – is to take another look at The Hobbit. Had Jack been subtly buried in there too?

Funnily enough right at the beginning of the book the careful reader is alerted to a possible reference to the eponymous English hero through the unexplained background of:

“… tales … about … giants … and the unexpected luck of widows’ sons?”
– The Hobbit, An Unexpected Party

Though it’s insinuated the persons and events are within ‘The Hobbit mythology’, given how Tolkien desired to engage the young reader – the placement may have been made with the intent to get his audience to think about their own world’s fairy tales. As perhaps the insertion of: 

“Poor Bilbo sat in the dark thinking of all the horrible names of all the giants and ogres he had ever heard told of in tales, …”,
– The Hobbit, Riddles in the Dark

was to remind them of the likes of Blunderbore, Thunderdell and Cormoran. 

Thus ever so subtly, an undertone of Jack creeps in. Because Jack of course is a widows’ son in the Beanstalk tale and a multiple ogre/giant slayer of all the above. Which leads one automatically to think back about Bilbo himself. Why? Because Bilbo was once a widows’ son too. And so with that as a starting point, once we probe deeper – some further remarkable likenesses emerge.

As ‘simple’ (perhaps we can say naive) bachelors – both Bilbo and Jack embark on a quest with courage but no personal heroic pedigree behind them. Both have adventures, return home and then live happily ever after. More pointedly, endowed with extraordinary luck – both become highly successful burglars.

The purpose behind both tales was not to portray the heroes as common thieves or robbers – rather as something more acceptable, almost to the point of the dubious profession having a chivalrous side. Stealing from a house (The Ogre’s or Smaug’s lair) was really not that insidious a crime – because both Jack and Bilbo were taking back stuff that was rightfully a former owner’s who no doubt had been forcefully dispossessed. In each case there are three ‘significant’ thefts (or attempts):

Jack: Bag of gold, The Hen that lays golden eggs and a Magic Harp
Bilbo: Troll Purse, Gold Cup and the Arkenstone.

Remarkably bags of gold, magic harps and a jewel that is perhaps not too far off in size or shape to a hen’s egg, feature in The Hobbit thus resonating with Jack’s takings. And while the purse doesn’t show up in the Beanstalk tale, it does appear in another English fairy tale involving giant folk called Mollie Whuppie:

“… if ye would … steal the purse that lies below the giant’s pillow, …” And Molly said she would try. So she set out for the giant’s house, and slipped in, … and waited till the giant … was snoring sound asleep. She … slipped her hand below the pillow, and got out the purse; but just as she was going out the giant wakened, and ran after her …”.
– Mollie Whuppie, English Fairy Tales, Joe Jacobs 1890

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Mollie Whuppy steals the Giant’s Sword, English Fairy Tales, J. Jacobs, 1890

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Mollie is the female equivalent to Jack – who bit by bit similarly steals an ogre’s treasure and outwits him too. What we see then is a blended amalgamation for the ‘Troll scene’ in The Hobbit. Therein the purse acts like the harp from Jack and the Beanstalk in its vocal alert. Yes a talking harp and a talking purse. Both knew they were being stolen from their current owner!

Also noteworthy is that in both Jack and the Beanstalk and The Hobbit – the main monstrous denizens are at home and asleep when first burgled and that both become aware of the presence of foes through the act of sniffing. And if Tolkien had taken up his initial story-line – Bilbo, like Jack – would have been the one to directly slay the enemy.

Whether Tolkien shaped his plot intentionally to subtly give the young reader a sense of comforting familiarity is unknown. It is quite possible that this was all accidental or even subconsciously present. However the possibility also exists that the theme of The Hobbit has purposely woven in features reminiscent of classic English fairy tale. Whatever the truth – as near to certainty as one can reasonably be – what was deliberately contrived was Tolkien’s trolls.

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Part IVb: Cheesy Trollery

If one peruses through John Rateliff’s The History of The Hobbit, it becomes abundantly plain that Tolkien included much which had an academic background for various aspects of the children’s tale. Perhaps missed is the most academic piece of all – namely a parodied scene involving a mixture of ‘Jack’ related fairy tale and native period history.

Now there are several ‘Jack stories’ and they are thought to have originated in Cornwall. Probably Celtic in origin they are interwoven in part with Arthurian tales and feature ogres/giants prominently. Trolls were not so abundant in English folklore but Tolkien himself lumped them together with ogres per their man-eating portrayal in The Hobbit:

“ ‘Never a blinking bit of manflesh have we had for long enough,’ …
‘You’ve et a village and a half between yer, since we come down from the mountains’.”
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

Many readers have wondered about the discordant trolls. Not the trolls themselves – rather their names (and vulgar tone of speech). Given how carefully Tolkien selected the wizard and majority of dwarf names from the Norse Elder Edda, and how others would have been equally unfamiliar to the child reader – Beorn, Elrond and Bilbo being prime examples – the ones for the trolls seem distinctly out of place. When it came to Smaug, Tolkien confessed:

“The dragon bears as a name – a pseudonym – the past tense of the primitive Germanic verb Smugan, to squeeze through a hole: a low philological jest.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, #25

What hasn’t been investigated is whether Tom, Bert and Bill were also named in jest. In fact I can find neither this angle being examined by scholars, or any credible proposals on why Tolkien opted for those particular names. However the answer I believe is actually quite simple. Indeed Tolkien chose them in fun – for they make up a Renaissance parody. It was one which ridiculed three English giants of the Elizabethan era – those being giants in the fields of English drama, poetry and classical acting. Bill (William) satirically represented William Shakespeare, Tom spoofed Thomas Nashe and Bert parodied Robert Greene.

The fracas involving Shakespeare and Greene is a well-known part of Elizabethan history. It culminates in a posthumously published play of Robert Greene’s called a Groats-worth of Witte. Within he purportedly attacked a young and increasingly successful Shakespeare through the following lines:

“Yes trust them not: for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tigers hart wrapped in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.”
– Groats-worth of Witte, bought with a million of Repentance, 1592

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Robert Greene, from the title page of the pamphlet Greene in Conceipt, 1598.

Robert Greene, from the title page of the pamphlet Greene in Conceipt, 1598

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Robert Greene’s friend, Thomas Nashe, denied involvement in the affair. Nevertheless it is fairly well established that these three were part of a handful of great Elizabethan playwrights who at times collaborated with one another but were also intense rivals. Indeed the literary jealousy is quite famous among historians. Famous enough that the BBC aired a comedic six part television series titled Upstart Crow in 2016.

The history lesson will not be repeated here for there are several interpretations of what actually took place and how the evidence can be read. Nonetheless within the correspondences and play pamphlets there are subtle allegations of plagiarism and sneerings at Shakespeare’s lack of university education and his currying of favors through underhand dealings with the aristocracy. Tolkien no doubt thought such shenanigans were hilarious. Indeed he showed no particular deference to the Bard. Actually quite the opposite. For some of his documented thoughts actively voice criticism.

So if we look carefully at The Hobbit, it is quite obvious that the main antagonism is between Bill and Bert. Having already started the needling:

“ ‘Mutton yesterday, mutton today, and blimey, if it don’t look like mutton again tomorrer,’ …”,
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

it is Bert that continues to escalate matters and then lands the first blow – just as Robert Greene historically lashed out at Shakespeare:

“ ‘You’re a fat fool, William,’ said Bert, ‘as I’ve said afore this evening.’ … ‘And I won’t take that from you. Bill Huggins,’ says Bert, and puts his fist in William’s eye.”
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

And if we look even more carefully – Tom seems to be much more aligned with Bert than William, mirroring the actual relationship between the playwrights:

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A crudely printed, full-length picture of a standing man. He is in Elizabethan-style clothing and chains are around his ankles

Thomas Nashe, Wood-cut (Source: Wikipedia)

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“ ‘Mutton yesterday, mutton today, and blimey, if it don’t look like mutton again tomorrer,’ said one of the trolls. ‘Never a blinking bit of manflesh have we had for long enough,’ said a second. ‘What the ‘ell William was a-thinkin’ of to bring us into these parts …’ …

Bert and Tom went off to the barrel. …

‘There’s more to come yet,’ said Tom … ‘I reckon you’re right,’ said Bert, …

‘Now stop it!’ said Tom and Bert together.”

– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

Bill clearly thought that there was plenty of tasty fare for them all – and this might echo a sentiment that the Elizabethan Renaissance era was more than rich enough to accommodate a small bunch of decent playwrights. The rivalry was laughable and fully deserving of caricaturist mockery. To the point that these three rural born men – now earning their fortunes in London – could be made fun of by being endowed with buffoonish cockney4 accents. Indeed the whole situation was positively farcical as the question of who plagiarized who was made part of the parody:

“ ‘Who’s a-arguing?’ said William, who thought it was. Bert that had spoken. ‘You are,’ said Bert. ‘You’re a liar,’ said William; …

‘No good boiling ’em! We ain’t got no water, and it’s a long way to the well and all,’ said a voice. Bert and William thought it was Tom’s. …

‘I made sure it was yellow,’ said Bert. ‘Yellow it was,’ said William. ‘Then what did yer say it was grey for?’ said Bert. ‘I never did. Tom said it.’ ‘That I never did!’ said Tom. ‘It was you.’ ”
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

Though the ‘borrowing’ of literary writings from others had become common-day practice, it still should be seen for it was. In Elrond’s wise-words, these dramatists were no different to others:

“… your trolls had plundered, other plunderers, …”.
– The Hobbit, A Short Rest

Even more incriminating is a readily recognizable association of the Troll encounter to Robert Greene’s famed ‘Conny-catching’ pamphlets. Issued between 1591 and 1592 the articles provide detailed examples of the cunning methods used by vagabonds, thieves and petty criminals (termed Conny-catchers and Cross-biters) in preying on the innocent public of Elizabethan London. A hierarchy and rivalry within and between gangs sometimes even led to the ‘catchers’ becoming victims.

A ‘conny’ of course is another name for rabbit, and most interestingly Greene’s pamphlets had both the criminals and victims drawn as such. While the ‘catchers’ were sometimes dressed in human attire, the victim was always stripped. Our novice burglar Bilbo, in Elizabethan terms, would have been identified as a pick-pocket and similarly caricatured pictorially in the manner Greene devised. For Bilbo in this parody had been caught by his own sort:

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A discourse, or rather discouery of a Nip and the 
Foist, laying open the nature of the Cutpurse 
and Pickpocket

From The Second and Last Part of Conny-catching, Pamphlet by Robert Greene, 1592

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When asked by William what he was, Bilbo’s blurted out in fright: “bur-a hobbit”. Although it appears Mr. Baggins managed to stop himself from saying ‘burglar’ – the cockney accented trolls likely took ‘bur-a’ as slang for ‘burrow’; at least that seems a sensible way of interpreting Tolkien’s intent. Because indeed this would then match well with Bert calling Bilbo a:

“ ‘… nassty little rabbit, …” as he looked down at our hero’s “… furry feet; …”.
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

In other words the trolls mistook Mr. Baggins for some kind of burrowing rabbit. Leaving us to laugh at how Tolkien’s literary genius portrayed the villainous trolls as ‘Conny-catchers’ – quite literally!

Thus satirically melded into the tale was a lampooning of Greene’s work. And though Tolkien artfully punned:

“Calling him a ‘nassty little rabbit’ was a piece of vulgar trollery.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #25

There was likely more to the matter than just:

“… the trolls’ use of rabbit was merely an obvious insult …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #319

The successful ‘catch’ and subsequent asset stripping by ‘cut-throats’ and the like was known in the underworld as ‘skinning’ and ‘boning’ – again satirized by The Hobbit lines:

“ ‘I don’t want to have me throat cut in me sleep! …’ ”
“ ‘He wouldn’t’ make above a mouthful” … “not after he was skinned and boned.”
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

Yet even more telling is the how Tolkien had Bert hold Bilbo the ‘rabbit’ upside down. A scene that was symbolically mirrored from an illustration in one of his pamphlets.

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The Third and Last Part of Conny-catching, Pamphlet by Robert Greene, 1592

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From all of this – it is evident that the term ‘conny’ – had evolved by Elizabethan times to represent ‘con-men’. The words’ actual etymological roots are uncertain – but there is some evidence it was introduced into England from Wales. Caught up in the mix is the Welsh love for a delicacy they call ‘Caws pobi’ – funnily enough known to them as ‘Welsh rarebit’. But to Englishmen it’s best known as ‘Welsh rabbit’. The dish is actually toasted cheese and Tolkien’s awareness of St. Peter ‘conning’ the Welsh out of place in heaven through an enticement of ‘caws pobi’ is an old joke brought up in his lecture: English and Welsh. So subtly included in The Hobbit was his own punning jest about the scarcity of ‘rabbit’ (via the motif of ‘rarebit’) when confusing the trolls:

“ ‘… lots and none at all,’ ”.
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

Tolkien was well aware of the influence of Welsh in Elizabethan literature:

“ … Welsh rabbit, pobi is the Welsh word for ‘cook, roast, toast’, and (if Andrew Boorde got it right) it has changed p- to b- because pobi is used as an adjective, after a noun. London was for a while very Welsh-conscious at the time (as seen in Shakespeare), and bits of Welsh crop up in plays and tales.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #241

And we can see this arising in a parody of some famous lyrics originally written by Ben Jonson (another renowned Elizabethan dramatist):

“Have you smelt Cauf-bobby tosted
Or a shipskin roasted”
– Bodleian MS Harley 6917, fol. 41

So who knows? Perhaps Tolkien thought there was a close enough association of ‘shipskin’ (meaning sheep skin) to warrant both the ‘Roast Mutton’ chapter title as well as ‘bobby’ with ‘hobbit’ (I will comment further on this connection in a later essay) to lampoon Renaissance playwrights using Bilbo and the trolls. Because of course the trolls liked to ‘cook’, ‘roast’ and ‘toast’ their meat. Which neatly ties in the scene with Tolkien’s Letter #241 alternate definition:

“… pobi is the Welsh word for ‘cook, roast, toast’, …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #241

And so both definitions were encapsulated in Mr. Baggins, as the ‘rabbit’, for he also offered to be a cook:

“ ‘ … I am a good cook myself, and cook better than I cook, …’ ”,
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

Last of all is the powerful imagery that Tolkien left behind. There at ‘curtain call’ it was Shakespeare that took the final bow6:

“William never spoke for he stood turned to stone as he stooped; …”.
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

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Shakespeare.jpg

William Shakespeare (Source: Wikipedia)

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The other two ‘trolls’: Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe were left to forever stare at the Bard’s much greater success.

“… Bert and Tom were stuck like rocks as they looked at him.”
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

Immortally symbolized were three giants in the same field with their corpus’ set in stone! And also symbolically – it was the troll Bill that literally held the key. Expanding his name to William was the clue that would allow the reader to solve the puzzle. For once we correctly expand the other two troll names – it’s a ‘giant’ step forward to unraveling the whole mystery!

The jest was now complete. But at that time, Tolkien had no idea that a sequel would happen. Linking the world of The Hobbit to that of The Lord of the Rings would obviously become problematic. No wonder he admitted that he:

“… should not have called the troll William.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153 

Nevertheless Tolkien couldn’t help but continue the prank by mockingly assigning a bird’s nest to one of the trolls. He left it to us to deduce the nest was a crow’s and the accusing culprit was Bert. Not extractable from the final version – but from the drafts, it’s confirmed:

“ ‘… Bert has got a bird’s nest behind his ear.’ ”
– The Return of the Shadow, From Weathertop to the Ford, The First Phase

Which by no co-incidence lines up exceedingly well with The Hobbit witticism left by the Professor. Because it was Robert Greene that titled Shakespeare: ‘Shake-scene’ – which of course is literally acted out by Bert (with Bilbo) when the troll:

“… picked him up by the toes and shook him.”
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

Now the other connection of these playwrights (at least two out of the three) to the world of The Hobbit as well as Jack and the Beanstalk was that inbred English verse. Nashe’s and Shakespeare’s inclusion of variants of the rhyme into their plays are practically two of the most ancient written records existing:

“… Fy, fa, fum, I smell the blood of an English-man”.
Have with you to Saffron-walden, Thomas Nashe, 1596

“Child Roland to the dark tower came,
His word was still, Fie, foh, and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man.”
King Lear, William Shakespeare, 1605

The most ancient known reference is a year earlier than Nashe’s and was made by fellow dramatist George Peele. It was spoken by the character Huanebango (roughly translated from Spanish as ‘Jack the Braggart’) to the character ‘Booby’!

“Fee, fa, fum, here is the Englishman, …”.
– The Old Wives’ Tale, George Peele, 1595

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Image result for george peele the old wives tale text

Title page of the Old Wives’ Tale, George Peele, 1595

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One cannot help but make a connection to the troll Bill who accused Tom of being a sore loser:

“You’re a booby,”.
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton

For a ‘booby’7, as well as being a clown, of course is a losing player; and a ‘player’, for those working in dramatic circles, can be taken as either an actor or writer of a play’!

Now one of the last known incorporations of the ogre-verse into an English fairy story (separate to a ‘Jack tale’) was possibly why Tolkien chose the surname ‘Huggins’ for Bill. Puss-cat Mew was a firmly favorite fairy tale of the Professor’s. As a very young child pre-1900:

“… one story I was then very fond of called ‘Puss Cat Mew’.”
-The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #319

In it was once again English ogres and that spine-shivering phrase:

“Spiflicate those Fairies!” again said the Ogre in an angry tone … And he then moved sulkily off, muttering the well-known “Fe-fi-fo-fum,” which is so popular a song among Ogres.”
– Stories for my Children, E.F. Knatchbull-Hugessen, 1869

Written by Hugessen. It would not be at all surprising if Tolkien in mock appreciation took a corrupted form of that Teutonic rooted name to transpose it into an English ‘Huggins’ instead. Doubly appropriate it might have felt because of the implication of ‘huge’ within its make-up.

So now in reflection, since the overall ‘Elizabethan playwrights’ solution fits like a glove8, it may help us in understanding more about Tolkien’s own character. If he could do this once – then why not again? Peering forward to The Lord of the Rings it is noteworthy that Sam sings a song about a troll and includes a ‘Tom’ and a ‘Tim’ too. Could Tolkien have taken his jest further?

But that is material for another time. To come in a future essay will be the connection of The Root of the Boot characters to William Shakespeare and Thomas and John Heywood. We’ll take another look at the origin of the names ‘Bilbo’ and ‘Baggins’ – for the possibility exists that there was a little more to the matter than Tolkien disclosed, or that other scholars have guessed!

Footnotes:

1  Other well-known ‘Jack tales’ include: Jack the Giant-Killer, The House that Jack Built and Lazy Jack.

2  For example: Jack be Nimble, Jack and Jill, Jack of all trades, Jack-o-napes, Jack-in-the Box, Jack the lad, All play and no work makes Jack a dull boy … and many more.

3  A furlong is a unit of length based on a standard furrow in a farm field. One furlong = 660 feet.

4  Tolkien himself read out aloud Roast Mutton and impersonated the Troll voices in a rural English country accent (The Hobbit – E-book, 75th Anniversary Edition). Possibly Tolkien could not put out a decent cockney accent. Alternatively he may have felt The Hobbit employed slang was applicable to country-folk.

With regards to Tolkien’s employment of slang and its connection to the playwright proposal, Renaissance drama constituted some of the earliest known uses of the term ‘cockney’. Notably for:

Shakespeare:

King Lear, “… as the cockney did to the eels, …”, 
Twelfth Night,  “I am afraid this great lubber, the world, will prove a cockney …”.

Robert Nashe:

Pierce Penilesse, “A yoong Heyre or Cockney, …”.

5  Also spelled : Cony, Conie and Coney. Even though Tolkien knew that coney was the more correct term for ancient times – he deliberately avoided using it in The Hobbit – apart from, as John Rateliff comments in The History of The Hobbit, with the view of the “innate crookedness of fur-traders”. For a children’s book, perhaps Tolkien avoided its use throughout as a protest against its debasement by the Elizabethans. In that era, non-drawing room talk arose in literature/plays as the word was pronounced ‘cunny’ – which found dual usage as a vulgar term for a sexual zone of the female anatomy.

6  The Hobbit text nor The Lord of The Rings text matches well with Picture 100 in J.R.R. Tolkien Artist & Illustrator, Hammond & Scull. The text describes William as stood turned to stone” while stooping. Here only one troll is on his feet but he doesn’t appear to be stooping. Neither can the troll on the right be reasonably attributed as William – for most young readers would ascribe his posture as kneeling. These may have been the reasons for Tolkien removing it from consideration in the set of illustrations he put forward to the publishers.

7  As in ‘booby-prize’.

8  Another rather telling clue that Nashe, Greene and Shakespeare were indeed the intended targets of a Tolkien spoof, is the manner in which the first few phrases uttered by each troll bear similarity to lines/scenes in the corresponding playwright’s work. Notably there is no case of cross-matching.


Thomas Nashe:

“… neither is there anything to be consumed, save “one single, single kilderkin of small beer,” served out in “little farthing ounce-boxes …”.
– Pierce Pennilesse His Supplication to the Devil, 1592

Compare with The Hobbit where the drink is stated to be beer:

Tom: “… and the drink runnin’ short, what’s more,”

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Robert Greene:

“Enter a woman with a shoulder of mutton on a spit, and a devil.”
– Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, c. 1589

Compare with The Hobbit, where the trolls were toasting mutton on long spits:

Bert: Mutton yesterday, mutton today, and blimey, if it don’t look like mutton again tomorrer,”

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William Shakespeare :

“Shut your mouth, …”
– King Lear, 1605

Compare with The Hobbit cockney accented utterance:

Bill: “Shut yer mouth!”

Revisions:

6/2/17 – Added introductory paragraph. Split essay into two parts – Parts IVa & IVb.

Added quote: ‘Now stop it!’ said Tom and Bert together.”

Added section from “Even more incriminating …” to quote “ ‘ … I am a good cook myself, and cook better than I cook, …’ ”,
– The Hobbit, Roast Mutton.

Added new Footnote 5 and re-ordered others.

What a Colorful Pair!

This essay is best viewed in single page format. If it appears in two column style – an adjustment can be made by selecting zoom at 125% to 175% under the ‘Settings’ tab.
Part III: Fayvorite Colors – The Plot Firmed Up

Our best evidence portraying how the Bombadil chapters developed in The Fellowship of the Ring results from The History of Middle-earth series. Except for some minor matters, text that concerns Tom and Goldberry In the House of Bombadil and Fog on the Barrow-downs more or less reaches final form by the early 40’s. Unfortunately hardly any clues within The Return of the Shadow or The Treason of Isengard point to when Tolkien actually finished fiddling. Though The Lord of the Rings was laid aside for quite a while upon Tolkien’s said completion in 1949, there is virtually nothing to suggest any emendations (of interest to us) were incorporated afterwards. Some frantic editing was certainly performed just prior to The Fellowship of the Ring being published in 1954 – but nothing specific has been reported regarding the merry pair. There is a good chance then, that however Tolkien viewed our couple in the early 40’s ended up being the same as at publication in the mid 50’s. That or any evolution to the legendarium mythology allowed them to neatly slot in anyway.

When it came to the published account, the color ‘green’ was extensively employed in the chapters involving Tom and Goldberry. Whether from mixing or not, green was doubly suitable. Because as well as signifying a deeper and secret function, it also nicely meshed in with the predominant hue found in nature. Wasn’t that dandy! Tricksy Tolkien had in a way created a clever distraction that fooled the reader into a false sense of comfort. How can I be sure? Well I really can’t be one hundred percent. Yet the evidence at the end of this color analysis leads me to believe my hunch is totally correct.

So upon review of the issued The Fellowship of the Ring, we can see that Tolkien made no changes to Tom’s boots of yellow or the blue hue of his jacket. In one change of outfit during the hobbits’ stay, a familiar color was once again assigned. Tom came newly and aptly garbed:

“… all in clean blue, blue as rain-washed forgot-me-nots, …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Having already linked forget-me-nots to Goldberry, Tolkien the fond and learned botanist – I’m sure would have been thinking of the blue-petaled English marsh variety scientifically known as:

Myosotis scorpioides: Water Forget-me-nots.
– The Flora of Oxfordshire, by Killick, Perry, Woodell

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The Blue & Yellow Blooms of Myosotis scorpioides: Water Forget-me-nots 

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Tom’s other new clothing is consistent with my opinion of the Professor’s ‘fay-mentality’; Tom unsurprisingly:

“… had green stockings.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Goldberry, on the other hand, left the reader a little puzzle. At our first encounter, her dress is mainly green shot with beads of silver just like her wedding outfit from the 1934 poem. But her belt is described to be of:

“… gold, shaped like a chain of flag-lilies set with the pale-blue eyes of forget-me-nots.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

We must take a step back here and question whether the belt truly was formed of metallic gold, or whether the hobbits were initially mistaken, or whether Tolkien took adjectival liberties.

There is certainly some confusion on this point. At the threshold of the entryway into the house, in the “golden light”, the belt may indeed have looked like gold. Be that as it may, after a few steps into the room she is then said to be:

“… clad in living flowers.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Also Tom later tells us:

“Here’s my pretty lady … with flowers in her girdle!”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Given some conflicting and ambiguous text, the reader is left to wonder whether the belt, as initially described, was truly forged from precious gold. For indeed it would be a marvelous piece of workmanship truly worthy of a queen if “shaped like a chain of flag-lilies”. Seemingly something so ostentatious is not entirely at odds with a very stylishly portrayed female. Nevertheless what puts the matter mightily in doubt is that flag-lilies and forget-me-nots also arise in Goldberry’s wedding garland per the 1934 The Adventures of Tom Bombadil poem. In that case they were most definitely flowers:

“… his bride with forgetmenots and flag-lilies for garland …”.
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1934

The likely answer is that Tolkien had those very same flowers now modeled into a girdle for Goldberry. Though the flag-lilies were near-enough to gold, they were really yellow:

“… glædene ‘iris’, in my book supposed to refer to the ‘yellow flag’ growing in streams and marshes: sc. iris pseudacorus …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #297

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Yellow Flag Iris

Yellow Flag Iris, by Francis Russell, 1820-1915

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In any case, what we have then with blue/yellow forget-me-nots and a gold or yellow flowered belt is a combination of colors that when mixed make up either plain green or metallic green.

Later on in the episode the ‘gold’ belt was exchanged, along with robes, for equally stunning exterior wear. The lady of the house came clad all in silver with a new white girdle. Her shoes were described to be like fish scales; presumably then of silvery coloring. Visually the outfit must have looked spectacular. To use a modern-day phrase: out of this world!

No other clothing or accessories were ever mentioned again in connection to Goldberry except the gifted brooch from the barrow. Here once more, quite intentionally, Tolkien via Tom chose ‘fairy-mixable blue’:

“… a brooch set with blue stones, many-shaded like flax-flowers or the wings of blue butterflies.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

In summary, for The Lord of the Rings, the colors of clothes/adornments were as follows:

Tom: Blue, Yellow and Green
Goldberry: Green, Blue, Yellow (Gold), Silver and White

Thus we can see how the only color added to the duo’s attire after the published poetry was ‘white’. And both ‘silver’ and ‘white’ are distinct enough not to be readily associable to green. So what may we inquire, was their significance?

Given Tolkien’s extensive Celtic and medieval book collection and clues bound up in On Fairy-stories, undoubtedly it was known that there were colors other than green strongly connected to the realm and peoples of Faerie. It was the particular variety of fairy-folk mythologized within the British Isles that he was most interested in. The earlier the recorded material the better, and so it is thought that white and silver featuring prominently in Celtic legends and English medieval texts was concluded as also apt for fay-beings. Some pertinent examples are:

White: Arawn’s dogs, Morgan le Fay’s ermine cape and chalk veils, blossom from the sacred apple tree

Silver: The bough of the apple tree, the Banshee’s comb, Nuada’s hand

Deliberately then, white and silver were colors assigned to Goldberry too. Perhaps we should not be surprised because just as Tolkien had doubly provided a coded and nature related color to Tom, so had he for Goldberry. Symbolized then were:

“… real river-lands in autumn. Goldberry represents the actual seasonal changes in such lands.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #210

The whole Withywindle valley underwent seasonal changes in coloration as waters dwindled and surged and as the climate changed through the year. One can easily imagine how river-land flora naturally sprouted, expired and renewed through the seasons. Special emphasis was placed on the color of Withywindle aquatic plants tying them directly in with Goldberry’s colors. Without restressing the flora making up her belt, other examples are:

“… on a tray a small pile of white water-lilies”,
“… her gown was … green as young reeds, …”,
“The floor was … strewn with fresh green rushes.”,
“… water-lilies, green leaves … to please my pretty lady.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil   (my underlined emphasis)

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The European White Water Lily, Nymphaea alba

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Water itself – the life-force of the Withywindle and its borders, was alluded to be both silvery and white hued before the hobbits even reached Tom’s house:

“… the white glimmer of foam, where the river flowed over a short fall”,
“… white mists began to rise and curl on the surface of the river …”,
“… glad water flowing down … came falling like silver to meet them: …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil    (my underlined emphasis)

Imagery of silver connecting water to Goldberry’s clothing became strong once inside:

“… her gown was … shot with silver like beads of dew; …”.
“… she was clothed all in silver with a white girdle, and her shoes were like fishes‘ mail.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil   (my underlined emphasis)

There is no doubt that Tolkien wanted Goldberry firmly intertwined with the river, its margins and its flora. Commensurately the Professor specially brought-out the fay associated seasonal colors of the region. Goldberry’s clothing was destined to become an ideal medium for reflecting that.

Lastly when it came to attire – the hosts of the house had a special luxury item for welcoming guests. Even though hardy-soled hobbits might not have needed them, all four were provided with pairs of soft slippers. Guess what color? Oh yes once again how extraordinarily ‘convenient’ for fairy-folk: green, green, green and green!

Perhaps for some, the point has been made – but the story doesn’t quite end there.

It is now an opportune moment to switch from clothing and adornments to examining other symbolism involving color. Yes it’s time to take another look at Tom himself. What exactly was the reader’s first impression of him? More pertinently, what perception did Tolkien want to leave at first sight? Perhaps that initial imagery (as I surmised of Goldberry – see ‘Goldberry – The Enigmatic Mrs Bombadil, Part I’) was intended to be highly significant?

If I am right – indeed first looks were intended to count. Apart from the worn blue and yellow, Tom was also described as having a:

“… face … red as a ripe apple, …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Old Forest    (my underlined emphasis)

And there we have it!

In a nutshell Tolkien’s masterpiece riddle both exposed and solved. For the red, blue and yellow are reducible to just ‘red’ and ‘green’. Which is, as Spangenberg and many other scholars have noted, in line with otherworld residents having :

“… a pronounced fondness for green, second only to red …”.
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Tolkien’s ‘game with rules’, Lisa Spangenberg 

Yes, the two most beloved colors of fairies – were reflected in Tom. Dealt so deftly was a masterstroke by Tolkien. There in front of our very eyes were open clues telling us Tom was of the fairy race. And I have little doubt that indeed this was Tolkien’s intent because of the way the riddle was echoed in On Fairy-stories. Once again after stating:

“We should look at green again and be startled anew …”. 
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

Tolkien tells us not to be:

“… blinded … by blue and yellow and red.”
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

Which is an equation that, when solved, inevitably leads us back to the two foremost fairy colors: ‘green’ and ‘red’!

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Jack and the Beanstalk, Victorian Cautionary Tales c. 1869
(Note the predominantly green and red attire of the Giant)

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Then what about Tom’s ‘brown’ beard? How did that come into play?

Well ‘brown’ is traditionally the color of the soil – giving him an earthy side. Which attunes well with Shippey’s perception of Bombadil being:

a kind of exhalation of the earth …”.
– J.R.R. Tolkien Author of the Century, Chapter II, T.A. Shippey

Which makes me think Tolkien originally also intended him to be a sort of ‘earth-fairy’ possessing Paracelsian elemental qualities reflected by an ability to travel underground. For quite pointedly, Frodo when trapped in the Barrow heard Tom’s voice: 

“… far away, as if it was coming down through the ground …”. 
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs  

Am I done? Is that it? The answers are decisively no. Because now we understand that there is a strong liklihood of concealed color symbolism – we must endeavor to root out the rest. And so when it comes to ‘green’ and ‘red’, Tolkien once again cunningly gave away that indeed the hobbits were in the presence of fairies. Exactly how? Simply by restricting the colors in Tom’s vegetable patch or flower garden to only ‘red’ and ‘green’. Singled out were ‘green’ for the runner beans1 and their leaves, and ‘red’ for their flowers:

“… the red flowers on the beans began to glow against the wet green leaves.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

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Jack and the Beanstalk, Warwick Goble c. 1890

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Yes here was a plant that had the quality of Faerie intrinsic to its very essence. Understandably though, one still might question and comment: ‘Is that all? Seems a bit of a weak ploy.’

But oh no it wasn’t! Now that we recognize a ‘fairy connection’ we must put the proverbial two and two together to solve a mystery. Why of all the possible vegetables in an English vegetable garden did Tolkien include only one? And that of a kind whose stalks shoot up vertically:

“… the view was screened by a tall line of beans on poles; …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Why did the Professor neglect to mention any flower types in the flower garden, yet happily related the bean vines had ‘red’ blossoms? Was there more than just color symbolism involved?

To provide an overarching reason for seemingly the most innocuous of insertions – again we must hark back to mythology; in particular – English folk tales. Though it might sound like I’m repeating myself ad nauseum, really the coupling of our myths and folklore to his own story is a founding principle of Tolkien’s work. Speechified as downright English – Tom was deliberately connected to that most English of fairy tales: Jack and the Beanstalk2 .

Who was that odd-looking old man whom Jack had traded with? Might he have been Tom?

“He hadn’t gone far when he met a funny-looking old man, who said to him, ‘Good morning, Jack.’ ”
– English Fairy Tales3, Jack and the Beanstalk, Joseph Jacobs 1890

Surely only a fairy4 being would have been in possession of magic beans?

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The Queer Old Man, Jack and the Beanstalk, English Fairy Tales, F. Steel, 1890 (Illustration by Arthur Rackham)

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Then after the swap what happened to Jack’s cow: ‘Milky-White’?

Hmm … for our tale clearly Tom has access to a providing farm animal. After all, the extent of dairy produce on the dinner table was substantial:

“… yellow cream and honeycomb, and white bread and butter; milk, cheese, and green herbs and ripe berries …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil   (my underlined emphasis)

Given the length of the stay of four ravenous hobbits – not to mention the isolation of Tom from neighbors5 – one can readily deduce that there was plenty of fresh milk available on site. Obviously Tom must have had a large barn type structure to shelter the hobbits’ five ponies with room for Fatty Lumpkin too. Along with them must have been stored a copious quantity of hay. Then it is surmised Tom must have had ample room and feed for a cow6. And why a bovine and not a herd of goats? Well that is because Tolkien explicitly amplified the cream was “yellow” by stating it twice. Goats produce only cream which is white in color, whereas cows produce (like butter) the yellow sort.

So we can see that there was no shortage of food during the hobbits’ respite. With presumably much of it being milk based, we might ascertain Tom’s cow was a prodigous producer. Resonating with:

“… Milky-White, the best milker in the parish, …”.
– English Fairy Tales, Jack and the Beanstalk, Joseph Jacobs 1890

And one can readily imagine that legends of Milky-White and her ample output originated in hobbit folklore to be passed along through the ages to our own world’s myth through blended and corrupted tales of Tom’s residence being awash in ‘white’ ‘milk’:

“Frodo … watched the white chalky path turn into a little river of milk and go bubbling away down into the valley.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil    (my underlined emphasis)

To search for further findings to bolster the Jack and the Beanstalk link requires digging into adjacent material; for Tolkien, in Conan Doyle fashion, spread out the evidence.

To the hobbits who exactly were these black men, so much larger than them (and thus in comparison – of ogreish size), who had invaded a thoroughly English Shire with such animosity for its inhabitants? Many of the rustic little people had never encountered the Big Folk; from their viewpoint they must have looked gigantic:

“Sam … was finding his first sight of Men … quite enough, …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, At the Sign of the Prancing Pony

Apart from the ‘ogre’ fueled chase echoing Jack’s experience, what about that heightened sense of smell? What was all the sniffing about?

“…inside the hood came a noise as of someone sniffing …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Three is Company

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The Ogre in Black, Jack and the Beanstalk, English Fairy Tales, F. Steel, 1890 (Illustration by Arthur Rackham)

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Presumably it was connected to Aragorn’s revelation:

“… at all times they smell the blood of living things, desiring and hating it.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, A Knife in the Dark

Hmm … the smelling of blood combined with raw hatred!  Now where have I seen that theme before? Yes we must hark back once again to Jack and the Beanstalk and that most famous of English rhymes:

Fee-fi-fo-fum,
I smell the blood of an Englishman,
Be he alive, or be he dead,
I’ll have his bones to grind my bread.

– English Fairy Tales, Jack and the Beanstalk, Joseph Jacobs 1890

Isn’t the similarity becoming obvious now? Isn’t it obvious how The Lord of the Rings mirrors Jack and the Beanstalk in that both heroes look out from a window on to beanstalks first thing in the morning!

“So Jack jumped up and dressed himself and went to the window. And what do you think he saw? Why, the beans … had sprung up into a big beanstalk …”,
– English Fairy Tales, Jack and the Beanstalk, Joseph Jacobs 1890

“Frodo ran to the eastern window, and found himself looking into … a tall line of beans on poles; …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Most cleverly, Tolkien had interwoven well-known English folklore into his story with a combination of affinity and diffused variance. For to the Professor, to repeat what has already been emphasized:

“… there was always a kernel of fact behind a legend.”
Lecture of 14 February 1938, Report in Amon Hen 28, August 1977

And in that process of oral hand-down some inevitable corruption had occurred. It turns out that it was the Horn of Buckland which mustered the hobbits against the ogreish Black Riders. And the likely order for it to be blown came from The Master of Brandy Hall. Which is all too similar to Jack rallying his people by sounding a horn at the Ogre’s gate in Lang’s version of the tale:

“The men … pressed forward to say that they would serve Jack … to the castle, … they marched … and Jack blew the horn …”.
– Jack and the Beanstalk, The Red Fairy Book, Andrew Lang, 1890

Even more remarkable – the hobbits of Buckland were supposedly the originators of the ‘Fee-fi-fo’ part of the rhyme7:

“FEAR! FIRE! FOES!”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, A Knife in the Dark

Just maybe in Tolkien’s mind the missing ‘fum’ was a distorted: “run”. Perhaps this had all got jumbled up in ‘The Cauldron of Story’, leaving a ‘run to safety’ as a little puzzle for the reader to sort out!

“Fatty Bolger … knew that he must run. And run he did …”. 
– The Fellowship of the Ring, A Knife in the Dark    (my underlined emphasis)

Hmm … the aural resonances leave much to ponder! But objectively there are simply too many coincidences for the prognosis not to be true. The evidence is incriminating. Especially as left was much more than ‘a kernel’, and yet further connections to Jack and the Beanstalk are going to be revealed.

Also yet to be exposed are new revelations of Tom being entwined in at least two more traditional fairy tales. The stuff is hidden. Hidden exceedingly deep. But in the end – when all is extracted – much that is new will come to light. More importantly after all this time – we will finally understand Tolkien’s master-plan for the plot!

Footnotes:

 

1  The beans were originally and explicitly described as ‘green’ themselves – see The Return of the Shadow.

2  Tolkien certainly knew of Jack and the Beanstalk. He mentions the tale in his 1936 Beowulf lecture.

3  Jacob’s rendition is generally acclaimed as the one closest to the original tale. Benjamin Tabbart’s moralized version of 1807 and the 1734 Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean are not as well recognized.

4  In Benjamin Tabert’s, Andrew Lang’s and Edwin Hartland’s versions of Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack did meet a fairy – but after climbing the beanstalk.

5 According to Bombadil goes Boating, the Bucklanders were not altogether friendly towards Tom. The distance between Tom’s house and the Marish was too far to allow Maggot as a source for fresh and regular dairy produce. Besides Tom appears to have no viable means of transport between the two residences, let alone anything to trade.

6  Just as Hammond and Scull (The Lord of the Rings – A Reader’s Companion, pg. 113) have pointed out that by eating bacon at Maggot’s – the Shire-Hobbits must have kept pigs – an application of similar logic leads to the deduction of Tom having access to a cow.

7  Mark Hooker has similarly pointed out a rhyming resonance to the Jack and the Beanstalk tale in A Tolkienian Mathomium.

What a Colorful Pair!

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Part II: Fayvorite Colors – Early Influences to the New Plot

By the time Tolkien initiated the gargantuan effort of writing The Lord of the Rings – the idea of fairies being of diminutive size had been virtually abandoned. For many years, there were no signs that little flower-fairies in the Qenya Lexicon of circa 1915 would be part of the developing mythology:

“Ailinóne … a fairy who dwelt in a lily on a pool” …
“Nardi ‘a flower fairy’ ” …
“Tetillë is a fairy who lived in a poppy”.
– Parma Eldalamberon 12, Quenya Lexicon, c. 1915

If there was any reconsideration – it happened after The Lord of the Rings had been published, and it is by no means certain that Tolkien was firm on the matter1For all intents and purposes, remarks in his 1939 ‘Fairy Stories’ lecture governed his thoughts. And they were not altogether flattering.

Among extensive notes that never made it to the actual delivery, he admitted how he had once suffered acute embarrassment at the hands of a little boy:

“I was walking in a garden with a small child. I was only nineteen or twenty myself. By some aberration of shyness, groping for a topic like a man in heavy boots in a strange drawing room, as we passed a tall poppy half-opened …”. 
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Flieger & Anderson

The question was then posed:

“ ‘Who lives in that flower?’ ”
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Flieger & Anderson

The child knowledgeably retorted:

“ ‘No one’ … ‘There are Stamens and a Pistil in there.’ ”
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Flieger & Anderson

It seems Tolkien was quite taken aback. Perhaps such a blunt encounter cemented his position in the published account where he openly admitted a strong aversion to miniature fairies – ala Michael Drayton or William Shakespeare:

“… that long line of flower-fairies and fluttering sprites with antennae that I so disliked as a child, …”.
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

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Rabbit Among the Fairies, John Fitzgerald, 1823-1906 

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Tolkien was not alone among his compatriots in dismissing the notion of the ‘wee-folk’ being really tiny. C.S. Lewis seems to have been very much on the same page:

“I have found no trace of anyone believing or ever having believed (in England or Ireland) in the tiny fairies of Shakespeare, which are a purely literary invention. Leprechauns are smaller than men, but most fairies are human size, some larger.”
– Letter from C.S. Lewis to Mary W. Shelburne, 9 Oct 1954

As evaluated in Part I, Bombadil and Goldberry were not quite human-size, but neither were they far off. If as I have surmised the couple really were conceived as fairy creatures, they certainly weren’t diminutive. However on one matter Tolkien kept some consistency. He refused to drop the fairy-flower theme altogether. There was so much material already engraved in the hearts and minds of the English that there had to be some valid mythological link; and Tolkien wasn’t willing to completely discard a firmly established Edwardian and Victorian fad. And so as previously shown – Goldberry, though petite, could still be modeled after a flower-fairy – a ‘fairy of the yellow water-lily’.

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Water-Lilies and Water Fairies, Richard Doyle, 1824-1893

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With the topics of ‘fairies’ and ‘mythological links’ fresh in our minds, by now readers ought to have grasped that The Lord of the Rings from the very beginning had its roots in:

“… myth … fairy-story, and … heroic legend on the brink of fairy-tale …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131

Few realize how deep those roots went when it came to Tom Bombadil. On that matter I will save an enormously interesting and entirely new revelation for the next essay. But for now Bombadil’s connection to fairy-story will continue to focus on ‘colors’. In picking up from where I left off at the end of Part I, long overdue is a much needed re-look at the symbolism Tolkien imbued.

An unearthing of credible and pertinent information required only logical and minor ferreting on my part. Unsurprisingly it was once again necessary to zoom in on remarks made by Tolkien for the 1939 Andrew Lang Lecture: ‘Fairy Stories’. However before I visit that crucially important part of the puzzle – I will deliberate a little on Tolkien’s 1925 note on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

“… green was a fairy colour …”.
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon., 1925. pg. 86 line 151

Why, we must ask ourselves, did the Professor feel that way? What made him come to such a conclusion? Surely it couldn’t have been just the Sir Gawain and Green Knight tale?

“If we are introduced to a green man, with green hair and face, on a green horse, at the court of King Arthur, we expect ‘magic’; and Arthur and Gawain should have expected it also, we think. As indeed most of those present seem to have done: ‘a phantom and fay-magic folk there thought it’ …”.
– “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, Tolkien, J. R. R., The Monsters and the Critics

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The Green Knight and his Green Horse, The Cotton Nero

 

Because the man was green obviously meant there was something amiss; but why indeed should “we expect ‘magic’ ” ? What conditioned Tolkien and Gordon to think along such lines? Well – the answer probably lies in the multitude of times ‘green’ has been mentioned in association with fairy beings. Particularly when it came to those of the British Isles.

According to English folklore, the ‘Greencoaties’ were the names of fairies that dwelt in the countryside of Lincolnshire. Nearby the ‘Greenies’ were fairy residents of Lancashire. And of course the Scottish Highlands and Ireland both have many Celtic inspired tales of fairy-type creatures clothed in ‘green’. The medievalist Lisa Spangenberg provides three catching and more specific examples:

“I think Tolkien is right about green as a fairy color. We have many references to fairies and green, but I shall be charitable and only refer to three. In the ballad “Thomas the Rhymer” the fairy Queen’s skirt “was o’ the grass-green silk”. In the twelfth century Ralph of Coggestall and William of Newbridge tell stories about mysterious green otherworld children. The Sídhe, the Irish otherworld residents, have a pronounced fondness for green, second only to red …”.
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Tolkien’s ‘game with rules’, Lisa Spangenberg

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Thomas The Rhymer and Fairy Queen, The Scottish Fairy Book, E.W. Grierson, 1918

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As Spangenberg points out, “legions of scholars” have written about “the meaning of green” and on “green as a fairy color”. Of her cited examples, we know Tolkien almost certainly knew of all three2. Just as important – they are quite sufficient to prove the point. Given that – it’s now that I would like to turn attention back to The Lord of the Rings. The emphasis will be placed on scrutinizing a time period between 1938 and 1940. This being an acutely critical developmental period for the new plot and cast.

So some four years after the published poetry: The Adventures of Tom Bombadil – Tom, Goldberry and some accompanying characters were revived for what became The Fellowship of the Ring. ‘Green’ and its links to Faerie (and so to our couple) is conjectured to have been very much on Tolkien’s mind for those formative Bombadil chapters sketched out in the late 30’s. A glimpse of this peeks through from Tolkien’s revelation of a new Celtic fairy-tale he had been working on.

In August 1938, not too long after embarking on The Lord of the Rings, The King of the Green Dozen:

“ … an unfinished pseudo-Celtic fairy-story”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #33

was offered to Allen & Unwin. It was about:

“… the King of Iwerddon, whose hair and the hair of his descendant’s twelve sons is coloured green.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #33, Footnote 2

Yet another glimpse can be seen in a slightly earlier lecture Tolkien gave in February of the same year. From out of his coat pocket, and conveyed in all-seriousness to a post-lecture gathering at Oxford’s Worcester College, was pulled a supposed real leprechauns’ shoe. Smaller than a human’s (but not tiny) and reptilian in feel, the shoe was of course green. Presumably in Tolkien’s mind it was: ‘fairy-green’:

“One undergraduate asked about the truth underlying all legends – he referred especially to Dragons – and Tolkien said, “Yes – there was always a kernel of fact behind a legend.” He pulled out of a pocket… a leprechaun’s shoe! It measured about six to seven inches and was very green, as if lizard’s skin, with a long thin pointed toe.”
– Lecture of 14 February 1938, Report in Amon Hen 28, August 1977

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The Leprechaun and his Legendary Pointed Shoes (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

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Yes significantly it was in this time period (circa 1938 to 1939) that the early chapters, which included Tom, were both being written and undergoing revision in the process of his assimilation. It was also in this same period that Tolkien preparedfor his landmark March 1939 lecture: ‘Fairy Stories’.

Realistically in prepping for the lecture, The Lord of the Rings must have been at the front of his mind. One can imagine that if Tolkien had constructed ‘the Bombadils’ to be fays – then some of his ideas may have seeped through to the presentation itself. And so they did– as best as we can tell!

When it came to ‘fantasy’ and ‘color’ it appears Tolkien was heavily influenced by the introductory words of Maisie Ward for G.K. Chesterton’s 1938 posthumous release: The Coloured Lands. No amateur to science and given his love of painting, the Professor was palpably familiar with the fact that:

“… there are only three ‘primary’ colours.”
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

Those in art being:

“… red, blue and yellow, …”.
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript A, Flieger & Anderson  (Tolkien’s underlined emphasis)

Before even introducing the “ ‘primary colours’ ”, general colors and their adjectival importance to both Faerie and the creation of ‘fantasy’ were voiced:

“We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such “fantasy,” as it is called, new form is made; Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.”
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf   (my underlined emphasis)

More pointedly after talk of a need to ‘escape’ through the act of sub-creation, and using an example of blending colors, he then decided to place special emphasis on green:

“We should look at green again and be startled anew …”.
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

But then after asking us to ponder on that color, he tells us not to be:

“… blinded … by blue and yellow and red.”
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

Remarkable indeed – because of course green is not made from red. Just yellow and blue are. Which in itself is quite startling. Because individually blue and yellow are so different from green.

In writing these thoughts, the Professor’s mind appears not to have been clouded by alcohol intake. Absinthe – a popular drink at the turn of the 19th Century – had led many (even some academics) to experience the hallucinogenic effects of the ‘Green Fairy’!

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Absinthe – ‘The Green Fairy’, Albert Maignan, 1895

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Joking aside, following on in the essay from these initial thoughts on color was the process described as ‘Recovery’. To achieve this one must regain:

“… a clear view.”
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

To see:

“… things as we are (or were) meant to see them … freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity …”.
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

Laid bare then, the action he ever so subtly asked from us is: to regain a “clear view” of what comprised ‘green’. Left for us to unravel was to distinguish from ‘green’ – the colors: ‘blue’ and ‘yellow’. A stance that might well have been applicable to his own newly developing fairy-like tale:

“Fantasy is made out out of the primary world. So Green is made out of Yellow and Blue; but redirects attention to them, throws indeed a new light on them.”
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Flieger & Anderson

Given such an opinion, there is no reason why we cannot apply the principle in reverse to his fantasy character: Tom Bombadil. We ought to take a fresh look at his primary clothing colors of blue and yellow and redirect attention to them. Yet once we do so, we are led full circle in that:

“… we must hark back to … green”.
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript A, Flieger & Anderson    (Tolkien’s underlined emphasis)

For of course to the Professor:

“… green was a fairy colour …”!
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon., 1925. pg. 86 line 151

And Tolkien was right. In a way a sensation of ‘joy’ was experienced by this writer in:

“… a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth.”
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

Hard to believe? Well much later Tolkien confessed that some of what was contained within The Lord of the Rings:

“… was a practical demonstration of the views … expressed”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #234

in his ‘Fairy Stories’ lecture of 1939.

The comment was directed at the adult nature of the book – it being one with fairy-story elements, yet styled unlike those traditionally written for children. However one cannot help but feel that the essays’ points about ‘green’, the ‘mixing of colors’, and the importance ‘of others’ was reflected by another “practical demonstration” for the tale. In particular, for us, an application of coloring that symbolized the fairy side of this very unusual couple.

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The Blue to Golden-Yellow to Green Progression from the Heart of the Peacock Feather5

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Let us not be fooled, the supplementary evidence is far from weak. Tolkien must have known the pairings’ color of clothing handily made a coding for fay-creatures. Really then we should stand up and applaud with aplomb. How inventive! That fertile and lithe mind had managed to figure out a path justifying Tom and Goldberry as from another realm – namely that of Faerie. What we have to do now is verify whether this hidden design was carried through to final form.

Footnotes:

1 As the mythology developed to the point where spirits from before the creation of the Universe were termed the Ainur and sub-categorized as the Maiar and Valar, Tolkien appears to have subsumed some of the earlier fays into the Maiar. Notably he did conceptualize that:

“… the Maiar robed themselves like other lesser living things, as trees, flowers, beasts.”
– The History of Middle-earth, Morgoth’s Ring, Myths Transformed    (my underlined emphasis)

Though of course being robed as a flower is not quite the same as a diminutive fluttering fairy.

2 Thomas the Rhymer is mentioned in the On Fairy-stories essay. The story of the green children of Woolpit is documented in E.S. Hartland’s English Fairy and Other Folk Tales (see ‘Works consulted or cited by J.R.R. Tolkien’ per Tolkien On Fairy-stories by Flieger and Anderson). The ‘Sídhe folk’, the Irish Otherworld residents also known as the the Tuatha Dé Danann are mentioned in The Lost Road and Other Writings and documented in J. MacDougall’s Folk Tales and Fairy Lore in Gaelic and English (see ‘Works consulted or cited by J.R.R. Tolkien’ per Tolkien On Fairy-stories by Flieger and Anderson). His grasp of this core part of Celtic mythology is patently evident from his 1932 essay: The Name ‘Nodens’.

3 Chronologically, Tolkien began writing The Lord of the Rings (~ December 1937) before an invitation (November 1938) to be the keynote speaker for the ‘Andrew Lang’ lecture at St. Andrews. Just one month prior to lecture delivery (March 1939) we know he had completed the chapters involving Tom Bombadil and Goldberry and had revised them several times (Letters #33 & #35).

4 The original content of the lecture delivery was altered and expanded upon in 1943 and later published as an essay (On Fairy-stories) in a memorial to Charles Williams (Letter #145) in 1947.

5 Bombadil in the 1934 The Adventures of Tom Bombadil had his hat adorned with a peacock’s feather. Paulolapetus of ‘The Lord of the Ring’s Plaza’ in thread ‘Tom B. Peeling the Onion’ has suggested that the feather endowment was modeled after the fairy figure in Estella Canziani’s painting ‘The Piper of Dreams’.

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‘The Piper of Dreams’ by Estella Canziani, 1914

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According to my proposed theory, the color symbolism of the feather is again one appropriately reflective of a fairy being.

What a Colorful Pair!

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Introduction:

What follows is a five part series of essays that mainly discusses a unique approach to looking at Tom and Goldberry from a color-coding standpoint. The conclusions are intriguing. If true, they show another aspect of the author’s highly agile and creative mind – once again one that could think ‘outside the box’!

Part I: Fayvorite Colors – Early Days

Though in Part IV of ‘The Enigmatic Mrs Bombadil’ I have suggested that Goldberry has Paracelsian roots as an ‘elemental’, I have also hinted that Tolkien dually viewed her as a fairy being – a fay. Such a prognosis behooves a second look at Tom. Why revisit the matter – one might ask? After all wasn’t Tom neatly wrapped up in ‘Cracking the Enigma Code’?

The answer to the last of the questions above is a definite: No! Because though I’ve established within the confines of my theory that Tom eventually became a ‘Maia’ – he almost certainly wasn’t originally conceived as so. We can be reasonably certain of that simply because the term ‘Maia’ first appeared in Tolkien’s vocabulary in the 50’s – close to two decades after Tom’s first unveiling to the public. Undeniably Tolkien’s hierarchy of his own legendarium beings evolved. Given this pertinent fact, we ought to try and establish whether Tom evolved too. Progressive tracking might help us understand not just more about the merry pair, but also provide us with further insight into the story and perhaps Tolkien’s own character.

In a way we need to divorce ourselves from the final results and try to understand Tom and Goldberry over distinct phases. That way we may be able to reconstruct an evolutionary pattern. To work towards that goal, in this first phase I will try to attack the period up to publication of the original The Adventures of Tom Bombadil poem. What indeed did Tolkien consider these two in 1934 while completely oblivious of The Lord of the Rings to come? Unfortunately the clues are scant and we must rely much on guesswork.

All we have is the Doll, the ‘King Bonhedig1 fragment’, the ‘Germ poem’, the 1934 The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and perhaps one remark made by Tolkien prior to starting The Lord of the Rings in earnest, where Tom was referred to as:

“…the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside, …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #19

Michael Tolkien’s doll does lend us some threadbare clues. We know it was probably wood-jointed, likely pretty hardy2, atypically Dutch in design and possibly manufactured in Holland too. It wouldn’t be a stretch to presume that Tolkien’s son played with it not only inside the house – but also in a garden setting while resident at Northmoor Road. One can easily imagine a sunny Spring day with daffodils blooming in the grass and the children at play with their toys and father, while Oxford church bells faintly tolled in the background – an ever present reminder of Christ Church College’s Great Tom.

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Garden of 20 Northmoor Road, Oxford, J.R.R. Tolkien Artist & Illustrator, Hammond & Scull

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Perhaps this sort of circumstance triggered the doll’s naming, for it is quite possible that a spontaneous idea arose. Particularly as the Professor admitted that:

“… it is the particular use in a particular situation of any motive, whether invented, deliberately borrowed, or unconsciously remembered that is the most interesting thing to consider.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #337

With that thought in mind, I’m going to suggest a new origin for Tom’s surname which I think is equally as plausible as Hooker’s in The Hobbitonian Anthology.

Tolkien may have just imaginatively put together a faux history. Though the doll was now a fixed inhabitant of England, unquestionably it had some Dutch heritage which just may have been acquired along a journey accompanying England’s ancestors in Germany – the Saxons. Just like the ‘Tollkühn’s’ – the toy had been on a migratory trek but was now firmly an Oxonion. In effect, the doll was part English, part Dutch and part German and thus deserved a name that reflected all three chunks of its heritage. Perhaps he felt that the doll had some mythological history and was the long lost image of a nature spirit which had now become attached to his local countryside?

Anyhow, the ‘Tom’ – I am guessing was the English appropriation, while the ‘dil’ came from the Dutch de affodil (English asphodel) – very befitting from a man who, as we saw with Goldberry, enjoyed involving a botanical side to naming etymology. But what about the ‘Bomba’? Where did Tolkien get that from? Which German would he have selected?

For that I am going to suggest a person I have already introduced – namely: Paraclesus. A man whose real name was: Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim. And so to honor a sub-branch of ancient mythology, my proposal is that the partial name of a renowned medieval mythologist, botanist and alchemist was subtly incorporated into a mix. For Tom in the 1934 poetry reflects a being highly reminiscent of a Paracelsian ‘Earth Elemental’. A spirit that Tom Shippey has not only described as:

a kind of exhalation of the earth …”.
– J.R.R. Tolkien Author of the Century, Chapter II, T.A. Shippey

but also referred to specifically as an:

“… elemental ….
– New Learning and New Ignorance: Magia, Goeteia, and the Inklings, T.A. Shippey

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The Paracelsian Elemental of the Earth (Gnome) – Gjellerup’s Den Ældre Eddas Gudesange (1895)

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One can quite understand how the staunchly Germanic surname of von Hohenheim, or the Grecian rooted Phillipus, Aureolus and Theophrastus, would have been immediately discarded for consideration – as would have been the Greek and very German sounding ‘-stus’. But ‘Bomba’ was really the most intriguing and unique sounding portion of Paracelsus’ actual full name, as well as that of the doll, echoing Tolkien’s assertion:

“… I should not have given him so particular, individual, and ridiculous a name …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153

Is there a possibility that Tolkien kept his naming for our merry fellow at a very simple etymological level? Were the English ‘Tom’, The German ‘Bomba’ and the Dutch ‘dil’ all combined to simply give ‘Tom Bombadil’? Who knows? At the end of the day – I freely admit my solution is just a guess. An educated guess perhaps. But nevertheless just as likely as many others.

Before I move on to the main thrust of this essay – there is one other interesting detail we can extract from the early writings – and that relates to the size of both Tom and his consort. 

From the ‘Bonhedig fragment’ we know Tom was well below normal human height and stocky in build:

“Four foot high in his boots he was, and three feet broad.”
– Tolkien A biography, The storyteller, Humphrey Carpenter

Then later in his published 1934 poetry Goldberry was described as a ‘little’ water lady.

Obviously she was slighter in build – and we can reasonably assume she was shorter than Tom too. Otherwise it would be odd for him to refer to her as ‘little’. Despite being petite Goldberry appears fully compatible with Tom. This would put the couple as somewhere between hobbits and humans in height – seemingly closest to dwarves. Though of course, that they were most definitely not. Does this get us anywhere? Probably not very far. All we can say is that even at this early stage – the pairing had a puzzling peculiarity about them. A peculiarity that might be revealed by skipping forward for a moment and investigating color symbolism in The Lord of the Rings.

Despite me promising not to do so, in this case it is advantageous to look forward in order to look back. For one matter which stares us in the face, yet puzzlingly has been pretty much overlooked, is how vividly Tom and Goldberry were described compared to others in The Lord of the Rings. A review of the entire ‘trilogy’ reveals that no other characters were singled out with so much emphasis placed on the color of their clothes and worn accessories. An intriguing thought thus surfaces. Could Tolkien have had a special underlying reason in mind for the happy couple? To probe whether there is significance to this observation, we must now rewind back to early times and investigate those historical depictions.

The first textual mention of color occurred in the so-called ‘King Bonhedig fragment’ from the late 1920’s or early 1930’s (exact date unknown). Tom had a:

“… blue feather, his jacket was blue, and his boots were yellow”.
– Tolkien A biography, The storyteller, Humphrey Carpenter

This rendition is consistent with Michael Tolkien’s wood-jointed doll which was confirmed by his elder brother John to really:

“… wear the same bizarre clothing mentioned in The Lord of the Rings.”
– Conversation reported in Mallorn 5

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A Vintage Dutch Doll – perhaps in the style of Michael Tolkien’s

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Because the doll and ‘Bonhedig fragment’ colors are identical, Tom’s genesis colors are concluded to be: Blue and Yellow. To the best of our knowledge this is the case from both toy and textual standpoints.

Our next encounter with Tom where color arose is in poetry per The Adventures of Tom Bombadil from 1934. Tom was again described as owning yellow boots and a blue jacket. But now the feather in his hat specifically became a greeny-blue peacock’s. Whether this was the one and same bird which donated the apparently pure blue feather of the ‘Bonehedig fragment’ is unknown. In any case, no other clothing colors were acknowledged outright except Tom was crowned for the wedding with buttercups. Not to be missed then, was how Tom had more yellow gracing him.

We can see that if anything – Tolkien stayed steady (color-wise) in taking Tom from his origin as a toy into jottings and then full-fledged published verse. There appears to have been little desire to radically alter him despite the fact that yellow for male boots is quite odd, and a rarity in both fiction and fashion of the pre-40’s.

Turning our attention to fair lady Goldberry, her first mention to the public was also in the same 1934 rhyme. Therein she was described as wearing a gown of green by the rushes at capture and then silver-green matrimonial robes. Her wedding garland was of entwined flowers – flag-lilies and forget-me-nots, however their colors were not explicitly revealed.

The designated coloring of apparel and adornments at first published poetry and pre-The Lord of the Rings was thus:

Tom: Blue, Yellow and Green
Goldberry: Green and Silver

At this point it might be fruitful to kick back and pontificate on what sort of beings Tolkien envisaged Tom and Goldberry to be. A mystery it is, and one which does not have an immediately obvious answer. Nor is it easily resolvable. Because at the time of this early literature, the evidence that there is points to ‘The Adventures’ poetry having been written in good part for personal pleasure. It seems that at the poem’s conception and during its creation, there had been no intent to bring the pair into the already existent Silmarillion mythology.

Exactly what Tom was in Tolkien’s mind right then is uncertain. Obviously he wasn’t human. His ability to interact and communicate with both animals and unnatural beings, coupled with a potent power of command, put him in an entirely different category to mortals. If I were to take a stab, I think a reasonable guess is that Tom was imagined as a fairy-creature – meaning one from the land of Faerie. And if I were to further speculate, it is possible Tolkien cleverly justified such an attribution by realizing that as outfitted – the combination of blue and yellow made green3.

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For in his own words:

“… green was a fairy colour …”.
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon., 1925. pg. 86 line 151

And it is this pronouncement which is of greatest significance. Though green is also the color of nature, to Tolkien who was wrapped up in the subjects of fairy-stories and mythology – it was more. Indeed much, much more. Leaving us obligated to look at matters, that might seem trite, from a bold new perspective.

So what is to come will focus heavily on looking at the enigmatic pair from an angle of ‘color’ not explored before. And re-assuredly more evidence on the matter of color-mixing will duly follow, though first I must briefly turn back to a 1934 Goldberry.

Our yellow-tressed lady though predominantly clad in fairy-hued green, also had one garment tinged with beaded streaks of silver. Nonetheless, as I will emphasize later, silver was also ‘a fairy color’. Then as a compatible couple with compatible dress, there is every reason to believe Goldberry and Tom initially came from the same bucket. In other words, the probability is high that the merry couple were intentionally created as otherworldly fays. Once again, as far as we can tell – this was done independent to the legendarium mythology.

So to summarize, though it is not readily apparent: Tom is virtually in a splintered state. His entire attire when looked at in reverse through the lens of a painter’s prism – is ‘fairy-green’. Goldberry of course – in plain sight – is mainly dressed in ‘fairy-green’!

 

Footnotes:

1  The 2014 revised and expanded re-release of The Adventure’s of Tom Bombadil by Hammond & Scull provides no further significant information about Tom himself.

2  The doll is known to have survived being thrown into a toilet by John – Michael’s elder brother.

3  In ‘artistry’ – not in ‘light’.

Goldberry: The Enigmatic Mrs Bombadil

This essay is best viewed in single page format. If it appears in two column style – an adjustment can be made by selecting zoom at 125% to 175% under the ‘Settings’ tab.
Part IV: Elementary My Dear … What’s It?

Even at the very early stages of drafting The Lord of the Rings chapters depicting Tom and Goldberry, Tolkien clearly put considerable thought into the characters he wished to include in addition to the depth of the narrative. In February 1939 he confessed:

“The writing of The lord of the rings is laborious, because I have been doing it as well as I know how, and considering every word.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #35

Much later he confirmed the book:

“… was written slowly and with great care for detail, …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #328

No doubt much of the initial effort was directed towards:

“… the construction of elaborate and consistent mythology …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #19

And the end result was a:

“… coherent structure which it took … years to work out.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #190

Yet at first read there seems to be ample incoherence and many inconsistencies when it comes to our idyllic couple. For many readers have felt that the side adventure between the borders of Buckland and Bree was unnecessary. Opinions have often been voiced that it was a distraction which never added much value to the tale. It has been argued that an omission would have rid Middle-earth of two of its weirdest characters. And to some – that would have been no major loss.

Quite rightly the reader is entitled to be a little perturbed. Here we have the unusual situation of a rambunctious wrinkly old man cohabiting with a beautiful young maiden who exhibits a degree of worrisome servility. The contrast in looks and dress code from ancient and stout with a wardrobe of inelegance, to youthful grace with stylish garb – cannot be missed. Most peculiarly, both of them almost continuously sang while oddly even their talk seemed to rhyme. And some of this ineloquent nonsensical verse is decidedly annoying. To make matters worse, comic relief was added of the strangest kind in belittling the power of the Ring. Crassly put maybe – still it is understandable how one can enjoy The Lord of the Rings overall, yet actively dislike Tom and Goldberry.

The age disparity between the merry pair is one matter which has been frowned upon. Without foreknowledge of the 1934 The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, a casual reader could have been confused over their exact relationship. One can sympathize how for a mid-50’s BBC broadcast, with perhaps just The Lord of the Rings at-hand, a presenter might automatically have assumed a non-marital relationship. Tolkien was obviously aghast at the misinterpretation:

“… worse still was the announcer’s preliminary remarks that Goldberry was his daughter (!), …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #175

Another point of mixed feelings is signs of a scandalous abduction or even elopement! In the poem: The Adventures of Tom Bombadil – Tom forcibly removes Goldberry from her habitat and then seemingly coerces her to be his wife. The situation is a little muddy as some view her as a tad flirtatious and the departure from her river abode as a happy event. Her mother, the ‘River-woman’, although falling short of voicing disapproval, clearly misses her presence:

“… on the bank in the reeds River-woman sighing …”.
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1934 (& 1962) poem

Whether we readers like it or not, there exists the slightest undertones of kidnapping and brain-washing resulting in a subtly sinister aspect to the episode. Tom had a ruthless streak in him as is evidenced by the way he dealt with Old Man Willow and the Barrow-wight. Hints of this trait can be glimpsed in the Bombadil goes Boating poem. Though much was said in jest, the hobbits of Buckland were certainly wary of him with their verbal raillery being:

“… tinged with fear …”.
– Preface to: The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1962

Undeniably the implication by the phrase:

“ ‘… you’ll find no lover!’ ”,
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1934 (& 1962) poem

is that Tom would become Goldberry’s lover. Whatever the sexual connotations, negatively compounded by mismatched ages, to Tolkien – Tom was not the proverbial ‘dirty old man’. Far from it I do deem. As a devout Christian, Tolkien may never have realized that an issue would even arise in the minds of some readers.

To the Professor – Tom and Goldberry represented an ideal couple blissfully in love, and in harmony with all good and natural creatures within very discretely defined lands. Many have compared the pairing to Adam and Eve in their first dwelling; and maybe such an arrangement was deliberately portrayed that way. Married in the eyes of God, with the local animals being auspicious witnesses, is not too unlike the state of the first couple in the Garden of Eden. And this biblical face is perhaps more so reflected in Goldberry. For being a source, per my proposal of Part III, she is indeed Eve-like.

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Adam Digging and Eve Spinning, Medieval Painting on Wall of Broughton Church, England

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Beyond companionship, Tom offered Goldberry a great deal. He provided wisdom, knowledge, protection, laughter, a new home and importantly a new way of life. Instead of aquatic fare, the food on Tom’s table was from the soil and animal produce. It was a different type of life – which nonetheless Goldberry neatly slotted into while still being nearby her old haunt. There are absolutely no signs that Tom constrained Goldberry in any way, or that she was unhappy. She displayed tolerance to Tom’s songs and complemented them with her own. For the reader at least, the one verse explicitly recited was far less irritating than his oft repetitious lilt.

Despite all of these interesting matters, when it comes to Goldberry, there are still a couple of loose ends that need tying up. One of these is identifying the type of creature she represented in Tolkien’s mythology. The other is the River-woman. Beyond the obvious, who was she? What was she? And if Goldberry was a mythological source as I suggested in Part III, was her mother something even more basic?

We must ask ourselves, why is there no sign of her blessing the wedding. Why does Goldberry visit her mother’s pool only once a year? Had Tom forbidden her attendance at the marriage ceremony? Had he quarreled with his future mother-in-law? Was Goldberry a bad daughter in forsaking kin for Tom? Why had she become so estranged when the pool was relatively close by? And where in all of this is Goldberry’s father? Questions upon questions arise – if we choose to let them!

To attempt to tackle these seemingly unanswerable mysteries we must employ logic and once more try to fathom Tolkien’s underlying purpose. In particular we must once again heed his remarks on myth and invention:

“… I am interested in mythological ‘invention’, and the mystery of literary creation (or sub-creation as I have elsewhere called it) …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #180

“ But an equally basic passion of mine ab initio was for myth …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131    (Tolkiens italicized emphasis on ‘ab initio’)

From its inception Tolkien desired to create a new tale which not only linked to our history but also our mythology:

“After all, I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth’, and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131

And so for Goldberry being a forerunner from deepest antiquity, as I surmised in Part III, ‘Myth and Fairy tale’ could be reasonably added to the statement:

“Legend and History have met and fused.”
– On Fairy-Stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

Just like his creation of Sellic Spell, which was an attempt to imaginatively reconstruct what lay behind the fairy tale element of Beowulf, I believe he tried to make sense in his own mind of our world’s fairy tale water-entities. But I have a sneaking suspicion, as I have already alluded to in Part II, that there was a little more to the essence of Goldberry and her mother. To piece together the few rudimentary clues available – we must examine the case for these two creatures belonging to the legendary race of ‘elementals’.

A belief in elementals goes back to a time before the known beginnings of religion. Ancient peoples held a doctrine that inanimate things, and even animals and plants had souls of their own. However such soul-forms return to chaos, as the components of their constitution are incapable of manifesting any higher spiritual activity upon death. Elementals as they are now termed have been, perhaps wrongly so, cast under the general designation of fairies and fays. Paracelsus in the 16th Century classified his elementals as belonging only to inanimate matter – specifically the ancient Aristotle elements: air, water, earth and fire.

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Paracelsus.jpg

Paracelsus (Philippus von Hohenheim), 1493-1541

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Given this mythology has roots in some our world’s most ancient literature, and undoubtedly Professor Tolkien’s knowledge of that – we are obliged to consider whether he included elemental-type entities in his writings. If so, we ought to consider whether there is sufficient evidence implicating Goldberry and maternal kin to be of that race too.

Now to the best of our knowledge in very early hierarchy, Tolkien had already pigeon-holed many of our world’s mythological creatures – though inhabiting our physical planet – as originating outside of it:

“… the Manir and Suruli, the sylphs of the airs and of the winds.”
– The Book of Lost Tales I, The Coming of the Valar and the Building of Valinor

“… brownies, fays, pixies, leprawns, … for they were born before the world …”.
– The Book of Lost Tales I, The Coming of the Valar and the Building of Valinor

Almost certainly belonging to the mix were mythological water-spirits. For prior to this, in the Qenya Lexicon Tolkien had compiled a list of mer-folk and nymphs – mermaids being among them.

One can reasonably conclude that at this early stage of development:

(a) Tolkien had familiarized himself with elementals, for ‘sylphs’ was a word invented by Paracelsus.
(b) An origin outside of the physical Universe made such creatures semi-divine.

In this same time period, but somewhat later, we have a telling clue in that he pondered on classifying some mythical female water-entities, namely mermaids, as either:

“… earthlings, or fays? – or both …”.
– The Book of Lost Tales II, The Tale of Eärendel

If I were to take an educated guess, pre-The Lord of the Rings Tolkien wasn’t quite sure where mermaids should be placed because of possibly belonging to another wholly different category to fays; a category he obviously termed: “earthlings”. But exactly what were they?

Our best evidence can be found in a document called The Creatures of the Earth. Within, he labeled ‘Earthlings’ as ‘wood-giants, mountainous-giants, pygmies1 and dwarves’. Listed below ‘Earthlings’ in a pseudo-hierarchical ‘chain of being’ were: ‘Beasts and Creatures’ and then ‘Úvanimor/Monsters’. If I were to hazard another guess, ‘Earthlings’ were mentally grouped with others (I suspect with those further down the chain) as those whose bodily matter was destined to remain within the confines of the planet but whose spiritual essence eventually dissolved into nothingness or spread into nebulous impotency. Indeed if that were the case ‘Earthlings’ would be highly befitting terminology.

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The Salamander – Elemental of Fire, Paracelsus’ Auslegung von 30 magischen Figuren

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When it came to drafting up the Bombadil chapters, there is more evidence that Paracelsian-type elementals were intended to be part of Middle-earth’s rich racial diversity. Old Man Willow was referred to as a:

“A grey thirsty earth-bound2 spirit …”.      
– The Return of the Shadow, Tom Bombadil     (my underlined emphasis)

And then a description of trolls was given as:

“… stone inhabited by goblin-spirit, …”,       
– The Treason of Isengard, Treebeard     (my underlined emphasis)

with the point being that even inanimate matter in Tolkien’s world could be possessed by a spiritual essence.

Even more telling is a preliminary note for his Fairy-Stories paper. While in the process of gathering thoughts on the Bombadil chapters, Tolkien was also engaged in preparing for the Andrew Lang lecture of 1939. It is notable that when discussing a tree-fairy, he acknowledged that though spiritually originating before creation, and:

“… immortal while the world (and trees) last …”,
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Flieger & Anderson

most revealingly for us,

“… it is possible that nothing awaits him – outside the World and the Cycle of Story and of Time.”
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Flieger & Anderson

Again, this evokes the fate of a Paracelsian ‘elemental’, and perhaps parallels the destiny of ‘Earthlings’. Sadly though, for such creatures, he felt from a Christian belief and an after-life perspective – this state of affairs was:

“… a dreadful Doom …”.
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Flieger & Anderson

Still one can understand how the genus of tree-fairies might be debatable and fall into a couple of different classifications. Just like mermaids – they might have been:

“… earthlings, or fays? – or both …”.
– The Book of Lost Tales II, The Tale of Eärendel

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Tree Fairy, Cindi and Mama Tree, Grimm’s Fairy Tales – Illustrated by Arthur Rackham

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As to the published The Lord of the Rings, again there are further hints that an inert substance could possess a latent ‘fea’. In Legolas’ words during the Fellowship’s journey through Hollin:

“ ‘… Only I hear the stones lament them: …’ ”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Ring goes South

As if to provide emphasis, italicized in the voices of the stones themselves:

“… deep they delved us, fair they wrought us, high they builded us; but they are gone.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Ring goes South

Legolas wasn’t lying here – but though these particular elementals were innocuous to the quest, others were not so benign. Tom Shippey goes as far as finger-pointing the storm on Caradhras to be the work of presumably malevolent:

“… elementals …”.
– J.R.R. Tolkien Author of the Century, Chapter II, T.A. Shippey

Perhaps the strongest evidence and most obvious elemental candidate comes from Tolkien expounding on the nature of Stone-trolls. Worked on by dark powers, such creatures were fundamentally pre-existing spirits inhabiting stone. These barbaric monstrosities of our world’s mythology were readily included into his writings, yet he heavily hinted they lacked that which typified elementals, namely – a soul:

“… when you make Trolls3 speak you are giving them a power, which in our world (probably) connotes the possession of a ‘soul’. But I do not agree (if you admit that fairy-story element) …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153  (Tolkiens italicized emphasis on ‘speak’)

Quite possibly – Tolkien thought there was no place for the spiritual essence of such creatures beyond the physical circles of the World. There was no hall where their spirits were to be gathered upon Earth, and there would be no place for them Outside at the end with Eru Ilúvatar. In effect they were soul-less creatures, and ones associated to the ‘earth’ of Paracelsian lore.

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The Children and the Stone Troll, Illustration by John Bauer, 1882-1918

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Now the “fairy-story element” for a soul-less ‘water’ entity is best illustrated by the tale of Undine. Because of her resemblance to mermaids of myth and Tolkien’s referral of “earthlings”, it is to her and duly Goldberry that I must next turn.

Tolkien once expressed that he felt:

“… nymphs, … had quite distinct mythological or imaginative origins …”.
– Jack: A life of CS Lewis, Into Narnia, George Sayer

His friend C.S. Lewis was well aware of Fouqué’s nymphean tale of:

“… Undines who acquired a soul by marriage with a mortal”.   
– Letters to Malcolm, C.S. Lewis    (my underlined emphasis)

And no doubt Tolkien with his extensive interests in fairy tales and mythology knew it too.

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Fountain of Undine, Kurpark, Baden, Germany

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Fouqué himself best summarizes Undine’s dreadful plight and that of other types of elemental:

“ ‘… We should be far superior to you, who are another race of the human family, for we also call ourselves human beings, as we resemble them in form and features had we not one evil peculiar to ourselves. Both we and the beings I have mentioned as inhabiting the other elements vanish into air at death and go out of existence, spirit and body, so that no vestige of us remains; and when you hereafter awake to a purer state of being, we shall remain where sand, and sparks, and wind, and waves remain. Thus we have no souls; the element moves us, and, again, is obedient to our will, while we live, though it scatters us like dust when we die …’ ”.
– Undine, F. de La Motte Fouqué, Project Gutenberg E-book, produced by Sandra Laythorpe         (my underlined emphasis)

If we “admit that fairy-story tale element” – then indeed we can see how and why Tolkien meshed an Undine-like Goldberry into the 1934 The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, and then her entirely land-based married portrayal in The Lord of the Rings. Within the latter there are perhaps just the faintest of clues indicative that her make-up and consistency was something special.

Tom poetically described Goldberry as:

“ ‘… clearer than the water. …’ ”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Old Forest

And then as if to reinforce the point, Tolkien had him practically repeat it:

“ ‘… clearer than clear water…’ ”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Hmm … in acquiring a soul had she transformed from a ‘water elemental’ into an embodied creature, yet retained much of those intrinsic former qualities? Had she become what we might term – a fairy being?

Perhaps additional evidence of an elemental type essence is revealed by the light of a candle which shone through Goldberry’s hand:

“… like sunlight through a white shell.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Unusual I deem for a hand shielding the flame from a draught – for fingers ought not to be splayed open!

All of these are interesting observations which aid a needed reconciliation of the River-woman. Because a possible reason why the mother or mother-in-law situation was not an issue to Tolkien is that in the sense of a physical anthropomorphic being (as we might imagine) – the River-woman simply wasn’t one! For perhaps she had yet to fully transmute? Or perhaps she was invisible4 to all but gifted beings – such as Tom and Goldberry herself?

Rivers in European mythology were often inhabited by female spiritual forms. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings refers to Goldberry as the river’s ‘daughter’ four times and explicitly the ‘River-woman’ is mentioned once. But it is possible the river was viewed as housing a non-conventionally embodied entity, yet also a source of shelter and nourishment for a more conventional fully morphed human-like being. Therefore it effectively acted maternally in the sense of being a provider and source of comfort and shelter. The river itself was likely there before Goldberry and is thus the elder of the two. Goldberry simply became attached to it after its formation. If that was the case, then most sensibly she can be termed its ‘daughter’.

So the Withywindle (in Tolkien’s mind) may have had another resident female spirit but not a flesh-clad tangible one as mortals could see. For it is quite possible that at the time of writing the early Bombadil poetry, Tolkien thought that the ‘mother’ spirit of the river was elemental in form and permanently locked within the water itself (yet able to move with the flow or against it). Just like the malevolent willow wasn’t really a ‘man’, perhaps she did not display herself as an anthropomorphic ‘woman’. 

Against this, in the poem The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, Goldberry’s mother is seemingly situated outside of the rivers’ waters when lamenting her loss:

“… on the bank in the reeds River-woman sighing …”.
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1934 (& 1962) poem

We have to remember that when it comes to poetry, every matter should not be taken literally. We must also remind ourselves that many details of the hobbit composition must have come from Tom himself – some of which might have become slightly distorted in translation to jest-ridden rhyme. Especially as the final result was:

“… made up of various hobbit-versions of legends concerning Bombadil.”
– Preface to: The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1962

Quite possibly Tolkien viewed the reeds on the bank, whose roots connected down into the water, as osmotically acting like the ears of the River-woman’s spirit. News from afar carried by the wind and reverberating in the flora may have been a way of capturing the river “sighing” in mourning its loss. And so the departure of Goldberry, a being who had added such merriment and beauty to the local habitat, would have been sadly detrimental to the whole river-valley’s essence in a spiritual way.

If we choose to adopt a ‘looser’ reading of the poetry and text, the many problems associated to Goldberry’s parentage can be wholly eliminated. If we choose to embrace the evidence and view Goldberry and her mother as ‘elementals’ – some puzzling text in The Lord of the Rings becomes readily explainable.

Of course, with what we know today, once again I reiterate that absolute proof remains elusive. However I hope that this four part series has meaningfully added to our understanding of Tolkien’s very mysterious little water-lady. The good news is that I am far from finished with Goldberry and Tom. There are many more interesting secrets Tolkien concealed – and the revelations to come about this couple will surprise even the most attentive and scholarly among us!

Notes :

1 Pygmies here, were likely thought of as in the context of being mythological creatures, for they are indeed a term employed by Paracelsus for an elemental of the earth. It is theorized that Tolkien set apart ‘Earthlings’ from the category of ‘Monsters’ due to the former inherently possessing moralistic free will. In other words ‘Earthlings’ were capable of being both evil and good. This seems to be have been reflected in The Hobbit – where in the journey over the Misty Mountains, Gandalf commented about finding “a more or less decent giant”. A ‘mountainous-giant’ under the category of ‘Earthlings’ might well have been what Tolkien had in mind.

In any event the fact that the grouping designated ‘Earthlings’ appears to contain one Paracelsian type elemental, makes one wonder whether other creatures of that lore were deliberated to belong too. It is possible that water-nymphs, mermaids and undine-like entities, were also considered to – if not wholly belong – at least overlap into that same mythological grouping.

Tolkien stated that the spirit had become “imprisoned” in the Great Willow. The implication is that the tree was not its natural habitat.

3 The implication is that Tolkien’s pronouncement about ‘souls’ is applicable to all types of Troll. The comment in Letter #153 of Trolls being “counterfeits” might be associated with the inability of the Dark Powers truly being able to create, thus reflected (for the Stone-trolls) in an unstable design able to be destroyed by sunlight.

4 Paracelsus’ elementals were generally invisible to mortals.

Revisions :

2/6/17  Replaced paragraph after: “But exactly what were they?” with entirely new paragraph.

Incorporated new Footnote 1 and re-ordered existing Footnotes.

Is: “Again, this evokes the fate of a Paracelsian ‘elemental’, and perhaps parallels the destiny of ‘earthlings’.”, Was: “Again, this evokes the fate of an ‘earthling’ and parallels a Paracelsian ‘elemental’.”.

Removed from Footnote 3 : “As ‘monsters’ they would have come under the umbrella of ‘earthlings’ per The Creatures of the Earth.”

Is: “racial diversity”, Was: “bio-diversity”.