Angel and Demon, Gospel and Fairy-story

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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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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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Image result for michaelmas goose historic

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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).

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