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In Defence of a Different Approach to Bombadil Research
After 28 articles the reader is both entitled to and fully deserves a summary. Besides it would be unfair to finish up leaving an impression that everything is solved, explained and nothing else awaits discovery. That said – I’m firstly going to comment on my reporting style and then dwell a little on the other Bombadil research out there before I condense findings and ultimately dole out conclusions.
Now throughout I have adopted a style of writing intentionally meant to be free of abstruse jargon or complicated syntax. Since the prose has been tailored both for the academic and novice, it’s deliberately kept simple and lucid. My aim is solely to allow easy assimilation and understanding no matter the age or level of educational background. After all, everybody deserves to comprehend the complexity behind Tolkien’s most mysterious characters and the precision and lengths he went to shape them.
Though the articles could have been shortened and kept a tad more concise, I have consciously taken the approach of employing more everyday vocabulary and preferred a little wordiness to get my points across in the hope of eliminating ambiguity. With ‘the answer’ being lengthy – all the essays required alignment to eliminate contradictions. As such they necessitated careful planning with the purpose of building a ‘story’ possessing backbone that could be gradually and coherently fleshed out.
All the submitted essays are decidedly radical, and formulated with such intent. Having laboriously conducted extensive research I am well aware that the material exposed is far from mainstream and that nothing like these discoveries has ever been presented before. But that does not concern me. Not in the slightest. Because I am not catering to those who insist on rigidly sticking to their own interpretation of Tolkien’s words and are unable to make connections or follow paths of logic. Neither am I interested in what I see as oft regurgitated matters that the Tolkien scholastic community have put forward, all too regularly, in different shades of expression. By that I intend no offence – but disappointingly it is generally the same old stuff, in repackaged guise rarely advancing something new – let alone eye-opening. What exists in the public domain does not contain the breakthrough I desire. Nor I believe, what the avid reader craves.
Despite the surprising nature of my articles, I still believe they pander to the bulk of Tolkien aficionados. We all want to know the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But what is it? Do you not think that I have mulled upon whether my version – is the real truth?
Of course one must examine, probe and question. Yet I have exercised considerable self-criticality. And in the end – I urge the reader to acknowledge that it is hard, if not impossible, to just randomly pull cogent congruent threads, that tie in with all that we know about Tom and Goldberry, out of a hat. I could not invent such fluidity – even if I was paid to try. Especially when the flow circulates around subjects which were Tolkien’s forte: fairy tales, myths and legends, English history and Christianity. Yes my idea of Tolkien’s inventive path doesn’t have the hallmarks of mere coincidence, or for that matter – contrived fakery.
In first reading The Lord of the Rings – I, like many, was thoroughly bemused over the merry couple as well as the Barrow-downs episode. A goofy oddball mocking the One Ring – really? A ‘just call my name’ instantaneous rescue – really? It simply didn’t make sense in an adult story. Yet Tolkien’s prose seemed so thoughtfully and carefully constructed. Even more so than The Hobbit which was confirmed by:
“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
Most disheartening was that despite all the books and Internet articles perused – hardly any shed further light beyond what could immediately be grasped from the tale and the few largely evasive remarks within the Professor’s released letters. Frustratingly it seemed as if the vast majority of the community were simply prepared to accept Tom and Goldberry as enigmas and leave it at that. The relatively small number of articles and theories which had been published were altogether unsatisfying in that they just didn’t delve deep enough. Nor could they explain the dynamic duo entirely. Glossed over were far too many loose ends.
To that point of considering and evaluating other academic propositions, I am not about to pick them all apart one by one and lay bare their flaws. Though of course there are matters which match – there are also many quotes within the story and comments made privately in Tolkien’s letters that cannot be aligned to the investigative author’s theory, no matter which it is. I have yet to see anyone tightly explain Tom’s powers within the context of their hypothesis. And hardly any attempt to address the information contained within the letter to Mroczkowski in 1964 or the one for Coghill in 1954. Certainly they all fail to provide an all-encompassing solution.
Tolkien stated that Tom belonged to a greater story which would take much effort to elucidate. Would it be impossible to reconstruct it? Could the information available be enough to piece together a credible answer?
Bilbo might have set out on a quest to recover treasure – but for me, I had my own personal quest for ‘riches’ in Tolkien’s world. I challenged myself and actively sought fitting explanations for these bizarre individuals and the short adventure after the hobbits’ departure. ‘Nature deity par excellence’1 as Anne Petty puts it – simply wasn’t good enough. Nor was Shippey’s ‘Genius Loci’2, or his prognosis of the barrow incident being “especially mysterious”3. It seemed to me that the ‘experts’ really weren’t expert enough to provide concrete help. And if not concrete – at least offer reasonably grounded solutions beyond the superficial.
In this matter – I must simply be honest, forthright and blunt. Even including the ‘experts’ – my belief is that not a single person who has read The Lord of the Rings has understood how sophisticated Tolkien made these two characters. Added to that pronouncement – not a single person has truly understood the Barrow-downs episode and thus the storyline. It might sound like I’m blowing my own trumpet, but there’s really no way to cushion it. I stand by my diagnosis – even though it appears it’s me – against the rest of the world.
So education and enlightenment are my primary aims. Because the news should be spread how there truly is a ‘One Theory’ that demystifies it all. And even recognized scholars should not be dismissive as much is worth pondering over – even if initially the research results seem hard to swallow. One needs to be patient and intake it all. A rich academic lode has been exposed and we should be prepared to mine it. I doubt if the seam is exhausted. I doubt if I have excavated all the ore. But given a set of new tunnels – those intrigued should embrace the opportunity to further our understanding of Tolkien’s world by participating in the dig.
The trouble is that many folk have ingrained views – especially towards Bombadil. Some readers will no doubt be sympathetic to Tolkien’s stance of a few matters deserving to remain enigmatic:
“He is best left as he is, a mystery.”
– Tolkien letter to Christopher Fettes – 1961: Hammond & Scull LotR Companion p.134
Unfortunately that’s not palatable when the storyline cannot be understood. I cannot emphasize that enough, nor more politely. Yet to gain comprehension, Tom is key. We must figure him out before the tale will unravel before us.
I’m sure the author was quite aware of the quandary. Caught in a dilemma of his own making, Tolkien took the easier route. He swept Tom under the carpet leaving him for scholars to sort out. He steadfastly stuck to his guns refusing even to edify a close friend by insisting Bombadil:
“… won’t be explained …”.
– Tolkien Letter to Nevill Coghill, 21 August 1954
At most he was only prepared to tantalizingly acknowledge an answer existed:
“… there is always something left over that demands a different or larger construction to “explain” it’ . Tom Bombadil is an example of this.”
– Christie’s, Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts, auction catalogue, London, 1 June 2009, lot 76
After a multitude of articles we can all see how long an explanation is needed. Tolkien couldn’t possibly have articulated everything about Tom without expending a great deal of energy. Sadly for us, I think he was against offering a partial story. It was all or nothing. And in the end – what he willingly gave away was practically ‘nothing’. For it would take a book to lay Tom bare – and its writing would likely expose many secrets of his world – some perhaps too personal for common revelation. This can be readily deduced from Clyde Kilby’s interaction with the Professor many years after The Lord of the Rings had hit the bookshelves. Kilby relayed Tolkien’s extreme reluctance to open up:
“… discussion of his most deeply private world was simply impossible for him.”
– Tolkien & The Silmarillion, Summer with Tolkien, Clyde Kilby
When it comes to research, it is my belief that the type I have conducted – looking in great detail at the text, making literary connections and employing logic – was precisely the type Tolkien would have grudgingly accepted. Especially as the demand made was that we read the story:
“… with attention throughout.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #329
Minutia were incredibly important to the Professor:
“I like things worked out in detail myself, and answers provided to all reasonable questions.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #144
“… I am a pedant devoted to accuracy, even in what may appear to others unimportant matters.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #294
Yet strangely enough – despite the hordes of scholars who have pored over The Lord of the Rings for some sixty plus years – major things still have been missed. That is water under the bridge now for fortunately some of those missing elements provide enough clues that if one didn’t entirely concentrate on the story – and instead employed lateral thinking, then indeed the jigsaw pieces could be snapped in place. The steps I have taken in selecting, orienting and positioning those pieces are successively incremental. Nothing impossible to imagine. And no incredibly large jumps of faith – at least not any without supplementary or corroborating evidence. In any case what leaps have been taken are small compared to those Tolkien took within his core discipline of philology in extracting the historical and regional evolution of words with associated phonetics. Yes they are tiny steps measured against those the Professor had to deal with in a field that was often subjective and incredibly difficult to substantiate. So when it comes down to it – the obstacles faced in The Lord of the Rings are easily overcome for those well versed in mythology, fairy tales, the Christian religion and historical English texts. Only one piece of equipment is essential in the researcher’s arsenal. And that’s an inquisitive mind adept and flexible enough to enjoy solving puzzles!
Getting down to the heart of Tolkien’s plan, my verdicts are no different from those expressed all along in this journey. Both Tom and Goldberry were designed to be sources of many of our world’s fairy tales, folkloric stories and legends.
Weakly or strongly Tom is the ultimate source behind:
The Irish Leprechaun
The male English fairy of the Jack and the Beanstalk tale
The fairy man of The Little Folks Presents
Hop o’ My Thumb
The Welsh fairy herdsman
The Irish Celtic god Lugh Lámfada
The Welsh deity Lleu Llaw Gyffes
The Gallic Celtic god Esus
The Welsh bard Taliesin
The Paracelsian Elemental of the Earth
The apocryphal texts of the Archangel Michael
The apocryphal texts of the Grigori (Biblical Watchers)
Weakly or strongly Goldberry is the ultimate source behind:
The Greek water nymph
The fairy tale: Undine
The Paracelsian Elemental of Water
Mermaids, Lorelei and Nixies
Jenny Greenteeth & Peg Powler
The Welsh Gwraig Annwn
Mythology behind the yellow water-lily
The Washer Woman at the Ford
The Christian links to the white water-lily
The yellow water-lily of The Gold Spinners fairy tale.
No doubt more awaits unearthing. But for now, I want to conclude by summarizing matters related to ‘allegory’. As far as Tolkien’s statement:
“… my mind does not work allegorically …”,
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #144
that is hardly believable when it comes to Bombadil. His 1964 letter to Professor Mroczkowski contains enough within it to generate extreme skepticism.
I conclude that for inclusion into the mythology, Tom was reinvented4 and specially designed with allegorical intent. Because Tolkien conceded when it came to providing an explanation:
“ … any attempt to explain the purport of myth or fairytale must use allegorical language.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131
And so I have little doubt that Tolkien’s “allegorical language”, to explain our fairy tale character Tom, would have been one employing theatrical terminology. Because Tom, as I reiterate, was purposefully cast to represent the ‘audience’ of the great ‘cosmogonical drama’.
However as far as The Lord of the Rings is concerned, every one of Tom’s words, actions and tricks can be related to ‘applicability’. The Professor would I am sure have argued that theater-based analogies are just ways of simplifying thinking about other worlds and all that might stem from them. While the religious aspects to Tom would probably have been argued as veiled forms of symbolism to a Christian story. Even the seemingly incriminating date of the 29th of September, yes even St. Michael’s day and all its ensuing consequences – does not make Tom an allegory of the Archangel. Where after all did the 29th of September originate? Not as part of Biblical canon – that’s for sure. In the end it is down to folklore and man-made tradition the reasons and true origins behind which are lost in the mire of time. Indeed Tom and all his varied characterization was simply a case of Tolkien taking advantage of literary fragments of European myth, legends, fairy tales and folklore and astutely stitching them together for his mythical history. Yes indeed – a case of ‘applicability’ is my final conclusion!
By now it should be obvious, but it must be emphasized that Tom and Goldberry are Tolkien’s own unique creations. They are not copies originating from anyone else’s mind or work. They are masterful inventions crafted and then carefully remolded for the mythology with utmost skill and thought. They are breathtakingly complex and so subtly entwined with our own world – that it beggars belief!
Right now I’m going to take an extended break from publishing new articles. Over the next few months existing essays will be revised, appended and partially re-written. Some new material will also be incorporated providing supplementary evidence.
One day (given the energy) – I hope to come back and expose other ‘new’ facets to Tolkien’s world. One of my first endeavors will be to clear up another perennial mystery, namely: what happened to the Entwives? The ‘answer’ (rather my understanding of what Tolkien had in mind) is again highly intriguing. Certainly it is worth an essay or two!
1 See: The Road to Middle-earth, A Cartographic Plot, T. Shippey.
2 See: One Ring to Bind Them All: Tolkien’s Mythology, A. Petty, 1979.
3 See: Author of The 20th Century, The Lord of the Rings (1) Mapping Out A Plot, T. Shippey.
4 From the poetry: The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (published in The Oxford Magazine, 1934) to fit The Lord of the Rings.