This post is only in passing about Tom Bombadil. My general concern in this series of posts is to grasp how a new story about hobbits, began in the last weeks of 1937, slowly grew into the book we know today as The Lord of the Rings.
My posts of a month ago followed the early drafts of the story collected by Christopher Tolkien in Return of the Shadow through the first phase of writing – which lasted until early March 1938. At this point Tolkien had brought a party of hobbits to the house in Buckland, next to the Old Forest.
Tolkien returned to his story in August 1938, and seems to have worked steadily until the end of the year. He began by writing rapidly the adventures with Old Man Willow, Tom Bombadil, and the Barrow-wights – and it is in this part of the final book that we glimpse something of the original idea of a sequel to The Hobbit, before it had become absorbed into a much bigger tale.
That process of absorption becomes visible soon after the hobbits first arrive in Bree. A projection of the story to come as jotted down at this time (RS 126) envisages a quick journey from Bree to Rivendell. But once Tolkien began writing he realized that the nature of the Ring as now envisaged, with black riders already in pursuit of it, demanded further plot developments – which is how the scene on Weathertop – which really is the high point of the first book of LOTR – came into being.
Another level of absorption was also at work. Already in the first draft of the scene on Weathertop, Tolkien mentions (p. 169) that Gilgalad and Elendil had once built a fort on the hill. And from this point on references to the story of the history of the exiles from Numenor become both more frequent and – crucially – ever more integral to the plot of the new story. In other words, as one reads the successive drafts in Return of the Shadow one begins to realize that another story is breaking through into the new story about hobbits. This ‘back story’ is ‘The Fall of Numenor’, which Tolkien had composed a year earlier, and actually one could argue that its composition – rather than the ‘long expected party’ chapter penned in December 1937 – marks the real comencement of the book we know today as The Lord of the Rings.
What this means in terms of my reading of RS is that I need, not only to trace the development of the idea of the Ring, but also to chart the process whereby the ‘Fall of Numenor’ (and more generally the unfinished ‘Lost Road’, of which FN was intended as a preface) breaks through into – and eventually comes to provide the frame for – the new hobbit story. These tasks will occupy me in subsequent posts.
But the above reflections do shine a little light upon various enigmatic elements of the first book of LOTR, such as – that most enigmatic of all of Tolkien’s creations – Tom Bombadil.
Now let’s be clear. Spend half an hour googling TB and you will hit upon any number of wacked out accounts of who Bombadil is. That I cannot pretend to tell you. But what reading RS does illuminate is something of the way in which TB came to be who he is.
The singularity of Bombadil is perhaps best captured in his ability to see Frodo when he wears the Ring (and then to put on the Ring himself but remain visible). Tom Bombadil is thus set outside of the world of Sauron’s magic, which seems to cast its spell on all other human-like beings in Middle-earth. Tom’s seeing of Frodo (then called Bingo) is present in the earliest draft, but when read in the context of the story as it was then conceived in Tolkien’s mind reads differently.
The key to the original conception of Tom’s seeing seems to be Farmer Maggot, who had already appeared in the journey across the Shire and who, in these early drafts, is at times not imagined as a hobbit but as a similar kind of being as Tom Bombadil: ‘We are kinsfolk, he and I’ (RS 122), TB says of Farmer Maggot.
Now, when Tolkien wrote the first draft of the meeting with Maggot he was still very much in ‘Hobbit sequel’ mode, and his hobbits as they cross the Shire at times appear alarmingly akin to undergraduate students in rag week. Thus the episode at Maggot’s house is all about Bingo putting on the Ring and playing a practical joke on Farmer Maggot:
But at that moment the mug left the table, rose, tilted in the air, and then returned emtpy to its place. ‘Help and save us!’ cried the farmer, jumping up. (RS 96-7).
When we put all these elements together – and, crucially, let go of the story we know – it seems (to me, at least) that Tom Bombadil’s seeing of Bingo when he puts on the Ring was conceived in relation to Bingo’s practical joke on Farmer Maggot. Maggot and Bombadil are kin, the first one is taken in by Bingo’s juvenile humour, the second sees through it, and in doing so humbles Bingo.
But, as the months and years went by, and as the new hobbit story gradually became a development of the ‘Fall of Numenor’ – a story about Sauron and his enemies, the men of Westernesse, and the final fateful battle between them – so the Ring became something that could no longer be used for a practical joke.
And so the original Farmer Maggot episode became what we know today – the good hobbit farmer and his family and mushrooms (a shadow of the original idea of kinship was retained with the information that TB gets his news of the Shire from Maggot).
And here, I think, we glimpse Tolkien doing one of the things he does best, namely creating as he goes along as opposed to hitting on and then simply expressing some one original conception. Farmer Maggot’s identity was fixed as a hobbit, and the visiting party of hobbits do not use the Ring for a practical joke when visiting him. Yet the story of TB and the Ring remains, shorn of its original context and hence completely enigmatic – and all the better for it.