Tolkien's Mystery Element: Where True Powers Dwelt Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Tolkien's Mystery Element: Where True Powers Dwelt

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The impossibly clever and rather brilliant JRR Tolkien looking askance.

While some intellectuals recognised British author John Ronald Reuel Tolkien as a distinguished philologist1 and a respectable Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, the world acknowledges the efficacious impact on fictional works caused by his powerful writing. Almost all of Tolkien's classical works concerned Middle-earth, a parallel representation of what this world could have been if inhabited by Hobbits, Elves, Wizards, Orcs, Ents and many more mythical creatures. It was fantasy most critics of Tolkien's time scorned as childish escapist tales, but despite the negative feedback, the stories of Middle-earth were immensely popular, and remain so.

In the Beginning

The battle of symbols and words that depicted Middle-earth commenced with The Hobbit, Tolkien's first novel. The Hobbit appealed to children more than to adults as somewhat of a fairy tale, for it had been of a lighter nature than the rest of Tolkien's novels. Regardless of the range of Tolkien's audience, The Hobbit prepared the readers and set the scene for a waging of war. Tolkien's works enchanted the imagination because of the basis in our own world. Instead of escaping from reality, Tolkien artfully delineated the tragic boundaries of our world as he described the old stereotypes and grudges, as well as friendship and fellowship between races. He sorrowfully lamented hostilities and wrongs committed by those who should have been united. The Hobbit preluded The Lord of the Rings, an epic novel for which Tolkien is renowned. The Lord of the Rings, consisting of three volumes - The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King - captivated the fancies of international readers of every age.

The heroes in Tolkien's stories do not seek adventure or fame or a magic sword. Examples of realistic heroes are found in The Fellowship of the Ring; when an evil tyrant known as Sauron sought to wield his power, Tolkien chose the most unlikely, placid race out of Middle-earth to bear the burden of ultimately destroying the source of Sauron's power. Tolkien, instead of sending Middle-earth another warrior such as Beowulf, developed 'hobbits' who only wanted peace of mind, and to live in harmony in their elusive Shire. They were not wise like the High Elves, nor strong like the Dwarves, righteous like the proud race of Men, or mystical like the Wizards. As they bumbled through their journey, the hobbits were not glorified heroes because of their expertise in war. Yet, it was hobbits who discovered the Master Ring and unwillingly became Sauron's bane. They rid Middle-earth of the Ring, and in doing so, defeated Sauron. They were sung of for their valour when their services were needed. This reflects reality, because real heroes are often born out of necessity in order to rectify something.

Many readers deemed The Lord of the Rings a symbolic portrayal of the Second World War. Sauron and his armies were compared to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party; ruthless Dark Lords with malice, setting evil forces at play. However, Tolkien dissuaded this notion by writing in his foreword to The Fellowship of the Ring:

As for any inner meaning or 'message', it has in intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical.
Though the randomness of Tolkien's art is certainly admirable; his humble but complex characters in The Lord of the Rings accentuated many realistic themes that the reader can relate to.

Nature of Man In Regard to his Fellows

In Tolkien's works there was the acknowledgement that people are not omnipotent in their judgement of others. This is evident in a conversation between the Ring-bearer Frodo and Gandalf the Wizard, where Gandalf talks about how the halfling Bilbo was compelled by his pity in sparing the life of Gollum, the betrayer:

Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. [...] My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many - yours not the least.
Gollum became even more integral to this theme when he later met with Frodo, where he was portrayed as a grotty, snivelling creature. Tolkien displayed Gollum as wretched and tormented by his desire for the Ring of Power, who then unexpectedly sacrificed his life and completed Frodo's task of destroying the very Ring that he sought to possess in the end.

Is Gollum, then, not a miserable creature, not to be pitied? For he who dabbled in evil and good was but a model for how complex humans can be. Tolkien showed that the impetus which brought about the victory of complicated characters who overcome dangers and prevail, was achieved through the human qualities of mercy, hope, forgiveness, pity, greed, jealousy and desperation toward an obsession.

Another example of mercy is displayed when Frodo pardoned and liberated his enemy Saruman, in hope that the Wizard would find a deviation from his evil path. The transformation might not occur, but Frodo's faith - and what's more, pity - proved devastating to Saruman, who tried to stab the hobbit in the back. Deprived of a valid excuse or reason for his hatred of Frodo, Saruman tried to spite the kindness and enrage Frodo:

Yes, you have grown very much. You are wise, and cruel. You have robbed my revenge of sweetness, and now I must go hence in bitterness, in debt to your mercy. I hate it and you! Well, I go and I will trouble you no more. But do not expect me to wish you health and long life. You will have neither. But that is not my doing, I merely foretell.
But the 'fellowship' had grown in wisdom, and its members long learned to accept life. People must embrace risks to reap rewards, and accept the consequences of their choices. When Frodo decided to leave the Shire for the last time, he said to his dearest companion Samwise:
I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them. But you are my heir: all that I had and might have had I leave to you.
Frodo understood the harsh price2 of his sacrifice, and yet was not afraid to protect his home when needed, because he chose to do so in order to preserve the Shire. Samwise Gamgee was glancing upon the true visage of courage, and power within, when he and his master parted.

Tolkien demonstrated that forgiveness and bravery, instead of self-righteousness and blood-lust, was more triumphant. He conveyed a faith that we were all sinners, and only God could judge us:

It is useless to meet revenge with revenge: it will heal nothing.
As every writer would inevitably, unintentionally, express his or her belief, Tolkien was no exception to this rule.

The Strength of Belief

Tolkien was devoutly religious and believed in the principle of resurrection. Before King Aragorn of the fellowship passed away, the man claimed:

But let us not be overthrown at the final test, who of old renounced the Shadow and the Ring. In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory. Farewell!
Memories can exceed the span of mortality, the essence of our humanity leaving marks upon the lives of others, in that they are not so different from the trail of autumn leaves on the red soil. They disintegrate into fertiliser and re-appear once more into the cycle of life. Arwen's burial came shortly after:
...she laid herself to rest upon Cerin Amroth; and there is her green grave, until the world is changed, and all the days of her life are utterly forgotten by men that come after, and the elanor and niphredil bloom no more east of the Sea.
Some attributed Tolkien's hope and faith in God providing a future after the mortal coils are shed to the King and Queen's death.

Enigma and the Want of Definition

Many Lord of the Rings readers were shocked and confused by the unanticipated significance - or rather, the blatant lack thereof - of Tom Bombadil's abrupt appearance interrupting an extremely serious scene where the hobbits were being attacked in a forest:

Hey dol! Merry dol! ring a dong dillo!
Ring a dong! hop along! fal lal the willow!
Tom Bom, jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo!
While the rest of the epic fantasy lapsed into increasingly downcast and grave narrative surrounding Sauron and his iron-fisted reign, Tom Bombadil was such a merry character always full of laughing rhymes and ditties that he seemed out of synch with the grim tone of the novel. Many readers and critics alike regarded Tom as ridiculous or silly, and thought Tolkien only presented the outlandish character to fill up chapters six through eight in The Fellowship of the Ring, akin to one of William Shakespeare's literary 'comic relief' characters3.

Though having trivial plot roles in the storyline, Tom Bombadil served much more of a purpose thematically than simply that of a 'red herring'. He was the most indispensable and secret element in Tolkien's writing, for oddly enough Tom Bombadil represented Tolkien's 'reality' the best out of all The Lord of the Rings characters. Which is saying something, since portrayal of reality in fictional characters was what rendered Tolkien's works so popular and credible, so much so he was often inundated with 'Is Sauron really Hitler?'-type questions from fans.

Who Is This Bombadil Character?

There are many controversies concerning Tom Bombadil. One is his identity. As elusive as the Dark Lord Sauron the Great remained, Tom was perhaps the most mysterious of The Lord of the Rings characters. Bombadil, also called Forn, Iarwain, and Ben-adar by the Elves, was unique in his aloofness; for whereas all the other characters in the books had been detailed and described down to the very last inch of their furry feet, Tolkien had neglected to specify who or what Tom Bombadil was. He was described only in The Fellowship of the Ring as too tall for a Hobbit, too short for a Man, old, merry with bright blue coat that matches his eyes, and brown beard sprouting out of an apple-cheeked4 red face.

Some thought that Tom's riddling songs came either from being a nature nymph or a Maia5. Others preferred to regard him as a forest sprite or a Wood Elf, arguing that he harboured a strange reluctance to leave the Old Forest. Tom himself provided the following counter-proof to these points of view:

Tell me, who are you, alone and nameless? But you are young and I am old. Eldest, that's what I am. Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn. He made paths before the Big People, and saw the Little People arriving. He was here before the Kings and the graves and the Barrow-Wrights. When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent. He knew the dark beneath the stars when it was fearless - before the Dark Lord came from the outside.
The fact that Tom came before the trees, of course, eliminates the possibility of him being a nature nymph or forest sprite. And he could not be any sort of Elf, because he was a part of Middle-earth before the Elves settled there, Six Ages before the War of the Rings. Tom's great age rather disproves the speculation of him belonging to any race with a mortal lifespan, like Men or Dwarves, so Tom must be an immortal. The Silmarillion speaks of the elemental spirits the Maiar6 being in Middle-earth before the time of the Elves, so there is a slim possibility that Tom is in fact a Maia. However, his singular disinterest in the Ring of Power can lead us to believe he is something more.

Tolkien dropped further hints about the character's origins in his letters about Tom Bombadil:

The power of the Ring over all concerned, even the Wizards or Emissaries, is not a delusion - but it is not the whole picture, even of the then state and content of that part of the Universe.
Being the only character unaffected by the pull of the Master Ring, Tom felt no urge to use or keep the power when he gave it back to Frodo with a smile. That Tom was unswayed by the Ring's invisibility effect suggested that he could neither be corrupted nor blinded by power. The mainstream theory was that Tom was one of the Valar7, since he alone was unaffected by the power of the Ring. Tom's lady, Goldberry, added to this theory by telling the Hobbits:
He is the Master of wood, water, and hill.
Yet, at the Rivendell Council of War, Gandalf the Wizard countered the solution of handing the Ring over to Bombadil:
He is his own master. But he cannot alter the Ring itself, nor break its powers over others.
Then the Elf Lord Glorfindel stated:
Could that power be defied by Bombadil alone? [...] if all else is conquered, Bombadil will fall, Last as he was First; and then Night will come.
followed by the High Elf Galdor's agreement:
Power to defy our enemy is not in him, unless such power is in the earth itself.
Thus, if Tom was as omnipotent as a Vala, then he could have the power to both alter the Ring and defeat Sauron. But Galdor's remark also brings about an interesting speculation that maybe the reader of the book might be the 'power in the earth', not influenced by any ploy of the Master Ring. This theory could also be backed up when Tom seemingly addressed the reader when Frodo and the other hobbits wondered about the identity of their new found friend:
Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless?
This riddle could be key to Tolkien's literary success, because it draws and invites the reader into the reality of his story with a definite challenge.

There were some unlikely suggestions made by readers of Tolkien's Lost Tales that Tom was a pixie, brownie, or a strange mischief-maker copied from another god. Tolkien was most displeased by this, and responded thus:

As for Wayland Smith being a Pan-type, or being reflected both in Bombadil and Gollum: this is sufficient example of [...] silly methods and nonsensical conclusions.

Unsolved Mystery

Overall, it is perhaps best to keep Tom Bombadil as a mystery element in Tolkien's stories. In 1961, Tolkien actually published a poetry collection entitled The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, and many more readers came to love Tom ardently, as they had in The Lord of the Rings:

Hey! Come derry dol! Hop along, my hearties!
Hobbits! Ponies, all! We are fond of parties!
Now let the fun begin! Let us sing together!
In his letters to curious readers, Tolkien wrote that he never intended Tom Bombadil to be anything but an enigma. He, however, admitted that Tom was one of a kind. Tom was meant to represent a party not participating. Tolkien felt that all sides participating in the War of the Rings were seeking political power, and Bombadil in his immunity to the influences of the Ring was not motivated by power. Gandalf perhaps saw that the clearest:
And now he is withdrawn into a little land, within the bounds that he has set, though none can see them, waiting perhaps for a change of days, and he will not step beyond them.
Bombadil never really chose sides, thus found life much more enjoyable when he was his own master. There was no defining of good and evil, only what people would make of themselves.
And even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally) [...] he represents something that I feel important, though I would not be prepared to analyse the feelings precisely.
- JRR Tolkien8
By bringing realistic characters to life with his own beliefs, Tolkien upgraded the quality of fictional writing to another level. The world received the imagined mysteries which hinted at familiarity as close as the drawing of the next breath, for Tolkien's literature was no more dead from the world than the perpetual rush of readers, muses and creators. Heroes, emotions, beliefs, enigmas would not make a story without reality, and Tolkien recognised the world better through his works. People read his words, which rang of truth, and thus honoured him and his stories.

Don't the great tales ever end?
- Samwise Gamgee
1One who studies language.2The wound the Ringwraith inflicted upon Frodo on Weathertop would not heal on Middle-earth, so Frodo either had to remain in pain or leave, with granted permission, and go to the Grey Havens.3Such as the Porter in Macbeth.4That would make Orr in Heller's Catch-22 envious.5Spirits lesser than the Valar, but mighty in their own fashion.6Such as Sauron, Gandalf, Radagast and Saruman, just to name a few.7The supreme powers entrusted by the creator with the care of this world.8The Letters of JRR Tolkien.

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