Who is Tom Bombadil?

To anyone who knows the rest of the Tale of the Ring, Bombadil’s appearance seems in hindsight to be, at best, only precariously pertinent to the story—a delightful and ingenious thread spun from the whirling imagination of the Master, but one which nevertheless should have been snipped out from the final texture.  Bombadil has all the feel of a deus ex machina.  Unmentioned by Gandalf, unpreserved in Shire or even Buckland legends, completely unforeshadowed (an anomaly especially for Tolkien), unannounced except for his bounding hat and yellow boots, Tom Bombadil comes leaping into the story to save the Hobbits from the unfriendly acquaintance of a real live willow tree.

The willow tree, of course, has a precursor in a story by one of Tolkien’s favorite nineteenth-century romance writers, George MacDonald—namely, his book Phantastes, a Faerie Romance for Men and Women.  There the eerie dendritic villain is a black alder, and a black alder (interestingly enough) shows up in one of Bombadil’s rhyms: Fear no alder black!  Heed no hoary willow!  But as far as I know, Tom Bombadil himself has no glimmer of pre-existence in any of MacDonald’s stories—or Andrew Lang’s fairy tale collections, or Norse legends.  He simply comes leaping up from the reeds and the water, startling everyone (that is, the Hobbits and the readers) by his very timely singing.

This entrance is, of course, the main puzzle in justifying his presence in the stories.  Is Bombadil really only playing deus ex machina to Tolkien’s foundering plotline?  I would like to take up this idea of a deus ex machina in a very loose way, and (ignoring its rich and precise use in Greek drama and subsequent literature) only deal with three rather vague phenomenon that I loosely connect to the idea of a deus ex machina.  Most of them will not have much to do with the ancient and venerable species of deus ex machina proper; but, following the wisdom of Humpty-Dumpty, I believe in making my words mean what I pay them to mean.

In my experience, when readers cry “deus ex machina!” they usually mean (1) the author wasn’t clever enough to solve a plot problem by means of previous material in the plot itself, (2) the deus character is structurally irrelevant to the rest of the story, or (3) the deus character simply appears with too little warning.  Since all of these meanings together require an exceptionally long-winded reply, I’ve broken them up into three corresponding posts, which are only moderately long-winded.

The first question is this:  Granted that Tolkien had to lose his Hobbits an Old Forest, put them to sleep and start feeding them to a scurrilous willow tree for the sake of waking us all up to the living and subjective nature of Nature, why couldn’t Tolkien have gotten the Hobbits out of their plight simply by means of their own wits?  Or Farmer Maggot’s?  Or the Elves’?  Or some plot contrivance more plausible than a random bloke wearing a feather in his cap?  Someone, at least, that we had heard of before?

The whole answer, I think, hinges on the notion of a “plot contrivance,” or at least of a “plot.”  We cannot be too careful about the kind of plot the Hobbits have wandered into.  During the first chapter we might have suspected they were in a washed-out eighteenth-century novel; by the second chapter even the dullest of us were beginning to suspect they might be in some Old Nordic epic; and after the first several pages of “The Old Forest,” it ought to have been quite clear that they were in a fairy tale.  (If “fairy tale” is too upsetting for some, we’ll call it a “romance.”)  The Hobbits, after all, are in an Old Forest.  Think of what usually happens to poor villagers who wander off into old forests.  Indeed, think of what happens to George MacDonald’s hero in Phantastes, when he gets himself lost in an old forest.

The “Forest” in romance literature is the locus of unexpected adventures.  I think this is so because a forest is a place outside society—an unhuman place in the sense that it houses the “other,” the strange and magical.  It is curious to me how often the people who meet with adventures in forests are ultimately forced to fall back on help from unforeseen quarters.  I wonder very much if it has to do with Nature or the “other” being so much older, or greater, than our human selves.  At any rate, this feature is a commonplace for the chap in Phantastes, for Little Red Riding Hood and other damsels in distress, and for any number of Arthur’s knights who suddenly find themselves the prisoners of Morgan le Fay (who is, I would like to emphasize, a fay).  All of this only means, of course, that forests in romances are a hub for sudden and unexpected meetings of all sorts.

The boldness of my claims about Bombadil depend on this point.  Bombadil is not only the sort of character who would live in an Old Forest, but he is the most romance-consistent character Tolkien could have introduced to the Hobbits at their point in the plot-line.  The Hobbits were entangled in an older and stronger Nature—and, lo! an even older and stronger being shows up to set them free.  It is, in fact, much more plausible than having Red Riding Hood’s woodcutter (whether in the form of Farmer Maggot or otherwise) simply cut down the tree.  The peculiar danger presented by the Living Willow demanded a very peculiar kind of character to answer.  And the suddenness of the character’s appearance, and the fact that the Hobbits could not in fact have done without him, are all very consistent with the fairy-tale-romance plot itself.

The actual power that Bombadil exercises over the unhuman forces of nature (i.e., Old Man Willow) is worthy of more comment, but I will not bring that up again until the third and last of these posts on Tom Bombadil.