In my last post on Bombadil, I took up the idea that he functions as a deus ex machina, in the sense that he is called upon to fix a broken plot though he is connected to nothing that came before him.  This is the strict meaning of deus ex machina—the god who suddenly appears from “the machine” (i.e., the boxy thing the Greeks had to put the actor in so he looked like he was floating down from the sky), the superhero who dives down out of nowhere.  In this post, I will take up a rather ballooned idea of deus ex machina, and use it to refer not only to the god who comes from nowhere but who vanishes back into nowhere:  the guy who is structurally irrelevant to the rest of the story.  And this is important, because this accusation (not the one in the first post) is the one usually leveled against Tom Bombadil.

I have three observations on why Bombadil’s thread cannot be pulled, structurally speaking, out of Tolkien’s story.

(1) Tom Bombadil, for a Man, is remarkably like a Hobbit; and, if anything, he falls somewhere between the two.  As Tolkien tells us, “He was too large and heavy for a hobbit, if not quite tall enough for one of the Big People.”  The Hobbits, interestingly, feel much more at home in his house than they do in any other place except (maybe) Rivendell.  Frodo’s experience of Goldberry catches the point beautifully:  “He stood as he had at times stood enchanted by fair elven-voices; but the spell that was now laid upon him was different: less keen and lofty was the delight, but deeper and nearer to mortal heart; marvelous and yet not strange.”

Bombadil and Goldberry open up a new sort of category in the Hobbits’ experience:  between Hobbitry and Elvenry, they bring in Humanry.  Structurally as well as atmospherically, they serve as a “middling” stepping-stone between the Shire and the world of Men.  It is no accident that, shortly after meeting Bombadil, the Hobbits meet a very different sort of man who transposes the comic Bombadillian fairy-tale tone into something more serious:  a dead man whose spirit has been taken over by evil forces, a barrow-wight.  And, as we know, the third Man in the Hobbits’ acquaintance will be no less than a king in disguise—the very king who will embody all the mythical pathos of the entire mortal world of Middle Earth. Tolkien takes the transition slowly and savors the steps.

(2) Bombadil has a lot to say about trees.  For most of the time the Hobbits are in his house, they listen to stories about his stomping grounds:  “Tom’s words laid bare the hearts of trees and their thoughts, which were often dark and strange…. It was not called the Old Forest without reason, for it was indeed ancient, a survivor of vast forgotten woods; and in it there lived yet, ageing no quicker than the hills, the fathers of the fathers of trees, remembering times when they were lords.”

Now, Tree-Lords are something impressive.  The reader might recall that the Tree-Lords play a role in the story coming up; that there will be, in fact, yet another time when a few Hobbits wander into an old forest and meet an unforeseen host.  The theme of nature being “alive,” choosing sides and conspiring to overthrow what harms it, is a theme Tolkien will not let die.  Bombadil himself is an integral part of it and is not without his structural counterpart in Treebeard.

(3) The incident with the Ring cannot be ignored.  Both before this incident and afterwards, Gandalf and Aragorn and Elrond hammer into the Hobbits’ heads the notion that the Ring corrupts absolutely.  But just like Shakespeare throws a comic scene with a drunken porter into the middle of a murder, Tolkien throws a completely comic scene with Bombadil into his account of this deadliest of perils.  Tolkien contradicts everything we know about the Ring:  Frodo gives it up to Bombadil without a second thought; Bombadil wears it without vanishing; and the Ring fails to hide Frodo from Bombadil’s eyes.  The reader, like Frodo, is “a trifle annoyed with Tom for seeming to make so light of what even Gandalf thought so perilously important.”  The question, of course, is why Tolkien subjects us to these absurdities.

The answer, I think, lies in the importance of taking the “long view” of the Ring.  Tom Bombadil, as I will rhapsodize about in my final post of these three, is extremely old—perhaps older than the Elves, and (by his own testimony) certainly older than the coming of evil into the world.  “Tom was here already, before the seas were bent,” he tells us himself.  “He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless—before the Dark Lord came from Outside.”  What Bombadil seems to embody is a Nature that is not only alive but older than, and in a certain sense simply unaffected by, the particular evil of the Ring.  As we remember from Gandalf’s tales and from the Silmarillion, there was a time when the Ring did not exist and when its maker was not a Dark Lord.  The Ring is a finite and transient thing.

The danger the Ring poses, of course, is too real and pressing for Tolkien to hold this realization too long before our eyes; but he throws it momentarily into our faces like cold water.  It wakes us up to the fact that there is more to the past and the future and the world than the Ring—and it provides an illuminating contrast and counter-point to the intense pressure that Tolkien will begin to ratchet down upon the Ring-bearer for the rest of the tale.

To end with a bit of reflective rambling:  Tolkien was a maker of histories, just as Bombadil was a teller of histories.  And the thing about history is that it is vast and immeasurable, and even the most impassioned story is only the falling of a leaf in a forest.  Middle Earth is at once old, and alive, and—in a certain sense—unconcerned.  Bombadil, structurally speaking, embodies it all.

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