Saturday, October 10, 2015

Tolkien’s Historical Perspective

Like most readers of The Lord of the Rings, I think, I've been mystified by Tom Bombadil. Is he Valar, Elf, or Man? He doesn’t seem to fit in exactly with any race of Middle Earth. He isn’t evil, but he seems only concerned with his own life, singing incessantly about his river and the flowers he wants to bring home to his wife, Goldberry. Is he beyond good and evil in some non-Nietzschean (or even Nietzschean) way? The Ring has no effect on him whatsoever when he puts it on, and that circumstance suggests that he has no will, or at least no will toward good or evil as we know them. After all, the only other objects in Middle Earth that seem unaffected by the Ruling Ring when they come into contact with it are insensate: the cloth of Bilbo’s pocket and the chain around Frodo’s neck.

I think I remember reading somewhere that someone asked Tolkien if Tom represented an incarnation or avatar of God. When the Hobbits ask Goldberry who Tom is, she merely responds, "He is." That phrase is so reminiscent of the Name God reveals to Moses, I've considered the same interpretation. But Tom is imperfect in knowledge and in other ways, so that reading just doesn't work.

This time through the great fantasy classic, another view of Tom popped into my head as I was reading the chapters with Treebeard. The chief Ent, described by Gandalf as the oldest living thing, explains to Merry and Pippin that he isn't hasty to take sides, even in a giant war between an eminently good cause and an abjectly evil lord. He explains his position partly by saying that no one is on his side. But the tree shepherd also points out that for one who lives as long as he has, the wars of Elves and Men seem only like brief annoyances.

And that remark made me think of Tom Bombadil. He says he was alive when the Elves came West, making him some thousands of years old. I’ve wondered for forty years what kind of species would act like Tom, when perhaps I should have been looking toward experience rather than nature to explain his quirky, detached character. Maybe any rational creature who lives as long as Tom has lived learns not to be moved by what must end up looking like negligible irritations, learns simply to live and enjoy the lasting goods of life.

In the previous post, I said that Tolkien’s characters have geographical perspective and that he teaches us to have this perspective, too. The same could be said for historical understanding. The Return of the King has timelines in the appendices because almost every character knows the history of Middle Earth, and we readers are expected to know that history, too. The move against Sauron doesn’t make any sense unless we know that Isildur cut off his finger in the battle at Dagorlad two ages earlier.

Historical knowledge doesn’t only do us good in Middle Earth, though. The good-hearted in our world can learn patience and kindness from history, if only by negative example. And knowledge of history may be our only human source for deep wisdom, since no earthling lives long enough to learn from a single life’s experience how to handle all challenges. Tolkien may have written about  a realm that existed only in the imagination, but once again he teaches us how to live in the all-too-real world.

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