Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Appeal of Tom Bombadil

How you feel about certain elements in a popular series often depends on how you were introduced to the series as a whole. When it comes to a series like the Lord of the Rings trilogy that's been adapted across more than one medium, the fans who were introduced to it through the books tend to be more devoted to Tolkien's universe than the fans who were introduced to it through the movies. I'll admit upfront that I belong to the second group, and I think it's because of this that I've never quite seen the appeal of one of the books' more beloved elements: the character Tom Bombadil.

Appearing in only three chapters of the first Rings book, Tom Bombadil is a mystical, carefree fellow of unknown origins who wears yellow boots and a blue coat and spends his days wandering the Old Forrest while singing. He saves the hobbits a few times on the first leg of their journey, shows no interest at all in the One Ring, and then bows out of the story entirely with only a brief mention afterwards at the Council of Elrond. Like a lot of minor characters from the books, Bombadil gets left out of most adaptations, but he always seems to be the one whose absence people object to.

Why is that? He doesn't contribute all that much to the plot, and even by the books' own admission, he's so disconnected from everything having to do with the Ring that it's pointless to include him in the quest. What's more, having someone that lighthearted and silly pop up so early in the story almost harms the dark tone that it's trying to set. Again though, I'm someone who already saw the story play out fine without him on film before I read the book, so maybe I need to look at merry old Tom from a different angle to see his charm.

For starters, fans of Tom Bombadil probably like him more from a worldbuilding standpoint than from a storytelling one. Having the hobbits cross paths with someone who seems to come from a separate story makes Middle-earth feel like a much bigger place, and keeping Bombadil's origins a mystery opens up all kinds of fan theories about who or what he might actually be. As I've said in past essays, fan theories provide a more interactive way of enjoying a work of fiction, and since Tolkien mapped out so much of Middle-earth's history and mythos in his other writings, it makes sense that a rare enigma like Bombadil would intrigue so many readers.

Another explanation could be that his jolly, quirky demeanor makes him more unique and memorable. In a story full of brooding, angry, and depressed people, it does turn a few heads to see someone who's more upbeat among the cast. There's also something about an ageless, magical figure who's eccentric rather than stoic that people often find interesting. We've seen that type of character everywhere from Merlin the wizard in the King Arthur legend to the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland  even Mew from Pokemon, to be topical  and a lot of character complexity can be found in that contrast of age and youthfulness.

I think that the best explanation for Bombadil's appeal may lie in the story behind his creation. The character was said to be inspired by a doll with boots and a hat that belonged to one of Tolkien's children. After an incident where the doll survived getting stuffed down a lavatory (the Forbidden Pool, if you will), Tolkien was so impressed that he would often make up bedtime stories for his children about the doll's other adventures. The Hobbit also started out as a bedtime story, so when Tolkien came up with an idea for a sequel to the book, he decided to incorporate the doll-inspired Tom Bombadil into that followup.

Given their similar origins, it's only natural that Tom's scenes in The Lord of the Rings would have the same lighthearted tone as The Hobbit instead of the dark and serious tone of the sequel. It's also possible that the character is meant to ease that transition in tone, acting as one last callback to the more innocent times of Bilbo's adventure before the Nazgul come along and ruin everything. If this is the case, then his final mention at the Council of Elrond where the heroes decide not to involve him in the One Ring's destruction can be seen as an official goodbye to that innocence. That does kind of make it sad to see him go.

At the end of the day, I still think that the Lord of the Rings movies were smart to leave out Tom Bombadil. Film is a different medium that requires a tighter narrative than literature, so minor storylines such as his have to go. The fact that some of his lines are said by Treebeard in the Extended Edition of The Two Towers at least shows that Peter Jackson's team appreciated his character and wanted to have some nod to him in their version. I may not have the same attatchment to Bombadil as fans who discovered Middle-earth through the source material, but after looking at him through a wider scope and getting to know him better, I can appreciate him too.

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