Middle-earth is a large and wonderful place, full of rivers and mountains and plains and giant forests, dotted with ancient cities and secret dwelling places. But in all of it, from my very first reading, I wanted to live in one place there: the house of Tom Bombadil.
This isn’t a speculation about Tom’s nature or origins. I was always fascinated by him and read avidly the various theories about his place in the world and in the book -was he a Maiar? Was he a personification of Tolkien himself? and so on. Part of the reason he is so interesting as a character is that the question of who he really is and how he fits into the whole mythology of Tolkien’s sub-creation remains intentionally unanswered.
But I was always even more interested in passages like this:
They woke up, all four at once, in the morning light. Tom was moving about the room whistling like a starling. When he heard them stir he clapped his hands, and cried: ‘Hey! Come merry dol! derry dol! My hearties!’ He drew back the yellow curtains, and the hobbits saw that these had covered the windows, at either end of the room, one looking east and the other looking west. They leapt up refreshed. Frodo ran to the eastern window, and found himself looking into a kitchen-garden grey with dew. He had half expected to see turf right up to the walls, turf all pocked with hoof-prints. Actually his view was screened by a tall line of beans on poles; but above and far beyond them the grey top of the hill loomed up against the sunrise. It was a pale morning: in the East, behind long clouds like lines of soiled wool stained red at the edges, lay glimmering deeps of yellow. The sky spoke of rain to come; but the light was broadening quickly, and the red flowers on the beans began to glow against the wet green leaves.
What was it about the fact that Frodo’s view was obscured by a tall line of beans on poles, or the promise of rain to come under ‘broadening’ light, that attracted me so much? It wasn’t until about forty years after first reading the book that one reason struck me why I felt so at home in Tom’s house: it was very much like my childhood home in Yorkshire.
I first read The Lord of the Rings in Australia, while I was at school there in a town in a very arid region of that dry continent. The school library didn’t even have all three volumes of the book and to finish the story properly I had to get it ordered through a newsagent. The library volumes came devoid of maps, so I had to construct the geography of Middle-earth in my head and occasionally ‘correct’ the text as I went along to match the incorrect maps I had imagined. Finally getting to see Tolkien’s original maps was a relief wrapped around a small disappointment -Middle-earth from that point on looked slightly different from my initial mental cartography. But reading the story in the semi-arid desert region of South Australia, where the only prevalent life form was a small stunted grey plant called a saltbush and where the environment literally seethed with poisonous insects, snakes, and creepy-crawlies that science hadn’t even categorised yet, it would come as no surprise that the landscape I was able to picture most vividly of all Middle-earth landscapes was Mordor. Frodo and Sam’s journey through the Dark Land was full of images that I did not have to strain to picture -they were readily to hand:
To their surprise they came upon dark pools fed by threads of water trickling down from some source higher up the valley. Upon its outer marges under the westward mountains Mordor was a dying land, but it was not yet dead. And here things still grew, harsh, twisted, bitter, struggling for life. In the glens of the Morgai on the other side of the valley low scrubby trees lurked and clung, coarse grey grass-tussocks fought with the stones, and withered mosses crawled on them; and everywhere great writhing, tangled brambles sprawled. Some had long stabbing thorns, some hooked barbs that rent like knives. The sullen shrivelled leaves of a past year hung on them, grating and rattling in the sad airs, but their maggot-ridden buds were only just opening. Flies, dun or grey, or black, marked like ores with a red eye-shaped blotch, buzzed and stung; and above the briar thickets clouds of hungry midges danced and reeled.
I knew those ‘low, scrubby trees’, I could see them from my window; the ‘coarse grey grass-tussocks’ that ‘fought with the stones’ were in what we called our garden; as for the flies, it was as though Tolkien had been sitting next to me in the merciless heat of an Australian summer when he wrote that passage.
Yes, the countryside of the Shire was obviously the England that Tolkien had grown up in as a child on coming there from the desolate landscapes of South Africa where he had been born, that was obvious, and most welcome too. Tolkien’s descriptions of the byways of the hobbits’ homeland brought back memories of the country walks I’d been on as a child in South Yorkshire. But the Shire was inhabited by hobbits and coloured by that inhabitation. Tom’s house was different -and it was about to rain when the hobbits arrived there. That magical combination of domestic detail with the kitchen-garden and the rain-laden clouds approaching made me feel more at home without really realising it at the time.
There was more to it, though.
Of course part of the attraction of Tom’s house is the sense that you are in Middle earth but not completely of it: the little adventure that takes place in the Old Forest prior to the hobbits’ arrival at Tom’s, and the confrontation with the Barrow-wights that happens after they leave, are edited out of any film or radio adaptation and form a self-contained episode all on their own. They don’t seem to have anything to do with the rest of the story. Tom’s power over the One Ring and his claim to be the Eldest mean that the story itself seems to have no power over him. Though later, at the Council of Elrond, the elf Glorfindel says that ‘“Could that power be defied by Bombadil alone? I think not. I think that in the end, if all else is conquered, Bombadil will fall, Last as he was First; and then Night will come’”, I for one was not convinced but had the subtle sensation that I was back ‘in the plot’ now, talking about Tom Bombadil as a distant sub-character, whereas when I had been at Tom’s house I wasn’t ‘in the plot’ at all and Tom truly was a being set apart, whom even Sauron would have trouble with. Being at Tom’s house, then, was a bit like being in a parallel version of Middle earth, with all the wonders, natural and super-natural beauty, richness and detail of that world but without the necessity of being caught up in a thing called a ‘plot’.
After all, it’s in Tom’s house that Frodo gets his first vision of his ultimate destiny, beyond the confines of the story itself:
But either in his dreams or out of them, he could not tell which, Frodo heard a sweet singing running in his mind; a song that seemed to come like a pale light behind a grey rain-curtain, and growing stronger to turn the veil all to glass and silver, until at last it was rolled back, and a far green country opened before him under a swift sunrise. The vision melted into waking; and there was Tom whistling like a tree-full of birds; and the sun was already slanting down the hill and through the open window.
It’s as though Tom gives the reader a glimpse of the wider world of Middle-earth, the one uninvolved with, unaffected by and ultimately more significant than the one that centres around a Ring and a quest to destroy it. Just as Frodo dreams in Tom’s house of what will happen to him when the tale is told, it is through Tom Bombadil and in his quite ordinary and earthy dwelling, that Tolkien gets as close to taking us out of the story as he can without totally unmocking the tale itself. ‘Look,’ Tolkien says, ‘this is what I am really creating: a world which has a tall line of beans on poles in it, and long clouds like lines of soiled wool stained red at the edges, and red flowers beginning to glow against wet green leaves.’
In other words, it is in Tom Bombadil’s house that Tolkien’s art of sub-creating a realistic world comes closest to fruition. There need not be a plot, he tells us: just be here.
And that is, in all of Middle earth, where I would indeed most like to be.
-Grant P. Hudson is a writer, editor, consultant and founder of Clarendon House Publications. Download a free catalogue here.