Tom Bombadil A Romantic Hero For Our Times Part 2
J.Storer (with A.Taylor, T.Tailby)
3. Realism & Idealism : A Place Of Our Own
4. Tolkien and Enviro-romanticism : A Hunting We Shall Go
5. Is Green The New Red ? Chance of a Lifetime
6. (A Poem) "Aftermath"
3 : Realism & Idealism: A Place of Our Own
“ The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken ; the magic, or rather, the art has failed … “
How accurate is it to see Tolkien’s work as a repudiation of Locke’s 17th century materialism ? On the surface the answer would appear to be totally accurate, for in his seminal work, The Essay concerning Human Understanding, Locke rejects the existence of innate ideas and, furthermore, asserts that experience is the source of all knowledge. Both Kant and Coleridge disputed the belief that man is born with his mind a blank page (tabula rasa) and that experience of the outside world inscribes the senses into our minds.
Tolkien, surely, would also dispute the idea that there is no such thing as inner consciousness, and that perception, reflection and reasoning are totally the products of experience to form the mixing palette for both simple and complex ideas. According to Locke, the simple ideas – such as power, pleasure and pain - make up the letters of knowledge ; complex ideas are the words and syllables, limited by the boundaries of our experience. No such thing, then, as imaginary wonder for Locke or for Bentham’s materialists. Even Kant, trying to balance up empiricism and idealism, may have raised his eyebrows at Tolkien’s sub-creationism and Tom Bombadil’s metaphysical role in the proceedings.
However, getting too involved in seeing Tolkien as an anti-empiricist misses the point.
His work is an attempt, through the magical world of faerie, to rediscover the sense of imaginary wonder which he felt so strongly as a child growing up in Sarehole and other parts of Birmingham. A century on it is easy to see how Sarehole was the crucible of Tolkien’s dreams ; it remains a place of magic, mystery and wonder which has (remarkably) survived the developer’s all consuming desire for change.
When innocence, purity and wonder disappear in later life (no doubt we’ll find out in due course !), Tolkien believes the quest to find it again: to re-engage with a separate world of enchantment full of dragons, hobbits, orcs and wizards, is the prime motivation of all right minded humans. The search for eternal grace, the chance to free limitations of the spirit is our primary task. Tolkien – the master philologist - helps this along with his unparalleled ability to give a foundation to his sub-creation through the quite magical use of words – that give unique meaning to characters and situations and even create whole imagined lanuages. Starting to learn Quenya is one of the best things about studying Tolkien, although there is a long way still to go ! .
Tolkien’s gift at naming things so well – Gollum’s stealthy, slinking “ S” is an obvious example – is the cement from which the bricks and mortar of Middle-earth are held together …. Bilbo setting forth to engage with Smaug …. Frodo’s quest, during which he enters Tom Bombadil’s realm, a metaphysical world way beyond our everyday reality. As we have already noted, Tom is man communing with nature, his conscience for trees, animals, all living things. This comes from within, the human contemplation from the depths of spirit and soul, not just from external experience of the world.
To a certain extent, therefore, Middle-earth is a rejection of Locke and has much in common with the classical English romantics. Think of Merry and Pippin’s dreams in Tom’s house, and Adam’s Dream from Keats springs to mind ; the vivid colours in Tom and Goldberry’s world bring Wordsworth’s poetry into view ; and parallels, in terms of goodness, purity and simplicity, can be found between Tom’s character and that of
The Hermit in Coleridge’s wonderful Rime of the Ancient Mariner:
"This hermit good lives in that wood
This could almost be a description of Tom’s close to nature life in the Old Forest :
"He lived up under Hill, where the Withywindle
Similarly, one of the most notable of the women romantic poets, Felicia Hemans , in the quite beautiful Voice of Spring has a similarly idealised view of nature :
"I come ! I come ! – ye have called me long;
Both the Hermit and Tom , and the almost supernatural imagery of spring’s approach in Hemans’ poem, symbolise innate goodness as a means of overcoming temptation and the perils abroad in the world – whether on the high seas; or in the mythical realms of Middle-earth. They also reflect romanticism’s rejection of empiricism as a “ solution “ to make sense of history and reality, although the roots of Tolkien’s search for imaginary wonder go much further back : to Milton (another paper could easily be filled with links to Paradise Lost – that would be such so amazing to write !) Arthurian legends,
Kalevala, Beowulf and other ancient myths.
Yet the debt to romanticism from all ages can be seen in the heroism often achieved in the face of character flaws with the real risk of personal loss. For example, think of Boromir, fatally tempted by the lure of the Ring ; Frodo on Mount Doom; and Aragorn bravely steering his men through the pathways of the dead.
Tom, too, may face loss if he cannot overcome the Barrow Wights, although as Goldberry states:
"He is the Master of the wood, water and hill ….. no one has ever caught old Tom walking in the forest, wading in the water, leaping on the hill-tops under light and shadow. He has no fear. Tom Bombadil is master. "
Ultimately, the Barrow Wights stood no chance but there is always a first time for mastery to fail – look at Gandalf at Khazad-dum with the Balrog – and Tom’s ability not to fall under the spell of the ring, but to rely on the power of the natural world, could have proved his downfall if Sauron and the forces of darkness were ever to triumph. Tolkien believes that good will eventually triumph, in spite of evil’s powerful influence in the world.
The appalling experiences in the First World war trenches left an indelible mark but, unlike Yeats, Tolkien took a more positive view of mankind and, as we have seen, in place of the “ rough beast “ comes Tom who:
"remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn is still in control and : his songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster."
As a deeply religious man, Tolkien cannot see evil forces winning, but it is the essence of his romantic vision that the way to redemption of the soul comes from within us all. Although the outside world can, and does, bring about fundamental change to every person – not least through the horrors of war - the sanctity of the soul is where the origin of eternal grace, epitomised by Tom, can be found :
"Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth ; the Blessed Sacrament …. There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity and the true way. "
Time regrettably prohibits a deeper look at the theological dimension of faerie and how this can be related to Tom’s role in Middle-earth, or the way a Jungian interpretation of Tolkien’s work can prove illuminating in probing the darkness in the human soul. . Which brings us neatly on to a key element in the philosophical basis of romanticism and the links to Tolkien’s work. It would be remiss not to dwell for a moment on the congruence of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy through the way Tom balances mind(ego) and matter (objective reality) as man’s conscience for nature. He exemplifies Kant’s belief that in the mind there is an inner consciousness, totally independent of external reality, but ready for the application of the matter provided by experience:
"(Tom is) a particular embodying of pure natural science : the spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature, because they are “ other “ and wholly independent of the inquiring mind."
Moreover, in The Critique of Judgement, Kant differentiates between the sublime and beautiful (aesthetic) and the order of nature (teleological) as a compromise – albeit an uneasy one in many moral philosophers’ minds - between pure and practical reason.
Here again one can see the parallels with Tom’s inherent goodness and love of every living thing around him ; alongside his determination that the natural world, certainly within the Old Forest, should have a defined structure with no room for the (to him) artificiality of the Ring.
It is unlikely Kant’s theory of absolutes, his view on the immortality of the soul and free will – ie. the only good thing without any added qualification is a “ good will “ – directly influenced Tolkien’s writing in the same way as ancient mythology and languages, but there are many instances where a Kantian world view resonates through Middle-earth. For Kant, moral thought recognized perfect and imperfect moral duties towards ourselves as well as towards others and in virtually every character in Lord of the Rings, Tom Bombadil included, the four categories of duties can be usefully applied.
Fuller discussion of the relationships between Kant and Tolkien must wait for another day (we’d love to have the chance to write a paper on this too; looks like a busy time
ahead !) and whether one can label Kant as a true romantic is questionable. Although his creation of a bond between realism and idealism remains one of the seminal contributions to moral philosophy in the past 300 years.
And we think he DID influence Tolkien, even if few others – anyone ? – agrees.
4. Tolkien and Enviro-romanticism : A Hunting We Shall Go ….
"Other creatures are like other realms with which Man has broken off relations … "
Much has been written and discussed on the links between Tolkien and classical romanticism, and to a lesser extent the neo-romantics of the 1930’s and 40’s such as W.H.Auden. The latter part of this paper examines what, for want of a better term, can be called enviro-romanticism, and whether there is any discernable relationship with Tolkien’s writings. What does enviro-romanticism stand for? Firstly it refers to the 21st century yearning for a return to a simpler life style and which recognises nature, utopian rural landscapes, purity and love as the fundamental pathways through which man can become divine, or at least approach a state of grace. Secondly, it encompasses a fierce anger, fuelling a vain struggle against technological progress, fought with an intensity reminiscent of Prometheus taking the fire and thunder from the ancient Greek gods . Today’s enviro-romantics echo Tolkien’s horror at Nagasaki and Hiroshima :
"The news about Atomic bombs is so horrifying one is stunned. The utter folly of these lunatic physicists to consent to do much work for war purposes. "
It is in The Silmarillion that Tolkien’s hatred for the evils of war can be seen most clearly, especially in the chapter on the wars of Beleriand. Images of desolation and the destruction nof Ard-galen bring to mind atomic nightmares :
"The mountains of iron belched forth fires of many poisonous hues, and the fume of them stank upon the air, and was deadly."
Is this Milton’s Paradise Lost brought right up to date ? Trees hewn from their roots and destroyed to make way for new roads, with gas guzzling monsters burning up the ozone layer and creating the horror of acid rain for future generations – including mine - to endure. Rain forests destroyed ; fish stocks in the world’s oceans depleted beyond repair ; huge tracts of rural land bulldozed to build homes, factories and offices.
But at what price for our natural resources ?
Never mind the badger, rabbit, birds, or Tolkien’s beloved trees.
Here’s a great new shopping centre, out of town retail park… paradise found.
Or is it ?
Maybe the Ents will march on Isengard once again. How’s that for a romantic thought for the future ?
There are a number of new romantic poets keeping Coleridge’s flame alive, and sharing in the distaste for today’s preoccupation with urbanisation and profit at all cost. In the wistful longing of Kevin Roberts’ poetry, one captures a yearning for immortality and the helplessness of the individual in the face of the harsh realities of the world. It could almost be Tolken writing:
"Like shreds of mist entangled in a tree,
is a little bit simplistic to simply see him as some kind of latter day eco-warrior striding forth to combat the evil forces of progress.
He is far more than just a cipher for those who chain themselves to power station fences; or the brave and foolhardy who climb trees and burrow deep in underground holes to save the countryside being covered in tarmac ; and the air their children breath being suffocated with exhaust fumes. At least, this is what the enviro-romantics tell us is going to happen to our world; but remember - Tom is an enigma and although he could still be the hero so many people look for today, it may not be a warrior-type hero. Instead, Tom can help each of us to turn the key in the door of imaginary wonder, which is locked away in a separate universe in every one of us, just waiting to emerge into the light. But in the final reckoning, he may be an observer of the fight for the planet’s future rather than an interventionist :
"Nay then said Bombadil. I am only rowing just to smell the water like, not on errands going. "
However, Tom does have an instinctive empathy for the protection of trees and forests, and maintaining the the natural order of things, in very much a Kantian sense, which symbolises so much of what today’s environmental activists believe. Maybe his spirit can help keep England’s green belt alive and ensure we do not all suffer Shelley’s despairing view of a civilisation torn asunder by spiritual famine :
"For bread and gold: pain linked to guilt, ignites the light flame
Tom’s enduring spirit will ensure, like Coleridge, we continue to connect our perception of nature’s wonder to the purity and joy of simply being alive : in other words – human consciousness shaping objective reality:
"Graceful ease in artless stole and white-robed purity of soul with honours softer mien
In the same manner, the workings of Tom’s mind are portrayed in images of the natural world in "The Adventures" which emphasise all that is good and pure :
"Of river-leaves and rush-sheaves I made me a mantle of jewel green
Tom’s clothes are full of bright colours but in many ways he is forever green.
Part three of this paper will appear in the August issue of the journal.
Found this page without going through the magazine front page? Click here: Festival in the Shire Journal. For all things Tolkien inspired.