Welcome, dear readers, as always.
Adapters of The Lord of the Rings, with rare exceptions, have never liked Tom Bombadil.
And Tolkien himself had to find ways to explain his presence in the story, even admitting, in one letter that:
“Tom Bombadil is not an important person—to the narrative. I suppose he has some importance as a ‘comment’. I mean, I do not really write like that: he is just an invention…and he represents something that I find important, though I would not be prepared to analyze the feeling precisely. I would not, however, have left him in, if he did not have some kind of function.” (letter to Naomi Mitchison, 25 April, 1954, Letters, 178)
For me, he has a number of functions:
1. he presents a brief slowing-down of the narrative—with the exception of that close encounter with Old Man Willow, of course—
from the initial pursuit of the hobbits by the Nazgul–
(a Denis Gordeev)
to their attack on the Hobbits in Bree and their relentless pursuit afterwards.
(a second Gordeev)
2. he represents, as JRRT is always at pains to do, something from an older time on Middle-earth, always suggesting to us that traveling across a Third Age landscape means moving above many earlier layers of history (something which any traveler to the UK today must always feel).
3. he adds an element of mystery to Middle-earth—who is he? Where is he from? Why has he such great power that the Ring, which makes even Gandalf nervous, means nothing to him?
4. he also provides a link with an element which, in adaptations, disappears as he disappears: the Barrow Downs,
which combine that sense of deeper past, the supernatural, and even how the past can help the present, in Merry’s sword, which can pierce the Chief Nazgul, the ancient Witch King of Angmar.
(For more on this and on Tom in general, see “Jolly Tom.1”, 9 September, 2015, and “Jolly Tom.2”, 16 September, 2015)
Although I miss the pause, I think that I miss much more those Downs, haunted as they are and the way in which Tolkien’s narrative gradually pulls us into them, just as the hobbits are pulled in.
We are told that the hobbits were already aware of them:
“Even in the Shire the rumour of the Barrow-wights of the Barrow-downs beyond the Forest had been heard.”
Tom, however, provides a fuller picture:
“Suddenly Tom’s talk left the woods…wandering at last up on to the Downs. They heard of the Great Barrows, and the green mounds, and the stone-rings upon the hills and in the hollows among the hills…Gold was piled on the biers of dead kings and queens; and mounds covered them, and the stone doors were shut; and the grass grew over them all.”
Such mounds had appeared in Tolkien’s own literary life from his student days, when he would have read this in Beowulf:
“Through the dark of the night-tide, a drake, to
In a howe high aloft watched over an hoard,
A stone-burg full steep ; thereunder a path sty’d
Unknown unto men…”
(Lines 2211-2214–This is from William Morris’ 1895 translation, with A.J. Wyatt, and, knowing how much Tolkien loved Morris’ work, I imagine that he had read this, along with other translations, before he could read it in the original. For the complete text, see: https://ia800501.us.archive.org/25/items/taleofbeowulfsom00morr/taleofbeowulfsom00morr.pdf You can also see Morris’ proof sheets at: https://exhibitions.lib.cam.ac.uk/linesofthought/artifacts/beowulf/ Proof sheets, for me, are magical, just like hand-written drafts, as they reveal the author in the process of creation—or correction! For a list of Beowulf translations, by the way, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_translations_of_Beowulf )
Beyond the literary, Tolkien could have seen barrows practically everywhere around him in southern England, perhaps the most dramatic one near him at Oxford being West Kennet Long Barrow, which is only about 50 miles (about 80km) southwest,
in countryside which has all sorts of mounds, including the very odd Silbury Hill,
what may have been stone-bordered processional ways,
and at least one surviving stone circle with a ditch and rampart.
When they leave Tom Bombadil, the hobbits ride into a rolling landscape
which, to me, already sounds just this side of mazy:
“Their way wound along the floor of the hollow, and round the green feet of a steep hill into another deeper and broader valley, and then over the shoulders of further hills, and down their long limbs, and up their smooth sides again, up on to new hill-tops and down into new valleys.”
By Tom’s advice,
“…they decided to make nearly due North from his house, over the western and lower slopes of the Downs: they might hope in that way to strike the East Road in a day’s journey, and avoid the Barrows…”
And here a map might help—
(by Astrogator, from Deviant Art)
It’s not very detailed, when it comes to their trip, so let’s add this one—
(by someone named Don Hitchcock)
Basically, they intended to ride to the west of the Downs as best they could, while holding towards the north—as Goldberry has said to them, “And hold to your purpose! North with the wind in the left eye…”. At mid-day, however, they rode into what appears to be, in terms of ancient landscape, what is called a “saucer barrow”,
although, in place of a central mound, there is this:
“In the midst of it there stood a single stone, standing tall under the sun above, and at this hour casting no shadow.”
This almost sounds like the gnomon—that’s the thing which casts a shadow–on a sun dial,
as if, at this moment, the hobbits are standing in the middle of time—but time will pass more quickly than they think and that stone may be more than an ancient monument:
“It was shapeless and yet significant: like a landmark, or a guarding finger, or more like a warning.”
As we’ll see in Part II of this posting next week.
As ever, thanks for reading.
“Make haste while the Sun shines!” as Goldberry reminds us,
And know that, as always, there’s