Beowulf vs Tom Bombadil

So, there I was, surrounded by Tolkien fans, and we were supposed to be discussing Tom Bombadil at last night’s meeting of the Inklings Roundtable of Houston. Only I had “Beowulf” on the brain and I had forgotten that Bombadil was the topic on the table.

Bombadil vs BeowulfSo I wasn’t prepared to talk about Bombadil. I mean, sure, I can spit out a few Bombadilian arguments almost from rote. Been there, done that. I try not to set the pace at Inklings Roundtable meetings because I can be quite the insufferable know-it-all and I don’t want to spoil the fun. Besides which, people often say the darnedest things that never occur to me.

And Jane Chance made a comment about Bombadil that I just had not heard before. It never occured to me. In fact, she startled everyone at the table. I’m sure her students would be familiar with the concept, though.

What did she say? She said the Bombadil episode is important (and I paraphrase here) because it shows how Frodo begins his journey from child-like, innocent, naive Hobbit who is afraid of “evil” Farmer Maggot (whom we know by this point in the story is not really mean or nasty at all) to heroic savior of Middle-earth who returns to the Shire so enhanced by his experience that 300 Half-orc Ruffians don’t even phase him. He barely notices they are there, and he allows his proxies (Merry and Pippin) to deal with the nuissance.

Frodo begins to learn that he is made of sterner stuff than he appears when he travels through Bombadil’s territory. The reader begins to learn this, too.

That’s a very significant point. So why haven’t I seen it before? I think it’s because I’ve been so wrapped up in defending Bombadil that I haven’t always stopped to appreciate what Tolkien was doing.

Not one to be easily daunted by world-famous academics, I lamented at some point that here I’ve been discussing “Beowulf” on the (now defunct) Endor discussion group since August and when I finally wrapped up the poem, there wasn’t a peep out of more than 100 list members. What’s up with that?

I think what’s up with that is that possibly my reputation for being a thread-killer is well-earned. When we began that discussion, people joined in and shared their thoughts. That was what I intended. That was what I hoped for. After all, I’m not an expert on “Beowulf”. I love the poem. Have read it more than once. Started loving it when I was a kid and all. But to me it’s just another of many great stories I have read and enjoyed through the years.

It’s not like I’ve written over 200 essays about “Beowulf”, or published 3 books on the subject. Regardless of what you think about my expertise on Tolkien, I think I can justifiably say I’ve invested far more time and research into Tolkien than into “Beowulf”.

But “Beowulf” touches on all sorts of interesting topics. I’ve studied ancient Celtic and Germanic history, culture, and archaeology for…oh…decades. Since I was a kid. How can you discuss “Beowulf” and not get into all that cool barbarian stuff? And if you’re going to talk about “Beowulf”, how can you not scour the Web for some of the neatest sites that show off archaeological digs, theories about “Beowulf”, feature historical essays on Danes, Jutes, Germans, whomever? I mean, it’s all tied into who the Anglo-Saxons were and where they came from.

So, maybe I got a little enthusiastic on the discussion group. I know I got a little enthusiastic at the meeting. I derailed the Bombadil discussion several times. I’m ready to see the “Beowulf and Grendel” movie that isn’t scheduled to come to Houston.

What’s up with that, anyway? We’re the fourth largest city in the United States, and it’s like every cool event has to go find smaller cities to visit first. Union Station Media, if you read this blog, get your lazy butts down to Houston and find a theater. I’ll promote the thing for you. Trust me. I’m good at that.

I have connections with Rice University. I think they’d like to show the movie there. They have a medieval literature scholar or two. I can help you.

By the way — did I mention that there is a cool movie called “Beowulf and Grendel”?

So, Bombadil sort of got the shaft. I mean, the other folks did their best to bring the discussion back to Bombadil several times. And I have to admit that at one point, as Jane looked at me with ever wider growing eyes as I expounded on my “Beowulf” thesis (I’ll have to explain that in some other post), I realized that I might be a little out of my league.

Nonetheless, she listened politely as I tried to elaborate on why I didn’t prep for the “Beowulf” discussion by rereading Tolkien’s essay, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”. I felt that would be a dastardly mistake. In fact, I disapprove of any critic who reads Tolkien’s “On Fairy-stories” just prior to sitting down to critiquing Tolkien. It’s like adopting a foreign language just before you write a speech.

Only Tolkien can see himself through his own eyes. The rest of us just have to look at him with our eyes. Too many people try to put words into Tolkien’s mouth, and in the end they mess up the whole shlameel.

And while I was trampling the forces of academia, someone brought up “Tolkien’s mythology for England”. Yes, I blurted out, “But The Lord of the Rings wasn’t really Tolkien’s mythology for England”.

Now, as Jane and I threshed that one out (and by this time, I’m saddened to say, we had effectively killed the Bombadil discussion), I realized that there might be a way to describe what Tolkien was doing which would not offend all the people who have so affectionately (and incorrectly) labeled The Lord of the Rings as Tolkien’s mythology for England (The Book of Lost Tales was his mythology for England).

A few years ago, I wrote in Tolkien’s Time Machine: When Literary Worlds Collide: “The Lord of the Rings may be the culmination of a theory of literature which had been slowly brewing under his care and consideration for more than twenty years….The Lord of the Rings may be Tolkien’s attempt define the modern English heroic romance as it might have evolved from an uninterrupted Anglo-Saxon literary tradition.”

What I should have said then, perhaps what I should have said all along, is that with The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien was attemptng to create a literature for England — that is, an English literature as it might have arrived in the mid-20th century had Old English literature not been cut off by the invasion of 1066.

I may have been blabbering like an idiot, but by Jove I think I’ve got it. Tolkien had moved on from the mythology for England(perhaps because its pseudo-paganism didn’t fit well with his Roman Catholic beliefs) to the modern English literature that might have evolved in a truly Anglo-Saxon England.

Or maybe that was just the potato soup having its way with me. Don’t know, don’t care. I think the idea is fascinating and I may get an essay out of it eventually. If Jane (or someone else) doesn’t beat me to it. The idea of creating a literary tradition that never existed would have appealed to Tolkien’s philological nature. He certainly added a philological subtext that celebrated many Englishisms which only other philologists such as Tom Shippey have been able to point out to the broader audience.

With The Lord of the RingsFarmer Giles of HamSmith of Wootton Major, and possibly one or two other works, Tolkien may very well have been writing — consciously or otherwise — in an affected style he came to believe might represent phases of Anglo-Saxon literature in a world without 1066.

And with that, dear friends, I bid you good night.

The following comments were left on the original post.

Brownie said…

Some interesting points, and a good blog. But I wonder how we can expect to seperate Tolkien from his own history (technically German, but for argument’s sake we’ll say he’s purely A.S.) It seems a bit pointless, if not downright rediculous to assume that anyone can remove themselves from the time and history of the place in which they exist. The influence of the Norman invasion cannot be removed from Tolkien’s writing (as evidenced in his amalgamation of the horse culture of the Normans with the Beowolf-esque Anglos into something called Rohan). If the 1066 invasion had not occured, it would be hard to imagine him writing ‘The Ride of the Rohirrhim’ in any form recognizable to us today. We are all a product of our collective histories no matter how hard we try to remove ourselves from it, whether we attempt our disassosciation morally, politically or in a literary sense.

Michael Martinez said…

Tolkien drew heavily on Gothic history and culture when developing the history and culture of the Rohirrim. I would associate the Normans more with the Numenoreans than with their cousins in Middle-earth.

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