War's fateful logic...or an encounter with Tom Bombadil
Tom Bombadil is one of the most curious characters in JRR Tolkien’s epic saga, The Lord of the Rings. Dressed in a blue jacket, yellow boots, and with a feather in his hat, Bombadil saves the Hobbits from a treacherous Willow, provides good company and comfortable lodgings, and then rescues the Hobbits once again the following day, this time from the frightful Barrow-wights. Yet Bombadil has so little impact on the overall plot that he tends to be omitted from film, stage, and other portrayals of the saga, including Peter Jackson’s trilogy. Even Tolkien himself confessed that “Tom Bombadil is not an important person – to the narrative”, before adding “I suppose he has some importance as a ‘comment’” (Letters #144).
What Bombadil adds is a commentary on absolute pacifism and the fateful logics of war – a view of war and its ethics that no other character in the story provides. As everyone knows, the Lord of the Rings is a legend of good against evil, a war that pits tyranny against freedom. As in any war, indeed as in any society where there is government, each side wants “a measure of control” (Letters #144) since whether one wants to do good or do evil, one must have a measure of control over others. To build more public hospitals, for example, one must win elections, impose taxes etc. Bombadil represents a third position, a pure, monastic, pacifism rendered as a complete renunciation of the will to power. Bombadil takes delight “in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing” without ever wanting to control. The rejection of control renders power “utterly meaningless” to Tom (Letters #144). That is demonstrated by his apparently bizarre attitude to the Ring of Power. It is not just that the Ring, the One Ring that controls the destiny of all, has no effect on Bombadil, it neither tempts him nor makes him disappear, it is that Bombadil expresses almost no interest in whatsoever.
Bombadil treats this most precious and fateful of things as a common trinket. He asks to see the Ring more out of curiosity than anything else and Frodo is surprised to find himself willingly handing it over (Fellowship, p. 134). The Ring “seemed to grow larger as it lay for a moment in his [Tom’s] big brown-skinned hand”. Tom treats the Ring flippantly – “he put it to his eye and laughed” creating a vision “both comical and alarming” to the Hobbits. Then Tom put the Ring on his little finger and held it up to the candlelight to examine. He laughs (something no one ever does in such close company to the Ring) and treats it like a toy to do tricks with – “he spun the Ring in the air and it vanished with a flash" before making it reappear and handing it back to Frodo. So surprising was Bombadil’s flippancy, Frodo suspected he might have switched rings and felt annoying at Tom for making light of something so awesome and terrible. To check, Frodo puts on the Ring and thinking he has been rendered invisible, walks towards the front door. But although the other Hobbits can’t see him, Tom can: “old Tom Bombadil’s not as blind as that yet. Take off your golden ring! Your hand is more fair without it!”.
Bombadil’s house is a haven of peace but it is somewhat otherworldly. And here we start to get a sense of the limits of what the renunciation of power can do. His partner, Goldberry cautions the Hobbits, “Let us shut out the night” “For you are still afraid, perhaps, of mist and tree-shadows and deep water, and untame things. Fear nothing! For tonight you are under to roof of Tom Bombadil” (Fellowship, p. 124). She continues, “Have peace now…until the morning. Heed no nightly noises! For nothing passes door and window here save moonlight and starlight and the wind off the hill-top”. Though Bombadil’s home may be a sanctuary, the shadow of darkness that roams the wilds at night unmolested. Indeed, Bombadil himself confesses that he can give little succour against the forces of evil: “out east my knowledge fails. Tom is not master of Riders from the Black Land far beyond his country” (Fellowship p. 147). There is a sharp contrast here with that other protected haven: Rivendell. The powers of darkness are drawing in there too yet the elves choose to know their enemy and erect defences against it: “We are sitting in a fortress. Outside it is getting dark”, Gandalf comments (Fellowship, p. 218).
It is in Rivendell, at the Council of Elrond, that the true limit of Bombadil’s grace is revealed. Tom is indeed just, kind, and good. But were it left to him, the Enemy would prevail. When Elrond comments that he should have invited Bombadil, and Erestor that Bombadil “has a power even over the Ring”, Gandalf explains that whilst “the Ring has no power over him”, neither can alter alter the Ring or “break its power over others”. Asked by Erestor whether Bombadil could be entrusted to keep the Ring safe from the enemy within his lands, Gandalf replies with an emphatic “No”. “He might do so if all the free folks of the world begged him, but he would not understand the need…If he were given the Ring, he would soon forget it and most likely throw it away. Such things have no hold on his mind. He would be a most unsafe guardian; and that alone is answer enough” (Fellowship, p. 254). It falls to Glorfindel to explain that Bombadil would be unable to resist Sauron, that if all else were conquered then Bombadil too would fall, Galdor chiming in that “power to defy our Enemy is not in him” (Fellowship, p. 255).
Bombadil’s idyll, his manner, and his rejection of power are attractive and laudable traits. The values they represent, the freedom to shun power and commune with nature, are among the things most worth protecting. Yet that very existence depends upon the victory of the free peoples of Middle Earth. If everyone followed Bombadil’s lead and renounced power, the free would fall to Sauron's tyranny, and with them Bombadil himself. Should they choose to resist yet fail they will fall, and with them Bombadil. “Ultimately”, Tolkien tells us, “only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive” (Letters #144). There would be nothing of Bombadil left in a world ruled by Sauron. His fate rests on the willingness of others to do what he will not.
What Tolkien suggests is that the moral renunciation of all war is a luxury, albeit an attractive one. It is worth remembering that for all his limitations, Bombadil remains one of the most appealing and straightforwardly good characters in Middle Earth. Yet, whether it be Middle Earth or our earth, for as long as there are those able and willing to use war to impose their will on others, freedom depends upon there being others who are able and willing to resist them by force of arms if necessary. A grim choice it may be, but that is the ethic of responsibility that runs right through Tolkien’s legendarium, an ethic one can find more explicitly expressed in the writings of political theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr amongst others. For, as Sidney Hook eloquently explained at the height of the Second World War in 1943, “the pacifist argument that it pays everyone not to have wars runs up against the fact that it would pay some people in a world where others are pacifist, to make war on the pacifists” (Hero in History, p. 256). It is a tragic irony that the freedom to renounce war rests on the willingness of others to defend that right, sometimes by war itself.