“Who Is Tom Bombadil?” (2) — Uncles


Tolkien’s visionary originality in conceiving a vast fantasy epic, well crafted yet also satisfyingly baggy, a gripping war story punctuated with philosophical interludes and spiritual aspiration, must have been at partly provoked by the great Russian novelists. He takes the fantasy epic and lifts it from Poetry to Novel, or something in between. More specifically, in spite of his habit of reviling modern literature, he must have known War and Peace, another novel about the quest for heroism and nobility, which also has the threat of a powerful invader, the build-up and full unleashing of a war, and a protagonist — Pierre Bezukhov — who in his good nature and seeming innocuousness (albeit not in his size) has certain resemblances to a hobbit. Among various other echoes of Tolstoy’s work, one scene stands out as  a forbear to the meeting with Tom Bombadil: Part 4 chapter 7, the conclusion of the great hunt scene, in which Natasha and Nikolai Rostov find themselves in the house of their ‘Uncle,” a character that has much of the “feel”  and some of the other accessories of Tom Bombadil. It could be that Tolkien imitated this magnificent scene, or that he vaguely remembered it, or that he is alluding to it in order to make a thematic point through contrast with it — or that both Tom and ‘Uncle,’ rather than being consciously paired, both emanate from some more archetypal template that also generates similar figures in other European novelists.

This template would be the evocation of a character who carries or incarnates the “spirit of the land,” and who has the wisdom and vitality of that land. The accessories would be a house, a woman, and the produce of that land — and all of this would be experienced by a handful of guests from a more recent world. Indeed, the character and his accessories stand in counter-opposition to a way of being that is modern or corrupt, and cannot therefore play a further role in the novel because there is no place for it in the more recent world that our protagonists find themselves in. This is why both ‘Uncle’ and Tom Bombadil are relatively unimportant for the furthering of plot; their function is to embody the presence of a more ancient way of being that abides in this plot but is not of it. For this reason too they are Uncle and not Father figures, standing outside the lines of generation and not fundamentally involved in the creation of the future.

1. “Uncle” Himself. That Tolstoy refers to him throughout as “Uncle” already suggests that the archetypal resonance is more significant than the individual name. Like Tom Bombadil, he is cheerful, at ease in his own skin, and speaks on the borderline of sense and nonsense: “There was a hint of laughter down one side of his face under his grey moustache, and it broadened out as the song went on and the tempo quickened, while his flourishes tore at the heartstrings…’Uncle’ sang like a true peasant, with one simple thought in mind — in any song the words are the only thing that matters, the tune follows on, a tune on its own is nothing, a tune just brings it all together. And this gave ‘Uncle’s’ natural way of singing a special charm, not unlike birdsong.” (561-2; tr.Briggs, Penguin Classics) Unlike Tom, who is essentially solitary because he precedes society, “Uncle” speaks, sings and plays as a representative of a whole tradition or community whose roots are in the land. However, like Tom, who characteristically wears blue and green (celestial and vernal, blitheness and hope), “Uncle” also wears blue that stands out whimsically against his surroundings of predominantly earth-browns: he arrives “wearing a Cossak coat, blue breeches and low boots.” (558) The blue breeches point to a dreamy inner life and an independence of Manichaean polarities — contrasting with the blacks, whites and greys of typical Father figures.

Moreover, just as Tom Bombadil governs the Old Forest with  natural authority, so too “Uncle,” while eschewing political office, is recognized and sought out as counsel and magistrate: “From one end of the district to the other ‘Uncle’ was thought of as an eccentric but also the noblest and most selfless of men. He was brought in to arbitrate in family disputes and chosen as executor. People told him secrets. He was invited to serve as a justice, and in other similar posts, but he had refused all public offices point-blank, spending autumn and spring out in the fields on his bay horse, winter indoors and summer stretched out in his overgrown garden.” (559) He is a wisdom figure, both ancient and youthful like Tom, but unlike Tom he has an ancestry and a history: “‘Uncle’ led his guests through into a little hall furnished with a folding-table and red chairs, then into a drawing-room with a round birch-wood table and a sofa, and on into his study, with its shabby sofa, threadbare carpet and several portraits — of Suvorov, ‘Uncle’ in military uniform and his father and mother. The study reeked of tobacco and dogs.” (557) The sense of personal history is captured in the state of wear of the furniture and upholstery, but also in the “reek of tobacco and dogs”: in Uncle’s world, stuff and events “hang” in the air, and bear traces. It is significant that Tom Bombadil is “clean” in comparison; the blue and green are perennial freshness, on which history has no power to stick. Tom Bombadil is a version of the Uncle that cannot belong in any history: “He is.”

2. The House. Tolkien’s world is a world largely without smells: there, there are no horse smells, no dog smells, no manure smells, no tobacco smells, no man smells or woman smells, even though there are horses, dogs, manure, tobacco, men and women — and the humidity of that world also doesn’t carry the fragrance of mud and leaves. It is a world essentially “clean” of real bodily presence; instead, we have the bodies of literary epic, which have stature and animation but no smell. Tolkien characters generally don’t stink; if they do stink, it is to betoken evil, for stench in this world signifies moral badness and not the simple fact of being embodied. “Uncle’s” house is different: “The inside of the house, with its unplastered timber walls, was not the last word in cleanliness; nothing suggested that the main aim of its inhabitants was to keep the place spotless, though there were no signs of real neglect. There was a smell of fresh apples as you entered, and the walls were hung with the skins of wolves and foxes.” (Briggs, 557)

Both his house and Tom Bombadil’s have the power to suffuse guests with unaccustomed gladness. The hobbits are so cheerful and relaxed at Tom’s that it is easy for them to forget how many days have passed. Similarly, in “Uncle’s” home of slightly shabby furniture and little passageways leading to unseen rooms full of vivacity, there is mysterious euphoria: “There was a corridor leading from the study, where they could hear the sound of women laughing…Natasha winked at her brother, their mutual glee was uncontainable, and they broke out into a great roar of laughter before they could think of a reason for doing so.” (557-8) The center from which this glee spills out may be “Uncle” himself, who like Tom Bombadil lacks the self-consciousness that can be perturbed by thoughts of other people’s views of them: “Like the pair of them ‘Uncle’ was also  in high spirits. Far from taking exception to their laughter — it never occurred to him that they might be laughing at his life-style — he joined in with the brother and sister, revelling like them in inexplicable glee.” (558)

Yet Tom’s house differs from “Uncle’s” not only in its cleanliness, the cleanliness of new paint, but in having a ceremonial, heraldic quality, everything neatly arranged as if for a ritual, as if emanating from a ritualized reality: “The four hobbits stepped over the wide stone threshold, and stood still, blinking. They were in a long low room, filled with the light of lamps swinging from the beams of the roof; and on the table of dark polished wood stood many candles, tall and yellow, burning brightly.” (121) Sometimes this shades into the ritual arrangements of fairy tales, as in “Snow White” or “Goldilocks”:  “…they followed him down a short passage and round a sharp turn. They came to a low room with a sloping roof (a penthouse, it seemed, built onto the north end of the house). Its walls were of clean stone, but they were mostly covered with green hanging mats and yellow curtains. The floor was flagged, and strewn with fresh green rushes. There were four deep mattresses, each piled with white blankets, laid on the floor along one side. Against the opposite wall was a long bench laden with wide earthenware basins, and beside it stood brown ewers filled with water, some cold, some steaming hot. There were soft green slippers set ready beside each bed.” (123)
   It is a world of beings who have not grown up, and serves here either as a temporary refuge from the ineluctable growing-up that Frodo is hurled into in the larger narrative, or as a signal that the world of Tom Bombadil is wrapped an infantilizing atmosphere, in which guests would not reach their full fruition if they were to linger.

3. The Woman. The Uncle has a partner — not a wife, because there is no power high enough to authorize this relationship, and not a mother-figure, because their relationship has to remain in a state of fluid play and not end up subordinated to the needs of family. Thus there is always something ambiguous in this relationship:

“…the door was opened by a serving woman who from the sound of it was walking on bare feet, and in padded a plump, red-cheeked, good-looking woman of forty or so, with a double chin and full red lips, carrying a large heavily laden tray. Her eyes radiated good will and her every gesture spoke of warm hospitality as she looked round all the guests and treated them to a broad smile and a polite courtesy.

“For all her exceptional stoutness, which made her bosom and her belly stick out and her head tilt back, this woman (‘Uncle’s’ housekeeper) moved with surprising elegance. She walked over to the table, put the tray down, and with a few skillful movements of her puffy white hands transferred bottles, dishes and snacks to the table-top. This done, she walked off and paused in the doorway for a moment with a smile on her face. ‘Take a good look — it’s me! Now can you understand how ‘Uncle’ lives?’ was what her expression seemed to say to Rostov. Who could have failed to understand? Not only Nikolay, but Natasha understood ‘Uncle’ now, and what had been meant by that furrowed brow and that smug smile of contentment hovering around his pursed lips as Anisya Fyodorovna had come into the room.” (558)

She is earthy, rounded, experienced, deft, sexual, at home in her world and in herself, a figure of natural grace yet not outside the mesh of time. In this description, her name comes only at the end, as if it makes no sense without the prior account of her unique excellences. She knows she holds the key to “how ‘Uncle’ lives” — the ‘how’ indicating not only indifference to conventional judgments, but also the insistence that there is a place for bodily pleasure and satisfaction in this version of a good life. As we noticed before, Tolstoy is not afraid of bodies.

In contrast, Tolkien’s description of Goldberry, with her silvers and golds,  her petals and pools, has the feel of a Pre-Raphaelite painting:    “In a chair, at the far side of the room facing the outer door, sat a woman. Her long yellow hair rippled down her shoulders; her gown was green, green as young reeds, shot with silver like beads of dew; and her belt was of gold, shaped like a chain of flag-lilies set with the pale blue eyes of forget-me-nots. About her feet in wide vessels of green and brown earthenware, white water-lilies were flowing, so that she seemed to be enthroned in the midst of a pool… she was clothed all in silver with a white girdle, and her shoes were like fishes’ mail.” (121, 129) She is a picture of a woman, and not a woman — ethereal, with fairy-tale accessories, indeed almost an elf or a fairy but not quite, and not human either. There is no sexuality in this picture. Tom and Goldberry have a celibate bond based on their relationship to the forest; they relate to each other like children, dwelling on little things such as berries, pebbles, and flowers. They are two eternal beings frozen in a state of innocent, presexual play, having no internal knowledge of desire or betrayal. For this reason the Ring has no power over them, but for this reason too the hobbits must move on, because the world of Tom and Goldberry is incomplete, ultimately stultifying. Tolstoy’s account of Anisya Fyodorovna has exactly the blooded warmth that this relationship lacks, although Tom and Goldberry do have gentle affection and admiration for each other.

The contrast is reinforced by the foodstuffs they bring to the table. Tom Bombadil says, “I see yellow cream and honeycomb, and white bread, and butter; milk, cheese, and green herbs and ripe berries gathered.” (122) This is picnic food, or snacks for tea — a small child’s picture of an ideal meal, with little appreciation of the work involved in producing the bread, butter and cheese. Goldberry’s queenly description does not suggest hands that thrive when churning butter or kneading dough. Anisya Fyodorovna, however, is the sturdy mistress of a farm, capable of doing all the work herself as well as directing others, and the food that she brings to the table is an extension of her own body:

“On the tray were a bottle of home-made wine, several different kinds of vodka, tiny mushrooms, little rye-cakes made with buttermilk, oozing honeycombs, still and sparkling mead, apples and all sorts of nuts, raw, roasted, and steeped in honey. Then Anisya came back in bringing preserves made with honey and sugar, along with ham and a freshly roasted chicken.

“All these delicacies had been grown, picked and prepared by Anisya herself, Every smell, taste and flavour seemed redolent of Anisya, redolent of her plumpness, cleanliness, whiteness and her broad welcoming smile.” (558-9)

She is bodily nourishment incarnate, content in this world because she is not agitated by longing for a world beyond, an artist of earth’s pleasures. Her table suggests a mental self-sufficiency, emotional abundance, no aching void that seeks the infinite to fill it — and thus Tolstoy’s description actually expresses, without needing to say it, the interior strength that would be invulnerable to the Ring. ‘Uncle’ and Anisya Fyodorovna are the antithesis of Napoleon.

If Tolkien was aware of this alternative possibility in his conceiving of Tom and Goldberry, he instinctively chose the less earthbound route. It is as if he recognized that the lives of such beings as ‘Uncle’ present a deeper vision of the Hobbiton life, in which the little comforts hold depth and meaning and are not so little after all. He may suspect this to be a truer vision of things, but he wouldn’t want us to get mired in a world where satisfaction is possible, because to him what makes us more fully human is the quest for an ideal that cannot be embodied or even held.








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