Our theme for the month of June is “Celebrities and Me.” Writers were asked to select and write about a celebrity with whom they feel some connection.
No author, artist, actor, or celebrity of any sort has lived in my brain a fraction as much as J.R.R. Tolkien. Middle-earth is like my second home, and I know its every corner. Its cities and towns have been a steadfast refuge; its inhabitants have been life-long friends. And because Tolkien was a philologist and academic in addition to an author, his texts are often dense and rich with symbolism.
As a devout Catholic, Tolkien packed his mythologies with Christian analogies and metaphors, despite his avowed distaste for allegory. Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn each undergo death and resurrection, December 25 and March 25 (a possible date of the crucifixion) receive prominent placement, the fall of Númenor and flooding of Beleriand have more than a few similarities to the Fall and the Genesis flood, the Ainulindalë’s cosmology discusses Ilúvatar (God) and the angels (although the hierarchy also largely correlates to Greek/Roman/Norse pantheons, and on the list goes). But it’s Tolkien’s descriptions of the affable and enigmatic Tom Bombadil that resonate more with my religious sensibilities.
I was raised in a Christian house in heavily-Christian Grand Rapids and went to in-your-face-Christian schools from 6th grade through college. What I believe has shifted fairly considerably from year to year, and never more so than during college—funny enough, it was studying philosophy of religion that most turned me off of traditional Christianity. But I’ve never been able to fully dismiss some of the foundational beliefs that come with spending over two decades in the CRC bubble. The idea that some being or thing exists somewhere in the universe—or not in the universe, or in some incomprehensible mode of existence—strikes me as no less plausible than the alternative.
If you know anything about Tom Bombadil, it might be that he’s a “merry fellow; Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow.” Tom dances around his woodland home, singing in rhymes and playing with his wife Goldberry, the River-daughter. But Tom also refers to himself as “Eldest,” and implies he existed before the earth itself. His name among the Elves, themselves the most ancient race, is Iarwain Ben-adar: Oldest and Fatherless. Other timeless beings in Middle-earth, notably Gandalf and Elrond, seem to have no explanation for his existence. In response to a question from Frodo, Goldberry simply says, “He is.” And Bombadil, alone among known beings in Tolkien’s mythology, is entirely unaffected and indeed bored by the One Ring.
Fans and scholars have hypothesized that Bombadil is meant to be any number of things. Some have argued he’s just the spirit of the forest, or the symbolic opposite of Sauron, or maybe a stand-in for one of Tolkien’s favorite Finnish demigods, or Ilúvatar Himself, or even the alias of the Witch-king of Angmar. The only real answer, of course, is Tolkien’s: he’s an intentional enigma. Bombadil doesn’t fit into any of Tolkien’s precisely orchestrated categories because he isn’t meant to; he’s the rare exception to a world otherwise known for its documented history and internal consistency.
I don’t know if there’s a god/deity/entity/force/whatever out there. Maybe it’s the God of the Bible. Maybe it’s more like the cosmology of N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, which features an eternal Maelstrom of chaos that births different gods from raw energy. Maybe there’s just nothing. I guess I think trying to figure it out is like trying to pin down Tom Bombadil’s identity: an intellectual exercise that will inevitably end up with the philosophical equivalent of a shoulder-shrug emoji. And that’s okay! I’m just glad Tolkien provided me with the perfect analogy for my spiritual beliefs, along with so much else.
Header image copyright Greg and Tim Hildebrandt, 1976.