Wednesday, October 11, 2006

In the House of Tom Bombadil

My journey through Tolkien's classic The Lord of the Rings (my 4th go around, officially) has not been without fruit. New insights abound as I begin to unpack what Tolkien himself called "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work." I'm savoring each image, even more than before. It's the difference between riding in a car at 45 miles per hour and walking at 4 miles per hour. I say, "Huh, I never saw that before" at least twice a chapter. I've reached the House of Tom Bombadil. If you've never read Tolkien, you've missed a good friend in Tom. The four hobbits are making their way through shadow and darkness, through the Old Forest and away from the mysterious Black Riders. They are afraid, they are alone. And Frodo, with only a vague plan and no one to guide him, is carrying the evil Ring of Power. It's weight at times, like the weight of sin, is too much for him to bear. Deep in the Old Forest, in a dark encounter with Old Man Willow, an ancient and wicked tree, the hobbits have fallen prey to a spell and are hopelessly lost. Until..... Tom Bombadil appears, singing. The threat which to them seems dire is almost laughed at, dealt with in a manner of complete confidence by Tom. His nonsensical song has a power to dominate and control certain things in the forest. About the gnarled old Willow Man, Tom says “that can soon be mended. I know the tune for him.” Does Tom Bombadil know the Music that made the world? Is he one of them; those ancient angelic beings Tolkien called the Ainur, who sang the world of Middle-Earth into form through the Power of the One? We never learn his true identity, even when Frodo asks directly “Who is Tom Bombadil?” The reply is simply “He is.” I love the wonder and the mystery buried deep within Tom Bombadil. Safe from harm, warm now in his house, he tells stories and sings songs to the weary, travel-worn hobbits.... "Eldest, that's what I am. Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn. He made paths before the Big People, and saw the little People arriving. He was here before the Kings and the graves and the Barrow-wights. When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent. He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless - before the Dark Lord came from Outside." Tolkien hints at the mystery of Tom’s role in a letter written in 1954: “even in a mythological Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).” Tom is ancient and wise; he knows the world’s history and is aware of the presence of evil in Middle-earth. Despite the seriousness of this struggle with the Dark Lord, Tom remains joyful, exuberant, and continues to sing. Not even the Ring, that source of ultimate malice and evil which Frodo must carry and cast into the fires of Mount Doom, can dampen his spirit. To the astonishment of Frodo and his companions, the Ring has no power over him. He treats it with an alarming irreverence. Tom is called the Master of the Wood. He is the contemplative hermit of Middle-earth, knowing the names of the living things and the “tune” for each of them. I think of yesterday's reflection on Wonder, and another quote from Pope John Paul II comes to mind: “Faced with the sacredness of life and of the human person, and before the marvels of the universe, wonder is the only appropriate attitude.” Perhaps this is what gives Tom Bombadil his unshakable joy and confidence. This gift of wonder and appreciation of beauty is what we thirst for today. Pope John Paul II speaks of beauty as “a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence.” What the hobbits found in Tom Bombadil’s house was indeed this mystery and beauty, and beyond that a certain peace and comfort, like an oasis in the midst of their dangerous journey. The lesson we can learn from Tom? There is a music that runs deeper than sin, than evil, than our own fallen world. And there is a sanctuary we can go to and rest in. If we ever need to hear that melody again, if we need a refuge from the dangers of our own daily lives, we know where we can find it... +
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