How I learned to stop worrying and love Tom Bombadil

Today’s post is a stroll down memory lane; something I wrote earlier in the year for another blog that’s now offline. I put it here because to be honest, The Hobbit‘s been more in my thoughts this last week than Doctor Who has. This is respectfully dedicated to she-knows-who.

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There is an apocryphal story about Tolkien. It takes place in the Eagle and Child, a tavern in the middle of Oxford, just a few miles away from my home. Tolkien had gone there to meet with members of his writers’ group, which included among its ranks author and Narnia creator C.S. Lewis. The Hobbit was doing decent business, and rumour had it that Tolkien had been working on a sequel. As he read aloud his contribution to that session – an early draft of what would eventually become ‘A Long Expected Party’ – Lewis was heard to mutter “Oh, not more fucking elves”.

If you’re not a fan of fantasy novels – as I’m not – this sentiment is understandable. My father has always decried Lord of the Rings, on the grounds that “Magic seems a convenient get-out clause for whenever the characters are in an impossible situation”. That’s something of a generalisation, and not really true when applied to LOTR (although Gandalf’s deus ex machina appearances in The Hobbit do tend to grate after a while) but I can see his point. If you’re not willing to buy into the idea of magic – even a magic that has its own rules and limitations, such as that presented in Harry Potter – you’re not going to be enamoured with talking trees and wizards who can fight off a Balrog one minute and get felled by a shrouded ghost on a giant bat a couple of books later.

I first read The Hobbit when I was ten years old. It took me nine weeks and two library renewals, at which point my mother insisted I finish the thing. Lord of the Rings was a childhood non-starter – a novel (or three novels, depending on what edition you possess) that I tried only a couple of times, never going beyond chapter six. I was a mature reader, but looking back at it now I don’t think I was ready. If you’re a parent reading this, you’ll know what I mean. Sometimes the virgin experiences of great art, literature or culture are wasted if they are given to people who aren’t old enough to know what they have. It’s a trap I’ve been anxious to avoid with my own children, with some success. I do wish I’d held off on Short Circuit.

But then in 2001 Peter Jackson strode forth from New Zealand, damaging the seats of several aircraft on his way, and produced a series of films that has become notorious for the best and the worst reasons. Because the Lord of the Rings film trilogy is a heavily flawed but ultimately quite exciting version of a set of books I’d never really cared about. And it’s this layer of detachment that allowed me to be relatively objective, at least up to a point. The truth is I harbour no great love for Middle Earth. My parents never lulled me to sleep to ‘The Road Goes Ever On And On’. I don’t have maps of the Shire peeling off the study wall. There is only room for one fixation in our house, and Doctor Who is currently it. But we mustn’t get into that now because we will be here all day.

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I went back to the books. The first film had recently come out, which meant that Viggo Mortensen’s intense, earnest delivery punctuated every line of Aragorn’s dialogue, which wasn’t a bad thing. Unfortunately I could also hear Orlando Bloom every time Legolas opened his mouth, and this practically sent me to sleep. Not that some of the prose wasn’t doing that already. A friend of mine – a writer himself, and a very good one – pointed out that you could summarise Fellowship of the Ring in one paragraph: “Trees! More trees! Big trees. Old trees.” He exaggerates only mildly.

The simple truth is that it’s very easy to knock Tolkien’s prose. His structure is all over the place, with climaxes and mini-climaxes and long, first-person flashback scenes in the manner of nineteenth century classics, which is not a problem except when it gets in the way. The opening hundred pages of Return of the King, for instance, are a disaster, consisting as they do largely of Pippin standing on the walls of Minas Tirith while the air is filled with foreboding and dread – it’s almost a relief when the orcs turn up. At the end of the book, the ring is vanquished, before we’re given a further eighty pages (or thereabouts) of singing elves who drink more wine than a group of English teachers at an end-of-term gathering. He then drops in a colossal anti-climax in which the Hobbits chase away an elderly shell of a wizard, and yes I know it’s important thematically, but after the siege of the Black Gate it’s such a colossal let-down. The world that Tolkien creates is vast and wondrous, and his imagination is a thing of beauty and grandeur, but the way in which he chooses to write about this world is heavily inconsistent.

Things don’t get any better when we talk about the characters. Frodo spends most of ROTK whining about how heavy the ring has become, while Sam – arguably the book’s real hero – carries him all the way to Mount Doom. Amusing, also, is Tolkien’s tendency to have Aragorn, Gandalf or Elrond introduce the principals by their full names and genealogical history whenever another character is thrown into the mix. Or, as my friend Gareth puts it (to the tune of the Monty Python Lumberjack Song):

“D’you like my sword, it’s been reforged,
I mended it myself
With Gimli son of Gloin
And Legolas the Elf

We’re the Fellowship and we’re OK
There’s nine of us, oops, now there’s eight…”

“It’s not very good,” Gareth insists (of the song, I should emphasise, rather than the books). Well, neither was Lost, and they dragged that out for years.

But a curious thing happened: I became far more incensed with the second and third films, and the changes they’d made, than I could ever be with Fellowship. And of course, it’s because I’d read the books first, but this escaped me at the time – all I could think about in 2003 was the ownership I’d taken of the novels, and how the films were less than I’d imagined they would be. Gone was Gandalf’s subterranean battle with the Balrog, which became a ‘thing of slime’ in the depths, and who Gandalf pursued – or was it the other way round? – up an enormous flight of stairs. Gone too was the epic confrontation at the gates of Minas Tirith between Gandalf and the Witch King – my favourite passage in the entire trilogy and one that upset me greatly with its cinematic omission. (Those of you who’ve seen the extended editions will know that it did make the lengthier version of Return of the King, albeit in a greatly altered form. I hated it. It’s a classic example of why you should be careful what you wish for.)

In its place, of course, is a lot of comic relief. Gimli becomes the short, funny one, in the same way that Strax would become a comedy Sontaran in Doctor Who (but again, we won’t go into that). Pippin has apparently developed dyspraxia. Christopher Lee falls off a tower. And don’t get me started on the drinking contest – a scene with so staggeringly obvious a punch line that even my four-year-old could have seen it coming.

But Legolas, of course – who takes centre stage in the battle of wines – is the master of the obvious. His role on screen, it seems, is to abandon the eloquence and intensity of his literary counterpart, and provide a sort of descriptive audio commentary for the deaf, preferably without making anything that we might label a facial expression. When Aragorn and his friends approach the Passage of the Dead, Legolas is heard to mutter “The horses are restless”. Well, we can see that. The whinnying and snorting gave it away. In the video game he’s no better, crying “The mists swirl here also!” when you’re knee deep in the stuff. When my other half and I emerged from the cinema we decided that Legolas was the equivalent of the Microsoft paperclip – another one-dimensional creation whose role was to state the obvious at the most inconvenient moment. “It looks like you’re being attacked by orcs. Would you like help?”.

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On the other hand, there was no Tom Bombadil.

Bear with me. This has a happy ending But in my early twenties, I despised Bombadil and his incessant prancing and stupid Enid Blyton way of talking. “Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow / Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow.” Fine. Don’t have him on your paintball team. Bombadil seemed to be a source of constant annoyance, a child in a world inhabited by men. I wanted to find out what would happen to Frodo and Sam and whether they would reach Mordor in one piece, and the interludes with Tom and his radiant wife were getting in the way. It came as a huge relief to discover that they’d dropped him from the films, although if he had been cast, I suspect Owen Wilson would have been an inspired choice.

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When I went back to the books a couple of years ago, I re-read the passages with Tom, and found myself chuckling. And then laughing. Tom didn’t just fit this time; the whole book somehow seemed to be about him. I lingered over the chapters he inhabits with a curious sense of belonging, reluctant – as I’m sure Frodo must have been – to leave the confines of Tom and Goldberry’s home and venture out into the great beyond. I still don’t miss his presence in the films: structurally he doesn’t fit, at least not so early in an already truncated narrative, and the tone is off. But I found him charming and mysterious and fascinating instead of a source of irritation, and when Emily found me a book of Tolkien’s The Adventures of Tom Bombadil at a book amnesty last year, I was thrilled.

I’m sure that fatherhood has something to do with this. Tom represents security and solace in a dangerous world, and who would not wish this upon their children? By the time I re-read Lord of the Rings I had already introduced my eldest to The Hobbit, having read it to him over a number of evenings. It was the longest book we’d attempted and I managed by cheating, skimming over the geographical descriptions in the manner of William Goldman in The Princess Bride. But he was fascinated by Mirkwood, and the dragon that slept in his cave, and even before we’d finished the book he’d been busy with the crayons and Lego.

 

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Clockwise from left: wood elves feasting; a hobbit and his hole; Smaug’s cave (complete with spade so that he can bury the treasure he steals).

 

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“Daddy,” he’d said one afternoon, “What are ents?”

“Ents are basically trees that can walk and talk. They’re very very wise, and they’re very, very old.”
“Are they even older than you?”
“Yes, yes, all right, very funny.”
“And are they even fatter?”
“Don’t push your luck, kid.”

It took me years to realise that part of the appeal of The Hobbit is being able to experience it through the eyes of a child. I said earlier that as a child I wasn’t ready. Paradoxically I don’t think I was ready as a young adult either, having reached the age when you’re far too grown up for your own good – a sort of artificially mature Susan Pevensie, without the tits. I had to become a father myself before entering the second childhood that I now proudly inhabit, and my world is so much better for it.

But there are times when you have to stop empathising and start comforting, and I came unstuck one night towards the end. With The Hobbit, you see, it was the ending that stayed. Largely because my first exposure to it hadn’t been the book; it had been a staged adaptation in the school hall by a travelling theatre company. Fellow pupils were plucked from the classroom hours beforehand to take on supporting roles as accompanying dwarves or goblins. The dumbed-down approach the theatre group took was to dispense with the final quarter of the book and have Bilbo steal the treasure and dispatch the dragon with nary so much as a whisper of protest. Gone was the destruction of Esgaroth, the siege of Erebor and the Battle of Five Armies – and, crucially, the death of Thorin. Instead, the impetuous dwarf lives to shake Bilbo’s hand and then head off back to his home under the mountain. Reading the story some time later, and being unfamiliar with literary conceits, I was struck by the decision to dispense with such a major character, and it lingered for some time.

So when Joshua and I read the book, I became overtly theatrical. When it came to ‘Riddles in the Dark’ I adopted my best Andy Serkis impression and leaned in closer with each enunciated phrase, until he started to look uncomfortable. When it got to the spiders in Mirkwood, I would run my fingers up and down his arm in between paragraphs, in much the same way that Emily once did to me during the Shelob’s Lair sequence in Return of the King. You have to have some fun.

But I remember that penultimate chapter. I remember the night we sat in the lounge, before all the official Lego licensing and commercial hype about the new trilogy, and the controversy over frame rates and the treatment of horses. I remember how he felt when Bilbo was ushered into the tent to reconcile with a dying dwarf king. I remember, because we took ownership of this ourselves, and I laid my own stamp upon this before showing him what others were achieved – I would much rather he built his own artistic vision rather than relying on that of someone else, as I now wish I had done with Lord of the Rings. And I remember because I’d wondered how he would react to the departure of Thorin, given that he sat through The Lion King without batting an eyelid.

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So when the time came, I over-egged the pudding. In sombre tones, I showed him Michael Hague’s accompanying illustration, remarking “Look, there’s Thorin. He doesn’t look well, does he?”
“Yes,” came the response, “but maybe he’ll get better.”
“I don’t think so, Josh. I think this might be it for him.”
“Well,” he said, unsure, “he doesn’t look too ill.”
“Let’s find out.”

Alarm bells should have been ringing at this point. You could pick things up from his tone, and I don’t know why I didn’t. Perhaps it’s because I wanted this death to mean something to him, to show him that it was important, to emphasise the death as a part of the story, to avoid desensitisation. I put on my best dying-on-a-slab voice and delivered Thorin’s ‘farewell, good thief’ monologue. Then I recounted the deaths of Fili and Kili, who had died defending their uncle. Then we reached the end and I said “That was kind of a sad one, wasn’t it?”

He burst into tears.

I felt like the worst father in the world, and I told Emily so, as she cuddled Joshua in the study, while giving me over-the-glasses looks that said You got yourself into this, now you can get yourself out of it. I reminded Josh that it was just a story.

“It’s still sad, though! Thorin’s dead!”
“Look, it’s fine. You’re very tired and I think that’s partly what’s making you so upset, and if you get some sleep you might not be quite so upset in the morning. It’s all right to be sad, but in a while I don’t think you’ll feel quite so sad. Honestly. Now, look, would you like to have Gandalf in with you tonight?”
“Is that Gandalf?”
“Yes,” I said, lifting down the figurine. “He normally sits on the piano, but how about we put him in your room next to your bed? Then he can cast some magic spells to make sure you have nice dreams.”
“Yes, but Daddy, he’s made of plastic.”

You live and learn.

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