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The One Ring Forums: Tolkien Topics: Reading Room:
"Tell me, if my asking does not seem foolish..."

noWizardme
Asgardian


Feb 16, 2:16pm

Post #1 of 13 (1223 views)
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"Tell me, if my asking does not seem foolish..." Can't Post

Staying with Tom Bombadil, Frodo is trying to find something out.

1) First attempt:


Quote
'Tell me, if my asking does not seem foolish, who is Tom Bombadil?'

‘He is,’ said Goldberry, staying her swift movements and smiling. Frodo looked at her questioningly. ‘He is, as you have seen him,’ she said in answer to his look. ‘He is the Master of wood, water, and hill.’

‘Then all this strange land belongs to him?’

‘No indeed!’ she answered, and her smile faded. ‘That would indeed be a burden,’ she added in a low voice, as if to herself. ‘The trees and the grasses and all things growing or living in the land belong each to themselves. Tom Bombadil is the Master. No one has ever caught old Tom walking in the forest, wading in the water, leaping on the hill-tops under light and shadow. He has no fear. Tom Bombadil is master.’

LOTR Book 1 Ch 7 - In the House of Tom Bombadil


2) Frodo tries again:


Quote
'Who are you, Master?’ he asked.

‘Eh, what?’ said Tom sitting up, and his eyes glinting in the gloom. ‘Don’t you know my name yet? That’s the only answer. Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless? But you are young and I am old. 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.’

[ibid.]


In other discussions, I've seen these passages handled as really being a way for Tolkien to communicate with his readers. Certainly it does alert us to realising that we don't know 'who Tom is' (I think that what Frodo is really asking is 'what' Tom is - as in where in Frodo's mental compendium of people and creatures should Tom be put).

In other discussions, I've seen this treated as a puzzle - Tom's nature is something for the interested reader to work out, and many have tried to come to an answer. There are a number of theories -- with the usual result that everyone prefers their own and no consensus is possible (or, perhaps, necessary).

I've also seen the idea that this could be a mystery rather than a puzzle. That is, the answer is that there is no answer. It's a Rorschach test to stimulate the imagination rather than a fuzzy picture that could be clarified. According to this idea, Tolkien wants us to know that there is something here that we don't know and cannot know.


Maybe either of those is right. But I still haven't found what I'm looking for. Tell me, if my asking does not seem foolish...

1) Why do you think Frodo is so reticent about asking Goldberry?

2) Answering Frodo, Tom says that his name is the only answer to the 'who' question. He seems to think that Frodo will understand better when he is older -- why might that be, and what might Frodo understand?

3) Tom says he is Eldest -- is he providing a different name, given that Frodo seems dissatisfied with 'Tom' (or 'Master' in Goldberry's answer)? Is that new name any more helpful?

4) Having said he's Eldest, Tom elaborates on that. If this is Tom as Tolkien's mouthpiece then he's reeling off evidence of what he is not (not an elf, dwarf, Man etc...) Or is there more to this description? Or has Tom, like many a loquacious person, launched himself into the next story, quickly forgetting the prompt?


5) Are the characters just acting as Tolkien's mouthpieces in these exchanges? If not, how would they explain why they say they things they do?

~~~~~~
"You were exceedingly clever once, but unfortunately none of your friends noticed as they were too busy being attacked by an octopus."
-from How To Tell If You Are In A J.R.R. Tolkien Book, by Austin Gilkeson, in 'The Toast', 2016 https://the-toast.net/...-a-jrr-tolkien-book/


noWizardme
Asgardian


Feb 19, 11:59am

Post #2 of 13 (1079 views)
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A few thoughts [In reply to] Can't Post

I've been seeing where I can get to trying to answer my own question.

I've been wondering whether the unexpected answers to Frodo's questions here are like what happens when the hobbits wonder about elven magic in Lorien (particularly when elves don't know how to answer Pippin's question 'Are these magic cloaks?') In each case the confusion is an opportunity for readers to wonder about how things work in Middle-earth. Or just to note that Middle-earth has different cultures, and those have different ideas about things, whether or not there is some underlying empirical reality (which Tolkien may or may not have figured out).

So rather than philosophizing about what names mean (an approach you can readily find tried elsewhere) I thought I'd wonder whether Tom and Frodo might have differing ideas about names.

Aside from Tom (and Gandalf, who I'll come to in a minute), as far as I remember people in Middle-earth seem to introduce themselves as 'x son/daughter of y'. Smetimes they add information about nationality, kinship group or status/role. Some real-world cultures do that of course: I suppose the extra information is useful and not just to distinguish 'Aragorn son of Arathorn' from 'Aragorn son of Nigel'. Information like this tells you who you are dealing with, and who you might accidentally start a feud with. Aragorn has many names. His names illustrate his progress through the LOTR story - from Stider, to Aragorn son of Arathorn, to the full lineage he wows Eomer with, to the titles he adopts or is given in Gondor (though he's still also Strider, and makes a point of that).

Gandalf now, before returning to Tom. Gandalf has been given many names, some of them descriptive:


Quote
...he journeyed unwearingly on foot, leaning on a staff, and so he was called among Men of the North Gandalf 'the Elf of the Wand'. For they deemed him (though in error) to be of Elven-kind.

The Istari, UT


Gandalf is not "Gandalf son of Randolf", or "Gandalf of [place x]", or "Lord Gandalf". Partly that's because of his origin and lifestyle of incessant travel. But I think it's partly because (as the same UT essay says) "he was not proud, and sought neither power nor praise". So no importance to project through associations with ancestors, place or power. And so he accepts the names he's given (except 'Lathspell', maybe!)

Like Gandalf, Tom seeks neither power nor praise. Who his parents were might be a problematic thing, if he truly is Eldest. He does have a country, but not a country he seeks to control. Other people give places names, but that keeps changing every few thousand years. Anyway, perhaps to Tom giving the land a name would be impertinent - a step in the direction of power and control. Tom doesn't even have a 'kind' - maybe Frodo's question would feel superficially answered if he could say he was an elf, dwarf, Man, wizard, or some other word Tolkien invented.

So I think those are some of the difficulties Tom has in answering Frodo's question.

Tom might seem to say that his name alone is enough. But he can't literally mean that because both he and Goldberry are very happy to tell Frodo about things Tom has done, does, or doesn't do, as if that's a helpful part of the answer. And that makes sense to me - given time, someone's name inevitably becomes associated with their deeds or reputation. These forums provide an example. The custom is for people to register with a Tolkien-themed name rather than their name in real life. Some people choose user names that suggest a particular interest, attitude etc. (whatever happened to all those user with names like "I <3 Legolas" who joined briefly when the FOTR movie came out?) But mostly, I can't tell all that much about a forum user from their chosen name. Not that this matters, because after a while the name becomes associated with whatever that person has posted. That would still work even if the forum software just allocated new users a random, meaningless name like Mogotrevo, Ethosien, or Momoweb. After a while I'd be looking forward to Momoweb's thoughts on whatever, appreciating Ethosien's sense of humour, or feeling I don't often enjoy Mogotrev's contributions.

So maybe, if you live as long as Tom, and decide to influence others as little as he does, reputation is enough for you and this is what Frodo has yet to learn being young.

Or maybe not. But I think that will have to do, unless you want to write some too.

~~~~~~
"You were exceedingly clever once, but unfortunately none of your friends noticed as they were too busy being attacked by an octopus."
-from How To Tell If You Are In A J.R.R. Tolkien Book, by Austin Gilkeson, in 'The Toast', 2016 https://the-toast.net/...-a-jrr-tolkien-book/


(This post was edited by noWizardme on Feb 19, 12:05pm)


Roverandom
Ant-person


Feb 19, 9:42pm

Post #3 of 13 (1060 views)
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Who are You? Who-who-who-who? Oh, I Really Wanna Know! [In reply to] Can't Post

I was very pleased to see this question pop up on my computer today, noWiz! There's nothing like the merest mention of "Bombadil" to get a good debate going. He has become, over many readings, one of my favorite characters, and I think a lot of that has to do with the points you've made: the magic is in the mystery.

I said in another discussion here that Tom reminded me of the Piper at the Gate of Dawn in the Wind and the Willows, and I stand by that assessment. Tom is, in my eye, a kind of fairy story demi-god of Nature (if that's not mixing too many myths into one legendarium). He's a wonderful enigma of a character who doesn't fit the tale he's in, while at the same time being the perfect fit for it. Not to side-track into a movie discussion, but I do so wish we could have gotten Old Tom in the Jackson film.

To attempt to find answers for two of your questions:

1) GOLDBERRY: Frodo shows the same deference that all hobbits seem to feel when thrust into interactions with those whom they deem "above them". Frodo and Sam feel the same way around Galadriel later in the story, and Pippin thinks himself "rustic" in the court of Gondor. I think that Frodo is just a little intimidated by Goldberry, just as he is with Galadriel, believing that she is so far above him that he's being forward just by speaking to her. By the way, we could probably have a nice, long chat by the fire about Goldberry, too! Just who is she, herself, anyway?

3) ELDEST: is a title that has always struck me as somewhat relative when used by someone in Middle-Earth. Gandalf, who ought to know the truth of it, tells the companions that Treebeard the oldest living thing, and Celeborn actually uses the title "Eldest" when addressing the Ent. So who is elder than whom, anyway?

For just as there has always been a Richard Webster, so too has there been a Black Scout of the North to greet him at the door on the threshold of the evening and to guard him through his darkest dreams.


Otaku-sempai
Avenger


Feb 20, 2:26am

Post #4 of 13 (1044 views)
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Tom Bombadil and Goldberry as Patrons [In reply to] Can't Post

Purely by coincidence, Tom Bombadil and Goldberry as NPC (non-player character) Patrons were the most stretch goal that was unlocked for the kickstarter campaign for Free League's new edition of The One Ring RPG.


Quote
STRETCH GOAL 24: PATRON: TOM BOMBADIL AND GOLDBERRY – UNLOCKED!

If we reach this goal, we will add jolly Tom Bombadil and the enigmatic River-daughter Goldberry as additional Patrons for the Company of adventurers. The description will be included in the core rules.


It's not really relevant to the discussion, but I thought it made for a fun sidebar.

#FidelityToTolkien
#DiversityWithFidelity


noWizardme
Asgardian


Feb 20, 10:04am

Post #5 of 13 (1009 views)
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Politest, and Eldest [In reply to] Can't Post

Glad to hear from you Roverandom!

Yes I think Frodo's natural politeness is making him hesitant to ask Goldberry. (It's also, of course convenient for Tolkien, if we assume that JRR wants Frodo to raise an issue but not to pursue it all that far. But it's good to see Frodo acting in character, rather than having a sudden fit of Authorial Mouthpiece.)

One could imagine that Frodo is very wrong-footed here. He's going to tour a number of very strange places on his adventures, but perhaps none that has this sort of combination of familiar and flamboyantly strange - a bit like a surreal version of Farmer Maggot's farmhouse.

It might also be interesting to note that while our foursome of hobbit adventurers have heard of the Old Forest and the Barrow Downs, Tom and Goldberry seem to have come as a total surprise. Or should that be 'secret' rather than surprise - Tom is clearly familiar with Farmer Maggot, so he isn't unknown to all hobbits, and perhaps it is strange or interesting that the interested-in-folklore, talk-to-Outsiders eccentric Bagginses have not heard of him.

I suppose a further interpretation of Frodo's words would be that Tom and Goldberry feel strangely familiar to Frodo, so he feels he ought to know the answer really, but can't work it out for himself. That would be compatible with some of the fan theories about Tom's identity, as fans of those theories will probably immediately realize.

I also think you might be right about 'Eldest' being relative. Tolkien, I believe offers different individuals as being the 'greatest elf' or 'greatest eagle'. So perhaps we don't have to imagine there are precise, objective, agreed criteria on the basis of which only one can hold the title.

~~~~~~
"You were exceedingly clever once, but unfortunately none of your friends noticed as they were too busy being attacked by an octopus."
-from How To Tell If You Are In A J.R.R. Tolkien Book, by Austin Gilkeson, in 'The Toast', 2016 https://the-toast.net/...-a-jrr-tolkien-book/


noWizardme
Asgardian


Feb 20, 10:18am

Post #6 of 13 (1007 views)
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Tom's borders [In reply to] Can't Post


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"Tom's country ends here: he will not pass its borders. Tom has his house to mind, and Goldberry is waiting"


Tom says this at a physical boundary the hobbits can see. So it's easy to assume that Tom's borders are landmarks one could mark on the map.

It makes one wonder what his other borders are?

But, on the other hand, is setting borders as if you own a place not very like Tom at all? Could this ditch be no more than a handy turning-back point, allowing Tom to get home before supper (or similar)?

Or, although the hobbits are of course unable to notice Strider hiding nearby, is Tom not nearly so blind? Tom knows a lot about a lot -- he's heard from Gildor about Frodo, and Frodo himself has told him a great deal more. Assuming Tom sees Strider and knows who he is, might he be handing over his entertaining but troublesome guests to far better hands?

~~~~~~
"You were exceedingly clever once, but unfortunately none of your friends noticed as they were too busy being attacked by an octopus."
-from How To Tell If You Are In A J.R.R. Tolkien Book, by Austin Gilkeson, in 'The Toast', 2016 https://the-toast.net/...-a-jrr-tolkien-book/


noWizardme
Asgardian


Feb 20, 10:19am

Post #7 of 13 (1007 views)
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Or, alternatively... [In reply to] Can't Post

Or again: is this the point at which Tom's phone gets signal and his newsfeed fills up with:


Quote
Empathy Deficit Persists

Expert Says It’s Going to Be Catastrophic

It’s Worse Than You Think

New Restrictions Being Drafted

Ominous Signs Appearing

Crisis Is Here to Stay...

( https://endlessdoomscroller.com )


...and so on endlessly (unless Tom is in Australia,of course) Wink

yeah, I'd turn back there too...

~~~~~~
"You were exceedingly clever once, but unfortunately none of your friends noticed as they were too busy being attacked by an octopus."
-from How To Tell If You Are In A J.R.R. Tolkien Book, by Austin Gilkeson, in 'The Toast', 2016 https://the-toast.net/...-a-jrr-tolkien-book/


Roverandom
Ant-person


Feb 20, 12:36pm

Post #8 of 13 (1000 views)
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Strangely Familiar [In reply to] Can't Post

As in jumbo shrimp and military intelligence?Wink

That oxymoron of yours is the right way to view it, I think, and that may very well have been the author's plan, all along. If the story is to proceed from the Shire (so familiar to Frodo as to need "an earthquake or an invasion of dragons" to shake things up) to its epic ending, it has to move forward in steps. The challenge of the Old Forest is an opportunity for us to think the hobbits will be able to succeed, only to find that they are already out of their depth; but it also provides a quick and reassuring rescue. Future events will no doubt pose greater and more dangerous challenges, but this is a nice, little shock that unnerves us just enough. The sudden appearance of Bombadil into an unsuspecting world nicely creates a tone of the comfortably familiar becoming strange.

Steady and sensible Merry Brandybuck, who has taken over the leadership role once the companions arrive at the Bucklebury Ferry, brings them through the family gate and takes to the path he remembers, but this is where your familiarity begins to turn on its head. The path isn't quite where he thought it was. As for what the hobbits know about what's inside the forest, we get a hint when he mentions that "there are various queer things living deep in the Forest, and on the far side" and that "something makes paths". That the heir to Buckland has absolutely no idea what those things are is pretty telling, as to how hobbits in general choose to view anything outside the Shire, even if it's just on the other side of a hedge.

For just as there has always been a Richard Webster, so too has there been a Black Scout of the North to greet him at the door on the threshold of the evening and to guard him through his darkest dreams.


noWizardme
Asgardian


Feb 23, 5:52pm

Post #9 of 13 (812 views)
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Master and master [In reply to] Can't Post


In Reply To
Steady and sensible Merry Brandybuck, who has taken over the leadership role once the companions arrive at the Bucklebury Ferry, brings them through the family gate and takes to the path he remembers, but this is where your familiarity begins to turn on its head. The path isn't quite where he thought it was. As for what the hobbits know about what's inside the forest, we get a hint when he mentions that "there are various queer things living deep in the Forest, and on the far side" and that "something makes paths". That the heir to Buckland has absolutely no idea what those things are is pretty telling, as to how hobbits in general choose to view anything outside the Shire, even if it's just on the other side of a hedge.


Yes indeed. Aside from furthering the immediate adventure, I wonder whether we're also quietly setting up for Scouring of the Shire, by which time the hobbits' less-appealing characteristics have got them into trouble. (By which I mean the average hobbit's assumption that hobbits are morally superior to Outsiders, but that the outside world needn't trouble them much. That, I suspect, helps the outside world to interfere once it has found someone of the hobbit elite who is both ambitious and thwarted, and stupid enough not to realise what's going on. By the time we get to The Scouring, hobbit society already has its collaborators and sneaks, giving the lie to any idea that 'it couldn't happen here'. )

I suppose that Merry's presence means that the putative future master of Buckland is encountering Tom the Master, contrasting 'Master' as a rank given by social convention with 'master' more like 'Kung-fu Master' or 'Master Craftsman' - a recognition of abilities.

~~~~~~
"You were exceedingly clever once, but unfortunately none of your friends noticed as they were too busy being attacked by an octopus."
-from How To Tell If You Are In A J.R.R. Tolkien Book, by Austin Gilkeson, in 'The Toast', 2016 https://the-toast.net/...-a-jrr-tolkien-book/


SirDennisC
Asgardian


Feb 24, 3:29pm

Post #10 of 13 (782 views)
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Endless doom [In reply to] Can't Post

A bit of both perhaps? Maybe Tom did see Aragorn lurking, and so realised he could relieve himself of the burden of the Hobbits’ care. After all they had been rather high maintenance since crossing the hedge. Like some country sheriff abandoning the chase at the county line, safe in the assumption that the sheriff in the next county would handle it—yes perhaps it was a jurisdictional thing, that conveniently also allowed him to get back to his regular duty of fawning over Goldberry.

Whatever or whoever Tom is—his sayings of himself remind me of God’s “I Am” statement—the discussion of him at the Council of Elrond (if someone would kindly post that discussion, I would be grateful), that is what the wise had to say of him and the Ring, are telling. They seem to take him down a notch or two.


noWizardme
Asgardian


Feb 24, 6:14pm

Post #11 of 13 (774 views)
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Council of Elrond view of Bombadil [In reply to] Can't Post

I think you must be remembering discussions about this passage, in which the Council of Elrond considers whether to send the Ring back to Tom.


Quote
’It seems that [Bombadil] has a power even over the Ring.'

`No, I should not put it so,' said Gandalf. `Say rather that the Ring has no power over him. He is his own master. But he cannot alter the Ring itself, nor break its power over others. And now he is withdrawn into a little land, within bounds that he has set, though none can see them, waiting perhaps for a change of days, and he will not step beyond them.'

`But within those bounds nothing seems to dismay him,' said Erestor. `Would he not take the Ring and keep it there, for ever harmless?'

`No,' said Gandalf, `not willingly. He might do so, if all the free folk of the world begged him, but he would not understand the need. And if he were given the Ring, he would soon forget it, or 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.'

LOTR Counci of Elrond


And probably a discussion about Bombadil's limits would also involve someone quoting letter 144:


Quote
Tom Bombadill is not an important person - to the narrative.

...I would not, however, have left him in if he did not have some kind of function. I might put it this way. The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object except power, and so on; but both sides want a measure of control, but if you have, as it were taken a ‘vow of poverty’ renounced control, and take your delight in things themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless.It is a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war. But the view of Rivendell seems to be that it is an excellent thing to have represented, but there are in fact things with which it cannot cope; and upon which its existence nonetheless depends. Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left to him in the world of Sauron.

Tolkien Letters #144 (to Naomi Mitchison (who was proof-reading LOTR, and had evidently raised a number of deep questions)


Did you have a particular discussion in mind though? (As you probably know) squire has made an index of the various LOTR readthroughs the Reading Room has done http://users.bestweb.net/...-FirstDiscussion.htm and maybe you can find it there?

~~~~~~
"You were exceedingly clever once, but unfortunately none of your friends noticed as they were too busy being attacked by an octopus."
-from How To Tell If You Are In A J.R.R. Tolkien Book, by Austin Gilkeson, in 'The Toast', 2016 https://the-toast.net/...-a-jrr-tolkien-book/


SirDennisC
Asgardian


Feb 24, 7:42pm

Post #12 of 13 (774 views)
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That’s it! [In reply to] Can't Post

The “discussion” made at the council meeting, was less a discussion and more Gandalf airing his views on Bombadil and safeguarding the ring.

I wasn’t referring to a Reading Room discussion, though I appreciate your thoroughness, and thoughtfulness for posting the text.


Omnigeek
Fantastic Four


Mar 8, 10:47pm

Post #13 of 13 (498 views)
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What's in a name? [In reply to] Can't Post

I always took these exchanges as a bit of miscommunication, some of it intentional. I took Frodo's hesitation in asking about Tom as part of a natural nervousness (particularly with hobbits) in dealing with people and things he didn't know or understand. With one so seemingly powerful, he might naturally have assumed he should have known who Tom was and asking the question might reflect poorly on himself or worse, offend Tom (since the powerful often are depicted as thinking everyone should know who they are).

Tom had introduced himself to the hobbits so Frodo clearly knew his name but he was trying to find out what that name belonged to. Who was Tom Bombadil that he had such power and control within his domain?
Tom's answer focuses initially on his name. In many mythologies, particularly Scandanavian ones that seemed (to me) to be a large part of the inspiration and basis for Tolkien's mythology, a Name is a powerful thing. Knowing one's "true" name told you a lot about the person, perhaps even gave you a level of control over him/her/it. Tom then clarifies with his single distinguishing identifier: he is Eldest. He was there in the Shire before the Elves went westward. Notably, seeing the first raindrop and acorn would suggest to me that he was there at the formation of Middle-earth and is even older than the Elves but he doesn't claim it. The way he describes himself is also in keeping with traditions in other fictional cultures (not the least that of the Ents) who tell you who a person is by reciting a description of what that person has done and unique characteristics.
The dialogues seemed to me to fit perfectly with Norse mythologies I read when I was a youngster -- though I confess I can't remember the book titles anymore.

 
 

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