Monday, 25 February 2013

He who Just Is (Tom Bombadil)

Adapted from Samsaran's musings by okei:

Tolkien in writing 'The Lord of the Rings' saga said that he was attempting to give Western Europe its own epic mythology and he succeeded quite well. Tolkien, the devout Catholic, called upon pagan mythology and added a touch of Christian mysticism. Take the One Ring: "One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them". Created by Sauron, himself a “fallen angel”-character, it represents evil. Note how this evil shapes itself to the character of the bearer, that is to the degree of the bearer's pride, and to their ego. Ego makes us vulnerable to the siren call of power, of control, of dominion.

J. R. R. Tolkien explained in a letter to Milton Waldman in 1951, “The chief power of all the rings was the prevention or slowing of decay (change viewed as negative); an Elvish motive. But they also enhanced the natural powers of the possessor, approaching “magic” and leading to a lust for domination. And they had other powers, such as invisibility and making the invisible world visible. The Three Rings of the Elves were beautiful and powerful, directed to preserving beauty and did not confer invisibility. But in secret Sauron made the One Ring, the Ruling Ring that contained all the others’ powers and controlled them, making their owners’ thoughts known, governing what they did, and eventually enslaving them. But the Elves became aware of his plan and hid the Three Rings, and tried to destroy the others.”

In the hands of the man Isildur, it plays to his human desire for power and selfish nature. In the hands of Gollum, a small soul, it merely makes him a petty thief and murderer. Gandalf and Galadriel, being great souls, see that in taking the ring they would be capable of terrible deeds and so passed the test and did not take it. The ring was relatively safe in the hands of Bilbo and Frodo because humility was the greatest virtue of the hobbits so they had little ego for it to play upon.

Only Tom Bombadil was entirely unaffected by the ring’s power. The part he played to the story was almost incidental, rescuing the hobbits in their journey through the Wild Wood from the menacing willows. He is a magical character, singing to the trees and able to soothe the turbulent forces of nature with the melody of his voice, jovial and powerful like a forest-shaman. He is many people's favourite character, and it was disappointing to see him left out of Peter Jackson's epic film adaptation. But perhaps we should not be surprised, for like the nature-god Pan who was missing from the otherwise excellent 1983 film adaptation of 'The Wind in the Willows', his presence is more of mystical significance. Mystery is shrouded in forgetfulness. Tom is He who Just Is. It could be said that he is in Middle Earth, but not of it, an elemental force of nature, an elder God in his own right, simply taking human form as a convenience. In this way, he is the ego-less, the “Buddha” of Middle Earth, more powerful than Gandalf, the great Elven Lords or even Sauron himself. He alone is not part of what the Buddhists would call “samsara”, the world of illusion, so he alone was immune from the evil of the ring. He desires nothing that the ring could give him. Already divine and eternal, he is the epitome of Castaneda's ideal of one who has transcended the "four enemies": fear, clarity, power and old-age. Gandalf knew he could have kept the ring in perfect safety, but he feared it was so insignificant to him that he would lose it.

What Tolkien is getting across here is that all evil is the result of ego. It is the result of our desire to control others. One devoid of ego cannot be deceived by evil. Even Gandalf and Lady Galadriel knew that in their desire to use it for good they would eventually be perverted by it. The ring gave the bearer knowledge but it was a tainted knowledge. Incomplete wisdom is often worse than no wisdom at all.

Yet to be without evil still does not make him perfect. Unlike Lady Galadriel, whose beauty is reflected in her surroundings, Tom Bombadil makes no effort to tame the wild and foreboding spirits that inhabit his domain. That the hobbits are saved from the willows and ultimately succeed to destroy the ring is thanks in larger part to Gandalf who alerted Tom of their quest and supports them in their onward journey. The world is still in need of those who have not yet abandoned ego and who strive to do good.

Despite Tom Bombadil not having the all-pervading influence of someone like Gandalf, he remains my favourite character. I am drawn to him by his good humour, and I leave him reminded of this inspiring and important lesson: that without ego one cannot be subject to the whims of the world and evil can take no hold in our hearts.


☯ Samsaran ॐ (originally here) Adaptation: —okei

Painting: ’Aphrodite’ by the English painter Briton Rivière (1840-1920)

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