Sunday, July 5, 2009

Tom Bombadil

So I'm about halfway through The Fellowship of the Ring now.

Tom Bombadil is one of my favorite characters. This LOTR blog (unfortunately it looks like the author has abandoned it) gets at a lot of the reasons why (there's no search function, but he's got a nice series of three posts on Tom in February 2008). But what he doesn't really nail is the sheer musicality of Tom's speech.

Tom Bombadil speaks in old-fashioned (i.e. Old English-fashioned) stressed verse. He doesn't have quite the alliteration that Beowulf has, but his speech does break down consistently into seven-beat lines, with a caesura between the fourth and fifth beats. Sometimes his speech is presented as poetry - i.e., Tolkien italicizes and indents it, as in the following well-known couplet (p. 122 in the Houghton Mifflin trade paperback):
Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow;
Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow.
Note the rhythm: four strong beats (óld Tóm Bómbadíl), a pause, then three more beats (ís a mérry féllow). This couplet rhymes, reinforcing the notion that it should be recognized as poetry, or song. But all of Bombadil's speech does this, even when it doesn't rhyme, even when it's presented as nothing more than conversation. Let's take a random passage (p. 126):
"Sun won't show her face much today, I'm thinking. I have been walking wide, leaping on the hilltops, since the grey dawn began, nosing wind and weather, wet grass underfoot, wet sky above me. I wakened Goldberry singing under window; but nought wakes hobbit-folk in the early morning."
Let's reformat it as poetry, with the beats italicized and a double vertical line to indicate the caesura:
Sún wón't shów her fáce || múch todáy, I'm thínking.
Í háve been wálking wíde, || léaping ón the hílltops,
sínce the gréy dáwn begán, || nósing wínd and wéather,
wét gráss únderfóot, || wét sk´y abóve me.
Í wákened Góldbérry || sínging únder wíndow;
but nóught wákes hóbbit-fólk || ín the éarly mórning.
Beautiful, no? Almost hypnotic. And significant: given Bombadil's very ancient nature (well detailed in the blog posts I link to above), it's appropriate that his speech is given this old-fashioned poetic form.

I must note that I'm not the only one to comment on the rhythms of Tom Bombadil's speech. But I'm proud to say I discovered it independently.

Since Tom's one of my favorite characters, it may surprise you, O Reader, to learn that I'm not particularly bummed that Peter Jackson left him out of the movies - which I love every minute of, by the way. But I'm not. As excellent and admirable a job as Jackson did, I'm not sad to have one character left wholly to my imagination, and Tom's the best one for it. It fits with what Tolkien himself said about Bombadil's mysterious and unexplained nature.

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