In Search of Bombadil, by Keith Badger

Tracking J.R.R. Tolkien’s Keeper of the Forest

The only rational way to educate is by example.

Albert Einstein

Yes, that would be Mr. Tom Bombadil, whom we have come to know through J.R.R. Tolkien’s colorful character in The Lord of the Rings (LOTR). That is whom I wished to search for; to track down and bring into the light of day a wee bit more, or his meaning and value, to be most precise. I took up the search because I believe we are in desperate need of his example and wisdom today. So to that end, my wife and I took to the footpaths of the Cotswolds, U.K., this past October, walking the Cotswolds Way, to see if we could pick up his trail. 

 Many today are familiar with Tolkien’s epic story via the Hollywood production of Peter Jackson. Still, for those who have yet to treat themselves to the fuller revelations contained within the printed version, I must say only that Bombadil appears as a seemingly minor character early on in the trilogy, in the chapter titled The Old Forest, when Frodo and company first set out with the Ring on their journey to undo its influence. I write “seemingly” because Tolkien himself preferred to leave Bombadil a mystery, saying “as a story, I think it is good that there should be a lot of things unexplained…in a mythical age there must always be some enigmas, as there always are.”

Tom Bombadil was the name of one of Tolkien’s young son’s Dutch dolls, which Tolkien often used as a frequent hero of the bedtime stories told to his children. Tolkien published the poem Adventures of Tom Bombadil in the Oxford Magazine in 1934 and used his character again later in 1962 when he released an update of those adventures. On the heels of the stunning success of The Hobbit, when pressed by his publisher Stanley Unwin for more stories concerning hobbits in 1937, Tolkien considered a new hero along similar hobbit lines in the character of Tom Bombadil, who for him represented “the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside.” Eventually, Tolkien settled in upon LOTR as a sequel to The Hobbit, where Bombadil nonetheless becomes incorporated as a critical mythological figure, set into a mythic age.

 Many have pondered Bombadil’s meaning and purpose within the LOTR legendarium. Hailing not from any race (neither hobbit, dwarf, elf, nor human), Bombadil’s place, many have speculated, is within the hierarchy of the gods, and some see him as being of the Maia (third highest spiritual/angelic being after Eru or God and the Valar). This places him at a very high level of symbolic meaning from that mythic order and requires a high level of sustained attention to understand what he truly represents. Consider that Bombadil is the sole person whom the Ring has no power over; being able to play with it, even putting the Ring upon his finger without effect. He does not disappear. He remains faithfully present to his aim in being the “Keeper of the Forest,” benevolently attending to meadow, watersides, buttercups, badger folk, and bees. Deemed by the elves as “oldest and fatherless,” and in the First Age known to the Eldar who considered him a benevolent spirit of the forest and a veritable incarnation of the ancient life-force present there. Bombadil is master unto himself, and under no law but his own. 

 Given that myth speaks to our inner world, the characters we find in these tales are the possible expressions of the many nuanced faces or personas we take on in our day-to-day lives. At the same time, the “places” where these stories unfold are but reflections of the inner states we occupy. How these dramas unfold within these mythic landscapes, transcribed and defined by various cultures so meticulously throughout the ages, speaks to the multitude of possibilities to be played out within us if we but have the intent, and attention, to follow them. If this mythic character called Bombadil resonates with and represents the spirit of the countryside for us in any way (as it did for Tolkien), then the presence of this ancient life force demands profound attention during our current era of environmental devastation, what some refer to as the “Anthropocene Epoch.” If Tolkien’s fear of this “spirit” and “life force” vanishing was so profound in his day, it must surely be a more significant and looming darkness that threatens to engulf us today. What within our inner psychological world, relative to our relationship to the land, is under threat of vanishing today? What values and vital life connections hidden within us are in danger of vanishing, that keep us connected to this deep-rooted wisdom of the land? Some attentive, highly attuned “Bombadil” part of our working minds perhaps, toward which we too may aspire and be considered “master of”? Bombadil may be the reminding factor that awakens us in any given moment of experience where we retain immunity to the sin of inadvertence, and the ever-looming darkness of inattention where our will is bent toward the “Ring” of false power, thus leading to the devastation that unconscious levels of thinking, being, and action wreak onto the world of Nature. Bombadil represents a world of values that may very well be our salvation, if we pay attention.

A page from Tolkien’sThe Fellowship of the Ring, with a replica of the One Ring. Photograph by Zanastardust

So these were some of my ruminations as my wife and I paced off the miles during these glorious autumnal days in the Cotswolds. There was undoubtedly something tantalizingly and attractively wild about Bombadil as well that resonated both etymologically and mythically around the concepts of “wildness,” and “will.” Wild, wildness, and will are all derived from the Old High German wildi, pre-Teutonic ghweltijos, and Old Norse willr, and have implications toward a meaning of the land proceeding according to its laws and principles, and free to its own devising and execution. Wildland is thus self-willed land—precisely the “spirit of the Forest” that Bombadil is so clearly the keeper of and must embody within himself to be personally, and attentively, attendant to the forest’s need. Such mythic imagery resonates with the new scientific understanding of forest dynamics, which point to an “intelligence” within the natural order that dictates a dynamic of interactive relationships moving toward equilibrium and wholeness. Just as impressive yet much more alarming is that scientific research likewise notes a lack, and diminishment, of any such intelligence within humans. Nature-Deficit Disorder (NDD), a term introduced in 2005 by Richard Louv, although not recognized as a medical condition, is being backed up by research such as that being pioneered by the University of Michigan psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan with their Attention Restoration Theory. Their argument is that time spent in nature has a direct effect on human attention and intelligence. So Mr. Tom Bombadil stands out as a shining example of not only a good fellow, but also worth a good follow! The trail was just getting better and better.

 Having read much of the precious treasure shared by author Robert Macfarlane (Mountains of the Mind, The Wild Places, The Old Ways, and Landmarks) before embarking upon this most recent journey to magical Britain, I couldn’t help but ponder some of this richness concerning Bombadil, and the juxtaposition of his character with what Macfarlane speaks to concerning human perception and the land, and how the land ultimately informs and shapes attention and intelligence. For Macfarlane, the loss of place names (toponyms) diminishes the land’s literacy, or its capacity to inform us, and places a language deficit upon us that is consonant with Louv’s attention deficit disorder. Macfarlane cites “place naming” as an essential means of “wayfinding” and creating travel stories. These stories become navigational aids that lend us what is known in psychology as affordance, the quality of the environment and objects within it that informs our actions. Myth holds the same navigational aid for wayfinding within our inner world, and when resonant with the natural world via place naming (inclusive of all life contained therein) ensures levels of harmony that guide us toward a land ethic long overdue. This is the loss of meaning that author and historical ecologist Oliver Rackham addresses in regarding the four ways in which landscape is being lost. He lists loss of beauty, loss of freedom, and loss of diversity as the first three, but the fourth, the loss of meaning, may be the most insidious. It is a loss blinding us to the far-reaching consequences for life in general and human beings specifically, for deficits in attention tend ultimately to a forgetting of “self,” the “place” we call home, and thus initiating routines of inertia where day-to-day activity becomes meaningless and thoughtless: the loss of presence.

 What other thoughts, secrets, and stories did we find within the Cotswolds that yielded an increased understanding of this more profound connection to the land and ourselves?

First off, from Macfarlane’s most eloquent musings, I found myself resonating to a reference he made in Landmarks about Scottish author Nan Shepard’s conviction that the human body is a fabulous sensorium, quoting this most touching, hard-earned, deep-rooted wisdom from her classic The Living Mountain, and rivaling the wisdom of Bombadil himself:

“In the mountains, a life of the senses is lived so purely that the body may be said to think.”

After forty years of long-distance walking and countless hours in the wilds of nature, this is a truth that I too have experienced and understand deeply: our bodies think! As Shepard so eloquently states in her classic on the Cairngorm Mountains, “walking is inextricable from learning.” Macfarlane follows Shepard with his deep-rooted conviction born out of his own experience by stating:

We have come to forget that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world—its spaces, textures, sounds, smells and habits—as well as by genetic traits we inherit and ideologies we absorb. We are literally “losing touch,” becoming disembodied, more than in any historical period before ours.

 This is the exact fear that Tolkien presciently sensed a hundred years ago and mythically represented within his character Tom Bombadil. When we fail to connect to and develop a sensory awareness of the land, we become disembodied to not only the land but to our very own selves as well. We thus disappear and never learn, for we have no grounding experiences, and more tragically, we fall into a grand forgetting of our role within nature because we don’t remember this story we call life and living.

Two walkers, England. Photograph by Rebecca Georgia

This sentiment, we discovered, was also played out in time past throughout the Cotswolds via the story of the Arts & Craft Movement, whose advocates and practitioners also felt that humans were out of tune with their surroundings. They held that early twentieth-century industrialization was not only destroying human creativity but that the division of labor ushered in with the factory systems took away human responsibility as well. Best celebrated and made known to the world by designer, poet, and novelist William Morris, who rejected the soulless industrial age (and its forced industrial education), believing that people had the right to work at a noble craft and to create objects of beauty as well as of utilitarian value. The virtues of careful craftsmanship, and fitness of materials, were leading virtues of the Arts & Crafts Movement that were felt to connect humans to their rural surroundings, and a sense of harmony resulting in having a cultivated sense of place.

 Acknowledging that the work of most adults is too often hidden from children, and that the results of useful work (craft) as a learning tool were becoming ignored mainly by industrial education systems, Charles Robert Ashbee, founder of the Guild Of Handicrafts in 1888, discovered his “Camelot” in Chipping Camden, and in 1904 opened the Camden School of Arts & Crafts, where classes were free. The focus was upon the 3 H’s (Hand, Heart, Head), and was in direct opposition to the 3 R’s (wRiting, Reading, and aRithmetic) of the industrial factory system of compulsory (forced) schooling. Ashbee believed that unless such a forced approach was supported by a request or invitation by the learner, all compulsory teaching
was violent. It also deceived both learner and teacher into thinking that force (compulsory learning) is an acceptable form of communication, one in which regimentation and dulling of the mind fails to be seen as criminal, thus undermining the very basis of a wish to learn. Believing that democracy thrives on creativity, while armies, prisons, and schools thrive on conformity, Ashbee echoed what Thomas Carlyle had claimed as early as 1829: that city life destroys man’s spirit and disperses his energies.

 Sadly, soon after this rather remarkable period of human connectivity to nature, which we still palpably felt as we moved through the countryside, the motorcar entered rural England, and with it, the arrival of modernism during the 1930s. With mass production (factory system) of goods, there was a diminishment of craft, as well as of the human bond to a landscape that forged the heartstrings of a very different life. Tolkien’s greatest fear, that of the loss of spirit and life force within not only the landscape but within us as well, was real to him then, and very real to us now in these darkening days of the Anthropocene Epoch. As we continued our walking journey, the part of the story embodied within the character of Tom Bombadil touched us deeply.

Bombadil is a mythic character of high meaning and value that we would do well to accompany more often these days, as his track is a delightful one to follow. This spirit or life force he represents is the real treasure trove contained within the magic and mystery of the landscape; it is thus a very real experience and well worth our time pondering and to rightly consider—which carries or beckons the meaning “to study or see with the stars.”

Unless we take steps to actively build new adventure into our adolescent and subsequent responsible years, drugs, crime, and vicarious adventure through TV fill the resulting vacuum. What we then read about in the newspapers concerning our neighbor’s “lack” must be, and will be, more about our own impoverishment due to forgetting ourselves as well as our story. High levels of human attention are needed while wayfinding and navigating this inner and outer world of nature, which includes ourselves—whereby our heart’s desire, and by our mind’s direction, we may wish and act with a single purpose. The disenchantment so prevalent in our modern world was what we were ultimately looking to face when following the track of Bombadil into the Cotswolds countryside. We reminded ourselves that walking is truly inextricable from learning and that our minds are shaped not only by the bodily experience of being in the world, and connected to the magic and mysteries of the land, but by the very stories that we take in for wayfinding our collective times back to normalcy, beauty, value, and human responsibility. 

Pioneers are needed today more than at any time in the past. Not for exploring the ocean depths, the tops of mountains, or the vast unknowns of outer space, but for finding new ways to build/craft, and be present to, a better world. Tom Bombadil represents a wealth of wisdom that we may thus find, if we but place our foot outside the door, taking the first step upon a journey toward a new adventure.

 “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

Bilbo Baggins

This piece is excerpted from the Fall 2020 issue of Parabola, BALANCE. You can find the full issue in our online store. Please consider a print or digital subscription to Parabola or support our work by making a tax-deductible donation here.

By Keith Badger

Keith Badger is a tracker, naturalist, educator, and writer.