Friday, September 19, 2008

Who are you, alone, yourself and nameless?

Tom Bombadil's answer to Frodo's question: Who are you?: "Don't you know my name yet? That's the only answer. Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless?"*

Perhaps only a name can capture the transcendent kernel of identity that makes someone who they are. All their qualities, experiences, emotions, potentialities, captured in a single phrase that bears no necessary relationship to what it represents. Yet, Tom continues, "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..." So then Tom's identity is relative, relative to everything because he preceded everything. His cheerful, inexplicable magic cannot be expressed by any name. But "Tom Bombadil" comes closest - simple, elemental, and (at least in part) nonsensical.

Tom Bombadil is one of the most intriguing characters in the Lord of the Rings, and that's saying a lot. He was left out of the movies, perhaps because his significance could only be understood in the context of a detailed history of Middle Earth and the other rings of power.

Another quotation I enjoy: "The night was railing against the morning of which it was bereaved, and the cold was cursing the warmth for which it hungered."**

Slowly, ever so slowly, the hobbits are preceding on their quest. They've only just arrived at Bree, their journey through the Old Forest and the Barrow-downs having taken about five times as long in my reading as it did in real life.

* Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien (p.148, Ballantine Books 1994)
** p.160

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