Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Case Against: Nature Spirit

(What follows is post 5 of 11 exploring the mystery of Tom Bombadil)

Tom as a Nature Spirit (Forest or Earth)?

     Of the three major theories, I once thought the nature spirit theory was the strongest and most well rounded. Further study has led me to see this theory is not without severe weaknesses. Some would suggest this theory should not even be considered due to the lack of evidence that nature spirits exist in Middle Earth. This objection is of course wrong, as it will be discussed later. Tolkien does speak of other spirits existing in his world.[1] There are two types of nature spirits that are generally suggested by proponents of this theory. The first and weakest, is that Tom is simply a spirit of the forest. The second, is that Tom is a spirit who really is a representation of Middle Earth (Arda). This is sometimes expressed as Tom being the Spirit of Middle Earth or the Embodiment of Arda.

     Proponents of this theory often like to cite Tolkien Letter 19 where Tom is referred to as "the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside" as evidence that Tom is a nature spirit. The problem with this argument is that they take this quote completely out of context. This letter was written before Lord of the Rings was written and before Tom was written into Lord of the Rings. This letter is in reference to Tom's appearance in 1934 in a poem. In that poem, Tom is the spirit of the vanishing English countryside. There is no English countryside for Tom to be related to in LoTR . Tom had to change to enter into the world of Middle Earth. Indeed, the conversation in this letter is about the possibility of Tom being the hero in a possible sequel to The Hobbit. That of course did not happen. Tolkien wrote later that Tom went through many changes to assimilate himself into the world of Lord of the Rings. To assert that this quote is evidence of Tom being a nature spirit in Middle Earth is simply poor logic and does not hold any weight. But let us move to our three questions to weigh the merits of this theory.

      The first question is Tom’s unique power and its limitations. There is some strength here especially when it comes to Tom’s limited power. For those who suggest Tom is a forest spirit they point to his power ending and being limited to the Old Forest which explains well the seeming location boundaries of his power if he is a spirit of the forest. Yet it does not explain how Tom has power in the Barrow-Downs.[2] In the Barrow-Downs, we see his realm does not end with the forest but it extends past them. Indeed, with either nature spirit option there is a major obstacle here. Tolkien describes barrow-wights as demons sent by the Witch King of Angmar which entered into the decomposing bodies of former kings of men. The idea that either a forest spirit, and to a lesser extent the spirit of Middle Earth, would possess power over a spiritual demon is rather tenuous. If one is to adopt Tom as the spirit of Middle Earth then why is his power limited to just one location? Why does his knowledge fail out East? Is Middle Earth not in Mordor as well as in the Shire?

      The problems do not end here. If Tom is a spirit of the forest then why was he in Middle Earth before the first acorn and rain? Tom was literally there before the forests making the forest spirit option seem silly. Tom’s actions within the forest show him to be at odds with the Old Forest. The Old Forest is described as angry and hateful while Tom is the antithesis to this as he is joyful and well wishing. The trees are described as hating those who walk about freely, this includes Tom.[3] Tom even fights against one of the trees. Tom sides with those who roam free (people) instead of the trees something that would be odd for a nature spirit to do. Indeed, Tom does not limit himself just to Middle Earth for he teaches the Hobbits to summon him by words that not only include forests and hills but also more cosmic things, “By fire, sun and moon, hearken now and hear us” (In the House of Tom Bombadil, FOTR, 186). Tom is summoned not only by water, wood, and hill but also by fire, sun, and moon. This reality should not be overlooked, Tom tells us something about himself by how he is to be summoned. He does not see himself as limited to the earth only, but also to the cosmic realities of all creation.

     The Second fact any legitimate theory must wrestle with is Tom's relationship to the Ring. This is often hailed as the main strength of this theory. Proponents of this theory assert that a spirit of nature would be free from the power of the Ring. Despite these assertions there is ample evidence to suggest the contrary. If the Ring holds sway over Sauron, Saruman, and Gandalf surely it would affect a nature spirit? The three Rings of the Elves are the rings of fire, water, and air. In other words, they are rings of natural elements, and they were meant to wield and to control nature. It is Galadriel’s ring which preserved and helped to create the natural beauty of Lothlorien. It was Elrond’s ring which raises the river in protection of the Ring Bearer. It is Gandalf’s ring which battles against the fire spirit in Moria. Celebrimbor was said to have created these three rings to help to heal the natural damage caused by Morgoth. Now, the One Ring is more powerful than these three, and is said to have the all the powers of the other Rings. Therefore, the idea that the One Ring has power over the natural realm, including nature spirits, is a foregone conclusion. Indeed, when the One Ring is destroyed the mountains in Mordor crumble alongside Barad-dur because they were sustained by the power of the Ring and Sauron. The One Ring has control over aspects of nature and it is clear that it effects spiritual beings. Therefore, the Ring would have power over nature spirits.

     Some may protest, “But if Tom is the spirit of Middle Earth he may not be fallen, he may not be inclined to evil, he may be totally pure, and therefore the Ring would not have a hold of him.” This is a legitimate concern, for I believe Tom is pure and unfallen, but Tolkien does not see nature or nature spirits as so:
"To gain dominion over Arda, Morgoth had let most of his being pass into the physical constituents of the Earth—hence all things that were born on Earth and lived on and by it, beasts or plants or incarnate spirits, were liable to be ‘stained’." (Morgoth’s Ring, 394-5)
     Not only does Tolkien reference incarnated spirits born on and connected to the Earth all of these spirits are said to be ‘stained’ by Morgoth, they are stained by evil. What effect does it have on these spirits? Tolkien makes it plain:
"Melkor ‘incarnated’ himself (as Morgoth) permanently. He did this so as to control the hroa [physical material], the ‘flesh’ or physical matter, of Arda. He attempted to identify himself with it…Thus, outside the Blessed Realm, all ‘matter’ was likely to have a ‘Melkor ingredient’, and those who had bodies, nourished by the hroa of Arda, had as it were a tendency, small or great, towards Melkor: they were none of them wholly free of him in their incarnate form, and their bodies had an effect upon their spirits." (Morgoth’s Ring, 399-400)
     It is clear, all of these spirits where thus stained by Morgoth and are therefore perceptible to evil. Morgoth put himself into the earth and stained creation and everything in creation is now inclined towards evil. This corruption happened at the Music level and thus all of creation has an imprint of evil. All of creation has a tendency, great or small, towards evil because of the work Melkor did. Therefore, if Tom was a nature spirit we cannot hold that the Ring would not have any power over him because of some unfallen nature because of what we know Morgoth's corruption of creation via the Music of the Ainur. Also, we cannot hold that Ring would not have power over Tom because we know that the Rings of Power have control over nature. Indeed, Gandalf and Saruman were unfallen spiritual beings yet it is clear that they were capable of falling to the temptation and corruption of the Ring. Morgoth stained everything in Middle Earth so now everything is inclined towards him, towards evil and the Ring not only has control over nature but feeds off of this corruption, tempting its wearer to evil which nature is already inclined to, but Tom is not. The two simply do not fit.

     Tom therefore cannot be a nature spirit. Tom has no inclination to evil for if he did the Ring would have some power over him. If he is the Spirit or Embodiment of Arda then he would indeed have an inclination towards Morgoth, towards evil for all of creation does. It is near impossible to make a case that the Ring would then have no power over him. Especially when we realize the Rings of Power were made to rule the natural elements of the earth in an attempt to heal the harms Morgoth did to the earth. In the end, the Valar theory is correct in trying to answer this question by removing Tom’s origin from Middle Earth entirely because the Ring belongs to Middle Earth, but sadly the Valar theory has many of its own flaws.

     The third area to be addressed is Tom being described as eldest and as being in existence before the Dark Lord entered. This presents issues if Tom is a nature spirit of the forest variety. Besides Tom being there before the forests were created, it should be noted that he was there before Morgoth. The Forests were not. If Tom were the spirit of Middle Earth then it may be wise to say that he was there before Morgoth. Yet how does this fit with Glorfindel saying, “I think that in the end, if all else is conquered, Bombadil will fall, Last as he was First; and then Night will come.”[4] Tom would be the last to fall after all else is conquered, including the earth. Sauron’s goal is to rule/corrupt Middle Earth and if Tom’s existence is tied with Middle Earth why would he cease to be (as Tolkien states) if the west should fail? Again Tom’s age is tied to the darkness entering which started before the earth with the Discord of Melkor. Would Tom truly be fatherless, eldest, first, and last if his is the spirit of Middle Earth? I think not. There is a better explanation to all of these questions. My suggestion is admittedly in the same vein as the nature spirit theory but takes it a step further by removing Tom's origin from the created order and thus freeing him from many of the issue that the other theories have.

Next Section: A Way Forward

[1] This will be explored more later in the paper.

[2] Steuard Jensen, a nature spirit theorist, rejects the forest spirit theory for this very reason, Tom’s location used to be much larger, but he has self contained himself to his current location as described by Gandalf. So the Forest spirit theory is flawed in this area. Jensen sees Tom as a spirit of all of Arda.

[3] “Tom’s words laid bare the hearts of trees and their thoughts, which were often dark and strange, and filled with hatred of things that go free upon the earth…” (FOTR, In the House of Tom Bombadil, 180).

[4] FOTR, Council of Elrond, 348.

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