Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Post Script: Tom as the Flame Imperishable?

(What follows is the Post Script addressing an idea which has attached itself to the Music Theory. This article was originally posted on 12/17/2014) 

Could Tom be the Flame Imperishable? 

     Since publishing my theory I have come across a wide spectrum of responses, most of which have been overwhelmingly positive. One issue I have come across time and again is people wanting to pick up my work and further it by using many of the same arguments I made and some of the same reasoning I have in order to build a theory that Tom is the Flame Imperishable (the Secret Fire). I must admit the intention of my first post was not to be the definitive work on Tom Bombadil. I had hoped to see others pick up my theory and deepen it and to help me work it out, and they have! I have constantly updated and refined my arguments over the past two years as my discussions with other Tolkien fans have sharpened me.

     While the theory of Tom being the Flame Imperishable is intriguing, the more I think about it the more problematic I believe it to be. Because the issue is continually being brought to me, I thought an additional post was necessary to present the case against it in an organized fashion.

     First, let’s start with the strengths of this theory. It answers the three questions I have laid out quite well as they are presented in the text. This is by in large because the Fire Theory is incredibly similar to the Music Theory. In the Fire Theory Tom would be removed from the created order, as well as being intimate with it as he is in the Music Theory. This theory also explains why Tom is not under the power of the Ring while also enabling him to be powerful and Eldest. Despite all the strengths, I do think the problems associated with the idea of Tom either being the Flame Imperishable, or possessing it, are too great for it to be a legitimate answer to the mystery of Tom Bombadil.

     I see no fewer than four arguments which show that Tom cannot be the Flame Imperishable:

     First, there is no textual warrant for this position. The strength of the Music theory is that it is based on how Tom is revealed to us as a man thoroughly consumed with music and song. I will not rehash all of the evidence already covered in my theory, but it is truly daunting how much Tom and music are linked together in the books. Even Tom’s name points back to music. Music/singing is the chief descriptor of Tom. Are there ties to him and fire, a few here and there, but it is in no way at the level of the references to Tom and music. Music is presented as the core of Tom's character while fire is merely mentioned a few times.

      One argument used from the text in favor of Tom being the Flame Imperishable is that he is described by these words,“He is." The idea that “He is” ties in nicely to the Music Theory because the Music and the Flame were the instruments used by Eru to create Ea. Those who argue that the Fire Theory is a better answer to Tom being described as “He is”, often point to this text about the flame and creation:

“Therefore Iluvatar gave to their vision Being, and set it amid the Void, and the Secret Fire was sent to burn at the heart of the World; and it was called Ea.”
     The argument goes that “Ea” means “let it be” and that here “Ea” is at least in part a reference to the Secret Fire. While that may be possible, it is unlikely. “Ea” is consistently used as a reference to Arda, the creation as a whole, not the Flame Imperishable in specific. The reference here is not about the Fire, but it is about the whole of creation. The whole creation “is” because Eru declares it to be. Indeed, the vision which comes into existence is the Music the Ainur had sung. It is the Music, which "is".

     Still, some will persist that it was the Fire which gave life to the world. In a sense this is true, but in a sense it is not true. The Fire, like the Music, was an instrument of Eru in creation. He alone gives life, through the Fire and the Music.

     So what is gained by attaching Tom to the Fire instead of the Music? Nothing. What is lost? A lot. Tom is revealed to us by Tolkien through song with that being the centerpiece of his character. If we make Tom about the Fire, the main strength of the Music Theory (which the Fire Theory depends heavily upon), is lost. If Tom is not the Music, then we lose the core of how we are introduced to him—music.

     Many of the textual arguments given for Fire Theory about Tom being tied to creation are better explained by the Music Theory and in the process we do not lose the core of how Tom is presented to us. This makes the Music Theory a much stronger theory.

     I find it problematic that those who support the Flame Theory use the Music Theory as their foundation all-the-while they take away the very centerpiece and chief strength of the theory they use as justification for their own theory. This is essentially wanting to have your cake and eat it too.

     As far as the answer given to who is Tom, the “He is” Tolkien commented on this statement rejecting that it was a reference to deity, but rather that it was a comment on names. The answer “He is” is meant to point us to Tom’s name, which as I point out in my theory, is a reference to Music, not Fire.

     Indeed, as pointed out in my theory there is much made of Tom’s name, including power coming from it. Also, Frodo asks Tom who he is and Tom replies, “Don't you know my name yet? That's the only answer.” (FoTR, In the House of Tom Bombadil, 182). He name, as I demonstrate in my theory, also points back to music.

     If that were the extent of the issues with the Fire Theory we could perhaps be able to accept the Fire Theory as a legitimate though flawed solution to the mystery of Tom like the nature spirit, valar, or maiar theories, but there are more troubling problems ahead for this theory.

     The second problem for Tom being the Flame Imperishable is that the Flame was hidden from Morgoth and he sought it with all his might, as it is said he had “gone often alone into the void places seeking the Imperishable Flame . . . yet he found not the Fire, for it is with Iluvatar.” This is interesting because we shift from past tense in describing Morgoth’s search to the present tense in the location of the Flame. It IS with Iluvatar. Yes the Flame was “sent” into the world to create it, but it appears that it remains with Eru, presently at the time of the writing of this account (which is after the creation account this being the Elves' account of history). The Flame is with Eru not in Middle Earth as Tom is, hence why Morgoth can't find it (he is looking in the wrong place). The Flame remains with Eru Iluvatar.

     This is further illustrated by Eru’s finding the Dwarves. Aule crafted the dwarves in Middle Earth, but they were essentially robots to the will of Aule (Silmarillion, Of Aule and Yavanna, 37-39). Eru explains the problem to Aule, “Why dost thou attempt a thing which thou knowest is beyond thy power and thy authority?” In the end, Aule repents and Eru spares the dwarves and he gives them souls (fea) which comes through using the Flame Imperishable.  Along with this action comes their free will. This would have required Eru to use the Flame Imperishable, which IS with him. The Flame dwells with Eru not in Middle Earth.  

     Morgoth/Melkor sought the flame so that he could use it to create his own creations. The Flame imparted life and souls and free will. Morgoth never attained that ability so it is said he only corrupted things already made, he never really created anything truly of his own. Still, Morgoth was consumed with searching for this power. Why is this problem for the Fire Theory? Because Tom is not hiding, he is rather well know, and he resides in Middle Earth not with Eru.

    Eru had concealed the Flame (hence why it was the “Secret” Fire) so that none could find it, especially the Enemy. But Tom is not hiding. True, he has self-limited his territory, but his territory used to be much larger than it was at the time of the War of the Ring. It was more than likely at its largest during the reign of Morgoth. Why would his territory shrink after the enemy who was searching for the Flame was defeated? Surely if Tom was the Flame, the defeat of Morgoth would have lead to more freedom, not less.

     One of the main things about the Secret Fire was that it was to remain a secret and to remain hidden, but instead of hiding, Tom is quite well known. He has a name to the Elves, to the Dwarves, to the Men, and to the Hobbits. He is known to all the races, though he remains mysterious. Surely, Morgoth knew of Tom Bombadil, or at least could have known about him. Tom in no way acts as one who is living in secret or protecting a secret treasure from the enemy.

     There remains mysterious thing, how can the Scret Fire be with Eru and yet in the center of the world?

     Our third issue shows how this is possible, the Flame Imperishable is tied uniquely to the character and nature of Eru. While the Music was taught to the Ainur by Eru, and it is the Ainur who sing it, the Flame belongs to Eru alone and it seems to intimately linked to him. Some Tolkienites believe the Flame is a metaphor for the Holy Spirit, if this is true, then it would be one in substance with Eru. Nonetheless, we know that the Flame came from Eru, was with Him, and that it is more than likely the creative force found within Eru himself. This is why Morgoth’s search was hopeless. We know that Tom is not Eru from the very pen of Tolkien. Since the Fire is very possibly part of Eru himself, this precludes Tom being the Fire. 

     In Morgoth’s Ring we read of the Flame, “This [Flame Imperishable] appears to mean the Creative activity of Eru (in some sense distinct from or within Him) by which things could be given real and independent (though derivative and creative) existence.” It is a very real possibility that the Flame is inseparable from Eru because it is within Eru himself, while remaining distinct (this of course plays on the traditional theological belief of the Trinity in Christendom). If so, Tom cannot be the Flame for when Tolkien was asked if Tom was an incarnation of Eru he plainly dismisses such a notion by saying, “There is no ‘embodiment’ of the Creator anywhere in this story or mythology” (Letter #181). The Flame is the creative force of the Creator, there is no embodiment of that in Middle Earth. Tolkien quickly dismissed such a notion for Tom.

     One must also consider, since the Flame is so closely linked to Eru, the Flame, if incarnated, should be a trustworthy outpost to guard the Ring, but we are told Tom is not in the Council of Elrond.

     Gandalf seems to further this connection between Eru and the Flame, when confronted with the Balrog, Gandalf says he is “A servant of the Secret Fire”. Now how can Gandalf, a Maia, be a servant of the Flame? Well this is more than likely a reference to Eru himself demonstrating that to some extent the two are inseparable. Gandalf was sent to do the will of Eru as Manwe dictated it to him. He is a servant of the Secret Fire/Eru.

     But even if Eru and the Flame are separated, Gandalf declares himself the servant of the Secret Fire (the Flame Imperishable). If Tom is that Flame, then Gandalf is a servant to Tom Bombadil. Let's say that again, if Tom is the Flame then Gandalf is his Servant! This is of course an absurd conclusion and has no basis in the text.

     Gandalf speaks of Tom as being more or less equal to him (one is stone doomed to roll [Gandalf] the other is a stone which gathers moss [Tom]). Gandalf even states that he had not thought of Tom as an ally in this fight against Sauron during the Council of Elrond. Yet Gandalf is a servant of the Flame Imperishable and as that servant he is fighting  against Sauron. This is the sole purpose as too why Gandalf was sent. How can Gandalf be a servant to Tom (if he is the Flame) and Tom not be an ally in the mission Gandalf was sent to Middle Earth for? Tom cannot be Gandalf’s boss as Gandalf's boss is an ally in this fight and Tom is not. This makes the idea of Tom being the Flame impossible.

     Fourth and finally, the Flame Imperishable is rightly named. It is imperishable. Why is this a problem for the Fire Theory? Well, Tolkien reveals to us an interesting tidbit about Tom through the mouth of Glorfindel, “In the end, if all else is conquered, Bombadil will fall, Last as he was First; and then Night will come.” Fire Theory supporters will say, “See, when Tom falls it is like light leaving creation, like a flame being extinguished.” While that argument is clever, but the Flame Imperishable cannot be destroyed. It is imperishable, it is eternal. Tom appears to be able to be destroyed. Indeed, Morgoth did not seek to destroy the Fire, rather he wanted to use it to his own ends. Since the Flame is connected to Eru, it is eternal and unable to be conquered. The Music on the other hand, is sung by the Ainur, and it could, theoretically, be conquered as Morgoth attempts to do during the Creation process. It is only because Eru steps in, that Morgoth is thwarted in taking over the Music. In the end, the last thing to fall, would be the Music, as it was the first part of the creation process, and Tom is that Music.

     Tolkien, as noted earlier in my theory, names things very specifically and for a reason. The Flame Imperishable is aptly named. It cannot be extinguished. It cannot be conquered. It cannot fall. And all of this has to do with its intimate connection to Eru. This fourth point alone is enough to put the proverbial final nail in the coffin of the Fire Theory. As I have shown, this theory though ingenious, adds nothing to the Music theory all-the-while it opens itself up to major weaknesses which dooms it to failure.

     It is true that the Flame was used in the creation of everything with a soul or a will, including the Ainur. For that reason, it is without a doubt that the Flame had a part in the creation of Tom Bombadil no matter what he is. But again, that is true of everything in Middle Earth. The question remains, what is Tom Bombadil at his center as a character? The answer is Music.

     For these reasons, I believe we should reject the Fire Theory as being fatally flawed. I thank those who have worked hard on the Fire Theory, but I encourage them to reexamine it and to see that the Music Theory is a better explanation of the mystery that is Tom Bombadil.


  1. What about Dong's theory that Goldberry is a spirit of Time?

    1. I am not aware of that theory. Can you link it here?