The Non-Attachment of Tom Bombadil
“I might put it this way. The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power, and so on; but both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of control. But if you have, as it were, taken ‘a vow of poverty’, renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the questions of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless . . .”
- J.R.R. Tolkien
We ought to think of Tolkien’s works as the original in the genre, casting good versus a much more powerful evil, but always one with a fatal weakness, one exploitable by the virtuous and the persistent. In our own culture we have witnessed the acceleration towards my team v. your team, with the other team cast in stark terms of good & evil. Most notably we see this in politics. Consequently, in Tolkien’s work the character of Tom Bombadil is most curious. In a world where power is what is being fought over and it’s influences are far reaching and pernicious, Bombadil’s immunity to the temptations of power are unique. What does he represent? Tolkien’s words above give us a clue and we can perhaps further understand this character not from attempting to assign him a role from within Tolkien’s world, but to consider him as one of the rarest of beings: one for whom worldly temptations hold no charms.
In the world we live in, the Baudrillard-ian hyperreality, the crash of products available to us is overwhelming, yet consumerism is the basis for modern society. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course just like power has to be put somewhere and so power is necessary and useful. The problem, as any Aristotelian would tell us, is too much. The pursuit of material possessions, seeking unassailable power, are the problem, not the mere existence of these things. In the Lord of the Rings the problem with Sauron (and his boss before him, Morgoth) was not merely that they were very powerful beings but that they sought more and more power simple for the sake of dominating others – power for the sake of power. Our ethical imperative, courtesy of Kant’s articulations, to never use people for one’s own means but rather to always treat others as an end in themselves is what is violated in the aggressive abuse of power.
Likewise the accumulation of material goods for the sake of having them, for showing off to others, for keeping up with the Jones’ speaks to a moral bankruptcy but this one oriented towards oneself: in these instances one is disparaging the self by creating a separateness from others and devaluing oneself by assigning worth to externalities. It’s why we often find, at least when we are present in the moment, that experiences and interactions are far more fulfilling that owning things. Owning things often results in those things owning you, insofar as one’s time and money. It’s like owning a cat . . . 🙂 and thus we find that the control we seek is lost among a cacophony of possessions.
Power and possessions are not new, they have been sought after by humans for as long as there have been humans. Much rarer are those who follow the sentiment expressed by Gandhi who stated the less he owned the freer he felt. Gandhi was at home in the world, adored by and inspired millions yet died owning only about ten things. Material possessions held no interest for him. And though he was exceptionally influential the pursuit of power was not his goal either. One has the clear sense that if the world were as Gandhi wished it to be, he would very happily live his simple life in anonymity. Such a disposition is found in the character of Tom Bombadil as well though we might find in him more Taoist influences than Hindu. Bombadil had a fine home and saw the natural world around him as something both be tended too and left alone. He did not seek to control it, change it or make claims of ownership upon it. He understood it because of his disposition, just as he understood himself because his mind was not cluttered with lust for power, nor his time and effort subordinated to tended to ownership of a plethora of material goods.
Life, like the nature of reality, is dynamic and thus all things change: possessions break, wear out, change hands, power flows from one person or group to another, and what we have at the end, all we can have, is a life well lived.