“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.”
— Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.”
— Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
C. S. Lewis on solemnity and the necessity of a certain pomp. From A Preface to Paradise Lost.
Like solemn it implies the opposite of what is familiar, free and easy, or ordinary. But unlike solemn it does not suggest gloom, oppression, or austerity. The ball in the first act of Romeo and Juliet was a ‘solemnity’. The feast at the beginning of Gawain and the Green Knight is very much a solemnity. A great mass by Mozart or Beethoven is as much a solemnity in its hilarious gloria as in its poignant crucifixus est. Feasts are, in this sense, more solemn than fasts. Easter is solempne, Good Friday is not. The Solempne is the festal which is also the stately and the ceremonial, the proper occasion for a pomp–and the very fact that pompous is now used only in a bad sense measures the degree to which we have lost the old idea of a ‘solemnity’. To recover it you must think of a court ball, or a coronation, or a victory march, as these things appear to people to enjoy them; in an age when every one puts on his oldest clothes to be happy in, you must re-awake the simpler state of mind in which people put on gold and scarlet to be happy in. Above all, you must be rid of the hideous idea, fruit of a widespread inferiority complex, that pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connextion with vanity or self-conceit. A celebrant approaching the altar, a princess led out by a king to dance a minuet, a general officer on a ceremonial parade, a major-domo preceding the boar’s head at a Christmas feast–all these wear unusual clothes and move with calculated dignity. This does not mean that they are vain, but that they are obedient; they are obeying the hoc age which presides over every solemnity. The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for every one else the proper pleasure of ritual… You are to expect pomp. You are to ‘assist’, as the French say, at a great festal action.
A beautiful trilogy about a family in Hampshire in the 30s-70s, with very beautiful autumn sequences, and the first book starting in autumn. The second, The Herb of Grace (in the US called Pilgrim’s Inn), is my personal favourite out of all her books, and can be read as a stand-alone.
Set in Torminster, which is very much Wells, in the early 20th century, the place of Goudge’s own childhood, this book portrays all the seasons beautifully, but with the beautiful book shop and the microcosm of the Cathedral Close, its focus on literature and the artistic temperament, and the warmth of the (found) family, it’s very much an autumn read. (You might also like to revisit Torminster in Henrietta’s House and Sister of the Angels, both sequels being children’s books and focusing on the delightful Henrietta!)
Set in an unnamed city in the fens that very much resembles Ely, in the 1870s, with its grand Cathedral, quaint merchant streets and dirty slums, this is a story of hope, kindness, and a very unlikely friendship. The misty atmosphere of autumn and winter is nearly tangible and very, very beautiful.
After Wells and Ely, the Goudge family moved to Oxford, another city with another Cathedral. In many ways less happy there, she could still not help musing about the way it must have been a long time ago. Set during the reign of Elizabeth I. this tale of love of family and learning beautifully captures the spirit of this old and well-beloved city.
Oxfordshire in the 17th century, a wise woman torn between her loyalty to the different sides of her family and her dearest friends, and an interesting set of different characters on various sides of the English Civil War. This is a very atmospheric book, full of mists and herbs and smells.
I wasn’t sure whether to include this book, as it is very much a spring book, her most famous work, and in some ways untypical for her style. But it is also in many ways a Gothic romance, in some ways its opposite, and so cosy, and so rich in descriptions of places and foods and comforts, with a dark forest and lovely manor house, that it just suits autumn so well.
As you probably know, I love James Herriot’s books and the BBC series All Creatures Great and Small. But reading posts online, from random comments on social media to actual newspaper articles, made me realise that not everything said about the books and especially the series is exactly correct, or at least not complete. And then of course, there’s also the usual questions askwed and answered (not always correctly) over and over again. So this post will address some of these things, simply because I care about it all.
The most common untruth spread about the series is that Christopher Timothy, who played James Herriot in the BBC series, left his first wife for an affair with Carol Drinkwater, who played Helen in the first three seasons, and that she was fired from the show because of it.
It was actually quite different. First of all: Carol was never fired! The show was cancelled after three seasons, as the books had finished at that time, and Carol returned for two following feature-lenght specials. It was only when, due to the books’ and the show’s popularity, Alf Wight (the real Herriot) decided to write new stories that the show was revived, and Carol, unhappy with a role that she liked but thought to limited, chose not to return.
As for the affair, that was different as well. There was a lot of bad press, especially for Carol, but Chris Timothy never left his wife for her. In fact, they didn’t even like each other at first: Carol had a mild crush on Robert Hardy, which she never pursued because he was married at the time, and didn’t get along with Christopher Timothy at all. Then, near the end of the first run of the show, they had to wait together in a car for a scene to begin filming, and they started to talk. His married had just ended at that time and he was very distraught, though he was not yet formally divorced, and she had just gone through a painful break up herself. They bonded over that, and got together. Chris was still married at that time, but seperated, and she was never the reason for his divorce. The press painted a different picture, one that is still spread nearly fourty years later, but it’s not true at all.
Were all actors. People like to claim otherwise, but it is not true. Many people like to say that the farmers look too authentic to be played by actors, but that isn’t true. The actors were just very good at playing farmers, and not so famous as to be instantly recognised. Many were regional actors, from little theatres and comedy troupes, others were rather familiar, but not too well-known faces from television shows. They were not real farmers, they just did their work and did it well.
The big question of the arms inside the cows. Did the actors really do the dirty work? Long story short: Yes.
But they didn’t do things on their own! No, no. The BBC hired to veterinarians, one for pets and studio scenes, one for farm animals and outdoor filming. The real vets trained the actors, helped them, and sometimes traded places with them for close ups on their hands. They even found sick animals to be treated for the filming, either by the actors under their guidance, or by themselves, depending on how difficult or serious the respective procedure and ailment were.
Some things, such as stitching wounds and helping with the calfing and lambing (the latter being rather normal for “country bumpkin” Robert Hardy, who was used to a lot of the work he had to do on screen) were done by the actors, including the (in)famous arms in the cows’ backsides. But never anything that could harm the animal! In fact, many animals were saved by the show, as the BBC paid for all treatments on set, which caused the real evts to take the pets of poor clients to the tv sets, even if they were never used for filming, and made the BBC pay the bills.
Fun fact, though: There’s a scene in which Peter Davison literally screams with his arm in a cow’s backside. That’s because his arm was tightly squeezed inside and he was in real pain. But don’t worry, he got out alright, and the cow was okay too.
The illnesses and treatments were very accurate. People also like to claim otherwise, but that isn’t true. Many things, of course, are outdated now (and, ironically, many things that were seen outdated back then have become rather common again!) but the medical treatments are absolutely accurate for their time, and so is the portrayal of the scientific progress from the 30s to the 50s.
There are, of course, very individual cases, and unconventional treatments, but that happens if you base things on real life and memory, rather than textbooks. Those special cases are either things that really happened and worked a bit different than usual, or things that are very similar to real happenings (like real cases “blended” to make one fictional one, etc.) and not, in fact, pure invention. The books are, after all, written by a real vet, based on his own memory, and the show adopted all these cases very accurately.
Alf Wight still chose to make things up for his stories. Many details are changed from real life, such as changing Helen’s background very much from Joan’s and putting aquaintances from different decades into one setting. He also kept things from his perspective—things he didn’t know about his friends, were things he didn’t know, at least at that time, and that is how things stay.
Now the writers and actors of the show dug a bit deeper, and talked to Joan (Helen), the Sinclairs (the Farnons) and other people who play necessary parts. They added details that could give more depths to the stories, but also respected specific wishes for privacy, especially coming from Donald Sinclair.
Which brings me to:
Siegfried marries Caroline in the first Christmas special, but she is only mentioned (and sometimes briefly seen) in later episodes. Many people wonder if that means that their marriage ended or wasn’t good, but it’s very much different.
Caroline is based on Donald Sinclair’s real wife Audrey, whom he loved incredibly much. They had two children, which are also sometimes mentioned but never shown in the series. That is because Donald valued his privacy very much and wanted to protect his family from public attention.
Alf Wight first met Donald Sinclair as a young “bachelor” (actually widower, but he also kept that to himself) with many flings with pretty young women, and that’s how Siegfried was portrayed at first. But it couldn’t be kept like that always—it would have been silly for a middle-aged Robert Hardy to always invent visits to his mother to cover up various dates, and a character based on Donald, whose world revolved around his wife, could only be a bachelor in the very first few years of his acquaintance with Herriot. Donald Sinclair was unhappy with being shown dating various women, which he did before he married Audrey, even after three seasons, and he also didn’t want Audrey to be used for the show.
So it was decided that Siegfried were to have a wife, and children, and be very happily married in the later (initially unplanned) seasons, and that there were not to appear in television storylines. They lived off-screen, in their own big mansion, while Siegfried was working in Skeldale House. A woman-who-could-be-Caroline was sometimes seen when a partner was needed, and that’s it.
Donald’s first wife was never mentioned, also out of respect to his privacy, but Siegfried was portrayed to have a severe fear of loss and separation, and to cling very strongly to all his loved ones, as well as to have strong depressive and maniac episodes, which is said to be accurate to Donald Sinclair’s personality. This portrayal was, however, done very subtly.
Alf Wight said to Christopher Timothy that he was the Herriot that he wrote about. They got along very well, and Chris Timothy was considered the perfect actor for the part by him.
Donald Sinclair was, true to Siegfried’s character, always unhappy with the way he was portrayed, and the better and more accurate the portrayal got, the more dissatisfied got he. Robert Hardy was, according to people who knew Donald, absolutely perfect at playing him, and Donald himself was of a very different opinion. But he liked Robert very much, they became very close friends, and Robert actually worked as assistant in his surgery and sometimes their families lived together for filming and holiday periods. Both Alf Wight and Robert Hardy insisted that they “toned him down” while writing/playing him, even people who didn’t know him thought him “too much”.
Brian Sinclair was very happy about the way he was portrayed, and about the books and the show in general, and very relaxed about it all. He also really liked Peter Davison.
Joan was very critical of Carol Drinkwater at first, and thought she made her look like a tart, but warmed up to her later and talked well of her performance in retrospect.
The second girl to play Rosie Herriot, Alison Lewis, was friends with Rosie’s real-life daughter Emma. Rosie didn’t expect her to play the part, and was very surprised to see herself played by her daughter’s friend on TV!
Marjorie Warner, the inspiration for Mrs Pumphrey, was one of the first people to recognise herself on the page while reading the books, and was very happy about the way she was portrayed. It is, as far as I am informed, unknown whether she liked the tv series, but she was still alive when the first seasons were made.
It was Robert Hardy who made much of it all possible. His fame allowed the BBC to cast the relatively unknown Christopher Timothy in the lead role, which they first wanted to cast a famous actor for, and it was him who insisted on making Tristan a larger character, because he greatly enjoyed Peter Davison and set his mind on making the young man a star. He also threatened to leave the show if it were filmed anywhere but Yorkshire, and he also forced the BBC to treat the actors and animals better, and insisted on the necessary safety around the animals. After Chris Timothy’s accident, he insisted that he shouldn’t be re-cast and took up some of the work he couldn’t to, and made Peter and Carol do the same. That aside, he edited, revised and changed some of the scripts, and wrote some of his own scenes. When some younger writers messed up Siegfried in the later episodes, he largely took over himself.
Robert Hardy and Peter Davison actually grew extremely fond of each other. Robert insisted that Peter looked exactly like one of his brothers at that age, and he loved the way Peter tried to impersonate his mannerisms to make them feel more like a family.
Christie the whippet was Robert Hardy’s real dog, the other dogs belonged to producers and other crew members. Some sources claim that all dogs were his, but that isn’t true. SIegfried’s horses were usually actor-horses but he sometimes rode his own on screen.
Mary Hignett was the balancing force between the actors. Everyone loved and admired her, and whenever there was a bad mood between the others, she quickly got them all calm again, just as Mrs Hall used to do. Her sudden death shortly after the (original) end of the show was a great shock to all of them, and Mrs Hall died with her. She was greatly loved by everyone.
Margaretta Scott was also very respected and beloved. She always insisted on carrying the various dogs who played Tricki-Woo on set, and she would only have her make up done by the chief make up artist.
Robert Hardy’s was usually called Tim, as his real first name was Timothy, which he was also occassionally called, and which caused some confusion on the set.
Christopher Timothy had a car crash at the end of the filming of the first season, in which he broke his legs, which is the reason he walked on a stick and had a very stiff walk for some time.
Robert Hardy’s daughter Emma had a very serious riding accident before the filming of the first season, in which she was badly injured, and which made her father rather sensitive to the horse-related safety on set, and insist that everything must be done right and no risks taken. She fully recovered, and actually played the small part of Rosemary Brocklehurst in the series, thirteen years later.
Lynda Bellingham was pregnant during the filming of season five, which is the reason for the slipped disc storyline. Andrea Gibb, who played Deirdre, was also pregnant at that time, but her part was smaller and was simply away for some episodes, and wore some covering clothes.
Sally Eliot, née Adair of Damerosehay
Like all only children, she was in some ways too old for her age, and in other ways too young; she still fell over material things as though she were fifteen, but immaterial things, such as friendships, the griefs of little children, the desires of men and the jealousies of women, she handled with an instinctive sensitiveness that a woman fo thirty-five could not have bettered.
Georgette Heyer’s romances are particularly good, because:
Of course, it is not quite spring yet, but the smell in the air and the hustle and bustle of the birds and bees, the blooming snowdrops and crocuses, assure us that the season of freshness and renewal is near. Spring is a lovely time for strolling about the countryside and working in the garden, but it’s also a sweet and peaceful time to read a good book. 💐
🌸 The Rosemary Tree by Elizabeth Goudge is a book of renewal and second chances, of crisp clean air, and the cold sweet spring.
🌸 Linnets & Valerians, also by Elizabeth Goudge, is as sweet as honey and strawberry jam, as colourful as a bluebell wood in morning sunshine.
🌸 All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot evokes the wonderful, sweet, yet harsh reality of the beginning of the year, of the freshness of the lambs, and the icy winds.
🌸 The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame is a book of many seasons, but especially of springtime. Just messing about in boats, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.
🌸 Thrush Green by Miss Read is just one lovely day—and May Day, indeed!—in a sweet English village, with blossoming trees and cottages with thatched roofs.
🌸 Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne (or was it ther-Pooh?) is ever-delightful. Who would not want to spend a lovely spring day in the Hundred Acre Wood?
🌸 April Lady by Georgette Heyer does not only have a springlike name, it’s sweet and funny and romantic, and a quick and gentle read.
🌸 The Mystery of the Clockword Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine is a sweet and charming mystery for young girls as much as everyone else, set in Edwardian London.
🌸 The Nature of Spring by Jim Crumley is not a novel, but a beautiful and real account of the ways and workings of nature in the beginning of the year.
🌸 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis is a book of Christmas and winter, but even more so of Easter and spring. And of course, it is simply wonderful.
I am partial to historical romance novels, and particularly fond of the traditional Regency romance. They are not a so-called “guilty pleasure” for me, as I hold them in high esteem, and delight in them openly. But I do admit that I am rather picky about the books of this genre I read—or of any genre, for I am a picky reader—and always pleased to find a particularly good specimen. Some of those are famous, classics of the genre, others are hardly known.
One of those hidden gems is The Weaver Takes a Wife by Sheri Cobb South.
I found it browsing a goodreads list, and added it spontaneously to the little collection of used paperbacks I bought with a valentine’s gift code from my favourite online book store. It arrived soon afterwards, and I immediately, actually rather randomly, picked it up and read it. And I loved every line on every page!
I expected it to be a pleasant read, nice and just generally good fun. It turned out to be brilliant. The little black volume itself looks good enough, though unassuming, if not a bit off, perhaps, as the type-setting is pretty but at times looks unfinished. As I found out, it was independently published in 1999, when indie and self-publishing was not quite as common as it is now, and the style in Regency romances differed from the older classics and the current revival of the genre.
The story itself is gorgeous. It is written in a far more traditional style, reminiscent of Heyer, yet not at all imitating her. Only a tad old-fashioned, fit to the period and without being stuffy, very funny and full of sparkling dialogue. The supporting cast is great, featuring everything a traditional Regency romance needs, such as a no-good but darling younger brother; a set of caring friends; loyal servants, prone to gossip; and a quite despicable villain. Unlike other books of its type, it also features a delightful group of cotton mill workers.
The hero, Mr Ethan Brundy, is simply amazing, and very unusual for the genre: an illegitimate workhouse brat turned super-rich cotton mill owner, who drops his aitches and dresses expensively, with little taste. He is genuinely kind and caring, responsible and confident. His accent and his earnesty, not to mention his appearance, cause people of the ton to underestimate his intelligence and quick grasp. Nor do they understand that he cares not in the least about their opinion of him—he stands by his background, his class, and his convictions, and he does so with a disarming friendliness. His unwavering strength of character, combined with his exceptional candour, and his controversial opinions, expressed so kindly, are a joy to behold. And so is his love for his reluctant bride.
Lady Helen, or ‘elen, as her husband calls her, is very much unlike him: cold, haughty, and supercilious. She hasn’t a kind word for anyone, except perhaps her brother, and she delights in shoving her numerous suitors away by mere force of rudeness. Though very beautiful, she makes her way through more seasons than her father could afford, because she is still waiting for a man who might not exist. Mr Brundy is, for her, a mere laughing-stock, hardly a real person.
“Mr. Brundy,” she said with a nod, making the most perfunctory of curtsies to her father’s guest.
He made no move to take her hand, but merely bowed and responded in kind. “Lady ‘elen.”
“My name is Helen, Mr. Brundy,” she said coldly.
“Very well– ‘elen,” said Mr. Brundy, surprised and gratified at being given permission, and on such short acquaintance, to dispense with the use of her courtesy title.
Now why does she marry him? Because Mr Brundy, as I have said before, is more than confident, and certain he to reach every goal he sets himself. The moment he sets eye on his ‘elen, he decides to marry her, and her father, a dept-ridden duke, pressures her to accept his offer of her hand. She gives in:
“Mr. Brundy, you are no doubt as well acquainted with my circumstances as I am with yours, so let us not beat about the bush. I have a fondness for the finer things in life, and I suppose I always will. As a result, I am frightfully expensive to maintain. I have already bankrupted my father, and have no doubt I should do the same to you, should you be so foolhardy as to persist in the desire for such a union. Furthermore, I have a shrewish disposition and a sharp tongue. My father, having despaired of seeing me wed to a gentleman of my own class, has ordered me to either accept your suit or seek employment. If I married you, it would be only for your wealth, and only because I find the prospect of marriage to you preferable –but only slightly!- to the life of a governess or a paid companion. If, knowing this, you still wish to marry me, why, you have only to name the day.”
Having delivered herself of this speech, Lady Helen waited expectantly for Mr. Brundy’s stammering retraction. Her suitor pondered her words for a long moment, then made his response.
“’ow about Thursday?”
And now, the (supposed) marriage of convenience slowly evolves into a love-match of misunderstandings. Only Mr Brundy’s friends are truly aware of his sincere feelings for his wife, and only one of them of her feelings for him. Because Lady Helen enters marriage not only thinking her groom a cit, but certain that he’s only after her social standing. He, in turn, takes all her insults to heart and believes that she only married him for money even as her feelings for him grow to fondness, and love.
All this is tricky to write, for has it been done with less grace and skill, both characters and their romance would have been insufferable. But Mr Brundy’s love for his wife and his way with her are wonderful, as lovely as could be, and her growth as a person, and the development of her feelings are plausible and well-written, gradually, yet with sudden, clear reason.
There are sudden, tender moments of a shy, reluctant couple; adorable scenes of the Pygmalion kind; dinners and balls and dress fittings and the refreshing contrast of trade and ton—and a significant trip to the industrial North.
And in the end, there’s a great, rather Heyer-esque adventure, which causes first more secrets and misunderstandings, and brings our couple to defeat the villain, and finally admit their mutual love to each other.
It is truly a gem, I promise. It is a Regency romance in the most traditional sense, and yet thoroughly original. It’s funny, but never silly. Sensual, but restrained. Romantic and sweet, but never saccharine. All in all, a true delight.
A discussion (actually, just my rambling addition to someone else’s very wise words) about Lord Peter Wimsey’s love for Harriet Vane and Wodehouse romances, made me think of Elizabeth Goudge and of Sally Adair’s and Mary O’Hara’s approaches to falling in love, and now I have to make a post with two scenes about which I have often wanted to write something, yet somehow never did.
Here’s Sally, seeing David for the first time, or rather, for the first time in person:
Sally stood very straight and still, looking at the face that she had felt she had always known when she had seen it in her father’s drawing. Only this face was not quite like the face of the drawing. That had been an unmasked face. This was the same face, but masked. She didn’t feel anything very particular; only rather odd and tired. She wondered vaguely if this was falling in love. They said in books that one felt so wonderful when one fell in love. She wasn’t feeling wonderful at all; just odd and a bit sick. Books were very misleading.
And also, immediately afterwards:
They went back to the smoke-filled room, and there was such a noise that they could say good-bye only wordlessly. David’s gesture of farewell, in the brief moment before the crowd absorbed him, was memorable for its grace, but so mechanical that Sally felt he had pushed her straight out of his mind and slammed the door. She went at once, and all the way home, though the sun was shining, she hugged herself in her fur coat because she still felt cold. She made no plans for seeing David Eliot again, though with such a famous father that would have been easy. She did not even mean to question her father about him, or about the portrait in the studio. Sally had too much pride to batter against a door that had been shut.
And here’s Mary, when she first meets Michael:
“Is she so extraordinary?” asked Mary.
“Very extraordinary. She gave me the job, though I had no reference, and when I told her I’d been in prison she never asked why.”
It seemed to Mary that the room was tipping over. The table in front of her seemed to be on a slant and she braced her shoulders. But the earthquake was in her own mind, where recent thoughts and phrases were falling headlong one over the other… . Human nature is fundamentally odd. Ruined, but so lovely. One is 10th to pass on. I always wanted to marry a hero, but I would give my life for one of the children… . The room steadied about her again and she found that he was helping her on with her coat. She had not looked at him. Why all this melodrama in her mind? No one was asking her to give her life. Nothing was required of her at present but common politeness and not to pass on. She turned round and smiled at him. “Are you in a hurry to get back to Josephine, or shall we walk as far as Farthing Reach, where the swans are? It’s up-river a little way. Not far.”
“Yes, I’d like that,” he said.
And… these scenes mean so much to me. They are the subversion, and yet true essence of “love at first sight” and so pure, in the sense of… of clearness, so real and even raw.
Sally falls in love with David the moment she sees him, and she accepts it. Not happy, not sad, but also not doubting or analysing or hoping for anything in particular. She realises who he is, and that she loves him, and, assuming that nothing could happen of their love (which is, of course, not right, but that’s a matter for later in the story…) she accepts it. And this… this is so much different from the usual love at first sight. It is even rather unromantic, in the usual sense. It is so quiet, and yet also so blunt, so clear and accepting. Sally loves him, and though she doesn’t really like it, or want it, or build any hopes on it, she takes it as it is. David, of course, will later on work on loving her, and even more so on allowing himself her love, on being worthy of it.
And Mary? Mary is even more clear and blunt about it. Mary always wanted to marry a hero, she always expected a rather simple and pleasant romantic life. And when she met Michael, also falling in love quite immediately, and had her first shock at learning that he was in prison, her reaction was not “Oh no, this man I fell in love with was in prison, so now I will back away” but “Oh no, I wanted to marry a hero, but now I fell in love with a man who went to prison, so I will have to marry him”. And then, of course, she got back to the ground a little, wondering why she felt such a pressure, and she, like Sally, accepted that there was probably nothing even expected of her. But she loved him. And he, like David, made up his mind to be worthy of her love.
Who is Bombadil? He is. According to his wife, Goldberry, and his creator, J. R. R. Tolkien, we are to be content with this. I, for one, am, because I trust the author about his own intentions and take his words as the final word about them.
But that doesn’t mean that I cannot have my own thoughts regarding such a particularly mysterious, and intriguing figure. And, as it is, I like Bombadil. Though most readers of Tolkien’s work will agree that he is a mystery, he is often found to be annoying, disruptive and, even, incongruous with the story’s style.
[…] and even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Letter #144
Tom Bombadil is an enigma, and that is just right as it is. There is no need to explain.
I suppose he has some importance as a ‘comment’ […] and he represents something that I feel important, though I would not be prepared to analyse the feeling precisely […] Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left for him in the world of Sauron.The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Letter #153
Bombadil is a comment, a symbol of what is good and ought to be preserved, and a thing for itself, outside the story. Yet, despite his apparent immunity to major powers, such as the Ring itself, he would not be left unaffected by the actual destruction of his environment. This is of consequence, but I will come to it later on.
A common theory about Tom Bombadil’s true identity is that he is supposed to be Eru Ilúvatar himself—or at least, his incarnation in Middle-earth. Tolkien denied this, and I don’t see why I or anyone should dispute this. It is an understandable theory, as Tom Bombadil is ancient, of incomparable power and nature, and inexplicable. But he is a being for himself and his surroundings, not involved or interested in the dealings the rest of the world and its peoples.
And I, personally, don’t think it would suit Tolkien to portray his creator of Arda in such a manner—though I don’t want to make assumptions about him in that regard, just as I don’t agree with those who argue that Bombadil would not fit Tolkien’s style and narrate, because what an author includes in his work suits his style and narrative. But, aside from Tolkien’s own denial of this particular theory, I have another reason for my own thoughts regarding it: Tom Bombadil is, though older than all of Arda, not necessarily older than anyone or anything else.
“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. He made paths before the Big People, and saw the Little People arriving. He was here before the Kings and the graves and the Barrow-wights. When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent. He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless—before the Dark Lord came from Outside.”The Fellowship of the Ring
Tom Bombadil lived before the world was created, or, at least, before it was as one knew it. He knew a time before “the Dark Lord came from the Outside”, which might refer to Sauron or Morgoth, although it isn’t clear whether or not he lived before their rebellion, or even before their creation.
All this does not mean that Bombadil is the great creator himself. Nor does it mean that he is one of the Ainur, as is another popular theory. As the Maiar are not immune to the One Ring’s influence, and all Valar are named and known, I consider this unlikely. Nor would it be in accordance with his singularity, and his deep connection to the place his is in.
Now, there’s a few who like the idea of Tom being evil. But it doesn’t appear to be in his nature, it doesn’t agree with Tolkien’s own comments, and wouldn’t explain what made him so different from all other life in Middle-earth. A special evil being or spirit, of greater power than is otherwise known—yes, that might be an appealing idea if one finds a jolly old man to be too boring without a sinister background, but it would still leave us where we are. Who is he? What is he? Why is he—like that?—so other?
But one of those evil theories, that he is indeed the evil spirit of the forest, comes remarkably close to my own thoughts about him.
Tom Bombadil, as Goldberry said, “is”. He represents himself, and his right to be in the story does not need an explanation, nor an apology, as it was only up to the author to make this decision. He existed, in a way, before many a part of the Legendarium, and in that sense, his own explanation of himself and his great age might be even a nod to the reader. The Lord of the Rings is, after all, a fictional translation, and many a thing just a means for the reader from our world to understand the going-ons in another. Who knows what his counterpart in the “original” Red Book of Westmarch would be, with no Dutch doll to inspire the “translator”? But I should not dive too deep into a story which, in this sense, doesn’t exist.
Shoving the art of writing and the science of stories aside for a moment, and look at the story from within, as if it were real. What could explain Tom’s nature?
I assume my idea is not better than most. But it does appeal more to me. It has so for a while, though I just now got around to writing it down.
He is older than all that is known and seen in Middle-earth, though not likely older than anything else. He is not affected by the One Ring as any mortal (or even immortal) man or otherwise sentient being would be, yet “there would be nothing left for him” under Sauron’s rule. His wife is “the River-woman’s daughter” and likely a spirit. He claims the land does not belong to him, but to itself, yet it seems also inseparable from him. He is not evil, it does not appeal to him or have immediate power over him, yet it does also not agree with him. He is not precisely good, nor does he care much about the dealings and doings of other people and beings.
His demeanour and nature are lively, earthly, and robust. And thoroughly physical—although apparently a spirit or spiritual being, he is exceedingly bodily and alive, concerned first and foremost with his wife, his land, and his food and drink. So physical, indeed, that no supernatural power seems to appeal to him so much as to fall for it, so different is his own interest, his own nature incompatible with a thing such as the One Ring.
Now I get to the tricky part—because I don’t want to make any sort of assumption about J. R. R. Tolkien’s own ideas, nor would I claim my theory to be in accordance with his intentions. But I want to say what my own idea is anyway, and I like it, because, even though I don’t think that that’s what’s supposed to be true in the book, at least not directly so—not clearly, specifically, though possibly, just possibly, at the edge of it—it is beautifully fit, compatible so to speak, not really wrong.
Tom Bombadil is Middle-earth. In one way, or another. Its spirit, perhaps, or its man-like form, its protective soul, or a representative, for the reader only, or even for its inhabitants. He, as Verlyn Flieger said, does not desire to dominate, and hence cannot be dominated. I think that is, perhaps, because he dominates all that is in his nature to dominate, and is dominated by all that his in his nature to be dominated by. Not more, nor less.
He came to Middle-earth with its creation, and he is Middle-earth in all its states and stages. He does not want more than Middle-earth, but he cannot have less than Middle-earth, because it is he and he is it. He is. Mind you—not Arda, not Eä, only Middle-earth. But Middle-earth, in its entirety.
Made and sent by Eru, but not as a person, but as a place, he cannot exist in accordance with pure evil—there would be nothing left for him—but not intervening in the doings of and dealings of his own inhabitants. At least, not going further than nature itself, in the shape of a jolly old man, could or would do.
So much for my theory.
But in truth and canon and fact, Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow, bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow. None has ever caught him yet, for Tom, he is the Master: His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster. That, I suppose, is all we ought to know.