All Creatures Great and Small

Facts, trivia and corrections of common misconceptions

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.

James and Helen, Chris and Carol

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.

The Yorkshire farmers

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.

What about the vets?

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.

Science and progress

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.

Fact and fiction

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:

What happened to Caroline?

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.

Character and actor

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.

As for the actors

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.

🐑🐏🐂🐄🐎🐐🐖

The Lizzys and the Darcys

I think it’s rather funny, how in the discussion about the adaptations of Pride and Prejudice from 1995 and 2005, it is so very frequently claimed that those who prefer the 1995 version do so because of Colin Firth, whereas those whose main concern is Lizzy prefer Keira Knightley and the 2005 film…

whereas I just absolutely adore Jennifer Ehle, while I don’t care very much for Knightley’s Lizzy (though I don’t dislike her—she’s Lizzy all right, just without the brilliance of Ehle’s performance) and I actually find Colin Firth’s performance as Darcy—though certainly very good! as he is an expert actor—to be one of the weaker aspects of my otherwise favoured adaptation. In fact, I nearly prefer Matthew Macfadyen’s Darcy… simply because I prefer his vibe.

On the other hand, his performance, though I generally like him a lot, is comparably bland, just like Keira’s. But my critique of his performance is the opposite of Firth’s: Darcy needs a balance of actual mean snobbery and well-meaning awkwardness, and Firth is mostly the former, Macfadyen the latter. That is, I think, also the reason why both appear to specific, different groups of fans. Both are good Darcys, but with distinctly different appeal.

I actually think the 2020 version of Emma is in many ways like 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice—though not as good—and equally popular on the internet, because the characterization of the leads is so very adjusted to the taste common, modern taste. (I suppose I am an exception!)

As for Mr Darcy, I would even go so far and say that Laurence Olivier’s version had quite a good snob-awkward-nice balance, maybe better than any other Darcy I’ve seen. And Greer Garson is a very lovely Lizzy, even outshining him, though only almost as perfect for the role as Jennifer Ehle.

Anyhow—I really like both the 1995 and 2005 versions in different ways, and all four leads, too. It’s just that my preferences and reasons for them don’t really align the way that people usually claim they always would.

That Thing about Narnia

I find very often that readers of The Chronicles of Narnia, even fans, who complain about the religious aspects of it, have a very, very limited, and more than that, prejudiced understanding of them.

It seems especially that those who read or re-read them at an older age, with full awareness of the existence of these themes, have already made up a very clear idea of them and of how they influence the stories, and it shows.

I mean—there are obvious ones, like the Deeper Magic in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which everyone will get, and about which people usually don’t complain, but otherwise it seems that the ideas readers have of the influences and themes are extremely off.

I need to say here, that I don’t claim to have a superior understanding—most things go over my head, I’m often surprised about what I still find, and whenever I read books or articles about Narnia, I am amazed how much there still is to find and to learn about.

But I do understand the basic way in which Christianity and Religion work in Narnia. And it’s not what most non-religious (and even some Christian) readers think it is.

The first thing is: the Narnia books are not missionary work. They are not books that try to convert things to Christianity—only kids who are raised in Christianity or have in some other way studies its basics (in school, for instance) will even figure out some of the parallels, and even that isn’t a given. The books will not in any way make a child after reading think “Oh, boy, I sure need to become a Christian now.” Religion, in that sense, is not even a subject, and only sparsely referenced as a normal everyday thing, just like in most pieces of western media.

The next thing is: these books don’t teach the world view of modern day American alt-right Protestants. A lot of people, especially on the internet, seem to think so, which is rather odd, considering the books were written in the 50s, by an English (Northern Irish, actually) atheist turned Anglican, whose own unusual religious development, and whose (academical) interest in Paganism and other non-Christian religions certainly kept him open-minded in these respects.

And then there’s all that talk about the Problem of Susan, of course, and about how the Scrubbs were actually woke people, and how everything was sexist and all that “because of those evil Xtians who try to convert the children”.

I see so many posts about how people just ignore the religious themes, and how people who like the books despite them, and that’s all fine and well, but they often have no idea what they are. They are not a case of “hurr hurr white old man wrote bad old-fashioned worldview”, they are on an entirely different level, in certain references and images and quotes that they may actually like a lot, and more general in the Fight for Good and everlasting Hope.

And if you get rid of the religious aspects, you get rid of all that you like about Narnia, and be left with only a shallow little bit won’t appeal to you at all, and probably a good deal of what you think is that annoying Christian influence.

What to read in Spring

Reading by the Window by Charles James Lewis

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.

Mary O’Hara Appreciation

I just thought of how much I love Mary O’Hara from The Rosemary Tree. Down below are some excerpts showing her red-hot brilliance! ☘️

Mary O’Hara had a face like an advertisement for toothpowder and a name like a glamorous film star […]

Winkle adored honey and she adored the owner of that voice. She literally fell off the housemaid’s box in her haste, picked herself up and bundled across to the door where she was picked up in two plump arms and held against the softness of the angora jumper that clothed the warm breast of a very angry girl. But the anger was not directed against Winkle, of which fact Winkle was well aware as she burrowed in. Miss O’Hara was so soft and warm that she might have been the dove, had it not been for the agitation of her very un-dovelike fury.

“No, I won’t, Miss Giles,” stormed Mary O’Hara, her cheeks like poppies, for she had a shocking temper. “Winkle is in my form, and if she has been naughty it is my business to punish her, not yours.”

Mary was a born fighter, and it was because there was a battle raging here that she stayed, glorying in the fight, every red curl on end with the zest of it, her vitality tingling even to her finger tips whenever she was aware of an inch gained here or there, a slackening of the onslaught of evil. […] Mary adored children, and when a battle was for them there was more zest in it than ever.

“Though what do I think I am?” she would ask herself during these same wakeful nights. “A rallying point for the hosts of heaven, or what? Mary O’Hara, you are clean crazy.” But discouragement was not for long and she remained where she was, clean and fresh in her clean fresh room, teaching the children to speak the truth, keeping her temper with difficulty, passionate in sympathy with the truly afflicted, intolerant of malingerers, loyal to superiors she hated and only twenty years old.

Mary liked men only a little less than she liked children and took an entirely healthy delight in the reciprocity of the liking.

Mary, like all good schoolmistresses – and she was a good schoolmistress in spite of many derelictions of duty – had formed a poor opinion of all parents, and this was for her high praise.

“How do you do?” she said severely, for she was always severe with parents. “I am Mary O’Hara, Winkle’s form mistress.”

Then her severity abruptly vanished and she chuckled. “There are only two forms,” she said. “Miss Giles has the other, and Margary and Pat.”

“I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting either of you,” said John, standing hat in hand before her and speaking with a humble courtesy that delighted Mary. She was a red-hot radical, and gloried in plebeian birth, but she handed it to these aristocrats. They had something.

[…] You and Miss Giles are friends?”

Mary fancied sarcasm in his tone and flushed scarlet. Did he think she was one of those detestable women who delight in running down other women in the presence of a man? Well, it didn’t matter what he thought, but sudden anger made her take her eyes from the elms and face him squarely. “Yes. Until ten minutes ago I thought I hated her, but ten minutes ago we became friends.” Looking at him she saw he was not sarcastic. She had been a fool to think he could be, for sarcasm doesn’t grow on the same stalk as humility. He had really wanted to know. “That sounds odd, I expect, but you know how it happens. Someone you have known perhaps for years, perhaps for minutes, steps forward from the background and is suddenly inside with you.”

“Inside what?” demanded John.

“Inside your own little world that you carry with you,” said Mary, and looked at him with an almost despairing pleading. Didn’t he know he also had stepped inside? “Surely you know what I mean?”

“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 […]

“They heard you. They’re moving away,” said Mary. To her there was no sharpness in the bright beauty, though it woke almost unbearable longing in her. All about her she was conscious only of a pure distillation of goodwill, but she could not reach it. It was odd, she thought. With her aunt this morning, that regular churchgoer and indefatigable knitter for charities, she had been conscious of such evil. With this man, of whom she knew nothing except that he had lately been in prison, of such good, his good a part of the goodwill that she could not reach. She thought of her own longing for goodness, her deep intent of love, and of her abysmal failure today.

She looked up at him, laughing. There was no change in her easy, happy manner. She might have received no letter. Perhaps she hadn’t. Perhaps it had gone astray. His face looked drawn and grey as he looked down at her, and she realised that he was not only a great deal older than she was, but also weaker both in character and body. Also that he loved her far more than she had realised. Also that he had been in doubt as to her answer, and she had kept him waiting two days, not knowing that he doubted her response; clear to her on the day she had first met him, unwavering even after the blow he had dealt her then. Also, and this last with a flash of vision, that she had it in her power through the kindness of love to make of this weakling a very fine man.

Mary defended with spirit her choice of a pink frock. To say that pink was not to be worn with red hair was merely superstition, like saying you mustn’t be married in green. Didn’t she look nice in her pink frock? And she would be married in green just to flout superstition again. Irish green, with shamrock in her button-hole. Michael could have a leek. They thanked heaven they were not English. They were Celts.

On Sally and Mary and Love

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.

Bright blue is his jacket

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.

Tom Bombadil by Anke Eißmann

[…] 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.

Triple Book Rec: Literary Lovers

“I you liked this, you’ll love that!” is not usually a concept of book recommendation that I agree with. I might be very picky, or I just have a different idea of which books are similar to each other, but very often I find that these recommended books simply share some superficial traits, yet otherwise don’t real suit each other, nor appeal to the same readers.

But there are some cases that I personally find to just fit. Incredibly well, in fact. Those books often have a similar air about them, evoke a similar feeling, or simply and plainly suit the same taste.

As for these three books, I recommend them individually, but I also have to say that, if you liked one or two of these, you’re very likely to also enjoy the others. Or the other, respectively. These three certainly have a similar appeal, they are cosy and gentle, and very funny and witty. But they also have very similar themes: gentle, intelligent romance and a beautiful blend of fiction-within-fiction.

There’s Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. Though one of her less famous novels, it is certainly a classic, and in my opinion frightfully underrated. It is a splendid satire, but it also stands well on its own as a story, and while different from her later novels, it already has the wit and spark that makes Jane Austen so well-beloved. Catherine is a reader, rather than a writer, but her imagination is very active and independent, and sometimes takes a bit too far. Unlike the heroines of the other two novels, it’s not her own writing that gets her into trouble. Her ideas are more than sufficient. The romance is as splendid as any other Austen romance, in fact it’s particularly good. And it’s very, very funny.

And Sylvester, or the wicked uncle by Georgette Heyer. Unlike most enemies-to-lovers stories it is far more about Phoebe and Sylvester’s determination to dislike and misunderstand each other, and also about the way they sometimes understand the other better than themselves. Phoebe is a novelist and based the characters in her book on people she met, and Sylvester’s air of arrogance and the shape of his eyebrows make him an excellent villain. But it’s the things she made up herself that cause the actual consequences of her writing—including a kidnapping to France, a great many misunderstandings, and some improvement of character.

Miss Buncle’s Book by D. E. Stevenson is about Miss Buncle who wrote a book. Miss Buncle had no money, which is why she decided to write a book, and she insisted on having no imagination, so she based her characters on real people she knew, and most of them didn’t like it at all. The odd thing is just that all of a sudden people began to behave differently, and things she wrote in her book—made up entirely, without any imagination!—turned out to be real. But while Miss Buncle herself changed and grew and learned, hers was the only story without a proper outcome, even in her book’s sequel. The romance is not as obvious in this book, but it’s lovely and gentle, and it does feature one of the sweetest marriage proposals I have ever read.

So, if you like books, and books about books, and romance, and women writing about women who write, and sweetness, and romance novels with actually good stories, or rather novels that do have actually good romance—these might be for you! And they are all very good autumn reads. 🍂

There’s rue for you: and here’s some for me

I am re-reading The Herb of Grace parenthetically, one chapter a day. 🌿

It’s such a healing, lovely book, and I want to extend my friendship with it, and revisit Damerosehay and the Herb of Grace in the beginning autumn. I find that very appropriate. And it’s so pleasant and calming to read it so very slowly and evenly.

I have already read the first two chapters. Chapter One reminded me of how much I do love Sally. I love every paragraph of her description. With some parts, the overly specific ones, I identify more than I ever thought I could identify with a character in a book. The others, I simply enjoy. She is such a thoroughly enjoyable woman. And the children asking whether she’s over age for bananas is so sweet.

And I love her first meeting with David, and the way she felt. It reminds me of the first time Mary and Michael meet, in The Rosemary Tree. Elizabeth Goudge’s characters, especially in her contemporary books, are so thoroughly human, and so are their romances. There is a special quality, almost a sort of magic, but at the same time such a painful realism, that makes them so very superior. In these two scenes, it’s the sudden realisation, and the quiet acceptance. Unexpected and unsentimental, not until wanted, but valiantly taken and valued. This, and the very dedicated and laborious love, and the combination of both, are everything.

And David’s feelings! The way he hated that he couldn’t talk openly, just while Sally wondered about his mask. The way he adored Sally’s unaffectedness from the war, while she was feeling ashamed of it. The way they were both right, and thought themselves wrong.

And Chapter Two! Oh, Nadine. The reader suffers because of you and with you—and grows and rejoices, because of you and with you. The violets. I love these details. Whether one reads it as part of a trilogy or as a stand-alone, the way things are coming together reads differently depending on whether one already knows some of the characters, or doesn’t, but it reads equally well. That magic of recognition and wonder, I dare even call it a sort of suspense, the small moments of “oh, this!” are always so lovely. But Jill’s letter is such a small, sad moment…

And I love the bit about Nadine and the Little Village, and that she loved being at Damerosehay because it always changed her a little, and not in spite of it. And I love to see her and Hilary interacting. To see two characters in an ensemble story who usually don’t have much to do with each other, who are from “different ends” of the story, so to speak, appear in the same scenes is always a great joy to me.

Rambling about a minor character

I have actually come to realise that I have a very soft spot, fondness even, for George Eliot. From the Damerosehay books, I mean. It’s funny, it came up to me when I thought about literary characters I personally fancy (yes, what a deep and important topic) and when I thought about how brilliant all the positive romantic relationships (as in, the ones that actually make it work together) in Elizabeth Goudge’s books are all absolutely wonderful and I love them very much, I came to think of how I feel for the men outside their wonderful relationships in the books, and despite my great love for Jocelyn and David in particular, I actually realised that, long story made short, I am very fond of George Eliot.

I mean, I often said that all of Elizabeth Goudge’s characters are real people, very real and very much alive, and I still say so, but George is, despite his real-ness, a character whose place is mostly in the background of the narrative, and of whose own story, out of Nadine’s personal character arc, we don’t see very much. And you see, I like Nadine actually a lot. She’s a very complex and interesting character, and I love her growth, and I love how she worked her way against her own disposition in a way that actually makes me like her much more than, to name someone in a similar position as her, mentally, Lucilla herself, whom I actually view rather (very) critically, even though of course she’s important in her way.

And I see what her feelings for George, and the way she handled them, and… grew them, worked on them, mean in that context, and I understand George as the technically for a long time unwanted and unloved, generally oblivious and uncomplicated, old and boring husband. I understand how coming to build her new relationship means a lot to Nadine’s story, and I love the way she found her own true happiness in the way she did (without going into much detail here).

But most of what we see of him is either from the eyes of his children, who love him, but also see him mostly as a comforting and kind and otherwise not too interesting, well, father, and his mother and wife who both often look down on him in a sort of loving way, and he is mostly described as a man without much depth (e.g. his religious and political views). George doesn’t have that sort of romantic storyline some of the others have, in fact, all there is is just happening on Nadine’s side of the story.

So, he’s not the obvious character to even care about much. But I noticed I do, much more in retrospect than while reading. It’s funny how he is technically the stereotypically “desirable match” (wealthy, good military rank, one of the “beautiful” Eliots, etc.) his position is more or less that of an undesirable man—boring, bland, conventional, and of little emotional depth.

But he is so kind. There is such a certain air of warmth and safety about him. In the scenes he appears in there is always a certain calmness. The twins, despite not really caring for anyone, are extremely attached to him simply because of that specific aura. Lucilla made very clear that he was a very sensitive child. Nadine once really felt attracted to him, and despite all that made her lose interest in him, she always felt drawn near to him again, and despite not really wanting him for a long time, she never seemed to feel one bit uncomfortable with him, it was just that he couldn’t give her specifically what she wanted, but that’s an entirely different thing. Caroline practically shaped her world around him. Every relation and friend and acquaintance trusted him unconditionally, even if they didn’t really like him or take him seriously.

And there’s another thing—many parts are from the point of view of Hilary and Margaret, and so we know how deeply they think and feel. Even though most other characters seem not to expect that of them. I’m actually sure that it’s similar with George, it’s just that the reader sees little more of his inner life than the other characters.

But I got extremely off topic here, I didn’t actually want to write so much about him. All I wanted to say is that I think is that he, as himself, taking the specific storyline of his and Nadine’s marriage all aside, a very lovely husband. Not only as a nice and rather convenient, boring man. No, it’d be actually lovely to have him as a husband, just as he is. As himself I mean. Simply from the perspective of the reader (in this case, me) and not in the specific context of the books.