It was 1974 that I was first given a copy of The Lord of the Rings, my aunt sent it from Canada to be given me as a Christmas present. A thick paperback, it caught the eye of one of the teachers at our school as I sat reading it one evening in January 1975. “You need to get that book bound, otherwise the pages will fall out.” The teacher was not one with whom one argued, book binding was one of the after school activities that took place in her classroom. Apart from removing the cover, the binding did not proceed very far, the book lay in the storeroom of her classroom for two years. Its absence did not cause undue upset, I had not understood the pages I had read. When the storeroom was engulfed in a fire in January 1977, there was simply the thought that I would never now read The Lord of the Rings.
Twenty years would pass before the story made a reappearance, I took our son, then six years old to see a puppet performance of the story at Belfast’s Grand Opera House. The story was not much better comprehended by a thirty-six year old than it had been by his fourteen year old predecessor. Four years later, the six year old had become a ten year old and the story had become one of his passions, it became an important part of the marking of each Christmas to go to the cinema and to see each of the trilogy of films as they were released.
During the summer holiday of 2002, twenty-eight years after being sent my first copy, I borrowed our son’s copy and read it for myself. The story seemed straightforward, the asides and the details remained baffling, I vowed to re-read it when the opportunity presented itself.
Seven years later, preparing for a trip to Africa, I decided that the journey would allow for a re-reading of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong and of The Lord of the Rings. Birdsong was left on the airliner that transported us from London to Nairobi. Our son had wisely suggested I buy my own copy of The Lord of the Rings, fearing it too might be left somewhere. Laid low with food poisoning, I had started to re-read it, but had not got beyond the first forty or so pages.
A further seven years on, forty-two years after my aunt bought my first copy, and The Lord of the Rings is being read at the rate of ten pages a night, which should mean it is finished within fifteen weeks. Elements of it are as hard to understand. The most enigmatic element of all is the character of Tom Bombadil, a man unmoved by the malevolent power of the ring:
‘Show me the precious Ring!’ he said suddenly in the midst of the story: and Frodo, to his own astonishment, drew out the chain from his pocket, and unfastening the Ring handed it at once to Tom.
It seemed to grow larger as it lay for a moment on his big brown-skinned hand. Then suddenly he put it to his eye and laughed. For a second the hobbits had a vision, both comical and alarming, of his bright blue eye gleaming through a circle of gold. Then Tom put the Ring round the end of his little finger and held it up to the candlelight. For a moment the hobbits noticed nothing strange about this. Then they gasped. There was no sign of Tom disappearing!
Tom laughed again, and then he spun the Ring in the air – and it vanished with a flash. Frodo gave a cry – and Tom leaned forward and handed it back to him with a smile.
Tom Bombadil defines himself as a timeless one:
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.
In his correspondence, Tolkien suggests that Bombadil is a personification of the countryside, the English shires with which he was familiar; a countryside unmoved by the evil of the world around. Bombadil is generous, hospitable, protective, joyous, delighting in beauty, but is this really what the countryside is like? The book seems to ask more questions in 2016 than it did in 1974.