Tom Bombadil is a father-figure in a story filled with them. He is indeed perhaps the most powerful father in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” He’s there at the beginning to tell the hobbits the stories that they need to hear in order to know their place in the order of things, and to see them on their way. But also at the end, to receive them home again.
One of my daughters-in law recently asked, “Why is Tom Bombadil so silly?”, or something like that. I’ve written a book on Bombadil, and I’d just spoken on him earlier that day to a group of students at Grove City College, so the question hadn’t come completely out of the blue. But the context for her comment was the subject of fatherhood (her husband, my son, is a new father), and we were discussing my methods for raising him—and one in particular: my tendency to go from being authoritative to light-hearted, in the blink of an eye.
Back to Bombadil for a moment: My answer didn’t satisfy her, I could tell. And upon reflection, it doesn’t satisfy me either. I had mumbled something about jesters, the ones who yuck it up in a king’s court. Tom’s a kind of jester, I’d said. But as I’ve already said, that doesn’t satisfy me. Indeed, I’ve come to see that it’s precisely backwards. It’s Tom who is kingly, even with all his nonsense singing (as I hope you can recall from reading the story). According to his wife Goldberry, he’s “the Master of wood, water, and hill.” And as if on cue, he appears wearing a crown of autumn leaves. So now I’m wondering too—if Tom is a King, why is he so silly?
Upon consideration, if I could answer her question again, I’d correct her slightly, and get to the heart of the matter at the same moment. I’d say Tom is jovial, like any good king—or father for that matter—should be.
Joviality is an attribute of kingship; we can discern that if we look into the origin of the word. Jove is another name for Jupiter. I’m not thinking of the planet here—not the planet as it is contemporarily understood, anyway. The Jupiter I’m thinking of lived in the old cosmos as it was understood by astronomers before the invention of the telescope. He was the King, and his name literally means, “Sky Father”. That old cosmos, with all if its relevance for creatures living on the earth, was beautifully brought back to life by C. S. Lewis in his Narnia Chronicles. In those books the planets exercise a subtle, but pervasive influence in each one of the stories. We can see the influence of Mars in Prince Caspian, and Mercury in The Horse and His Boy, and even the Sun (yes, it was considered a planet, too), in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. But we see Jupiter, in all his kingly splendor, in the first book (at least in the order in which they were written): The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
Michael Ward in his marvelous book, Planet Narnia, makes an irrefutable case for what I describe. His thesis might be written off as eisegesis if it wasn’t for the consistent interest Lewis shows in the planets in so much of his scholarship. For example, The Discarded Image, the last book Lewis published, documents the contents of his Oxford lectures entitled, “A Prolegomena to Medieval Poetry.” (In other words, it is his introduction to the subject of medieval poetry, containing important information a reader must know if he is to understand the poetry of the period.) And in that introduction Lewis zeroes in on Jupiter, the King, and the influence he has on the world that lies beneath him. Consider this:
The character he produces in men would now be very imperfectly expressed by the word “jovial”…. We may say it is Kingly, but we must think of a king at peace, enthroned, taking his leisure, serene. The Jovial character is cheerful, festive, yet temperate, tranquil, magnanimous. (quoted in “Planet Narnia,” p. 43.)