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The Bombadil Enigma, Part Two: The Mroczkowski Letter

Several years ago, I wrote a lengthy blog post titled The Bombadil Enigma. In it, I examined the decades-long debate surrounding the character of Tom Bombadil in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I looked at the various theories that have been suggested regarding who this character is and what he represents, and I offered some of my own thoughts on the issue.

Regarding what Tom Bombadil represents, I made the case that he represents certain Roman Catholic religious elements, specifically Franciscan elements, that Tolkien could not explicitly include in his story. For those who believe this is a far-fetched idea, I refer you to the previous blog post.

Regarding who or what Tom Bombadil is, I concluded that he comes from outside the world of Middle-earth. He interacts with the characters, but he is something akin to a Marvel Universe character showing up in a Star Wars movie. I based this conclusion largely on what Tolkien himself said about Bombadil in two different letters. The first is a 1961 letter to Christopher Fettes. In that letter Tolkien wrote the following:

“I think there are two answers: (i) External (ii) Internal; according to (i) Bombadil just came into my mind independently and got swept into the growing stream of The Lord of the Rings. The original poem about him, in the curious rhythm which characterizes him, appeared in the Oxford Magazine at some time not long before the war. According to (ii), I have left him where he is and not attempted to clarify his position, first of all because I like him and he has at any rate a satisfying geographical home in the lands of The Lord of the Rings; but more seriously because in any world or universe devised imaginatively (or imposed simply upon the actual world) there is always some element that does not fit and opens as it were a window into some other system. You will notice that though the Ring is a serious matter and has great power for all the inhabitants of the world of The Lord of the Rings even the best and the most holy, it does not touch Tom Bombadil at all. So Bombadil is ‘fatherless’, he has no historical origin in the world described in The Lord of the Rings” (Hammond and Scull, Reader’s Companion, 2005 edition, pp. 133–4, emphasis mine).

The second letter is unpublished. It was written in 1964 to Przemysław Mroczkowski. I did not quote the relevant section of that letter in my original blog post. I merely mentioned that both letters made the same basic point.

I had seen the Mroczkowski letter mentioned in a number of places over the years, but no one ever quoted exactly what was written in it about Bombadil. Because it was unpublished, only Tolkien’s family and Mroczkowski’s family would have any possible access to it. I gave up the thought of ever knowing exactly what Tolkien said in the letter.

Then, a few years ago, I ran across a blog post by Ryszard Derdziński in which he mentioned that he met two daughters of Professor Mroczkowski. As a birthday gift, they gave copies of Tolkien’s letters to their father to him. I contacted Mr. Derdziński and asked him if he could share the portion of the letter that referenced Tom Bombadil, and he kindly sent the excerpt to me. Photographs of a few pages of the letter in question are also now available online at the website for Christie’s auctions.

So what did Tolkien say about Tom Bombadil in this letter? Here is the relevant section:

“I am grateful for what you say of my opus, and I think you are right: this simultaneity of different planes of reality touching one another and so affecting others, but tangentially, was part of the not so much intended, but deeply felt idea that I had. In the case of the Elves this is explicit (I 93-94). Beyond that too I feel that no construction of the human mind, whether in imagination or the highest philosophy, can contain within its own ‘englobement’ all that there is, or even reduce all that the constructor knows to part of his construction. There is always something left over that demands a different or larger construction to ‘explain’ it or relate it to the rest. It is like a ‘play’, in which, hardly obvious enough perhaps to disturb attention or create the spell for a spectator, there are noises that do not belong, chinks in the scenery that let out a gleam which is not pertinent. They can only be explained, or related to the ‘play’ by reference to a different world and plane; that of the author and producer and his servants: stage-hands and lighting-experts. This is why I left Tom Bombadil in and did not ‘tinker’ with him though much tempted to do so in the ‘Council of Elrond’, to bring him into the historical pattern. I have received a number of queries (puzzled or actually querulous) about him. The truth is that, as far as I was concerned, he just walked in, at the necessary point, and behaved as he would. But he does not belong to [the] main pattern – even if, since he co-existed, he affects it – and it would involve a larger and different ‘history’ to account for him. He was wholly unaffected by the Ring, and could juggle with it contemptuously — though he did not like it. He was therefore wholly outside the closed circle of power and domination and hostilities in which all the other creatures are enmeshed. He could have been ‘called to order’ by cutting out or altering the passage on I 144; but I could not do that. I know he behaved like that, and to deny it, for the sake of consistency, would be wrong, and the ‘consistency’ less real than the mystery. I hope I do not bore you. When another talks of his work, when indeed anyone applies the clumsy instrument of analysis and ‘explanation’ in words to any literary work, large or small, it must always sound as if the ‘critic’ thinks the thing far better and more important than it is — or than he probably thinks that is when not on his critical ‘high horse’”

As I mentioned in my original blog post, the main idea of these comments is the same as the main idea expressed in the letter to Mr. Fettes. As Tolkien makes clear in this letter, Bombadil belongs to “a different world or plane.” He doesn’t belong to “the main pattern.” He is “wholly outside the closed circle of power and domination and hostilities in which all the other creatures are enmeshed.” This is because, as Tolkien explains in the Fettes letter, Tom “has no historical origin in the world described in The Lord of the Rings.”

If Tolkien’s own words are taken as an authority on Tom Bombadil, it means that we can stop trying to figure out what kind of Middle-earth being Tom is. He isn’t any of them. He isn’t Ilúvatar. He isn’t one of the Valar. He isn’t one of the Maiar. He isn’t any of these because he’s a non Middle-earth being who walked into Middle-earth.


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