Bombadil contra Kant, Otherness vs. Disinterest

Metaphysics of the Music, part 34

The delight in the otherness of things which comes to the fore in the Vision of the Ainur is also identified as a defining feature of the Elves, the “Children of Ilúvatar,” as when Tolkien describes them in one place in terms of their “devoted love of the physical world, and a desire to observe and understand it for its own sake and as ‘other’—sc. as a reality derived from God in the same degree as themselves—not as a material for use or as a power-platform. They also possess a ‘subcreational’ or artistic faculty of great excellence” (Letters 236). As in the case of the Ainur and their Music, here too Tolkien recognizes the importance of appreciating the beauty of a thing for its own sake and without reference to one’s own needs, “purposes,” or “use,” yet for Tolkien the freedom or autonomy of the aesthetic object is achieved in a way quite distinct from and even opposed to the aesthetic disinterest demanded by Kant. For Tolkien’s Elves, like the Ainur, their love for things other than themselves is not in spite of their intractable otherness, but precisely on account of it, “as a reality derived from God in the same degree as themselves—not as a material for use or as a power-platform.”[1] The affirmation of the existence of one’s other is not a threat to the “disinterested” appreciation of the object, but is rather the necessary condition for such an appreciation. This point receives particular emphasis in our final illustration of the Tolkienian theme of the love of otherness, the character of Tom Bombadil, who is described by Tolkien as “an ‘allegory’, or an exemplar, a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science: the spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature, because they are ‘other’ and wholly independent of the enquiring mind, a spirit coeval with the rational mind, and entirely unconcerned with ‘doing’ anything with the knowledge” (Letters 192, emphasis original). Bombadil is an “allegory” of “pure (real) natural science,” by which Tolkien evidently does not mean the modern, Baconian and Kantian instrument for the domination or mastery of nature, but something more akin to the Aristotelian theoretical science of Boethius and Aquinas—a contemplative rather than utilitarian knowledge of the natural world for its own sake and thus “entirely unconcerned with ‘doing’ anything with the knowledge.”[2]

[1] Thomas Hibbs, incidentally, comes close to making the same point in a different context when contrasting Tolkien’s and Kant’s respective approaches to ethics: “For all his stress on freedom and duty, Tolkien does not operate with a Kantian dichotomy between autonomy and heteronomy; indeed, certain forms of autonomy signal the vice of pride. In place of Kant’s isolated individual will, which in order to be free must turn from God, nature, and society, Tolkien gives us characters who can only understand themselves and their duties by seeing themselves as parts of larger wholes, as members of nations and races, as participants in alliances and friendships for the good, and ultimately as part of a natural cosmos.” Hibbs, “Providence and the Dramatic Unity of The Lord of the Rings,” 173.

[2] Tolkien elaborates on the proximity of his childhood interest in fairy-stories on the one hand and nature on the other in the following endnote to his essay: “I was introduced to zoology and palaeontology (‘for children’) quite as early as to Faërie. I was keenly alive to the beauty of ‘Real’ things,’ but it seemed to me quibbling to confuse this with the wonder of ‘Other things.’ I was eager to study Nature, actually more eager than I was to read most fairy-stories; but I did not want to be quibbled into Science and cheated out of Faërie by people who seemed to assume that by some kind of original sin I should prefer fairy-tales, but according to some kind of new religion I ought to be induced to like science. Nature is no doubt a life-study, or a study for eternity (for those so gifted); but there is a part of man which is not ‘Nature,’ and which therefore is not obliged to study it, and is, in fact, wholly unsatisfied by it” (Tolkien Reader 94-5).


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