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).

Sauron’s Ring and the metaphysics of invisibility

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 34

Central to Tolkien’s representation of the evil of domination is the eponymous Ring of Sauron itself, about which there are three main points I would like to make in regard to its general symbolism of Tolkien’s metaphysics of domination.

The first point concerns the Ring’s mythic power to render its wearer invisible, a property Robert Eaglestone has analyzed in light of Emmanuel Levinas’s application of the Ring of Gyges from Plato’s Republic to the problem of the modern self. As Eaglestone points out, Levinas sees “in the gesture of seeing without being seen, both the phenomena of evil and one of the defining and unavoidable features of modernity” (Eaglestone, “Invisibility,” 75). For Levinas, Eaglestone explains, “our thought and daily lives are first in a relationship to the others that populate the world. Everything else is built on this fundamental relationship to the other, which ‘happens’ to us before we choose it.” This fundamental, mutual participation in the life of others “involves giving up one’s rights and acknowledging both the rights of the other and one’s own responsibility to them over and above yourself.” In modernity, however, Levinas argues a decidedly new attitude emerged, especially in Descartes’s methodical doubt which posited a radical theoretical distance between the thinking subject and the world , thus rendering the subject “invisible” to it. As Eaglestone summarizes Levinas’s argument, the modern isolation of the subject

creates the illusion that one’s subjectivity is, like Gyges, not derived from one’s relation with others but rather existing independently without society or recognition from others. Levinas continues and argues that the “myth of Gyges is the very myth of the I” which stands alone. “Seeing without being seen” is at the same time an illusion of radical separation and uprootedness from others, and the grounds of the possibility of “inner life”… Invisibility seems to turn the world into a world of spectacle, in which the observer is disengaged and free from bounds or restraint…(76)

As Eaglestone continues, in this illusion of separation at the heart of modernity, “others are turned from people into objects” (81). Like the modern conception of the subject, Sauron’s Ring, in making its wearer invisible to others and thus detaching him from his rootedness and participation in the world, in principle denies the claim that other beings have on him by virtue of their otherness. Invisible to all others while all others remain visible to him, the Ring-wearer assumes a quasi-transcendence in which their being effectively becomes an extension of his own.

In this Sauron’s Ring may be said to reverse the pattern of the Ainur’s Vision, the joyous eucatastrophe of which consists in its giving the appearance of “things other” that do not yet exist, the reality of which is later granted as a divine gift. The tragedy or dyscatastrophe of Sauron’s Ring, by contrast, is that it takes the reality of an already existing thing and belies that reality by denying its appearances. However, because things are what they are on account of their otherness, to deny a thing its appearance and its consequent relationship with those beings to whom it appears, is also to deny its reality, as we see in the case of the Ring-wraiths and all those who possess Sauron’s Ring for too long. As Gandalf explains to Frodo, if one “often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades: he becomes in the end invisible permanently, and walks in the twilight under the eye of the dark power that rules the Rings… Yes, sooner or later… the dark power will devour him” (FOTR 56). Related to this, of course, is Bilbo’s complaint to Gandalf in which he unwitting reveals the effect the Ring has had on him: “I am old Gandalf. I don’t look it, but I am beginning to feel it in my heart of hearts. Well-preserved indeed!’ he snorted. ‘Why, I feel all thing, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right. I need a change, or something” (41).

The only person over whom the Ring seems to have no power, even to render him invisible, is Tom Bombadil, one of the earthiest characters in Tolkien’s fiction and one whose whole identity is most tied to his love of and devotion to things other.  As Tolkien writes of Tom in one letter, “he is 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).

Tom Bombadil: Franciscan, Pacifist, Botanist

Tolkien on Bombadil:

“Tom Bombadil is not an important person—to the narrative. I suppose he has some importance as a ‘comment’… [H]e represents something that I felt important, though I would not be prepared to analyze the feeling precisely. I would not, however, have left him in, if he did not have some kind of function. I might put it this way. The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power, and so on; but both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of control. But if you have taken ‘a vow of poverty,’ renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless. It is a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war. But the view of Rivendell seems to be that it is an excellent thing to have represented, but that there are in fact things with which it cannot cope; and upon which its existence nonetheless depends. 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… He is … Botany and Zoology (as sciences) and Poetry as opposed to Cattle-breeding and Agriculture and practicality.” (Letters 179)

Who is Tom Bombadil?

Frodo asks this question of Goldberry, to which she answers “He is.” In one of his letters Tolkien identifies him as “the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside…” (L 26). Another possible description: Bombadil is G.K. Chesterton as nature spirit.