Saturday, November 24, 2018

Tom Bombadil and the Cunning Questions

Back in August, I listened to a Tolkien Professor podcast discussing Tom Bombadil's interactions with Frodo and the Ring. What particularly struck me was the word cunning to describe Bombadil's questioning of Frodo, since Bombadil can come across as almost simple in his seeming superficiality, singing about his own clothing as he does. Here's the passage:
Indeed so much did Tom know, and so cunning was his questioning, that Frodo found himself telling him more about Bilbo and his own hopes and fears than he had told before even to Gandalf. Tom wagged his head up and down, and there was a glint in his eyes when he heard of the Riders. ‘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.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings: One Volume (p. 132). Mariner Books. Kindle Edition.[FN1]  Even within this passage, of course, the idea of Bombadil's questioning being somehow "cunning" seems to contrast with his almost childish reaction -- head-wagging -- to Frodo's divulging of "more about Bilbo and his own hopes and fears."  Now that I focus on this point, I realize it would be most natural in a story for grown-ups to say "Tom nodded" (or possibly "Tom nodded in agreement" or "nodded enthusiastically") rather than describing the physical motion.  That is, specifying that Bombadil "wagged his head up and down" necessarily comes across as more juvenile than saying "he wagged his head in agreement" or "he nodded."[FN2]  So the word "cunning" stands out strangely even within the context of this single passage.

Why and how is Bombadil's questioning cunning?  In what sense is Tolkien using this word here?  It certainly does not seem to follow what the OED terms its "prevailing modern sense" (5a):
In bad sense: Skilful in compassing one's ends by covert means; clever in circumventing; crafty, artful, guileful, sly. 

So we can eliminate 5a for that reason; I don't think we are cued to think Bombadil's purposes are in any way nefarious or suspect.  Technically, since it's his questioning that is cunning (rather than Bombadil himself), I suppose we should focus on 1b and 5b, which are "transf. Of things," and possibly 2b, which is "transf." {"Transf." = "Transferred sense"}[FN3]
1b. transf. Of things: Characterized by or full of knowledge or learning, learned. ?1520—1630 
2b. transf. Showing skill or expertness; skilfully contrived or executed; skilful, ingenious. 1423—1842 
5b. Of things: Showing or characterized by craftiness; crafty. 1590—1872

1b would probably be a bit redundant here ("so much did Tom know, and so cunning was his questioning").  So I'm thinking 2b or 5b, perhaps more 2b.

If it is primarily skilfulness that Bombadil is showing in his questioning (and perhaps especially his skill in eliciting information that has eluded Gandalf), might that not culminate in his skilful order ‘Show me the precious Ring!’ -- which Frodo finds himself unexpectedly and unquestioningly obeying?

I'm thinking now of Alas Not Me's post "'I could not take it from him' -- The peril of seizing the Ring," because Bombadil with his cunning questions not only gets Frodo to disclose information that he'd not provided to Gandalf, but he also gets Frodo to hand over the Ring without a thought or murmur or protest.  That is, the transfer of custody does not seem to be with Frodo's conscious volition or consent; he finds himself doing it "to his own astonishment."  Significantly, this does not break Frodo's mind.   Here's the comment I made on Alas Not Me's post:
Is Gandalf really saying that anyone taking the Ring by force from Frodo would necessarily cause Frodo's mind to break?  
Surely he could be referring to himself here, without generalizing. After all, Gandalf is not just anyone to Frodo; he is a trusted friend and advisor, immeasurably wiser and stronger, who has hitherto acted as if the free will of lesser folks were worth his respect. For Gandalf in particular to take the Ring from Frodo by force might have a very different effect than, for example, ruffians like Sharkey's men or a fellow sufferer like Gollum taking it from him. 
And that gets me to wondering if Gandalf is hinting rather strongly that the "force" he could and would exert on Frodo to obtain the Ring from him against Frodo's will would be more than physical. Indeed, it might not be physical at all, but a more or less direct attack on Frodo's will. If so, it'd be much more likely to break Frodo's mind than Gollum's merely physical attack. 
I'm thinking these differences between Gandalf and Tom Bombadil may be significant -- they apparently exercise power quite differently, with quite different effects on mortals.

And another point of comparison between Gandalf and Tom Bombadil, which coincidentally also came up in conversation with Alas Not Me, may also be of interest if we are trying to understand something about the kinds of beings they are.  That is, Tom Bombadil can see a hobbit who is wearing the Ring, quite easily.  But Gandalf cannot, as shown in these two passages from The Hobbit[FN4]:
1. “And here’s the burglar!” said Bilbo stepping down into the middle of them, and slipping off the ring. 
Bless me, how they jumped! Then they shouted with surprise and delight. Gandalf was as astonished as any of them, but probably more pleased than all the others. He called to Balin and told him what he thought of a look-out man who let people walk right into them like that without warning. 
2. “What voice is it that speaks among the stones?” said the man halting and peering about him not far from where Bilbo sat. 
Then Bilbo remembered his ring! “Well I’m blessed!” said he. “This invisibility has its drawbacks after all. Otherwise I suppose I might have spent a warm and comfortable night in bed!” 
“It’s me, Bilbo Baggins, companion of Thorin!” he cried, hurriedly taking off the ring. 
“It is well that I have found you!” said the man striding forward. “You are needed and we have looked for you long. You would have been numbered among the dead, who are many, if Gandalf the wizard had not said that your voice was last heard in this place. I have been sent to look here for the last time. Are you much hurt?” 

To be continued...


[FN1] Since I'd never particularly noticed Tolkien's use of the word before, I ran a word search in LotR and found 33 matches -- I may look into that more another time.

[FN2] One sees this style in the Junie B. Jones books, where no one ever "frowns" or "grins" - they "make a frown" or "make a grin."  That faux-juvenile phrasing irritated me immensely.

[FN3] The eliminated definitions are:
†1a. Possessing knowledge or learning, learned; versed in (†of) a subject. Obsolete. c1325—1667
 2a. Possessing practical knowledge or skill; able, skilful, expert, dexterous, clever. (Formerly the prevailing sense; now only a literary archaism.) 1382—1843
 †3. spec. Possessing magical knowledge or skill: in cunning mancunning woman, a fortune-teller, conjurer, ‘wise man’, ‘wise woman’, wizard or witch. (Also hyphened cunning-man.) Obsolete (or dialect) 1594—1807
 4. Possessing keen intelligence, wit, or insight; knowing, clever. 1671—1856

The OED provides the following etymology:

Original type *cunnende, present participle of CAN v.1 (infinitive Old English cunnan, Middle English cunnenconnen), in its earlier sense ‘to know’; hence originally = ‘knowing’. Not found in Old English, but in regular use from 14th cent. both in the northern form cunnand, and the midl. and southern cunningconnyng. The derivative conandscipe occurs in Cursor Mundi, Cotton MS.

[FN4] Now, Gandalf in The Hobbit is not necessarily as wise and powerful as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings -- he seems to be more Man than Maia.  But it's generally more interesting if we assume he is the same character and being in both stories.

1 comment:

Tim Fisher said...

As one of your footnotes implies... "cunning" is used here meaning "canny". And this is in perfect keeping with Tom's seeming simplicity. Ever heard of a "cunning peasant"?! "There is more to this Master than meets the eye", as Gandalf might put it!