Introduction to the Project
My first read of The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) was similar to many in my generation, but distinctly different from the first readers of the text and those after my generation who likely watched the movies before they approached the books. I was introduced to the series as a child who was just beginning to read independently, not as an adult who had prior knowledge about the fantasy genre. Therefore, I formed my first impressions of the text in a vacuum and they were uninfluenced by larger discussion or criticism surrounding the primary work until the next year, when I wrote a school report on Tolkien’s biography. With the rapidity that only insecure children are capable of, I realigned my own to reflect the established interpretations after exposure to other’s thoughts on LOTR. It was not until recently, that I decided to revisit and write about this earlier “misreading” of Tolkien in order to flesh out these first impressions and perhaps give a glimpse into the mind of an underrepresented reader in discussions of Tolkien: children.
Initially, I should note that I read The Hobbit before I read LOTR, so this invariably impacted the way that I read the work. I was preconditioned, so to speak, to view the hobbits as children and to see their acts of adventure as juveniles traversing into the adult world. This being said, I always approached the hobbits in LOTR as if they were adolescents. This interpretation loomed large in my first read-through of the book, and greatly influenced my interpretation. The main aspects in which this influenced my reading were that I saw the quest of the hobbits as a quest for maturity, and I saw many of the episodes outside of the Shire as far more threatening than my subsequent conversations with others lead me to believe was the general consensus. For this analysis, then, I will focus on the character arcs of the hobbits as I first interpreted them, focusing primarily on Frodo and Pippin. Then I will use two early episodes outside of the Shire, the encounter with Tom Bombadil and the events in the Prancing Pony, to attempt to convey the perspective with which I approached the majority of the text and discuss how this changes important aspects of the text.
One of the most significant aspects of my first exposure to the work was that I saw each of the hobbits as undergoing a process of maturing. This lens highlighted the fact that Frodo was just “coming of age” in the reckoning of the shire-folk (as a youth, I often equated this age with becoming a teenager).
Perhaps the most interesting impact of this vantage point is the fact that I most closely identified with the story arc of Pippin. This is probably because he most clearly undergoes the kind of bildungsroman that I was looking for in these characters.
One of the most unique aspects of my initial approach to the text that I had to revise almost immediately was my fear of Tom Bombadil. As a child, I took very literally the warnings that there are dangers outside the Shire and that no one was to be trusted. Adults tend to express immediately trust for Tom. It is as if they recognize him as an elemental or good fairie spirit from their past experiences of fantasy. I had no such prior knowledge as a child. At the very least, adults trust Tom as soon he frees the hobbits from the clutches of Old Man Willow. As a child, though, I was still very wary of Tom. How did I know for sure that he and Old Man Willow were not in league?
If you take a moment to carefully reread the Tom Bombadil passages, you can surely see the evidence that a distrustful reader could find to support the case of a dishonest Bombadil. My initial observation was that he lives in the Old Forest. He is undoubtedly associated with the characteristics of those woods; especially if, as Goldberry claims, he is the “master” of the woods. Doesn’t that mean that this area would take on somewhat of his personality? Next, there were the terrifying dreams that each of the hobbits have. Tom promises them they they are safe, yet each hobbit except Sam awakens in fear in the night. While they are ultimately soothed, these incursion with the realm of nightmares leads a distrustful reader to one of two conclusions: either Tom is not the complete master of these woods or Tom intentionally allows these dreams to infiltrate his home in order to terrify the hobbits.
Combine this with the fact that Tom exhibits power over the One Ring while he is conversing with the hobbits in his front room and it is easy to see how a child could believe that Tom represents a very scary and powerful evil.
Where we go from here
What do you think?
Could you see Tom as an intimidating character?