I might have mentioned this before, but I hate whimsy.
Okay, maybe I should get more specific. I hate the sort of whimsy one finds in fantasy movies and stories. The sort of soft, pillowy, “aw-shuckness” that adults apply to fantasy in an effort to remind their kids that it’s all just make-believe. Which, I guess, brings us to the chief symbol of this sort of dreck, Tom Bombadil.
In trying to write a Hobbit sequel, Professor Tolkien fought the urge to take the story into the darker realms of Middle-Earth and the War of the Ring. He initially believed his greater myths of Sauron, the Higher Powers, and the tales of the First Age had nothing to do with his charmingly twee halflings. This is why Orcs are called Goblins in The Hobbit. While he did weave references to Gondolin into the tale, the deeper darker myths are largely held at bay. There’s nothing like a Balrog in Bilbo’s journey to the Lonely Mountain and Smaug is a fairly minor villain when compared to foes like Saruman and Sauron … to say nothing of Morgoth, a creature so filled with malice that he infused his evil into the very matter of the world, making it his Ring of Power.
For a few drafts, Tolkien tried to stay away from that material and it shows in the first book. Once Frodo learns of the Ring’s true origin, he takes SIX MONTHS to leave the Shire. Once he gets on the road, he dilly-dallies with Sam and, eventually, Pippin and Merry in tow. The encroaching darkness does appear in the form of the Black Riders, walking trees, and even zombies.
The four Hobbits first meet Tom when they find themselves entangled in the roots of angry tree Old Man Willow and how are they saved?
To quote the annoying wood-spirit:
- Hey! Come merry dol! derry dol! My darling!
- Light goes the weather-wind and the feathered starling.
- Down along under Hill, shining in the sunlight,
- Waiting on the doorstep for the cold starlight,
- There my pretty lady is, River-woman’s daughter,
- Slender as the willow-wand, clearer than the water.
- Old Tom Bombadil water-lilies bringing
- Comes hopping home again. Can you hear him singing?
- Hey! Come merry dol! derry dol! and merry-o!
- Goldberry, Goldberry, merry yellow berry-o!
- Poor old Willow-man, you tuck your roots away!
- Tom’s in a hurry now. Evening will follow day.
- Tom’s going home again water-lilies bringing.
- Hey! Come derry dol! Can you hear me singing?
So once the Hobbits are saved and at Tom’s house, he announces that the power of the Ring means nothing to him because he’s older than most of the creatures in Middle-Earth. So, within a hundred pages, Tolkein has removed the menace the Ring is supposed to evoke. This is worse than the problem with the Eagles!
Granted, Elrond and Gandalf later claim that Tom could not shelter the Ring because he might misplace it, allowing agents of the Enemy claim Sauron’s most valued possession.
Tom was based on a Dutch doll his children loved and wrote the first Tom poem in 1934, which places it near the writing of The Hobbit. I’ll give that he makes sense within the confines of Bilbo’s understanding of the world, but considering the larger framework of The Lord of the Rings, he not only robs the Ring of its power, but introduces a solution that Tolkien has to address in a way that nearly breaks the credibility of the whole endeavor.
In may ways, Tom is the co-founder of what I like to call “Treeroot’s School of Charm and Whimsy.” He winks at all the kids in the audience, telling them that everything is going to be alright, like 7-Sark-7 from the late 1970s cartoon, Battle of the Planets.
He softens the blow of fairy tales, which are meant to teach children that the forest (that is, the world) is a scary place that is filled with wonder … but it should never be tread upon lightly. Also, it’s good to have a cadre of elves, dwarves, wizards, or friends at your side.
While it might seem weird that I’m using Oz as an example against whimsy, I need to ask when was the last time you read the first book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz? Allow me to refresh your memory. The book concerns Dorothy’s attempt to escape the whimsical world of Oz as her pals KILL FOOLS to attain their thrones in various regions of the world. Once the new order has been established, Dorothy still desires to get home.
Anyone over sixteen might see the value in staying in Oz and ruling a land of people made of porcelain, but little kids better understand why Dorothy wants to go home despite being a foster child of sorts in a dry, grey land in the midst of a horrible drought. It’s the sort of understanding I think we have to lose as we get older and it’s evident in Baum’s subsequent books, where Dorothy, Auntie Em and Uncle whathisname end up relocating to the Emerald City permanently.
Baum also stated his belief that children’s tales should be free of moral lessons. A thinking that would lead to the sanitization of children’s tales and the inclusion of precious whimsy in the years to follow. In this, Baum becomes the real founder of “Treeroot’s School,” paving the way for Tom Bombadil and the sort of pandering that would become synonymous with children’s entertainment in the century to come.
Following two World Wars, the whole notion of childhood as sacred time of innocence solidified and with it, the need to keep fairy tales whisper-soft. The darkness of the world was removed from stories and harsh tales like Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” transformed into the Disney iconography we know today.
And that’s my problem with whimsy. In an attempt to child-proof fairy tales, the storytellers commit an act of intellectual dishonesty. It turns out that children are okay with the existence of darkness, even if it scares them. In fact, it is through that fictitious exposure that children learn to cope with the less happy aspects of life. The stories we tell children are suppose to impart the knowledge that the world is equally perilous and magnificent and that though the journey is tough, it is ultimately rewarding because there is always something new to discover.
Well, at least there’s one modern fairy tale that accomplishes that without much whimsy, but with a man in a blue box.