Monday 22 January 2024

The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and other verses from The Red Book by JRR Tolkien, 1962 - a review of 50 years re-reading

When I first read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings some half century ago, I didn't much enjoy the poetry - mostly because I did not enjoy any poetry at all at that time in my life. 

Or, more exactly, I didn't enjoy poetry qua poetry, but for other reasons. For instance, I enjoyed Middle English poetry such as Chaucer or Sir Gawain, but because I enjoyed the language rather than from any reason specifically poetic. 

But as the decades have rolled-by; I have come to appreciate and enjoy Tolkien's poems and verses more and more - indeed, more each year; until now I would have to say he is one of my very favourite poets! 

Most of Tolkien's best poetry is in The Lord of the Rings; but in 1962 he published a collection called The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (ATB) which was beautifully illustrated by Pauline Baynes. 

In 2014 was published a new edition of ATB, with extensive notes by those superhumanly-thorough scholars Christina Scull and Wayne G Hammond (authors of the indispensable JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide). 

These fascinating notes by S&H explain Tolkien's wide-ranging vocabulary, references, and acknowledged influences; and also often include earlier versions of the 1962 poems; which are always interesting and sometimes extremely good in their own right. 

(Unfortunately the page size in the 2014 edition of ATB is approximately halved from the 1962 version - including my 1972 reprint; so the illustrations have been somewhat miniaturized -- which is why I like to own and use both editions.) 

There are sixteen poems - long, medium and short, three of which are also in Lord of the Rings

The longest poem, and my favourite of all, is Bombadil Goes Boating: a tour de force of rhyme and allusion, which is touched by the genius of true lyric poetry. Scull and Hammond's notes really enhanced my already high appreciation. 

This poem was written just before 1962, and especially for this collection. Its original title demonstrates that it was envisaged as a series of "flitings" - a fliting being a public contest of ritual (i.e. non-serious), but exaggerated, satire and insult between master poets - as with the enjoyable Middle Scots Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie by William Dunbar from about 1500.  

The title poem opens the volume and makes a pair with Bombadil goes Boating. Bombadil admirers will relish it as a "prequel" (attributed to Hobbits of the Buckland area and nearby) to the Hobbits' encounter with Tom in the Old Forest. 

Another favourite is the remarkable and haunting The Sea-Bell; which works at several levels. These include in-universe references to Frodo's sadness and isolation during his final years after the One Ring was destroyed and before leaving Middle Earth; also un-missable autobiographical echoes, concerning Tolkien's own relationship with Faery. Its 1934-published precursor was titled "Looney" - i.e. lunatic, mad-man; which is telling. 

Overall; Sea-Bell makes a more pessimistic partner-piece to Tolkien's "valedictory" story published some five years later: Smith of Wootton Major

The final poem in the volume, The Last Ship, is also beautiful and sad. And it also has a precursor published version from 1934, called Firiel. Firiel is excellent; and interestingly different from Last Ship in both setting and mood. 

There are several pieces of Comic Verse that demonstrate Tolkien's excellent technique and capacity for complex verbal trickery - Errantry is the best known of these; but I prefer Fastitocalon; and its 1927 precursor is even better. 

Sam's Oliphaunt rhyme from LotR is is also featured in ATB; and Scull and Hammond provide a truly brilliant 1927-published version in the notes: which is the equal of Hilaire Belloc at his best.  

There are also pieces in a folk song or "ballad" narrative style - such as Perry-the-Winkle, and a couple provide fanciful "back stories" for nursery rhymes (one of these is the song Frodo sings standing on the table at the Prancing Pony). 


The illustrations are Pauline Baynes at her incomparable best; and they are very important to the effect of the book as a whole. Since there is such a wide range of quality and quantity among the sixteen pieces (e.g. I find Princess Mee pretty feeble*) - it is the illustrations running-through that bind the heterogeneous parts into a coherent and effective whole. 

Illustration for The Man in the Moon Came Down Too Soon - an imagined and elaborate precursor to the modern nursery rhyme about cold porridge in Norwich. 

*But only a fool judges a poet by his worst works! (Or are we to regard Shakespeare as the author of Titus Andronicus?) And even the best poets will produce mostly-mediocrity, and only relatively few (or even just one!) really good poems. 

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