Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

"Hey Dol, Merry Dol": Tom Bombadil's Nonsense, or Tolkien's Creative Uncertainty? A Response to Thomas Kullmann *

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

"Hey Dol, Merry Dol": Tom Bombadil's Nonsense, or Tolkien's Creative Uncertainty? A Response to Thomas Kullmann *

Article excerpt

Studies of Tolkien's poetry always have been rare. The recent collection of essays entitled Tolkien's Poetry, edited by Julian Eilmann and Allan Turner, is one of the few of book-length that address the diversity and significance of the topic. Furthermore, as Thomas Kullmann has recently pointed out in "Poetic Insertions in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings," there is "little input from contemporary English scholarship, linguistics, as well as literary and cultural studies" (304n37) in existing critiques of Tolkien's poetry. This is a sadly correct assessment, and in part is a reflection of the nature and function of that poetry. Although the poetic content in Tolkien's prose works constantly adds new dimensions to characters, positioning them within the aesthetic of their race, and in relation to the history of Middle-earth, his poetry remains predominantly situational and occasional, belonging within the mythology and the aesthetic that governs and defines his creative work. Therefore, because of the nature of his poetry, there has been an involuted quality to Tolkien criticism which keeps it circulating around a limited range of approaches.1

In this essay I set out to respond to Kullmann's observations by examining one example of Tolkien's poetry in order to show that, when approached from those theories of poetry that were contemporary with Tolkien's work as well as from the perspectives of later literary theory, the apparent strangeness and whimsicality of the verses that are characteristic of Tom Bombadil in The Lord of the Rings reveal new dimensions to Tolkien's own theories of creativity.

Strangeness and Nonsense

The significance of "strangeness" as an essential quality in poetry had been a matter for scholarly investigation from the second decade of the twentieth century and continued throughout the years when Tolkien was most active as a writer and scholar. Early twentiethcentury Russian Formalism, together with the theories of poetry advanced by Tolkien's friend and colleague at Pembroke College, the polymath philosopher Robin G. Collingwood, and by his fellowinkling Owen Barfield, offer new ways of approaching his embedded poetry, even though the application of these theories to the lively simplicity and unsophisticated lexis characteristic of Tom's songs and speech may initially seem incongruous.

Barfield, in his 1927 book Poetic Diction, cited Aristotle's appreciation of the aesthetic value of "unfamiliar words" and included in this archaism and incongruity (169). During the 1930s Collingwood engaged in research into fairy tales and the magic that characterises them, as well as in lecturing on aesthetics and art. In both areas, his theories illuminate the functionality of (what appears to be) strangeness in comparison to familiarity and empirical science. He notes in "Fairy Tales" that "the peculiar effect which [...] magical themes produce in us is due to the fact that in hearing such stories we are liberated, by a temporary make-believe, from our normal scientific conception of nature" (126). In his essay "Aesthetic Theory and Artistic Practice," he contrasts this liberation to the making of meaning in art, complaining that this "became atrophied in the naturalistic artists of the nineteenth century" (95; see also 97). The perceived importance of various techniques of "defamiliarising" in order to alert the reader or spectator to meanings beyond those that had become conventional had already been set out by the Russian Formalist Victor Shklovsky in 1914. In his article "The Resurrection of the Word" he had proposed the importance of poetry in defamiliarising or making strange "the habitual by presenting it in a novel light, by placing it in an unexpected context" (Shklovsky 41).2 Shklovsky's comment may have been unknown to Tolkien, but it illuminates for us the significance of an aesthetic dependent on strangeness that was part of the cultural environment in which Tolkien lived and wrote. …

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