In the House of Tom Bombadil & Fog on the Barrow Downs
Clothing the naked, the first corporal work of mercy of consideration, has in recent years obtained a spiritual component. Nakedness still exists in much of the developing world, and even on the streets of prosperity linger those who possess not the materials needed for protection against the elements and other hardships. Yet, in modern times, discussions of nakedness often recourse to human dignity: a woman or man without clothes lacks something which allows them to express their full humanity, a need which those in abundance are obliged to rectify. Given that clothing serves as both a consequence and a reminder of sin (recalling the Garden of Eden), that making one naked brings about their belittlement and shame (as, for example, at Calgary, when Christ’s garments were stripped and divided) is a conundrum worth considering. It is easy from the pulpit to exhort that extra jackets and shoes should be jettisoned into the overflowing shelves of clothing banks and shelters. It is reasonable to muse upon the cheap quality of our clothing, the frequent abuse of those who make them, the values that our system of attire espouses. Such considerations, however, do not dredge out from the depths why dignity should be interwoven with our dressing.
Tolkien’s most mysterious creation, Tom Bombadil, considers one’s outfit when he reasons with the hobbits following their dangerous encounter with the Barrow-wights:
“You’ve found yourselves again, out of the deep water. Clothes are but little loss, if you escape from drowning. Cast off these cold rags! Run naked on the grass.”
It is better to save one’s soul then to preserve one’s clothes, and the hobbits’ barrow rags are a lingering “chill” that can only be shaken by freeing one’s self entirely from them. However, it is clear that clothes are important for a being most frequently described with the line, “bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow.” For example, Bombadil’s “lady,” Goldberry, has garments that are noted with poetic detail by the mesmerized hobbits. When they first meet her, she wears a gown as “green as young reeds” mixed with the silver “like beads of dew” and girded with a belt “like a chain of flag-lilies” and “forget-me-nots.” Later, in the midst of the rain, her raiment changes to that of “silver with a white girdle, and her shoes were like fishes’ mail.”
Now Goldberry is the River-woman’s daughter, and her clothing harkens to the water imagery of a stream: reeds, dew, lilies, fish scales. Her dress changes to express the weather; it shines and shimmers like the ripples along the shore. Her attire is an outward sign of her longings, the things she loves and desires most. More so than could be possible for any being constrained by mortal limitations, what she wears supplements who she is: it is an outward expression of her heart.
(It is further interesting that Bombadil’s alternative outfit, the one he wears only at home and at ease, seems to honor Goldberry in its composition: “clean blue, blue as rain-washed forget-me-nots” with “green stockings.” Blue, rain, forget-me-nots, and green on the “reeds” of the body: all natural water imagery, all pointing back at she whom he loves.)
Clothing, therefore, possess three qualities of mercy. First clothe the naked to offer protection from nature’s extremes, that one not suffer from physical pain. Then clothe the naked to offer refuge from presumptuous sin, that one not suffer from man’s shame. But ever clothe the naked to bring out their humanity, that what one wears may embody what one holds dear. Garments are an expression of will, a contentious choice, and outward sign of orientation and value. Even Christ’s robe, simple in its construction, could channel His power (see, for example, Luke 8:43-48). Naked we come forth from the womb, and naked we return in death, but even the saints wear white robes in glory (Revelation 7:9-17). Man’s garb is a material thing, yet it is charged with God’s grandeur. So clothe the naked with Goldberry’s lilies of the field, that women and men might shine.
2015’s Reflection: “On One Whose Boots Are Yellow”