In the House of Tom Bombadil & Fog on the Barrow Downs
The verb “deacon” is one of peculiar history. Though most naturally associated with its noun equivalent that signifies a Christian minister below a priest, the verb also has a seeming contradictory meaning (at least in tone) from the annals of American and English informal slang. To “deacon” was to water down liquor, or to hide a bad crop by putting the few attractive goods on top of the pile. But perhaps most interesting, a final use was “to filch by gradually extending boundaries or territorial lines.” A farmer who went out to plow his land after a long winter and felt that the stone boundaries that demarcated his land from his neighbor were noticeably nearer to his homestead might condemn the greedy man of deaconing. Let us hope to never be accused of such a perfidious deed!
Tom Bombadil, certainly, is one who would never been charged with the act of deaconing. He knows where are his boundaries: “Tom’s country ends here: he will not pass the borders.” Within the bounds that he has set, Tom is the Master; beyond those lines, marked on land or in mind, “my knowledge fails [for] Tom is not Master of Riders from the Black Land far beyond his country.” Within his land, Tom’s power is great: he recalls the past ages easily, he commands tree and rock and barrow, and he even negates the cloaking nature of the Ring. Outside his land, Tom shows little interest, seemingly unconcerned about potentially disastrous fate of Middle-earth should the Ring fall into the Dark Lord’s hand. Perhaps once Tom’s borders did change, but in a way quite the opposite of deaconing, for his boundaries have shrunk over the passing years, to a little patch of land in the Old Forest.
It is hard to know what to make of Tom, and what to learn from his brief appearance in our story. Tolkien himself wasn’t sure of who Tom was or how he stumbled into our hobbits’ journey. He is a person so selfless and contented that the Ring holds no tempting sway over him. Yet his boundaries and his limited concerns seem to run up against the wisdom that both Gildor and Gandalf shared, that one cannot fence the world off and ignore the fate of those around you. Should the reader therefore imitate Tom or reject him?
Perhaps, as with many things, the insights of Tom Bombadil are deeper and require reflection. For Tom does not lay down his borders as you or I might try. Tom may be the Master, but he is not the Owner: each thing within his bounds belongs to itself, for (as Goldberry relates) ownership would be a dreadful burden. Nor is Tom ignorant of what happens beyond his borders: he is aware of the hobbits’ families and journey, and whether by message of Farmer Maggot or the elves has been awaiting their coming. Nor is Tom heartless of things beyond himself: for he holds the memories of kingdoms of both nature and men now passed, and in remembering and relaying them, honors them in a mysterious way. “Fair was she who long ago wore this on her shoulder. Goldberry shall wear it now, and we will not forget her!”
Maybe, then, there is wisdom then in the strange resident of the Old Forest: to set out borders and master them instead of seeking ways to deacon more. In both our communities and our souls there is temptation for more, a seduction that must be rejected. Tom’s approach is the far better path: a mastery that brings out our true authentic self and aiding those without hesitation who should stumble within our bounds.