A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Goldberry Teaches Frodo a Lesson

The text for today’s cerebration comes from The Fellowship of the Ring, “In the House of Tom Bombadil”:

“Fair lady!” said Frodo again after a while. “Tell me, if my asking does not seem foolish, who is Tom Bombadil?”
“He is,” said Goldberry, staying her swift movements and smiling.
Frodo looked at her questioningly. “He is, as you have seen him,” she said in answer to his look.

LotR I,vii

If you want to, you can read Goldberry’s answer in a transcendent, almost supernatural way.  The verb “to be” is transitive; there has to be an object of the sentence. [1]  With one notable exception, it’s always used in the form “x is y“.  And lots of people interpret Goldberry’s answer as if Bombadil were that exception, as if he might be the sort of person who can simply say “I am”.  They give him some kind of divine character, especially if it’s the Seventies and transcendental religious experiences are all over the Zeitgeist.  That interpretation made it into Prof. Olsen’s mailbag. Here’s how he read the quotation, on the Tolkien Professor podcast from July 8th, 2009:

I read it that way too, at first. Because Seventies. The following sentences, though, undercut such a heavy interpretation. Why would Goldberry smile?  It could be out of pity or sympathy, I suppose, but those are exalted feelings in Tolkien.  They seem somehow too high for a down-to-earth figure like Goldberry. [2]

At this point my tropism towards wisecracks asserted itself. As I mentioned back at the beginning of this blog, meaning is a relationship between text and reader. If the reader is a smart-aleck, that affects the meaning of the text. And so it has come to pass. Here’s how I read that phrase now:

Kids these days call that a “dad-joke“.  Zooming out a bit: Goldberry is busy making dinner; Frodo asks her a question that doesn’t really hit the mark; she realizes he’s expecting a fairly complex answer; she tosses out a word-play [3] to let him know she heard the question.  Then, when she reaches a point where she can stop for a moment, she smiles at him to see if he appreciated the joke.  He didn’t get it.  When Goldberry sees the expression on Frodo’s face, she relents and tries to come up with an answer that fits better with his current frame of reference.

The two parts of Goldberry’s response aren’t repetitive.  The first is a gentle put-down. The second is a teacher’s attempt to tell the student that he’s making things too complicated, and should pay more attention to what’s in front of his eyes.  Frodo will find this useful a few days later, in Bree.

[1] Eco, Umberto, “On Being”, in Kant and the Platypus. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1997.

[2] Yes, I just called a water spirit “down to earth”. It doesn’t feel incorrect.

[3] I actually wrote “jeu-de-mots” here in my first draft, because reading Eco makes me think using just two languages is pedestrian. His essay in footnote 1 uses six languages in the first three pages.


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  1. I will admit that when I first saw the title of this post all I could hear was Goldberry saying “Oh you’re such a naughty little hobbit. Now I must spank you,” and Merry, Pippin, and Sam all chiming in, “Oh, spank me, too.”

    But seriously, I really like the idea of Goldberry giving Frodo a bit of a smart answer, and I’ll have to think of it some more, but I think you may be right. After all she’s probably been asked this question a thousand times over the ages. Tolkien, as we know, was not above playing with words. Apparently one should not go to River-daughters for answers either. The Elves at least say yes and no. Goldberry’s answer is 42.

    In letter 153 he denies, without nudge or wink, the ontological/theological take on “He is”, and tells his interlocutor he is taking things too seriously. That at least does not seem to conflict with your assessment. It allows it, even if it doesn’t support it. I like it.

    But I can’t agree, not even with the great Umberto Eco, that the verb “to be” is transitive. It is intransitive, and as such can have a predicate, but not a direct object. Of course if Umberto Eco rewrote the definitions of transitive and intransitive, I doubt anyone will listen to me crying foul in the wilderness.

    • Joe

      I shouldn’t have implied that Eco called it “transitive”. That’s my own. I know it’s grammatically incorrect, but when a verb connects two things, “transit” sounds like the right word to me. I’ve been a transportation engineer a long time.

      Also, Bombadil as Lord of Castle Anthrax is just the kind of brain-bleach I need today.

  2. How cool is that? I’ve just pictured Goldberry giving this answer to Frodo and his puzzled look and then her explaining when her jest was lost upon him.
    But seriously, how simple and clear things are when one doesn’t overcomplicate.

  3. I like this take on Goldberry’s reply, thanks for introducing me to a new perspective!

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