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