A Modest Proposal: The Bombadil Scale of Sidequests

A friend recently asked in a open forum what the proper size of a sidequest in a novel should be. We all know sidequests: those are the moments in which the characters pause in the middle of their Main Quest to do Something Else. What the Something Else may be has a huge (but not the only) effect on its proper size. This got me thinking, and I would like to propose the following system of measurement:

The SI unit of measure for a sidequest is the bombadil. One bombadil is the amount of gratuitous sidequest necessary to make 50% of readers give up on their first readthrough. No sidequest should ever measure more than 0.05 bombadils, though famous authors may push it to 0.1 bombadil.

The amount of prose necessary to comprise a bombadil is variable, and depends on the general tediousness of the sidequest, the characters involved in the sidequest, how much they grow in the sidequest, and how it affects the progress of the Main Quest. Of course, it also depends on the raw length of the sidequest, but that is not as important as you might think. A truly gifted writer can make the sidequest just as important as the Main Quest.

So let’s look at the archetypal case. In The Fellowship Of The Ring, our heroes, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, all get ensorcelled by an evil tree and freed by Tom Bombadil, a mysterious humanoid who takes them home to his just-as-strange wife for dinner. Bombadil later frees them from an evil barrow-wight and arms them with the treasure it was guarding. Breaking it down we have:

T = general Tediousness: Very High. The characters eat and sleep and listen to childish lyric poetry (10), slightly offset by them getting into two spots of serious and interesting trouble (-2): 8
S = characters exclusive to the Sidequest: 2 (lowest value for this variable is 1)
M = characters on the Main Quest: 4
g = growth of the characters because of the sidequest: Significant, but small. Frodo shows that he is capable of thinking, fighting and securing a temporary victory at need: 4
D = What it Diverts from: Walking to the nearest town. This is difficult, because on the one hand, diverting us from something that should be skipped right over adds tedium, but diverting us in the middle of something absolutely critical to the main plotline is worse, so this defies an easy, linear scale. Allow negative numbers on this one, with zero being the value at which the plot is progressing at a steady, unhurried, pace: Just walking along: -2
Finally, we introduce 4 as a constant, because all great equations have constants, and because a sidequest is only about a quarter as interesting as the main quest at best, a fact writers should ALWAYS remember, regardless of how clever they find themselves.

This gives us the following equation:

TSD²/4Mg = Qs (Sidequest value in bombadils)

And plugging in our values, we get:

8*2*2²/4*4*4 = 1 bombadil.

Initially, I had been going to factor in the sidequest’s ultimate importance to the story, whch would have made the score lower because one of the hobbit’s weapons, acquired on this sidequest, ultimately helps to destroy the Lord of the Nazgul. But the point is that we do not know that, and therefore it has no effect on whether or not the reader gets bored to death and puts the book down.

So, for some examples:

The Empire Strikes Back: Luke’s training sequence on Dagobah: Qs = 0.05 bombadil
T = 5 (cool Jedi powers and a fight with ghost-Vader, offset by boring platitudes on Planet Swamp).
S = 1
D = 0.5 (an increasingly-tense hunt for the Falcon, but Luke has to have a storyline of his own)
M = 1 (no, Artoo doesn’t count)
g = 6 (Luke becomes at least half a Jedi, but undisciplined.

The Eye Of The World: Perrin and Egwene’s sojourn with Elyas: Qs = 0.25 bombadils
T = 4 (It’s Jordan’s incredibly-detailed prose, but the whole thing with the wolves is awesome)
S = 1 (Elyas)
D = 1 (It’s about on pace with everything else)
M = 2 (Perrin and Egwene)
g = 8 (This sidequest basically starts Perrin’s character arc as a badass)

Moby Dick: The chapter on whales: Qs = 36 bombadils 
T = 9. A lecture on whales. In the middle of a novel. Only not a 10 because whales are inherently cool.
S = 1
D = -2 (for being Moby Dick. They’re sailing.)
M = 1 (Ishmael)
g = 1 (he learns about whales)

It: That one scene near the end as the kids escape the recently-defeated It. Yeah. THAT one: Qs = 96 bombadils
T = (the exact number defies description, but the Ick factor makes me conservatively estimate it, on a scale of 1 to 10 at) 27.
S = 1
D = 5 (seriously, the book was OVER).
M = 7
g = 1 (in a really disgusting way)

Note that when main characters are uninvolved in the sidequest, you are approaching infinite bombadils, and should just stop.

So, there you have it, a completely objective and indisputable method for solving the worth of various sidequests. You’re welcome.


18 thoughts on “A Modest Proposal: The Bombadil Scale of Sidequests

  1. Personally I thought that Tom Bombadil was one of the few parts of Lord Of The Rings that I didn’t have to slog through gritting my teeth. I was very upset that he got left out of the films.

  2. I say this in all honesty and not meaning to be rude: I genuinely do not understand how anyone can feel that way. I look forward to an explanation, but I fear that this will probably just be mutually incomprehensible between us, much like a man who says that water “feels dry.”

    • If you were replying to my comment (I wasn’t sure if it was for me or for the OP) I expect the reason that I liked Tom Bombadil is the same reason that most LOTR fans don’t like him–because he belongs to a different order of magic than the rest of the books.

      Bombadil is one of the few parts of LOTR where magic is something more than a variant technology. LOTR is basically a war story–it’s All Quiet On The Western Front, but with magic taking the place of poison gas and machine guns. At heart it’s much more Hard SF than fantasy.

      Tom Bombadil, however,is pure Weird Tales. He’s a genius loci, a manifestation of the spirit of the woods he inhabits. And as such he’s outside of the war of the ring. It is quite literally not his fight. And the fact that he is introduced and left behind so early in the books is Tolkien’s way of signaling that sort of magic has no place in this story. Even the ents, who are forest spirits of a type, in a narrative sense are just heavy armor.

      That early sequence sets the tone of the whole work. This story is no place for fairy tales, it says. The Green Man won’t save you, this battle must be won with blood and steel, or lost by it. Far from being a sidequest, it’s where Tolkien sets up the rules of the story.

      Modern readers are used to stories in which magic is tamed and essentially just another kind of technology, but it was a groundbreaking conceit when it was written. An audience used to the conventions of 19th Century fairy tales needed some exposition to explain that magic rings and wizards are limited in their power. Tom Bombadil was very much the kind of magic that they expected to see in a story where magic exists and Tolkien had to say to them, “That’s not the kind of magic we’ve got in this story.”

      • Yeah. Like that sequence in one of the Narnia books where the kids take a shortcut so far underground they see living jewels mining for their supper. “Narnia is bigger and stranger than you know. Or *can* know. Your little crisis is not everything…”

      • I was replying to you, because I am the OP.

        I have to hand it to you: that is one of the best defenses of the Bombadil scene I have ever seen. From the point of view of literary history, I think you are spot on. And Terry’s comment is well-taken, too. I suppose I might respond that the sequence around Bism is so short that you hardly notice its detraction from the main quest. Bombadil is much more obtrusive.
        Though if you like Bombadil because he’s not like the rest of LotR’s magic, then I have to wonder how you like LotR at all. But to be clear: this is not a criticism of your taste as such, and you explained it better than I could have hoped. It’s just alien to me, in the same way that I would find it strange if I asked someone what their favorite part of the BBQ was, and they said, “The dinner rolls.” But I appreciate the insight.

      • Dinner rolls, no. But I have no problem imagining someone who only goes to barbecues for the Brunswick Stew.

        A friend of mine also has a great fondness for Bombadil, much greater than mine. His is based on a combination of my notion and the idea of it as a transition. It’s the point were the hobbits really understand they’re not in Kansas any more.

        As Misha said, LOTR reads like SF with magic instead of technology–which we think of as the norm nowadays. Thing is, I think Tolkien takes that into account. Frodo and company take it for granted as much as we do. Gandalf is regarded as a mountebank in the Shire, and even Bilbo and Frodo, who know better, don’t think of him as far outside the norm. Even the Elves and Dwarves are treated more like Chinamen and Zulus than parts of a truly greater world. Rivendell is like New York to them.

        But Bombadil? WTF? He doesn’t fit *anywhere* in their little world. Between him and the barrow-wights, their worldview starts to change. Maybe Sauron isn’t just a super-Caesar. Maybe all that mystical crap Elrond was spouting is for real. Maybe they are fighting for something like the soul of Middle-Earth…

  3. This was hilarious. And I didn’t mind Tom Bombadill all that much! Even so, when we listened to the unabridged audio version at one point with EVERY. SINGLE. SONG. I got a bit… impatient. Still can’t get his yellow boots song out of my head

  4. Can we count every song and poem that Tolkien included as mini-sidequests with a value of 1 bombadil? Because I never read any of them. The best thing he ever did was make them italic and in their own margins so that could blithely ignore them instead of slogging through them.

    I contend that the inclusion of music numbers is one of the reasons why The Hobbit movie adaptation was doomed from the outset.

    • No, because not everybody in the world hates music in movies with your unreasoning hatred. And by virtue of them being not really part of the story at all, and easily skippable, I don’t think they qualify as “sidequests” at all.

      • Shouldn’t we at least condemn Tolkein for this, given that it led to hundreds of other authors thinking that it was acceptable? 🙂 No songs or poems!!

      • That is because they are acceptable. To literally everyone on the entire world but you. You are aware, are you not, that real life contains songs and poems? You wrote poetry once: I was there. You listen to music: I’ve heard you. Why can characters in fiction not do this? Also, George R.R. Martin included songs and poems, and you never bitched about that. Your arguments are to say the least, inconsistent.

      • Real life contains toilet breaks, stubbed toes, and long periods of boredom as well, but they aren’t included in fiction. 🙂

        I skipped over any paragraph in GRRM books that dealt with food, music, or poetry. All three were a waste of time to read.

        (Note: I’m really just being a curmudgeon here, I recognize that I am the minority opinion in this case. But I honestly do completely skip over any poem or song included in any work.)

  5. I realize you are just being a curmudgeon. But the point is, that vanishingly few people entertain themselves by buying toilet breaks, stubbed toes, and long periods of boredom, unless you count professional baseball. Whereas you, yes, YOU (dramatic pointy finger) spend money on music as entertainment, and time on poetry as an art form! Hah! I WIN!

  6. Tom Bombadil was, I am fairly sure, Tolkien struggling what to do with his story before he alighted on Strider. (Evidence: that position was filled, in rough drafts of chapter nine, by a shoe-wearing hobbit called “Trotter”.) He knew about Arnor, certainly, so he could put the hobbits into their shoes for a spell, but throughout, it was really a matter of colorfully filling in the geography the hobbits were waking through.

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