Tom Bombadil is perhaps the most hotly-debated and enigmatic character in all of JRR Tolkien’s writings. He appears in only three chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring, and yet the mystery surrounding Tom is never fully satisfied. He remains a riddle, refusing to be “pigeonholed” into any of the known races of Middle Earth.
|Art by the Brothers Hildebrant.
Tom first appeared as a character in a series of poems called The Adventures of Tom Bombadil published in Oxford Magazine in 1934, and later published as a stand-alone book (in 1962-63) after the success of The Lord of the Rings.
Tom’s significance (and sythesis) in the Tolkien household can be traced back to “a jointed wooden doll that belonged to Priscilla [Tolkien]” (Grotta, JRRT: Architect of Middle—Earth pg 106).
The original poems of Tom Bombadil are lighthearted and full of natural detail:
- “Old Tom Bombadil was a merry fellow;
- Bright blue his jacket was and his boots were yellow,
- Green were his girdle and his breeches all of leather;
- He wore in his tall hat a swan-wing feather.
- , pg 197)
He retains this same lighthearted charm in The Fellowship of the Ring, where he first appears just in time to save the hobbits from the malevolent Old Man Willow.
We learn soon enough that Tom is far from a mere frivolous character…he has great power in his voice, particularly in song. He is “Master of wood, water, and hill”, old beyond reckoning (“When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent”), and, perhaps alone among Middle-earth’s inhabitants, completely unaffected by the One Ring (FotR pgs 135, 142).
Theories of what or who Tom Bombadil is have circulated for decades. Some have said that Tom is an Elf, a Vala, a Maia, a nature-spirit, and even Illuvatar, the Creator himself.
Some of these can be easily ruled out. He could scarcely be an Elf if he “was here already” when the Elves passed westward. Nor is he likely to be Illuvatar, a suggestion that Tolkien vehemently denied in several of his Letters.
The suggestions that Tom is a Vala or a Maia are more interesting propositions, and certainly cannot be decisively ruled out, though we certainly see that Gandalf and Saruman, Maia themselves, are affected by the One Ring.
It is also highly unlikely that he would be any of the Vala, given that they remain across the sea in Aman and none of them fit the mold of Tom’s personality. Glorfindel’s assertion, at the Council of Elrond, that even if the Ring were left with Tom, “if all else were conquered, Bombadil will fall, Last as he was First”, does not fit the mold of a Vala, who would be unlikely to fall to a Maia, even one as powerful as Sauron (FotR pg 279).
Nature is, throughout Tolkien’s writings, a potent and often independent force. The Ents and Huorns, previously unmentioned in Tolkien’s mythology, surface in The Lord of the Rings as “tree-spirits”, an entirely separate race of beings.
The major different between Ents and Tom Bombadil is that Tolkien makes an attempt to incorporate the Ents into his mythology, to give them an identity and a history as a part of Middle-earth.
He makes no such attempt with Tom, who he is perfectly content to make a part of Middle-earth, and yet let him stand outside, in some ways, its history and logic.
Tolkien famously wrote in his Letters: “Even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally)” (Letters, No. 144).
Tom responds much as a living embodiment of the land itself (as does Tom’s wife, Goldberry, the “river daughter”). There is a passage in the chapter “In the House of Tom Bombadil” in which
- “Suddenly Tom’s talk left the woods and went leaping up the young stream, over bubbling waterfalls, over pebbles and worn rocks, and among small flowers in close grass and wet crannies, wandering at last up on to the Downs” (FotR pg 141).
His voice is rather like the wind singing in the trees, exuberant with the beauty of summer and weighted with the distant shadows of the past.
Tolkien’s world, though consistent in nearly all its details, still possesses its mysteries, even to its author. Faery is a mysterious land.
Tolkien’s famous essay “On Fairy Stories” notes “while he [the reader] is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost” (Tolkien Reader pg 33).
These “enigmas” only add to the mystery and the wonder that are part and parcel of Faery. Tolkien understood that as well as anyone.
So next time you find yourself wondering about Tom Bombadil, remember Goldberry’s answer to that question.