Mysteries are something that in many ways appeals to humans: the unknown is always intriguing. In the world of Arda there are some unresolved mysteries that inspire a lot of questions. Even in such a detailed and thought-out world not everything was explained by Tolkien, so these lacunae often offer a great freedom for speculation. One of the greatest mysteries of Arda is Tom Bombadil.
Most readers first encounter Tom Bombadil in The Lord of the Rings. The initial impression, one must admit, is rather strange and comical:
With another hop and a bound there came into view a man, or so it seemed. At any rate he was too large and heavy for a hobbit, if not quite tall enough for one of the Big People, though he made noise enough for one, stumping along with great yellow boots on his thick legs, and charging through grass and rushes like a cow going down to drink. He had a blue coat and a long brown beard; his eyes were blue and bright, and his face was red as a ripe apple, but creased into a hundred wrinkles of laughter.
(Fellowship of the Ring, p. 158)
However odd the fellow might look, his unusual character is obvious from the onset. He is walking confidently where Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin were misled and enchanted, and reasons with the Old Man Willow with the power of the song to get him to release the trapped hobbits. This alone is enough to show that this strange Bombadil is no ordinary person.
Tom Bombadil was not created especially for The Lord of the Rings, though. By the time Tolkien began writing the sequel to The Hobbit, Tom had been in existence for several years: the poem The Adventures of Tom Bombadil was published in the Oxford Magazine in 1934. This character was also central in other poems, most of them rather whimsical.
Tom Bombadil made it into The Lord of the Rings from the earliest versions of the tale. In a letter Tolkien stated: In historical fact I put him in because I had already ‘invented’ him independently (he first appeared in the Oxford Magazine) and wanted an ‘adventure’ on the way (Letters, № 153). His role in the Hobbits’ journey is very important, albeit brief. In the first notes for the Old Forest chapter Tom’s (and he is not even named then!) singing in the distance saves the hobbits from the malicious Willow so that they make straight to the Barrow-downs and get trapped there. That is where Bombadil makes an appearance, saves the Hobbits from the Barrow-wights and shelters them in his house for one night. Later on, the episode was gradually extended to The Lord of the Rings scale, with first the Hobbits staying at Tom and Goldberry’s house for one night and then — for two nights.
This expansion allowed Tolkien to introduce the character of Tom Bombadil better and show him from various sides. The old man speaks mostly in song and verse, time passes unnoticed when he tells his stories and he has a great talent for asking the right questions so that Frodo is willing to tell him everything and even more, which can be considered beneficial in the Hobbits’ situation. Tom Bombadil appears to be a very knowledgeable person, and his knowledge seems to be first-hand in many details. Everything in his house speaks of his closeness to nature, his being part of it. This resonates really well with Tolkien’s calling Tom “the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside”. The colours in his dwelling are predominantly natural: brown, green, yellow; Tom uses earthenware tubs and serves simple, but natural, food, like butter, cream, honeycomb and berries. Besides, Tom’s understanding of the trees, of nature, of the world around him is deeper that anyone else’s. He knows the hearts of trees and speaks about nature with deep understanding of it as a living being without any desire to dominate it, as all the living beings belong to themselves.
Apart from this, Tom Bombadil has certain powers which add mystery to his character. The One Ring does not have any effect on him and he has a great authority among the living beings:
No one has ever caught old Tom walking in the forest, wading in the water, leaping on the hill-tops under light and shadow. He has no fear.
(Fellowship of the Ring, p. 164)
And that is true. Tom and his house give a sense of comfort, security and something solid that can be relied on. The Hobbits feel that he will be able to deal with any difficulty coming their way, he will even know what to do with the horrible Black Riders. His house is the stronghold of safety, so that nothing passes its doors.
However, there is one aspect that causes numerous speculations, theories and ideas about who and what exactly Tom Bombadil is. Goldberry calls him Master, Tom calls himself the Eldest, and from his own words we learn that he has been living in Arda since the very beginning of its history, has seen many battles won and lost, many heroes come and go. The matter is made even more mysterious by Goldberry’s reply to Frodo’s question:
‘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.
(Fellowship of the Ring, p. 164)
This phrase of Goldberry’s together with those other traits of Tom’s personality led many to consider him to be the embodiment of Eru Ilúvatar. This, however, is not the case. Tolkien addressed the issue in his letters, in reply to some questions and commentaries from his readers. “He is” does not imply that he is the only one, but that there are others as well, so the wording does not equal him with Eru, who is the One. Bombadil’s powers make him very different from many others in the Middle-earth of the Third Age, but should Sauron have won the war, Bombadil would have been on the losing side as well and unable to do much to alter the state of things. He is the being concerned with knowing and understanding of his little realm, unlike other characters in Arda and thus unique, and Tolkien found “philosophizing” about him absolutely unnecessary and not improving Tom as a character.
Tom Bombadil is an intentional mystery in the world of Arda, by the decision of the author. However, his role is unique and special. Tolkien stated: “…he represents something that I feel important, though I would not be prepared to analyze the feeling precisely. I would not, however, have left him in, if he did not have some kind of function” (Letters, № 144). So it seems that we, as readers, should take Tolkien’s word for it: Bombadil is an intentional mystery, but a much needed one.
This essay was written for Tolkien Reading Day 2019 whose topic is ‘Tolkien and the Mysterious’.
My dear reader Jeff Bryant, I dedicate this essay to you! Thank you so much for your ongoing support!
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
- H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).
- J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – The Return of the Shadow; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.
Featured image: The Mill in the Forest by Ivan Shishkin.