Tom Bombadil – who, what, why and where?

“And even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).”
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No 144, dated 1954

Tom Bombadil was one of the characters that originated before “The Lord of the Rings”. He started as a doll owned by one of the Tolkien children, adventuring around the countryside, and then was named by Tolkien as being “the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside”

He was one of the remaining parts of Tolkien’s early writings to make his way into “The Lord of the Rings”, if in a slightly strange and anachronistic way. He just “is”, a master of the hills and dales, unaffected by the Ring, living with the beautiful and bright Goldberry, an enigma both to those in Middle-earth and those reading about Middle-earth.

Though it seems clear that Tom must be something to do with the natural world, there have still been a good number of suggestions for what Tom actually is:

– Ilúvatar
– One of the Valar – specifically Aulë, Tulkas or Manwë
– One of the Maiar
– A nature spirit, undescribed in LotR but mentioned elsewhere in the mytholog
– A representation of Tolkien himself.

And no, Tom was not the Witch-King of Angmar, whatever certain spoof sites on the internet may say!

However, only one or two of these ideas can stand up to scrutiny – though it must be remembered that Tolkien never wanted Tom to be anything but an enigma, a personal interpretation.

Flawed ideas

1) Tom as Ilúvatar

Many people see Tom as an embodiment of Ilúvatar in the world, but as Tolkien clearly states in several places that Ilúvatar is not himself present in the world, the validity of this theory must be in doubt:

“The One does not physically inhabit any part of Ea.”
Letters #211

“There is no ’embodiment’ of the Creator anywhere in this story or mythology
Letters #181

And furthermore, he states that:

“The incarnation of God is an infinitely greater thing that anything I would dare to write”
Letters #181

These alone would seem to cast a significant doubt on the idea that Tom is Ilúvatar, but beyond that there is the fact that Tom’s power is not infinite. He did not have the power to overthrow Sauron, as first Elrond and then Galdor say:

“…soon or late the Lord of the Rings would learn of its hiding place and would bend all his power towards it. Could that power be defied by Bombadil alone? I think not. I think that in the end, Bombadil will fall, Last as he was First, and then Night will come.”

“Power to defy our Enemy is not in him, unless such power is in the earth itself.”
The Fellowship of the Ring, The Council of Elrond.

2) Tom as Tolkien

People have suggested that Tom represents Tolkien himself within the story, but this seems unlikely. Tolkien’s views on rural life, maybe, but Tolkien himself, no.

3) Tom as one of the Valar – Aulë, Manwë or Tulkas

At first glance this idea may seem sensible. Tom had power, the Valar had power. The Valar came down into the world, Tom was in the world.

However.

The “Valaquenta” says that of the Valar, eight “were of chief power and reverence”:

“the Aratar, the High Ones of Arda: Manwe and Varda, Ulmo, Yavanna and Aulë, Mandos, Nienna, and Oromë. … in majesty they are peers, surpassing beyond compare all others, whether of the Valar and the Maiar, or of any other order that Ilúvatar has sent into Ea.”

If Tom was either Aulë or Manwë, how could this unparalleled power diminish so greatly to a point where Tom could not best Sauron? One could suggest that being incarnated in the world would affect that Vala’s power, as Morgoth found out to his peril, but to that extent? I think not.

As an aside, another reason that Tom being Aulë is not likely is that Tolkien particularly states in his “Letters” that Wayland Smith – a smith-god of the Anglo-Saxon religion – is not reflected in Tom (or, interestingly, Gollum).

But that still leaves Tulkas. He wasn’t one of the Aratar. However … there is a serious character mismatch between Tom and Tulkas. Tulkas was bright and brash, loving laughter and drinking, hunting, chasing. Tom – was not. Tulkas came to Arda to join battle with Melkor; Tom refuses to take part in the later battles. While the two may look somewhat alike, I think this is the closest they get.

So what about another of the Valar? Couldn’t Tom be a Vala that hasn’t ever been named?

It is possible. Such an idea cannot be proved to be wrong, though here is the usual but … we know that Tom was in Middle-earth when the Elves passed westwards, before the seas were bent into their LotR configuration. We also know that after the destruction of the Lamps, the Valar came seldom over their encircling mountains into Middle-earth, the exceptions being Yavanna and Oromë. And their sojourns in the mortal lands seem to have been simply visits rather than long-term habitation, as seems to be the case with Tom (see below).

Furthermore, we know that the Valar took their stewardship of Arda seriously. And we certainly know that Tom had a different opinion on stewardship.

As Gandalf says, when asked if Bombadil could guard the Ring:

“He might do so, if all the free folk of the world begged him, but he would not understand the need.”

One of the Valar would certainly understand the need.

Possibilities

1) Tom as a Maia
So if Tom was not one of the Valar, could he be one of the numerous Maiar?

This seems to many to be more realistic, and is one of the two theories that cannot be dismissed. However, it does seem that the main reason for thinking like this is negative evidence -–if Tom isn’t a Vala, isn’t Ilúvatar, isn’t a Man, Elf, Dwarf, Dragon, Eagle or anything else, well what’s left?

There are also a few signs that he is of similar “status” to Gandalf.

The quote that shows us the greatest evidence of this similarity to Gandalf is this one, maybe unobvious at first:

“going to have a long talk with Bombadil: such a talk as I have not had in all my time. He is a moss-gatherer, and I have been a stone doomed to rolling. But my rolling days are ending, and now we shall have much to say to one another.”
(Homeward Bound, LotR)

This suggests that Gandalf – one of a Maiar himself – and Tom are of equal status, for two reasons – 1) Gandalf says he had much to discuss with the elusive Tom, and 2) through the similarity of their descriptions – a “moss-gatherer” and a “rolling stone” (a rolling stone gathers no moss, in popular phrase).

There are, however, a few more pieces of evidence that suggest Tom is not a Maia.

The first of these is his indifference to the Ring. The Maiar that we know of – Gandalf, Saruman, Sauron – all have strong reactions to the Ring. They can feel its power, and its lure. Tom, on the other hand was very different:

“if he were given the Ring, he would soon forget it, or most likely throw it away. Such things have no hold on his mind.”
(Council of Elrond, FotR)

However, this does not mean he was not of the Maiar, perhaps just a very different Maia, one with different things on his agenda:

“if you have, as it were taken ‘a vow of poverty’, renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless.”
(Letters #144)

Could one of the Maiar, who participated in the Music of the Ainur and who may well have duties of protection and care over Arda, distance themselves so completely?

Another issue with Tom as Maiar goes back to the fact that he is the Eldest, oldest and fatherless and also “Last as he was First”. Could one of the Maia fulfil those criteria?

Maybe he could be the First if Tom was the first of the Ainur to be created, or the first to enter either Eä or Arda. But what about the Last? How could he be the last of the Maiar if it is also said that Sauron would best him and remain after Tom had gone?

2) Tom as a nature spirit

I should say now that I will try not to be biased, but I do believe that this is the theory that makes most sense.

But wait. What *is* a nature spirit? They don’t seem very familiar … does Tolkien’s world include such things? And actually, yes, it does.

“the sprites of trees and woods, of dale and forest and mountain-side, or those that sing amid the grass at morning and chant among the standing corn at eve. These are… brownies, fays, pixies, leprawns, and what else are they not called, for their number is very great… they were born before the world and are older than its oldest, and are not of it, but laugh at it much, for had they not somewhat to do with its making, so that it is for the most part a play for them…” “These were fays …; no one knows whence they came: they are not of the Valar nor of Melko, but it is thought that they came from the outer void and primeval dark when the world was first fashioned.”
(Book of Lost Tales 1)

“About them fared a great host who are the sprites of trees and woods, of dale and forest and mountain-side, or those that sing amid the grass at morning and chant among the standing corn at eve. These are the Nermir and the Tavari, Nandini and Orossi, brownies, fays, pixies, leprawns, and what else are they not called, yet they must not be confused with the Eldar, for they were born before the world and are older than the oldest…[they] laugh at it much, for had they not somewhat to do with its making, so that it is for most part play for them…”
(Book of Lost Tales 1)

While the idea of nature spirits came from early in the mythology, and seems to fade into the background by the time the canon books were published, of course, the *idea* of such things remains firmly in place, even as far as the fading of the elves into the wild woods in the Fourth Age.

So does Tom fit in with this idea? Yes, in a number of ways, not least in the way Goldberry describes him:

“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. “He is the Master of wood, water and hill.”
“Then all this strange land belongs to him?”
“No indeed!” she answered, and her smile faded. ”That would indeed be a burden,” she added in a low voice, as if to herself.”

1) Tom’s age

“Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn” (LotR, In the House of Tom Bombadil)

“He [Tom] knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless–before the Dark Lord came from Outside” (LotR, In the House of Tom Bombadil).

These quotes fit much more with the idea of a nature spirit than one of the Ainur, or even one of the other races.

2) Tom’s age in the mythology

Tom also had an early beginning, starting as the doll belonging to one of the Tolkien children, and first being seen in print in the Oxford magazine in 1933. His early stories are full of wandering and life, adventures and outings, full of joy and wonder. This continues in later Bombadil creations, even past the years of LotR. In the 1961 poem “Bombadil goes boating”, he visits Farmer Maggot in the Shire, and it is also mentioned that he at least has dealings with Bree and knows of the people there (Barliman being described by Tom as a “worthy keeper” of the Prancing Pony).

He has knowledge of Arnor and its successor states, Arthedain, Cardolan, and Rhudaur. The Dwarves, Northern Men and Elves all have names for him, and it seems that only more recently than their times did he withdraw from the world into his own land with his own boundaries, as our natural world has withdrawn from its ancient hold over the land to smaller enclaves surrounded by urban and suburban sprawl.

3) Nature vs technology

Tom is always described in abstract terms, as if he were the embodiment of a concept or land rather than a real person, and this is emphasised in “Letters” where Tolkien states that:

“Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left for him in the world of Sauron.”
(Letters #144)

This seems to speaks more of the death of the natural world if Sauron’s technology-based power becomes victorious than the simple death of one person if Sauron ends up victorious.

Perhaps Tom represents the ideals of the countryside; the simple life where the concerns of kings and empires are secondary to beauty and sunlight, to the chirping of birds and the opening of flowers. Or perhaps he truly personifies the unsullied countryside, in the way that landscapes and land features were sometimes represented as characters in Tolkien’s work. Examples of this include Caradhras, the river of Gondor (“The River of Gondor will take care at least that no evil creature dishonours his bones.”), and even Ungoliant (“the Primeval Night personified” in BoLT1).

4) Goldberry

Whether Goldberry can shed any light on Tom’s persona is a slightly moot point, relying on the idea that if Goldberry was a nature spirit, then Tom is likely to be too.

Actually, an even stronger connection can be made between her and the nature realm.

Tolkien says:

“We are not in ‘fairy-land’, but in real river-lands in autumn. Goldberry represents the actual seasonal changes in such lands.” (Letters #210)

That seems fairly certain to me. Added to that can be her position as “daughter of the River” and her every description being full of water imagery:

“…there came falling gently as if it was flowing down the rain out of the sky, the clear voice of Goldberry singing up above them. They could hear few words, but it seemed plain to them that the song was a rain song, as sweet as showers on dry hills, that told the tale of a river from the spring in the highlands to the Sea far below.”
–“In the House of Tom Bombadil”

“in a wide pool, deep and clear, far down the Withywindle; there they open first in spring and there they linger latest. By that pool long ago I found the River-daughter, fair young Goldberry sitting in the rushes.”
–“In the House of Tom Bombadil”

“…but at that moment a clear call came rippling down.”
–“Fog on the Barrow-Downs”

Goldberry can be analysed much further, but that falls outside the realm of this FAQ. Enough to say that she seems to add strength to the idea that Tom was some sort of nature-spirit, like herself.

Conclusions: Nature

I think it is safe to say that Tolkien did not like change. At least, not the changes he saw to the world around him through his lifetime. Nothing stayed the same. Progress marched on – even in his beloved Sarehole. When he visited relatives in Birmingham in 1933, he stopped by his old home, only to be horrified at what he saw:

“The old mill still stands, and Mrs Hunt’s still sticks out into the road as it turns uphill; nut the crossing beyond the now fenced-in pool … is now a dangerous crossing alive with motors and red lights. The White Ogre’s house … is become a petrol station, and most of Short Avenue and the elms between it and the crossing have gone. How I envy those whose precious early scenery has not been exposed to such violent and peculiarly hideous change.”

He was similarly sensitive to the damage that was being inflicted on the Oxfordshire countryside by the construction of war-time airfields and the ‘improvement’ and upgrading of roads. Later in life, environmental corruption would become an obsession, and Tolkien would maintain that there was not a single unspoilt wood or hillside left in the land – and that if he did hear of one, he would refuse to go there for fear of seeing it contaminated with litter.

With this mindset, it is easy to see how the remembrances of the natural beauty of his childhood might suffuse his works. How he might want to include a sense of that innocence and unspoilt nature in his mythological world which through the ages starts to suffer the torments of technology with Sauron’s degradations of the land. A way for pacifism and environmentalism to keep a hold, if only a small one. An uncorrupted one. A beautiful one.

Conclusions: The enigmatic Bombadil

Whatever one believes of the above propositions, we are left with the conclusion that Tom remains somewhat of an enigma. And that Tolkien meant him to be such, open to our interpretation, dependent on our own views on nature and nurture.

This sense of elusiveness is shown several times by further quotes from “Letters”, where Tolkien explains several times, to different people, why Tom remains in the story:

“Bombadil is not an important person — to the narrative. I suppose he has some importance as a ‘comment’. I mean, I do not really write like that: he is just an invention (who first appeared in the Oxford Magazine about 1933), and he represents something that I feel important, though I would not be prepared to analyze the feeling precisely. … It is a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war. But the view of Rivendell seems to be that it is an excellent thing to have represented, but that there are in fact things with which it cannot cope; and upon which its existence nonetheless depends. Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left for him in the world of Sauron.”
Letters #144

“…I kept him in, and as he was, because he represents certain things otherwise left out.”
Letters #153

“I do not mean him to be an allegory — or I should not have given him so particular, individual, and ridiculous a name — but ‘allegory’ is the only mode of exhibiting certain functions: he is then an ‘allegory’, or an exemplar, a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science: the spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature, because they are ‘other’ and wholly independent of the inquiring mind, a spirit coeval with the knowledge: Zoology and Botany not Cattle-breeding or Agriculture.”
Letters #153

References:

– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
– The Fellowship of the Ring
– The Book of Lost Tales 1