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Features, Legendarium, Tolkien 101

Tolkien 101: Tom Bombadil

01.19.11 | Kunochan | 22 Comments

Who the hell is Tom Bombadil?

If your familiarity with Tolkien’s Legendarium comes entirely from the movies, your mystification is easily explained – he wasn’t in the films. At all. He joins a list of characters – Glorfindel, Radagast the Brown, Prince Imrahil, Elladan and Elrohir – cut from the film story for a variety of reasons.

But if you have read The Lord of the Rings, you are no doubt still asking the question. Who is Bombadil? And if you have hope that reading The Silmarillion or The History of Middle-earth might give you an answer, prepare for more disappointment.

Bombadil generates more pages of academic and fan speculation than even the absurd Balrog Wing Controversy. Here’s a quick rundown of what we do know about this enigmatic and mildly annoying literary figure.

Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow; bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow. He lives in the Old Forest just beyond Buckland, east of The Shire; and he is either unwilling or incapable of leaving the forest. He dwells in a house there, on the River Withywindle, with his bride, Goldberry the River-daughter.

Pursued into Buckland by the Black Riders and desperate to get to Bree, the four Hobbits decide to cut through the Old Forest. It’s a place of fear for most Hobbits, but Merry’s family is familiar with the forest, at least with parts of it. Disaster strikes when Merry and Pippin are trapped by the evil Old Man Willow, a semi-sentient, semi-mobile tree. Frodo’s cries for help bring Tom Bombadil a-running, and it quickly becomes apparent that this strange man-like entity can control or dominate anything in the Old Forest by singing to it.

The Hobbits stay with Tom and Goldberry for a few days, and Tom demonstrates that the One Ring has no effect on nor hold over him. Then the Hobbits head on their way –

–until they become lost in the fog and are kidnapped by the Barrowwights of the Tyrn Gorthad or Barrow Downs. Frodo sings a song to summon Tom Bombadil, who throws opens the barrows, scatters or dispels the ancient wights, and pulls the Hobbits back out into the sun. The Hobbits each get shiny new Elvish blades from the treasure pile, and Tom decides to personally escort the Halflings to the Road. He will not however leave his land to give them any further aid.

Bombadil makes no further appearances in LOTR, although he is discussed on two occasions. At the Council of Elrond, it is decided not to trust Bombadil with ensuring the security of the One Ring; and as the Hobbits approach the Shire on their return home, Gandalf takes his leave to go visit Bombadil (and to let the Hobbits handle certain problems in The Shire without wizardly interference).

Bombadil also appears in several poems Tolkien wrote, with elements consistent with the version of the character, as well as the Middle-earth locales, that appear in LOTR.

All of Bombadil’s names (except the nonsensical “Tom Bombadil”) mean “Eldest’; and it is implied several times that Bombadil is the oldest being in Arda, although other mentions would give that honor to Sauron or Treebeard. His Sindarin name, for instance, Iarwain Ben-adar, means “eldest and fatherless.” Certainly some kind of mythological background is implied here, even if it’s not provided.

Where did Bombadil come from? As a character, Tolkien based him on a Dutch doll owned by his children. The creation of Bombadil far predates LOTR, and Bombadil was included in the story from the first draft. He was one of Tolkien’s favorite creations, and he included Tom in LOTR solely for personal satisfaction.

But there are two problems with including Bombadil in LOTR. The first is narrative. Bombadil serves no purpose in the story. Indeed, he stops the story cold, plucking the Hobbits out of danger like a deus ex machina and holding the action hostage for almost three chapters.

He even undermines the tone of the story by eliminating the dramatic tension built up to that point. The One Ring doesn’t affect Bombadil, so why is it so important again? And the Barrowwights are clearly servants of the greater Darkness in the East, like the Ringwraiths – yet Bombadil can dispel them with a simple song. The kind of person who asks why Frodo didn’t fly Eagles from Rivendell to Mount Doom might also ask why Bombadil doesn’t do everyone a favor and throw the Ring in the Fire himself! (This last point is answered at the Council of Elrond, but Bombadil’s indifference to the suffering of countless people worldwide kind of makes him out to be a real dick.)

The second problem? Tom Bombadil does not fit into the Legendarium. At all.

Fans and scholars have suggested that Bombadil is (a) the spirit of the British countryside, (b) a forest spirit, (c) a wayward Istar or Wizard, (d) an angelic Maia or Vala, or (e) even Eru Ilúvatar or God itself. As far as that last interpretation, it’s hard to interpret “eldest and fatherless” a different way. Plus, when asked who Tom is, Goldberry replies “he is,” which echoes the “I am That Which I Am” quote that marks Yahwist archetypes from the Hebrew God to Popeye the Sailor Man.

But Tolkien denied all these interpretations, and none of them really fit. The truth is, Tolkien didn’t bother to make Bombadil fit into his universe, because he didn’t care to do so. Tom Bombadil is in The Lord of the Rings because Tolkien enjoyed writing about him, and I think for no other reason.

From Tolkien’s Letters: “And even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).”

More info: for info about the image, read this, then this; and watch Stephen Colbert and Neil Gaiman throw down over Bombadil on The Colbert Report.

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