I must be a glutton for punishment, as I keep wading into the murkiest, strangest, and most controversial sections of the Legendarium. Today is no exception….love him or hate him, few characters have seen more questions asked, more words spilled, and (dare I say it) more complete and utter misconceptions than that of Tom Bombadil. For such a merry fellow, he seems to have generated much more than his share of angst over the decades.
Despite this long-running furor, I believe that through careful reading of all the available material, it’s possible to at the very least debunk some misconceptions about this jolly yet mysterious figure.
Tom in the Legendarium
Although he’s such a popular and controversial figure, Tom Bombadil only shows up briefly in The Lord of the Rings and not at all in The Hobbit or The Silmarillion. Questions about him abounded even early on, though, so there are quite a few references in Tolkien’s letters – more, I would say, than in Tolkien’s actual published works!
We first encounter Tom in Book 1, Chapter 7, “The Old Forest,” where he saves the Hobbits from a bit of a pickle they’ve gotten themselves into. Over the next couple of chapters we have a chance to learn several things about him which could hardly fail to pique the interest of a reader:
- He gets information from many sources, including Farmer Maggot and the Elves.
- He seems to have great power – he overcomes Old Man Willow and the Barrow-wight, and even the Nazgûl who are feverishly looking for the Ring want nothing to do with him.
- He claims to be the Eldest, saying that he remembers “the first raindrop and the first acorn,” as well as having been already present “before the Dark Lord came from Outside.”
- The Ring has no hold over him. He puts it on and remains unaffected. Indeed, he is one of the very few characters in the Legendarium to wear the Ring and then relinquish it willingly.
That is, essentially, it. He’s mentioned a few more times throughout the books, and as they’re returning to the Shire at the end of The Return of the King, Gandalf leaves the party to go have a chat with old Tom. The only other appearance of note is in the Council of Elrond, when Erestor Half-elven suggests that the Ring be given to Tom for safe-keeping; a proposal rejected by both Elrond and Gandalf.
There are also two poems involving Tom, but I will address these in their own section.
The character of Tom Bombadil first appeared in the Oxford Magazine as the eponymous hero of the poem The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. The poem is a lighthearted tale of merry Tom who goes wandering about his domain, cheerfully indifferent to the attempts of various malefactors to capture him. Old Man Willow and the Barrow-wight are among his antagonists.
(It originally surprised me to find that such a creepy, dark creature as the Barrow-wight would have its origins in an otherwise light and cheerful tale such as The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. But it certainly does show up there, and is one example out of many of Tolkien taking elements from elsewhere and inserting them into the Legendarium whether they properly “fit” or not. This may sound like a criticism, but it’s merely an observation. I believe it’s relevant because Tom himself is another example of outside character insertion, and keeping this fact in mind will help our understanding of the character.)
Though the original story could take place anywhere, Tolkien published a sequel several decades later which definitively takes place in Middle-earth, entitled Bombadil Goes Boating. Although this second poem was written after the publication of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the first poem predates the publication of The Hobbit by a few years.
The origins of Tom stretch even further back than the publication of the original poem in 1934, however. As Humphery Carpenter recounts in his biography of Tolkien:
…Tom Bombadil was a well-known figure in the Tolkien family, for the character was based on a Dutch doll that belonged to Michael. The doll looked very splendid with the feather in its hat, but John did not like it and one day stuffed it down the lavatory. Tom was rescued, and survived to become the hero of a poem by the children’s father, ‘The Adventures of Tom Bombadil’, which was published in the Oxford Magazine in 1934. It tells of Tom’s encounters with ‘Goldberry, the River-woman’s daughter’, with the ‘Old Man Willow’ which shuts him up in a crack of its bole…with a family of badgers, and with a ‘Barrow-wight’, a ghost from a prehistoric grave of the type found on the Berkshire Downs not far from Oxford.
Humphery Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien, A Biography, “The Storyteller”
Tolkien, a storyteller through and through, was always using his surroundings as the seeds for yet another story. Bombadil was one such seed; one which sprouted into a publishable work.
In short, Tom Bombadil is a cameo appearance of a character created by Tolkien based on a doll that he’d previously published a poem about.
Are the poems about Tom canonical to the Legendarium?
This is a very reasonable question which many readers may well ask and wonder about. However, as is true for many such questions regarding Tolkien’s universe, the question itself embodies certain misapprehensions which render it unanswerable.
In-universe, both The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Bombadil Goes Boating are considered to be Hobbit-lore, fun stories that parents might tell their children (much as Tolkien himself told stories to his children!) but no more “real” than Peter Rabbit or the Easter bunny. There is the curious appearance of Farmer Maggot, a character still alive during the events of The Lord of the Rings, but several explanations present themselves (Maggot was inserted into the tale because he had become a Shire fixture and many would know his name; or perhaps the Farmer Maggot present in The Lord of the Rings is but the latest in a long line of Farmers Maggot and the tale refers to one of his ancestors).
As a linguist and literary historian, Tolkien himself was very familiar with the challenge of establishing how well (if at all) legendary tales and myths are grounded in reality. As any historian can tell you, when it comes to the historical record there is no “canon.” There are merely degrees of certainty arising by the amount of corroboration obtained from various primary, secondary, and tertiary sources.
So in one sense, yes, the poems are canon. They are a part of the fictional world, recounted via oral tradition by Hobbits throughout the generations. But Tolkien did not write any of his books with authorial fiat. Rather, the whole of the Legendarium is presented through the conceit of the storyteller; the in-universe author who is simply recording what he has seen and heard. Much like Vyasa in the Hindu tradition is both the storyteller of and a figure appearing in the Mahābhārata, the teller of tales becomes intertwined in his own tale.
Thus, our question. The poems about Tom are written within the world of Middle-earth and are legitimately present therein. But to what degree did the events they describe actually happen in-universe? We as readers are left to make that judgment for ourselves.
OK, but seriously though…just tell me the answer
When Tolkien wrote Tom’s sections of The Fellowship of the Ring, he wrote them as though the events in the original poem were true in-universe. There are a number of corroborations, and of course Tom re-encounters (and once again overcomes) his opponents from the poem. There is no reason to assume that the events in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil are anything but true in-universe.
Bombadil Goes Boating is, surprisingly, more problematic (surprising in the sense that it was written after the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring and thus could be expected to corroborate its statements). In the poem, Tom visits Farmer Maggot, who lives in the Shire. Both Gandalf and Tom himself state that Tom has chosen to remain bound to “his” country (when he sees the Hobbits off, he says “Tom’s country ends here: he will not pass the borders”), so either Tom considers the Eastfarthing of the Shire to be part of his country, or these borders are more permeable than he lets on.
In any case, Tolkien intended the latter poem to integrate Bombadil into Middle-earth, and thus should be considered as reliable as oral tradition ever is.
How did Tom wind up in The Lord of the Rings?
Tolkien had been writing stories for years before the publication of The Hobbit. In fact, he had already been working on The Silmarillion for some time. He had made various attempts to sell some longer works of fiction to a publisher, without much success. He had written The Hobbit in the early 1930s, and through a series of coincidences it wound up published (charmingly, Stanley Unwin of the publishing house George Allen & Unwin gave the manuscript to his 10 year old son, whose enthusiastic endorsement sealed the deal). Tolkien recounts this happening in a letter to former student W.H. Auden, and also mentions that this same son, then grown, was instrumental in The Lord of the Rings reaching publication some two decades later.
As it happens, The Hobbit was not intended to be part of the same overall universe that Tolkien was creating in his work on The Silmarillion. He definitely borrowed some characters and names, but did not spend much time making sure that the story fit. Which may have been for the best; in any case, the story was published to significant critical acclaim. Enough acclaim, in fact, that the publisher asked him if he wouldn’t mind writing a sequel.
When Tolkien began the manuscript which would eventually become The Lord of the Rings, he intended to create another relatively lighthearted Hobbitish adventure. You can certainly see some of those roots in the first few chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring. As the five (for there were originally five) Hobbits went off together on an adventure, encountering mushrooms and Elves and seemingly sentient foxes, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to add his old friend Tom Bombadil in as a sort of cameo. Why not? Tom is a merry fellow, and he fit right in with the jolly mood.
As Tolkien continued writing, however, he got a sense for how epic the story was. He also realized that this tale would be much weightier, not at all a book for children. He inserted a chapter where Gandalf spends quite a long time delivering exposition about the Dark Lord and his Ring. He modified the story about how Bilbo came by the Ring in the first place. What was going to be another Hobbit adventure turned into something much broader and more epic. Something that dragged its predecessor behind it in its wake. As Christopher Tolkien puts it:
The importance of The Hobbit in the history of the evolution of Middle-earth lies then, at this time, in the fact that it was published, and that a sequel to it was demanded. As a result, from the nature of The Lord of the Rings as it evolved, The Hobbit was drawn into Middle-earth – and transformed it; but as it stood in 1937 it was not a part of it.
Christopher Tolkien, The Return of the Shadow (History of Middle-Earth volume 6), “Foreward”
When in the course of his revisions he came to the chapters featuring Tom, Tolkien found himself loath to remove or even revise him heavily. Over the years Tom had come to represent quite a lot to his creator, and he remained in the final draft for publication.
Why did Tolkien keep Tom in Middle-earth?
So we understand how Tom wound up in The Fellowship of the Ring and why he doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the book’s tone, but why did he survive all the revisions that Tolkien did?
In a letter to his proofreader Naomi Mitchison, Tolkien attempts to explain why he left Tom in, and as he was:
As a story, I think it is good that there should be a lot of things unexplained (especially if an explanation actually exists); and I have perhaps from this point of view erred in trying to explain too much, and give too much past history. Many readers have, for instance, rather stuck at the Council of Elrond. And even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).
JRR Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 144
OK, so I’ve written nearly four thousand words already to say what Tolkien just outright stated: Tom is an intentional enigma. If you find yourself confused by Tom or frustrated trying to place him into the natural order of things, Professor Tolkien’s response is: “good.”
Ironically, it is Tom’s enigma, his sense of unbelonging, which cause some to intensely dislike his presence in the Legendarium. Tolkien here seems to be intentionally violating the principle of sub-creation which he himself put forth:
What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside.
JRR Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”
For some, Tom’s presence in the story causes that disbelief. It seems, though, that Tolkien’s goal is not so much to prompt disbelief in his readers as it is to stretch his world from the inside. Much as an object which just slightly does not fit into a bag can, if forced into the container, stretch the bag to fit its contents, it is Tolkien’s assertion that by including an intentional enigma – an element which does not quite fit – he stretches his creation to newer, larger dimensions.
He elaborates on this theme in another letter:
Also T.B. exhibits another point in his attitude to the Ring, and its failure to affect him. You must concentrate on some pan, probably relatively small, of the World (Universe), whether to tell a tale, however long, or to learn anything however fundamental – and therefore much will from that ‘point of view’ be left out, distorted on the circumference, or seem a discordant oddity. The power of the Ring over all concerned, even the Wizards or Emissaries, is not a delusion – but it is not the whole picture, even of the then state and content of that pan of the Universe.
JRR Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 153
In other words, Tom is in the story to enlarge the world by his presence.
Who, or what, actually is Tom?
Now this is the big question.
Some people, upon reading The Lord of the Rings, devour the appendices and find their curiosity piqued. Filled with a thirst to know more, they then read The Silmarillion. This latter establishes a very neat hierarchy of beings: Eru created the Ainur; those Ainur who descended into Arda are divided into the greater Valar and the lesser Maiar. Eru also created Men and Elves, his Children. He also grants souls to Aulë’s children, the Dwarves, and provides being to Yavanna’s Ents and Manwë’s Great Eagles.
Armed with this knowledge, these Tolkien readers then ask themselves the question: which of these things is Tom?
(Closely followed by “which of these things is Ungoliant?” and “what exactly is up with Orcs?”, two topics far too broad to address here.)
Let’s start by looking at what Tom is not.
Is Tom one of the Children of Ilúvatar?
Tom has been around too long to be a Man. Could he be an Elf? Well, he himself claims to pre-date the Elves – he says “When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent” – and there is ample evidence that he is not in fact Elven. It seems unlikely that any of the Children would be unaffected by the One Ring, and in appearance he was closer to Hobbits than Elves. I’m not sure anyone is arguing seriously for Tom to be one of the Children, so we can put this question to rest right here: no, he is not.
Is Tom a random Maia, gone native?
Some note similarities between Tom and Radagast the Brown, one of the Wizards (such as Gandalf and Saruman), and think that perhaps, like Radagast, Tom could be a Maia. The Maiar were, in very early drafts, much more like nature spirits – something that Tom does somewhat resemble. Whenever this topic comes up for debate, the “Tom as Maia” side always has its proponents.
However, there are a few problems with this theory.
The first comes from Tom’s seeming immunity – and indifference – to the Ring. Powerful Maiar such as Gandalf and Saruman were still tempted by the Ring, and still subject to its powers. Gandalf, for instance, could not see Bilbo when he had the Ring on. However, Tom could see Frodo when he was trying to sneak off while invisible with the Ring, and seems entirely immune to its draw.
In fact, Tom seems overall to be quite powerful for a Maia, which presents the second problem. While Maiar such as Gandalf, Saruman, Sauron, Melian, and Durin’s Bane are seen to fight their enemies using largely conventional methods, Tom shows mastery over his domain with just a song. Tom can overcome the power of the Barrow-wight with little more than his good cheer and some merry verse, something that a Maia could simply not do.
The third challenge comes from the claims that Tom makes about himself. We’ll address some of these claims in a later section, but Tom claims to predate the Ainur themselves, at least on Arda. It’s certainly possible to dismiss Tom’s words as hyperbole, but it doesn’t seem like Tolkien had Maiar in mind while he was writing about Tom.
Is Tom one of the Valar?
Although I said above that Tom seems too powerful to be a Maia, he is not powerful enough to be one of the Valar.
It’s quite popular to associate Tom with Aulë the smith, mostly because Goldberry seems to bear some similarities to Yavanna, his wife. However, this theory does not withstand even the most casual inspection:
- Elrond states that if it came down to Sauron vs. Bombadil, the latter would lose. However, Sauron himself would be quite unlikely to withstand the might of even one Vala.
- Aulë is the Vala of craft, forging, and fire. Tom displays none of these characteristics. In fact, Tolkien states that Bombadil embodies the quest for knowledge for its own sake, while Aulë unquestionably embodies the use of knowledge for practical purposes (i.e. to create things).
- Aulë is also the creator of the Dwarves, so if he were to incarnate into Middle-earth, it seems likely that he would live near his creations, not near the Hobbits.
- The Vala are significant characters in The Silmarillion, and were Aulë to incarnate himself into Middle-earth – an act unprecedented by any of the Valar – it would surely be mentioned somewhere in all the Legendarium.
- The above objection regarding Tom’s claims about himself also holds true for the Valar as well.
In short, I don’t see the Tom-as-Vala theory to be any more tenable than any of the above.
Is Tom Eru Ilúvatar himself?
Alongside the Maia theory, a common answer offered up for Tom’s identity is that Tom is actually the creator god of Middle-earth and all of Arda around it: Eru himself.
This theory is not formulated from thin air. In fact, one of the only ways for all Tom’s claims about himself to be true is for him to be Eru. However, it’s not the only way, and there are critical flaws in this theory, even given the necessary supposition that Eru chose to intentionally limit his power.
In-universe, the most critical objection (of many) to this theory is that Eru directly intervenes in Arda’s history on a few occasions, all occurring during Tom’s lifetime. These interventions would requre Eru to be simultaneously limited (in the form of Tom Bombadil) and unlimited (in the form of Eru the creator).
It’s possible to go back and forth on this theory for quite a bit, but ultimately, Professor Tolkien himself has the final word:
It is, I should say, a ‘monotheistic but “sub-creational” mythology’. There is no embodiment of the One, of God, who indeed remains remote, outside the World, and only directly accessible to the Valar or Rulers. … The Incarnation of God is an infinitely greater thing than anything I would dare to write.
JRR Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 181
By the time he penned that letter, Tom Bombadil as a character had long been written. So we can know, as well as we can know anything in the Legendarium, that Tom is not an incarnation of Eru.
Is there anything left?
Well…er…yes and no.
The above list covers the major types of living things one might encounter in Middle-earth, and we have determined that Tom is not any of these things. But Middle-earth is a place filled with spirits. There are the spirits of the dead confined to the world of the living. There are the spirits from afar which inhabit the plants and animals to grant them speech and thought, creating Ents and Great Eagles and the like. There are spirits given names, the Maiar and the Valar; but there are also spirits which are left as…spirits. Some have noted that the original conception of the Maiar was in fact as nature spirits similar to Goldberry, and Tom fits reasonably well into that mold. Perhaps Tom is some sort of…spirit? Not exactly like the fëa of the Children of Ilúvatar, but more like the Ainur.
Early on, Tolkien seemed to consider Tom as such:
Do you think Tom Bombadil, the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside, could be made into the hero of a story? Or is he, as I suspect, fully enshrined in the enclosed verses?
JRR Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 19
In this letter, Tolkien refers to his creation as a sort of nature spirit. Tom Bombadil (as he existed in 1937) represented the embodiment and soul of the countryside Tolkien saw disappearing around him in Oxfordshire.
Of course, while much has been made of that casual description Tolkien made of his creation, we must note that he was not formalizing any sort of taxonomy or typology. He was simply summarizing in very brief what the character of Tom meant to him. Keep in mind that at the time this letter was published, The Hobbit was still an independent work, only very loosely connected to The Silmarillion that he’d been working on, and The Lord of the Rings had not been conceived of yet. Tolkien was not suggesting that this is the role Tom plays in Middle-earth; merely stating how he viewed Tom as an independent character.
However, even if we do decide that Tom is some sort of spirit or spiritual being, that answer feels slightly unsatisfying. After all, Tolkien does not go into detail about such things, and in fact the presence and nature of such spirits must largely be inferred from his work.
Ultimately, the exact nature of Bombadil will have to remain a mystery. As Tolkien himself said: Tom is an intentional enigma.
Is Tom really the eldest creature in Middle-earth?
Eldest, that’s what I am. Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn. He made paths before the Big People, and saw the Little People arriving. He was here before the Kings and the graves and the Barrow-wights. When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent. He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless - before the Dark Lord came from Outside.
Tom Bombadil, JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, “In the House of Tom Bombadil”
In this chapter, Tom makes a very preposterous claim about himself. You don’t have to be intimately familiar with the creation story of Arda to realize that Tom is claiming to predate nearly everything that exists!
“Before the seas were bent” isn’t too bad…that was near the end of the Second Age. Making paths before the Big People (i.e., Men) is OK too, I suppose…the awakening of Men is generally said to have happened on the first real “day” – after the creation of the Sun and Moon – which marks the start of the First Age. But there are older things…such as the Elves, whose awakening occurred during what is known as the Years of the Trees in a place called Cuiviénen to the east of Middle-earth. It seems odd that Tom would conflate the Westward journey of the Elves with the bending of the seas, two events which occurred millennia apart.
Tom continues to make ridiculous and nonsensical statements. He “Knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless - before the Dark Lord came from Outside?” Is he implying that he existed on Arda before the Valar came?
Christopher Tolkien himself puzzled over these statements:
In FR Tom Bombadil calls himself “Eldest”, not “aborigine” (cf. the notes given on p. 117; “Tom is an “aborigine”); and the reference here to his having seen “the Sun rise in the West and the Moon following was dropped (though “Tom remembers the first acorn and the first rain-drop”, which was retained, says the same). These words are extremely surprising….
Tom Bombadil was ‘there’ during the Ages of the Stars, before Morgoth came back to Middle-earth after the destruction of the Trees; is it to this event that he referred in his words (retained in FR) ‘He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless - before the Dark Lord came from Outside’? It must be said that it seems unlikely that Bombadil would refer to Valinor across the Great Sea as ‘Outside’, especially since this was long ages ‘before the seas were bent’, when Numenor was drowned; it would seem much more natural to interpret the word as meaning ‘the Outer Dark’, ‘the Void’ beyond the Walls of the World. But in the mythology as it was when my father began The Lord of the Rings, Melkor entered ‘the World’ with the other Valar, and never left it until his final defeat. It was only with his return to The Silmarillion after The Lord of the Rings was completed that there entered the account found in the published work (pp. 35 - 7) of the First War, in which Melkor was defeated by Tulkas and driven into the Outer Dark, from which he returned in secret while the Valar were resting from their labours on the Isle of Almaren, and overthrew the Lamps, ending the Spring of Arda. It seems then that either Bombadil must in fact refer to Morgoth’s return from Valinor to Middle-earth, in company with Ungoliant and bearing the Silmarils, or else that my father had already at this date developed a new conception of the earliest history of Melkor.
Christopher Tolkien, The Return of the Shadow (History of Middle-Earth volume 6), “Tom Bombadil”
Tom’s statements, taken as a whole, are not consistent with what we know of the universe. We may be able to divine an out-of-universe answer or even contrive an in-universe one, but relying strictly on the text we cannot come to a definitive conclusion.
An out-of-universe theory
The thoughts in this section are a theory of my own. You will not find direct substantiation for this theory in the text. However, I think I can provide some compelling evidence.
Consider Tolkien’s words here:
I don’t think Tom needs philosophizing about, and is not improved by it. But many have found him an odd or indeed discordant ingredient. 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.
JRR Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 153
As I mentioned above, Tom’s insertion into the story was originally a cameo, which Tolkien himself readily admits in this letter. He was first published in Oxford Magazine in 1934, predating the publication of The Hobbit by three years.
Given the above, I personally believe that when Tom calls himself Eldest, he does so with a wink and a smile, acknowledging his out-of-universe origins. He is Eldest because he predates Middle-earth itself.
Tom is many things – the spirit of the Oxford countryside; a doll that Tolkien’s children played with; an allegory for a pure heart untainted by the desire for power and control; a symbol of the desire for knowledge independent of the practical use for that knowledge; and possibly also a nature spirit tied to the soul of Arda herself. Just because Tom’s grandiloquent claim of Eldership contains an in-joke based on his origins, this does not mean that his words have no basis for truth within the universe as well, of course. But I personally think we must step outside the universe to fully unravel Tom’s words.
There are many more questions one can ask about Tom than even the ones I’ve addressed here, but there are enough words in this essay already. Plus, the answer to many of the questions is “we don’t know for sure,” and I can only write that so many times before raising the question of why I’m writing this essay in the first place.
I don’t expect this piece to be the last word on the subject, but I at least hope it’s a useful contribution to the discussion and a valuable resource to those who want to find out what we do know. I’ve scoured nearly everything that both J.R.R. and Christopher Tolkien wrote, as well as examining a number of secondary sources and scholarly publications. See the bibliography below for a list of what I found through these resources.
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Humphrey Carpenter, editor.
- Letter 19: In this letter to Stanley Unwin, Tolkien only mentions Tom in passing as a possible protagonist to a Hobbit sequel. However, this offhand reference is helpful because it shows what Tom meant to Tolkien before his inclusion in The Fellowship of the Ring.
- Letter 144: I’ve cited this letter between Tolkien and Naomi Mitchison in previous essays as well. She evidently wondered some of the same things about Tom that I and other modern readers have wondered. In this letter, Tolkien specifically frames Tom as a being who has renounced all desire for power and control; this renunciation puts him in contrast even with the powers of good. However, he does note that Tom’s continued existence depends on the victory of the West; were Sauron to overthrow the forces of good, there would be nothing left for Tom. This statement corroborates and expands upon Elrond’s analysis in The Fellowship of the Ring (and provides a second refutation to the Tom-as-Eru hypothesis).
- Letter 153: Tolkien is replying to one Peter Hastings, manager of a Catholic bookstore in Oxford. Mr. Hastings had a few theological concerns about Tolkien’s work, and (relevant to this essay) took exception to Goldberry saying of Tom Bombadil, “He is,” stating that this equates Bombadil with God. Tolkien’s response is helpful, because he spends quite a bit of time explaining his thinking behind what Tom represents. I didn’t quote the entire piece here, but he mentions that Tom represents the spirit of curiosity: knowledge and investigation for its own sake rather than for a practical purpose. It is in this letter that he also greatly expands upon the answer he gave to Ms. Mitchison regarding Tom being an intentional enigma, providing insight into why he would find value in having a character who seems so out of place.
- Letter 181: Tolkien’s response to Michael Straight, editor of the New Republic magazine, who wrote him with some specific questions about The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s answer is fairly lengthy and worth a full read, but at the end he states in no uncertain terms that nothing in the text should be read as representative of God and his incarnation. He says this in the context of Gandalf, whom many of course point out as a Christ-figure. This statement is specifically helpful in the discussion about Tom Bombadil, because many who work through the same logic I do above come to the conclusion that, all other options being ruled out, Tom must in fact be Eru himself. Without this passage it would be much more difficult (though not impossible, certainly) to formulate a definitive counter-argument.
- Letter 210: I don’t actually quote from this letter in the essay, but in it Tolkien itemizes many and varied problems with the screenplay written by Morton Zimmerman for a possible Lord of the Rings film treatment. He dislikes both the portrayal of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, and writes very briefly about what the treatment gets wrong about them.
- Letter 237: Tolkien writes to Rayner Unwin (the formerly 10-year-old child whom Tolkien credits with The Hobbit’s publication) regarding his second Tom poem, Bombadil Goes Boating. He mentions that the poem serves to integrate Tom into the Lord of the Rings world. I mention this integration, but do not specifically quote from the letter in the text itself. Included here for completion.
The Return of the Shadow (History of Middle-Earth volume 6), Christopher Tolkien.
In order to make the numbering of the History of Middle-Earth series more complicated, volumes 6 through 9 are also volumes 1 through 4 of the History of the Lord of the Rings. The first three of these volumes analyze early drafts of the first three volumes of the Lord of the Rings and explain how the story evolved over the years that Tolkien wrote it. Reading these volumes is basically like a combined director’s commentary and deleted scenes for the books, and provides occasionally fascinating insight into Tolkien’s thinking as he revised his successive drafts. What is primarily of interest to me is how little Tom changed through the various drafts, which of course makes sense as his character was already well-defined. However, it served to confirm the theory (also corroborated by the Letters) that Tolkien was loath to revise Tom much. I also drew some information from the forward regarding the efforts made to reconcile the published Hobbit with the new story in The Lord of the Rings, as well as pulling a quote regarding Tom’s claim to being Eldest.
The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien.
There are three chapters which feature Tom most heavily. I quote from “In the House of Tom Bombadil,” but he also plays a major role in “The Old Forest” and “Fog On the Barrow-Downs,” in both cases rescuing the Hobbits from various peril. His name appears in other places (usually in reference to the ponies), but the only other significant mention is (of course) in “The Council of Elrond,” where the possibility of giving the Ring to Tom for safekeeping is discussed and ultimately rejected.
“On Fairy-Stories”, J.R.R. Tolkien.
This classic essay covers a lot of ground and contains a bit of meta-commentary on the genre. The primary focus and importance of the essay is an apologetic for the fantasy (or “fairy-story”) genre as serious literature rather than the realm of children’s books and trade paperbacks. He makes an excellent case and the essay is well worth reading, but I cite it only once here to highlight Tolkien’s remarks on what we might call violating the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief (what Tolkien would call a sub-creative failure).
J.R.R. Tolkien, A Biography, Humphery Carpenter.
Truth be told, I haven’t read Tolkien’s biography. I prefer to focus my energies on his works rather than the man himself. However, I dipped into its pages in this case in order to research Tom’s origins. While doing so, I found not only the lovely quote I provided in this essay but also quite a few engaging tales about how Tolkien was always finding stories in everything around him (I did quite enjoy the entire chapter entitled “The Storyteller”).
“Who is Tom Bombadil?: Interpreting the Light in Frodo Baggins and Tom Bombadil’s Role in the Healing of Traumatic Memory in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings,” Jane Beal, Journal of Tolkien Research.
Dr. Beal’s article is well-researched (if perhaps lengthily-named), and I honestly wish I’d found it earlier because it would have saved me much of the legwork I did to chase down these references on my own (although to be honest I probably would have done the work anyway, for thoroughness’ sake). She has her own section on the identity and nature of Tom, where she considers even many more options than I do (she considers the possibilities, for instance, that Tom is actually the first Man and thus a parallel to Adam in the Biblical creation account or that Tom is a special type of Man such as Beorn, while I lump those options all under the heading “Could Tom be one of the Children?” and then reject them all en masse). She cites and analyzes many of the same passages I do, and if you made it this far in my essay you could probably make it through hers without much difficulty.
“Who is Tom Bombadil? Is There an Answer to the Mystery?” Wisdom from The Lord of the Rings, Stephen C. Winter.
Many words have been spilled on blogs and messageboards regarding Tom and his nature and identity. It would be futile (and pointless) to link them all. However, Stephen Winter has been blogging about Tolkien since 2012(!), and I consider his words to be worth reading. I believe his conclusion is similar to the answer Tolkien would give: Tom Bombadil is nothing more or less than himself. If you ask what he is, the only really true answer is that he is Tom Bombadil. If this answer intrigues you, go give his post (much shorter than this essay!) a read.
Six thousand words is quite a lot to say “I don’t know,” but with Tom that may be the best we can do. While I could not resist sharing my own personal theory regarding Tom’s status as Eldest, I hope overall I have remained faithful to Tolkien’s works and not overstepped. My goal is that even those who disagree with me can read this essay and find it helpful, informative, and well-cited even as they disagree with my conclusions.
I have to say that I have developed more of an appreciation for old Tom over the course of writing this essay. I still find him frustrating in how he breaks the taxonomy and would like to read Tolkien’s own words in “On Fairy-Stories” back to him, but he would likely read back to me his words in Letter 144 about the value of the unexplained. We can enjoy Tom in all his singing and frolicking while we trust that an explanation exists, even if we will never know it for sure.
I hope somehow you found this essay interesting, informative, or at least momentarily diverting. Thank you for reading!