In The House Of Tom Bombadil Pt.2, The Lord Of The Rings | SFP009

Of the many enigmatic characters in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Legendarium perhaps none pique the curiosity of readers more than Tom Bombadil. “Who is he” is the question posed by Frodo. “What is he” is the question us Middle-earthlings wished was answered. In this episode of the Secret Fire Podcast we search for clues as we finish chapter seven of The Lord Of The Rings.

Who Is Tom Bombadil?

In The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien number 153, the Professor addressed the concerns of one Peter Hastings, manager of the Newman Bookshop in Oxford. Mr. Hastings was concerned that Tolkien may have overstepped his Catholic beliefs by seemingly equating Tom Bombadil with the “I Am” who spoke to Moses from the burning bush. Tokien’s reply squelches any possibility of Bombail’s divinity:

You have […] paid me the compliment of taking me seriously; though I cannot avoid wondering whether it is not ‘too seriously’, or in the wrong directions.

As for Tom Bombadil, I really do think you are being too serious, besides missing the point. (Again the words used are by Goldberry and Tom not me as a commentator) […] Frodo has asked not ‘what is Tom Bombadil’ but ‘Who is he’. We and he no doubt often laxly confuse the questions. Goldberry gives what I think is the correct answer. We need not go into the sublimities of ‘I am that [I] am’ –which is quite different from he is. She adds as a concession a statement of part of the ‘what’. He is master in a peculiar way: he has no fear, and no desire of possession or domination at all. He merely knows and understands about such things as concern him in his natural little realm. He hardly even judges, and as far as can be seen makes no effort to reform or remove even the Willow.

This image shows inside the house of Tom Bombadil as depicted in The Lord Of Rings Online video game.

Inside the house of Tom Bombadil is refreshing in The Lord Of The Rings Online.

He Is Tom Bombadil

He is not Eru Iluvatar. Tolkien explicitly stated in letter 181 that the idea of God’s Incarnation was too large to fit in his work. But this fact does not end the possibilities, or discussion. We have other options to consider. Here is a brief outline of possible answers:

Tom as an Ainu (plural: Ainur – Holy Ones; Great Ones, Valar and Maiar.)

  • Valar – the fourteen greatest Ainu
    • Tom would have to be one of them
    • No record of Ainur coming to live within Middle-earth (Midgard: dwelling of men)
  • Rogue Maia (unknown number)
    • Possibly Tom had been a Maia that was sent to “test” the newly-created world.

Tom as a Nature Sprite

  • Possibly the embodiment of Arda itself, a “Father Nature”
  • Non-divine nature.
  • Could have been created as a side-effect of the Music of the Ainur. See following:

Tom as the Spirit of the Music of the Ainur

  • Its essence.
  • Would explain his unique power and its limitations:
    • Timelessness
    • Disposition
    • Affinity for song
    • Power of song

Beings like him

  • Ungoliant
    • The Complete Guide To Middle-earth, Robert Foster, p. 515
    • The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien, pp. 73-76, 80-81, 121
      • The Eldar knew not whence she came; but some have said that in ages long before she descended from the darkness that lies about Arda – p. 73

Note: There are mysterious creatures – such as the dark nameless things whose existence Sauron know not, since they are “older than him”, which Gandalf talks about (we’ll get to that – eventually).

What do you think Tom Bombadil is? Let us know in the comments below.

On The Secret Fire Podcast we travel chapter-by-chapter and book-by-book through J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth viewing it through Christian lenses. We invite you to join us each week as we continue the adventure on the Arkenstone server in Lord Of The Rings Online.

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  • Thanks for being gracious – I’ll still try not to over-comment my welcome. 🙂

    I agree with you guys about Tom Bombadil – that, among the many possibilities of who he is, he seems most likely to be an incarnation of the Music of the Ainur. Ultimately, I think he is just a person from Tolkien’s imagination that we fit into the “Legendarium” after the fact – just like Tolkien did himself. The idea was sparked by his son Christopher’s doll, and grew from there, taking on a life of his own. But Tom hearkens back to the themes of music, the power of song, etc.

    I have a specific thought, with regard to Tom – I think that he, and perhaps Goldberry, are incarnations of the very first theme of the Music of the Ainur. This distinction is important in my mind because he would be a manifestation of the Music before Melkor started inserting his own themes and causing discord. For me, Tom and Goldberry are Edenic – that is, they reflect something like life in the Garden of Eden. It isn’t that they lack the knowledge of good and evil, but rather that they are not part of the conflict between good and evil. Where goodness in Middle-Earth is otherwise often connected to contending with the Shadow, Tom and Goldberry don’t contend with anyone or anything. They just are.

    In the text, the Ring clearly has no supernatural, psychological hold on Tom – which makes him unique among all of the creatures who encounter it. It literally has no power over him – not even the power to make him invisible, and he can clearly see Frodo when Frodo is wearing it. He is not part of the struggle surrounding the Ring and all it represents. For him, there’s not much more to be said than that one is better off without the Ring.

    The entrance of Melkor’s discord into the Music of the Ainur is one of the many ways that a fall from grace plays a big part in Tolkien’s work, and I see Tom Bombadil as a character who is defined by the Music before that fall – the Edenic theme, if you will, of a world that hasn’t been broken yet, and doesn’t yet need to be made whole.

    This is also a way that I see Tom as distinct from a character like Ungoliant. She seems to come into the Music as part of the discord that Melkor introduces (and she follows an arc similar to his, initially an ally but later a traitor seeking power for herself). So while they both have their root in the Music, they are in my mind quite different.

    • Direlda Kitsune

      I think the point about Tom Bombadil growing out of one of his son’s dolls is a good one. Just as with Roverandom, it is an incident involving a toy that gives rise to a story, in this case a poem about Tom Bombadil having encounters with various beings, such as Goldberry, Old Man Willow, and a barrow-wight. Supposedly the doll had been rescued after having been thrown in a toilet and that incident gave rise to the poem, “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil,” which is now found in a collection of poems by the same name, but was originally published in the February 1934 issue of Oxford Magazine.

      This origin of Tom Bombadil as a character helps us understand why his demeanor is the way it is–he grew out of the storytelling impulse Tolkien had for his children. There is a whimsical element in Roverandom, Mr. Bliss, The Father Christmas Letters, and The Hobbit that Bombadil shares. But he also has a deeper seriousness about him. In some sense Bombadil is akin to the Shakespearean fool by providing another perspective on the current situation in the story amid mirth. And yet this origin doesn’t address what he is.

      While I, too, like the theory that Bombadil is an incarnation of the Music of the Ainur, ultimately I think the best answer is that Tom Bombadil is Tom Bombadil. The problem of what Bombadil is bears resemblance to the problem the nuns in The Sound of Music have with Maria: “How do you catch a cloud and pin it down? / How do you find a word that means Maria?”. Both characters are enigmas to those around them and both have a perspective that differs from those around them. I agree that it is great fun to wonder about what Bombadil might be and I like the insights that can come from this. However, I think it is also important (as the podcast crew and Mr Underhill have done) to look at what Bombadil’s perspective reveals to us. Such as that the One Ring’s corrupting influence has its limits, namely it doesn’t work on those who don’t desire to have possession or domination of things or people. And when we think of hobbits and how they seem to have less of a desire to rule over things than other beings in Middle Earth, it makes sense that Bilbo would be more resistant to the One Ring’s influences. But even hobbits, for all their giving away of gifts on birthdays and wishing to be let alone as they leave alone, still have some desire to possess.

      I have probably rambled enough for now…
      Blessings and peace!

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