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.
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:
- Affinity for song
- Power of song
Beings like him
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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