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Blogging J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" and other aimless pursuits.


FOTR: Bk 1, Ch 7

In The House Of Tom Bombadil

"Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow;
Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow."

Alright, who or what is this Tom Bombadil, anyway? And what is all this gibberish that he keeps singing? Hold on a second. Before anyone asks if Tom was originally supposed to be in Peter Jackson's film, the answer is no, but the folks at Weta Digital designed the photo to the right for a role-playing card game company called Decipher. I thought it was a pretty good representation of Tom, so I thought I'd include it here. The photo of Goldberry below comes from the same source. But before we dive head-long into analysis of Tom Bombadil, we first we need to take a quick look at some of the important parts of the chapter.

As the hobbits enter the house, they are greeted by Goldberry, the "river daughter". After their harrowing experiences in the Old Forest, they have found a place of refuge - and the reader has found a break in the tension.

Goldberry reassures them, saying "Fear Nothing! For tonight you are under the roof of Tom Bombadil." After having tended to their ponies, Tom enters the house and bids the hobbits to wash up for dinner. The six of them then sit down to enjoy "a long and merry meal", after which they gather in front of a warm fire.

Frodo asks Tom what brought him at that particular moment when they were in such need. Was it their calls of distress? Tom says no, "Just chance brought me, if chance you call it. It was no plan of mine, though I was waiting for you. We heard news of you, and learned that you were wandering." We find out later that his knowledge of hobbits and of the Shire is from Farmer Maggot, and it was from Gildor and the elves that Tom found out about their errand as well as their particular identities.

While Frodo has many questions, the other hobbits are anxious for sleep. So Tom sends them off to the four beds awaiting them down the hall. As Frodo sleeps he has another dream - or premonition:
"There loomed before him a black wall of rock, pierced by a dark arch like a great gate. It seemed to Frodo that he was lifted up, and passing over he saw that the rock-wall was a circle of hills, and that within it was a plain, and in the midst of the plain stood a pinnacle of stone, like a vast tower but not made by hands. On its top stood the figure of a man. The moon as it rose seemed to hang for a moment above his head and glistened in his white hair as the wind stirred it. Up from the dark plain below came the crying of fell voices, and the howling of many wolves. Suddenly a shadow, like the shape of great wings, passed across the moon. The figure lifted his arms and a light flashed from the staff that he wielded. A mighty eagle swept down and bore him away."

This dream sequence describes exactly Gandalf's escape from the pinnacle of Orthanc in Isengard on the back of Gwaihir, the Lord of the Eagles. Although, rather than being a form of precognition it is a flash back to events that took place a little over a week prior. Tolkien played with the timeline quite a bit in his revisions and there is little doubt that his original intention was to have the dream and the event take place at about the same time. However he ultimately couldn't reconcile the two events happening simultaneously so he got it as close as he could. In any case, the story means little to the reader who is still unaware of Gandalf's fate. One interesting note is that within this description there is a reference to the wizard's staff. In Peter Jackson's "Fellowship of the Ring", Gandalf is rescued without his staff. How he recovers it when we next see him in Rivendell is not explained. Perhaps a new one was fashioned for him by Elrond's people, just as Galadriel will do after his fight with the Balrog.

Within this chapter there are several uses of the word "ring" in other contexts. For example, Goldberry tells Frodo: "But I see you are an elf-friend; the light in your eyes and the ring in your voice tells it." (emphasis mine) Even Tom's songs are laced with the occasional "ring a ding dillo".

The next day, Tom talks at length with Frodo and the hobbits about stories of the Old Forest and Old Man Willow and the Wights of the Barrow-Downs. At one point, Tom asks Frodo to show him "this precious Ring" - an interesting choice of words. Frodo, curiously, feels no apprehension about handing it over to Tom, who slips it on his pinky. Though it seems to enlarge itself in his possession, Tom does not disappear. Finding the trinket amusing, he himself makes the Ring momentarily disappear before returning it to Frodo. The Ring seems to have no power over Bombadil. As Tom talks with the other hobbits, Frodo slips the Ring on his own finger to make sure it is the very same Ring he handed over. As he steps away from group, Tom's eyes follow him and he insists that Frodo come back and sit with them. He can see Frodo even though Merry, Pippin and Sam cannot.

One thing I noticed about this encounter that I hadn't before is that at one point while he is handling the ring, Tom holds it up to look through it.

"For a second the hobbits had a vision, both comical and alarming, of his bright blue eye gleaming through a circle of gold."

Contrast this image to the red Eye of Sauron that is often associated with the circle of the Ring. It's as if Tom's pure goodness is deliberately used to contrast the pure evil of Sauron. One might be inclined to take this as Tom being the reverse of Sauron in every way. While Sauron is obsessed with power and domination, Tom, while being "Master" of wood, water and hill, is not the "owner" of the land around him. In fact, the concept of possession is completely foreign to him.

As the guests ready themselves for one more night in the house of Tom Bombadil, their host tells his guests about many things, from the early days of Middle-Earth when the Old Forest was part of a larger "vast forgotten woods" to the times when kings once ruled the land. In talking of his own beginnings, Tom informs them that he was the first being in Middle-Earth, before "the seas were bent" and "the Elves passed westwards". This last reference describes the first journey that most of the Elves took before the First Age to the Undyling Lands after they first awoke at Cuivienen, along the eastern shores of the Sea of Helcar. Since that time many had returned to Middle-Earth but were now - as the Third Age was drawing to a close - heading westward a second time to take the last ships heading out of the Grey Havens. Readers would not get a fuller understanding of such events until "The Silmarillion" was published after Tolkien's death. How the Oxford don must have longed to go off on a huge tangent here and tell these stories in more detail. Alas, there was only room in the tale for him to merely make allusions to them.

Tom advises the hobbits that the next day they should travel North along the Western slopes of the Barrow-Downs to the East Road. He warns them not to "go a-meddling with old stone or cold wights" as they travel. Then he teaches them a rhyme to sing if along the way they should run into trouble - which of course they will.

OK, so now we come to it. Of all the questions asked by fans and scholars alike, "Who is Tom Bombadil?" is probably THE most frequently asked. There are many ideas out there that attempt to analyze to death where he fits into the Tolkien universe. Middle-Earth, as a sub-creation, is so full of detail, organization and classification that many readers are convinced that the mystery of Tom's true identity can be found somewhere within Tolkien's works or letters - like some kind of literary "holy grail" - if one simply takes the time to investigate.

I won't go too deeply into a lot of these theories so as not to thoroughly confuse any Tolkien newbies, but here are some of my favorites:

  1. Tom is Iluvatar. Eru Iluvatar, also know as "The One" is the monotheistic Creator of the Tolkien Universe. He created Arda (Middle-Earth, Valinor and all that is included within the physical world) but is not known to be directly involved with it. This would explain how he is "Master" of his domain as well as his seemingly limitless powers over such creatures as the Old Man Willow. But Tolkien himself dismisses this possibility as evidenced a passage in a letter he wrote in 1956: "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."
  2. Tom is one of the Valar. The Valar are "godlike" spirits inhabiting Valinor across the sea (but removed from Middle-Earth). These divinities are comparable to the gods and goddesses of Greco-Roman mythology and "archangels" in the Judeo-Christian tradition. They answer directly to Eru - The One - and while they generally stay removed from Middle-Earth and its dealings, they have been known to intervene from time-to-time. They are certainly powerful enough to resist the Ring and there is an essay on the web that even chooses a particular pair of Valar that he and Goldberry could be - namely Aule the Smith and his counterpart Yavanna. I find this theory especially intriguing but the web resource called the Encyclopedia of Arda points out that the first Vala to enter Middle-Earth was Melkor (later Morgoth, the Enemy), so Tom's claim of being the first in Middle-Earth would conflict with that claim. Not to mention that Tom seems to have been an inhabitant of Middle-Earth since its inception and all the Valar are accounted for as having lived the last three ages in Valinor.
  3. Tom is a Maia. The Maiar are the lesser divine spirits that live amongst the Valar. Several Maiar have lived in Middle-Earth. Melian not only inhabited Middle-Earth during the First Age but was actually married to the Telerin Elf King Thingol in the land of Doriath (part of Beleriand, which was destroyed at the end of the First Age). Melian's daughter by Thingol was Luthien and among her descendants are Elrond and Arwen (and, technically, Aragorn who is descended from Elrond's brother Elros the first Numenorean King - but that's another story). Sauron, Gandalf, Saruman and the Balrog of Moria are all Maia spirits that took on another form (or forms) upon arriving at Middle-Earth. Still powerful, these lesser "angels" if you will are still susceptible to the power of the Ring. So Tom's ability to resist its properties would- I think - rule out this explanation.
  4. Tom is simply a unique spirit of Nature. This is somewhat plausible. Tom could have been a creation that first appeared at the founding of Arda - preceding all other races- Elves, Ents, Men, etc. This idea is reviewed on this site. But the problem is that Tolkien never really goes into this aspect of his cosmology. While it's a good guess, it's only speculation.

So what do I think? Well, you're probably not going to like it, but here goes. Consider first that Tom Bombadil was created before even The Hobbit as the main character featured in the poem "The Adventures of Tom Bombadil", published in 1933. The inspiration for Tom is supposedly a doll owned by Tolkien's son, Michael. Before he knew exactly where the story of The Lord of the Rings was going, Tom's inclusion was more in keeping with the lighter style of The Hobbit that appears in the earlier drafts. Over time, Tolkien decided to keep him in if for no other reason than he liked him and didn't think he would have the chance to feature him in any other major work.

Perhaps Tolkien liked the idea that Tom represented what a being could be if it was perfect and infallible, not subject to the weaknesses of the other beings in Middle-Earth. Personally, I think dwelling on the question "Why?" is very much like asking George Lucas "Why Jar-Jar Binks?". It's his story and that's the deal. In 1954, Tolkien wrote of Bombadil in a letter, explaining that "...I kept him in, and as he was, because he represents certain things otherwise left out". Gene Hargrove, at the site I referenced above, sums it up best at the end of his extensive essay. Tom Bombadil "is located at the core of morality as it existed in Middle-earth, as the ultimate exemplification of the proper moral stance toward power, pride, and possession. In fact, in terms of the moral traits that most fascinated Tolkien both as an author and as a scholar, Tom Bombadil is Tolkien's moral ideal."

And so for all the analysis and speculation, Tom Bombadil remains an enigma in the Tolkien universe. At the very least, it is plausible that his importance to the story as well as the War of the Ring itself can be reconciled by the idea that he was a being with connections to either Eru or the Valar. But the individual reader can assign whatever theory they like if it makes the character more interesting in the context of the larger story. But the bottom line is that the only answer one can give to the question "Who is Tom Bombadil?", is the one given to Frodo by Goldberry: "He is."

[Chronology: September 26th through September 28th 3018 T.A.]

Next: Fog On The Barrow-Downs

(revised 8/21/06)


At 6:52 PM, Blogger Lord Floppington said...

Back in Chapter 2, you noted how the personality, or qualities, of an individual may be a factor in how the Ring affects that individual, along with several examples from Tom Shippey. This might square with your notion of Tom as an infallible ideal type who doesn't have weaknesses to be exploited by the Ring. Therefore, to him it remains just a pretty trinket without any magical powers.

Tom's immunity to the Ring begs the question of why he didn't just keep it or destroy it himself, and put an end to all the suffering that follows. Of course, then we wouldn't have the books to enjoy, but do you have thoughts on other reasons? (I still haven't dragged out my copy yet, so I can't recall if that question was answered in the chapter.)

At 7:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's a very good question. First, because he has no desire for power I don't think it holds any attraction for it. And Tom seems to care little for ornate things like jewelry - seeing them merely as trinkets. He probably understands - as Gandalf does that he can't just take it from Frodo. And Frodo never offers it to him. Tom seems to have his focus on things of the natural world - like his water lillies for Goldberry.

It did come up at "The Council of Elrond" as an idea to give the ring to Tom for safekeeping, but Gandalf expressed his concern that Tom would not understand the need to guard it safely and he wouldn't be able to withstand an attack by the forces of Sauron.

As for destroying it, he had no means to do so - save throwing it into the fires of Mt. Doom. It is unlikely that he - even with his powers - would be able to accomplish this.

Glorfindel also remarks that "I think that in the end, if all else in conquered, Bombadil will fall, Last as he was First; and then night will come (FOTR, p. 279).

No, the irony is that despite Tom's seeming to be superfluous to the whole story, his presence does make a significant difference in the end. As we shall see in the next chapter.

At 11:51 AM, Blogger CMWoodall said...

I also remember Gandalf consulting with Tom after the ring was destroyed. I wonder if that had anything to do with "who" he was.
Maybe you can interact with that in your current re-postings on the books.

At 12:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There doesn't seem to be anything referencing Gandalf's visit to Tom in any of Tolkien's notes or revisions. My guess is that he needed a reason to pry the Istari away from the hobbits so that they could "Scoure" the Shire on their own. He made it clear that they had grown in their adventures and they must handle it on their own in Chapter Seven of Book Six.

I suppose he could have remained at Rivendell. But no matter who Bombadil was in Tolkien's Universe I'm sure he intended for him to have some kind of connection to either the Valar or Eru himself.

Interesting topic for debate, though.

At 4:15 PM, Anonymous wilwarin said...

I have the feeling you have been thinking a lot about Tom Bombadil. It is interesting that the word "ring" is so often used in this chapter; I never recognized this. But, well, I first read it in German, and now have a first read in English, which is so much better!

As for Tom's identity, I think you are right. I always sensed that the beginning was lighter, more like the Hobbit. Especially when this fox is actually thinking it odd to see Hobbits...
This is so tale-like (I think it is also very present in the films and one reason I like the first one best).
Anyway, Tom is magical in his very own way.


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