The Bombadil Enigma
WARNING: This is a rather lengthy Lord of the Rings post on a subject of interest to only a handful of people in the inhabited universe. It is written primarily for other Tolkien aficionados who will immediately “get” the references. If you are not a Tolkien aficionado, you are welcome to read it, but side effects may include moderate to severe Tolkienerditis.
One of the most fascinating characters in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is Tom Bombadil. Tom appears early on in the story after Merry and Pippin have been swallowed up by the trunk of Old Man Willow in the Old Forest. Frodo cries for help, and then they encounter Tom Bombadil. Or to be more precise, they hear him. They hear a deep voice happily singing, and then he comes into view along the path.
To say that he looks unusual would be an understatement. He’s taller than a hobbit but shorter than a man. He has a red face covered with wrinkles from his habitual laughter, blue eyes, a long beard, and an old tall hat with a long blue feather in the band. He’s wearing a blue coat and big yellow boots and is using a large leaf to carry a pile of white water-lilies back to his bride. He’s not the kind of person you expect to meet while journeying through an old forest – even an old forest in Middle-earth.
Tom is mentioned a few times in the story as the hobbits continue their journey, but little is said about him until the Council of Elrond. There we learn that he has many names. He is known by the elves, for example, as Iarwain Ben-adar, meaning “oldest and fatherless.” After the council, Tom is rarely mentioned until late in the story. When Frodo and Sam discover that they are in imminent danger in Shelob’s lair, Sam says that he wishes Tom were near them. On the journey home after the destruction of the Ring, Gandalf says he is going to speak with Tom. Finally, at the very end of the story, as Frodo passes into the West, he is reminded of a dream he had when he and the other hobbits stayed in Tom’s house.
Were it not for some of the unusual characteristics displayed by Tom and some of the things said by him and about him by others, he might have been enjoyed by readers in the same way we enjoy many of the other unusual characters the fellowship encounters during its journey. However, precisely because of these unusual things and because of some of the things Tolkien himself said about Tom Bombadil in his letters and elsewhere, readers have been trying for decades to figure out exactly who or what Tom Bombadil is.
Why is Tom Bombadil So Puzzling?
Tolkien’s sub-created world is filled with all manner of beings: an omnipotent Creator (Eru Ilúvatar), the Valar, the Maiar (including the Istari, or wizards), elves, humans, hobbits, dwarves, giant eagles, ents, huorns, skin-changers, mearas, fire-drakes, dragons, wights, wargs, the watcher in the water, orcs, trolls, balrogs, the Nazgûl, fell beasts, large spiders, stone-giants, Mûmakil, Bill the pony, and more.
The origin and nature of many of these beings is fairly well understood within Tolkien’s world. There are some beings, such as Ungoliant, whose exact origin is mysterious, but the most puzzling being in Middle-earth by far is Tom Bombadil. A close second is his bride Goldberry. What makes Tom so puzzling to readers is the fact that many of his actions and characteristics are so unique and odd that they have found it difficult to determine exactly what kind of being he is.
If we begin by looking at what we know about Tom Bombadil from within the Lord of the Rings story itself, we quickly see why he is an enigma.
Tom Bombadil’s Characteristics
First, in the story, Tom is frequently singing. The first time we meet Tom, he is happily singing a strange, seemingly nonsensical, song. After freeing Merry and Pippin, he invites the hobbits to his house and sings along the way. When the hobbits catch up with Tom at his house, he welcomes them with a song. Almost every time we encounter Tom, there is some reference to music and song, and even when he is talking, his speech follows a rhythmic pattern.
Furthermore, Tom’s songs have a mysterious power. The song he is singing when he first appears seems to enchant Sam and Frodo. Another song is the means by which he frees Merry and Pippin from Old Man Willow. When the hobbits later leave his house, Tom teaches them a song to sing if they should fall into any danger. The words are an appeal for Tom to come and help. When they are captured by the Barrow-wight, and Frodo sings this song, Tom appears. Tom then sings a song by which he frees them, drives away the wight, and raises Sam, Merry, and Pippin from their death-like state.
Tom has a bride who also has unusual characteristics. Her name is Goldberry. She too is first heard singing. When the hobbits see her, she is in a chair and around her feet are white water-lilies floating in earthenware vessels. She has long yellow hair and wears a green gown with a golden belt. She refers to herself as the daughter of the River. Her footsteps have the sound of a stream flowing gently downhill, and she moves Frodo’s heart to a joy he doesn’t understand. Goldberry is almost as mysterious as Tom.
We learn that Tom’s memory goes back to ancient days. He tells the hobbits tales of the forest and its creatures, particularly Old Man Willow who, as they already know, is very dangerous. They learn that Old Man Willow’s heart is rotten, but he remains strong. His “song and thought” run through the woods, so that almost all of the trees are under his dominion. Tom’s tales and song then continue to go farther and farther back into history, “into ancient starlight.” His knowledge is vast.
One of the most striking things about Tom is that the Ring seems to have no effect on him. When Frodo hands the ring to Tom, Tom puts it to his eye and laughs. He then puts it on his finger, and he doesn’t vanish from sight. He makes it disappear and then reappear. When Frodo puts the ring on after Tom happily returns it, the hobbits cannot see him, but Tom can. Considering the effect that the Ring has on everyone else in the story, this is unusual to say the least.
Finally, during his last night at Tom’s house, Frodo hears a singing in his mind “a song that seemed to come like a pale light behind a grey rain-curtain, and growing stronger to turn the veil all to glass and silver, until at last it was rolled back, and a far green country opened before him under a swift sunrise.” As he enters a waking state, he notices that Tom is there whistling a tune. This dream-like vision is interesting because we read the same descriptive words at the end of the book, and there they describe what Frodo sees as he sails into the West to the land of the Valar.
Goldberry’s Words about Tom
Goldberry’s words about Tom add to the mystery. When Frodo initially asks Goldberry, “Who is Tom Bombadil?” she answers, “He is.” She goes on to say, “He is as you have seen him.” She then adds, “He is the Master of wood, water, and hill.” She explains that the land doesn’t belong to him, but he is the master. No one has ever caught him. He has no fear. He is master. Three times, in quick succession, she refers to him as “master.” What does this mean?
Tom Bombadil’s Words About Himself
Tom also talks about himself, but his words only draw us deeper into the enigma. When Frodo asks Tom, “Who are you, Master?” Tom says, “Don't you know my name yet? That's the only answer. Tell me, who are you alone, yourself and nameless? But you are young and I am old. 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 also indicates some limits to his knowledge and power. He says, for example, that he is not a master of the weather. He says that his knowledge fails out east and that his country has borders that he will not pass.
What Others Outside the House of Bombadil Say About Tom
Tom and Goldberry are not the only ones who reveal information about him. Several of those who attend the Council of Elrond in Rivendell talk about Tom. To the extent that what they say is accurate, their words have to be taken into account as well.
At the council, Elrond says he had forgotten about Bombadil. He then says that Tom is “a strange creature.” There is no doubt about the truth of this statement. Tom is certainly strange.
Gandalf indicates that Tom does not have power over the Ring, but neither does the Ring have power over Tom. Tom is his own master. Does this comment shed light on the meaning of Goldberry’s repeated statement that Tom is “master”? Gandalf continues by explaining that Tom cannot alter the Ring, and he cannot break the power it has over others. Gandalf then adds: “And now he is withdrawn into a little land, within bounds that he has set, though none can see them, waiting perhaps for a change of days, and he will not step beyond them.”
The elf Erestor asks whether Tom could keep the Ring in his own lands. Gandalf responds that he would not do it willingly. If the whole free world begged him, he might, “but he would not understand the need.” Further, if given the Ring, “he would soon forget it, or most likely throw it away. Such things have no hold on his mind. He would be a most unsafe guardian.” Why would Tom not understand the need? Why do such things have no hold on Tom’s mind?
The elf Glorfindel says taking the Ring to Tom would only postpone the inevitable. Eventually, Sauron would learn of its location and would direct all of his power towards it. Glorfindel does not think Bombadil’s power alone could defy Sauron’s. He concludes: “I think that in the end, if all else is conquered, Bombadil will fall, Last as he was First; and then Night will come.”
The elf Galdor agrees with Glorfindel, saying of Tom, “Power to defy our Enemy is not in him, unless such power is in the earth itself. And yet we see that Sauron can torture and destroy the very hills.” What would it mean if Bombadil’s power is “in the earth” itself?
We have touched here on the major comments made by and about Tom Bombadil. In light of all of this, it is not difficult to understand why there has been so much debate about his nature and identity and why so many theories have been proposed.
An Overview of Theories
There are numerous journal articles and websites outlining the many theories about the nature and identity of Tom Bombadil. Some of them describe in great detail the arguments for and against each view. Because that information is readily available, I will simply summarize some of the most frequently encountered theories before proceeding to add my own observations. I have provided links when possible to the theories listed in order for interested readers to see some of the arguments that have been made for different views.
Among the most frequently encountered theories are the following:
Eru Ilúvatar – Some suggest that Tom Bombadil is Eru Ilúvatar, the omnipotent supreme being in Tolkien’s larger legendarium.
One of the Valar – Some suggest that Tom is one of the Valar. In Tolkien’s mythology, the Valar were those of the Ainur (powerful spiritual beings similar to angels in Christian theology) who came into the created world. The Ainur were brought into existence through Ilúvatar’s thought. Those who argue that Tom Bombadil is one of the Valar usually suggest that he is Aulë and that Goldberry is Yavanna.
An Unnamed Maiar – The Maiar are less powerful Ainur. There are many of them, but we only know the names of a few. Sauron, for example, is a Maia. The wizards Gandalf and Saruman are also Maiar. Some argue that Tom Bombadil is one of the otherwise unnamed Maiar. This theory is suggested by Robert Foster, among others.
A Lesser Spiritual Being – Some have pointed out that, in Tolkien’s mind, the Valar and the Maiar may not have been the only created beings who came into the world at its beginning. There are suggestions at various stages in the development of the legendarium of other such beings (See Book of Lost Tales, Vol. 1, p. 66; The Shaping of Middle Earth, p. 263; The Lost Road and Other Writings, p. 110, 204; the published Silmarillion, p. 30). Some suggest that Tom Bombadil may be one of these other kinds of lesser beings who has been embodied in Middle-earth. One interesting version of this theory is that Tom Bombadil is specifically a fay.
A Nature Spirit – Some argue that Tom Bombadil is a personification or embodiment of nature that hasn’t been disturbed by humans. Because of a comment in one of Tolkien’s letters (Letter 19), a few suggest that Tom Bombadil is simply the spirit of the English countryside that was being overtaken by industry during Tolkien’s life.
The Incarnation of Arda – Some have suggested a more specific version of the Nature Spirit theory, suggesting that Tom Bombadil is an incarnation of Arda (the name of this Earth in the legendarium).
The Incarnated Spirit of the Music of the Ainur – A more recent proposal is that Tom Bombadil is the incarnation of the Music of the Ainur, the means by which Eru Ilúvatar created this world.
Tolkien – It has also been suggested that Tom Bombadil is Tolkien himself. In other words, Tolkien playfully put himself into the very story he was writing. I’ve seen the idea mentioned on discussion boards but haven’t found the argument developed at length yet.
A Powerful Evil Spirit – At least one person has argued that Tom Bombadil is not the good guy he seems to be but is instead a powerful evil spirit who wants to see Sauron overthrown so he can take over the world.
An Unsolvable Mystery – Finally, there are those who argue (for example here and here) that Tom Bombadil is an unsolvable mystery and that all of these debates will never be resolved. Tom Bombadil was deliberately designed by Tolkien to be an enigma, a mystery.
As we can see, there are a lot of options, and no single option has persuaded everyone.
Tom Bombadil in the History of Tolkien’s Work
In order to begin examining the question of the nature of Tom Bombadil as he appears in The Lord of the Rings, it is important to grasp where he fits in the history of Tolkien’s literary output. The earliest versions of the stories that would develop into the Legendarium (the works concerning Arda and Middle-earth) were written around 1916 or 1917 (See The Book of Lost Tales, Vol. 1). Tolkien continued working on and developing these tales until the end of his life. However, not all of Tolkien’s stories were part of this Legendarium. Many originated as stories he told his children. Roverandom, for example, was a story he told after one of his sons lost his toy dog on a beach (Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, p. 164).
The Hobbit also began life as a story he told his young children in the late 1920s. Tolkien began to put this story in writing in the early 1930s. It was published in 1937 (See Scull & Hammond, J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader’s Guide, Part I, p. 513). The difference between Roverandom and The Hobbit is that although neither was originally part of the Legendarium, “The Hobbit was drawn into Middle-earth . . .” (The Return of the Shadow, p. 7; see also Letter 131, p. 145).
Tom Bombadil also began life as a character in a story Tolkien told his children. Tom’s visible features and his clothing were based on those of a doll that belonged to his son Michael. The story evolved into a poem, “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil” that was published in 1934. In addition to Tom, this poem includes the characters of Goldberry, Old Man Willow, and the Barrow-wight.
Like the Hobbit, Tom Bombadil was “drawn into” Middle-earth. Tom was drawn in because of the writing of The Lord of the Rings. After the success of The Hobbit, the publishers desired a sequel. Tolkien wanted to publish the Silmarillion, but that collection of tales did not quite work as a sequel to The Hobbit. By the end of 1937, however, he had written the first draft of the first chapter of what would become The Lord of the Rings. At this early stage in the writing, he did not yet know exactly where the new story was going. He continued writing, but for a long time, he remained unsure of the direction the tale would take. He was creating it as he went along (See The Return of the Shadow for the early phases in the writing of The Lord of the Rings).
Because he was creating the story as he wrote, Tolkien thought he needed “an ‘adventure’ on the way” for the hobbits. To fill this need, he put Tom Bombadil, a character he had already invented for another purpose, into the story (See Letter 153). In his notes to himself at this stage in the writing, he speaks of Tom Bombadil as an “aborigine.” He says that Tom “knew the land before men, before hobbits, before barrow-wights, yes before the necromancer – before the elves came to this quarter of the world” (The Return of the Shadow, p. 117). Tom is no longer merely the funny looking doll Tolkien brought to life in his children’s stories.
What all of this means is that Tom Bombadil evolved over time, especially as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings gradually became part of the Legendarium.
In 1962, Tolkien re-worked and republished the original poem about Tom and wrote a new one about him. In the 1962 collection, containing these and other poems, these works are portrayed as being taken from the margins of the Red Book of Westmarch, the hobbit collection that also included The Lord of the Rings (See Tales From the Perilous Realm, xix–xx).
To summarize, Tom Bombadil was not originally a part of Middle-earth. He was drawn in because of the needs of the author. Whether and how well he fits in that world is now the question.
Tom Bombadil in Tolkien’s Published Letters
Because of the strangeness of Tom Bombadil, Tolkien occasionally received questions about him from readers. Tolkien’s published letters contain some of his answers to those inquiries. What he writes in response to these readers’ questions is important because in some cases he clearly rules out certain theories about the nature of Tom and in other cases he provides information about his true identity. What follows are some of Tolkien’s more important comments in these letters about Tom (For the full collection of Tolkien’s published letters, see Carpenter, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien).
Letter 19 (Dec. 16, 1937) – In this letter to his publisher, Tolkien is suggesting possible story ideas for a sequel to The Hobbit. He writes: “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?” This comment is important because some believe it settles the case concerning the nature of Tom. He is the spirit of the Oxford and Berkshire countryside. No need to look any further. The problem with that conclusion is that it does not take into account the context and date of the comment. While this may be what Tom was in the original poem that Tolkien had sent to the publisher (the “enclosed verses”), it is not necessarily all that Tom became as The Lord of the Rings was written and revised.
Letter 144 (April 25, 1954) – In this letter, Tolkien says, “even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).” This comment is significant. Here Tolkien says that Tom is an intentionally enigmatic part of the story. In other words, Tolkien meant Tom to be mysterious.
Later in the same letter, Tolkien makes a lengthier comment about Tom. He says: “Tom Bombadil is not an important person – to the narrative. I suppose he has some importance as a ‘comment’. I mean, I do not really write like that: he is just an invention (who first appeared in the Oxford Magazine about 1933), and he represents something that I feel important, though I would not be prepared to analyze the feeling precisely. I would not, however, have left him in, if he did not have some kind of function. I might put it this way. The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power, and so on; but both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of control. but if you have, as it were taken ‘a vow of poverty’, renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless. It is a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war. But the view of Rivendell seems to be that it is an excellent thing to have represented, but that there are in fact things with which it cannot cope; and upon which its existence nonetheless depends. Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left for him in the world of Sauron.” I will return to these important comments below.
Letter 153 (September, 1954) – This draft of a letter to a reader who had asked Tolkien several metaphysical questions contains more than one significant comment regarding Tom Bombadil. In the first instance, regarding some of the titles used to speak of Tom, Tolkien writes, “Goldberry and Tom are referring to the mystery of names. See and ponder Tom’s words in Vol. I, p. 142.” The words to which Tolkien refers are those Tom says when Frodo asks who he is: “Don’t you know my name yet? That’s the only answer. Tell me, who are you alone, yourself and nameless?” As Tolkien goes on to explain in this letter there is a difference between the who question and the what question.
Tolkien says that Frodo has asked who Tom is, not what he is. Goldberry indicates part of the “what” answer when she says he is master. Tolkien writes, “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 not “master” in the sense of being an owner or having dominion. He is “master” in a different sense.
Finally, Tolkien adds: “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. But I kept him in, and as he was, because he represents certain things otherwise left out. I do not mean him to be an allegory - or I should not have given him so particular, individual, and ridiculous a name - but ‘allegory’ is the only mode of exhibiting certain functions: he is then an ‘allegory’, or an exemplar, a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science: the spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature, because they are ‘other’and wholly independent of the enquiring mind, a spirit coeval with the rational mind, and entirely unconcerned with ‘doing’ anything with the knowledge: Zoology and Botany not Cattle-breeding or Agriculture. Even the Elves hardly show this: they are primarily artists. Also T.B. exhibits another point in his attitude to the Ring, and its failure to affect him. You must concentrate on some part, 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 part of the Universe.” These comments are significant because, as in Letter 144, Tom is said to represent something important. Here it is rational knowledge of the external world. Tolkien also indicates that his story focuses on a small part of reality and that some things are thereby left out, or distorted. I will return to this very important point below.
Letter 240 (August 1, 1962) – In a letter to an illustrator, Tolkien makes a brief comment about Tom that I believe is relevant. He says, “There have been a number of minor changes made at various times in the process of assimilating Tom B. to the Lord of the Rings world.” In the letter he’s speaking merely of the kind of feather in Tom’s cap, but it is interesting to note that Tom had to be “assimilated.” This gets to the point of Tom being an already existing character who is gradually drawn into the Legendarium.
Evaluating the Various Theories
If the descriptions of Tom in The Lord of the Rings are all true within the story, and if everything said about Tom by himself, by Goldberry, and by those at the Council of Elrond is true, and if everything Tolkien says about Tom in his letters is true, we are able immediately to rule out certain options concerning the identity of Tom Bombadil. Among the options listed above, the two that are completely impossible are the idea that Tom is the supreme being Eru Ilúvatar and the idea that he is some kind of evil being.
Tolkien explicitly says in Letter 181: “There is no ‘embodiment’ of the Creator anywhere in this story or mythology.” The only place where any idea of the incarnation of Ilúvatar occurs is in the “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth,” and even there it is a speculative idea that comes up in this conversation between an elf and a human (See Morgoth’s Ring, pp. 303–366). In short, Tom is not God.
As far as Tom’s being an evil being is concerned, Tolkien consistently connects the idea of evil with the desire for power and domination (See, for example, Letter 131). Goldberry says that Tom has “no desire of possession or domination at all.” In letter 144, Tolkien indicates that power and control are utterly meaningless to one like Tom Bombadil. Tom is not a demon in colorful clothing. Everything Tolkien says about Tom in his letters is either positive or morally neutral. I think that it is also inconceivable that Tolkien would take one of his children’s toys, the main character of stories he told them as children, and then turn him into a demon.
Having set aside the impossible theories, what of the others? In the list above, with one exception (the unsolvable mystery view), there are basically two kinds of theories: those suggesting that Tom is a kind of being that exists within the Legendarium and those suggesting that Tom breaks the fourth wall by being a personification of either Tolkien himself or the reader/audience. We’ll look first at those theories suggesting that Tom breaks the fourth wall.
Type 1 Theories: Tom Breaks the Fourth Wall
These types of theories are those that suggest Tom Bombadil is either Tolkien himself or the reader/audience. Many rule these theories out as impossible. I think the idea that Tom is the reader or audience is the weakest of these two theories. Nothing like it is ever hinted at in Tolkien’s letters. I don’t think, however, that the theory that Tom represents Tolkien himself should be tossed out immediately. Tolkien’s short story “Leaf by Niggle” seems to indicate that Tolkien had a desire to enter into his sub-created world. In this somewhat autobiographical allegory, this actually happens after the title character’s death. At the very least, the story indicates that the idea of the author entering into his own sub-creation occurred to Tolkien. That shouldn’t be a surprise. He spent the bulk of his adult life creating this amazing world. The weaknesses of this theory, however, are many. When Tolkien talks about Tom in his letters, he never gives any hint that Tom represents himself. The theories suggesting that Tom breaks the fourth wall are ingenious, but I think the two mentioned here are ultimately inadequate to explain the evidence. I will explain below what I believe to be the element of truth in these ideas.
Type 2 Theories: Tom Exists Wholly Within the Legendarium
These theories can be subdivided into concrete and abstract theories. The concrete theories are those that suggest Tom is one of the Valar (usually Aulë), an unnamed Maia, or a lesser being such as a fay, or a nature spirit. The abstract theories are those that suggest Tom is the incarnation or embodiment of Arda or of the Music of the Ainur. All of these theories have their strengths and weaknesses.
The weakest of these theories, in my opinion, is the idea that Tom Bombadil is one of the Valar. Those who suggest this option usually say that Tom is Aulë and that Goldberry is Yavanna, and that both are incognito. There are interesting similarities, but there also appear to be fatal flaws. The most significant flaw is that the descriptions of Tom’s power, especially in relation to Sauron’s power, are inconsistent with what is known about the power of the Valar. The Valar are much more powerful than the Maiar, and Sauron is a Maia. Further, in the most common Valar theory, Tom is identified with Aulë, and Aulë is one of the Aratar, the eight most powerful Valar. In other words, If Tom is Aulë, Tom could beat Sauron with one hand tied behind his back.
The theory that Tom is one of the Maiar is a stronger theory. The Maiar were less powerful Ainur who entered into Arda to assist the Valar. If Tom is a Maia, his power would be roughly on the same level as that of Sauron, another Maia, making more sense of what is said about Tom at the Council of Elrond. If Tom is a Maia, there is very little information by which we might identify him with any named Maia. The most significant problem with the Maiar theory is that Tom describes himself in rather unique language that doesn’t seem to apply to anyone other than himself. Specifically, he says that Eldest is what he is. However, if Tom’s genus can, in fact, be discerned, Maiar is a strong contender.
The third theory of this type is the suggestion that Tom is a nature spirit or a fay. This view shares many of the strengths of the Maiar view, because it would explain Tom’s power in relation to Sauron. It is also consistent with Tom’s relation to the forest, the river, and to Goldberry. It shares, however, the same weakness as the Maiar theory. It doesn’t really account for all the language Tom uses to describe himself – language that points to him being something completely unique.
What about the abstract theories? Is Tom the incarnation or embodiment of Arda or of the Music of the Ainur? I think both of these theories are strong because in Tolkien’s letters, he regularly describes Tom Bombadil as embodying or representing something abstract. The strongest of these two theories, in my opinion, is the one suggesting that Tom is the embodiment of the Music of the Ainur. It explains Tom’s constant association with singing as well as the power of his songs. The weakest point with these two abstract theories, however, is that neither matches well with the specific abstract ideas that Tolkien says are represented by Tom. This doesn’t automatically rule them out, but it is worth noting.
One Last Theory
What about the last theory listed above, the suggestion that the Bombadil enigma is an inherently unsolvable mystery? This question must be faced because Tolkien explicitly says that Tom Bombadil is intentionally an enigma (Letter 144). I think it is possible that Tolkien left Tom in the story knowing that no one could figure out anything about him, but I also think that it is at least possible to narrow down the possibilities. Furthermore, even though Tolkien says Tom is an “enigma,” he also talks often about what Tom embodies or represents in the story. Tolkien seems to know something about who and what Tom is.
Finally, there are some clues that do not seem to be addressed often by any of the other common theories. I think these clues can potentially shed more light on what Tolkien intended Tom Bombadil (and Goldberry) to embody or represent.
My Tentative Theory
The very fact that there are so many theories and that all of them have strengths and weaknesses should give us pause. It may indicate that those who believe the riddle is unsolvable are, in fact, correct. It may also indicate that we are still missing something important. I have no illusions that I have the solution to the riddle, but I would like to suggest something that I believe should be considered as readers and fans continue to wrestle with the problem.
I think the content of several specific letters written by Tolkien provides some important clues that, when considered together and compared with what is said about Tom and Goldberry in the narrative, shed significant light on the enigma.
First, consider what Tolkien writes in Letter 142. Here Tolkien says: “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.” It could not be explicit because, as Tolkien explains in another letter, the Third Age “was not a Christian world” (Letter 165).
Most readers of Tolkien know that he was devoutly Roman Catholic. But I don’t think most consider the potential ramifications this has for the Bombadil enigma. Might a more careful consideration of it at least help us narrow down the list of possible options for Tom? Might it strengthen or supplement particular existing theories? Might it even open new doors for exploration?
Tolkien explains in this letter that The Lord of the Rings is “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” This surprises many readers because there are no churches in the story, no priests, no formal worship, nothing that looks explicitly religious. But Tolkien explains this here (and elsewhere). He says the religious element, which for Tolkien would be a Roman Catholic religious element, “is absorbed into the story and symbolism.” Christian elements cannot be explicit in a world that exists thousands of years before Christ.
I would like to suggest that Tom Bombadil and Goldberry are two characters who absorbed certain elements of Tolkien’s Roman Catholicism, specific elements that he believed were important to have represented in Middle-earth even though they could not be explicit.
Allow me to explain (You've made it this far).
Consider, for example, Letter 144. Here, in Tolkien’s comments about what Tom represents, he speaks about a “vow of poverty” and “pacificism.”
In Letter 153, when Tolkien proceeds to talk about what Tom represents, he speaks of a desire for knowledge of things for knowledge’s sake, “a spirit coeval with the natural mind.” Tolkien then adds a comment about a love for the observation of nature and mentions several natural sciences.
We have already seen that Tom is continually associated with music and singing in the story itself.
For anyone familiar with the history of the Roman Catholic Church, all of these things will remind them of Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan order he founded. Francis is known for his vow of poverty, for his pacificism, for his love of nature, and for his merry singing.
This is all admittedly circumstantial evidence. Is there anything more that might lend weight to this idea? I think there is. More than one author has noted the correspondence between significant dates in the Fellowship’s journey and significant dates in the traditional Christian calendar. For example, the Fellowship departs from Rivendell on December 25, the traditional date of the birth of Christ. The Ring is destroyed on March 25, the traditional date of the crucifixion.
If Tolkien is using dates as part of the way he absorbs the religious element into the story, might there be any significance to the dates associated with Tom Bombadil in the story? According to the timeline of events in Appendix B of The Lord of the Rings, the hobbits meet Tom Bombadil on September 26.
This is interesting because many works (especially older ones) mention September 26 as Francis of Assisi’s possible date of birth (e.g., W. J. Knox Little, St. Francis of Assisi: His Times Life and Work, (1897), p. 82; W. O’Reilly, St. Francis at Assisi (1926), p. 3; Marion Alphonse Habig, Francis of Assisi, Writer, (1981), p. 9). Coincidence? Maybe, but when considered together with what Tolkien says about Tom representing a vow of poverty, pacifism, and a love of nature, and the way he is described as always singing, the case appears stronger. And it matters little whether this actually was Francis's birthday. What matters is that it was celebrated as his date of birth by enough people to become a traditional date and make it into books that would have been available to Tolkien.
Additional evidence is available when we turn to take a look at Goldberry. Tom is utterly devoted to Goldberry. The first time we encounter Tom, he is using a large leaf to carry white water-lilies to her. When we first see her, she is seated with pots containing white lilies at her feet. Tom mentions white lilies on a number of other occasions as well, all in connection with Goldberry.
Interestingly, from the early medieval period onward, white lilies were used as symbols of the Virgin Mary. She is often depicted in medieval paintings of the Annunciation with white lilies in a pot at her feet. In some of these paintings, Gabriel is holding a white lily in the presence of Mary.
If Tom has absorbed a Franciscan element and Goldberry has absorbed a Marian element, might this explain Tom’s utter devotion to her? In addition to poverty, pacifism, and a love of nature, the Franciscans are known for their maximalist Mariology in comparison with some other Roman Catholic orders.
Another interesting thing we see in the story is Goldberry’s song as the hobbits approach Tom’s house. She sings:
Now let the song begin! Let us sing together
Of sun, stars, moon and mist, rain and cloudy weather,
Light on the budding leaf, dew on the feather,
Wind on the open hill, bells on the heather,
Reeds by the shady pool, lilies on the water:
Old Tom Bombadil and the River-daughter!
By itself, this might not mean much, but when considered in light of the previous observations, it might be supporting evidence. One of the most famous works of Francis of Assisi is his song “The Canticle of the Sun.” In this song, he sings of the sun, moon, stars, weather, and wind. There is not a one-to-one correspondence between Goldberry’s song and Francis’s canticle, and we should not expect one, but there is an interesting overlap in some of the content. Both celebrate these parts of nature. Given the other similarities, the song perhaps becomes more important as a clue.
A final point worth considering is Tom's often comical behavior. If the way G.K. Chesterton describes Francis in his 1923 biography (in the chapter titled "Le Jongleur de Dieu") is accurate, then there is another possible parallel. In this chapter, Chesterton describes the "jester" like aspect of Francis's character. As Chesterton explains, the freedom Francis found in being a servant was a "freedom almost amounting to frivolity" (p. 78). The dramatic nature of Francis's conversion resulted in his decision "to become more and more of a fool; he would be the court fool of the King of Paradise" (p. 83).
I am not suggesting that Tom Bombadil is Francis of Assisi or a Franciscan (or the archangel Gabriel for that matter). Nor am I suggesting that Goldberry is the Virgin Mary or St. Clare. What I am suggesting is the possibility that as Tolkien made The Lord of the Rings a more religious work in his revisions by absorbing specifically Catholic religious elements into the story and its symbolism, he may have deliberately absorbed some elements of specifically Franciscan distinctives into the character of Tom Bombadil. Tom, then, might be the embodiment or representative of something Tolkien believed was needed in the story – a particular aspect of Roman Catholic spirituality exemplified by the Franciscans – specifically poverty, pacifism, a love of nature, and a penchant for joyful song.
All of this might also explain some curious language Tolkien uses to describe part of the Old Forest before the hobbits encounter Bombadil. As the hobbits are traveling through the forest, they are starting to get depressed. Frodo is just about to stop and suggest they turn around when they see something. Ahead of them, they see a path and a green and treeless hill. Notice how Tolkien describes the hill, "Before them, but some distance off, there stood a green hill-top. treeless, rising like a bald head out of the encircling wood." The imagery becomes even more explicit a few lines later: "The wood stood all round the hill like thick hair that ended sharply in a circle round a shaven crown." In other words, the hill looks like a shaved bald head with a circle of hair around it. Where do we see this kind of haircut in history? It's a medieval monastic tonsure, the kind worn by Franciscans and others. Readers familiar with this imagery are naturally going to wonder why monastic imagery is found in the middle of this dark forest. If what I have suggested above is correct, Tom Bombadil is the answer to that question.
I think Tolkien’s own repeated comments about Tom representing something allows us to speculate on what that something is. I think his statements about what Tom represents in the story points in the direction of something that Tolkien could not explicitly include in the story – namely a form of spirituality that thousands of years later would find expression in the Franciscan order. It is a particular response to the Creator and His creation, and it is one that might explain why Tom can call himself “Eldest.” This is why I see a strong element of truth in the Music of the Ainur theory. I believe the two theories overlap to some degree at this point.
Objections will immediately occur in the minds of those who know the stories. Isn't Goldberry Tom's wife? Franciscans aren't married. Here is where it is important to note again that I am not saying Tom is a Franciscan or that he is Francis. He is not the kind of allegory that has a one-to-one symbolic correspondence with some other thing. Within the story, he's a strange and powerful creature. Like Tom, Goldberry and the other characters from Tolkien's original children's story were drawn into Middle-earth. They are what they are. She seems to be some kind of water-sprite in that story. Whether they are married or not is irrelevant to the point I am arguing. Tom is a strange creature who represents certain elements of something Tolkien could not explicitly include in the story. But there is no one-to-one correspondence between Tom and that which he represents. There couldn't be. This is why it also does not matter that Tolkien never changed Tom's physical description or his oddly colored clothing. He always looked like the little toy that belonged to his son. He always wore the clothes that the doll wore. He did not describe Tom wearing a friar's robe. That would have been to include the religious element explicitly.
Even if my suggestion about what Tom represents is accurate to any degree, it still doesn’t answer the question concerning exactly what kind of being Tom is within the cosmology of Arda. On this point, I ultimately have to agree with those who say this question is inherently impossible to answer. In order to explain my reason for saying this, allow me to mention one last Tolkien letter. This letter, written in 1961, is rarely mentioned in discussions of Tom Bombadil, but it needs to be brought into the discussion. In it Tolkien says something about Tom that is enormously significant for this debate. It is mentioned rarely because it is not included among the published letters in Carpenter’s The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. It is found, instead, tucked away in Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull’s The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion. (Its main point corresponds with what Tolkien says about Tom in another unpublished letter written in 1964 to Przemysław Mroczkowski).
I think it is helpful to read the entirety of the section of the letter included in the Reader’s Companion.
“I think there are two answers: (i) External (ii) Internal; according to (i) Bombadil just came into my mind independently and got swept into the growing stream of The Lord of the Rings. The original poem about him, in the curious rhythm which characterizes him, appeared in the Oxford Magazine at some time not long before the war. According to (ii), I have left him where he is and not attempted to clarify his position, first of all because I like him and he has at any rate a satisfying geographical home in the lands of The Lord of the Rings; but more seriously because in any world or universe devised imaginatively (or imposed simply upon the actual world) there is always some element that does not fit and opens as it were a window into some other system. You will notice that though the Ring is a serious matter and has great power for all the inhabitants of the world of The Lord of the Rings even the best and the most holy, it does not touch Tom Bombadil at all. So Bombadil is ‘fatherless’, he has no historical origin in the world described in The Lord of the Rings” (Reader’s Companion, 2005 edition, pp. 133–4).
This is enormously important for understanding what we are to think of Tom Bombadil. His origin within Middle-earth is an enigma because he has no origin within Middle-earth. He functions to open a window into another system. Here is where there is an element of truth in those theories that suggest Tom breaks the fourth wall. He does, but he isn't Tolkien himself or the reader. He opens the window to allow something else into Middle-earth. I believe the evidence is sufficient to indicate that Tolkien used Tom (and Goldberry) to open a window into a specifically Roman Catholic form of spirituality, a particular way of responding to God and His created world, a particular form of spirituality that would only come into full existence thousands of years later with Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan order.
Every serious fan of Tolkien knows that Tolkien was obsessive about achieving internal consistency within his sub-created world. It’s why he was not able to publish the Silmarillion within his own lifetime. I believe that the widespread knowledge of Tolkien’s obsession for internal consistency is one reason debates about Tom Bombadil have continued for as long as they have. Readers who know about Tolkien's personality naturally assume that he made Tom completely consistent within the sub-created world of Arda and Middle-earth. I assumed the same for years. However, in this one case, that assumption appears to be incorrect. Based on what Tolkien himself wrote in the last letter I cited, it appears that he intentionally left an element in the story that he knew was inconsistent within his sub-created world. I think this is why there are so many plausible theories about what Tom Bombadil is. He has certain attributes that are similar to a variety of beings within Middle-earth – Valar, Maiar, nature spirits, elves, etc. But no one can nail down with absolute certainty which of these he is because he isn’t any of them. He has no origin in that world. He came into that world from the outside. He came into that world from a different world with a different system. He is a non Middle-earth being who was drawn in to Middle-earth. Tolkien knew this, but keeping Tom Bombadil in Middle-earth allowed Tolkien another means to do something he felt was necessary. It provided him a means by which he might absorb the Roman Catholic religious element that was so important to him personally into the story of The Lord of the Rings.
NOTE: I have not run across any works suggesting these parallels with Francis of Assisi and Franciscan spirituality, but I certainly haven't read everything on this issue. I find it difficult to imagine that no one has noticed some of these things before. I assume that there are articles or blog posts or forum comments somewhere that suggest at least some of this. If anyone knows of any other developed statements along these lines, please do put a link in the comments. If you are now experiencing any kind of Tolkienerditis, you were warned.
UPDATE: NOVEMBER 9, 2020 -- I had the honor of discussing this blog post with John and Greta Carswell on The Tolkien Road Podcast. Here is the link.
Drawing of Tom Bombadil by Matthew Stewart used with permission of the artist.