Who Is Tom Bombadil?
How Did He Begin?
I can’t resist starting by saying ‘Tom, Tom, he’s Nature’s Son’, adapting the well-known verse about Tom the Piper’s Son. He is certainly an anarchic spirit, not attempting to rule much, even for good purposes. And being mild even within what he claims as his own.
He existed in Tolkien’s imagination independently of hobbits, first seen by the wider public in a poem called The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. It appeared in 1934 in a weekly publication called The Oxford Magazine. It was republished 1962:
“A slightly expanded version of the original poem appeared in a collection of poems called The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and other verses from The Red Book. It included a new poem with him as the main characters, and several other unconnected poems. It presents itself as a selection of Hobbit poems. It has been republished along with five other short works by Tolkien in Tales from the Perilous Realm.” (Wikipedia)
In a 1937 letter about publishing some of Tolkien’s other works, including The Silmarillion, after the success of The Hobbit, Tolkien said:
“Do you think Tom Bombadil, the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside, could be made into the hero of the story? Or is he, as I suspect, fully enshrined in the enclosed verses. Still, I could enlarge the portrait.”
(Letter 19, written 16 December 1937, in The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien.)
In the end, he found a place in Lord of the Rings as a powerful spirit in human form. And one who does not like to use his power even for good ends. He stands as a contrast to those like Gandalf or Galadriel, who want power for good ends but could be tempted to misuse it. Or like Saruman, who originally wanted power for good ends but has lost sight of these ends and just wants power. Tolkien, having originally conceived Sauron as just an unexplained evil being in The Silmarillion, suggests he too once had good intentions.
What Does He Do?
In the chapter In the House of Tom Bombadil, we see the limits of how he uses his power, as seen by Goldberry:
“‘He is the Master of wood, water, and hill.’
“‘Then all this strange land belongs to him.’
“‘No, indeed.’ She answered, and her smile faded. ‘That would indeed be a burden,’ she added in a low voice, as if to herself. ‘The trees and the grasses and all things growing or living in the land belong each to themselves. Tom Bombadil is the Master. No one has ever caught old Tom walking in the forest, wading in the water, leaping of the hill-tops under light and shadow. He has no fear. Tom Bombadil is Master’”
Such a viewpoint does not seem to come naturally to Goldberry herself, as I’ll show later.
Someone – I’ve lost the source – commented that he does not attempt to remove or reform Old Man Willow. He is also much milder with the Barrow-Wight on their first recorded encounter, which Tolkien wrote in a poem called The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, published in 1934. They are not in The Hobbit, but Tolkien decided early on to include them in his sequel. They were in the tale before he decided what Bilbo’s ring actually was. And in this original poem, it is Tom who is menaced by the Wight:
“Dark came under Hill. Tom, he lit a candle;
“upstairs creaking went, turned the door-handle.
“’Hoo, Tom Bombadil! Look what night has brought you!
“I’m here behind the door. Now at last I’ve caught you!
“You’d forgotten Barrow-wight dwelling in the old mound
“up there on hill-top with the ring of stones round.
“He’s got loose again. Under earth he’ll take you.
“Poor Tom Bombadil, pale and cold he’ll make you!’
“’Go out! Shut the door, and never come back after!
“Take away gleaming eyes, take your hollow laughter!
“Go back to grassy mound, on your stony pillow
“lay down your bony head, like Old Man Willow,
“like young Goldberry, and Badger-folk in burrow!
“Go back to buried gold and forgotten sorrow!’
“Out fled Barrow-wight through the window leaping,
“through the yard, over wall like a shadow sweeping,
“up hill wailing went back to leaning stone-rings,
“back under lonely mound, rattling his bone-rings.
He’s much harsher after rescuing the hobbits in Fog on the Barrow-Down – where it is of course a case of re-offending:
“Tom stooped, removed his hat, and came into the dark chamber, singing:
“Get out, you old Wight! Vanish in the sunlight!
“Shrivel like the cold mist, like the winds go wailing,
“Out into the barren lands far beyond the mountains!
“Come never here again! Leave your barrow empty!
“Lost and forgotten be, darker than the darkness,
“Where gates stand for ever shut, till the world is mended.
“At these words there was a cry and part of the inner end of the chamber fell in with a crash. Then there was a long trailing shriek, fading away into an unguessable distance; and after that silence.”
When Tom was attacked, he sent the Wight home. When his guests were attacked he banishes the Wight to somewhere far away. Beyond the Misty Mountains, presumably.
He remains much milder with Old Man Willow, even though he was expecting them and was making ready to welcome them. Perhaps he recognises that the trees have been wronged. When at the end Gandalf goes to meet him he thinks that the Ents are the only part of the whole ring-quest that might interest him. It is as if the Old Forrest is a decayed version of Fangorn – or in real terms, Tolkien in Lord of the Rings expanded an idea that began in his first poem about Tom Bombadil.
And at the start of the book, a hobbit has seen a ‘walking tree’, an Ent or more probably a Huorn. You could imagine Treebeard persuading a senior Ent to go north and re-order the Old Forrest. If extended tales are to be told, you could imagine Gandalf trying to arrange something like that, and also advise Tom how to fit into the restored Arnor. Aragorn would respect him, clearly, and might already know him. But his heirs are likely to be less wise.
Looking back at Tom’s home, what’s mostly overlooked is that Goldberry is not so different from the other dangerous spirits in Tom’s land. Tom lumps them together when he first dismisses the Wight. But with Goldberry things go otherwise, as is told in that fascinating poem, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil:
“There his beard dangled long down into the water:
“up came Goldberry, the River-woman’s daughter;
“pulled Tom’s hanging hair. In he went a-wallowing
“under the water-lilies, bubbling and a-swallowing.
“’Hey, Tom Bombadil! Whither are you going?’
“said fair Goldberry. ‘Bubbles you are blowing,
“frightening the finny fish and the brown water-rat,
“startling the dabchicks, and drowning your feather-hat!’
“’You bring it back again, there’s a pretty maiden!’
“said Tom Bombadil. ‘I do not care for wading.
“Go down! Sleep again where the pools are shady
“far below willow-roots, little water-lady!’
“Back to her mother’s house in the deepest hollow
“swam young Goldberry. But Tom, he would not follow;
“on knotted willow-roots he sat in sunny weather,
“drying his yellow boots and his draggled feather.”
We can’t be sure if the home of Goldberry’s mother is inside or outside Tom’s land. Or which river she is.
Tom taking her as his bride is also dubious: something the #MeToo movement might protest at:
“But one day Tom, he went and caught the River-daughter,
“in green gown, flowing hair, sitting in the rushes,
“singing old water-songs to birds upon the bushes.
“He caught her, held her fast! Water-rats went scuttering
“reeds hissed, herons cried, and her heart was fluttering.
“Said Tom Bombadil: ‘Here’s my pretty maiden!
“You shall come home with me! The table is all laden:
“yellow cream, honeycomb, white bread and butter;
“roses at the window-sill and peeping round the shutter.
“You shall come under Hill! Never mind your mother
“in her deep weedy pool: there you’ll find no lover!’
“Old Tom Bombadil had a merry wedding,
“crowned all with buttercups, hat and feather shedding;
“his bride with forgetmenots and flag-lilies for garland
“was robed all in silver-green. He sang like a starling,
“hummed like a honey-bee, lilted to the fiddle,
“clasping his river-maid round her slender middle.
That’s part of the strength of Tolkien: good characters mostly have a dangerous edge to them. None of them automatically know virtue.
To round off, the badgers are reduced to an improbable story in Lord of the Rings. Tolkien has toned down the fairy-tail concept of Talking Animals, though he has kept a fox with a human-like puzzlement at sleeping hobbits within Frodo’s departure from The Shire. Here they are proper fairy-tale animals, talking and trying to capture them. And Goldberry is mentioned again as a danger
“Go back to sleep again on your straw pillow,
“like fair Goldberry and Old Man Willow!’”
What Sort of Being Is He?
Let’s look more widely at a theme in the entire book. We find a landscape with a moral character. It often contains a magic being who helps define it.
- Old Man Willow in the Old Forrest.
- Bombadil for a much wider landscape.
- The Barrow Wight within it, and also Goldberry now tamed.
- Elrond at Rivendell.
- Hollin, with its fading Noldor influence, mostly on stones. Elves more concerned with things they can work and shape than with trees.
- The dam on a river and the Watcher in the Water spreading evil into Hollin.
- The Balrog in Moria: mostly inactive and unfriendly to the orcs.
- Galadriel and Golden Wood.
- Tol Brandir; an island with lingering Dunedain influence, including the hills Amon Hen and Amon Lhaw. Gondor has abandoned it.
- Saruman has begun invading Rohan and helps his orcs.
- Theoden and his Golden Hall
- Fangorn and Treebeard. And Orthanc now corrupted.
- Dead Marshes, Sauron corrupting.
- Corruption much stronger in Ithilien, but not complete. The defaced statue of a King of Gondor getting his crown back, and the hold-out at the Forbidden Pool.
- The Nazgul at Minus Mordor, and Shelob at Cirith Ungol.
- Denethor and his Withered Tree
- Sauron for Mordor as a whole, but strongest at his core, where the Phial of Galadriel is suppressed.
- On their return, they find Saruman increasing the corruption of The Shire.
- The Gray Havens, another Elven hold-out.
Tom fits. He is clearly a Maia, but the more powerful elves and hybrids can match. He speaks of ‘young Goldberry’ – she might be centuries old, ancient in human terms and also ever-young. But Tom is much older and more powerful:
“‘Eh, what?’ said Tom sitting up, and his eyes glinting in the gloom. ‘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.’”
He is discussed at the Council of Elrond:
“`The Barrow-wights we know by many names [says Elrond]; and of the Old Forest many tales have been told: all that now remains is but an outlier of its northern march. Time was when a squirrel could go from tree to tree from what is now the Shire to Dunland west of Isengard. In those lands I journeyed once, and many things wild and strange I knew. But I had forgotten Bombadil, if indeed this is still the same that walked the woods and hills long ago, and even then was older than the old. That was not then his name. Iarwain Ben-adar we called him, oldest and fatherless. But many another name he has since been given by other folk: Forn by the Dwarves, Orald by Northern Men, and other names beside. He is a strange creature, but maybe I should have summoned him to our Council.’
“`He would not have come,’ said Gandalf.
“`Could we not still send messages to him and obtain his help?’ asked Erestor. `It seems that he has a power even over the Ring.’
“`No, I should not put it so,’ said Gandalf. `Say rather that the Ring has no power over him. He is his own master. But he cannot alter the Ring itself, nor break its power over others. 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.’
“`But within those bounds nothing seems to dismay him,’ said Erestor. `Would he not take the Ring and keep it there, for ever harmless?’
“`No,’ said Gandalf, `not willingly. He might do so, if all the free folk of the world begged him, but he would not understand the need. And if he were 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; and that alone is answer enough.’
“`But in any case,’ said Glorfindel, `to send the Ring to him would only postpone the day of evil. He is far away. We could not now take it back to him, unguessed, unmarked by any spy. And even if we could, soon or late the Lord of the Rings would learn of its hiding place and would bend all his power towards it. Could that power be defied by Bombadil alone? I think not. I think that in the end, if all else is conquered, Bombadil will fall, Last as he was First; and then Night will come.’
“`I know little of Iarwain save the name,’ said Galdor; `but Glorfindel, I think, is right. 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 power still remains lies with us, here in Imladris, or with Cirdan at the Havens, or in Lórien. But have they the strength, have we here the strength to withstand the Enemy, the coming of Sauron at the last, when all else is overthrown?’
“`I have not the strength,’ said Elrond; `neither have they.’”
He is then forgotten about until nearly the end, when Gandalf pays him a visit:
“‘I am with you at present,’ said Gandalf, ‘but soon I shall not be. I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for. Do you not yet understand? My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk to do so. And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help. You are grown up now. Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.
“‘But if you would know, I am turning aside soon. I am going to have a long talk with Bombadil: such a talk as I have not had in all my time. He is a moss-gatherer, and I have been a stone doomed to rolling. But my rolling days are ending, and now we shall have much to say to one another.’
“In a little while they came to the point on the East Road where they had taken leave of Bombadil; and they hoped and half expected to see him standing there to greet them as they went by. But there was no sign of him; and there was a grey mist on the Barrow-downs southwards, and a deep veil over the Old Forest far away.
“They halted and Frodo looked south wistfully. ‘I should dearly like to see the old fellow again,’ he said. ‘I wonder how he is getting on?’
“‘As well as ever, you may be sure,’ said Gandalf. ‘Quite untroubled and I should guess, not much interested in anything that we have done or seen, unless perhaps in our visits to the Ents.’”[A]
It also serves the plot-function of showing how the hobbits have become heroic, but Frodo is fading from the world. And it all ending at Bag-End is suitable, since it began there with Bilbo choosing to bring the One Ring there.
Gandalf says “I am going to have a long talk with Bombadil: such a talk as I have not had in all my time”. This implies that they have met, but previously had little to do with each other. Perhaps they did not understand each other – but back then it would have been Gandalf the Grey. He is now Gandalf the White, with greater understanding. When he reveals himself to Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, he says:
“‘I have passed through fire and deep water, since we parted. I have forgotten much that I thought I knew, and learned again much that I had forgotten. I can see many things far off, but many things that are close at hand I cannot see. Tell me of yourselves!’”[B]
He would have arrived from Valinor knowing little of Middle-Earth beyond what he remembered from his time as Olorin in the First Age. He would then have become bound up with power-struggles and felt the same temptations that corrupted Saruman. Bombadil meantime was following another path that was also valid.
Copyright © Gwydion M. Williams.
[A] The Return of the King, Book 6, Chapter 7, Homeward Bound.
[B] The Two Towers, Chapter 5 of Book 3, The White Rider.