The Riddle of Tom Bombadil
Tom Bombadil is the prevailing mystery in Tolkien's work. While almost every other aspect of Middle-earth is described for us in exacting detail, Tom is an enigma. We have almost no clue of his origins or his fate, his purpose or even what kind of being he is. It is no surprise that none of Tolkien's characters have attracted more discussion.
This article makes no attempt to provide a definite answer to the 'Bombadil Problem' - it's very unlikely that a definite answer is possible. What we will attempt, though, is to round up the more common suggestions, both from within Tolkien's cosmology and without, and discuss some of the arguments for and against each.
Tolkien himself is uncharacteristically reticent on the question of Tom's identity:, and went so far as to state that he had intentionally left Tom as something of an enigma.
'And even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).'
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No 144, dated 1954
Fortunately, he gives us more clues than this suggests, but by no means enough to solve the mystery with certainty.
There are two real approaches to the problem of Tom's identity; we can try to fit him into the cosmology of The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, or we can view him more broadly as a literary character. We'll attempt both here, starting with a discussion of Tom in relation to Tolkien's fictional cosmology.
1. Bombadil Within Tolkien's Cosmology
Tolkien's universe is inhabited by a multitude of races and beings: our problem is that what we know of Tom does not fit easily with any of these. He seems almost to have been 'transplanted' from elsewhere. In fact, this is almost certainly what happened, at least in a literary sense, but at this point we are concerned primarily with giving Tom a place within Tolkien's universe.
Though there are many candidates to choose from, we can at least dismiss most of these immediately. Tom is definitely not a Man, a Hobbit, a Dwarf, or indeed of any mortal kind, and we can also take it for granted, for obvious reasons, that he is not an Orc, a Troll, an Ent, a Dragon or an Eagle! But this still leaves plenty of possibilities:
Was Tom an Elf?
Tom's capering, his wisdom, his great age and his love of song undoubtedly give him a certainly 'Elvish' quality. This possibility though, is easily disproved by the following from The Lord of the Rings:
'When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already...'
Tom's own words, from The Fellowship of the Ring I 7, In the House of Tom Bombadil
Tom would hardly have said this if he was an Elf himself! This is, incidentally, proof of Tom's great age - the Elves 'passed westward' in the Great Journey some six Ages before he spoke these words.
Was Tom a Maia?
This a very common suggestion, to the extent that it is sometimes treated almost as 'fact'. There is, though, no direct evidence for this - it seems to be based on the idea that since Tom can't be a Vala, and there is no other possibility, he must be a Maia. As we'll see, these are both flawed assumptions - Tom might be a Vala, and there is at least one other possibility.
Though we can't say for certain that Tom wasn't one of the Maiar, there are grave difficulties with this position. The most important of these is that the Ring had no effect on him:
'Then Tom put the Ring round the end of his little finger and held it up to the candlelight... There was no sign of Tom disappearing!'
The Fellowship of the Ring I 7, In the House of Tom Bombadil
There were other mighty Maiar in Middle-earth at the time of the War of the Ring, especially Sauron, Saruman and Gandalf, and all of these were in some sense under the power of the Ring. Yet Tom is unaffected by its power of invisibility, nor does he feel any desire to keep it (he hands it back to Frodo 'with a smile'). Tolkien himself points out the importance of Tom's immunity. On this topic, he says:
'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.'
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No 153, dated 1954
Was Tom a Vala?
The last of Tolkien's named races (using the term loosely) that might include Tom is that of the Valar, the Powers of the World. A common argument against this is that we know the names of all the Valar, and Tom isn't among them. This doesn't hold water, though, because we're specifically told that the Valar had many different names among the different races and cultures of Middle-earth.
'...[the Valar] have other names in the speech of the Elves in Middle-earth, and their names among Men are manifold.'
While of Tom himself it is said:
'[Bombadil] 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...'
It isn't inconceivable, then, that Tom is one of the fourteen known Valar, dwelling incognito in Middle-earth. Though we can't be certain, it seems likely that a Vala would be capable of resisting the power of the Ring, and so that difficulty can be set aside. The 'Vala Hypothesis', though, is not without difficulties of its own, with perhaps the most significant being:
, that's what I am... Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn... He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless - before the Dark Lord
came from Outside.'
The Fellowship of the Ring I 7, In the House of Tom Bombadil
All of the beings who became Valar existed before Arda was made, so any of them could with justification claim the title 'Eldest'. But Tom says he 'knew the dark under the stars' (that is, he was in the World, not outside it) 'before the Dark Lord came from Outside'. The term 'Dark Lord' is uncertain here - it might apply to either Melkor or Sauron, and both originally came from 'Outside' the World. If he means Melkor, then this is very significant: consider this description of the entry of the Valar into the World, from the original conception of the Silmarillion:
'Now swiftly as they fared, Melko was there before them...'
The Book of Lost Tales, Part I, III The Coming of the Valar and the Building of Valinor
'They' here refers to Manwë and Varda, who were explicitly the first Valar to enter Arda apart from Melko (Melkor). In Tolkien's original conception, then (and there is nothing in the published Silmarillion to contradict this) Melkor was the first being from 'Outside' to enter the World, and yet Tom suggests that he was already here when Melkor arrived!
Admittedly Tom may be referring to Sauron, who must have come into Arda after these great ones, but the phrase 'before the Dark Lord came from Outside' seems to make more sense if he means Melkor, the first Dark Lord (that is, he is referring to an event of cosmic significance, and a specific point in the World's history, which isn't the case with Sauron).
This is only one of the objections to the Vala theory. Another, for example, is that characters who we would expect to recognize a Vala living in their midst (especially Gandalf) don't apparently do so.
There are many other arguments to be made both for and against Tom's status as a Vala. For a more detailed discussion of this topic, and some more concrete conclusions, Eugene Hargrove's fascinating essay Who is Tom Bombadil? is strongly recommended.
Was Tom Ilúvatar Himself?
Tom's powers are apparently limitless, at least within his own domain, and this has led a lot of people of suggest that he might be none other than Eru Ilúvatar himself. There are certainly several hints in the text of The Lord of the Rings that this might be the case; he is called 'Master', and 'Eldest', and Goldberry says of him simply:
The Lord of the Rings I 7, In the House of Tom Bombadil
All of these points might suggest that Tom and Ilúvatar were in some sense the same being. In fact, though, this is one of the very few theories about Tom that we can bring to a definite conclusion. This point is touched on several times in Tolkien's letters, and each time he makes it clear that Tom and Eru should not be confused. Perhaps his most definite statement is this:
'There is no embodiment of the One
, of God, who indeed remains remote, outside the World, and only directly accessible to the Valar
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien No 181, dated 1956
If there is no embodiment of the One (that is, Eru), then Tom cannot of course be such an embodiment.
Was Tom a 'Spirit'?
The idea that Tom might be a 'spirit' (as opposed to a Maia or Vala) is certainly possible according to The Silmarillion. Though it seems to be commonly assumed that only the Valar and the Maiar entered Arda, a tantalising glimpse of Tolkien's original vision survived into the published form of the work. Here, discussing the Aratar or eight mightiest Valar, he says:
'...in majesty they are peers, surpassing beyond compare all others, whether of the Valar and the Maiar, or of any other order that Ilúvatar
has sent into Eä
The Silmarillion, Valaquenta
This single phrase 'any other order' seems to be a survival of a much older and more detailed account found in the Lost Tales:
'...brownies, fays, pixies, leprawns, and what else are they not called, for their number is very great... they were born before the world and are older than its oldest, and are not of it, but laugh at it much...'
The Book of Lost Tales, Part I
, III The Coming of the Valar and the Building of Valinor
It is hard not to hear the echo of Tom Bombadil in these words, and perhaps here we see the first germ of his inspiration (the Lost Tales predate Tom's first appearance in print by about a decade). Accounts of the origins of Tolkien's World seem to mention minor, unidentified spirits and beings apart from the Valar and their servants. Whether Tom is a creature like a brownie, fay, pixie or leprawn, though, is open to doubt - none of these creatures appears in Tolkien's published works, and their function as a bridge to later folklore seems to have been taken up, at least partly, by the Hobbits.
This version of the 'spirit' idea doesn't address many of the other problems already discussed, though. Why should a 'leprawn' be immune to the Ring when the Maiar are not? Could a 'brownie' have entered the World before the first of the Valar?
There is another kind of spirit that Tom could be though: a 'spirit of nature'. Tolkien himself seems to support this point of view:
'Do you think Tom Bombadil, the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside, could be made into the hero of a story?'
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No 19, dated 1937
This letter predates Tom's appearance in The Lord of the Rings (in fact, this quotation is part of discussion of the possible sequel to The Hobbit), so it is at best circumstantial evidence.
The idea of a 'nature spirit', though, is certainly possible within Tolkien's universe. Though this area of his cosmology is never directly addressed, Middle-earth seems at times to be full of spirits - at least some trees apparently have spirits, for example (consider Old Man Willow, or the Huorns of Fangorn). Consider too:
'But the Elves of this land were of a race strange to us of the silvan folk
, and the trees and the grass do not now remember them. Only I hear the stones lament them...'
, from The Fellowship of the Ring
II 3, The Ring Goes South
There are numerous other examples of this kind: it is clear that in Tolkien's universe, the stuff of nature is somehow more alive, and more aware, than in the modern world. It is a short step from this to the idea of 'spirits of nature', but a much longer one to 'spirits of nature' that wear yellow boots and live in houses.
2. Bombadil as a Literary Character
It seems clear that, within the cosmos to which he belonged, Tom cannot be classified with any certainty. Outside that cosmos, though, we can at least reach some firmer conclusions (and offer some freer speculations).
Tom's Origins in Earlier Writings
At the time of writing The Lord of Rings, Tolkien had already completed a body of work that many writers would do well to equal in a lifetime. Tom himself had appeared in print as early as 1933 (though the collection The Adventures of Tom Bombadil did not appear until 1961 - and in fact Tom only appears in the first two of these sixteen poems). What's more, the Silmarillion was already well developed (though much of it as it existed then would be unrecognisable to readers familiar with the published version, a great deal of its narrative was already in place).
It seemed at that time that the Silmarillion would never be published, and so Tolkien felt free to use names from that work in his sequel to The Hobbit: Glorfindel is the most famous example, but the names Gildor, Denethor, Boromir, Minas Tirith, and many others besides, all appear in both works, referring to different characters and places (the hyperlinks here refer to entries for the older versions).
Tom must also have been part of this process, but in his case, his entire character, rather than just his name, seems to have been transplanted into the emerging Lord of the Rings. Tom's appearance in the early chapters is natural - Tolkien at that time seems to have envisaged the work as a children's book, a sequel to The Hobbit following the same style, and Tom certainly would not have seemed out of place. As it grew, though, the world of The Lord of the Rings began to merge with that of The Silmarillion. Here the difficulty seems to have arisen - a character like Tom, though he fits easily into the unconstrained story-telling style of The Hobbit, doesn't have an obvious place in the detailed universe of The Silmarillion.
Though Tom's insertion into the nascent Lord of the Rings might be viewed (at least in a sense) as 'accidental', it is certainly no accident that he remained there. Tolkien reviewed and revised the book with his customary meticulousness - it is inconceivable that the character of Tom Bombadil would have stayed in place if Tolkien didn't see him, in some sense, 'fitting' with the rest of the story. In Tolkien's own words:
'...I kept him in, and as he was, because he represents certain things otherwise left out.'
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No 153, dated 1954
In the same letter, he goes on to summarise what these 'certain things' are. It is difficult to paraphrase his statements here: the suggestion is that while all sides in the War of the Ring seek, in their different ways, some sort of political power, Tom is immune from this in the same way that he is immune from the Ring. He only wishes to understand things for what they are, and desires no control over them. (This is a rather pale rendering of Tolkien's actual comments - for further study of this topic, a copy of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, with special reference to Nos 144 and 153, is indispensible.)
Tom's Place in Mythology
Tolkien's own understanding of what Tom represents in the Lord of the Rings seems to have evolved 'after the event': from what evidence we have, Tolkien apparently first decided that he wanted Tom in the book, and then rationalised his inclusion. One of his earliest comments on Tom after the publication of The Lord of the Rings is:
'...he represents something that I feel important, though I would not be prepared to analyze the feeling precisely.'
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No 144, dated 1954
In the same passage, he then goes on to give an account of Tom's literary function within the book, and the ideas that he represents. But this is an account of ideas from an intellectual perspective, not of the 'feeling' that led to his original inclusion. Here we will speculate a little (the word 'speculate' cannot be over-emphasised!) on Tom's mythological role, and where Tolkien's 'feeling' might have originated. Before continuing, though, it's important to note that Tolkien himself disliked this line of reasoning. Writing of an introduction to the Swedish version of The Lord of the Rings by a Dr Åke Ohlmarks, he says:
'As for Wayland Smith being a Pan-type, or being reflected both in Bombadil and Gollum
: this is sufficient example of the silly methods and nonsensical conclusions of Dr O[hlmarks].'
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No 229, dated 1961
(Wayland Smith is a god of the Anglo-Saxons; Pan is of course Greek). It is unclear here whether Tolkien is criticising Dr Ohlmarks' specific conclusions, or whether he is dismissing the role of mythological comparison altogether. Ultimately, though, Tolkien was in the business of creating his own mythology (intentionally or not); to avoid comparison with other mythologies is to miss a rich seam of material. Nonetheless, what follows should be read in light of his own comments quoted above.
The particular aspect of other mythologies that we address here is the role of the 'mischievous outsider'. This refers to a god or other being who in some sense does not 'belong' with the others (and indeed, is often literally imported into a mythology from outside). Such characters may be meddlesome and irritating (like the Norse Loki, or the original form of the Arthurian Cei or Kay), but more usually they are simply jolly, frolicsome creatures (Egypt had Bes, the baboon-god, while the Greeks 'borrowed' Bacchus from the people of Thrace). There are many other examples who fulfil this archetype: Coyote in North America, Ueuecoyotl in Mexico or the eastern monkey-god variously called Hanuman or Sun Hou-tzu.
It is not our concern here to discuss why this figure should be so universally represented, only to note that he is. (The word 'he' is used advisedly - this role always seems to be filled by a male).
Is Tom Bombadil a 'mischievous outsider'? He is certainly 'mischievous' (or, more precisely, joyfully unconcerned with the world at large), and we've seen that he is emphatically an 'outsider', in that he doesn't fit easily with the rest of Tolkien's universe. What we're suggesting here is that these elements are not in any sense objections to his inclusion in The Lord of the Rings; in fact they are recommendations: they help to add an inherent sense of 'myth' to the book, that would otherwise be far less evident.
This is not to suggest, of course, that Tolkien consciously considered these points. Rather, to a man steeped in mythical tradition as he was, Tom would have 'felt' right as a character - he helps to lift the Quest of Mount Doom from mere 'legend' into the realms of 'myth'. This perhaps (remember we are speculating wildly here) helps to account for Tolkien's imprecise 'feeling' about him.
There is only one answer to the riddle of Tom Bombadil: that there is no answer. Though we've presented some of the evidence here, this article does no more than dip beneath the surface. It seems, though, that Tom's nature is ultimately undiscoverable, and this is surely a good thing.
Part of the wonder of Tolkien's world is its depth and detail, but it needs its mysteries and unknowns too: if we knew everything about the World of Arda and its inhabitants, there would be no joy of exploration and discovery. If nothing else, Tom Bombadil stands proudly as a symbol of the mysterious, and we should be glad that he does.