In The Fellowship of the Ring, an interesting figure makes an entrance.  Tom Bombadil comes to the aid of the hobbits, rescuing them from the clutches of Old Man Willow. Tom and his wife, Goldberry, only appear in this one episode and are briefly mentioned in the remainder of the epic; however, Bombadil captured the imagination of readers and generated intense interest.[1]

Tolkien alternatively described Bombadil as “an enigma” and “unimportant.” [2] [3]  At times, he became more specific about Bombadil’s role in the world of Middle-earth, stating that he was “the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside.”[4]  However, in Tolkien’s longer expositions on the nature and purpose of Bombadil, we see that Bombadil does actually reflect something quite important.  Bombadil is a representation of an order and authority that is beyond the dominion of Middle-earth yet within it.  The idea that Bombadil represents is most closely aligned with Melchizedek, that mysterious figure mentioned in the books of Genesis and Hebrews. Like Melchizedek, Bombadil’s origins are unknown and, like Melchizedek, Bombadil has an authority above and apart from his fellow countrymen.

Reader Response to Bombadil

While Tolkien fielded a number of questions regarding Bombadil, his most lengthy explanation is found in a letter written to Peter Hastings in September of 1954.  Hastings questioned Tolkien on a number of issues that concerned him theologically, such as the fact that he did not believe that evil could create anything. Hastings took issue with the Dark Lord’s ability to “create” the orcs and the trolls, was bothered by the reincarnation of the elves, as well as the impracticality of intermarriage between elves and humans. He also questioned the status of Bombadil and believed that Goldberry’s statement that “He is” indicated that Bombadil was God.[5]

The tone of Tolkien’s response as a whole was somewhat defensive. After all, he was responding to the manager of a Catholic bookshop.  If Hastings felt that The Lord of the Rings promoted heretical ideas, it is very possible that sales could be discouraged within the Catholic community.  Tolkien downplayed Bombadil’s status in the epic, as well as dismissed concerns about what Hastings felt was represented in the story, saying:

As for Tom Bombadil, I really do think you are being too serious, besides missing the point. (Again the words used are by Goldberry and Tom not me as a commentator.) You rather remind me of a Protestant relation who to me objected to the (modern) Catholic habit of calling priests Father, because the name father belonged only to the First Person.[6]

Tolkien also responded to Hastings’s question regarding the reference to Bombadil as “He is” and “Master” with:

Lots of other characters are called Master; and if “in time” Tom was primeval he was Eldest in Time. . .  Frodo has asked not “what is Tom Bombadil” but “Who is he” . . . We need not go into the sublimities of “I am that am” – which is quite different from “he is.”[7]

However, there are two issues with this.  The first is that Tolkien has slightly skewed the account in Exodus. Moses asks the Lord, “’Behold, I am going to the sons of Israel, and I will say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’ Now they may say to me, ‘What is His name?’ What shall I say to them?’”[8] Tolkien states that Moses’s question to the Lord and Frodo’s question to Goldberry are not anything similar because Tom and Goldberry were referring to names.  This is exactly what Moses was asking, “What is your name?”  Moses was not asking “What are you?”  He knew the answer to that; he was speaking to a god.  He was asking, “Who are you?” to what person or deity was he speaking.  It was to this that the Lord replied, “I AM.”  Goldberry gave a similar response to Frodo saying, “He is.”[9]

The Origins of the Character of Bombadil

The character of Tom Bombadil predates the creation of The Lord of the Rings. The inspiration for the character was “found in a wooden-limbed ‘Dutch Doll’ owned by one of Tolkien’s children which was given the name ‘Tom Bombadil.”[10] A fragment of the original story was found at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library.[11] It is but a three paragraph introduction to what appears to be intended as a longer work, two of which simply provide a setting. The third paragraph introduces Tom Bombadil with an appearance that is echoed almost word for word in The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien received a number of letters both inquiring more details about Tom as well as a request for more stories. One of those requests came from his aunt, Jane Neave, who asked if her nephew “wouldn’t get out a small book with Tom Bombadil at the heart of it, the sort of size of book that we old ’uns can afford to buy for Christmas presents.”[12] Tolkien fulfilled this request in 1962 with the publication of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, with two stories that were specifically about Bombadil, as well as a number of other short stories and poems.[13] The book was presented as the stories contained in Bilbo’s “red book.”[14] The two poems “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil” and “Tom Bombadil Goes Boating” were considered by Tolkien to be a prequel and a sequel to The Lord of the Rings with regards to Bombadil’s tale, telling the reader that one was written prior to the Ring’s epic and the second after Frodo’s visit to the house of Tom Bombadil.[15]

There was obviously some rumination regarding Tom as Tolkien had some very firmly set ideas of Bombadil’s place within the framework of Middle-earth and how Tom should be portrayed. This is evident in his indignant response to Rayner Unwin in a letter dated April 8, 1958 regarding a film treatment for The Lord of the Rings. Stating that it was “evident that he has skimmed through the L.R. at a great pace, and then constructed his S.l. from partly confused memories, and with the minimum of references back to the original,” he also took exception to the reference of Bombadil as an “old scamp.” [16]  He further elaborates saying, “This is a good example of the general tendency that I find in Z to reduce and lower the tone towards that of a more childish fairy-tale. The expression does not agree with the tone of Bombadil’s long later talk.”[17]

Another example of his very firm idea of how the gravitas of the character, which is sometimes portrayed as jolly, should be portrayed, can be found in his comment on the cover art for The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. The illustrator designed a scene which wrapped from front to back with the main character from the poem Errantry, a mariner, on the front cover and Tom Bombadil on the back. While Tolkien had approved the design, it was not until he saw the produced copy that he saw the full effect and said, “Alas! . . . it is only now . . .  that I observe that as an illustration, especially one to fit the general title, the picture should have been reversed: with Bombadil on the front, and the Ship sailing left, westward!”[18] This looking westward has significance in the cosmos of Middle-earth. It is to the West that the Elves and Frodo sail when leaving Middle-earth. They are leaving Middle-earth and this life and moving into the next.

This picture of Bombadil as sort of a conduit or guide to the land beyond is a recurring theme. In a letter to Tolkien’s son, Christopher, in November of 1944, he gives an insight of how the saga of The Lord of the Rings will end.

But the final scene will be the passage of Bilbo and Elrond and Galadriel through the woods of the Shire on their way to the Grey Havens. Frodo will join them and pass over the Sea (linking with the vision he had of a far green country in the house of Tom Bombadil). So ends the Middle Age and the Dominion of Men begins.[19]

Through Bombadil, Frodo had a vision of what was to come.  The West and the Undying Lands are similar to a picture of Heaven.  That the Elves must pass out of Middle-earth in order for the Dominion of Man to begin is similar to what our own world must pass through before the establishment of the New Heaven and the New Earth where man can truly have dominion as he was originally intended.[20]

Like Bombadil and Middle-earth, Melchizedek served as a conduit from this Age into the One to Come.  Melchizedek was a priest of the Most High, but one that was before the establishment of the line of Aaron.  His blessing upon Abraham conferred his priesthood.  Melchizedek was a type, a foreshadowing of Christ who is “high priest forever.”[21]

A Thing Unexplained

Tolkien resisted the efforts to nail Bombadil down with a definitive explanation;  however, that does not mean that there are no parallels to something that we already know, or something that we should know.  As Tolkien said himself in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” stories are about recovering what was once known but is now lost.  It [recovery]:

Is a re-gaining — regaining of a clear view.  I do not say ‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’ – as things apart from ourselves.[22]

It is this seeing of the “apart” things that Bombadil represents in many of the same ways that sets Melchizedek as “apart.”

What Tolkien Thought About Bombadil

Tolkien felt that Bombadil represents that which is “unexplained” and a “mystery,” and that all good stories required this element of the unknown.[23] [24]  He has a point.  The character had grown to a position in his mind that was more than the role Bombadil played in The Lord of the Rings.  He must have felt that the insistence to nail every detail of Bombadil down to a precise “what” missed the totality of what the character represented.

As Timeless

One of Bombadil’s most puzzling characteristics to readers is his origin.  The interest in Bombadil has not passed on with Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings fans debate at length the question of first things.  How could Bombadil be the oldest when Gandalf stated that Fangorn was first?   As Elrond mentions at the Council, the origins of Bombadil are unknown, he was without a father, and he was known by many names.

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 Be-adar we called him, oldest and fatherless.  But many another name he has since been given by other fold: Forn by the Dwarves, Orald by the Northern Men, and other names beside.  He is a strange creature.[25]

Tom himself states that he was before creation in response to the question as to who Bombadil was, he answered:

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.[26]

He was “eldest” and existed “before the seas were bent.” There is an echo here of Genesis 1:2 giving a suggestion of being before the world was formed. This timelessness and eternality is also seen in the beliefs about Melchizedek.  The writer of Hebrews states that Melchizedek was “Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God he remains a priest perpetually.”[27]  The conclusion of readers is that Bombadil existed before creation while Treebeard was first of the created.[28]

This same sort of intense speculation is found regarding the person of Melchizedek. Only appearing in one chapter of the Old Testament, Genesis 14, he was the high priest who oversaw the truce between Abraham and the King of Sodom.[29] While only two verses in Genesis are given to Melchizedek, as with the interest in Bombadil, his role was a source of speculation through the centuries.  Melchizedek is mentioned once again in the Old Testament in Psalm 110, one of the most powerful Messianic psalms, which begins with the Father saying to the Son, “My Lord (Yahweh) said unto my Lord (Adonai / Master), Sit at my right hand until I make Your enemies a footstool for your feet.”[30] After promising to put  Adonai in power, Yahweh states, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”[31]

It is this Psalm which the writer of the Hebrews quotes.  By the time of the writing of the New Testament, much more had been supposed regarding Melchizedek’s origins and purpose.  Two scrolls found at Qumran, The Genesis Apocryphon (1Q20) and The Heavenly Prince Melchizedek (11Q13), mention Melchizedek. [32] In the first, which is a recounting of Genesis, not much more is said regarding his nature and character than in Genesis 14; however, in the second we see the place this high priest has taken in the imagination of the followers of Judaism.  The view of Melchizedek has progressed from not only a human servant of the Most High, but to one that is divine.  In the year of Jubilee, the Year of Release and the Year of Grace, he will proclaim liberty to the captives, “avenge the vengeance of the judgments of God,” and “make them understand all the ages of time.” The writer is even more explicit concerning the divine status of Melchizedek saying, “and your ELOHIM is [Melchizedek, who will save them from] the hand of Belial.”[33] Belial was a power that had dominion over a portion of the earth.

Bombadil rescues the hobbits not once, but twice during their journey.  He comes upon them after they have been entrapped by the Willow Man whose “heart was rotten, but his strength was green and cunning.”[34]  Before the hobbits are fully on their way, he must rescue them again from the clutches of the Barrow-wights, which are like death itself.  The first is like the salvation from our own sinful nature, the second is similar to salvation’s victory over death.  Melchizedek himself was believed to make atonement for and save the “Sons of Light.”

Conclusion

Tolkien very strongly resisted the comparisons of Bombadil to the divine, but in spite of those efforts, there are divine qualities seen in Bombadil’s character.  As Tolkien states in his letter to Naomi Mitchison, “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.”[35] This function is that of something beyond.  Bombadil is from beyond Middle-earth and from beyond time. It is the same sense of beyond that Melchizedek provided to the followers of Yahweh as God gave them progressive revelation of the One who was to come.

In the world of Middle-earth, as well as our own where there is so much broken and bent, we need someone that is not subject to its corruption.  We need someone like Melchizedek, a foreshadowing of Christ, who will bring justice.  We need someone like Bombadil, and Christ himself, on whom the grip of evil has no sway. [36]

Of course, the parallel is not exactly the same.  When asked if Bombadil could be persuaded to deal with the Ring, Gandalf replied, “’No . . . Not willingly. He might do it if the free folk of the world begged him, but he would not understand the need.”[37] Bombadil is not particularly concerned with the rest of Middle-earth beyond his trees and streams while Melchizedek and the Savior he was a precursor to were very concerned.

But yet, Tolkien was right when he said Bombadil represented something very important.  Even though Tolkien did not create Bombadil to give glimpses of divinity intentionally, yet still he does.  It may be a case as John MacQuarrie noted regarding artists in general that are “something like revelation.  What is revealed has been there all the time, but it has gone unnoticed in our humdrum everyday experience.  It needs the sensitivity of the artist to bring it to light, so that we notice things for the first time.”[38] The need for a just mediator, rescuer, and redeemer has been here through all time.

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Citation Information

C.M. Alvarez, “Melchizedek, Bombadil, and the Numinous in The Lord of the Rings,” An Unexpected Journal 3, no. 1. (Spring 2020), 75-92.

Direct Link:  https://anunexpectedjournal.com/melchizedek-bombadil-and-the-numinous-in-the-lord-of-the-rings/


Endnotes

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, Humphrey Carpenter, and Christopher Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (George Allen & Unwin, n.d.), 208.

In a letter dated September 1954 to Peter Hastings, Tolkien defends various points within The Lord of the Rings that troubled his friend theologically.  One of those points was the nature of Tom Bombadil.  Tolkien defends his creation, but he notes that “many have found him an odd or indeed discordant ingredient.”

[2] Ibid., 193.

[3] Ibid., 196.

[4] Ibid., 32.

[5] Ibid., 206.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Exodus 3:14, NASB.

[9] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (New York, NY: Del Rey Books, 2012), 140.

[10] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, ed. Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond (London, UK: HarperCollins, 2014), 9, Digital edition.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Tolkien, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 11.

[13] Ibid., 21.

[14] Ibid., 31.

[15] Ibid., 33.

[16] Ibid., 287.

[17] Ibid., 292.

[18] Tolkien, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 21-22.

[19] Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 119.

[20] Revelation 21:1, 6-7.

[21] Hebrews 6:20.

[22] J.R.R. Tolkien, Tolkien on Fairy-Stories, ed. Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson, UK edition (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2014), 67.

[23] Ibid, 68.

[24] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (New York, NY: Del Rey Books, 2012), 297.

[25] Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 297.

[26] Ibid., 148-149.

[27] Hebrews 7:3, NASB.

[28] Ulairi, “Who Is the Oldest? Bombadil or Treebeard?” Message Board, The Tolkien Forum, January 13, 2002, accessed December 10, 2017, http://www.thetolkienforum.com/index.php?threads/who-is-the-oldest-bombadil-or-treebeard.3926/.

[29] Genesis 14:18-20, NASB.

“18. And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; now he was a priest of God Most High. 19 He blessed him and said,

“Blessed be Abram of God Most High,

Possessor of heaven and earth;

20 And blessed be God Most High,

Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.””

[30] Psalm 110:1, NASB.

[31] Psalm 110:4, NASB.

[32] Geza Vermes, ed., The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, Seventh edition (London, UK: Penguin Classics, 2012), 480-491.

[33] Vermes, 534.

[34] Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 147.

[35] Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 198.

[36] Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 298.
“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.”

[37] Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 298.

[38] Jeremy S. Begbie, ed., Beholding the Glory: Incarnation through the Arts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000), XII.

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