In a story about a Ring which leads to great wars and the demise of the most powerful warriors and kings – there is a small, man-like creature, always sporting a bright blue jacket and yellow boots, who remains unaffected by the “One Ring to rule them all,” Tom Bombadil.[1] In The Fellowship of the Ring, the hobbits meet Tom when he rescues them from Old Man Willow, an ancient, sentient willow tree. After rescuing the hobbits and bringing them to his home, Tom casually puts on the Ring, shocking the hobbits as it has no effect on him. Given the Ring has no power over Tom, coupled with the fact that he is such an odd character, many Tolkien fans have asked, “Who or what is Tom Bombadil?” Tolkien seemed not only reluctant to answer that question, but largely disinterested in the topic, or perhaps he was even unsure of the answer as well. Either way, the confusion left some readers disappointed; in some cases, even resentful of the character. In a letter to one reader, Tolkien wrote, “I don’t think Tom needs philosophizing about, and is not improved by it.”[2] Tolkien thought the question was one readers should put aside. Thus, before we react to what seems like a mystery to solve, perhaps we could change our approach. It seems that Tom is beyond our full comprehension because Tolkien intended him to be so, and he serves our imagination in a way beyond the limitations of pure reason.

Often the question who or what is Tom Bombadil? is framed as a single question. But attention to detail would reveal that there are two different questions at hand. To ask what is Tom Bombadil? is different than who is Tom Bombadil?  Tolkien pointed this out in a letter to a reader that Frodo asked Goldberry, who is Tom Bombadil? “Frodo has asked not ‘what is Tom Bombadil’ but ‘Who is he’. We and he no doubt laxly confuse the questions.”[3] To ask who is Tom Bombadil? is to inquire about Tom’s personality, his role in the narrative, and the ideas or symbolic significance he may hold. This question is more important than that of what Tom is, and it’s worthy of greater reflection. The latter question deals with Tom’s physical makeup — his place within the people-groups of Middle-Earth. To ask the question what is Tom Bombadil? is to ask what type of creature Tom is. What’s more, this question of lesser importance seems to be the most controversial. And yet, it is the question Tolkien thought largely irrelevant to the narrative.

Although Tolkien found it unimportant, we should briefly explore those theories for the sake of understanding the controversy surrounding Tom’s nature. Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull, in The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion, at least dispensed with the categories we can rule out when classifying Tom. The authors state that, “He is not Man, Dwarf, or Hobbit, since he is not (like those races) mortal. He does not look like, nor does Elrond consider him to be, an Elf … Tolkien rejected the notion that Bombadil was Eru (God): such an identification would have been impossible for Tolkien, a devout Catholic.”[4] Given that Tolkien explicitly rejects the notion that Tom was Eru, there is at least one aspect of the character that helps to place Tom within the bestiary — his age. Tom made this distinction himself claiming:

Eldest, that’s what I am … 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.[5]

It is largely because of his ancient past that many readers assume Tom to be a spirit.

More specifically, Tolkien scholar David Day assumes Tom to be an Ainur. In his description of the Ainur, Day wrote:

The Ainur were great spirits and each was given a mighty voice so that he could sing before Ilúvatar for his pleasure … This was that the tales call the Music of the Ainur, in which great themes were made as individual spirits sought supremacy or harmony according to their nature.[6]

Tom’s powerful voice, to which creatures willingly submit, as well as his age, knowledge, and wisdom are in line with the characteristics of the Ainur.  It is Tom’s voice that commands Old Man Willow to release the hobbits from his grasp. In fact, his voice is powerful enough to manage the wildest beasts within his domain. Tom’s voice also had the power to command the Barrow-wight attempting to kill Frodo and the other hobbits to flee.  “At these words [spoken by Tom] 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.”[7] Also, when Tom asks Frodo to give him the Ring, Frodo complies without hesitation. Tolkien writes, “Frodo to his own astonishment, drew out the chain from his pocket, and unfastening the Ring and handed it at once to Tom.”[8] Tom’s voice carries both the authority and beauty of the voices of the Ainur.

Assuming Day’s assumption about Tom is correct, there is still another distinction to be made. According to Day, “the elves divided this race [The Ainur] into the Valar and the Maiar.” While the Valar and the Maiar are both Ainur beings, the Valar are considered to be the mightiest of the Ainur. Out of all the Ainur, the Valar are few; fifteen to be exact.[9] The Maiar, however, are more populous, and while powerful in their own right, are thought to be servants of the Valar and therefore lesser beings.[10]

Regarding this divide, Day believes Tom is one of the Maiar because he remained in Middle-earth while the Valar “left Middle-Earth and went West to the Continent of Aman.”[11] Hammond and Scull also assert that Tom is likely one of the Maiar, but still, they surmise that we “cannot fit him [Tom] neatly into any category. He remains, as Tolkien wished, an enigma.”[12] He may remain an enigma simply because Tolkien never explicitly confirmed Tom’s ontological status in Middle-earth. Tolkien intentionally placed a creature into the story who would always remain mysterious. The more important question is why would Tolkien create such a character?

One could respond to that question with a simple, why not? One effect of the Modern era is that we are tempted to apply realism to everything, including fantasy literature. By realism, I mean the expected representation of things as we know them in our own world. However, realism in this sense, if applied to fantasy stories, will by and large stifle the imagination. When we try to limit Tom by categorizing him, we make Tom more simplistic than Tolkien intended. It is more likely that Tolkien found the mystery surrounding Tom as something to be embraced and valued. Tolkien wrote in a letter:

As a story, I think it is good that there should be a lot of things unexplained (especially if an explanation actually exists); and I have perhaps from this point of view erred in trying to explain too much, and give too much past history… And even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).[13]

Perhaps, as we’ve become accustomed to Tolkien’s well-organized and intricately woven history of Middle-earth, we have forgotten the necessity of the unexplained in any story. Even realists understand that there are mysteries in our own world. Tom thereby serves as a reminder that some things simply defy our complete understanding.

Another function of the imagination which may help us to better understand Tom is Tolkien’s idea of  “recovery.” According to Tolkien, recovery entails “regaining a clear view.”

I do not say ‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I may venture to see them’ – as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity.[14]

When we attempt to perfectly categorize Tom in the Middle-earth bestiary, it may be because we aren’t comfortable embracing the strange or unfamiliar. However, the genre of imaginative literature is one which permits us to enjoy a world in which there are unfamiliar things. Thus, mystery should not rob Tom of our admiration, rather we should enjoy all of his fantastic characteristics – including the fact that a character largely absent throughout a great deal of the story could be completely unaffected by the Ring of Power.

If, instead, we simply enjoy Tom Bombadil for who he is, we might find our humility restored by recognizing the imaginative value of mystery. In his exceptional book, Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton says:

Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland.[15]

Chesterton’s point about mysticism is that the “ordinary man” can allow room for the unexplained. In contrast, the modern man might lose his sanity when attempting to explain the world through the limits of pure reason alone; it is an impossible feat. Reason without the imagination is inevitably void of meaning. As an example, the modern man has long tried to reason how this universe came into existence. But, through reason alone, he has not even begun to grasp what it means to exist. Making sense of our existence will require an integrated approach of both imagination and reason. By having “one foot in earth and the other in fairyland,” we can apply both reason and imagination in our understanding of the world. Given that mysteries are a large part of the real world, we shouldn’t be so concerned when we find them in Fairyland, especially one as fascinating as the nature of Tom Bombadil.

Conceivably, by regaining a clear view — an integrated view of imagination and reason, Tom’s presence fits well within the story as a timely aid in Frodo’s journey. It must not be mistaken that Tom’s role in the story, because it is brief and mysterious, is somehow small in scope. If it weren’t for Tom rescuing Frodo, what would have been the fate of the hobbits in the clutches of Old Man Willow or at the mercy of a blood-thirsty Barrow-wight? Likely, without Tom arriving at precisely the right time, evil would have prevailed. The modern realist who is concerned with every jot and tittle cohering may think the demise of the hobbits more realistic, but Tolkien would disagree. For although the hobbits’ troublesome journey does capture universal elements of pain and suffering, the happy ending to the journey always remains central. Tolkien coined the happy ending we find in fairy-tales, the “eucatastrophe.” He believed it to reflect the truth of Christianity — a tale of which he wrote, “is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men — and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.”[16] Given that Tolkien’s novel was so largely reflective of Christianity, a happy ending is to be expected. Tom, mysterious as he may be, plays a key role in the “eucatastrophe” of The Lord of the Rings.

It’s worth noting Tolkien was not blind to Tom’s strangeness; he just saw value in Tom’s short-lived but important role in the larger narrative crafted in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien also wrote:

I have left him [Tom] 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 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.[17]

Whether we are reading fantasy literature or even exploring our own world, we will always find mystery, for there are always things to which no explanation can suffice. Tom’s mysterious appeal makes for a beneficial addition to Middle-earth because it inspires our sense of wonder. We may ask what is Tom Bombadil? or who is Tom Bombadil?, if we are willing to ponder on them while simultaneously enjoying Tom’s complexity; but we ought not demand finality. If we approach Tom Bombadil through rationality alone, we might as well forgo dragons, wizards, monsters, and the inhabitants of Middle-earth altogether because they will never fit neatly into the drab critique of modern realism.


Citation Information

Clark Weidner, “Tom Bombadil: The Value of an Enigma,” An Unexpected Journal 3, no. 1. (Spring 2020), 93-104.

Direct Link:  https://anunexpectedjournal.com/tom-bombadil-the-value-of-an-enigma/


Endnotes

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002), 50, Digital Edition.

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1981), 192.

[3] Tolkien, Letters, 191-192.

[4] Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, eds., The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co., 2005), 139.

[5] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2004), 163.

[6] David Day, Tolkien’s World: A Bestiary (London: Bounty Books, 2010), 20.

[7] Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 178.

[8] Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 165.

[9] Day, Guide to Tolkien’s World, 152.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 253.

[12] Ibid., 139.

[13] Tolkien, Letters, 174.

[14] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” eds., Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008), 67.

[15] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York, NY: Image Publishing, 2014), 23.

[16] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,”‘ 78.

[17] Tolkien, Letters, 31-32.

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