The Enigma of Tom Bombadil

I don’t know about you, but I like a little mystery mixed in with my fantasy. And this is what J.R.R. Tolkien provided when he plugged the character of Tom Bombadil into The Fellowship of the Ring.

Who or what is Bombadil? He lives in the Old Forest, where he is the Master, sharing his cabin with Goldberry, “daughter of the river.” We don’t exactly know what she is, either: only that Tom must keep her supplied with water lilies. We meet them when Tom saves the hobbits from being devoured by Old Man Willow, another enigmatic being whose nature is never clearly defined for us.

The chapters featuring these characters (“The Old Forest,” “In the House of Tom Bombadil,” and “Fog on the Barrow Downs”) are, I think, my very favorite section in the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy–and it’s because they’ve kept me guessing for all these years and I still haven’t guessed right.

Bombadil is “the Eldest” in all of Middle-Earth. He’s not a man, an Elf, a hobbit, or anything else: he is the only one of his kind. When he commands, everything in and around the Old Forest, except for the weather itself, has to obey him. And yet he’s almost a ridiculous figure, with his nonsense-songs, his funny clothes, etc. But the One Ring has no power over him–none whatsoever. Which can’t be said of any other creature.

The bottom line is, we don’t know what he is, we can’t find out by reading The Silmarillion or any other Tolkien book, and Tolkien himself never, never reveals the secret.

That is very, very cool! And it adds an indefinable spice to Tolkien’s fantasy. Just as there are things in our own world that we have never understood, so it is in Middle-Earth.

There are a lot of writers who wouldn’t dare to do this; but Tolkien was off in his own imagination and he didn’t care what anybody thought of it.

I admire him for this; but I haven’t tried to imitate him. Just as there is only one Tom Bombadil, there was only one Tolkien.


7 comments on “The Enigma of Tom Bombadil

  1. And there is only ONE GOD! How interesting this Tolkien character is. I love reading Tolkien. He truly was an amazing writer and a believer in our Father. Good times…I became a huge fan in 6th grade…like 30 years ago and I still read and re-read his books. Fair thee well brother’s and sisters in Our Lord’s Name….fair there well. Shannon b

  2. I like Tom too! Some of my sister disagree and think he’s annoying, but I think he’s fascinating and a very fun character as well.

  3. I also like Tom! And the time spent by the hobbits with him and Goldberry is fascinating and fun and full of wonder, it’s almost like a children’s story tuck inside the greater tale of LOTR. I think those are the things that are missing in other epic fantasy, way too serious.

  4. I have a pet theory of my own where Eru Iluvatar is not the only original spirit in existance. I believe Tulkas was one of them as was Ungoliant. I also think Tom Bombadil and Goldberry were original spirits as well. They were drawn by the splendor of Arda and the Valar to come down into Middle Earth and live there among the creatures already there. These spirits were of immense power in the Void where they could shape reality according to their whims, but in Arda were somewhat diminished in might.

    1. Hmmm… Given Tolkien’s intensely Catholic theology, do you think it possible he might have thought along those lines?
      Tom Bombadil started as a Dutch doll belonging to Tolkien’s little girl. The doll accidentally got flushed down the toilet, so Tolkien consoled his child by making up stories about the doll’s further adventures. I was surprised to learn he wrote about Bombadil some 20 years before he wrote “The Lord of the Rings.” And Old Tom is not found in his earlier writings on Middle-Earth.
      I do think he would laugh heartily at the reams of scholarly essays that have been written about this character.

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