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.