Riddles, Rhymes and Lilies: The Mystery of Tom Bombadil (Part I)

“Who is Tom Bombadil?”, perhaps this question has been asked to death for years by Tolkien fans – and no matter how detailed and complex the answer is, there’s still no definite conclusion.

Tom Bombadil (Alan Lee)Nonetheless, I thought I’d throw my argument out there amongst the others and see what people think of it.

Certain concepts may bear a close resemblance to other people’s articles, but in writing this piece (a couple of years back), I was determined not to read anything by other people before I had finished my own.

Interestingly enough, the similarities are striking – indicating that although Tolkien left the character a mystery, his presence in The Lord of the Rings leaves some equally-shared effects among readers.

At the same time, considering the article is quite a lengthy one, I’ve decided to publish it as a series of posts spread over a couple of days. Hopefully, this will give you time to go through the extensive writing and avoid any threats of boredom! 🙂

I hope you enjoy …

***

An analysis on the character of Tom Bombadil

(With insights into the nature of Goldberry, daughter of the River-woman)

1.0 Introduction

Tom Bombadil. A name, an enigma.

Just those two words put forth a vast range of wild theories, each trying to describe the nature of the most mysterious individual in The Lord of the Rings.Tom Bombadil (John Howe)

Tom Bombadil, a character who even Tolkien himself said he intentionally kept secret, has been studied for many a year and yet, nothing more conclusive than a handful of information has been collected.

Tolkien himself wrote in one of his letters (Letter No. 144) about this most mysterious character: “… even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).”

1.1   Description

The first time we encounter the character of Tom Bombadil is in The Fellowship of the Ring  (more specifically in Book 1 ‘The Old Forest’) when the four hobbits find themselves in danger at the hands (or roots?) of Old Man Willow. 

“… there came into view a man, or so it seemed. At any rate he was too large and heavy for a hobbit, if not quite tall enough for one of the Big people … stumping along with great yellow boots on his thick legs […] He had a blue coat and a long brown beard; his eyes were blue and bright, and his face was red as a ripe apple, but creased into a hundred wrinkles of laughter.”

Tom Bombadil 3Tom Bombadil’s dwelling was situated in the Old Forest – upon a hill. It is here that the hobbits find themselves seeking refuge from the ominous trees. His house is presented to us as  a sort of haven, leaving a positive effect on the Halflings “Already half their weariness and all their fears had fallen from them.”

Tom Bombadil is described as an old being and quite a nice fellow: always “hopping and dancing along … singing loudly …” and laughing heartily.

Contrasted with the laughing and the singing, there seems to be some sort of power hidden within Bombadil, something that shows authority in that land – where nature seems to love and fear him at the same time.

He is a protector of sorts and someone who is certainly not faint of heart. When the hobbits first encounter Bombadil, beside Old Man Willow, we get to see some of these concealed abilities:

“ ‘Help!’ cried Frodo and Sam running towards him with their hands stretched out.

‘Whoa! Whoa! Steady there!’ cried the old man, holding up one-hand, and they stopped short, as if they had been struck stiff.

It would seem that, just by raising one hand, Tom stopped both hobbits at once. This might not mean anything specific, but it shows that he reacted on instinct at a possible threat.

There are many things which Bombadil says and does which might help us clear the mystery that surrounds this character.

1.2   The “He is” Question and Riddle Talk

 As has been said, Tom Bombadil is not easily revealed to us.

Yet, the answer is right in front of us – though we cannot understand its meaning.

‘In the House of Tom Bombadil’, Frodo asks Goldberry the question we – the readers- so want to ask the characters in the book and Tolkien himself.Goldberry

 “‘Fair lady!’ said Frodo again after a while. ‘Tell me, if my asking does not seem foolish, who is Tom Bombadil?’

    ‘He is ,’ said Goldberry, staying her swift movement and smiling.

    Frodo looked at her questioningly. ‘He is, as you have seen him,’ she said in answer to his look. ‘He is the Master of wood, water, and hill.’

    ‘Then all this strange land belongs to him?’

    ‘No indeed!’ she answered, and her smile faded. ‘That would indeed be a burden,’ she added in a low voice, as if to herself. ‘The trees and the grasses and all things growing or living in the land belong each to themselves. Tom Bombadil is the Master. No one has ever caught old Tom walking in the forest, wading in the water, leaping on the hill-tops under light and shadow. He has no fear. Tom Bombadil is master.’ ”

There it goes. That’s the answer to all the Tom Bombadil riddles. I can stop here and not proceed forward, since we have actually been told who he is.

If it were so easy to decipher this answer, Tom wouldn’t be such a fascinating character. But being curious by nature, we humans like riddle talk and that’s what keeps a story interesting (something which Tolkien was definitely aware of).

Goldberry replies to Frodo’s question with an enigmatic statement: “He is”.

Two short words such as these can mean a lot of things.

It would seem that Tom Bombadil is an absolute character (by absolute I mean, he has no past or future – he just exists within the present being of the world).

Old Forest

He seems to be living now (or at least in that particular time in the book). This seems to indicate an immortal life or at least, a life with no bounds to the physical word.

Later in the dialogue, she adds: “He is the Master of wood, water, and hill.”

Notice that “Master” is with a capital letter, signifying high status. Furthermore, the lack of the word “the” after “wood”, “water” and “hill” seems to refer to the general concept of Nature in the world, rather than just a specific wood or hill.

It would appear that Tom Bombadil is a guardian of sorts – protecting Nature in Middle-earth.

Tom Bombadil 2Yet, as we will see later on, it is said that he does not go beyond the borders of the Old Forest.

Continuing through the dialogue, in response to Frodo’s next question, we learn that the land (most probably just the Old Forest), is wholly independent and does not actually belong to Bombadil. But there is something strange in Goldberry’s response. Why did she exclaim her answer? Why did her smile fade? And why did she lower her voice in the final phrase?

What did she mean by, “[t]hat would indeed be a burden” ? Certainly then, Tom Bombadil had a burden of some sort – whether protecting nature or some other task, he was definitely within that land for some reason or other. What kind of burden he undertook is one of the main aims of these posts and we shall try to find out in the following sections.

***

‘The trees and the grasses and all things growing or living in the land belong each to themselves. Tom Bombadil is the Master” – this seems refer to the fact that all nature in the Old Forest is not dependent on Bombadil and it grows and dies at its own will – though being “the Master” Tom might have been their protector from any outside danger.

As has been said above, Bombadil was there certainly for a task of some sort – and this might have well been one of the reasons.

No one has ever caught old Tom walking in the forest” – but the hobbits had. Why was it so? Was it their fate to pass through this perilous wood and meet this being?

(Whether Tom’s meeting was intentional or not, will be discussed later on)

And finally, we come to the end of this short dialogue, with the last two short sentences – though probably the most enigmatic.Old Man Willow

He has no fear. Tom Bombadil is master”. From the first phrase, it is easy to establish that Tom had power of some sort and if we were to take it in a literal sense, then he must have had a substantial amount of power to be completely fearless (unless within the boundaries of the Old Forest itself).

The second part of the quote contains something to ponder about.

As previously explained regarding the capital “M” in “Master” and the lack of “the” in “Master of wood, water, and hill”, here we have the complete opposite.

The word “master” has no capitals. This would reverse the whole thinking process, but we would probably still arrive at the same conclusion as above.

If the sentence had been: “Tom Bombadil is [the] master”, then we would still be able to deduce that he was in control of Nature – but it (the natural world or the Old Forest) still retains its independence.

But here we have no “the” word inserted and thus, I would venture to explain this phrase as the following:

Tom Bombadil was a master, just like other masters (of whom we have no mention of), that were entrusted with the task of protecting Nature’s entities in the world.

1.2.1  Riddle Talk

All through the chapter featuring Tom Bombadil, the speeches he makes give strong hints to his mysterious being.

Amidst the joyful singing and laughter, is a strange feeling of something obscure. He doesn’t seem to answer the questions he is asked in a normal way, but rather, indirectly.

During their stay, the hobbits learn a good deal about the Old Forest and the natural world. It seems that Tom BombadilBombadil had a vast knowledge of things, and not only of those under his direct protection.

“He told them tales of bees and flowers, the ways of trees, and the strange creatures of the Forest, about the evil things and good things, … and secrets hidden under brambles… As they listened, they began to understand the lives of the Forest … Tom’s words laid bare the hearts of trees and their thoughts … Suddenly Tom’s talk left the woods and went leaping up the young stream, over bubbling waterfalls, over pebbles and worn rocks … They heard of the Great Barrows, and the green mounds …”

From this point onward, we are given a description of what had befallen this land and how fair it was in ages past. Not only does Bombadil know all this, but we also read that:

“When they caught his words again they found that he had now wandered into strange regions beyond their memory and beyond their waking thought, into times when the world was wider, and the seas flowed straight to the western Shore; and still on and back Tom went singing out into ancient starlight, when only the Elf-sires were awake.”

From this passage we can clearly understand that he is talking about the great days during the First Age of Middle Earth. The “western Shore” is, most certainly, referring to the Undying Lands as, in The Silmarillion we learn that before the seas were bent, there was a straight passage from Middle Earth to Aman.

It would be tempting to say, for someone who knew so much of these things and  in such great detail, that he may actually have lived those years himself and now remembers them as memories of old.

Following this passage, we come to another interesting extract which can be linked to the “He is” issue discussed earlier.

ITolkien, Nasmith, painting, illustration, Lord of the Rings, Silmarillion, Hobbit, Middle-eartht seems to hark back to his origins and once again, we are presented with a typical example of his riddle talk. The hobbits ask a simple question, and what they get is an answer, though not in the way we normally expect.

Here follows the extract:

“‘Who are you, Master?’ he [Frodo] asked.

[…] 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.’ ”

This is a typical passage that says so much and we can deduce a lot of things, but still remain uncertain about much of it.

The term “Eldest” already implies a broad term. Usually, we refer to “eldest” as something or someone who has lived for the longest period of time compared to others.

Tom describes himself as bearing witness to a lot of events, which seem to point directly towards the creation of Arda (the world).

For instance, he is said to have been before rivers and trees, and to have seen the first raindrop. He also mentions making paths before Men – (which took place before and during the initial years of the First Age).

This strongly hints at Tom Bombadil having existed ‘outside’ of Arda. As we are told in The Silmarillion, he may very well have been one of the Ainur – part of Passing of the Elvesthe Valar and Maiar who eventually descended into the world and helped shape it.

This seems to be the only explanation towards all the events he claims to have witnessed.

He goes on describing the events which took place after him – such as: “When the Elves passed westward”. During the First Age after the fall of Morgoth, the Elves regretted leaving the shores of Valinor and so were allowed to return.

Also, “before the seas were bent” – pointing to a specific occurence in the Second Age when, after the fall of Númenor due to the corruption of Men, Arda was made round and the Undying Lands removed from the physical earth.

The next sentence, seems to be referring once again to the utmost initial years of Arda (a period long before the First Age): “He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless – before the Dark Lord came from Outside”.

The dark under the stars seems to indicate that point in time when Varda fashioned the stars into the sky after Illuin and Ormal (the Two Lamps) were destroyed.

What is fascinating here is the reference to the “Dark Lord – now one has to remember, that both Sauron and Morgoth were named as dark lords and this can lead to different ideas.Fingolfin vs Morgoth

In this case, Tom Bombadil appears to refer to Morgoth, the first Dark Lord to come into the world. The term “came from Outside” is most probably a reference to the Void outside Arda, within which the world is present.

And thus, Tom Bombadil was there before Morgoth descended into the world with the rest of the Valar.

The last phrase would seem to describe Tom as being in the world before the Valar came.

It would be of utmost interest if we were to think that Tom Bombadil was sent to Middle-earth before all the other Ainur, by Ilúvatar himself.

As to whether a Vala or not, a Maia or something else, this has yet to be determined. This leads me to introduce and discuss the next section on the topic.

(to be continued in Part II – in the meantime, please share your thoughts on anything you’d like to discuss in relation to jolly Tom Bombadil 🙂 )

 

 Copyright of  all photos, illustrations and artwork shown here, belong to their respective artists/owners.

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16 thoughts on “Riddles, Rhymes and Lilies: The Mystery of Tom Bombadil (Part I)

  1. Excellent article James, Bombadil is certainly a fascinating character. I do enjoy reading the multitude of interpretations of the character, and yours is wonderful!

  2. It’s a great experience to read your reviews mate, Tom Bombadil such a great fascinating character and this post have truly wonderful information’s about him. Thank you,

  3. Really, really interesting. Bombadil has always been one of my favorite characters because he is such an enigma–able to show us the limits of the ring’s power but so disconnected from most of the other mythologies of the books as to be almost-outside.

  4. I’ve only read Part, but I am agreeing with your reasoning so far, which seems to focus on the facts and doesn’t stray too far from what is actually in the text. I think readers often over analyze things and end up forcing a meaning out of something. Tom is a good example of this and I would have to say that I think this is Tolkien’s way of showing us that some questions are better left unanswered!

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