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

If you’ve been through Part I and weren’t daunted or put off by the arguments there, here follows Part II of the article for your reading pleasure 🙂

***

 1.3 An Unknown being?

In this section, we shall try to understand better what Tom Bombadil actually is.

1.3.1 Immunity to the Ring

Tom’s immunity to the One Ring is perhaps the main reason why this character is debated so much.

Who could this being be, in order not to be affected by the evil power of the Ring? Something which even Gandalf dared not look at, fearing the worst?

Tom Bombadil (Alan Lee)The scene in question occurs on the second day of the hobbits’ stay at the house. Cunningly taking place during the night, they find themselves talking and answering Tom Bombadil’s questions:

“Indeed so much did Tom know, and so cunning was his questioning, that Frodo found himself telling him more about Bilbo, and his own hopes and fears than he had told before even to Gandalf.

‘Show me the precious Ring!’ He said suddenly … and Frodo, to his own astonishment, drew out the chain from his pocket, and unfastening the Ring handed it at once to Tom.

Tom seems to be a powerful character – much more that we might imagine. Firstly, the fact that Frodo shares much of his thoughts to this stranger, unlike Gandalf, already seems to indicate that Bombadil had something positively strange; where one could express himself without fearing anything.

Indeed, Tom seems to emit an emphatic atmosphere around him, which reveals itself as a comforting trait in such difficult times as Frodo was going Frodo offering the Ringthrough.

The next thing is the sudden movement Frodo does to hand over the Ring to Tom. Back in ‘The Shadow of the Past’ chapter, Gandalf had already noted Frodo’s attachment to the object, but here, he seems to give it willingly.

This could be explained both ways.

It was either a deliberate move by Frodo in ‘trusting’ Bombadil. Or else it was from Tom’s part that he, somehow or other, ‘ordered’ Frodo to give him the Ring. It is important to state that Frodo still had free will and he gave the Ring freely, but one might venture to state that Tom Bombadil had a powerful presence and individuals might have been more easily willing to answer his call – as happened in Frodo’s case.

“Then suddenly he put it to his eye and laughed… Then Tom put the Ring round the end of his little finger and held it up to the candlelight. For a moment the hobbits noticed nothing strange about his. Then they gasped. There was no sign of Tom disappearing! Tom laughed again, and then he spun the Ring in the air – and it vanished with a flash. Frodo gave a cry – and Tom leaned forward and handed it back to him with a smile.”

If we keep on reading the passage, we find out that Tom actually laughs at the sight of the Ring. Why would someone laugh at something so evil? The fact that he isn’t tempted by its power is definitely clear in his actions. But what is so difficult to understand is why this character, unlike anyone else, is not at all affected by the Ring.

Ring callingI tend to think that on the contrary, the Ring did try to control Tom Bombadil as the passage states: “It seemed to grow larger as it lay for a moment on his big brown-skinned hand” – so for an instance, the Ring adapted to its current “master’s” size – but it ultimately had no effect on him at all.

Tom Bombadil seems to be such a pure spirit that an object so evil had absolutely no effect on him. The process of corrupting and twisting its bearer could not be undertaken because: 1) either Tom instinctively withstood its power or (2) there was nothing to twist or corrupt in his being.

This seems to clearly indicate that he was not a Maia, since we have seen throughout The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings that these spirits were very much capable of being seduced by evil.

So what could he possible be?

***

The passage that follows, gives us an interesting insight into Bombadil’s abilities:

  “He [Frodo] waited for an opportunity […] then he slipped the Ring on […] got up and crept quietly away from the fireside towards the outer door.

   ‘Hey there!’ cried Tom, glancing towards him with a most seeing look in his shining eyes. ‘Hey! Come Frodo, there! Where be you a-going? Old Tom Bombadil’s not as blind as
that yet. Take off your golden ring! Your hand’s more fair without it.
Come back!…’ ”

So, apart from the Ring not having any effect on Tom, even its powers on another individuals seem to have no effect. Even though Frodo is invisible to the hobbits, he is still seen (or preceived) by Bombadil.The Ring

Meanwhile, the statement: [y]our hand’s more fair without it”, shows that Tom knew the evil qualities of the Ring and most probably knew the negative effects it produced on its bearer.

1.4 The Event at the Barrow Downs

The other chapter which provides us with some insight into Tom Bombadil, is ‘Fog on the Barrow-downs.

At this point in the story, the hobbits are preparing to leave the house and venture further East. Before they go, Tom teaches them a “rhyme to sing, if they should by ill-luck fall into danger or difficulty the next day.” – (‘In the house of Tom Bombadil’).

Barrow-wightThis may seem a normal procedure and a word of caution to the hobbits; but why would they fall into danger? Obviously Bombadil knew what evil lay outside the eastern borders of the Old Forest. But how could a rhyme help the hobbits?

At the same time, as soon as the hobbits learn the words by heart, Bombadil performs a puzzling gesture: “When they had sung this altogether after him, he clapped them each on the shoulder with a laugh …”

There seems nothing particular about this act, but it strongly points to a kind of blessing on each hobbit in case they found themselves in difficulty and recited the rhyme. And as we see in that following chapter, it found its use …

So, on to the next chapter, we read about the hobbits’ misadventures at the Barrow-downs and their kidnapping by the Barrow-wights.

Being prisoners in the old mounds, Frodo recites the rhyme and soon after:

“There was a sudden deep silence, in which Frodo could hear his heart beating. After a long slow moment he heard plain, but far away, as if it was coming down through the ground or through thick walls, an answering voice singing … There was a loud rumbling sound, as of stones rolling and falling, and suddenly light streamed in, real light, the plain light of day … and there was Tom’s head…”

Singing one of his rhymes, Tom Bombadil makes the wight disappear under the falling debris of the mound. At this point, only Frodo is conscious, and Tom: “looked down upon the Under the Spell of the Barrow-wight, by Ted Nasmiththree hobbits, that had been laid on their backs upon the grass … Raising his right hand he said in a clear and commanding voice …”

After another rhyme: “… the hobbits stirred, stretched their arms, rubbed their eyes and then suddenly sprang up… indeed the horror faded out of their hearts as they looked at him, and saw the merry glint in his eyes.”

Out of the many questions that arise from the above passages are: How did Tom hear Frodo’s call from far away? And how did he come so quickly?

Unfortunately, we cannot be sure of the answers, but this shows us that Bombadil was not simply an individual who lived in the Old Forest and had a close affinity to nature. Rather, he was someone with great power and held the natural world in great reverence.

This is reinforced by his acts of banishing the wight and waking up the hobbits out of their deep sleep.

Tom Bombadil is here shown as someone with a vast knowledge, a sincere character and a commanding will over evil.

He is someone who has abilities not common in Middle Earth – the same abilities that can be attributed to a wizard or a higher order of some sort …

[Here ends Part II of the article. Part III to follow in the next day or so :)]

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

 

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

  1. While you were describing Tom Bombadil in the beginning, I already thought he was one of the blue wizards due to his blue outfit. I don’t know. The sad thing is that we’ll never have a definite answer on this matter. =(

    • As crazy as it might sound, it would have been fascinating if Tom was indeed one of the Blue Wizards.

      However, in the essay on the Istari in Unfinished Tales, it is clearly written how these two mysterious wizards ventured into the East and were never heard of again.

      So it is almost definite that Tom wasn’t one of them …

  2. I was hoping that Tom would be included in the extended version of FOTR, but alas, Peter Jackson deemed that it wouldn’t help build the storyline. As for Tom laughing at the Ring, I think it’s because he’s so powerful that he is able to rebuff the advances of the Ring and remain untainted, and he knows it. Tom is by nature a cheerful character anyways.

    • Unlike some fans, I too would have like even just a glimpse of Tom in the Trilogy …

      As to the matter of laughing at the Ring, I agree whole-heartedly. Tom seems to be “shrugging off” the evil of the Ring as a mere trinket.

      Nonetheless, he seems to have recognized the danger it posed to Frodo when he wore it in his house.

  3. Good article as always. But I think Tom is Maia due to his powers and we must remember that even saruman and gandalf originally were Maia but they choose to lose their Maia’s powers to go to middle earth as told in the book of unfinished tales. For this reason I think Tom was a Maia that came to middle earth (like melian) and lived there all his immortal life so he has never lost his power like did sauron or gandalf there and he cannot be a vala because the valas are described in the valaquenta. Finally he wasn’t corrupted by the ring like other maia because the ring is the simbol of the power of an other Maia not of a valar as Morgoth so I think he had enough will to resist to it.
    But I think your article was brilliant in any case. Good job

    • Hey Matteo, many thanks for sharing your thoughts. Tom being a Maia is certainly one of the most contended ideas – even though a few clues in the texts do not exactly support that theory.

      In Part IV I will try to discuss my thoughts on what Tom Bombadil may be and bring-in the Maia debate along with it.

      Thanks once again for reaching out 🙂

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