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

Having posted Part I and Part II, here continues the rest of the analysis.

To be honest, I never realized it was going to be so extensive!

Expect a conclusion round about the 5th Part … woohoo 🙂

***

1.5 The Council of Elrond

The discussion on the character or history of Tom Bombadil goes on even into the second book of The Fellowship of the Ring; specifically, in the chapter ‘The Council of Elrond’.The Council of Elrond

This subject is brought up by Elrond, remembering him in days of old.

“ ‘But I had forgotten Bombadil, if indeed this is still the same that walked the woods and hills long ago, and even then was older than the old. That was not then his name. Iarwain Ben-adar we called him, oldest and fatherless. But many another name he has since been given by other folk: Forn by the Dwarves, Orald by Northern Men, and other names beside. He is a strange creature, but maybe I should have summoned him to our Council.’

  ‘He would not have come,’ said Gandalf.

  ‘Could we not still send messages to him and obtain his help?’ asked Erestor. ‘It seems that he has a power even over this Ring.’

  ‘No, I should not put it so,’ said Gandalf. ‘Say rather that the Ring has no power over him. He is his own master. But he cannot alter the Ring itself … And now he is withdrawn into a little land, within bounds that he has set … and he will not step beyond them.’

This little passage gives quite an interesting insight into the character. So, let us start from the first few sentences.

It seems clear that Elrond had known about his existence centuries before and we can be sure that this is indeed the same Bombadil that the elf had known about. We are also told that in those long years, he was “older than the old”.

Next comes a list of names given to him by the different people of Middle-Earth. As to Iarwain Ben-adar, we are already given its meaning: as oldest and fatherless – this would mean that Bombadil has had no previous ancestors and therefore would suggest that his origins came from amongst the Valar and Maiar, as a direct result of Ilúvatar’s creation.

With regards to the other names of Orald and Forn, both refer to the word “(very) ancient” in Old English and Old Norse, respectively.

As I had mentioned in section 1.2 ‘The “He is” Question and Riddle Talk’, here we are told that he does not leave his boundaries outside the Old Forest.

However, Gandalf DID say that “now he is withdrawn into a little land”; and this begs the question – was he situated somewhere else before? Did he take care of larger lands in Middle-earth? And why did he now restrict himself to just the Old Forest? Could it be due to Sauron’s growing menace?

Old ForestWhatever the reasons, it seems clear that Tom is now confined to a limited space by his own will, and does not wish to involve himself with external affairs.

Then again, in ‘The House of Bombadil’ we are informed: 

“He appeared already to know much about them and all their families, and indeed to know much of all the history and doings of the Shire down from days hardly remembered among the hobbits themselves. It no longer surprised them, but he made no secret that he owed his recent knowledge largely to Farmer Maggot, whom he seemed to regard as a person of more importance than they had imagined.”

On the matter of Farmer Maggot, we will deal with this in the next section. But from this short passage, one can speculate that in older times, Tom Bombadil had journeyed extensively throughout Middle-earth and only recently, would he have withdrawn himself to the Old Forest and gathered news from Farmer Maggot and Elves  (for it is also said in this chapter, that he had dealings with them).

1.6 The Adventures of Tom Bombadil

Apart from The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote and compiled a little book called The Adventures of Tom Bombadil – a collection of 16 marvelously written poems that relate to the world of Middle Earth.

The first two describe Tom Bombadil and his adventures in and around the Old Forest. This collection of works can be considered as being part of the Middle-Earth canon. Tolkien Tom Bombadil meets Goldberryhimself, in a letter wrote about the meaning and approximate timeline of these two poems:

“Poem one is evidently… a hobbit-version of things long before the days of the L.R.[The Lord of the Rings] But the second poem refers to the days of growing shadow, before Frodo set out…

‘The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien’

Letter 240

Considering these were supposedly written by hobbits, whether or not one believes these have happened or are merely folk tales, is entirely up to the reader. For the purpose of this discussion, I have taken the events that occur in the verses to be based on the truth, within the Middle-earth legendarium.

***

The first poem, entitled (as the book itself) ‘The Adventures of Tom Bombadil’, describes Tom’s encounters with various characters, which he manages to ward off for disturbing him.

Tom Bombadil and the KingfisherTom Bombadil’s power seems to lie primarily within his voice. After warding off Goldberry, he ends up trapped in Old Man Willows’ roots (similar to what happened to Merry and Pippin just before the hobbits’ first encounter with Bombadil). In the poem, we are told that Tom commands the tree to let him go and “Willow-man let him loose when he heard him speaking”.

The same thing happens when he is trapped by the Badger-folk and after brandishing a few angry words, they soon let him go: “We beg your pardon!”.

His last, more sinister encounter (in my opinion) occurs at night in his own home, with a barrow-wight. The evil wight, thinking of having caught Tom unawares, is told to go back to his mounds – and so it does.

The nature of the poem is intended to be good-humoured and light-hearted, but one cannot undermine the subtlety which presents Tom Bombadil as a very particular individual.

One can indeed perceive the influence and power Tom Bombadil had (at least within the borders of the Old Forest).

Tom Bombadil (John Howe)(For the second part of this poem, dealing with Goldberry, see the upcoming section of the character’s analysis).

The next poem is entitled ‘Tom Bombadil goes Boating’ and describes Tom taking a trip on a small boat down the Withywindle river to a hobbit village (Haysend). During this trip he (once again) encounters various animals that laugh at him and try to stop him from proceeding.

In the previous section I discussed how Tom Bombadil gathered his knowledge on hobbits and the Shire. Farmer Maggot was said to be the source of much of this information. And indeed, this poem tells of one such encounter:

“Whither be you going …”

 “Maybe to Brandywine along the Withywindle;

maybe friends of mind fire for me will kindle

down by the Hays-end. Little folk I know there,

kind at the day’s end. Now and then I go there.”

Of course, the village of Haysend does exist at the end of the Withywindle, as is seen from the Shire map provided in The Fellowship of the Ring.

Farmer Maggot's house

As the sun sets, he arrives at the Marish, near the Brandywine river to the South. There he meets Farmer Maggot and after a tense confrontation,  “Laughing they drove away…”.
Tom tells him “Even in cockshut light an old friend should know me” which further reinforces the friendship between the two.

Old Tom and Muddy-feet [Maggot], swapping all the tidings

from Barrow-downs to Tower Hills: of walkings and of ridings;

[…]

queer tales from Bree, and talk at smithy, mill, and cheaping;

rumours in whispering trees, south-wind in the larches,

tall Watchers by the Ford, Shadows on the marches.”

From these verses one can immediately understand how much information was shared between the two and would explain how Bombadil knew about the comings and goings of the Shire.

Farmer MaggotOnce again, the credibility of these two poems must be put into question.

If, after knowing that these are the product of hobbit tales, the next question one might ask is: If Tom Bombadil seems to be such a revered and feared character, why do the creatures in the Old Forest make fun of him and try to thwart his journey at every stage?

Perhaps a silly question, but a necessary one. Considering these poems were written by the Shire-folk, it is easy to speculate that the hobbits added a touch of their own sense of humour to go with the equally-light-hearted character of Tom; allowing themselves some poetic license and embellishment.

[In Part IV I will continue the discussion by exploring Tolkien’s letters and offering some of my thoughts based on the material presented. Meanwhile, Part V will deal exclusively with the character of Goldberry. As always, keep commenting 🙂 ]

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

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

  1. I am sad the next part is not out yet, can’t wait! Extremly engaging read. I was always interested in Bombadil and appreciate that you bring together all the evidence/ sources.

  2. I always figured that the Old Forest creatures try to thwart Tom because that is their nature. It’s also why Tom allows them to stay. That’s his nature (until push comes to shove, of course).

  3. James, I’m digging the series on TB! Thanks! I’ll offer my speculative opinion here, and let you do with it what you will. I have long wondered if Tom is actually the incarnate presence of Illuvatar (Eru) himself. It’s a tantalizing suggestion, I know, but it does seem to fit much of the evidence (especially as succinctly as you’ve presented it). This would not be outside the realm of possiblity, given Tolkien’s Christian faith (and the Christian doctrine of Incarnation – that God the Son [who was the voice that spoke creation into existence] was incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth). Especially relevant is the comment that he was in Middle Earth before the Valar entered into it. Illuvatar is the only being in Tolkien’s cosmology that could apply to, unless it might be an unnamed Vala. I suppose Tom B. could be some kind of creative / nature-bound “demi-urge,” but it would make him unique in Tolkien’s cosmology that way, and in most mythologies, those kinds of beings tend to enter into the story in groups. Just my 2 cents.

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