Who is Tom Bombadil?

“Don’t you know my name yet?…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…”


– The Fellowship of the Ring, “In the House of Tom Bombadil”, by J.R.R. Tolkien

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The Lord of the Rings is a household term nowadays the evokes solemn, earthy images of the sweeping landscapes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary epic. Search far and wide and you will scarcely encounter someone who has not at least heard of the tale and become familiar with its raw ingredients: hobbits, elves, Gandalf, Gollum, ‘taters, and a ring whose veiled and all-consuming power is matched only by the thirst of those who scour Middle Earth to find it.

In the early 2000’s Peter Jackson bore the mantle of transferring Tolkien’s written volume of poems, tales, and battles into a sweeping visual landscape that, in my opinion (which comes having read the books after watching the movies…ready your grains of salt), mirrors the books quite masterfully. Surprisingly, I have yet to meet anyone that has been dissatisfied with the film renditions.

Of course there are creative liberties, additions, and omissions in the movie that are not true to the book. But a movie that repeats a book verbatim would be a serious technical challenge and would not honestly make much sense. An author has an arsenal of pages with which to create the atmosphere for the story, introduce characters, display character development, and give you the time to decide if you want to accept the invitation to enter the world unfolding before you. Not so with a film production crew. An audience sitting in a theater has already responded to that invitation and they are waiting for the party to start.

And that’s what brings me to the excerpt above and the character in question: Tom Bombadil. Who (or what) is Tom Bombadil? Bear in mind this is not an easy question to answer. The most straightforward answer is:

Tom Bombadil is a yellow-booted, blue-coated, red-bearded, husky fellow who sings, dances, rescues the Hobbits from a hungry tree, a barrow-wight (nasty little creatures they), and provides them with weaponry. He is only seen once in the first book of the LOTR trilogy yet is mentioned several times throughout, including a reference by Gandalf at the end of the third.

The more complex answer is:

No one really knows.

He seems to possess great power within his territory in the Old Forest just east of the Shire where the adventure begins. With his songs and rhymes he is able to rescue the Hobbits from a living willow tree and revive Merry and Pippin from paralysis. He refers to himself as “The Master” in his songs. He claims to be “Eldest,” to have seen the “first raindrop and the first acorn,” and to have essentially witnessed the creation of the world and its peoples. While he is knowledgeable of the world beyond his forest, he seems oddly and humorously detached from it. When asked to see the ring for which the series is named, and for which wars have been fought, friends have been turned against each other, and noble men have been driven to paranoid madness, Frodo hands it right over to him without hesitation. Tom plays with the ring like a child as he, looks through it like a monocle, puts it on his little finger (astonishingly without becoming invisible; one of its involuntary effects on the wearer), flips it into the air, and makes it vanish like a magic trick, only to hand it back to a frozen-hearted Frodo. Tom can also still see Frodo when he wears the ring, though Frodo is invisible to everyone else. He is apparently immune to the power and allure of the ring though it stirs the world around him into chaos. He never becomes involved in the unfolding events of the series. For all we know, he remains in his forest, happily gathering water lilies for his equally mysterious wife.

And he is nowhere to be found in the movie. Nary a mention of his name.

What?

Twice saving the Hobbits from danger? Providing them with the weapons they would use throughout the series? That sounds like legitimate movie content.

Nothing. Not even a summarizing flash-back sequence or deleted-scene on the DVD set.

Why not?

You can read articles about how Peter Jackson felt that Tom’s character does not help to advance the greater plot at work throughout the story. Remember the constraint that is assumed for films compared to books? It was a rational decision. The story could logically still exist without Tom in it. Films are extremely expensive to produce and it isn’t cost-effective to pour money into writing, rehearsing, shooting, and editing scenes that won’t add layers to the plot. Audiences are still swept away by the movies without Tom.

And readers are still swept away by the books with Tom and all his mystery and unexplained nature. I believe what makes the Lord of the Ring’s trilogy so captivating is that Tolkien does such a great job of conveying to the reader that Middle Earth is an immense, vast landscape that is full of knowledge and history that could be gained if one would only choose to study it further. He constructed a literary world that seems real, in a sense, because it is so diverse and richly detailed. He even created a few languages while he was at it.

To me, this setting feels much more believable because Tom is a part of it. I like the fact that he is unexplained. As Tolkien himself wrote in a letter, “…there must be some enigmas…Tom is one (intentionally).”** His enigmatic presence adds to the greater atmosphere of an already mysterious Middle Earth. Yet even Tolkien himself wasn’t spared from being questioned about the character. In a separate letter, he justified Tom’s existence in the book by saying, “…I kept him in, and as he was, because he represents certain things otherwise left out.”** I read that to mean that there are elements that only Tom Bombadil with all his quirks, oddities, and obscure powers could bring to the story.
** Quotes from “The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, numbers 144 and 153, dated 1954. Gathered from http://www.glyphweb.com/arda/t/tombombadil.html

Don’t we live lives like that? When sketching the life-trail we’ve followed on our maps, sometimes we look back at certain ‘diversions’ and wonder, “What in the world did that have to do with anything?” Fill-in-the-blank for whatever that may be in your own words. It could be a city you lived in briefly, a job you took that didn’t seem to lead anywhere, a friendship that seemed to have come out of the blue, or your interest in the mysteries of quantum physics. Whatever fills your blank, it happened and you lived it. It is part of your story. What impact did it leave on you? What questions do you still have about it? Like Middle Earth, I appreciate the fact that there are things out there in this world that are majestically above my comprehension.

I remember reading an article that discussed the importance of avoiding “Tom Bombadils” in story-writing; removing elements that halted rather than progressed the progression of the plot. That’s an understandable perspective from a technique standpoint. However, I think our life stories are full of Bombadils and while we shouldn’t confuse them with the main plot, they each have a little something to add. After all, the Hobbits didn’t stay with Tom for long. They had a mission to accomplish. Yet they begged him to travel with them but he declined and sang his way out of their story, gracefully parting as uniquely as he came, leaving them all the better for it.

If we try to edit our lives such that we forsake the Bombadils of our past and avoid them at all costs in the future, how far would we go before we realize we would be cutting out some very important material? Life is a book, not a movie. Sure there may be a few Hollywood moments, but it is largely a world where growth and development happens in elongated increments. There is room for the Bombadils. Trying to align all the details in our life with what makes ‘sense’ to us might steer us clear of some important relationships and life-altering experiences.

When we look at the map of our life and see those head-scratching Bombadils scattered throughout our past and even in the present, see what they have to offer. Some things are meant to be mysteries. We don’t get the answer to every question we ask in this life. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try at all to find the answers. But if it turns out that all we can do in the end is wonder and be amazed at how high, deep, and wide things are in life, don’t be disappointed.

____________________
Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow,
Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow.
None has ever caught him yet, for Tom, he is the master:
His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster

– The Fellowship of the Ring, “Fog on the Barrow Downs” by J.R.R. Tolkien
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