Beyond Middle-earth: Come merry doll

"Tom Bombadil" | Art by Joao Ricardo. Used with permission.
The question of Tom Bombadil may just be Middle-earth’s greatest mystery—with, perhaps, the exception of the Blue wizards—and it’s not difficult to find the many theories that speculate his origins. Some think he is some form of a Valar spirit, or a Maiar spirit, or just a spirit of nature. One theory I found poses Tom as the physical embodiment of the music of the Ainur (which created Middle-earth). But, whatever the case may be, Tom Bombadil is a riddle to which there is no easy answer.

I too once felt the itch to know exactly who Tom Bombadil is. I too wished that I could flip through the appendixes at the end of The Return of the King and read his origin story. Now, however, I am less interested in who he is as a being of Middle-earth, and more in who he is as a character in relation to the narrative of The Lord of the Rings. As a character he doesn’t serve much purpose to the narrative, other than offering a brief repose to Frodo and company on their journey through the Old Forest. He comes out of nowhere to save Merry and Pippin from the clutches of Old Man Willow and doesn’t appear again after the hobbits leave his house, except to save them from the Barrow-wights.

Here is Tolkien himself purposefully creating mystery.
I like Goldberry’s explanation, when Frodo asks about him: “He is” (FR, 164). Tom later describes himself as “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,” (FR, 173). As far as Middle-earth is concerned, Tom Bombadil is quite probably the oldest creature to live there, even older than Treebeard.

Tom Bombadil the character is, in fact, older than The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien published a poem called “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil,” which also introduced the characters of Goldberry and Old Man Willow, in The Oxford Magazine in 1933—21 years before The Fellowship of the Ring was published. He was not created for The Lord of the Rings but was rather inserted because, as Tolkien said, “I had already ‘invented’ him independently… and wanted an ‘adventure’ on the way,” (Letters, 192).

Tolkien was well aware of people’s confusion about Tom, but he had his own reasons for keeping him in the narrative, even though he knew that Tom served no narrative purpose. Namely, Tolkien kept Tom in because what he represents would have been left out otherwise—the embodiment of pure natural science:

“the spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature, because they are other’ and wholly independent of the enquiring mind, a spirit coeval with the rational mind, and entirely unconcerned with ‘doing’ anything with the knowledge: Zoology and Botany, not Cattle-breeding or Agriculture,” (Letters, 192).

“Eldest, that’s what I am. Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the river and the trees.”

I have no doubt that Tolkien knew full well who Tom is. I also have no doubt that Tolkien chose to make Tom an enigma: “As a story, I think it is good that there should be a lot of things unexplained (especially if an explanation actually exists)… And even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally)” (Letters, 174).

Many writers of fantasy may feel pressure to follow Tolkien’s example and flesh out their own worlds to the extent he did, but here is Tolkien himself purposefully creating mystery. On the opposite side, many readers may wish that their favourite fantasy worlds had more mythology than they do (I’ve certainly felt that way about Garth Nix’s Abhorsen series), and yet with Tom Bombadil, we encounter an  intentional mystery. He is in The Lord of the Rings because Tolkien wants him there, and we as readers don’t get to know everything about him because Tolkien doesn’t think we need to have that information.

I’m okay with not knowing exactly who Tom Bombadil is. We don’t need to find or theorize an answer to that question, because it’s already there. Goldberry said it herself: he just is.

Kyla Neufeld

Kyla Neufeld

Contributing Writer at Area of Effect
Kyla is a poet, writer, and editor. She writes about various sci-fi and fantasy series, and is interested in the intersections between geek culture, feminism, and social justice. She lives in Winnipeg with her husband, the Sith Lord, and her daughter, the Nazgûl child.
Kyla Neufeld