Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Will the real Tom Bombadil please stand up

So who the hell was Tom Bombadil and why should we care?

Recently, I was working on learning some arcane subject when I received some criticism from my insignificant other – “What are you going to do with that? It’s not good for anything”.

Sigh. Sadly, I am sure that is the way most people feel. Learning something unconnected with financial gain is often looked down upon. Unless, I guess, you are independently wealthy, and then, as Tevye taught us: “When you’re rich, they think you really know”.

So, with my scolding firmly ringing in my ears (well, she keeps repeating it) I started this week to think about who the hell was Tom Bombadil really, and I don’t care that I will never make a penny out of it. As you will see, Tom would approve of the effort.

The presumption here is that the reader has been through the Lord of the Rings (not the movie, as TB was left out) at least once and remembers fondly the sprite like spell master, Tom Bombadil, singing, dancing and rescuing hobbits. If not, stop here and come back next week.

Here’s why I love LOTR (I’m not typing “The Lord of the Rings” over and over) which is, in my mythologically ridden mind, the greatest novel of the century, perhaps of all time. By the way, Google it -- that is not just my opinion; it is widely shared, unless you are counting snooty critics who can’t get past the fact that there are elves and swords and monsters in the book, and that’s all they need to know to poo poo it.

1. It’s a an almost perfect epic story with great action, dialogue, description, plot, blah, blah, blah, and thank the Maia, no real intrusive love story, unless you count Sam and Frodo, and I don’t. Aragorn’s love interest never got in the way of the story, as Arwen and he barely ever saw each other until the end, and then Tolkien was just tidying up the yard.

2. It may also be the most linguistically interesting novel ever written. No surprise as Tolkien was a professor at Oxford

who specialized in ancient English and Germanic languages. To you, it may mean nothing that Gandalf means “Magic Elf,” that Eowyn means “love(r) of horses,” or the Oin, Gloin, Ori, Dori, etc. (and even Gandalf) can be found in the Poetic Edda, one of the two prime sources for knowledge on Norse mythology. But it apparently means a lot to many other people as more books and essays on LOTR are being churned out every year. We will see if in ten or fifteen years anyone is doing the same for Harry Potter. I enjoy Harry, but it is not in the same league.

3. It is an immersion in living breathing myth for anyone who loves the ancient Scandinavian and Germanic culture from which Tolkien borrowed many of his themes including, elves, trolls, dwarves, orcs, giants, floppy hatted wizards, magic rings, broken swords, talking birds, battle axes, beserkers runes, and so on.

4. It is a font of religious allegory (and I really don't care that Tolkien disliked allegory -- he wrote it). Gandalf we know was an Angel when he returned (so says Tolkien). Sauron is virtually indistinguishable from his master, Melkor, who was clearly meant to represent Lucifer.

The Silmarillion begins with a creation myth and expands into the acts of the pantheon and their creations – it is Tolkien’s own Bible. I have read a criticism by fantasy critic and author, Lin Carter in his Behind The Lord of the Rings that there should have been some religion in the book. Carter missed the boat on this (in an otherwise excellent introduction to classic fantasy) because the story and characters are the mythology and the religion once they go into the West and Middle Earth is left to us cloddish men.

5. It is a great morality tale about compassion, devotion, determination and making the best of a bad deal. My favorite line in LOTR shall always be Gandalf’s reply to Frodo’s “I wish it need not have happened in my time” with this bit of wisdom –

“‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’”

6. It is also about the disappearance of a less mechanistic way of life, particularly in England, which Tolkien loved, and the eventual triumph of technology over spirituality.

But we are not really talking about how great LOTR is here, we are talking about one specific creation – Tom Bombadil. There has been much debate about who or what he is, despite the fact that Tolkien has said that he was placed in the tale because he had already invented him as a character, and put him in as an intentional mystery. He also said that he knew Tom was someone he felt was an important addition for him, if not the story line, although he could not really specifically say why. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try and figure it out, or sort out the master’s mind. We can even disagree with him.

For those of you who don’t remember, the four traveling hobbits met Tom while on their way to Elrond’s house while they were stumbling around in the Old Forest and were swallowed up by a particularly nasty tree. Tom freed them with some quaint magical words, and let them stay at his home for a bit. He alone was not affected by the ring when holding it, and even made it briefly disappear, to the hobbits’ astonishment. He was married to Goldberry, an attractive peaches and cream type lady, obviously not as powerful as Tom, but mysteriously magical herself, in a vegetative sort of way.

When asked who Tom was, Goldberry merely responded “He is”. He seems all powerful on his own turf and it is suggested at one point by a member of the council at Elrond’s house, that the ring be kept with him. Not a good idea, it was pointed out. For one thing, he would forget about it, and would lose the Ring, which had a mind of its own. For another, even Tom would not be able to withstand Sauron and his helpmates if they succeeded. He would merely out last them all.

So, who was Tom? Your own answer is as good as mine, but these are my own thoughts after reading LOTR a bazillion plus times and a lot of literature on Mr. B. The general rule most authors on this take is that the answer must be internal to the story. I mostly follow that here, although I see it as a very gray line. So, Saying that Tom represents the author (which I think is true to some extent) is foul play. So is.pointing out that TB was actually a children’s doll who J.R.R. made up stories about to tell his children long before LOTR. That is where he came from, not who he is in the story.

One of the usual suggestions is that Tom is a nature spirit as is Goldberry. This is at least partially true. It is suggested at the council at Elrond’s home that Tom’s power is limited to that which is within the earth. Although he has carved out his own little kingdom with invisible boundaries, we know he has visited outside it (including to that irrascible hobbit, Farmer Maggot) when he wants. It is also explained that he has withdrawn into his land and set the boundaries.

Some reject the nature spirit theory, but believe he might be an actual god, which is certainly a higher power. There is some sense to this as he seems, on his own terms, more powerful than any other being in Middle Earth other than Sauron, moreso than even Elrond, Gandalf, Galadriel and Saruman, as none of them can control the Ring.

The Valar, are the gods of middle earth, and sometimes visited the earth and spent time hobnobbing with its folk or moving through them invisible, as did their helpers, the Maia, which is the lower order Gandalf and Saruman belong to when in spirit form. Arguably, Tom is a Valar who set up shop there.

Some wish to claim that Tom is none other than Iluvatar, or God, mostly because Goldberry’s “He is” is all too reminiscent of Jehovah’s “I am that I am”. Tolkien himself says this is stretching that line too far, and that Goldberry was really making a point about names. After all, no one argues that Popeye is God, and he liked to say “I yam what I yam and that’s all I yam”.

We are also told that Tom was there “before the river and the trees” not to mention “the first raindrop and the first acorn". Indeed, we also learn that he was there even before Melkor, the first Valar to come to Middle Earth.

Even if Tom is not the God, he may be a god. Tolkien was as well versed in Norse and Old English mythology as any man might be. His stories were immersed in it, could not exist without it, from the names of many of the characters and places (even "Middle Earth" and "Mirkwood") to the form and substance of the epic and even little bits of Beowulf, another Tolkien specialty.

Chief of the Norse gods was Odin. Gandalf certainly reflects quite a few elements of the Odin mythology. Tolkien himself links Odin by name to a specific Valar, Manwe, to whom Gandalf was attached. If this topic interests you, as I want to stay with Tom here, look at Matthew Graham’s Influences of the Norse Gods on Tolkien’s Mythology at http://rikku.as.arizona.edu/~mgraham/personal/odin.html).

Like Gandalf, Tom Bombadil reflects some characteristics of Odin. Those of you who have read my previous post “A Day of Thunder and Lightning” may think I am a little obsessed with the topic of matching literary characters to Norse gods, as I do there with Santa and Thor. But it shouldn’t really be a surprise that our cultural past shows its face in our present and manifestations of the Norse religion and culture are still felt today in many ways. Moreover, this was Tolkien's forte.

There is some evidence linking Tom and Odin, although admittedly thin.

Odin was the most magical of gods. In fact, he invented magic in some sense and magical runes too. He was also quite the spell caster much in the same manner that Tom does it. More interesting, in a pre-LOTR story about Tom Bombadil, Tolkien actually brings up Odin. Curious, isn’t it? Although this in itself is not conclusive, it means that at least at some point early on, when Tolkien thought about Tom, he also thinking about Odin, and no other deity. Plus, anytime I read about a magical godlike character with a big floppy hat (a la Gandalf) I think Odin.

Other interesting arguments are made in the literature on the subject. Tom’s singing can control nature, and some comparison is made to Iluvatar and the Valar singing the universe into existence in The Silmarillion. It is also pointed out that Tom was on earth when it was still dark, before Sauron’s master, Melkor or Morgoth (who is essentially Lucifer) came. This indicates that he is either one of the Valar, that is, a God, or he is the personification of earth itself.

Gene Harlowe's "Who was Tom Bombadil (http://www.cas.unt.edu/~hargrove/bombadil.
html, probably the most cited and best essay on the subject) makes a strong comparison of Goldberry and Tom with Yavanna and Aule, two married Valar. It hinges more on qualities of Goldberry being similar to that of Yavanna, than on Tom’s similarity to Aule. Although persuasive, it is ruined for me by a problem Harlowe swipes away with mere words – we are told in LOTR by Tom himself that Goldberry is the river’s daughter. That would make one, at best, a nymph, or very minor deity. If Goldberry is not Yavanna, then TB is not Aule.

Bombadil’s own limitations seem to show that he might not be a god or one of the Valar. The Valar still existed at the end of the third age/beginning of the fourth age when the story ends. Although they could suffer terribly from other major powers like Sauron, it was always by treachery or by hurting other beings. Bombadil himself we know would eventually be defeated if all else fell to Sauron, although he would “be last as he was first”.

Being first sounds godlike, and might explain his ability to resist the ring. However, being first also is a problem for this theory, as he saw Melkor come to Middle Earth. Melkor, we know from the Silmarillion, preceded any of the other Valar there.

In fact, even though Tom was first, he was in Middle Earth first. There is no indication he preceded the Earth in existence, as did the Valar or even Iluvatar or God.

At the same time, we also know that Tom meets the criteria of no other creature in Middle Earth, even the “nameless things” or mysterious characters from pre-LOTR days (e.g., The Rider or The Hunter).

Although a number of writers have suggested that TB is a Maia, like Gandalf, Saruman and the other Istari, Sauron, the Balrogs and the Eagles, I dismiss that as well. The wizards were cloaked in earthly bodies as men by special consent of Iluvatar. Without knowing that to be the case with Tom, it is too far a stretch to consider it. Moreover, Iluvatar had a special purpose with the Istari (wizards) who were returned in the end to the West (which I believe is the spirit world). Any other Maia who are here, Sauron and the Balrog, are not in human form and, excepting the Eagles, are evil.

Yet, to check my own thought, Blake Bollinger points out in his essay, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil (http://www.geocities.com/thebolingers/index.html) that “In an earlier draft of the Council meeting at Rivendell, published in Christopher Tolkien's History of The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf says of Bombadil: ‘He belongs to a much older generation, and my ways are not his. (Treason of Isengard, 158)”.

This would seem to indicate that at one point Tolkien allowed Gandalf to identify Tom as a Maia or possibly even a Valar, albeit of an older generation (although, he did then take that out of the story). This makes some sense because, although we usually take our ancient mythology from a fixed time and place (e.g., the Greek gods from Homer and Hesiod (probably around 700 B.C.), the Norse gods from Snorri Sturluson (about 1200 A.D.), the truth is that the gods were always evolving and changing such that some we know as demons were gods themselves at another time or place.

For example, Thor, not Odin, was the chief Norse god in Germany, at least for a long time. The Titans were likely an earlier group of Greek gods who were destroyed by Zeus, as were many of the evil villains destroyed by Greek heroes such as Theseus. Even the idols worshipped by the people in the Bible were local gods at one time. Thus, for Tom to have been from an earlier generation, completely cut off from the hierarchy and establishment of the Valar and Maia at this point, would be perfectly consistent with Tolkien’s understanding of mythology.

Indeed, as we now know from the seemingly endless but revealing series of books by Tolkien’s son, Christopher, the mythology of Middle Earth evolved as Tolkien wrote (my favorite bit of trivia from these books is that Aragorn was originally a hobbit. Yikes!)

Being a divinity from an older generation would make it understandable how Tom could have such power yet be so removed and outside the story in other senses.

Thus, we know the following:

Tom is like no other being in Middle Earth. He is vastly powerful within his own domain and has a command of magic. The One Ring has no power over him as he desires nothing. He is probably a spirit and not a living being (as Gandalf and Saruman, both Maia, are human while in Middle Earth), as Treebeard is the oldest living being. Tom’s powers are connected in some way with the Earth. He is married to Goldberry who has some spiritual connection with growing things. He is not all powerful, but strong enough to be defeated last if Sauron was successful and the world is snuffed out. But he is not God or Iluvatar.

I give you two more bits of information which have colored my thinking, both found in letters from Tolkien (can I take a side note here and say how sad Tolkien would be to live in the world of email).

One letter was written in 1937 before LOTR but after Tolkien had published his first stories on Tom. TB was pretty much fully developed and concerned characters that also made it into the epic (including Goldberry, the barrow wights and Old Man Willow). Tolkien said there that Tom represented 'the spirit of the Oxford and Berkshire countryside'.

Much later he wrote that Tom represented: "Botany and Zoology and Poetry as opposed to Cattle-breeding and Agriculture and practicality." I'm guessing that the professor of humanities did not realize that botany and zoology has practical applications as well, but the point is made.

I conclude that Tom is a spirit, not living in the biological sense, but appearing so to living beings. He is not the Earth itself, but deeply entwined with it, perhaps, within his borders, inseparably so, coming into existence with Middle Earth itself. He sets his own boundaries, but does not test the powers of others outside it. He represents all of the things that Tolkien said in his letters. We can easily interpret this as meaning that Tom represents Nature the way that Saruman represented gears and metal things.

One of the great themes of LOTR is the losing battle of spirituality and natural life, such as enjoyed in the Shire, to technology and the seeking after knowledge in order to gain power instead of for the joy of it. Tom no more wished to extend his domain than he wished to keep The Ring. Such things had no meaning to him. Tolkien wrote of Tom:

“[I]f you have, as it were taken 'a vow of poverty', renounced control, and take delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless."

He also wrote:

"He is master in a peculiar way: he has no fear, and no desire of possession or domination at all. He merely knows and understands about such things as concern him in his natural little realm. [He is] the spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature... and entirely unconcerned with 'doing' anything with the knowledge..."

Tom will be last. As all of the magical and spiritual beings do, he has diminished. He did not go into the West with Gandalf and Frodo and Elrond and all the other magical or spiritual beings living at the very end of the mythological age because unlike them, his spirit is indistinguishably tied with Middle Earth and life upon it. He may exist independent of the rest of Iluvatar’s creation. Tom will exist until the last bit of nature is conquered by Sauron, who represents the damping out of natural life, when man can no longer exist without mechanical aids, and darkness subsumes light.

Then Tom will be last as he was first.

Don’t feel bad about taking up time in your busy schedule to read this stuff. Steuard Jensen’s What is Tom Bombadil (http://tolkien.slimy.com/essays/Bombadil.html) is also informative as was the Encyclopedia of Arda article http://www.glyphweb.com/arda/default.asp?url=http://www.glyphweb.com/arda/t/tombombadil.html. Eugene Hargrove cites numerous articles and books at the end of his essay, I believe all of which, except the books, can be found on the web. I am glad to say I have “wasted my time” reading all of them at least once.

I may just read them all again. Tom Bombadil would approve.


  1. Anonymous8:14 AM

    TB has been a subject of interst and speculation by many but I'm more interested in Radagast. What
    do you have on him?

  2. You are right that Bombadil is a warmed over topic, although it is never too late to chime in with an opinion.

    There is little written about Radagast, as he played a very small role in the stories, and almost everything I know about him you can easily find quickly on the web (even on Wikipedia), with one exception, that I have have not found anywhere else (so you are in luck).

    Radagast's ancient name as a Maiar of Yavanna (the same goddess Gene Hargrove believes may be Goldberry) was "Aiwendi", or "lover of birds". Tolkien likely took the root of the Valinor name, "Aiwen-" from the ancient Homeric Greek "oiwno-" meaning "bird". Although Oiwno- is very difficult to pronounce in our tongue, and we can only approximate how the Greeks said it (as they used change of pitch the way we use change of accent) the later Classical Greek as used in Athens, "ornis," can be seen today in "ornithology".

    If there is an old English or Germanic derivation of the Greek which Tolkien used, I would not, be familiar with it, but would love to learn about it.

    Good question.

  3. Anonymous9:27 AM

    That was quick. Thanks for the update. I believe other wizards were mentioned generally (I think 9). Do we get anymore info on them and were thaey all associated with colors (seemingly in hierarcical fashion).

  4. There were five, although that is all you learn of the other two in LOTR. In Unfinished Tales we learn that the so-called blue wizards went to the Eastern lands, and probably failed, succumbing to the same failings as Sarumun. I have read on line, but don't have any authority for it, that sometime in the 70s Tolkien suggested that they were successful in their missions in the East.

    By the time Tolkien's copyright runs out and new fiction is written, I will be long dead. at least I hope so, because it will be pitiful to see the attempts by those who are not experts, as was Tolkien, adulterating these great stories. But I suspect that the blue wizards, who have two sets of names (look it up) will figure mightily in it.

  5. I see Bombadil as a nature spirit of a special kind, the kind that bestows, especially on children who play on the landscape, in woods or by streams, but to certain adults, too, those golden, timeless moments that stick with us in some form the rest of our lives, guiding our curiosity and consciences and making us lovers of nature for the rest of our lives. Every area of landscape that remains full of life has such a spirit, metaphorically if not actually.

  6. Clearly, you see farther and deeper in Middle Earth than many others.


Your comments are welcome.

About Me

My photo
I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .