Tom Bombadil

Voice Card  -  Volume 28  -  John Card Number 2  -  Sat, May 15, 1993 5:56 PM

Betsy is currently tutoring the 13-year-old son of a woman I work with at the lab. He is reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time, and I told Betsy that if he would write down his questions about the book, I would do my best to answer them. Following is my opening salvo:

May 13, 1993

Dear Dmitriy:

Here are the questions you posed:

1) Who is Tom Bombadil's wife? (Is she Tom's creation? Why was she in the water when he found her?)

2) Who is Tom Bombadil? (Why does he always sing Merry Dell-o?)

3) Why do the trees sing instead of talk or chant?

These are excellent questions and you are not the first to ask them. Essentially, you are asking who (or what) is Bombadil. Scholars have written essays on this very subject and I was even able to find, in a collection of Tolkien's letters, his written answers to people just like you who had taken the time to write him and ask about Bombadil. Even Tolkien's own characters ask these questions within the pages of the book! In the Council of Elrond (which you haven't come to yet) Gandalf and various important elves talk about Bombadil and wonder if he can help them solve the problem of the ring.

In one of Tolkien's letters he says "I don't think Tom needs philosophizing about, and is not improved by it." But I hope you won't mind if I quote from one of the essays I found, by a woman named Ruth Noel. It seems to me that she has some intelligent things to say about who Tom is:

"Tom Bombadil is a character like Puck or Pan, a nature god in diminished form, half humorous, half divine. His divinity is seen in that he was immortal, oldest, and fatherless. He was master of plant and animal life and of the earth itself in a circumscribed area including the Old Forest and the Barrow Downs. There he easily escaped natural and supernatural dangers and helped the hobbits to escape them as well.

It is emphasized that Bombadil was his own master, and master, not owner, of the lands around him. Within his borders he was secure from outside influence. Even the pervasive magic of the Ring had no hold on him.

Bombadil's power lay primarily in his unquenchable gaiety and in his sung spells. These simple, persuasive spells saved him from all the snares set for him in the poem "The Adventures of Tom Bombadil." With such a simple spell, Frodo summoned Tom to rescue the hobbits from the Barrow-wight, one of the worst dangers they ever faced. Some of Bombadil's spells were, in fact, counterspells; at least two of the enemies in his land, Old Man Willow and the Barrow-wights, used spells themselves...

When Bombadil was asked who he was, he replied enigmatically, "Don't you know my name yet? That's the only answer." The name Bombadil seems to incorporate Middle English words for "humming" and "hidden," reflecting Tom's secrecy and tunefulness. Bombadil's name among the Dwarves, Forn, is associated by Grimm with the words "old" and "sorcery." Orald, his name among northern men, is Old English for "very old, ancient, original." His Sindarin name, Iarwain Ben-adar, may mean "oldest, fatherless."

The great antiquity alluded to by Bombadil's names is appropriate to his being a nature divinity or spirit. The belief in forest or nature gods naturally precedes that of harvest spirits, as forest gods were worshipped before the evolution of agriculture.

While Bombadil was a forest god, Goldberry was as unmistakably a watersprite. She was a nixie, the Riverwoman's daughter, discovered by Tom among the pools of the mysterious Withywindle. As all the other creatures Tom met in "The Adventures of Tom Bombadil" were dangerous, so Goldberry must have been. She had the allure of the Undine, the Lorelei, and the Siren to lead folk into the depths. In the end, Tom caught her instead and made her his bride. In the last line of the poem, Goldberry sits combing her yellow hair. This is not the simple domestic action that it seems, but is the characteristic pose of all types of watersprites.

In The Fellowship of the Ring, Goldberry no longer appears dangerous, but is a modest and beautiful hostess. She remains a water spirit, but the water she represents is no longer the treacherous Withywindle, but the rains and streams that replenish plant life. She is the protectress of flowers, guarding water lilies and wearing garlands. Her songs are about the beauties of nature; they are not the alluring, fatal music common to all water spirits. Her dresses, blue and green shot with gold and silver, are water-colored. They recall the wet skirts and aprons by which nixies are traditionally recognized in Teutonic mythology.

Bombadil and Goldberry are undisguised personifications of land untouched by humans, underlaid by a hidden but potent power, representing both the danger of wild land and its potential to serve man. But Bombadil and Goldberry's outstanding characteristic is independence; they will neither frighten nor serve, though they may awe or aid chance travelers. Neither will they be daunted or served by others. Like the land that existed long ages before the coming of man, and remained unchanged after the departure of man from the North Kingdom, they are their own masters."

-- from The Mythology of Middle Earth by Ruth S. Noel

Although Tolkien was a busy man, he often took the time to answer thoughtful questions from his readers. In one letter he states "I will try and answer your questions. I may say they are very welcome. I like things worked out in detail myself, and answers provided to all reasonable questions." Many readers asked about Tom Bombadil, not only who he was, but what he was doing in the story. Why was he there? What was the point of having a minor forest god in the middle of this great quest and war of the ring? His answer to a Mrs. Naomi Mitchison, written in 1954 while the trilogy was still in production, reveals how deeply Tolkien cared about the world he had created and what it meant:

"Tom Bombadil is not an important person - to the narrative. I suppose he has some importance as a 'comment'. I mean, I do not really write like that: he is just an invention (who first appeared in the Oxford Magazine about 1933), and he represents something that I feel important, thought I would not be prepared to analyze the feeling precisely. I would not, however, have left him in, if he did not have some kind of function.

"I might put it this way. The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power, and so on; but both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of control. But if you have, as it were taken 'a vow of poverty', renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless.

"It is a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war. But the view of Rivendell seems to be that it is an excellent thing to have represented, but that there are in fact things with which it cannot cope; and upon which its existence nonetheless depends. Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even survive. Nothing would be left for him in the world of Sauron."

Tolkien said one other thing about Bombadil that is worth keeping in mind: "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)."

I'm afraid I don't have a very good answer to your third question. On one level, the trees sing because Tolkien said they did. He is the author and he can make them sing, or dance, or do anything he wants. But why singing, and not chanting? Part of the reason may be that the sound willow trees make when the wind blows through them is closer to singing than anything else. But singing is very important throughout the book and is often connected with magic. In fact, in the mythology that Tolkien invented about Middle Earth, a god creates the entire universe by singing, or rather, the entire universe IS a song sung by this god. So, you see, your innocent question touches the surface of some very deep waters. This is what usually happens when you ask a question that begins with 'why'.

Thank you for all your questions, Dmitriy. As you can probably tell, I had even more fun trying to answer them than you did in asking them. The Lord of the Rings had an enormous impact on me when I was your age; I read the books again and again, each time finding new wonders. The more I studied the more I found connections to other great books and stories and to larger questions. I didn't always understand everything the first time around but that did not prevent me from enjoying the story. I hope you are enjoying it as much. I envy you, reading that great story for the first time.

Send more questions if you like!

Your friend,