Ho, Tom Bombadil! The Hobbits Meet a Strange Wonder in The Old Forest.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 116-118

I love all the times in The Lord of the Rings when someone enters the story mysteriously, wonderfully and decisively. Think of Gildor Inglorien and his companions appearing on the woodland path upon which Frodo, Sam and Pippin have just encountered the Black Rider or think of the moment when Merry and Pippin, fleeing from their orc captors and a deadly battle are swept up into the arms of Treebeard. Without warning, we like they are caught up into a world so wonderful that we want to give it the name, magical. The same is true at this moment when “suddenly, hopping and dancing along the path, there appeared above the reeds an old battered hat with a tall crown and a long blue feather stuck in the band.”

Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest

It is Tom Bombadil and in moments the terrifying experience with the malevolent Old Man Willow is at an end and the hobbits are free.

Now, those who only know The Lord of the Rings through the fine films made by Peter Jackson will know little or nothing about Tom. He is a secret shared only by the initiates who have read Tolkien’s books and we clasp this secret close to our bosoms and share it only with other initiates. It marks us out from those “lesser” mortals who have not shared what we know. Now we hear that a small screen version of the story is in preparation and might Tom Bombadil make an appearance?

Now, I do not wish to comment on whether this might be good news or not. I enjoyed the films that Peter Jackson made of The Lord of the Rings with all their flaws. I disagreed with some of the ways in which certain characters were portrayed but I felt that the films were largely true to what Tolkien had given to us in his great work.

Now Bombadil might be given to us through the mind and imagination of a writer other than Tolkien and just as with the movies millions of people may meet him for the first time through that medium. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I happen to think that it is neither. It is an inevitable consequence of writing a great story that it will be passed on by other means and by other hands. It has always happened and every time that it does it brings new people to an experience that has been loved by those who have enjoyed the story in its original form. It also allows people who have known the story and the character of Tom Bombadil to compare their understanding of him with the character that is brought to them by this new means. They may or may not like this new character. For myself I rather expect that he will fall short of the Bombadil that exists in my imagination but I will not resent the experience that others will have by encountering him for the first time on the small screen. I will nurse my own hope that they will go on to pick up the books and meet him through Tolkien’s imagination and his masterful character drawing.

For the hobbits who meet him on the path along the Withywindle on that autumn afternoon the experience is overwhelming. This is partly because of the terror that they have just been through and which Bombadil has brought to an end so suddenly and so completely. And it is because of the utter strangeness of the creature that has done this. Tom Bombadil brings an overwhelming gladness with him that is unique within this story and which I find difficulty in being able to recall from any other character in literature that I know. Is the character of Jesus as portrayed in St St John’s gospel like this? You know that bit in the gospel when he prays for his disciples that his joy may be in them and that their joy may be full. Is this the kind of joy that we see in Tom Bombadil? I do not have answers for certain but for those of you who love this character as I do I hope that you will enjoy the next few weeks in which we explore him together and please do use the ability to leave a comment so that we can talk together.

18 thoughts on “Ho, Tom Bombadil! The Hobbits Meet a Strange Wonder in The Old Forest.

    • And I hadn’t anticipated a reflection based upon the lack of forestation in the Holy Land! Actually, I wanted this to be a surprise moment. I tried to think of people who express joy through their whole being. I thought that I would begin with the primal human being (Son of Man) and to wonder if the joy that Jesus describes as being his might have something of Bombadil about it. I wondered if this was a thought that might have crossed Tolkien’s mind as well. After all his Roman Catholicism went through the very fibre of his being. I have also heard that one of the priests who raised him after his mother’s death was something of a Bombadil personality.
      As far as this connection is concerned trees are pretty tangential although as you know they give me great joy!

    • The Withywindle reminds of the creeks and streams of SouthEast Missouri where I “came of age” in the 60’s/70’s and read “The Hobbit”, and then “LotR”. “Silmarillion” and other Tolkien legendarium are my sources of staycations. When I played in the creeks of my grandparents farm, after I read LotR, I expected to or imagined to see ‘ol Tom. The Old Forest segment is my favorite.

      • It’s great how you can map Tolkien on to your own landscape! I used to do this regularly on youthful cycling expeditions. E.g. a small country crossroad became THE CROSS-ROADS. Actually none of the places around were particularly sinister. W: Aston, N:Walkern, S:Watton-at-Stone, E:Benington (all in Hertfordshire, England). Just by the crossroad was some uncultivated sloping land covered in gorse (a prickly bush with yellow flowers which Tolkien calls furze). I imagined great hills of gorse, forming the southern defence of the Shire!

      • Thank you so much for leaving this comment. I was also a creator of maps of the imagination connecting them, as you did, to the world around me. My father was a farm manager in the Thames Valley south of Oxford and that broad plain was a particularly fertile place for long cycle expeditions. I feel very sorry for my children’s generation for whom adventure had to be within certain controlled spaces. I did not discover Tolkien until I had stopped the practice of creating imaginary maps. Perhaps he kept my imagination alive in the bleak world of a boy’s grammar school.
        By the way, I love the scent of gorse even to this day.

      • The creation of imaginary maps as a childhood activity is one that I shared in as well but in a very different landscape in eastern Oklahoma near the foothills of the Ozarks and populated by Cherokees in the hollows. My imaginary maps predated my reading of Tolkien by a few years. When I read him as a teen I connected with him and his maps.

        This interest lead to a career as a professor of geography for thirty two years. As a geographer I cringe today at his maps at times. He was without the knowledge of plate tectonics so the locations of some of his mountains are sometimes a problem, particularly the mountains surrounding Mordor.

        Another problem is from economic geography and food production. How is it possible to have large populations of Orcs and Goblins in remote mountains like the northern reaches of the Misty Mountains? Northern mountains in our world are very sparsely populated because of the lack of food production.

        Also Mordor is extremely arid and could not support many Orcs. One explanation that has been proposed is food production around the lake in the south. Transportation in preindustrial societies was difficult and by land usually only involved luxury goods. Bulk products could only be carried by water, not possible in the northern Misty Mountains or Mordor.
        So I conclude that his work is a Fantasy in more ways than most people understand.

      • How wonderful that your delight in maps of the imagination in your childhood led by whatever route to your vocation as a geography professor. Was there a direct connection between the two? Were you able to hold onto your childhood delight in your career?
        I think that, on occasion, Tolkien was at least a little troubled by his shortcomings as a geographer. He does refer to a slave population on the shores of Lake Nurnen whose task it is to feed his armies but I suspect that this does not really solve the problem. Perhaps it would have given C.S Lewis the chance to get his own back on Tolkien pointing fun at Mr and Mrs Beaver serving potatoes to the children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in a land that has been in winter for 500 years!
        There is no doubt that the geography of Middle-earth is primarily mythological. Mordor has to be a fortress and the best way to create one is through the means of mountains. And the populations of orcs must always emerge from the dark places of the earth which is where, from time to time, they multiply in the depths of our psyche and emerge to cause havoc above.

      • What has been preserved from my childhood is, not the creation of imaginary maps, but the almost daily fascination with places. How they are similar and different? The study of the variety of human cultures in creating places and their interrelationship with the processes of the natural environment is always of interest. When I retired and moved from southeast Missouri along the Mississippi River to the Olympic peninsula of Washington state the differences were profound. Almost it was like moving to another planet. The physical environment of the Olympics is extremely diverse due to the configuration of mountains, seas, and microclimates.

        The effect of the natural environment on creative imaginations is a subject that few have ever studied in detail. There have been some studies of the effect of the English countryside on Tolkien’s image of the hobbits homeland, the Shire. Also Tolkien made a trip to the Alps once on a holiday which helped his conception of mountains. However, I don’t think he ever saw a volcano like Mount Doom. No creative writing is in isolation of the impact of the experienced world.

        It would be interesting to have read a Middle Earth by Tolkien if he had lived on the Olympic peninsula. He would have talked a lot more about islands like in the Puget Sound, beaches, coniferous forests, and boats, I suspect. Possibly native Americans would have had an impact.

        Literature is fundamentally a reflection of places and cultures that one has experienced and lived in. Tolkien resonates with the peoples of Northern Europe and the Northern European derived world like the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. In support of this statement I have mapped out the audiences of the Lord of the Rings movies by countries. The countries of higher box offices correlated to these areas. I have not studied the book sales for Tolkien but I would expect the same. Place and its impact on literature are much more profound than most realize because we are often blind to our own cultural gestalt.

      • Replying to Michael Roark: a great work on Tolkienian geography is ‘The Atlas of Middle-Earth’ by Karen Fonstad. Fonstad (1945-2005) was a professional geographer and was Director of Cartographic Services at the University of Wisconsin. I’m relaying decades-old memories of the book, but I believe she identified Mordor with the Takla Makan mountain-box in north-west China.

        As an illustration of the eye Fonstad brought to the subject: she noticed that when the nine companions find the Sirannon or Gate-stream near the Moria West-gate, “hardly a trickle of water flowed among the brown and red-stained stones of the bed”. The red colour betrays iron, which was a staple of Morian mining (according to Gandalf). The theme also plays in the Iron Hills and the river Carnen, or Redwater, which flows from them.

        There are many more examples, also to do with weather. Maybe Tolkien didn’t cover all the bases, but his detail geography (and meteorology!) is pretty evocative

  1. I would say the joy which Christ brings is more of a virtue that exists even when one is feeling in a bad mood which comes from completely putting one’s trust in God, while Bombadil seems more like someone who can never be put into a bad mood. I would say Bombadil is definitely a mysterious and ancient character who at times possibly shows almost as much lordliness as Gandalf, although not so clearly. I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to find a Christ-figure in Bombadil, as Tolkien himself called The Lord of the Rings a “fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” I definitely hadn’t made a connection like that before, although I had heard some people object to Goldberry’s description of him, “He is,” as they think that is too close to what Moses got out of the burning bush. I hold that to be taken out of context.

    • Thank you so much for this thought. I particularly like the connection that you make between the lordliness displayed by both Bombadil and Gandalf. Gandalf bids farewell to the hobbits at the border of the Shire telling them that he is about to have a good long talk with Bombadil. I also wrote about Gandalf’s laughter some time ago and how joy is never far below the surface for him. How many similarities there are between the two of them and yet they are different too. As you rightly point out Bombadil is never in a bad mood and Gandalf frequently gets angry although his anger never remains for long.
      I want to explore Bombadil’s joy further in the coming weeks. Like the elves he is immortal and yet he does not share their melancholy. I want to think about why that is. Of course, all joy is divine in its origin but no creature (even creatures of the imagination as rich as Tom Bombadil) can do more than reflect an aspect of the divine life.
      Nb I intend to reflect on Goldberry’s words that you refer to in a later post as well.
      Once again, thank you for helping my thinking to deepen here.

  2. I think of Tom Bombadil as Adam, the first one, as he would have been as an innocent without sin. Tolkien describes Tom as the original and oldest one in the world. One who was innocent of sin would have been full of joy and basically as happy as Tom. It is hard to conceive of the effects of the scarring of sin in a life and what of life without it would be. Tom is such a picture without sin.

    • Michael, thank you so much for leaving you first comment. I really like your comparison of Bombadil to Adam and I hope to come back to that in a future post when I reflect on the hobbits’ question to Goldberry, “Who is Tom Bombadil?”
      Your thought will send me back to Thomas Merton’s, “The New Man”, and in particular the chapter on Parrhesia, the freedom of Adam restored in Christ.
      Perhaps that also helps me to answer the question that I am pondering. How can Bombadil and the elves share the same earthly immortality but not the same melancholy. Of course the elves know too much of sin as do I.

      • C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra discusses the concept of an “Adam” who chooses not to sin and a world of innocence as a result. Tom Bombadil is Tolkien’s expression of an Adam of innocence, hence the joy and happiness. Goldberry, following that logic, parallels Eve but without the scarring of sin.

        It is not by accident that Tolkien would have an “Adam” who chose a different path since he was in an active intellectual interaction with Lewis and I imagine that they discussed what a person of innocence would be like. This is speculation based on the correlation of their lives and works. I don’t know if there is any documentation of such a discussion between Lewis and Tolkien on the topic but a real possibility.

      • Once again, thank you. It is a long time since I read Perelandra. Two of my commentators (yourself included) have made reference to it and so I need to go back to it again. I think, however, that there is a difference between the two expressions of innocence in these two works. The “Adam” figure in Perelandra is revealed as kingly (an important theme in Lewis). Bombadil has no desire to rule although he enjoys a mastery of his limited realm. Still, why should innocence have only one expression? Why not a variety based upon experience in many places?

      • The innocence of Tom Bombadil or the “Adam” in Perelandra is not based on ones position in life, king or a hermit-like character in the woods such as Tom. Rather it is the essence of a quality of character.

        In the world that we live in the closest example of innocence is found in children. Of course they too have sin but they have at times that character of innocence. This is why Jesus says unless you become like a child you cannot enter into His Kingdom.

        Tom has that child-like essence of innocence, joy, happiness and spontaneity. Also he had an almost instant ability of reassurance for the hobbits. Of course, the hobbits themselves have that child-like character too. Tolkien created them for his children, hence the innocence. In any case Tom would be a fascinating person to encounter.

  3. Pingback: Ho, Tom Bombadil! The Hobbits Meet a Strange Wonder in The Old Forest. – Home of the Nerdy Viking

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