Who is Tom Bombadil? Is There an Answer to the Mystery?

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.121-123

As the four hobbits step over the threshold into the house of Tom Bombadil they meet Goldberry for the first time and begin to bow low, “feeling strangely surprised and awkward, like folk that, knocking at a cottage door to beg for a drink of water, have been answered by a fair young elf-queen clad in living flowers”.

Nothing about Tom Bombadil and Goldberry seems quite to fit into any way that the hobbits have learned to see the world and as the hobbits are our eyes upon Middle-earth so we too are invited into their surprise and awkwardness. Bombadil is rustic, an expression of pure simplicity. Goldberry is queenly and yet entirely at home in a cottage that is similar to Crickhollow and familiar to the hobbits.

A king and queen living in a simple cottage

Frodo is moved to give a gracious speech in which we learn that the story of Goldberry is not unknown to him or, perhaps, to his fellows either. But a woman who until now has only lived in song and imagination has just entered his living breathing world. Next week we will think a little more about Tom Bombadil and Goldberry but this week we will ask the question that Frodo asks of Goldberry.

“Who is Tom Bombadil?”

“He is,” said Goldberry, staying her swift movements and smiling.

He is as you have seen him

Frodo looked at her questioningly. “He is, as you have seen him,” she said in answer to his look. “He is the Master of wood, water, and hill.”

There are some readers of The Lord of the Rings who have seen Tom Bombadil as the I AM of the Hebrew scriptures in reference to Goldberry’s answer. While this is a charming thought in many ways it is also rather worrying! Tom’s absent mindedness might lead to a forgetting of the cosmos with catastrophic consequences. As Gandalf says of Bombadil at the Council of Elrond, “If he were given the Ring, he would soon forget it, or most likely throw it away. Such things have no hold on his mind. He would be a most unsafe guardian; and that alone is answer enough.”

No, Tom Bombadil is quite simply himself. In response to my recent post Ho, Tom Bombadil! The Hobbits Meet a Strange Wonder in The Old Forest, some readers commented that he is one who is innocent and without sin. I resisted this thought at first until I read this passage about Bombadil from one of Tolkien’s letters.

“If 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”.

Tom Bombadil is such a person. He has renounced ego and possession. Perhaps neither of these things ever had any meaning for him. Thomas Merton wrote of Adam before the fall that “he walked the earth… as one who had no master under God. He could be conscious of his own autonomy, under God, as the priest and king of all that God had made. Knowing no rebellion in the simplicity and order of his own being, he was also obeyed by all creatures. His mind had a perfect knowledge of himself and of the world around him and his will acted in perfect accordance with his vision of truth.”

These words of Merton’s could almost be a description of Tom Bombadil. He is simply himself. Indeed the answer is far too simple for some readers of Tolkien’s story who require greater complexity because that is the world that they live in. Simplicity is far too much for them. For them, mastery is related first and foremost to what Tolkien termed “the means of power”, the possibility of having mastery through the renunciation of those means is almost intolerable. They have given everything in order to achieve power and possession and the emptiness that they have achieved has been so hard won that they have to believe that their own illusion is real.

So is there an answer to Frodo’s question? Yes, there is but it may be too simple to grasp. Tom Bombadil is simply himself.

Master of Wood, Water and Hill

6 thoughts on “Who is Tom Bombadil? Is There an Answer to the Mystery?

  1. Really enjoyed it. Tom Bombadil is such a great character and his entire episode has grown on me the more I’ve read it.
    I think there’s so much symbolism in him, that really every reader might have their answer. I enjoyed yours.

    • Thanks for your comment! I am really glad that you are enjoying getting to know Tom Bombadil better. I would love to have a long talk with him just as Gandalf does near the end of the story.

  2. Thank you Stephen. I am always inclined to over complicate things. And to forget the deep beauty of the simple.
    Tom Bombadil is simply himself. And the being of it gives him huge joy to share, and peace flows from him. The opposite of fear is love. And fear has no hold on Tom. Perhaps because he has learnt to love himself. And through that, to see all creation without fear, perhaps even a little challenging things around him to be only … or hugely .. what they are also.
    You’ve taken my stumbling thoughts and given them shape. Thank you. I had identified him with the I AM also, but found that full of holes and was left wondering ….

    • I think that there is a beauty that radiates from each one of us when we achieve simplicity. Equally, when I see someone striving to be clever or sophisticated I find myself sighing inwardly and looking forward to the moment when they allow their simplicity to emerge from their many cultured layers and I can spot with their again.
      I doubt whether Tom Bombadil is even aware that he loves himself. He just is, and that is enough.

    • About the “I am” of Tom Bombadil. Goldberry’s explanation

      “he is”

      has drawn a lot of comment starting with the Catholic bookseller Peter Hastings (Letter 153). I used to read it the way Hastings did, as a reprise of Exodus 3:14 I AM THAT I AM.

      But lately I think I’ve understood what Tolkien intended. It’s simply a reply to Frodo’s question “who is Tom Bombadil?”

      Goldberry (staying her swift movements and smiling) replies “he is”, meaning that guy over there, yellow boots, blue jacket, can’t miss him.

      It’s a very clever double-entendre!

      • I am completely persuaded by this and I love Goldberry’s playfulness here. Who are any of us? Neither more or less than our “is-ness”. Compare Bombadil to characters like Saruman in this respect. Compare him to the sad narcissists who give their lives to the climbing of greasy poles.

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