FAQ / Who is Tom Bombadil

In The Lord of the Rings   
Tolkien about Tom Bombadil...   
Other Facts   
Interpretations of Tom's origin and nature   


Tom Bombadil seems indeed the "endlessly discussed enigma" in the LotR, wide - and partly wild - speculations about Tom's origin have been made, but I shall refrain from joining in there and rather would like to restrain to the facts...

In The Lord of the Rings    

In the LotR he represents the master of the OldForest, but he is also called the "Master of wood, water and hill".

Goldberry, when asked by Frodo, gives this explanation:

'Fair lady!' said Frodo again after a while. 'Tell me, if my asking does not seem foolish, who is Tom Bombadil?'

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

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.'

'Then all this strange land belongs to him?'

'No indeed!' she answered, and her smile faded. 'That would indeed be a burden,' she added in a low voice, as if to herself. 'The trees and the grasses and all things growing or living in the land belong each to themselves. Tom Bombadil is the Master. No one has ever caught old Tom walking in the forest, wading in the water, leaping on the hill-tops under light and shadow. He has no fear. Tom Bombadil is master.'

"In the House of Tom Bombadil"

and Tom himself says:

"Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn. He made paths before the Big People, and saw the little People arriving. He was here before the Kings and the graves and the Barrow-wights. When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent. He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless before the Dark Lord came from Outside."

Tolkien about Tom Bombadil...    

In a letter of 1937 Tolkien refers to Tom as the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside...

In a letter to Naomi Mitchison (1954) Tolkien explains briefly:

"And even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally)."
from: Letters #144

and - later in the same year - somewhat more detailed in a draft for a letter to Peter Hastings:

As for Tom Bombadil, I really do think you are being too serious, besides missing the point. (Again the words used are by Goldberry and Tom not me as a commentator). You rather remind me of a Protestant relation who to me objected to the (modern) Catholic habit of calling priests Father, because the name father belonged only to the First Person, citing last Sunday's Epistle - inappositely since that says ex quo. Lots of other characters are called Master; and if 'in time' Tom was primeval he was Eldest in Time. But Goldberry and Tom are referring to the mystery of names. See and ponder Tom's words in Vol. I p. 142 You may be able to conceive of your unique relation to the Creator without a name - can you: for in such a relation pronouns become proper nouns? But as soon as you are in a world of other finites with a similar, if each unique and different, relation to Prime Being, who are you? Frodo has asked not 'what is Tom Bombadil' but 'Who is he'. We and he no doubt often laxly confuse the questions. Goldberry gives what I think is the correct answer. We need not go into the sublimities of 'I am that am' - which is quite different from he is. She adds as a concession a statement of pan of the 'what'. 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 hardly even judges, and as far as can be seen makes no effort to reform or remove even the Willow. I don't think Tom needs philosophizing about, and is not improved by it. But many have found him an odd or indeed discordant ingredient. In historical fact I put him in because I had already 'invented' him independently (he first appeared in the Oxford Magazine) and wanted an 'adventure' on the way. But I kept him in, and as he was, because he represents certain things otherwise left out. I do not mean him to be an allegory - or I should not have given him so particular, individual, and ridiculous a name - but 'allegory' is the only mode of exhibiting certain functions: he is then an 'allegory', or an exemplar, a particular embodying of pure (real) 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 . Even the Elves hardly show this : they are primarily artists. Also T.B. exhibits another point in his attitude to the Ring, and its failure to affect him. You must concentrate on some pan, probably relatively small, of the World (Universe), whether to tell a tale, however long, or to learn anything however fundamental - and therefore much will from that 'point of view' be left out, distorted on the circumference, or seem a discordant oddity. The power of the Ring over all concerned, even the Wizards or Emissaries, is not a delusion - but it is not the whole picture, even of the then state and content of that pan of the Universe.
from:Letters #153

Other Facts    

As a - somewhat humourous - sidenote:

Tom Bombadil actually was the Dutch doll of Tolkien's son Michael which is said to have looked very splendid with the feather in its hat ...

...and which "accidently" got stuffed down in the lavatory someday by his brother John. (I wonder what the feather looked like after this little accident... )

From: JRR Tolkien-A Biography

The doll probably inspired Tolkien to write the poem 'The Adventures of Tom Bombadil', which introduced Tom Bombadil, Goldberry and Old Man Willow, and was first published in The Oxford Magazine in 1934.

Interpretations of Tom's origin and nature    

In most interpretations Tom is considered a spiritual being from outside the world (e.g. Ainu, Maia) some consider him to be Eru himself. Prof. Tom Shippey (in The Road to Middle-earth) refers to Tom as a lusus naturae (a game or jest of nature), a one member category, who convinces through his naturalness and "dominates" mostly through his imperatives (e.g. "You let me out again...").

Lesie Ellen Jones (in Myth and Middle-earth) has a hitherto unknown theory about a possible origin for Tom: She notes that Iarwain Ben-adar could be considered a Welsh name, describing something like a "chicken-child" and drawing a connection to the Welsh poet Taliesin - one of the possible sources of some of Tolkien's Welsh influences. In a well-known story about Taliesins "birth" the latter is said to have been "chicken-born".



I have read quite a few essays about the nature of Tom Bombadil the one above being among the better ones, but nonetheless I personally have got the feeling that most of these essays are "overestimating" the role of Tom. Tom is oldest, because he had been "invented" (first published in the Oxford magazine Feb. 1934) long before JRR Tolkien began to write a sequel for The Hobbit, and he was already part of the story when it was still "just another Hobbit-story" (as is evident from the first drafts of 1938 in HoMe VI) or another children's book, which was before Tolkien decided to closely connect this book with his mytholgy. And Tom remained there until the final version. I - personally - doubt that Tolkien has actually given Tom much more thought in order to integrate him into his mythology... -- ChW

Personally, I was very impressed a number of years ago when I first came across Hargrove's essay, because I had previously come to exactly the same conclusion (that Tom and Goldberry are earthly manifestations of Aule and Yavanna, respectively) using many of the same clues that Hargrove points to. To my way of thinking, the thing that clinches it is the fact that Tolkien went out of his way, in the Silmarillion, to specifically mention the favorite clothing colors of Aule and Yavanna (alone among the Valar, actually), and then went out of his way in FotR to mention that Tom and Goldberry are wearing precisely those colors when they are first introduced. In and of itself that would seem like a pretty slim reed to cling to, but when combined with the many other correspondences, and when one considers the otherwise-inexplicable power Tom possesses over the Ring, I think it's pretty much a slam-dunk. Simply put, I don't see any other reason for Tolkien to go out of his way to plant those clues, if they are not intended as fun tidbits for the careful reader. (In that sense, those passages are akin to the little Easter Eggs he stashed away in the Lord of the Rings appendices about Aragorn's labors in disguise in Rohan and Gondor.) Strangely, some in the Tolkien-obsessed community argue quite strenuously against this explanation of Tom's identity, which I tend to attribute, at least in some cases, to a romantic desire on their part to keep the enigma of Tom's nature apropriately enigmatic. -- JohnCallender


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