Who or what was Tom Bombadil?
his question has been a widely debated, sometimes far too vehemently.
Part of the difficulty is the complexity of Tom's literary history. Tom was
originally a doll (with blue jacket and yellow boots) owned by Tolkien's son
Michael. The doll inspired a story fragment, such as he often invented for
his children's amusement. That fragment was in turn the basis for the poem
"The Adventures of Tom Bombadil", published in 1933, which also introduced
Goldberry, the barrow wights, and Old Man Willow (the poem was the source of
the events in Chapters 6 through 8 of Book I). In a contemporary letter
(1937) Tolkien explained that Tom was meant to represent 'the spirit of the
(vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside'. (Letters, no 19)
Tolkien introduced Tom into LotR at a very early stage, when he still
thought of it as a sequel to the Hobbit, as opposed to the Silm (the tone was changed during the first chapters of LotR). Tom fit the original (slightly childish) tone of
the early chapters (which resembled that of the Hobbit), but as the story
progressed it became higher in tone and darker in nature. Tolkien later
claimed that he left Tom in he decided that however portrayed Tom provided
a necessary ingredient (see last paragraph). Some very cogent reasons are
produced in a couple of wonderful letters (Letters, nos 144 & 153).
As to Tom's nature, there are several schools of thought.
Whichever of these is correct, Tom's function inside the story was evidently
to demonstrate a particular attitude towards control and power. "The story
is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless
ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom 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 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." (Letters, p. 178). Tom represented "Botany and
Zoology (as sciences) and Poetry as opposed to Cattle-breeding and Agriculture
and practicality." (Letters, p. 179).
- He was a Maia (the most common notion). The reasoning here is plain:
given the Middle-earth cast of characters as we know it, this is the most
convenient pigeonhole in which to place him (and Goldberry as well) (most
of the other individuals in LotR with "mysterious" origins: Gandalf,
Sauron, Wizards, and Balrogs did in fact turn out to be Maiar).
- He was Ilúvatar. The only support for this notion is on theological
grounds: some have interpreted Goldberry's statement to Frodo (F: "Who is
Tom Bombadil?" G: "He is.") as a form of the Christian "I am that am",
which really could suggest the Creator. Tolkien rejected this interpretation quite firmly.
- T.A. Shippey (in The Road to Middle-earth) and others have suggested
that Tom is a one-of-a-kind type. This notion received indirect support
from Tolkien himself: "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)." (Letters,
p. 174) There are scattered references to other entities which seem to
fall outside the usual picture.
Last modified: Sat Aug 19 20:21:12 1995
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