Who or what was Tom Bombadil?

This 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).

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Last modified: Sat Aug 19 20:21:12 1995