Tom Bombadil is Master

Written By: JD Adler - Jan• 22•12

For those of us who read “The Lord of the Rings”, there are several sections of the trilogy which were left out of the movies. I’m not here to criticize Peter Jackson’s work, it was a fantastic production. But some of these abridged sections hold content of significance. Their absence may allow for the action to flow faster for the modern, instant gratification culture, however a key piece to understanding the puzzle is lost.

Tom Bombadil by Brother's Hilderbrant

One of my favorite characters was Tom Bombadil, who exists not only in the “Lord of the Rings” but also in “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil”. This character appears to be an incidental contact for Frodo and the Hobbits as they are forced to take a path through the “Old Forest” in order to avoid the enemy. However, Tom’s role (and that of his his wife Goldberry, daughter of the river Withywindle) in the trilogy is to provide background/setup for the mythology that governs Middle Earth.

Myth of Middle Earth

In the Silmarillion, Tolkien describes the creation and history of his fictional universe. There is a creator, Eru Illuvitar; gods, the Ainu/Valar; and lesser gods, the Maia/Istari (Gandalf, Saruman, and Sauron are these); and a vain, greedy, rebellious god, Melkior.  Their story is the story of creation, and the birth of the Children of Illuvitar (Elves and Humans). Tolkien unfolds the entire history of the universe before the act of creation actually occurs, in a chorus of the gods.

‘Behold your Music!’ And he showed to them a vision, giving to them sight where before there was only hearing; and they saw a new World made visible before them and it was globed amid the Void….and as they looked and wondered this World began to unfold its history, and it seemed to them there that it lived and grew.

Melkior becomes the “evil one” character who eventually mentors Sauron before being destroyed. And then Sauron becomes the “evil one”.  The common theme for the evil characters is the desire to rebuild the world according to their own designs (industrialists). Whereas the heroes are always nature loving, agriculture and mysticism types (hippies). The darkness that comes when the evil is advancing includes pollution and fire and noise and hostile behavior. The territory of the heroes usually coincides with sunshine, greenery, music, and beautiful women with flowers in their hair. The concept of the ancient past being a time when nature was more powerful, and life was better, is pervasive in the stories. It is the advancement of technology which has disconnected the living from life.

So what does all this have to do with Bombadil? We meet Tom early in the first book, when we are still learning what the plot is, along with the Hobbits. This is not incidental, he represents the old powers, the old middle earth, from the days when it was still being formed, before Melkor forced the Valar to remove themselves.  He does not fear Old Man Willow, nor does the Ring of Power affect him, not because he is able to control them but because they cannot control him.The themes are being laid out for us.

Frodo asks twice who he is, once of Tom’s wife Goldberry, to  which she responded cryptically,

[Frodo] “Then all this strange land belongs to him?”

“No indeed!” She answered, and her smile faded. “That would indeed be a burden…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.”

And later he asks Tom directly, to which he responds even more cryptically,

“…Tell me who are you, alone yourself, and nameless? But you are young and I am old. Eldest, that’s what I am. Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the rivers and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn… He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless- before the Dark Lord came from Outside.”

The last phrase is interesting because it suggests Bombadil does not come from the same place as Melkior (the Dark Lord), but the only beings on Middle Earth at the beginning, before the elves, were the Valar, the Maia, and Melkior. All of whom were with Illuvitar previously. Athough Tolkien does tell us, in the Silmarillion, that only Illuvitar saw/heard the fullness of the music of creation, and therefore there were unknowns even to the Valar. Is Bombadil one of these surprises? If he is not one of the gods, then what is he?

The last time Tolkien speaks of him, beyond an aside, is at Elrond’s council in Rivendale, when they are trying to decide what to do about the Ring of Power. He is described as ancient and powerful,  but not concerned with the petty wars and politics of the world. Gandalf dismisses the idea of enrolling his aid as pointless;

“…he is withdrawn into a little land, within bounds that he has set, though none can see them, waitng perhaps for a change of days, and he will not stop beyond them.

To which Glorfindel the Elf adds that hiding the ring with Bombadil would only be a delay, for if Sauron was not defeated;

“…I think that in the end, if all else is conquered, Bombadil will fall, Last as he was First; and then night will come.”

Themes of ancient history and fate, and cycles (first and last), and the connection between Bombadil’s origins and good, wrapped into a man who exists in the world yet remains aloof. Very much like an ideal or philosophy.

In just a few short passages, Tolkien is able to establish this character as a symbol of the ancient ‘faith’, and define that faith as standing with nature and tranquility and freedom. He also establishes that Bombadil is respected by the heroes, therefore they are also with the ancient faith. The presumption that Sauron will try to destroy Bombadil if they meet, tells us that evil is against these things represented by  the ancient faith. And so the entire backdrop of the trilogy has been introduced without a narrator.

In “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil”, an epic poem by Tolkien, Bombadil tells stories from his life. He is continuously falling into the clutches of badgers and river spirits but simply sings a few magical lines and walks away; because he is master and no one can hold him. And yet depite this mythos, he is described physically as:

Old Tom Bombadil was a merry fellow;

bright blue his jacket was and his boots were yellow,

green were hid girdle and his breeches all of leather;

he wore in his tall hat a swan-wing feather.

He lived up under Hill, where the Withywindle

ran from a grassy well down into the dingle.

‘Silly’ is the best word I can think of to describe the image this conjures up for me.  A happy, goofy guy bounding through life. Yet this same character is unconquerable and everlasting from the beginning til the end of days. Again, Tolkien reinforces the concept of good as content and satisfied. Fear, self-doubt, and greed all come from desire which the symbols of good do not have.

At this point its worth noting the inspiration behind Bombadil. According to the Tolkien Library Tom was inspired by Tolkien’s son’s destruction of his brother’s toys.

… Tom Bombadil was originally a Dutch doll also belonging to Michael Tolkien. John, his brother, put the doll down a lavatory. Bombadil was rescued and Tolkien wrote The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, originally published in Oxford Magazine in 1934. Tolkien later offered to his publishers the idea that Bombadil’s story could be expanded into a sequel to The Hobbit, but they didn’t bite, so Tom appeared anyway in The Lord of the Rings. Tom makes his debut in the form found in this collection.

So this character, inspired by his children’s misadventures, appears for a brief moment in an epic trilogy. A work noted for the incredible attention to detail. Is it possible he just threw it in to amuse his children or irritate his publisher? Possible, of course, but it does not seem likely. The man wrote an elvish dictionary in order to assist him with ‘realism’. That is not the type of person who carelessly messes with his story on a whim.

If Bombadil is indeed a symbol for the back-story and the ‘good’, then his presence should foreshadow the theme of the plot.

In its most simplistic summary, the “Lord of the Rings” is about the corrupting influence of power and greed. The only people able to carry the ring without being overwhelmed are the Hobbits, who have no dreams of glory or power or wealth, because the Shire has everything they need or want. They are satisfied and therefore un-corruptable.

Sauron and Saruman, the evil characters, are consumed with desire for more; more knowledge, more power, more servants, etc. They wish to control everything, and thus they ruin everything.

Bombadil is unconcerned with the world, and master of himself. Therefore he fears nothing and needs nothing (except the love of Goldberry), and is at peace with the world around him. (very Zen)

The message of the Tolkien’s epic appears to be ‘greed is bad for you’. And he provides what he considers positive examples in the Hobbits. And then he offers Bombadil as this iconic, Budda-like character. Content, self-aware, and wise; Bombadil is the true opposite to Sauron. Unlike Gandalf  and Galadriel who had to resist temptation, Tom is unaffected by the offer of power. Because he has seen the ‘powerful’ come and go, and knows it to be a lie.

Tom Bombadil, Master of Middle Earth, is Tolkien’s vision of the ideal good.

At least that’s my theory.


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