One of the mysteries of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is the character of Tom Bombadil. Who is this odd hill leaping, silly song singing, farmer in the dell? Is this cavorting yellow booted bumpkin a darling that Tolkien could not kill, a rustic mechanical who simply had to have a part in the great saga? Was Bombadil no more than a deus ex machina plot device, or does this ancient tree enchanter have a more important function?
Tom Bombadil first sprang from Tolkien’s imagination in the form of light hearted poems for children. Inspired by his children’s Dutch doll, Tolkien’s Bombadil became a kind of English nature spirit. In the 1934 poem The Adventures of Tom Bombadil he is a “merry fellow” who lives near the Withywindle river and interacts with the woodland creatures and the River daughter Goldberry. He encounters and defeats the barrow wight and Old Man Willow and finally marries Goldberry. In another poem, Bombadil Goes Boating, Tom is more firmly rooted in the geography of Middle Earth. He knows about hobbits, visits Farmer Maggot and touches on other characters and events from Lord of the Rings.
Fans have been eager to explain Tom Bombadil and place him in Tolkien’s cosmology. Bombadil is mysteriously described by Gandalf as “the eldest and fatherless” while the dwarves refer to him as “the ancient” or “belonging to the ancient past.” Bombadil calls himself the “Eldest” and the “Master”, claims to remember “the first raindrop and the first acorn”, and that he “knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless — before the Dark Lord came from Outside”. Some critics have therefore suggested that he is an incarnation of God himself, pointing to Goldberry’s answer to Frodo question about Bombadil — saying simply “He is”.
Tolkien himself rejected the idea that Bombadil is God, and wrote to his publisher that Tom represents “the spirit of the vanishing landscapes of Oxfordshire and Berkshire.” I think this is a casual brush off. Tolkien acknowledged that Tom Bombadil was a mysterious figure who defied easy Middle Earth categories. He remained comfortable with that and was content for an element of mystery to surround the character.
What part, then does Bombadil play in Tolkien’s saga? I would suggest that he plays a similar role as old Silenus in C.S.Lewis’ Prince Caspian. Silenus appears with Bacchus as a pagan reveler, representing a primitive simplicity and Dionysian abandonment. Silenus’ cavorting with the naiads and dryads echoes Bombadil’s joyful simplicity and deep natural goodness. Both characters bring to life a conviction that C.S.Lewis voiced when commenting on the spiritual insensitivity, puritanism and boorishness of the modern world.
This essay explores Lewis’ belief that pagan wisdom is a foreshadowing of the Christian gospel. “If paganism could be shown to have something in common with Christianity, ‘so much the better for paganism,’ not ‘so much the worse for Christianity.” When faced with the criticism that modern young people were becoming pagan, Lewis retorted, “If only they would!” For there is wisdom in Pagan culture that we need… But alas, in this new Dark Ages, the post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past.” Introducing pagan characters into Narnia was Lewis’ way of making his point. Tom Bombadil serves a similar function but with Tolkien’s superior imagination, subtlety and insight.
Tom Bombadil, like paganism, is there before everything else. He represents therefore the primitive and natural instinct in man. He stands for the Neanderthal gazing in wonder at his sister the moon and his brother the sun. He points to the rustic soul connecting silently with every living thing and knowing that there is something and someone beyond. He is the child trembling at the thunder and smiling with spring rain. As such he stands for mankind, formed from the earth at one with the earth and all that is within it. He is at one with nature and at the same time the steward of creation. Tom Bombadil is simply Tom Bombadil, but if he must be compared to anyone else in the Christian cosmos, then he and Goldberry are Middle Earth’s quaint and beautiful echo of Adam and Eve.