Who Bombadil Really Is

by Varda, with responses


Some time ago there was a discussion of Tom Bombadil here, who or what he was.

I always rather thought he was one of the divinities of Arda, Aulë I thought. He is not a person, he has too much power.

Anyway, those who are really interested in this question and Tom himself might like to check out the current issue of The Tolkien Society's Amon Hen, as there is a very intriguing and well researched essay which argues convincingly that Tom is in fact Tolkien himself.

Now to me it smacks of trickery for an author to actually put himself in a work of literature, although it has been done. But this wirter,
OV Nance, make a cracking good case....

Nance points out that both Treebeard and Tom are called 'the oldest beings in Middle Earth' but they can't BOTH be, but Tolkien, as creator, is of course the oldest inhabitant of Middle Earth, as he invented it.

There is the love of riddles in LOTR, and Frodo asks Tom who he is, and Tom answers 'don't you know my name yet?' The author is riddling *us*.

There are divine beings in the story, from Gandalf to Sauron, and Tolkien never conceals their nature.. But Tom is not spoken of as a deity because he is actually even more powerful; only he is immune to the Ring. He can put it on without disappearing, yet he can make it disappear,

Nance backs up his argument with some stiff textual evidence;

The creator/author would have seen 'the first raindrops' in Arda.

The author would have been all-knowing, all-seeing, as Tom seems to be.

The author would have had power over everything in ME, even the Ring.

The author can see the invisible in his own tale, ie Frodo while he is wearing the Ring.

The creator/author is lord of all creatures, Willow, Goldberry, even those who are dead, like the Wight.

Also, Tom's house is like a shrine. Goldberry says; 'he is..' like 'I am who I am...' in Hebrew.

He wears a leaf crown.

Nance posits a theory that Tolkien had a problem as to how to seque from a children's book, The Hobbit, into a very adult book, LOTR. LOTR begins like The Hobbit, but Tolkien creates Tom and the events on the Barrow Downs to bring us from a children's world to an adult, even dark and strange world.

For in a way all four hobbits die in the Barrow-Downs. They are put in these barrows (tombs) and Tom/Tolkien resurrected them as the characters they will be in the great epic that LOTR is. They rise, armed and even clad in white and arrayed in jewels. They also take on the attributes of the ancient Numenorean men whose tombs these are (I think I remember Pippin had a vivid dream of dying in an ancient battle) and in fact it is Merrys's barrow-wight blade that maims the Nazgul and makes his death at Éowyn's hands possible.

Humphrey Carpenter says that Tom Bombadil was the name of a doll belonging to one of Tolkien's children. Tolkien invented adventures for his children's doll, just as he invented adventures for his characters in ME for us.

There is also, according to Vance, the proof of the name.

In a book where every name is etymologised to death, with the Elvish versions, Tolkien is silent on the meaning of Bombadil. He gives Elvish and Dwarvish names for him, but does not explain the name itself except to say it is of Hobbitish derivation. which is not very informative, except if Tolkien thought of himself as a hobbit....

In English, dil meant wonderful, and Bomba is close to bumble, or humming. So was Tolkien the wonderful singer?

Tom is described thus; ' he sang like a starling, hummed like a honey-bee, lilted to the fiddle'

Singing is the job of the bard, or poet or writer, and Tolkien is the bard of LOTR. He wanted to be more than just an author, though; he is the first to walk in Arda, its creator, its father. If Bombadil was daring, so was Tolkien, perhaps a derivation of his name, Tolkien (German Tollkuhn).

If Nance is right, this would be a very lengthy conceit, but he musters a lot of evidence, and much of it is linguistic, which would certainly have appealed to Tolkien who always said the genesis of his works was linguistic, not narrative.

This is a rough synopsis of Vance's article, which is very well written and entertaining, any Bombadil fanatics should seek it out and read it.....

Thanks all

Resonse from FredO

Really interesting piece V! Thanks for sharing.

I don’t know that I totally agree with Vance but it is making me think. The first thing that came to mind is the fact that Tolkien forced the 4 Hobbits into the Old Forrest where so much legend and fear existed. If he is playing himself then he is the only one who can really pull them through this little adventure which he does.
Maybe by having a small adventure in the Old Forrest, like the broader one to come, he is actually foretelling most of that broader story and showing us how things will work out with the characters. Kind of like priming the pump or writing an outline. The Old Forrest adventure may serve as such a device for the 4 Hobbit characters which would then get filled in for them in the whole of LOTR. Maybe Tolkien is trying to show us how he will take care of them as they venture into the wider world of Middle Earth.
I know I’m not expressing this well but what I’m trying to say is that the whole of the journey through the Old Forrest is a microcosm of the entire of LOTR. Maybe.

What also strikes me are the similarities of nature between Tom and Tolkien. Consider how much Tom reflects Tolkien’s deep abiding love of trees. How Tom is completely “rooted“ and devoted to his land. He will not leave it even to defend Middle Earth from the growing shadow. Is that because he “knows” the outcome?

I find this subject interesting and perplexing. Very difficult to consider how much was actually going on in this “cast off from the films” in light of Vance’s arguments. I wish I got Amon Hen to read it for myself. Thanks again for sharing this. I have a feeling I’ll be chewing on this for some time.


Reply from Varda:

The more one thinks of this, the more right it seems. You have said it, Ringlord, having created a wondrous place like ME, could Tolkien not resist entering it himself? Could we, given the same chance, resist it ourselves? It makes absolute sense for Tolkien to enjoy what he himself has made.

And yes, Fredo, I too always wondered at the episode in the Old Forest, and again on the Barrow-downs. Having just sent his heroes off on a quest, Tolkien seems to wilfully waylay them and subject them to eerie, life-changing and character-altering experiences. And the whole Tom section of LOTR is totally unlike the rest of the book, more like a dream sequence. It is completely outside the main plot, and when the a film of LOTR was first mooted ( Wink ) Tolkien himself suggested they leave out Bombadil, not just because it would not harm the narrative, but because Tolkien was not at home in the medium of film and did not want 'himself' on screen.

Tolkien's love for the trees is just one aspect of Bombadil, whereas with Treebeard it is central. Bombadil takes in those other aspects of Tolkien, creator-author, singer and master of riddles....

Thanks, folks, and respect due to Mr Nance...

Response from Mathom:

Oh yes! Just look what happened when a film maker got his hands on Middle Earth - he couldn't resist putting himself (and both his children) into it. I know I'd put myself into it if I could!

Response from Gaeranna:

Very Interesting. I never thought of Tolkien as Tom, before this. I have thought that the hobbits' adventures with Bombadil could almost stand as a separate story, and that Tolkien figured out a way to tie this tale in with the larger ring story. Now it's time to go back and reread along with looking at that Nance piece.

Response from Daisy Gold:

Tom is one of those characters that stick in my head. The mystery that shrouds him is probably the reason and his question "Don't you know my name yet?"
I tend to think of Tom Bombadil as a kind of 'Spirit, a sort of Father (Middle) Earth figure, loving the hills, fields, rivers etc of ME. But now in the 3rd age, he is the Spirit of the old Great Forests, the remnant that he now lives in.
I can see him as their voice, their carer, and their loving master from the beginning of ME. He is someone I would love to meet and chat with, to hear his tales of ME. I haven't read the Sil yet but I look forward to learning about all the many types of creatures that are part of this mythology.

In the LOTR, one purpose Tom serves is to keep the hobbits alive until they fully realise that the world they are now travelling in is not like their peaceful Shire. He also helps to equip them with weapons. one of which will help in the killing of the Witch King.

I like to see Tom as the Light before the Dark in the story. He is one of those intriguing little mini stories that crop up in LOTR. They add variety and depth to the history of the place. They leave me wanting to know much more about them.

Tolkien left Tom as an enigma, a mystery. He wasn't telling us the answer. He may not have made up his mind who Tom really was, apart from being a character he used when telling his children stories. Does Tolkien's family know? I think Christopher would have said something about it by now if his dad were this character, strolling through his own story? As I am sure Tolkien would have said in his letters to the fans who asked about Tom.
No, I can't see Tom as Tolkien, although Nance makes out a very good case. His musing is a very interesting read. (It is found in Amon Hen , a bulletin of the Tolkien Society)

As for Goldberry - who is she? A maiar? A river spirit?
Does this mean that Edith was Goldberry if Tolkien was Tom?