by Varda

Vison's inkling about Tom Bombadil makes me wonder, who is he anyway?

I mean, I know the character in LOTR, but he has a section to himself where he rescues the hobbits (twice) and generously entertains them, but it does not seem to have anything to do with the narrative of the Ring. He's very nice, and Goldberry is even nicer, but what are they doing in the book?

The story of LOTR starts off in quite a leisurely manner; after the Birthday Party and Bilbo's disappearance nothing happens for 17 years. So Bombadil could be seen as just another digression to enrich the background. The sequences with Tom, and Old Man Willow, and the barrow wights, are however written in quite a different style to the rest of the book; a sort of half-humorous fantasy, a dream sequence. When Old Man Willow traps the hobbits you never really believe they will be killed; contrast this with the ferocious massacre of Uruk-hai by the Huorns later in the book. It is clear Tolkien's story not only grew in the telling but changed style and pace and emphasis. Perhaps this is why when he sold the film rights Tolkien said Bombadil could be left out; he seems to belong to another story.

Perhaps Tolkien was inspired to create Tom by his own studies in Old English, especially Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and rural legends of the Green Man. The Gawain story also has an atmosphere of dream, with a strange host and a sense of mystery. But Frodo is no Gawain, and his stay with Tom is not a mini-quest where he has to unravel a mystery, even though Tom's abode bristles with mystery. The hobbits never unravel it. In fact, what does Frodo, or any of them, learn from their stay with Tom? They have visions in the barrow, but these are of past wars, not of the future. The only concrete reference to this episode later in the book is when Denethor sees Pippin's sword, which he took from the barrow, and recognises it as Numenorean. But Pippin is wary of telling the Steward where he got it so the connection is not explored.

Tom is not really the Green Man, either, as he is too genial, more like an English country squire although he is associated with plenty, and he has a beautiful consort. Ancient fertility spirits of wood and swamp were indifferent or even hostile to the fate of mortals, who tried to propitiate them. Old Man Willow is more like Green Man.

Tom is however neutral, a fence-sitter. When someone at the Council of Elrond suggests giving him the ring Gandalf points out he would just lose it or throw it away. He is indifferent to it. Like Treebeard he 'has not bothered about the wars of men and Wizards for a very very long time.....'
if he ever did.

Perhaps that is why Tom has no further part in the book, for after the Council of Elrond the world is polarised, divided into those for and those against Sauron. Elrond himself drives this home with great force; 'you must unite or you must fall' Neutrality is not an option.

Pippin puts it best 'whose side are you on?' he demands of Treebeard, and the Ent's reply 'I am on nobody's side because nobody is entirely on mine...' could be Tom's, except for the fact that it soon becomes clear the Ents are very firmly on the side of the earth and the trees and against anything 'burning, hacking, biting....' which rather covers Sauron and Saruman.

In fact, Tom's 'voice' is very similar to Treebeard's, which makes me wonder if Tolkien developed the idea of the Bombadil character into Treebeard, a much more active, dramatic and powerful earth figure who takes destiny into his own hands (or branches) by going to war beyond the boundaries of his forest, as Tom will never do.

In The Lord of The Rings nature is synonymous with good. Sauron and Saruman can easily be seen to be evil by their environmental destruction; they are 'minds of metal and wheels'. The Elves are seen as good because of their spiritual closeness to nature, their connectedness to tree and star and river. Legolas almost weeps when he sees the trees torn by passing orcs. Yet Bombadil seems curiously uninterested in protecting that very nature which he so loves. Safe in his forest he lets the world and its wars go by.

I wonder, in that 'long talk' that Mithrandir promises himself with Tom, there might be some bad news for the jolly lover of bright clothes; that his enclave will not last much longer, a new age is beginning....