Or first, what is he?
I must say we are approaching one of the most debated matters in The Lord of the Rings, but also one of the most thrilling ones. We are here to discuss who is this mysterious character after all. What is he? Where does he come from? Is Tom his real name? What is he doing near the Shire? Questions… many questions… But patience, my friends: we’ll address them one at a time, with the guidance of Gene Hargove’s awesome essay.
First of all, I deem important to ask ourselves the following: to which race in Arda’s creational order does Tom belong? If we can answer this, we would’ve gone half the way. That’s why I’ll divide this in two parts: a first post about “What is Tom Bombadil?”, and another one about “Who is Tom Bombadil, and what role does he play in the story?”.
What isn’t Tom Bombadil?
Through the years, since Tolkien’s death (and even before), scholar’s and fans of his mythos have devised many different theories: some good and some bad. To help us find what he is, we can find first what he is not.
He is not a hobbit, neither a dwarf, obviously because of his physical appearance, especially his height. He is, evidently, not an Ent, nor an Orc. So what is left? Elf or Man? Maybe… But do you remember when he grabs the Ring in his hand and starts playing with it? He does not seem affected in any way by its power. He even puts it on, and doesn’t disappear! I know no Elf or Man, even the most powerful & noble, who are able to achieve that. So, definitely, he is no Elf or Man.
What is Tom Bombadil?
So what the heck is he? During the Council of Elrond, its said about him: “Power to defy our Enemy is not in him, unless such power is in the earth itself”. Misleaded by this phrase, his power over nature and no other way to explain it, a lot of researchers have concluded that Tom is a “personification of nature itself”, a “nature god/deity” or a “non-rational nature spirit”. This theory prevailed a long time, but lets make it clear: this phrase is pretty ambiguous. It does not state that Tom is the earth or has the power of the earth. I quote Hargrove’s article: saying that “[John] does not have the ability to drive that far, unless that ability is in the car”, does not mean that John is a car or has the power of the car. They are very different things. So no, there’s no evidence of him being a “nature spirit”.
When Goldberry answers the question “Who is Tom Bombadil?”, she simply says: “He is”. Does this mean that existence is a predicate of Tom, and then he is God (Eru)? Well, Tolkien himself denied this in a letter of 1954, and wrote in another that “there is no embodiment of the One, of God, who remains remote, outside of the world” (Letter #181). Another possibility is discarded: Tom is not Eru.
But what’s wrong about existence being a (limited) predicate of an “offspring of Ilúvatar’s thought”, a.k.a. Vala or Maia? AHA! See where I was going? Here comes the juicy part… Attested material that denies this possibility is nowhere to be found!!! And that’s good for us, because we are finally seeing the light in this matter!
In fact, there is evidence that encourages this theory. Tom himself remarks that “he knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless – before the Dark Lord came from Outside”, referring to the time before the coming of Morgoth (the original Dark Lord). So he would be “the oldest”. On the other hand, Treebeard is supposed to be “the oldest living thing that still walks beneath the Sun”. How come that be? Well, this makes perfect sense if you think about what means to be “alive”. Living creatures are those inhabitants of Eä, belonging to its “biology”. It happens that Valar and Maiar aren’t from Eä, but from the Void: they just are embodied in this world. So, more information that encourages our theory.
Stay tuned for part II, for this gets increasingly interesting! we’ll see which Vala or Maia may he be.
NOTE: most of the things said here are arguable, and I do not intend to have the final word in this somehow obscure matter. I’d like to hear from you in the comments to discuss all of this.