The Mysteries of Arda 1 – Who is Tom Bombadil? Part I

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.

Very well, so we have reduced the answer to ”What is Tom Bombadil?” to the following: Tom is a Vala or a Maia. Great, huh!

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.



Filed under Folklore, Inside Middle-Earth, Mystery, Silmarillion, The Lord Of The Rings, Tolkien

18 responses to “The Mysteries of Arda 1 – Who is Tom Bombadil? Part I

  1. Pingback: And the Award goes to…. | quenya101

  2. Pingback: The Mysteries of Arda 1 – Who is Tom Bombadil? Part II | quenya101

  3. Hello!
    I have always thought that, perhaps, is Tom Bombadil J.R.R.Tolkien himself.

    • That is….bold to think (to say the least)

      • I will develop my thesis.

        First, both Gandalf as Sauron himself (both are Maia) are under the influence of the One Ring. We think, then, that all are influenced Maia Ring.
        So, Tom Bombadil is a Maia.

        Could Illuvatar himself?
        Illuvatar in Tolkien’s work, represents the God of those who have faith in our world (and Tolkien have one). It is for that reason that I doubt his intention to create a Tom Bombadil out of personifying the Deity in the middle of Middle Earth.
        Among other things, we could incur a sacrilege.

        Could be a Valar? Could be.
        However, Tolkien has come to define as a Hobbit (simple life and knows how to enjoy the small pleasures it gives us).
        In fact, Tom Bombadil reminds me more of a Hobbit than a great Valar (who quit, if I’m not mistaken, to participate in everything that happens in Middle Earth once stop to Melkor).
        So why not think that Tolkien and Alfred Hitchcock did in his films when he made ‘winks’ with their appearances, we are doing a ‘wink’ in his own novel, surrounding himself, himself, of mystery?

        A greeting.

        Voy a desarrollar mi tesis.

        En primer lugar, tanto Gandalf como el propio Sauron (ambos son Maia) se encuentran bajo la influencia del Anillo Único. Podemos pensar, entonces, que todos los Maia están bajo la influencia del Anillo.
        Así, Tom Bombadil no es un Maia.

        ¿Podría ser el propio Illuvatar?
        Illuvatar, en la obra de Tolkien, representa al Dios de los que tiene fe en nuestro mundo (y el propio Tolkien la tiene). Es por eso mismo que dudo mucho que su intención, al crear a Tom Bombadil, fuera la de personificar a esa Deidad en mitad de la tierra media.
        Entre otras cosas, porque podría incurrir en un sacrilegio.

        ¿Podría ser un Valar? Podría serlo.
        Sin embargo, Tolkien se ha llegado a definir como un Hobbit (de vida simple y que sabe disfrutar de los pequeños placeres que ésta nos brinda).
        De hecho, Tom Bombadil me recuerda más a un Hobbit que a un gran Valar (que renuncian, si no me equivoco, a participar en todo lo que se acontece en la Tierra Media una vez detienen a Melkor).
        Así, ¿por qué no pensar que Tolkien, así como Alfred Hitchcock hacía en sus películas cuando realizaba ‘guiños’ con sus apariciones, nos está haciendo un ‘guiño’ en su propia novela, rodeándose, a sí mismo, de misterio?

        Un saludo.

        • I really can’t understand your idea. In English you said: “So, Tom Bombadil is a Maia”. In Spanish, you said: “Así, Tom Bombadil no es un Maia”

          I stopped reading right there! What do you mean?

          (PS: No need to use online translators. If you speak only Spanish, speak it freely. I can understand it)

  4. I wonder which vala or maia he is. I’m waiting for part 2. And what about Goldberry, who/what is she? What does it mean by “River-women’s daughter”? And is there a connection between Ulmo and Goldberry?

  5. Julio Becker

    I guess Tom is not a Maia too, because until Gandalf ( a Maia ) is tented by the ring, so i think he is a Vala.

  6. I was just wondering, where did hobbits come from, their creation was not mentioned in the silmarilion?

  7. I was just wondering, where did hobbits come from, they were not in the silmarilion?

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