Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow
Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow.
He’s easily one of the strangest people to be found in the spectacular world of Middle-Earth. And it’s not easy to see how much he affects the plot of The Fellowship of the Ring other than save the hobbits from one of the most terrifying monsters in Middle-Earth (True fact: I would not go near trees for several days after reading the Old Man Willow sequence) and stall them on their journey to the village of Bree. Many people who read the trilogy have varying difficulty getting past this part or taking it seriously; celebrated author Neil Gaiman said in this interview with Stephen Colbert that he has no love for Tom. Several people of my acquaintance have expressed similar sentiments.
My life-long love for The Lord of the Rings automatically puts me in defensive mode when I hear people knock Tolkien’s work. But my love for the professor doesn’t alter the fact that he made some poor stylistic choices and that his characters can leave a bit to be desired on some occasions.
So is Tom Bombadil an error on Tolkien’s part? Should the ‘merry fellow’ have been cut altogether?
My answer to this question is no, for two very different reasons.
1) Without Tom, Merry and Pippin would have been crushed or devoured respectively by Old Man Willow, the malevolent willow tree deep in the recesses of the Old Forest. I happen to like Merry and Pippin, so I for one am grateful to Tom for making sure they survived to provide some spectacular moments later on in the series. Merry helping bring down the Witch-King? Pippin saving Faramir? Not possible if they’ve been offed by a hobbit-eating tree.
So thanks, Tom. You saved two of my favorite characters, and for that I’m more than willing to put up with your lunatic songs.
2) Tom Bombadil was deliberately created to be an enigma and to provide some depth to Middle-Earth. The Encyclopedia of Arda provides an in-depth look at the different races in Middle-Earth, especially the elder ones prominent in The Silmirillion. The article, which can be found here, provides some interesting speculations about Tom’s possible place in the world of Middle-Earth, but the point it brings up that I wish to touch on is the point of myth.
The Lord of the Rings was written by Tolkien to be a mythology. It’s considered the grandfather of fantasy for good reason, but it’s worth noting that Tolkien was hugely influenced by mythologies in general and considered his work to be a kind of mythological history. And in many mythologies, there are always figures hard to understand or comprehend, whose nature and reason for existence is not fully explained (think of the old man of the sea in Arabian Nights, or any of Odysseus’s encounters in The Odyssey). As quoted in the Encyclopedia of Arda article, Tolkien said “…even in a mythical Age, there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).”
So this much we know for certain: Tom Bombadil was created to be confusing. Does that render him unnecessary? No. In the conversations he has with the hobbits while they stay in his house, he provides an element of time passing that lends a great deal of depth to the world of Middle-Earth. In his history of the evil kings who fought with swords and cruelty, he shows that evil in Middle-Earth was not just confined to the Dark Lords Sauron and Morgoth. Through his tales we learn that there is so much more to Middle-Earth than we will ever see in the confines of the story of the Ring, such as petty kingdoms and wars that have long been forgotten. We can infer from this that he has been and always will be, providing a level of constancy to a world that is always changing (and this is later confirmed; in the event of Sauron conquering, Tom is described as “last as he was first and then Night will fall” by one of the elves at the Council of Elrond) .
But there are other ways to show constancy in a world. Why use a strange man who sings and rules absolutely within a tiny realm? Because Tom Bombadil is about more than mere constants and enigmas in a world; he is both those things, but he is also much more. Simply put, Tom embodies the power of pure innocence.
Now by innocence, I DO NOT mean naiveté. Tom Bombadil knows Old Man Willow and he knows the Barrow-Wights. He tells of battles and needless cruelty; he’s not ignorant of evil. But he delights in what is good, what is beautiful, and what is fleeting and passing. He sings an entire song about his delight in taking flowers to his wife Goldberry, and he constantly dances and laughs merely for the sake of the joy they give him. He literally has no desires or interests beyond the beautiful and the forest in which he dwells, as evidenced by the fact that the Ring of Power cannot so much as make him invisible. And it is this complete love for every good thing that makes him so joyous and strange, especially to people who’ve grown accustomed to having talking heads blandly tell horrific things.
It’s hard, I think, for people to see the things Tom delights in as worthwhile. We don’t often look at beautiful things merely because they’re beautiful, and we don’t often show such unbridled delight in life. I think that was probably just as true in Tolkien’s time, between the aftermaths of two major wars. Tom Bombadil is meant to show the power that joy and pure delight in the world can wield. Even if that delight isn’t understood by those who behold it, they can still appreciate it, as the hobbits do. Joy can be infectious, even when it’s baffling. And song can still be enjoyable, even when it’s nonsense.
We could all deal with being reminded of that once in a while. I think Tolkien knew that when he first put Tom Bombadil to paper.