(Many thanks to Conrad Dunkerson and many other participants on the Usenet newsgroups rec.arts.books.tolkien and alt.fan.tolkien for helpful comments and encouragement on earlier versions of this essay.)
You may prefer to read the text version (one long page).
- Detailed Summary (for those overwhelmed by the length of the full essay)
- Theories with Fatal Flaws
- Viable Possibilities
- External Links and References (an annotated list)
- Tom Bombadil is not Aule (and Goldberry is not Yavanna) (a detailed response to this persistent but flawed theory)
A Summary of the Essay: What is Tom Bombadil?
(With links to the complete discussions in the full essay.)
Many theories about the nature of Tom Bombadil have been suggested. Even some common ones have clear evidence against them, but a handful have managed to survive as viable possibilities. This essay is an attempt to systematically work out which is which.
While I have done my best to avoid bias in my presentation, some may be inevitable: I prefer the theory that Bombadil is "the incarnation of Arda itself". Most evidence comes from "canonical" texts:The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, the Silmarillion, and The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, but a few other sources are used in purely "suggestive" ways.
- Eru Iluvatar
- Some particular Elf, Man, Dwarf, etc.
- a Maia (one of the many not named in Silm.)
- a nature spirit of some sort
We are interested only in "story internal" explanations, so the idea that Bombadil is Tolkien will not be discussed. We study Bombadil's nature despite Tolkien's stated intent to leave him as an enigma; there are reasons to hope we can succeed in understanding him anyway.
Our first step is to eliminate theories with fatal flaws. Statements at the Council of Elrond and elsewhere make it clear that Bombadil was "less powerful" than Sauron, which helps to rule out many theories. The theory that Bombadil is Iluvatar is absolutely ruled out, both by this and by direct statements by Tolkien. Theories that Bombadil is one of the Valar are also firmly eliminated for a wide variety of reasons (yes, even the theory that he is Aule). Very different arguments allow us to discard theories claiming that Bombadil is an Elf, human, or other "normal" race. This leaves just two serious possibilities: that Bombadil is a Maia (or "unaffiliated" Ainu) or that he is some sort of nature spirit.
The strongest argument for the Maia theory is simple: of all the "races" named in canonical texts, only the Maiar are not ruled out above. (There were a great many Maiar, so the fact that Bombadil does not match any of the Maiar described in other texts is not evidence against his being one.) Slightly more direct evidence comes when Gandalf compares himself to Bombadil before he goes to visit him at the end of LotR. Tom's interactions with the Ring could be easily explained if he were "powerful" enough to overcome it, but passive explanations exist as well. Goldberry fits fairly naturally as a Maia, too.
Despite this strong evidence, there are questions that the Maia theory leaves unanswered. It is hard to see how words like "Eldest", "First", and especially "Last" could apply to one of the Maiar, but these seem to be crucial hints about Bombadil. Tom's total indifference to the Ring is also left entirely unanswered by the Maia theory: all of the other Maiar who interact with it are tempted. A difficulty in identifying Goldberry as a Maia is why she would be called "daughter" of the River.
Arguing that Bombadil is a nature spirit is more difficult: doing so involves inventing a whole new class of beings that Tolkien never mentioned in canonical texts. There is some support for doing so, however: Tolkien once wrote that no tale can show "the whole picture", and that Bombadil gave a glimpse of something outside the main story. The idea that he is a nature spirit comes in part from an early letter where Tolkien called him "the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside", in part from Galdor's statement at the Council of Elrond equating his power with that of "the earth itself", and in part from general considerations.
Nature Spirits Other Than Bombadil
We begin our study of "nature spirits" with Goldberry, who Tolkien once said "represents the actual seasonal changes" in river-lands. Goldberry is consistently associated with the Withywindle, and her voice and songs always evoke potent water imagery. A connection between Goldberry and the growing seasons can also be seen in her love of water lilies and in Frodo's verse about her.
It is worth looking for other possible nature spirits in Middle-earth, to support their existence and to understand them better in general. The early (and highly non-canonical) Book of Lost Tales describes nature spirits explicitly. While those spirits are essentially Maiar, they don't act like later Maiar and there are hints that Tolkien considered giving some of them other origins. Looking to canonical texts, a potential group of nature spirits are the giants seen by Bilbo in The Hobbit (who do exist). Like Goldberry, they tend to stay in a limited area, and they seem closely associated with natural features there: one might be able to call them "sons" of mountain peaks. They may be associated with violent weather in the same way that Goldberry is associated with spring and summer.
This evidence inspires a broad conjecture about such beings. Nature spirits, we suggest, are each associated with some lasting feature of the physical world which is the source of their being; they cannot stray far from it. Furthermore, they are not always active (perhaps not even always physically embodied): each is associated with some condition in the world around their "parent". Such spirits might arise when strong "echoes" of the Music of the Ainur associated with lasting natural features become "alive" due to the Flame Imperishable. These echoes might be strongest when their surroundings are right.
We now apply this theory to Bombadil, doing our best to distinguish flaws in the specific theory from flaws of the entire nature spirit idea. Applying it is difficult at first, as "Tom's country" contains many varied environments and its borders seem to be recent and voluntary. However, we find a good fit in the idea that Bombadil is the spirit associated with Arda, with Middle-earth itself, and that he is made "active" by the presence of other independent things for him to study. He would have awakened when weather and geographic features and living things first appeared, making him the Eldest "native" inhabitant of Middle-earth. He may have chosen "his country" because it was relatively "wild", or just to stay near Goldberry (who may have needed his help to remain "active" in his house).
This idea suggests answers for many of the mysteries about Bombadil. His singing would be very natural if he came from "echoes" of the Music, and it isn't surprising that his songs have some power. Galdor's words at the Council become obvious, and a being whose existence originated from curiosity might readily avoid the Ring's power. If Sauron won, he would eventually bring the whole world under his control, so Bombadil would be the "Last" independent native of Middle-earth immediately before he became "inactive" because there were no independent things left in the world for him to study.
In the end, we still have no final answer to the question, "What is Tom Bombadil?" The theory that he is a Maia is a natural choice with firm support in the books, but the theory that he is a nature spirit can shed more light on him without being too contrived. People must decide between them based on their own willingness to extrapolate beyond the texts. Tolkien seems to have succeeded after all: Bombadil remains an enigma. But we've learned a bit along the way, and I, at least, have enjoyed the quest.