What is the nature of Tom Bombadil? Many answers to that question have been suggested over the years, and quite a few arise regularly. Even some common ones have clear evidence against them, but a handful of ideas have weathered the long debates without producing any convincing counterarguments. In this essay, I will explain why some ideas can be firmly rejected, and why a few remain appealing.
Background to the Essay
(Feel free to skim this section or just read its summary paragraph: these background details are important, but not terribly interesting.)
Before going on, I must acknowledge that I cannot be truly objective in what follows. I have done my best to base every claim on rational arguments supported by original texts and to avoid bias in my presentation, but I do prefer one answer to the question: I have long advocated the idea that Bombadil is in some sense the incarnation of Arda itself. Despite my best efforts to treat all reasonable possibilities equally, some subtle bias in that direction may be inescapable. I do not expect such bias to affect which theories I label as truly not viable: I will not make that strong claim unless the evidence appears inescapable.
A few notes on source texts are in order. The Lord of the Rings (henceforth abbreviated LotR) is the primary text of reference, and in the face of conflicting evidence its statements will carry more weight than those in other references. (Quotes from LotR will generally be identified only by chapter title.) The Hobbit will also be treated as a canonical source, though its contribution to the discussion of this issue is limited. Some essential information comes from the "Ainulindale" and the "Valaquenta" in The Silmarillion. All of this has been checked against the final drafts and notes in Morgoth's Ring, and I believe it to be a trustworthy guide to Tolkien's intent.
There is a great deal of information about Bombadil in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (henceforth referred to as Letters, or implicitly by reference to a specific Letter number). While Tolkien does not seem to have felt as "bound" to statements in his letters as he did to published texts, they give glimpses of his thoughts that we could not hope to know otherwise, and I will treat them as a trustworthy source of information and insight. When I refer to "canonical" texts in this essay, I mean the sources listed above.
Other texts can shed light on Bombadil, but should not be taken as authoritative. Because the Middle-earth of The Book of Lost Tales is so different from that of LotR, information from those early stories is not directly relevant to a discussion about the later state of the mythology. However, a few references to the Lost Tales here show ideas that Tolkien considered while constructing his mythology.
While The Adventures of Tom Bombadil was published while Tolkien was alive, its two poems about Tom are not trustworthy guides to his nature: the book's Preface says that their Bucklandish authors had "little understanding of his powers" and that the first poem is "made up of various hobbit-versions of legends concerning Bombadil". I make little use of them here; the information lost is in any case minimal.
Bombadil does appear in the "History of The Lord of the Rings" volumes of the "History of Middle-earth" series, but those books will not be used here. Bombadil was introduced into the story before its relationship to the greater mythology was entirely established, so his place in the Silmarillion cosmology may have changed enormously between the first and final drafts. Thus, changes in his character and description as the story developed are likely to have been significant, and quoting anything other than the final version could be extremely misleading.
Introduction to the Debate
A great number of identities for Tom Bombadil have been suggested over time. Some of the more common are:
- Eru Iluvatar
- Some particular Elf, Man, Dwarf, or similar person
- a Maia (presumably one of the many not specifically named elsewhere)
- a nature spirit, either one of many similar beings or somehow unique
Some have suggested that Tom is an insertion of Tolkien himself into the tale, but we are interested primarily in "story internal" explanations: even if Tom were meant to represent Tolkien himself, our interest is in how he fits into Middle-earth. Beyond that, the correspondence between Tolkien and Bombadil simply isn't very strong.
Considering all these possibilities, our first task will be to reduce confusion by eliminating positions that have obvious and fatal weaknesses. Even before that, however, I must acknowledge that some believe the search for Bombadil's nature to be fundamentally hopeless (by Tolkien's design). Beyond the general lack of information that Tolkien provides about him, this claim finds support in Letter #144:
"As a story, I think it is good that there should be a lot of things unexplained (especially if an explanation actually exists)... And even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally)."
At least when this letter was written, then, Tolkien did not intend for Bombadil's nature to be evident: that unresolved question is part of the charm of the tale. While this is a valid objection, there are several reasons to hope that we can come closer to an explanation than Tolkien intended.
To begin with, the comment "especially if an explanation actually exists" in this paragraph suggests that Tolkien had one in mind and that he tried to make the existence of that explanation apparent. Thus, we might still hope to find subtle and unintentionally helpful clues pointing to the answer. Even more important, there is much more information about Middle-earth available now than when this letter was written in 1954. It seems fair to hope that the information in Letters, The Silmarillion, and elsewhere could fill in crucial gaps and cast light on Bombadil that Tolkien did not expect.
This essay assumes that Tolkien did have an explanation in mind for Bombadil (even if only a general idea, as would probably be needed to make sure he didn't outright conflict with other "known" facts about Middle-earth). As Tolkien said, hidden explanations make reading the story more enjoyable, and for some of us part of the fun comes in trying to uncover them. I do respect those who prefer not to delve into these mysteries; this essay is simply not for them.