In my full essay "What is Tom Bombadil", I categorize the idea that he is the Vala Aule as a "theory with fatal flaws". Although I believe my arguments there to be more than sufficient, many readers have considered them too brief and dismissive and claim instead that Gene Hargrove's detailed and well written essay "Who is Tom Bombadil?" makes a compelling case that I have not refuted.
I have a great deal of respect for Hargrove's writing; indeed, the desire to improve on his conclusions while doing justice to the quality of his article was one of my own motives in exploring the topic. I intentionally did not frame any portion of my essay explicitly as a refutation of his article because that felt far more negative and adversarial than I wanted to be. But as his flawed theory has continued to be very popular in the ten years since my essay appeared, it seems to be worth confronting the claim that Bombadil is Aule in detail. I will begin by collecting all of my arguments against it in one place (many taken directly from my full essay), and then I will address Hargrove's arguments in its favor.
Why Bombadil cannot be Aule
Aule and Tom Bombadil are both highly distinctive characters, and Aule in particular plays a major role in the cosmology of Middle-earth. Thus, despite the mystery surrounding Bombadil, careful consideration of what we know about each of them will allow us to draw firm conclusions from the evidence we have. Some of the clearest evidence about Bombadil is based on statements made at the Council of Elrond. Objecting to Tom as a guardian of the Ring, Glorfindel says,
"...soon or late the Lord of the Rings would learn of its hiding place and would bend all his power toward it. Could that power be defied by Bombadil alone? I think not. I think that in the end, if all else is conquered, Bombadil will fall, Last as he was First; and then Night will come."
Unless Glorfindel is flat out wrong, this makes it clear that Bombadil is weaker than Sauron in a direct conflict of "power," whatever that term means (it might well include Sauron's full military strength). Galdor concurs, saying that
"Power to defy our Enemy is not in him, unless such power is in the earth itself. And yet we see that Sauron can torture and destroy the very hills."
Galdor admits to knowing "little of Iarwain save the name", so it must not take great learning to make general statements about his power and perhaps its source. Significantly, nobody at the Council objects to either of these statements. It seems likely that whatever limited knowledge Galdor based his comments on was common among the wise and learned Elves at the Council. More specifically, Elrond is clearly reasonably familiar with Bombadil and Gandalf seems to know quite a bit about his nature and abilities, but neither of them object.
Although it is exceedingly unlikely that so many knowledgeable individuals at the Council were mistaken, some have suggested that they intentionally concealed the truth. This cannot be disproved, but it would be very different from the treatment of other secrets at the Council. For example, when Gloin asks about the Three Rings, Elrond states that "of them it is not permitted to speak", but nevertheless violates that prohibition (to a small degree). He does not feign ignorance or even simply remain silent: this Council does not seem to have been a place for partial truths.
Given this, it seems very reasonable to accept the Council's statements. This choice is corroborated in Letter #144, where Tolkien says that "Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left for him in the world of Sauron." While it does not speak directly of a conflict between the two, this quote makes it clear that Bombadil would be in some sense "killed" if Sauron was victorious, just as Glorfindel said.
Now consider that evidence in the context of The Silmarillion and its statements about Aule. In particular, the "Valaquenta" says that eight of the Valar "were of chief power and reverence":
"the Aratar, the High Ones of Arda: Manwe and Varda, Ulmo, Yavanna and Aule, Mandos, Nienna, and Orome. Though Manwe is their King and holds their allegiance under Eru, in majesty they are peers, surpassing beyond compare all others, whether of the Valar and the Maiar, or of any other order that Iluvatar has sent into Ea."
I cannot believe that any of these great powers would be so weak (in any sense) that "the power to defy our Enemy is not in him". The gulf in power and majesty between the Aratar and even the greatest of the Maiar is "beyond compare": I do not believe that even Sauron and all his armies could "kill" Aule, for example, and yet Tolkien's letter says that Bombadil would not survive a victory by Sauron. (Although Tolkien wrote elsewhere that "Sauron was 'greater', effectively, in the Second Age than Morgoth at the end of the First", that was because Morgoth alone among the Valar had expended his native power to gain control over the physical world. No "unfallen" Vala would do such a thing.) To my eye, this evidence is already entirely sufficient to reject the Aule theory.
But even for those who don't like arguments about the relative "power" of different beings (a view that I tend to share), there is still fairly direct evidence that Bombadil was not one of the Valar. In "In the House of Tom Bombadil", Tom says of himself, "He was here before the Kings and the graves and the Barrow-wights. When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent." Bombadil says that he "was here already", not merely that he "had been here": this implies a long term presence in the area; in fact, this passage gives the impression that he never left. However, we read in The Silmarillion that after the destruction of the Lamps, "the Valar came seldom over the mountains to Middle-earth". (The only Valar said to spend much time there were Yavanna and Orome, and apart from Orome's time with the Quendi before the Great Journey these seem to have been brief visits rather than extended habitation.) While falling short of a complete proof on its own, this strongly implies that Bombadil is not one of the Valar.
Another argument is that the Valar were the governors of Arda and deeply concerned with the fate of the Children of Iluvatar (only at the moment of the Akallabeth are we told that "the Valar laid down their government of Arda"). However, when asked if Bombadil could guard the Ring, Gandalf says that, "He might do so, if all the free folk of the world begged him, but he would not understand the need." Even in the unlikely event that a Vala abandoned his responsibilities and chose to ignore all of the evil (and good) in the world, it could never be said that he would not understand the struggle.
Bombadil and Goldberry don't act like Aule and Yavanna
All of the arguments above aim to foreclose the very possibility that Bombadil could be Aule, and I consider them compelling. But if you do not find them convincing, the next step is to actually consider Bombadil and Aule as characters and ask whether they seem consistent with one another, and then to do the same with Goldberry and Yavanna. In each case, even a brief comparison makes the connection seem entirely unjustified.
What do we know of Bombadil? He and Goldberry live a seemingly simple life, surrounded by nature and far from other "speaking peoples". Tom wanders within his country, largely untouched by hostile or dangerous inhabitants like Old Man Willow or the barrow wights, but for the most part leaving them alone despite having the evident power to control or eliminate them. He takes joy in all of nature: the verse to call him for aid says, "By water, wood and hill, by the reed and willow". He observes and understands his surroundings rather than owning and controlling them; in Letter #153, Tolkien states that Bombadil is
"a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science: the spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature, because they are 'other' and wholly independent of the enquiring mind".
He is lighthearted even in the most serious of moments, and practically everything he says is in song or verse. (Try reading even his normal dialog aloud!)
And what do we know of Aule? The "Valaquenta" says that
"He is a smith and a master of all crafts, and he delights in works of skill, however small, as much as in the mighty buildings of old. ... Both [Aule and Melkor], also, desired to make things of their own that should be new and unthought of by others, and delighted in the praise of their skill."
Moreover, as described in "Of Aule and Yavanna", Aule was so eager "to have learners to whom he could teach his lore and his crafts" that he created the Dwarves (despite his fear that others would disapprove, as proved to be the case). But as Yavanna said when she learned of the Dwarves, "thy children will have little love for the things of my love. They will love first the things made by their own hands, as doth their father." Aule values the natural world as a source of tools and supplies more than for its own intrinsic worth.
There are certainly points of contact between these descriptions, but by and large the personalities they describe are extremely different. Bombadil shows no apparent interest in smith-work and little special interest in works of craft at all: even the brooch he takes from the barrow-mound he values as much for its former owner as for its craftsmanship. ("Here is a pretty toy for Tom and for his lady! Fair was she who long ago wore this on her shoulder.") For his part, Aule shows little interest in trees and flowers (except as a source of wood); it is hard to imagine him collecting water lilies.
If anything, Goldberry is an even worse match to Yavanna than Tom is to Aule. We know even less about Goldberry than we do about Bombadil, but what we do know paints a very specific and consistent picture: at almost every opportunity, she is associated with water, and with the river Withywindle in particular. I will not give a full list of examples here, but the overall theme is clear. Goldberry, the "River-daughter", was sitting in the rushes by a deep pool in the Withywindle when Tom first saw her. Her voice is repeatedly described as "like the song of a glad water flowing" or "rippling down" or "falling gently as if it was flowing down the rain", and her songs are about rain and pools and rivers. Tolkien made that connection explicit in Letter #210: reacting to a proposed adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, he said, "We are not in 'fairy-land', but in real river-lands in autumn. Goldberry represents the actual seasonal changes in such lands."
In short, essentially every single thing we know about Goldberry links her strongly to water and to the Withywindle in particular. This is a poor match with any of the Ainur explicitly named in The Silmarillion, even those associated with water. Ulmo is the Lord of Waters, but his interest spans all the waters of Arda, not one small river. Osse and Uinen, meanwhile, are only associated with the sea. But the connection with Yavanna is even more tenuous: there are certainly many living things in the Withywindle valley, but for the most part Goldberry seems less interested in them than in the water itself. To claim that they are the same person would require us to ignore either the one sure thing we know about Goldberry or the vast majority of what we know about Yavanna.
Important evidence not addressed by the Aule theory
In addition to the many reasons to actively believe that Bombadil is not Aule, there are also very significant pieces of evidence about Bombadil that the Aule theory does not explain or even address. One of these first arises when Tom tells the hobbits, "Eldest, that's what I am." This seems to be an important clue to Bombadil's nature, and it is repeated at least twice at the Council of Elrond: Elrond tells us that Bombadil's Elvish name "Iarwain Ben-adar" means "oldest and fatherless", and as quoted earlier Glorfindel says that Tom would be "Last as he was First".
What can terms like "Eldest" or "First" tell us about Bombadil? Tolkien may or may not have intended for those terms to be taken absolutely literally, but he surely intended them to mean something! In particular, all of the terms used are more specific than just "very old": they imply some measure of uniqueness, not just (for example) that Bombadil is one of the many Ainur (who existed before Ea itself). But Aule is a significant character throughout the early history of Arda, and it would be quite surprising if any significant "first" applied to him without being mentioned in the Silmarillion texts. And even if that oddity is ignored, it is difficult to come up with a meaning of First that could apply to Aule-as-Bombadil and yet remain consistent with Glorfindel's word "Last": Sauron at least would remain as another Ainu in Middle-earth after Bombadil was gone. Whether you view all this as actually contradicting the Aule theory or not, failing to address these important hints at all is a serious weakness.
The Aule theory also fails to even touch on most of the evidence that some use to support the idea that Bombadil is a nature spirit. My full essay discusses that evidence in detail (starting here, and especially here), but one clear example comes from Galdor's comments at the Council of Elrond (already cited above): "Power to defy our Enemy is not in him, unless such power is in the earth itself. And yet we see that Sauron can torture and destroy the very hills." Galdor felt that he knew enough about Bombadil to make that claim. But if Galdor knew that Bombadil was Aule, what could he have meant? Sauron may "torture and destroy the very hills", but Aule created them in the first place! And if Bombadil was Aule and Galdor did not know it, then what did Galdor think he was talking about, and where did he get such a bizarrely wrong idea? If the Aule theory is true, then one way or another Galdor appears to have been talking gibberish, and everyone else at the Council seems to simply nod and agree. This is just one example of "nature spirit" evidence, but as one of the ultimate creators and shapers of nature Aule and Yavanna are rarely a good match for the various hints that Bombadil and Goldberry embody aspects of Arda rather than the creators of those aspects.
Addressing specific arguments in favor of Bombadil as Aule
Given that the theory that Bombadil and Goldberry are Aule and Yavanna comes primarily from Gene Hargrove's essay "Who is Tom Bombadil?", it is important to address its claims specifically. I find Hargrove's writing to be quite clear and many of his arguments compelling. He makes a good case that seeking to understand Bombadil is worthwhile, and his arguments favoring Bombadil as one of the Ainur (and against certain sorts of "nature spirit") make a great deal of sense. In fact, I have no serious objections to anything that he writes before he begins to search out a specific identity for Tom.
But at that point, his reasoning quickly stumbles. Hargrove mentions the idea that Bombadil might be one of the Maiar, but then he commits a grave logical error, writing:
"The only problem is that there is no Maia in the Silmarillion who matches Tom's general character. It is only when one turns to the Valar themselves that potential candidates emerge."
It is true that Bombadil is not a close match to any Maiar named and described in The Silmarillion, or for that matter in any of his other writings: Tolkien did not name or describe very many Maiar at all. But that is no impediment: named or not, the Maiar were very numerous. The "Valaquenta" makes this explicit: "Their number is not known to the Elves, and few have names in any of the tongues of the Children of Iluvatar". Thus, Hargrove's argument quoted above is fundamentally flawed: there is absolutely no reason to limit the candidates for Bombadil's identity to the Valar.
Unfortunately, that mistake undermines the foundation of the rest of Hargrove's essay: a conclusion reached by process of elimination cannot be trusted if the vast majority of candidates were eliminated in error. Nevertheless, I will continue to address the evidence that he presents. He begins his argument by attempting to match Goldberry to the (married) Valier, and concludes that,
"With Yavanna, however, we have just the right emphasis, for she is responsible for all living things, with a special preference for plants. Since she is Queen of the Earth, it is easy to imagine her watering the forest with special care, as Goldberry does during the Hobbits' visit."
Although Hargrove may consider Goldberry's fondness for water plants like lilies and reeds to be "just the right" match for the Queen of the Earth and patroness of all living things, I see a considerable distinction. Moreover, his claim that Goldberry caused the rain is not so obvious from the text as to be made without justification (indeed, Tom later told the hobbits that, "I am no weather-master, nor is aught that goes on two legs"), and even if she did bring the rain, there is no hint that it was meant to water the forest: Tom says, "This is Goldberry's washing day, and her autumn-cleaning". I have no memory of Goldberry expressing affection for the trees of the forest at all, nor for any of the animal life also beloved of Yavanna.
Hargrove's next argument is to compare Yavanna's appearance in The Silmarillion to Goldberry's in LotR. There are certainly similarities in those descriptions, but two characters can both wear green robes (even symbolically significant ones) without being the same person, and I am wary of reading much into a single case where the same author describes similar-looking characters in similar ways. (And even when Hargrove makes the comparison, he needs to spend much of his time explaining why the two descriptions don't actually match in detail.)
At the end of Hargrove's discussion of Goldberry, he does address her identity as "Riverwoman's daughter" and the difficulties that it poses for his Yavanna theory. But he seems to consider that name itself to be the only issue, and sets it aside as perhaps just a misunderstanding by those who used it: "the fact that some people believe that Goldberry is Riverwoman's Daughter does not absolutely, literally have to be true." But it is worth noting that the only person we ever see use that name for her is Bombadil himself: it is not just "some people" who describe her that way, but the person most likely to know the truth! (I do not know whether Hargrove overlooked that fact, or whether he believed that Aule was one of the people confused about who Yavanna was, or what.) But more importantly, this argument does nothing to address the consistent water imagery that I have already discussed above: that name is the least of the reasons to connect Goldberry with the Withywindle.
Finally, Hargrove moves on to discuss Bombadil himself. He does a nice job of drawing parallels between Bombadil's "vow of poverty" and Aule's delight in making rather than possessing. The comparison is quite plausible as he presents it, but I believe that it overlooks some important differences. For example, in Letter #153 where Tolkien refers to Bombadil as "a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science", he goes on to describe Tom's love of knowledge for its own sake,
"and entirely unconcerned with 'doing' anything with the knowledge: Zoology and Botany not Cattle-breeding or Agriculture. Even the Elves hardly show this: they are primarily artists."
This is in direct contradiction with Aule's character, and even specifically with the aspects of it that Hargrove has focused on. Bombadil is never portrayed as a maker or artist, while Aule is "the Smith" and the making of things is his greatest love. Hargrove's argument relies entirely on one small aspect of Aule's character, while overlooking the most fundamental aspects of all.
One of the real strengths of the idea that Bombadil is Aule is that it provides a very plausible explanation for his attitude toward (and power over) the Ring, and Hargrove spells this out well. Aule was Sauron's first teacher and the greatest craftsman in Ea, as well as one of its chief powers in all respects: I do not know of any other explanation that addresses this mystery as well. However, there are other plausible (but less complete) explanations (largely based on Tolkien's comments about the significance of Tom's "vow of poverty" in Letter #144), so this success of the Aule theory is by no means decisive.
The last section of Hargrove's essay discusses some of the puzzles of the Aule theory. To the question of why Aule would be living near the Old Forest at all, he answers that perhaps Aule simply wanted to study hobbits. I don't know what to think of that, but hobbits couldn't have been Aule's original or primary reason for living in Eriador: Bombadil had lived there far longer than any hobbits had. At the Council, Elrond recalls the days when the Old Forest extended south to Dunland (which I believe dates the memory to before the great Numenorian forestry projects during the Second Age) and says that Bombadil "walked the woods and hills long ago, and even then was older than the old."
Hargrove also tries to counter some of the objections to the Aule theory by addressing why Bombadil/Aule did not more actively assist in the fight against Sauron, and how Aule could be said to have taken a "vow of poverty". Unfortunately, his explanation for Bombadil's lack of involvement is simply that Aule is not allowed by the will of the (other) Valar to help directly: this seems inconsistent with Gandalf's explanation that Bombadil could not safely guard the Ring because "he would not understand the need" (and while Gandalf might not understand who Bombadil was, he is the character least likely to be mistaken on this point). Hargrove's discussion of the "vow of poverty" makes a decent case, but he seems to have a different understanding of what Tolkien meant by that term than I do.
In the end, while Hargrove's essay is very well written and presents a wide range of arguments in support of his case, my conclusion is that its initial premise is flawed and the evidence that follows is considerably weaker than it may seem on a first reading. He makes valuable points in multiple places, but fundamentally the similarity between Bombadil and Aule (and between Goldberry and Yavanna) is simply not very strong. It is certainly not compelling enough to overcome all of the reasons to reject the idea in the first place. The enigma of Tom Bombadil is a topic that can lead to some great discussions and deep insight into the nature of Middle-earth, so I hope that future conversations will be able to focus on theories more relevant and viable than this one.