|The LOTR Movie Site
October 30, 2000
After reading yet another attempt to find a conclusive identity for Tom Bombadil, I was finally motivated to get out my typing finger and post what I have long considered to be the only viable, convincing and emotionally satisfying answer to this persistent riddle. However, there are are a couple of points I must address first, so please bear with me during the rather long preamble -- it makes sense in the end!
For years I dipped in and out of the books and, to be honest,
viewed old Tom with some suspicion, but on seriously re-reading the trilogy for the first
time a couple of years ago, (and getting through 'Lost Tales', the Silmarillion and the
Hobbit as preliminaries) I found the character now seemed imbued with a strange
glamour -- a once neglected 'bit part actor' had transformed into a haunting conundrum
that demanded closer scrutiny. Of course, I toyed with the old chestnut that Tom is Eru.
Why, it's obvious! They both have three letter names! Tolkien was making a reference to
the christian trinity... etc. But ultimately this just doesn't ring true, and the 'Maia
gone native' argument seemed equally unsatisfactory for the following reasons: 1) All
appearances of the Maiar in Tolkien's work are characterised by a lofty, awe-inspiring
quality and a seriousness of demeanor. Tom, on the other hand, behaves like a man
(albeit a strange one), not a god. Take for example the appearance of Ulmo as the 'old man
of the sea' in Lost Tales part two. He comes across as rather scary and not in the least
bit jolly. 2) Melian would surely have sussed out Tom's identity when she was resident in
middle earth (don't tell me that Tom never visited the hidden kingdoms!). The fact that
Elrond, as lore-master of the elves, didn't know who or what Tom was, points to the fact
that Melian didn't either. 3) Gandalf/Olorin who is certainly old enough to remember
Sauron when he was still a good little Maia, would definitely know Tom from the elder
days. His proposed trip to the old forest at the end of Return of the King is
ostensibly for the purpose of 'having a good long talk' with the Bombadil. Now, although
this could be seen as two old mates from Valimar having a reunion, the solution of the
Bombadil question points to a rather different reason for the final adventure of the white
rider, which I'll come to in due course.
Anyway, I'd been puzzling over the eldritch mystery of
Iarwain Ben Adar for some time and began to think that the key to his true nature was
hidden right were no one would look for it -- right out in the open. I really
couldn't believe that someone as deeply involved with his private mythology as JRR Tolkien
would include a character as provocative and enigmatic as Tom Bombadil without an
extremely good reason for doing so ( "even in a mythological Age there must be some
enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally)") It is my
contention that Old Tom is central to the whole of Tolkien's conception of Middle Earth
and the creatures that dwell therein, and his true origin goes back to the opening
chapters of the Ainulindale. The things that kept nagging at me were his answer to Frodo's
question "Who are you Master?" -- ('Don't you know my name yet? That's the only
answer.') and his apparent indivisibility from the songs he sang. As so often happens just
"Bombadil... is the prototype of the Children of God, that Original Man and the template which will influence the final form of Man. That he is at least as old as Middle-earth itself he willingly admits: "Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn." In fact, he pre-dates Middle-earth, and is the cosmic seed from which Man develops.
The creation of the world from the void was through the Song of the Ainur, the divine refrain taught to the Holy Ones by Iluvatar before the beginning of days. In those tunes of glory were contained the form and history of the world and of the Children of God. The Ainulindale was transformed into light, the light into matter, and through this device The One revealed to them their Handiwork. Yet the entire story, the final ending of the tale was not revealed to the demiurgic Valar; only a partial vision was granted, and the creation of His children and their final doom is in the hands of the One. The Valar will only prepare the realm, act as stewards in His stead.
The tireless Ruth Noel informs us that "Bombadil" is derived from the Middle-English words for "humming" and "hidden". This is his name; by the elves he is called Oldest-and-Fatherless, "Old Sorcerer" by the Dwarves, "Ancient" by Men. Yet his origin and essence are contained only in Bombadil, his own name for himself, for its meaning is known only to him and his inventor... The form of the Ainulindale, the song of the Holy Ones who were the offspring of the thought of Iluvatar, and from who they learned their songs, was wordless, pure tone... Interwoven with the melody were all the creations, including Man and Elf. Old Tom is, I venture to speculate, the "hidden melody," the secret tune of the One from which His children took form and grew, the divine tonal DNA! His songs are, after all, "stronger songs". (The prototype of Bombadil as the magic song-master was probably the Finnish hero Lemminkainen in the Kalevala.)
This interpretation gives even greater significance to Tom's
immunity from the effects of the Ring. The demonic power of the Ring derives from the
personification of discord that was Melkor. Melkor was, as we have seen, the Ainu whose
fierce pride and stubborn individuality brought evil into the world; and he was cast,
Lucifer-like into the Void at the end of the First Age. This tradition of mayhem was
carried on by the fallen Maia Sauron, the greater part of whose power derived originally
from Melkor. But the song that is the genesis of Bombadil is that strain that was
untouched by Melkor, the promise of Iluvatar to His children; and in this fashion the
Ring's power has no way of affecting him. This is also Man's hope... Glorfindel prophecies
at the council of Elrond that in the darkest hour Bombadil would succumb, last as he was
first. But Old Tom's songs are literally stronger than Hell, and we might suspect that he
is less worried than the Wise for knowing how the songs !
So there we have it. The name Bombadil means "secret song" -- Eru's counter theme to Melkor's disharmony. Being only partly revealed to the Ainu, is it any wonder that no-one knew who he was? Gandalf's last meeting with him thus becomes for the purpose of understanding man's ultimate place in the world -- to learn a secret the Valar themselves did not know. Bombadil is Tolkien's symbol of both pre-lapsarian and post-apocalyptic, or redeemed man. (Check out Tom's Adam-like relationship with animals). Let's not forget that Tolkien wanted to write something that, although being fiction, was also 'true,' and truth, for him, meant the teachings of Roman Catholicism (this is also why he never alludes to the awakening of Men, as he didn't want to place his mythology out of step with his religous beliefs). The beauty of this theory is that it doesn't contradict any of JRRT's other statements about Old Tom. And, as a specialist in medieval languages, there's no way on earth he wouldn't know the meaning of 'Bombadil' in Middle English. As far as the doubts raised by Glorfindel at the council of Elrond go, while I tend to agree with Mr. O'Neil that Tom is stronger than Sauron by dint of his special connection with Eru, I feel that he would in fact, have no reason to exist anymore if the whole of Middle-earth was corrupted by the Dark Lord. Tom may be indestructible, but he couldn't recreate a ravaged world. Also in this connection , Goldberry symbolises the 'power of the Earth,' and would no doubt perish if Mordor extended itself over the whole world. Without his anima figure, Tom would become an incomplete character and presumably also meet his end. All things in Middle-earth have their binary (as well as polar) opposites. Tom Bombadil embodies Iluvatar's plan for man to live in the created world. Goldberry represents the world itself.
While we're on the subject, what was going on in Peter Jackson's mind when he cast Liv Tyler as Arwen Evenstar? I thought she was supposed to look like Luthien Tinuviel -- the fairest of the fair. A role which demands at the very least a dark haired Uma Thurman! Also, could someone please clear up the irritating problem of whether Balrogs have wings or not. For my part, I think the reference to wings in "Fellowship" merely meant the wing-like appearance of the enveloping shadow. All we know for certain is that they had flaming hair and were of humanoid appearance, but larger. The idea of falling into the abyss becomes ludicrous if they had bat-like, leathery wings as depicted by the very misguided John Howe. He even thought that there were (and I quote) "legions of the things" when it is quite clear that the final form of the myth took precedence over the early version of the Fall of Gondolin. Tolkien specifically stated ('tho I can't remember where) that there were actually never more than between five and seven Valaraukar.
Ouch, I've got bees in my bonnet. Next up: blatant sexual
symbolism in The Hobbit... You have been warned!