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One of the most enduring mysteries of Middle-earth is who is that strange figure who wears big boots and loves to sing in nonsensical rhymes, who holds and wields wondrous power over others yet remains unaffected by how that could corrupt, who even the great and terrible Ring cannot rule? For someone seemingly so silly, what important part does he play in the history of Middle-earth as its Third Age closes?
I myself hold with the opinion that Tom Bombadil and Goldberry are Maiar. That does not explain, however, why he remains not only visible while wearing the Ring, but apparently completely immune to its allure. Simply being Maia is not sufficient reason, as Gandalf and Saruman are as well. The Grey wizard fears and respects the Ring’s power enough to know that he is not equal to conquering its ability to corrupt him or anyone else. Saruman falls under its sway without even beholding it. How is Tom able to withstand its power so easily? Part of it could be his humility and his utter lack of covetousness and desire to venture beyond the borders he set for his land. He is completely content to be atone with his own little world, not to rule it, but to be in harmony and at peace with it. Tom is Master, as Goldberry notes, and the poem “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil” demonstrates this. Several beings try to capture Tom and none succeed. Goldberry herself upon first meeting Tom tries to take him to her underwater home. Old Man Willow, a badger, and a barrow-wight all try to hold him as well, but all of them release Tom at his bidding. This irresistible obedience could make one into another Dark Lord if such power was corrupted, but there is no danger of that in Tom. His strength to command others is great, but it does not flow from a tainted source, as it does from the Ring’s creator or would from anyone who claims it for their own. This is the key aslo why the fell object does not have any hold over Tom. Tolkien notes that “if you have as it were taken ‘a vow ofpoverty’, renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless” (Letters 179). But, as Tolkien further observes, to be able to continue to live such an existence, there had to be others who take control to confront events that are beyond the concem of those who had renounced everything.
Tom is clear in the Red Book about his refusal to venture beyond a certain point, but his and Goldberry’s presence and actions within these set boundaries have a profound effect on those who travel far beyond them. Tom answers Frodo’s panicked cry after Old Man Willow swallows Merry and Pippin. Their mysterious rescuer subdues the wicked tree and brings them to his home. Again, he could have with the power that is in him done far more than to command that the spirited tree release the hobbits, but he does not.
As the hobbits hear Goldberry singing, she fills Frodo’s heart with a joy that he does not entirely comprehend. Taryne Jade Taylor observes, “Upon seeing Goldberry and witnessing her power, Frodo has noticed her resonances of the Great Music of the Ainur, although he may not recognize it as such” (“Investigating the Role and Origin of Goldberry in Tolkien’s Mythology,” p. 153). Rolland Hein also notes the profound effect Goldberry (and later Arwen) have on the Ring-bearer. “These women … are… creating a desire to achieve great goodness, a sensation of exhilaration and capability, and an inspiration towards the realization of high destiny” (Christian Mythmakers, p. 201). Taylor continues, “Goldberry ‘s task… is not simply to represent goodness and joy, but to cleanse the hobbits” (“Investigating“, p. 153). She notes that Tom and his lady bring back the hobbits’ love of nature, which was damaged by the malice in the Old Forest. They are no longer as naïve as they were before leaving the Shire, but they have not lost their “love and innate joy in the world” (ibid., p. 154). Kurt Bruner and Jim Ware state that “Just to stand in [Goldberry’s] presence was to feel the strength of an unshakable joy, the joy of knowing and celebrating one’s place in the grand scheme of the world” (Finding God in The Lord of the Rings, p. 32).
After a hearty meal, Frodo aks if Tom heard his cries for help. Tom says no, but his hints to the hobbits make it clear that someone called him to be nearby at that particular moment: “Just chance brought me then, if chance you call it. It was no plan of mine, though I was waiting for you” (LOTR, p. 123-124). This is, of course, not a chance meeting at all, any more than coming upon Gildor was or any of the other fateful encounters to come. They are all part of the Music composed before the dawn of time. When speakers refer to such as fortunate coincidences, and especially when they qualify them as Tom does to imply that the opposite is true, it is because they suspect or know that Providence is instead at work.
Before Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin leave Tom and Goldberry, a vision of the West blesses the Ring-bearer. The River-daughter spiritually fortifies the hobbits for the arduous road ahead by telling them to remain determined to carry on with what they have set out to do. As Taylor notes, she “instills in the hobbits the wisdom, love and hope of Ilúvatar as they were passed to her in the Original Music” (“Investigating”, p. 155).
After Tom rescues the hobbits once more, this time from the barrow-wight, he gives them swords that were wrought many centuries before. During the hunt for the Ring, the Lord of the Nazgûl roused the wights to watch for the Ring-bearer, but this malicious will and that of Old Man Willow was used for good. Without encountering the Willow, perhaps the hobbits would have never met Tom, and without becoming lost in the fog and captured by the wight, they could not have received blades that were made especially with spells against the Witch-king. The wraith’s desire to harm others helps defeat him in the end. Michael Martinez states, “Can it be anything other than an act of divine providence that Merry just happens to be in the right place at the right time to help Éowyn defeat the Lord of the Nazgûl? … Ilúvatar could make his will known to some servants (such as Manwë) and through others (such as Aragorn), it follows that he could give Tom (whatever he is) a helping hand in choosing swords for the Hobbits” (“Count, Count, Weigh, Divide,” Understanding Middle-earth, p. 439). Faramir also owes a debt to Tom, for he would have been murdered by his own father if Pippin had not been there to save him. Pippin would not have been there if Tom had not saved his life twice. The Ring could well have returned to its master if Frodo had not roused in the burial mound and cried out to Tom.
Virtually all adaptations of the tale ignore Bombadil completely. Even Tolkien himself notes that Tom “is not an important person – to the narrative” (Letters 178). But in fact, he is very important because there would be no tale without him, at least not the one we know. One shudders to think of what would have happened if the Ring-bearer was offered up in the barrow and the Witch-king and his master been triumphant over all. All of Middle-earth owes a great debt to this mysterious being who seemingly was not concerned with the affairs of the greater world, yet enabled others to play the roles they were meant to because he was involved with what went on within his borders. They in turn enabled Tom’s continued existence in contentment because they were willing to leave their peaceful land and go to war.
- Bruner, Kurt and Jim Ware. Finding God in The Lord of the Rings. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 2001.
- Hein, Rolland. Christian Mythmakers. 2nd ed. Chicago: Comerstone Press, 2002.
- Taylor, Taryne Jade. “Investigating the Role and Origin of Goldberry in Tolkien’s Mythology.” in Mythlore 27, no. 1/2 Issue 103/104 (Fall/Winter 2008): 147-156.
- Tolkien, J.R.R.
- The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
- The Lord of the Rings. 2nd edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965-66.
- Martinez, Michael. Understanding Middle-earth. Poughkeepsie, NY: ViviSphere Publishing, 2003.