Our rescued hobbits bound down the path to Bombadil’s house, and Tom leads the way with a song. Along the route, the trees grumble and moan to themselves, unhappy that they’ve been chastised. Once in Tom’s house, we learn quite a bit about this strange personality.
Since I am ridiculously under-qualified to talk about Tom Bombadil, I welcome anyone and everyone to give your opinions on the merry fellow. What do you think of him?
Thoughts on the Passage – Book I, Chapter 6 & 7 (p120-134, 50th Anniv. Ed.)
It really does blow my mind that people skip over the poems and songs in this chapter. This is where the real fun begins. This is where we learn about Tom Bombadil! Since I’m following the hobbits’ footsteps, I think I’ll talk about Tom as they discovered him in Chapters 6 and 7.
After freeing them from Old Man Willow, the hobbits certainly know that they’re in the presence of a powerful being. But he’s singing all this nonsense! The first thing they really hear him sing about it Goldberry. She’s apparently waiting for water lilies. When they arrive at Tom’s house, they meet this Goldberry (who I’ll get to in much more detail tomorrow). She seems more or less normal (at least compared to Tom) and so they ask her: “who is Tom Bombadil?”
Her answer is almost all we ever know: “He is.” She also answers the implied question, “What is Tom Bombadil?” “He is as you have seen him. […] He is the Master of wood, water, and hill.” When Frodo asks if “all this strange land belongs to him,” she’s taken aback: “‘No indeed,’ she answered, and her smile faded. ‘That would indeed be a burden,’ she added in a low voice, as if to herself.” As if she never thought of it.
This, of course, didn’t really answer their question. They don’t get another chance to really broach the subject until later, after dinner (which is noticeably minus meat – Tom and Goldberry are probably vegetarians) when they asked him why he stopped at Old Man Willow. Through verse, he explains that he was gathering water lilies for Goldberry, and that this was his last trip in that direction, so “just chance brought me then, if chance you call it.” Obviously, it was more than chance.
We also learn that Tom heard about their travels. This was probably from Gildor or one of his companions, though he never says. The next day, they have a much longer talk with Tom, where he goes on and on about different stories. Sometimes he spoke, sometimes he sang, but he almost always does either in meter. Even the lines that aren’t in formal stanzas are rhythmic.
Though our hobbits seems lost in it all, “they began to understand the lives of the Forest, apart from themselves, indeed to feel themselves as the strangers where all other things were at home.” This is an incredibly valuable lesson that I wish we could all learn.
As Tom talks, he reveals bit by bit his true age. First, he speaks of the ancient history of the Old Forest. This is stuff from the early First Age, before the ancestors of the Edain crossed the Blue Mountains into Beleriand. He talks of kings and battles and of the Barrow-wights (which we’ll get to later). This sort of talk frightened the hobbits, and they “lost the thread of his tale.”
In the next passage, Tom is relating parts of the Silmarillion, which, if we’ll remember, wouldn’t be published for another 25 years or so. He talks of “when the world was wider, and the seas flowed to the western Shore.” He mentioned the “Elf-sires,” who were alive before Men, and even before the world was lit by the sun. But thus far, these are just stories, repeatable by anyone who’s read the Silmarillion.
Curious, they asked: “Who are you, Master?” Again, they more so meant “what.” But Tom plays it off (sort of): “Don’t you know my name yet? That’s the only answer.”
But it’s not the only answer. Here, Tom spills it. “I am old. Eldest, that’s what I am.” In an earlier manuscript, Tolkien used: “I am, the Aborigine of this land.”
And he continued, giving us the scoop: “Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remember the first raindrop and the first acorn. He made paths before the Big People, and saw the little People arriving.” It seems strange and unlikely that Tom was here before the Ainur, supposedly Illuvatar’s first creations. Maybe he arrived with them, which would make him one of them – but there’s just no way to tell (and thus no reason to speculate with the idea that we can come to an actual conclusion). If Tom did arrive in the world with the Ainur, he was apparently in Middle-earth, as he makes no reference to being anywhere but.
He then gives other, more recent events that he pre-dates, but then gets obscure: “He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless – before the Dark Lord came from Outside.” This is a strange passage. Obviously, it’s talking about a time before the Sun and before the destruction of the Trees of Valinor. The Dark Lord is Melkor, but what is “Outside”? My thought would be the Void, which is anything outside of Arda (the world). Before Arda, there was the Void, where Illuvatar and the Ainur existed. Then Arda was created, and maybe Tom Bombadil with it?
Quick Silmarillion early history – The Valar come to the universe, but find that they need to make it. As they do, Melkor wants to control the Earth and enters it (from the Void). Other Valar want to stop him (since he’s evil), and go to Earth to kick him out. They accomplish this, but Melkor returns with a vengeance. I assume that this was what Tom was talking about.
So Tom is really incredibly old and clearly aloof. This would then explain why the Ring which Frodo is carrying has no power over him. He makes light of it, peeps through the hole, slips it on his finger and doesn’t turn invisible. Tom then performs a cheap parlor trick, making the ring disappear until he hands it back to Frodo, showing that Tom isn’t magical – he is Tom Bombadil, a merry fellow.
Tolkien himself enjoyed leaving Tom in a vague state. There was some speculation that he was Illuvatar, but Tolkien shot that down. “I don’t think Tom needs philosophizing about, and is not improved by it,” he wrote in a 1954 letter. In another, he claims to have left Tom in the story “because I like him.”
He did, however, explain further. “…but more seriously, because in any world or universe devised imaginatively… there is always some element that does not fit and opens as it were a winder into some other system.” He also explained: “So Bombadil is ‘fatherless,’ he has no historical origin in the world described in The Lord of the Rings.”
Tom Bombadil, as Tolkien said, “is best left as he is, a mystery.”
That said, we’re not quite finished with Tom Bombadil, so hold tight.
About the Photo
Alstows is a ghost town in central Washington, and though I know Tom’s house looks nothing like this, well, I don’t really have anything that really screams “Bombadil!” at me. So here you go!
Thoughts on the Exercising
Today was easy, but sweaty. It was also the first day that I had a headache since I started this. For a while in December, I was getting them every other day. That was pretty intense. Excedrin is the only thing that takes them away, but it makes me feel horrible. Absolutely horrible. It’s most likely the caffeine, which isn’t a lot for most people, but you’re looking at the only adult in Seattle who has never even tasted coffee. So, there you go.
- Miles today: 5
- Miles thus far: 101
- 34 miles to Bree
- 113 miles to Weathertop
- 359 miles to Rivendell
- 1,678 miles to Mt. Doom