Who is Tom Bombadil?
According to the elves, he is called Iarwain Ben-adar, which means “Oldest and Fatherless” in Sindarin. His wife Goldberry describes him in this chapter as “Master of wood, water and hill.” But that doesn’t begin to tell us who he is. As verbose as Tolkien can be in his descriptions of anything, the plain truth is that “who” someone is in Middle-Earth is often determined by a combination of where they come from and what they choose to do with their lives, which is not necessarily a profession. The same could be said of our own world, but it seems to hold greater sway in Tolkien’s world, which is why identity changes as a character’s actions do. In Tom Bombadil’s case, that’s almost a dual identity. On one hand, he’s the jolly guy who sings silly, sometimes contradictory songs about himself. Some might classify him as a bit of a nut job. On the other hand, he’s potentially the oldest and most powerful being on the planet. He says he remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn, before the big people, before the little people, that he knew “the dark under the stars when it was fearless — before the Dark Lord came from Outside.”
If actions speak louder than words, then Tom Bombadil is a peaceful and unassuming personality who can make people feel so at home that they will share all of their secrets with him. This is precisely what happens with Frodo during the course of the hobbits’ stay. Tom has but to ask to see the Ring, and Frodo hands it to him. No second thoughts, no consideration. He puts the Ring on his little finger, and he does not turn invisible. After a little magic trick involving the Ring’s disappearance, Tom hands it back to him as though it were simply a toy. Not only does Tom not disappear when he wears the Ring, but he can also see Frodo when the hobbit wears it.
The only possible conclusion we can draw from this is that Tom Bombadil is stronger than the will of the Ring, and thus potentially stronger than Sauron himself.
I laugh at those “fans” who see the films and ask, “Why didn’t the eagles simply fly Frodo to Mount Doom and drop the Ring in?” The answer is obvious to anyone with two brain cells generating a spark between them: Sauron would see them coming, sense the Ring, and that would end the adventure really fast. Somehow that’s become a meme, which is even dumber. Says a lot for how much nobody teaches critical thinking. My counter question (which those who haven’t read the book don’t understand) is, “Why doesn’t Tom Bombadil take the Ring, march into Mordor, and drop it into the fire himself?” Seems to me that not only would Sauron see that coming, he’d be afraid of the very idea. How do you stop something that’s clearly immune to all of the power of evil and malice that even Gandalf as an angelic being in disguise is susceptible to? There is an explanation offered during the Council of Elrond later on, where it’s suggested that Tom may not be able to override the power of Sauron should he regain the Ring. It’s purely conjecture, but I suspect it’s there because Tolkien is covering his bases to keep people like me from asking such absurd questions when the answer is clearly because this is a hobbit story. The hero has to take the hero’s journey. Simply put, it’s not Tom’s fight. He was here before the problem existed, and he will be here long after it burns itself out. That’s the thing about immortal beings. Sometimes they’re just too liaise-faire. I recall that later Gandalf, the old meddler, will refer to Tom as “a moss-gatherer.”
But Tom’s not complete hands off this situation. Something about his presence allows Frodo to have prophetic dreams in the two nights the hobbits stay there. In the first night, Frodo dreams of Gandalf’s imprisonment at Isengard, on top of Orthanc. The second night he dreams of a song that “seemed to come like a pale light behind a grey rain-curtain, and growing stronger to turn the veil all to glass and silver, until at last it was rolled back, and a far green country opened before him under a swift sunrise.” It took me a lot of years to put this one together, but I think it got spelled out for me in one of the books I read somewhere as a vision of the Grey Havens at the end of the journey’s end.
Where Tom Bombadil goes, song is sure to follow, and so we’re treated to more of his lyrical stylings. And as always, The Tolkien Ensemble is there to offer up their own renditions, which build on the theme they established in the first song, found in the last chapter. I still find similarities between Tom’s tracks and the songs of the hobbits, probably due to the rural nature of their existences. You can find Tom’s songs here:
“Song to Goldberry” (dramatic reading)
“Tom Bombadil’s Song (II)” (dramatic reading)