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Earendil 12-25-2009 05:36 PM

Who is Tom Bombadil?
Title says it all.

I have heard many speculations about this characters true nature, from an embodiment of Arda to Eru himself. But what is his true nature.

I know nothing was ever released, but ideas are fun to listen to.

Laurinquë 12-25-2009 08:40 PM

Oh we love this question! It simply must be asked at least once a year! I'm not a top Barrow-Downer but I think we've decided that the most you can truly say about him is that he had bright yellow boots and was a real nuisance to the barrow-wights. Anyone else care to elaborate on this bland statement?

The Might 12-26-2009 05:10 AM

I would recommend using the search function and looking through older threads on this topic, I am sure there are quite a few out there where the many different theories have been discussed.

Groin Redbeard 12-26-2009 10:28 AM


Originally Posted by Laurinquë (Post 619985)
Oh we love this question! It simply must be asked at least once a year! I'm not a top Barrow-Downer but I think we've decided that the most you can truly say about him is that he had bright yellow boots and was a real nuisance to the barrow-wights. Anyone else care to elaborate on this bland statement?

Indeed! Bombadil is much more than this... but I cannot elaborate on it at the moment. Give me time and I shall post what I can.:)

Eönwë 12-26-2009 11:13 AM


Originally Posted by Laurinquë (Post 619985)
Oh we love this question! It simply must be asked at least once a year! I'm not a top Barrow-Downer but I think we've decided that the most you can truly say about him is that he had bright yellow boots and was a real nuisance to the barrow-wights.

And that he is.

Here's a link to most of the past threads.

Groin Redbeard 12-30-2009 11:11 AM

Finally posting
Some of the most common identities suggested for Bombadil are:

• Eru Iluvatar
• Manwe
• Tulkas
• Aule
• Some particular Elf, Man, Dwarf, etc.
• a Maia (one of the many not named in Silm.)
• a nature spirit of some sort

We are interested only in "story internal" explanations, so the idea that Bombadil is Tolkien will not be discussed. We study Bombadil's nature despite Tolkien's stated intent to leave him as an enigma; there are reasons to hope we can succeed in understanding him anyway.

Our first step is to eliminate theories with fatal flaws. Statements at the Council of Elrond and elsewhere make it clear that Bombadil was "less powerful" than Sauron, which helps to rule out many theories. The theory that Bombadil is Iluvatar is absolutely ruled out, both by this and by direct statements by Tolkien. Theories that Bombadil is one of the Valar are also firmly eliminated for a wide variety of reasons (yes, even the theory that he is Aule). Very different arguments allow us to discard theories claiming that Bombadil is an Elf, human, or other "normal" race. This leaves just two serious possibilities: that Bombadil is a Maia (or "unaffiliated" Ainu) or that he is some sort of nature spirit.

The strongest argument for the Maia theory is simple: of all the "races" named in canonical texts, only the Maiar are not ruled out above. (There were a great many Maiar, so the fact that Bombadil does not match any of the Maiar described in other texts is not evidence against his being one.) Slightly more direct evidence comes when Gandalf compares himself to Bombadil before he goes to visit him at the end of LotR. Tom's interactions with the Ring could be easily explained if he were "powerful" enough to overcome it, but passive explanations exist as well. Goldberry fits fairly naturally as a Maia, too.

Despite this strong evidence, there are questions that the Maia theory leaves unanswered. It is hard to see how words like "Eldest", "First", and especially "Last" could apply to one of the Maiar, but these seem to be crucial hints about Bombadil. Tom's total indifference to the Ring is also left entirely unanswered by the Maia theory: all of the other Maiar who interact with it are tempted. A difficulty in identifying Goldberry as a Maia is why she would be called "daughter" of the River.

Arguing that Bombadil is a nature spirit is more difficult: doing so involves inventing a whole new class of beings that Tolkien never mentioned in canonical texts. There is some support for doing so, however: Tolkien once wrote that no tale can show "the whole picture", and that Bombadil gave a glimpse of something outside the main story. The idea that he is a nature spirit comes in part from an early letter where Tolkien called him "the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside", in part from Galdor's statement at the Council of Elrond equating his power with that of "the earth itself", and in part from general considerations.

We begin our study of "nature spirits" with Goldberry, who Tolkien once said "represents the actual seasonal changes" in river-lands. Goldberry is consistently associated with the Withywindle, and her voice and songs always evoke potent water imagery. A connection between Goldberry and the growing seasons can also be seen in her love of water lilies and in Frodo's verse about her.

It is worth looking for other possible nature spirits in Middle-earth, to support their existence and to understand them better in general. The early (and highly non-canonical) Book of Lost Tales describes nature spirits explicitly. While those spirits are essentially Maiar, they don't act like later Maiar and there are hints that Tolkien considered giving some of them other origins. Looking to canonical texts, a potential group of nature spirits are the giants seen by Bilbo in The Hobbit (who do exist). Like Goldberry, they tend to stay in a limited area, and they seem closely associated with natural features there: one might be able to call them "sons" of mountain peaks. They may be associated with violent weather in the same way that Goldberry is associated with spring and summer.

This evidence inspires a broad conjecture about such beings. Nature spirits, we suggest, are each associated with some lasting feature of the physical world which is the source of their being; they cannot stray far from it. Furthermore, they are not always active (perhaps not even always physically embodied): each is associated with some condition in the world around their "parent". Such spirits might arise when strong "echoes" of the Music of the Ainur associated with lasting natural features become "alive" due to the Flame Imperishable. These echoes might be strongest when their surroundings are right.

We now apply this theory to Bombadil, doing our best to distinguish flaws in the specific theory from flaws of the entire nature spirit idea. Applying it is difficult at first, as "Tom's country" contains many varied environments and its borders seem to be recent and voluntary. However, we find a good fit in the idea that Bombadil is the spirit associated with Arda, with Middle-earth itself, and that he is made "active" by the presence of other independent things for him to study. He would have awakened when weather and geographic features and living things first appeared, making him the Eldest "native" inhabitant of Middle-earth. He may have chosen "his country" because it was relatively "wild", or just to stay near Goldberry (who may have needed his help to remain "active" in his house).

This idea suggests answers for many of the mysteries about Bombadil. His singing would be very natural if he came from "echoes" of the Music, and it isn't surprising that his songs have some power. Galdor's words at the Council become obvious, and a being whose existence originated from curiosity might readily avoid the Ring's power. If Sauron won, he would eventually bring the whole world under his control, so Bombadil would be the "Last" independent native of Middle-earth immediately before he became "inactive" because there were no independent things left in the world for him to study.

In the end, we still have no final answer to the question, "What is Tom Bombadil?" The theory that he is a Maia is a natural choice with firm support in the books, but the theory that he is a nature spirit can shed more light on him without being too contrived. People must decide between them based on their own willingness to extrapolate beyond the texts. Tolkien seems to have succeeded after all: Bombadil remains an enigma. But we've learned a bit along the way, and I, at least, have enjoyed the quest.

Mugwump 12-31-2009 10:08 AM

I've always been surprised at the confusion regarding Bombadil. Tolkien totally adopted the major themes of mythology including the natural world's being imbued with Powers, or Spirits. This idea is fairly universal throughout the world, and can be seen in all cultures including those of Japan, China, pre-Columbian America, aboriginal Australia, Europe... everywhere, actually. Bombadil is clearly one of those Powers, i.e., one of the Valar.
Thus it came to pass that of the Ainur some abode still with Ilúvatar beyond the confines of the World ; but others, and among them many of the greatest and most fair, took [their] leave of Ilúvatar and descended into it. But this condition Ilúvatar made, or it is the necessity of their love, that their power should thenceforward be contained and bounded in the World, to be within it for ever, until it is complete, so that they are its life and it is theirs. And therefore they are named the Valar, the Powers of the World.
-- The Silmarillion, Ainulindalë, The Music of the Ainur

Incidentally, there is a misconception when speaking of the Valar, to assume that there were only 14 of these, seven male and seven female, because in the Quenta Silmarillion it is these 14 that are more or less exclusively referred to as "the Valar." But but before that, in the Valaquenta, Tolkien identifies these 14 as the Lords and Queens of the Valar, which means of course that there must be other Valar, probably many others, who are not counted among these "Lords and Queens."

Bombadil, and probably countless others not specifically mentioned by Tolkien, perhaps including the River-woman of the Withywindle, mother of Goldberry, are thus those of the Valar class who "arose and entered into the World at the beginning of Time; and it was their task to achieve it, and by their labours to fulfill the vision which they had seen." They are, as Groin Redbeard says, what we would call nature spirits.

Whether to call Bombadil one of the Valar or one of the Maiar is probably a matter of semantics only, because there is no sharp dividing line between Valar and Maiar and the Silmarillion makes clear they are both the same type of being. Maiar are "the people of the Valar, and their servants and helpers." Though not one of the Kings and Queens of the Valar like Manwë and Varda, Bombadil should probably be considered one of the Valar rather than of the Maiar. I say this for two reasons. First, Bombadil is a "Master," not a servant or helper of the greater Valar. He is clearly one of those of the Valar who came to Arda at the very beginning, and independently helped in its forming, not one of those lesser Ainur who resided with Manwë and assisted him. Furthermore, he was unaffected by Sauron's ring, which would doubtless be true also of the greater Valar but is obviously not true of Gandalf or any other of the Maiar of Sauron's level and below.

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