Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Tom Bombadil As the Music: Answering the Three Questions

(What follows is post 8 of 11 exploring the mystery of Tom Bombadil)

Answering the Questions: Tom as the Incarnated Spirit of the Music of the Ainur

     As we approach these questions let us think back just for a moment. The other three major theories to explain Tom are: he is a Vala, he is a Maia, or he is a Nature Spirit. Each one of these theories has loyal followers and as laid out above each one of these theories has fatal flaws which doom them to failure and are unable to give satisfying answers in at least one of these areas. The three questions are: explaining Tom’s unique power and its limitations, Tom's relationship to the Ring, and explaining Tom as eldest and as being existent before the Dark Lord entered. Here follows my defense of my theory in light of these three questions and possible objections.

Tom’s Unique Power and its Limitations

     Here at this point we find great strength for this theory. While most theories struggle with answering why Tom has both great power over a wide variety of subjects and yet cannot hope to overcome either Ringwraiths nor Sauron; this theory has no such problem. Why does Tom have the power in his voice to correct Old Man Willow and the demon in the Barrow? Because these are corruptions of things which find their essence in the Music of the Ainur. They have been corrupted by the Discord of Melkor. Tom, who both “knows the tune” and whose “songs are stronger”, is able to tap into the Music themes to battle against their very corrupted essence in the Music. He knows the tune to correct them; this is indeed a great knowledge to possess.

     The push back on this would be, “Why does Tom say his knowledge fails out east and that he is no master of the Ringwraiths? Why can he not defeat Sauron?” The answer stems from what we know of the Music of the Ainur and the Discord of Melkor. In The Silmarillion we read of the three themes of Music which find their origin in Iluvatar and the discord which comes out of Melkor. The first two themes are sung by the Ainur and when Melkor interjects his discord these themes withdraw and seem to begin to fail, then Iluvatar himself stands and puts forth a third theme which battles against the theme of Melkor. At this point we are told that there are “two musics progressing at one time before the seat of Iluvatar, and they were utterly at variance.”[1] Indeed, an end to Melkor’s discord does not come until Iluvatar himself stands again and commands it be so.[2] The Music of the Ainur does not defeat the Discord of Melkor but only the proclamation of Iluvatar himself.

     What does this have to do with our discussion? Well The Music of the Ainur battles against the discord of Melkor yet it cannot defeat it. It is the third theme (This is where the Children of Iluvatar are introduced) which Iluvatar interjects and his final command that ultimately destroy the Discord of Melkor’s Music. So Tom being the spirit of the Music of the Ainur he has power (in creation) yet he is also limited in his opposition of the enemy. He is not the third theme per se (the third theme which leads to Morgoth’s downfall is where the Children of Iluvatar are introduced) nor is he Iluvatar. The third theme is fulfilled in the Children of Iluvatar, Tom being the Music encompasses all themes from Iluvatar, but he is not specifically the totality of the Third theme, that is only the Children of Iluvatar. Out East Tom’s knowledge fails precisely because out East the Music of Melkor is at its strongest. While Bombadil has the ability to correct that which has been corrupted he does not possess the power to destroy that which finds its power and essence in the Discord of Melkor, that alone belongs to Iluvatar as he uses his third theme. The Ringwraiths find their power linked to the existence of Sauron and the Ring[3] (which finds its essence in the Discord of Melkor). The Maiar, being Ainur, are not bound to the power of the Music for they helped to sing it. In this way, it becomes clear why Tom would not have power over Sauron the Maia. The Ring has no hold on Tom and Tom has no power over it precisely because they are two musics competing against one another yet they are utterly at variance. Neither controls the other; they compete against one another but do not defeat one another. So both Tom’s power is explained and his limitations out East, where the Music of the enemy plays loudest, is beyond his control and influence.

     Another area of concern is why is Tom limited to such a small area? The answer stems from several factors. First, as we read in the Council of Elrond Bombadil's current limitations are set by himself and his territory used to be much larger. He has chosen to self-limit himself physically to the Old Forest and Barrow Downs and he is said to be waiting for the world to change. This change is, as I would suggest, the downfall of Sauron and the ending of the Discord of Melkor. The second reason Tom has limited himself comes from his love and obsession with Goldberry. Tom is constantly saying to the Hobbits that he needs to get back to Goldberry, so it seems logical to suggest that she is the reason why Tom has limited his boundaries.

     Why though is it said of Tom that he would not recognize the need to protect the Ring and why would he lose it? Surely the Spirit of the Music would see the importance of the Ring? This is indeed one the most difficult objections for any theory but here there is a clear answer. Tom’s “illogical” behavior is tied to his love for music, if his essence is found in melody it should be no surprise he lives in the moment. Indeed, things which are not in their core found in the Music of the Ainur (the Ring) would have no hold over his mind. The Ring, and evil for that matter, has no hold over his mind because it is antithetical to his existence, two musics at utter variance.

     Moreover, being Tom is the Music of the Ainur he both knows he does not have power to overcome the Discord of Melkor and he knows an end has been appointed for this Discord by Iluvatar. In other words, Tom does not see the need because he is a determinist. He has seen the playing out of all the themes of Music. He knows the end with which Iluvatar has appointed and all he must do is wait for it. Tom also recognizes it is the third theme, the Children of Iluvatar, is the chief means that brings about an end to the Discord. So, to even the toughest question in Tom’s character, one where many theories fail, we find a reasonable solution in this theory. This entire question is an area of great strength for this theory.

Tom's Relationship to the Ring

     This has been eluded in the above section so it will be dealt with quickly here. Tom is not affected by the Ring and has no desire for it precisely because he is the Music of the Ainur and the Ring comes from the Discord of Melkor. These two themes are utterly at variance. Tom has no desire for domination and the Ring holds no sway over him because even though he is connected with the world his origin is from outside of it. Tom's origins are thus not limited to the created order of Middle Earth. That is the great advantage of this theory, Tom's origin is unique and from outside of the created realm all-the-while it keeps him intimate with the creation. While the Maiar and Nature Spirit theories have a hard time explaining why Tom has no desire for the Ring and no power over it, my theory answers it rather easily. Tom is the Master, but he has no ownership, he is not tempted by the lies of the enemy because he is not under this created order. He is both in the world but his essence comes from outside of it. So he has no power over the Ring and cannot destroy it, which the Aule theory cannot answer, because the Ring derives its power and existence at the heart of the Discord of Melkor. Also, at his very core Tom is good because he is of the Music of the Ainur. He is pure, as Tolkien describes him, and what is more pure than the Music? Not nature, for we see nature is corrupted constantly but Morgoth and Sauron. Yet the Music of the Ainur is at variance with the corrupting Discord of Melkor. So here yet again we find great strength for this theory for it can adequately answer both spectrums of Tom’s relationship with the Ring.

Tom as Eldest & Existent Before the Dark Lord Entered

     This question is generally answered pretty well by other theories but not as fully as this theory can. The answer to Tom being Eldest is rather simple. In the beginning Iluvatar creates via the medium of the Music of the Ainur, so as far as creation goes the Music is first, it is Eldest. This also explains well why Tom can say he was existent before Melkor entered. Melkor’s first entering is really into the Music via the Discord. So the advantage here is that my theory brings Melkor’s entrance back an extra step to the very beginning. Tom was there before the Darkness entered, and we are told Darkness enters before Arda is created (which is a problem for the nature spirit theory). This theory can place Tom there before Darkness was created like he said he was, and it does so without introducing difficulties, elsewhere like the Maiar and Valar theories do.  

     The difficult part of this question is dealing with the statement of that Tom would be last to die if Sauron would win. The theory that Tom is the Spirit of the Earth fails at this point because Sauron means to rule the earth but not totally destroy it. But the theory that Tom is an Incarnated Spirit of the Music of the Ainur explains Tom as last to die in Middle Earth perfectly. Theoretically, if Sauron should win and dominate the entire planet then the Music of the Ainur will have been brought to an end in Middle Earth and the Discord of Melkor will have won. So the last thing to leave will not be the Earth but the hope and goodness of the Music of the Ainur. He was first and he shall be last. The two Musics competed for dominance and when one wins the other shall cease to be. Here again in the third and final question we find a perfect explanation from this theory that no other theory can provide.

This very extensive look at Tom Bombadil ends Here: Conclusion

[1] Silmarillion, Ainulindale, 5.

[2] This battle of Music is recounted in detail Silmarillion, Ainulindale, 3-5.

[3] FOTR, The Ring Goes South, 357.


  1. Ranger
    Your essay was thoughtful and very interesting. Congratulations on the new theory. It is on superior to the valar and maiar theories and at least on par with the nature spirit theory. I was almost won over. Let me share my reservations. The singing of bombadil is often described as nonsensical. It's hard to fit this in with the first theme of the music of the ainur as described in the ainulindale. Casting ungoliant as incarnating the music of the second theme begs for a third theme representative in the literature of middle-earth. Tolkien might say christ would be the manifestation of the third theme. It is difficult to conclude that your great new theory solves the question conclusively. I believe we have to fall back to the strongest theory to date. ...whether of the valar and the maiar, or of any other order that lluvatar has sent into ea... is straight from the masters hand.Tolkien may have added this line expressly to account for bombadil intending to maintain the enigma.

  2. Balrog:

    The third theme is the theme of the Children of Illuvatar, so the third theme to an extent is all of the Children of Illuvatar who are major players in bringing an end to the discord of Melkor. While I would not necessarily parse out all of these different themes and say that they need representatives, but rather that all three themes find themselves in the Music. And the Discord of Melkor is not its own them, but something that Melkor interjects into the Music in an attempt to dominate it, and hence then it seems they cannot come together because "two musics" for who are at "utter variance."

    As far as Tom nonsensical singing, it should be noted that Tolkien writes of it, (paraphrase) "that it seemed to not make sense" not that it actually didn't make sense. There is a huge difference here, Tom's song seem to be "other" than what is common. Indeed, I think the Music would seem strange and nonsensical to a Hobbit if he were to witness it firsthand.

    It should also be noted that when Frodo comes to the undying lands the singing there reminds him of Tom:
    "And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise."

  3. First i apologize for my english.
    Second: i love you for your answer to the “riddle” :-) Tom Bombadil
    Third: Do you know that this open more riddles than before ?
    There was a Tom Bombadil that lived before meet Goldberry ? He “laboured together (other comanions) in the ordering of the Earth and the curbing of its tumults” .
    Then the creative octave of the Iluvatar theme come to a pause (waiting Iluvatar's child theme playing all its simphony). So Tom try to find some anwer for his existence and this answer is his love for Golberry.
    “Tom has limited himself comes from his love and obsession with Goldberry. Tom is constantly saying he needs to get back to Goldberry, so it seems logical to suggest that she is a reason why Tom has limited his boundaries. “

    Tom has taken a decision:he cannot be the Master of the Arda world (there were Morgoth and then Sauron tthat took this role) but he can be Master of a little Kingdom.
    “He is…He is as you have seen him… he is the Master of wood, water, and hill .“

    (may be the power ha has on Wraith is connected with the power he has on hill (tumulilande).

    He alike the Elves ,with their rings, he with is music(and dances) rules a little Kingdom.
    The same alike Hobbit with their farms and gardens (with hobbit goodsense)
    Gandalf says: He is a moss-gatherer, and I have been a stone doomed to rolling.

    The riddle is: gather moss is a tune of Iluvatar's Song ?

  4. I actually came up with a similar theory independently about 15 years ago, and it's archived on my favorite bulletin board: Instead of being something so grand as "the spirit of the Music", I suggest he is just one melody that drifted off into the void before it could become a full Ainu, and got stuck in what would later become Middle Earth. He is as old as Gandalf, but is incapable of concerning himself with anything outside his own little corner of the world. Tom is the song that never ends. A simple, repetitive little ditty that keeps looping over and over forever.

  5. Rebekah:

    I am glad to hear that your thoughts are similar to mine; I have been in contact with others who have thought along the lines of both of us since I posted this paper. It is a good sign that others have caught a glimpse of what I am fleshing out here.

    But I also must offer some words of caution to how you have worked it out, perhaps I am being too picky but the way we use terms like "ainu" must be done with the utmost precision. You wrote that Tom was a "melody that drifted off into the void before it became an ainu..." The problem with using the term "Ainu" here is that the Ainu are not created via a melody or song that loses it place but we are told that the Ainur created by the thought and mind of Eru. Moreover, the Ainu sing the Music and melody into existence not the other way around; hence why it is called, "The Music of the Ainur". The Ainur create the music, the music does not create the Ainur, Eru does.

    So your terminology needs to be cleared up a bit, do you mean that Tom is an ainu or something created by a misplaced melody? He cannot be both. That needs to be clarified.

    Also, while reading your theory you seem to want to make Tom a melody and not the whole music, because of location boundaries Tom exists in during the Fellowship of the Ring. The problem with this is that we are told that Tom has set his own boundaries and that he is waiting for the world to change so that he can cross them. It is either Elrond or Gandalf in the Council of Elrond that states that Tom's boundaries used to be much larger, but he has since withdrawn by his own accord, so it seems odd to tie him to just one melody of where he is currently located at being that we know that he used to go much further aboard and will again when the world changes. This also shows that he has indeed changed and is not just some melody stuck on repeat.
    That is why I feel the whole of the Music is a better explanation. Also, nature spirits as it were, are what I would picture what you are speaking of in regards to a spirit being created by a certain melody and then being tied to a location In Middle Earth. For everything in nature (including its spirits) reflect some melody in the great Music. And for the reasons stated in the above paper the Nature Spirit theory is full of issues. I have rambled on long enough. I just enjoy a good Tolkien discussion too much!

  6. Cool, you mention some things I don't remember, but it's been a while since I read the books. I think Tom Bombadil is such a unique and awesome character. I understand why they left him out of the movies, because he doesn't have a direct effect on the plot, functioning as a "wacky wayside tribe", but he will always have a place in my heart.

    We know that he was based on a doll that Tolkien's children played with and JRR made up songs about. In fandom there's a tendency to want to define and quantify everything, but Tolkien never really defined him, even in his own mind I think, so there isn't really any definitive answer to who or what he really is. That doesn't make it any less fun to speculate and debate!

    I firmly believe that Tom being somehow part of the Music is the best explanation for his place in Middle Earth. In a meta way, Tolkien is the god who created Middle Earth, and Tom did come from his music.

  7. Why does he have power over the barrow wight? The 1st two themes could not overcome the theme of Melkor.

    1. CCCCppppCCppp,

      Why does Tom have over the Barrow-wight? An excellent question, I believe I allude to the answer in here somewhere. For starters, Barrow-wights are spirits who possess dead humans. We do not know what type of Spirits they are, all we know is that the Witch King let them loose and controlled them to an extent.

      As I have suggested, the Nature Spirit theory is the strongest theory out there besides mine, but there is no reason for a nature Spirit to have power over or power to defeat a Barrow-wight (unless the wight is a lower nature spirit which seems unlikely).

      As far as the discord and the two themes battle and not overcoming one another, that does not mean they do not each score victories as they play out in Arda. But that is neither here nor there; the reality is that Barrow-wights are spirits of darkness with their weakness being light. Tom though displays the power via his voice to stop and control to an extent the barrow-wight. If Tom is the incarnation of the Music of the Ainur and since light is tied to the music and darkness is tied to discord (see also my ungoliant discussion) it makes perfect sense that Tom would have that power if he is indeed the incarnation of the Music. In fact, as I state in my article only my suggestion adequately answers why Tom has such great power over both nature and dark spirits, the Maiar theory does not add up here and neither does the nature spirit theory, while the Valar theory may be able to explain it, this theory is untenable for other reasons.

  8. If Tom Bombadil is the music of the Ainur, why is one of his names Fatherless? As music is made by the Ainur and they themselves are made by Iluvatar, who is father of all, doesn't Bombadils earlier name contradict this?

    1. algernon1-
      Since you asked this question in two spots, I shall issue the same response in two spots ;-)

      Your question about Fatherless is a good question. But let us look at our options here. No matter what theory you adopt, besides Tom being Iluvatar, you have this same problem of him not being “fatherless” because he would have a creator. If Tom is a Maia, a Vala, a Nature Spirit, the Flame Imperishable, etc. he is still created for there is only one who was not created, Iluvatar. Now you may think that means we should adopt the Iluvatar theory but we simply cannot for Tolkien plainly said that is not an option! So clearly Tolkien did not mean for Fatherless to be understood as Tom being eternal/uncreated or him be Iluvatar. So what options are we left with?
      Well clearly “fatherless” does not mean eternal/uncreated as you suggest it might mean. Tom, like everyone else in Middle Earth, had a beginning. So what does the term mean? It is best understood in context with being Eldest and first in time in Arda. There was none before Tom in Middle Earth. Now all of the above theories would recognize this understanding of “fatherless” (minus the invalid Iluvatar theory) and thus we are all on equal footing in explaining the idea of him being fatherless.
      Where I think the Music theory is better is that if Tom is the incarnation of the Music, then his creation was utterly unique and he would be the first living being in Middle Earth. Tom is Fatherless and Eldest in Middle Earth as his origins are its existence, he “is” as it were. So yes I do believe that when examined with analytical sharpness and understanding of all that Tolkien wrote that this theory still stands strong with the idea of Tom being fatherless. We know that the term was not meant to communicate him as the creator God, because Tolkien has told us so. So any interpretation of “Fatherless” that goes the route of him being uncreated/eternal is a misunderstanding of what Tolkien meant by the term. Therefore we must adopt the understanding of Fatherless which understands it as his origin in Arda/Middle Earth.

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  10. Well in many theological systems the idea of God needn't be one of a creator. The notion of a god, as is for example represented in Faust by Goethe, in the greek and nordic mythological pantheon or by the jewish mystic Isaac Luria, is on the one hand one of a creator BUT on the other - and this is actually a different entity - one of the space around creation. Of potentiality. Now I'm not advocating, that Bombadil is Darkness or the potentiality around the creation of Illuvatar, since he obviously inhabits it.

    But I can't shake the feeling, that the figure of Bombadil, along with Tolkiens authorial comment, which states that there is a leftover viewpoint, is something more allegorically obstructive. His position of disinterest with control, with forward movement and as such with creating, and conversely his rejoicing in life for it's own sake, seems to me to open other options.

    If we look at the Silmarillion and LOTR we get a distinct notion of creation rather than being. One of movement rather than dwelling. Music is harmony, but also motion. Also it's interesting that Tolkien makes Illuvatar a creator god of masculine attribute - and stipulating it by imprinting in his name as a father figure. This leaves out some possibilities for Illuvatar. For example, when he commits the creating act he can't be female. He can't be mother also. He is not like Adonai, hermaphrodite in nature.

    Obviously neither is Tom.

    But he has a female consort. Also he is the creature everybody want to catch. And when they try he always replies by "putting them back to sleep". I find this a curious way of putting it., as sleep isn't just a harmonious condition but one of either innocence or lesser consciousness.
    Now this conjures up several images. Tom has the reminiscence of a fertility god but also of either Adam - the primordial human - or the jewish tribal god roaming around the garden of eden. Both enjoying a condition before the fall. By most biblical scholars the garden of eden is actually deemed another genesis, an older one, than the one of the word, where an echo of fertily and circular rather than linear time is audible. Is it the same god in both tales? Many argue that the God of the Word in effect is a priest on a pulpit - legitimising the church and the patriarchy. The other one is something closer to a gardener.

    Tom is The Master. He is singular. That doesn't "sound" like the embodiment of music to me. Which is passive medium. Material. Rather like another singer. He knows all the songs of his garden - much like Adam knew all the names of the animals and the plants. But he doens't create with it - rather he tends with it.

    Might Tom, a derivative of Thomas, and as such the word twin, be not Illuvatar but something akin or even opposite to him. A mirrorimage maybe. Not on a moral axis, for then he would be evil. But on another. Not the one, that put the stones into motion but maybe one that lays them to rest? Is he more akin to a zen master, or a jolly Buddha figure? as a manifestation of the "now", it would make sense to emphasize him not just as "catchworthy" but equally hard to catch. And inducing sleep when he leaves. But this opens new questions, I know. The "now" isn't so singular either. Nor is it perishable, like Bombadil seems to be.

    Now I still think you theory is one of - if not the most accomlished and well researched I've ever come across. It trumps the others but it doens't make it complete. Neither is what I'm suggesting. I just can't help thinking that Tolkien as a scholar of myth must've been aware, that the way he's conceived of creation and his creator has some genuine holes - as do most myths. Some are unintended. Some are intended - i.e. as hermetical mysteries, inviting the reader to investigate further.