(What follows is the first post in a series of eleven posts exploring the greatest mystery in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings: Who or what is Tom Bombadil? The major theories will be explored and a new theory will be suggested.)
Pop-Culture Theories: Theories Which Must be Immediately Thrown Out
(Note this post was first published in September 2016, the listed date is edited to keep the desired reading order)
The two theories addressed here are always cropping up in Tolkien discussion when the origin of Tom Bombadil is considered. I am adding this section to my blog because as I have read more and more of Tolkien is has become very clear that both theories are simply not possible and are unsubstantiated, yet they remain alive and well in much of Tolkiendom.
Whenever the topic of who Tom is comes up I inevitably encounter people who say either, “Tom is God (Eru),” or “Tom is Tolkien.” There is little support ever given for believing these suggestions. Early on in my Tolkien days I flirted with adopting these theories, but as I continued to study it became clear that they are deeply flawed and amount to little more than wishful thinking. If you have considered these positions, and perhaps maybe even embraced them, I mean no offense, I just ask you read this section to see why these theories cannot be.
Pop-Culture Theory #1: Tom is God (Eru/Iluvatar)
The first theory, that Tom is God, is one which no Tolkienite who has studied this issue at any length can hold. Tolkien himself has addressed this issue head-on in Letter 181 saying this, “There is no embodiment of the One, of God, who indeed remains remote, outside the World, and only directly accessible to the Valar or Rulers.” And again for emphasis, “There is no ‘embodiment’ of the Creator anywhere in this story or mythology.” There you have it, Tom is not Eru, he is not God. Tolkien rejected such an idea.
In fact in Letter #153 Tolkien addresses this popular belief that when Goldberry says “Tom is” is somehow the same as identifying him with the Divine name of Yahweh/Jehovah (I AM). To Peter Hastings, who thinks Tolkien has committed a great error by thinking Tom is God, Tolkien says to him that he has “missed the point” entirely. This letter makes it clear by directly refuting the assertion that Tom is the Creator God of Scripture or Middle Earth.
Tolkien continues, “We need not go into the sublimities of “I am that am”—which is quite different t from he is…I don’t think Tom needs philosophizing about, and is not improved by it.”
To put the figurative nail in the coffin of this argument, in a footnote in this letter Tolkien clearly explains that “he is” implies that Tom was created, and thus he cannot be Eru/God who is the creator God and is thus uncreated. Tolkien has in no uncertain terms ruled out both the God of Scripture and Eru/Iluvatar as options for Tom’s identity/origin. The case for this theory must be considered closed, any further arguments in favor of Tom being God are based in ignorance of what Tolkien has plainly stated.
These statements should be read far and wide by Tolkien fans and should bring a quick death to this theory. Sadly, this theory is like a bad disease which will not die, and I encounter everywhere. To compound the issue, generally when I do encounter this theory online no one corrects it as being debunked by Tolkien himself!
Pop-Culture Theory #2: Tom is Tolkien
The second theory which needs to be abandoned, is the assertion Tom is Tolkien. This theory is based more on sentimentality than any argument from the text. I think people like this theory because they feel a closer connection to Tolkien (and Tom). But this theory has little to no support in the text. It is always just asserted as some belief to be accepted as cool. But again, in all my study of Tom theories there is simply no good reasoning for such a view from the world Tolkien created. In fact, the idea that Tom who know cares little about the Ring, the main plot point of Tolkien’s work, is simply unthinkable if Tom is indeed Tolkien (surely Tolkien cared about the Ring!).
The problems for this theory do not end her, it really is worse than just not having support. Tolkien’s own words in his letters should leave this theory just as abandoned as the God theory.
Letter 180 is instructive to this end, Tolkien addresses the idea of him being Gandalf, or being like any other character in his world when he says, “I am not Gandalf, being a transcendent Sub-creator in this little world. As far as any character is ‘like me’ it is Faramir—except that I lack what all my characters possess (let the psychoanalysts note!) Courage [bold emphasis mine].”
You may wonder why I bring up a quote where Tolkien says he is not Gandalf in order to prove he is not Tom. The reason I bring this up is because of the reasoning Tolkien give for why he can’t be Gandalf—he is transcendent, and the sub-creator. To be “transcendent” means that the person exists apart from this universe. He is not to be found in his work, as he states he is outside of it. He cannot be Tom because Tolkien himself transcends his subcreation, this excludes him from being any of the characters in the story. But he concedes if there is a character may be like him, though not him, it’s not Tom Bombadil, it’s Faramir. Tom doesn’t even get to be the most like Tolkien!
In order to overcome such a plain statement anyone who would want to assert the Tolkien theory for Bombadil is true, would need strong evidence to disprove the clear implications of this statement. There is no such evidence to date.
But that is not the only statement Tolkien makes which rules out himself being Tom. He writes in Letter 183, “This story is not about JRRT at all, and is at no point an attempt to allegorize his experience of life—for that is what the objectifying of his subjective experience in a tale must mean, if anything (emphasis mine).”
As he continues in this letter he explains Middle-Earth is not a fantasy world—it is this world. That Tolkien is historically minded and Middle-Earth is the very earth he lives in when he wrote it. It is only the historical period of LOTR which is a fantasy, not the world itself. Being that this is a historical fantasy, Tolkien himself cannot be found in the same world in an earlier time period.
The point is crystal clear—at no point is this story about him. To acknowledge this as true, which we must, and then to assert that Tom Bombadil is Tolkien in this story is to have an irreconcilable contradiction.
Tolkien again and again was asked if the story was about him, or if a certain character was him, and he consistently says, “No”. Letter 183 in particular says plain as day that at “no point” is this story about him. It is not about him “at all”. To suggest Tom Bombadil is the author inserting himself (for several chapters) into the story is to ignore the obvious meaning of Tolkien’s own words. He is transcendent, the story is at no point at all about him, and the story takes place in this world in a pre-historic era before the life of Tolkien. This theory must be considered false as it is without a foundation and the Letters of Tolkien himself disprove the theory.
Tolkien is not in his work, he is transcendent and the story at no point is about him. This means quite plainly, that any argument which purports Tom Bombadil is Tolkien, needs to supply some pretty convincing and clear evidence that counter’s Tolkien’s plain words. No such evidence exists. As bad as the “Tom is God” theory is, the “Tom is the author/Tolkien” is just as bad, though more widely accepted even in well-read circles. It is past time that we declare both of these theories as defunct, and that we bury them in the barrows as soon as possible to never see the light of day again.
Some Other Issues Faced in Bombadil Theorizing
There are several other poor arguments which often arise when the topic of Tom’s origin is addressed. First, is Tolkien’s description of Tom in Letter 19 describing him as the spirit of the “vanishing oxford and Berkshire countryside”. Many want to begin and end the discussion about Tom with this statement while refusing to acknowledge that this statement was written before Tolkien embarked on writing The Lord of the Rings.
If we understand the historical context of this letter we see Tolkien is merely saying what Tom was in the Adventures of Tom Bombadil. Tolkien was suggesting that perhaps in a sequel to The Hobbit perhaps Tom could be the main character! That’s right, Tolkien flirts with the idea of making Tom, from an early work, the main character of a sequel to The Hobbit—clearly that didn’t happen. We must remember this letter was written in 1937, before Tolkien even had an idea of what his sequel would be.
The description of Tom as the spirit of the English countryside is a description of Tom before he is inserted in LotR, not of him in LotR. Quite frankly, there is no “vanishing Oxford and Berkshire countryside” in Middle Earth as Tolkien plainly points out Middle Earth is not a fantasy world, but this world, and but it is a time of history which is fantasy (Letter 183). In this historical fiction that Tolkien wrote, you cannot have Tom unchanged as the spirit of a countryside which was not yet vanishing and not yet named as such, or even existing. So this Letter is not the final word on Tom, as Tolkien’s later explanations in later letters are different than how he described Tom in 1937.
Moreover, if one looks at the descriptions of other things found in Letter 19, around this discussion of Tom, you will find that there are some things which were true in 1937 when that letter was written but they are simply no longer true of Middle Earth after Tolkien’s work was completed. Tolkien wrote in that letter that Hobbits are “comic” and asks “what more can they do?” He even says, “But the real fun about orcs and dragons (to my mind) was before their [Hobbits] time. Perhaps a new (if similar) line?” Now this statement that all the fun about orcs being before the time of the Hobbits was true in 1937, but that changed with this “new line” Tolkien pursued when writing LotR.
What was true in context of his writing in 1937 before he began LotR, is not true of the final world we have now. If I said today that all the fun with the orcs happened before the time of the hobbits, you would rightly tell me I am not understanding the historical development of the letters and the writing of LotR. You would be right, and the same is true about Tom. He does in fact change as he is incorporated into the story.
To get to the heart of the issue, the story of The Hobbit book itself was changed to come into line with LotR and had sections re-written to fit this new story. This is because of what Tolkien also wrote in Letter 19, “the construction of elaborate and consistent mythology (and two languages) rather occupies the mind… (emphasis mine).” Tolkien was dedicated to making his world consistent. As demonstrated by his adaption of The Hobbit to make it more in line with LOTR. We must remember this when Tom was described as the “spirit of the English countryside” that this too changed when LoTR was written.
When one reads what Tolkien writes about Tom after the publication of LotR the idea of Tom being the spirit of Oxford and Berkshire is gone. Tom became something different, though similar, he is now an exemplar of zoology, botany, pure natural science, and pacifism (Letters 144 & 153). This is very different than Tolkien’s 1937 musings, because Tom did change to enter the world so that the world would remain consistent. Tom now even represents to some extent pacifism, which is not true of him in the work of the Adventures of Tom Bombadil which may not be set in Middle Earth at all.
We must not make the 1937 letter to be the final interpretive lens for all of Tolkien later letters. I purpose we understand Letter 19 in its historical context, and then look for how Tolkien changed Bombadil as he wrote about him after the world was complete in his later letters and in LOTR.
No Need for Philosophizing About Tom Equals No Need to Explain Him?
Another argument we must address is Tolkien two statements to Peter Hastings in Letter 153. As mentioned above, Tolkien tells us Tom does not need to be philosophized about and we must not take him too seriously. Some use these quotes to shut down all discussion and theorizing about Bombadil. I believe this is a misunderstanding of the context (again). Tolkien says Hastings is being “too serious” because Hastings thinks Tolkien has erred greatly by making Tom as the personification of the Creator God of our world. This is in essence an accusation of blasphemy.
To this Tolkien rightly say “you are being too serious” and he points out that Hastings entirely missed the point of who Tom is. This is the context of the statement, “I don’t think Tom needs philophizing about”. What Tolkien means in context is to say you need not elevate Tom to the great “I AM” for to do is not helpful.
This statement clearly does not mean we should never try to explain Tom or to understand in the world of Middle Earth because that is exactly what Tolkien then proceeds to do in the rest of the letter! He explains who Tom is not, and who he is, in this and other letters.
So this quote must be understood in its context, it is not a ban on seeking understanding and digging deeper into Tom, for Tolkien then proceeded to do just that in this letter and others. This is simply a prohibition on making Bombadil God and elevating him above his proper place in the world. The fact that Tolkien does indeed take time to explain Tom implies he does have a definite place in this created world.
Why There is Hope that an Answer Exists
We have seen Tolkien did change many things when writing LotR, we also have seen that Tolkien admits his dedication to having a “consistent” world and mythology, so much so he rewrote and changed his earlier work (the Hobbit) which was already published. He did this so that his world would be consistent. We have seen the fruits of this in Tom when we read the letters in context of when they were written. Tom becomes a pacifist, an exemplar of natural science, not the spirit of the English countryside.
Tolkien’s pursuit for consistency and to make this world so similar to our own is what makes this piece of fiction so great. This pursuit was not a minor thing to Tolkien, it was his goal. He wrote in Letter 131, “It was begun in 1936 (the footnote corrects this to say December 1937 for LotR), and every part has been written many times. Hardly a word in its 600,000 has been unconsidered. And the placing, size, style, and contribution to the whole of all the features, incidents, and chapters has been laboriously pondered.”
Such a profound statement leaves us with little question that Tolkien was very exacting in all of his work, and this includes Tom. He “laboriously pondered” how every part fit and worked together. So it is with some confidence we can say that Tolkien knew exactly what and who Tom was within his created world. Tolkien’s striving for consistency means that Tom would have some consistent origin from within Middle Earth. But Tolkien has intentionally left this origin an enigma, or mystery, because it is not plainly told to us.
By the way Tolkien answers his fans on this question about Tom, it is clear Tolkien knew not only what Tom was, but also what his role was. He had laboriously pondered it and had measured every word to fit in this consistent world. So yes I do believe there is an answer in the world of Middle Earth for who/what Tom is.
I believe Tolkien knew the answer but never revealed it because that is how he remains an enigma. Tolkien was content to strike down bad ideas about Tom and to explain the role of Tom in the story because he had Tom figured out as Tolkien was the “transcendent sub-creator” of this world. Tom is intentionally a mystery, but this need not stop of us from considering the best options as we try to remain consistent to the world Tolkien created. That is what I am attempting to do. I do this because that is what Tolkien strove to do and I love his work.
So it is best to search for an answer by remaining consistent to the world Tolkien created, because that is what Tolkien did. It is best to search for an answer to this enigma by “laboriously” pondering the words Tolkien himself chose to reveal Tom to us in the text and hoe Tolkien explained Tom in his letters. It is only by doing this that we can hope to rule out bad theories, to better understand Tom Bombadil, and to formulate a consistent and comprehensive theory and understanding of the mystery that Tom is. This is the goal of my theory.
Post-Script: Could Tom be The Witch-King? A Brief Response to the Ridiculous Suggestions Tom is Evil
There is a theory out there that Tom is secretly evil, or even perhaps the Witch-King. I will not spend much time on this theory because I treat it as satire, it cannot be considered a possibility beyond that. This theory operates under the assumption that everyone is lying about Tom. Which is absurd.
All one has to do to debunk this theory is read any of Tolkien’s letters where he explains Tom as an exemplar of pacifism, natural pure science, and how Tom wants to know things not for control but just for the sake of knowing them.
This is not evil. Any honest reading of LoTR and Tolkien’s letters rules out such an absurd belief about Tom. It is hardly worth our time to consider such a suggestion. It is my hope this 'theory' is satire which many online have failed to recognize as such. If it is a real attempt to explain Tom my response is to quote Tolkien, “You have missed the point entirely.”
Continue reading as we examine the three major theories put forward which have more substance than these pop-theories by clicking here