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Tom Bombadil's mythological origins in the internal cosmology of Middle-earth have puzzled even erudite fans. For example the fact that the Ring had no power on Tom would either suggest that Tom existed in both the Seen and the Unseen realms, or that the Unseen had no effect on him since "He is his own master".
Tom as Eru
When Goldberry was asked by Frodo Baggins who he was, she simply said "He is" which parallels the scriptural name of God in Christianity, "ho on" (The Being - the One who is). Goldberry also said that Tom is simply "the Master", and the theory that Tom is an incarnation, embodiment or "avatar" of Eru has been favored by the fans.
However Tolkien later remarked that this dialogue was not a reference to God, the way that priests called "Father" does not allude to God.
In the Council of Elrond it was mentioned that Tom has limited knowledge and understanding of the powers of the Ring, a limitation that the creator God arguably would not have.
It must be added, that Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic, so the idea of an incarnation of the Creator being married may not have went well with him; he explicitly said that the idea of God's Incarnation was too large to fit in his work.
In any case however, Tolkien experimented with this idea in the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth about a future incarnation or Eru into the world.
Tom as an Ainu
If we reject the Eru theory, the most common possible explanation is that Tom is an Ainu such as a Vala. Tom seems to have unlimited power inside the boundaries that he set for himself and perhaps the reason of why he has such powers might be the fact that he set himself limits in which he is master.
However since all seven Valar are accounted and known by their names, one has to associate one with Tom. For instance, a theory identifies Tom with Aulë (and Goldberry with Yavanna). Furthermore, it is nowhere referred that Aulë or any other Vala abandoned Valinor to live on Middle-earth and such an explanation becomes risky and radical; The most common theory is therefore that Bombadil is just a "rogue" Maia who perhaps stayed behind and did not follow the other Ainur at the Breaking of the World. In contrast to the seven Valar, the Maiar are an unknown number, so it's easy to associate Tom with them.
Tom remembers to be the "Eldest, that's what I am... Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn... He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless – before the Dark Lord came from Outside". Eldest is also a title given to Treebeard.
If Tom refers to Melkor, who was the first Vala to enter Arda, Tom was already there even before all the Valar, dismissing the theory that he is a Vala or a Maia. If Tom was refering to Sauron, however, then being a Maia may not be as far fetched.
One possible drawback was his relationship to the Good and Evil and the Unseen realm, which is evident on the effect of the One Ring on him. The Ring (containing Sauron's essence) had no effect on him although it had some effect on Saruman and Gandalf. Also, Gandalf in the Council of Elrond said that Tom is "neutral" and would not understand the cause of the Free peoples, while all other known Maiar had their sides.
Tom as a nature sprite
A more radical and abstract theory is that he is possibly the embodiment of Arda itself, a "Father Nature", or some kind of 'sprite' which (unlike the greater Ainu spirits) were of non-divine nature. Not only does the Ring have no effect on him, Tom himself seems unable to affect the Ring in return which shows that Tom was outside the divine plan and Good vs Evil struggle and had no position in it. Bombadil could have been created as a side-effect of the Music of the Ainur and that would explain why he was there in the beginning.
His Elvish name "Eldest Fatherless" can support this notion: since he is only a part of creation, he has no "father", while the Ainur have (Eru).
This also would be consistent with his neutrality: Nature is neutral and has no morality.
One problem with this theory is the Ring not having power over him. It is clear that the three elvish rings possess power over nature so one has to wonder if Tom is some spirit of nature why would the One Ring not have power over him?
Another problem with this explanation is that no such beings are mentioned elsewhere in late writings such as The Lord of the Rings (although one could argue that the sprites and fays, found in such early writings as the Book of Lost Tales, would fit this description).
Tom as the Spirit of the Music of the Ainur
This theory is a variant of the nature spirit theory, asserting that in his essence Tom is the Spirit of the Music of the Ainur. According to its proponent, this would explain his unique power and its limitations, his timelessness, his disposition, his affinity to song, his power via song over trees and barrow-wights and many of the other oddities found in his character.
This theory operates with the understanding that any spirit must be understood to be what they are personally most related to. The argument is that Tom, though close to nature, ultimately separates himself from the Forest by battling against Old Man Willow and by having a different disposition than that of the Old Forest which is described as dark and full of hate for everything that goes about freely. Tom on the other hand, points to song constantly even when fighting the barrow-wight: "None has ever caught him yet, for Tom, he is the Master: His songs are stronger songs,and his feet are faster".
Beings like him
Whatever his nature, another question about Bombadil is whether he is one-of-a-kind being, or if he has other colleagues in other parts of Arda. Bombadil could be for example the one and single "spirit of all Arda", or just the "spirit of the Old Forest" with other such beings in other forests.
The nature of Goldberry (and River-woman) is also obscure. They could be the same kind of being like himself, or his female counterpart(s). If we had more knowledge about them, we could partially answer the question about Tom as well.
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Council of Elrond"
- ↑ 2.0 2.1 Tolkien Meta-FAQ, "What is Tom Bombadil?", last updated 27 October 2002 (accessed 23 October 2010)
- ↑ J.R.R. Tolkien; Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien (eds.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 153, (dated September 1954)
- ↑ J.R.R. Tolkien; Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien (eds.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 181, (undated, written January or February 1956)
- ↑ 5.0 5.1 J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Silmarillion, "Valaquenta: Account of the Valar and Maiar According to the Lore of the Eldar"
- ↑ Gene Hargrove, "Who is Tom Bombadil?" (accessed 23 October 2010)
- ↑ J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Silmarillion, "Quenta Silmarillion: Of the Beginning of Days"
- ↑ Unknown (alias: "Ranger From the North"), "Who is Tom Bombadil?" , (accessed 12 January 2013)
- ↑ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, "The White Rider"
- Entry in the Encyclopedia of Arda (a concise overview of the discussion)
- What is Tom Bombadil? by Steuard Jensen (a detailed explanation)
- Who is Tom Bombadil? by Gene Hargrove (a somewhat unorthodox but well-presented essay)
- "Who is Tom Bombadil?" by Ranger from the North (an extensive argument for the Music Theory)