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Science Fiction & FantasyWho or what was Tom Bombadil?
[+400] [17] morganpdx
[2011-02-03 19:14:46]
[ the-lord-of-the-rings tolkiens-legendarium tom-bombadil ]
[ https://scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/1586/who-or-what-was-tom-bombadil ]

The most iconic of Middle-earth questions:

Who or what was Tom Bombadil [1]?

Was he an elf? Was he akin to Gandalf, and one of the wizardly stock? Was he something… else?

(35) I don't know why someone downvoted. Even if the answer is "it's impossible to say", this question should be answerable. - neilfein
(9) The two current answers are excellent and fascinating, but there’s an angle they leave completely unexplored. Tolkien drew heavily and consciously on various existing mythologies (most notably, Norse/Germanic); so what characters in these mythologies might have influenced/inspired Bombadil? He reminds me a little of some of the more veiled incarnations of Odin (earthy; teasing, but more benevolent than a typical trickster)… I don’t know enough background on this to make an answer of it, but I’d love to hear what more knowledgeable folks think along these lines. - PLL
(1) Based on what I read about Bombadil, I had the imporession Tolkien made Bombadil the personification of fauna&flora. Bombadil is not drifted (he is not much interested in some political agenda); is very old but has a fresh mind (the life-cycle); very powerful if you group all fauna&flora together; and knows no greed (unaffected by the Ring). - Willem Van Onsem
Found an interesting quote in this answer making it seem possible that Tom was of similar origin as the Ents -- to protect what could not protect itself, on Yavanna's request to Eru. - DevSolar
(2) I know it's not a popular response, but, in my opinion, "the most annoying thing in the LOTR trilogy" would be the correct answer. Really not a fan of pomes being dropped into the middle of a prose adventure story. Like I said, my opinion. - RDFozz
I, myself, live a Tom Bombadil existence. After I lost my job and my wife and kids left me I built a cabin in the woods. I get water and fish from a river, I garden and pick wild roots etc. I've lost track of time, and no joke, I feel I'm no longer aging. - Joe C
He is an irrelevant digression from the story. In my second reading of LOTR Iskipped over the Bombadil episode and felt the story flow remained steady (in fact I skipped every poem & didn't miss them in the slightest; they are informatically null). - user89108
[+375] [2011-02-04 05:45:24] WOPR

'And even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).'

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No 144, dated 1954


(31) ah, you beat me to it. The more voted-up answer is valuable for all its very-good thinking and references. This is the correct short answer though. Tolkien didn't believe finite beings (us, the readers) could comprehend everything in the universe (or another universe). So while convenient and useful in the plot, Tom Bombadil was also included, believe it or not, to make Middle Earth more realistic. - Patrick Karcher
(4) @PatrickKarcher I agree with both the answer and your comment, except that Tom Bombadil is arguably neither convenient nor useful to the plot; many LotR fans and readers in fact consider him completely extraneous to the plot, so much so that the character could be completely excised from the Peter Jackson movies without detriment (whatever the movies' other sins may be, this wasn't one of them. Arguably.) - Andres F.
(4) @AndresF. -- As if the plot is all there is to enjoy writing or reading a book :D -- And after the near-disaster Hobbit 2 and 3 are, perhaps citing Jackson as an authority is not the best support for one's thesis :) - user23715
(3) @user23715 I agree The Hobbit movies are minor disasters, and do note I didn't mention Peter Jackson as an authority. I merely said he made the right choice to remove Bombadil. I also actually agree with you: plot isn't the only thing that matters in novels. So Bombadil being mostly irrelevant to the plot wouldn't matter that much if he wasn't also an uninteresting, childish character. Whenever I re-read LotR, Bombadil annoys me all over again :) - Andres F.
(1) Tom Bombadil did serve at least one useful purpose: he provided the inspiration for Tim Benzedrine in The Harvard Lampoon's "Bored Of The Rings". :) - Wallnut
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[+304] [2011-02-03 20:11:00] user366 [ACCEPTED]

Tom Bombadil wasn't an elf: Frodo and Strider/Aragorn both know enough about elves at the point Tom Bombadil is introduced to recognize them on sight, and they both act and behave as though he was something foreign and strange.

Tom Bombadil was not a wizard (a member of the Istari): there were only five sent to protect and guide the races of Middle Earth during the Third Age: Saruman the White, Gandalf the Grey, Radagast the Brown, and the two wizards Alatar and Pallando.

However, Tom Bombadil displays several curious characteristics that can provide some guidance as to what he is or if he fits into the rest of the Middle Earth mythology:

  • Everyone that seems to know him believes him to have been around for a really long time, possibly for multiple ages.
  • He calls the Old Forest, an offshoot of the forests that once covered Middle Earth and were the home to the Ents, his home and seems to be its master.
  • Additionally, everyone that seems to know him believes him to be more powerful than any other being they know (and the people that know him also know a bunch of really powerful beings)
  • He is completely unaffected by the One Ring (whereas really powerful beings like Sauron, Gandalf, and Saruman are)
  • Likewise, he seems to have very little concern for the politics of the world around him.

One theory is that he's part of the so-called Ainur: direct representatives of Ilúvatar (the creator). Depending on how you look at it, Ainur are either gods and demigods or something similar to angels; but pantheism, where the Ainur are merely different aspects of Ilúvatar, more closely describes the mythology of Middle Earth.

The Ainur are broken into two groups:

  • The Valar, which consist of the chief agents of Ilúvatar (think the Roman or Greek pantheon), including Lórien, Mandos, Manwë, and Morgoth/Melkor among others.
  • The Maiar, which consist of servants and aides of the Valar (think demi-gods or archangels). The Maiar include figures like Sauron (Morgoth's right hand) and the Istari.

There's speculation that he's a Maia, as he appears to be immortal, isn't a named Vala, and could feasibly be the agent of Yavanna (Vala of nature). However, other Maiar we're exposed to seem to be fully capable of succumbing to the One Ring's power in a way that Tom Bombadil isn't.

Other theories include that he's an incarnation of a Vala. However, it's not clear the Valar take incarnations: throughout Tolkien's works, Valar, when they want to interact, send agents or interact directly as themselves.

In reality, Tolkien never defines what Tom Bombadil is: not in The Lord of the Rings or in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. The closest thing to a definition that Tolkien gives of Tom is that he's extremely old, and simply is.

To this end, the third and final theory, that Tom Bombadil is an incarnation of Ilúvatar himself, takes hold. Ilúvatar would definitely not be subject to the corruption of the One Ring, would be far more powerful and older than even the most powerful of the Ainur, and care little for the day-to-day struggles of the mortal and immortal races. Finally, the characteristic that Tom Bombadill simply is is similar to how Yahweh, the god of Abraham and Moses, characterizes himself: I am.

But it's best not to think of it too deeply. Tolkien was loath to create allegories and allusions, saying of The Lord of the Rings:

As for any inner meaning or 'message', it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical. [...]

But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with all its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers.


Tom Bombadil seemed to be defined a little different depending on which revision of Tolkien's works one looked at. - Mark Rogers
(28) You mention that other Maiar we see are able to succumb to the Ring's power. However, the only other Maiar we see strictly in LotR are Gandalf and Saruman (and Radagast, briefly) who have been given human bodies and all their attendant frailties. Their powers are restricted, in other words. I'm in the 'Bombadil is a Maia' camp, as it seems to make the most sense. He is not mentioned in the roll-call of the Valar in the Silmarillion, but Tolkien does mention that many Maia came to Middle Earth. - ElendilTheTall
(22) @ElendilTheTall we're told in The History of Middle-Earth that Sauron is a Maia as well. I don't really buy the Istari being in human bodies as being a reason why they are corruptible, as Tom Bombadil himself appears to have a human body as well. I'm of the "he's in the book for one chapter, what group he belongs to is not that interesting" camp, but if I had to choose, I'd probably also say Maia as the others are too extreme. - user366
(2) @Mark @Elendil I like the Maia theory best, but the Ilúvatar theory is certainly compelling, especially the correlation between his 'just being' and Yahweh's 'I am'. Also thanks for reminding me of all those names...gosh it's been a while! - morganpdx
(1) @morganpdx I think I read somewhere that said that Iluvatar had never incarnated. - fabikw
(14) I think the "corruption" issue for Maia is different than for others - it's more kind of "temptation with power" thing than the effects it has on lower races. I.e. Gandalf is afraid of the Ring because it would give him a lot of power, and as he is involved in the matters of the world, he is afraid he would be severely tempted to use it for what he thinks is good, but won't be soon as good for others. Since Tom Bombadil is not concerned too much with such matters, he is not tempted by the Ring and has no reason to fear it - for him, it's pretty much a toy. This fits well the Maia theory. - StasM
afair the fact Tom Bombadil is Maia is directly mentioned in the appendix of the Return Of The King - www0z0k
(46) This answer is very detailed and gives a lot of information, but almost too much. In one of his letters Tolkien states bluntly that we are not supposed to know what Tom is. Tolkien intentionally left him as "one of the mysteries of the world". - Daniel Bingham
Nit, since it won't let me even submit a suggested edit for it: you mean "loath", not "loathe". "Loathe" is a verb, "loath" is an adjective. - chaos
(1) @Mark: Yes, obviously Sauron is a Maia, but he's also the Lord of the Rings, so of course he can use them; in fact he controls them. While Tom has human form, that seems to me merely the 'raiment' he wears, and which like any other Maia he could change if he desired, whereas the Istari are pretty much human in most aspects, i.e. they can physically die. I like StasM's theory. - ElendilTheTall
(43) Whether Maia or Vala, I really liked that bit at the Council of Elrond, when everyone wondered if they should just give the ring to him to hang onto. "He might do so, ..., but he would not understand the need. And if he were given the Ring, he would soon forget it, or most likely throw it away." So, whatever else he is, and however powerful he is, I always thought it funny Bombadil is also a bit of a ditz. :) - otherchirps
(1) The Maiar in LOTR, as far as I remember: Gandalf, Radagast, Saruman, Sauron, the Balrog. None of these ever possesses the Ring. Gandalf avoids the thing as much as possible, Sauron and Saruman want it, and Radagast and the Balrog never interact with it. The three Istari listed are diminished from full Maia status, and Sauron has lost a lot of capability over the ages: after the destruction of his form in the fall of Numenor he was never able to take a comely form again. - David Thornley
(1) @www0z0k Can you find anything to back that up? - morganpdx
@morganpdx failed to find, seems like i remember it wrong. btw cas.unt.edu/~hargrove/bombadil.html - www0z0k
(2) @otherchirps: Yes, I think that's the aspect of Bombadil that pretty much rules out all the theories mentioned. He is simply a happy fellow with no concern for the world outside of his woods, and he is thus incapable of understanding the ramifications of the ring. Any other being mentioned in this thread would certainly understand those ramifications and would probably be concerned about the world outside of their backyard. Combined with Tolkein's stubborn insistence that Bombadil be a mystery, it pretty much rules out all He's-an-X theories. - Wayne
Tom Bombadil Eru Illuvatar ? nah . Valar ? it's explicitly said they all stayed in Valinor . what remains is either Maiar OR another 4th race not mentioned in the early stages of the world creation ;) - Morg.
(3) Tom was in ME when "the dark under the stars was fearless - before the Dark Lord came from the Outside" which means he cannot be one of the Ainur (according to Lost Tales, Melkor was the first of the Ainur to arrive), an Elf, a Man, a Hobbit, a Dwarf, and Tolkien's letters preclude him being Illuvatar. - Shamshiel
(3) I just wanted to add that the fact that Bombadil sings to Old Man Willow singing him to sleep is reminiscent of the Ainur's music that created the universe which to me seems like only the sort of power a Ainur has. - DoctorWho22
(2) @otherchirps, if anything, I'd say that strengthens the theory that Tom Bombadil is Ilúvatar. What would Ilúvatar care for such a trifle as the Ring? - Kyralessa
(5) @Kyralessa That ignores the problem that the only clear statement Tolkien ever gave on Tom's nature was that he was NOT Iluvatar. - suchiuomizu
(3) Well, him being one of the Ainur would explain his penchant for singing. Although, to be honest, his songs aren't quite how I imagined the music of the Ainur to sound. - Misha R
(5) I don't think he's any of the above. There are things in Creation besides the Valar & Maiar, such as Ungoliant. Perhaps in much the way that she is the Spirit of Darkness given form, Tom is the Spirit of Nature given form. Perhaps even Arda itself. - Omegacron
(1) Just want to point out that the quote at the end of this answer is taken somewhat out of context. Tolkien was talking explicitly about notions that LoTR was an allegory of real-world events, and specifically about WWII. I don't think Tolkien would object to the idea of analysing it for internal consistency -- after all, it was his own work analysing Norse & Germanic myths in exactly that kind of way that prompted him to began writing his own myths. - Jules
@Shamshiel -- The Tales, lost or otherwise, are given to us (in-universe) via the Elves. That they say Melkor was "first" only means he was the first of the Maiar to get to work in Eä. -- That Tom Bombadil was already there watching and learning is not in contradiction to that. -- Tom can be Ainur and not be Maiar, let alone Valar. - user23715
@Omegacron -- Not all Ainur were Maiar or Valar you know? -- Tom is emphatically not a "spirit of nature" or even the spirit of nature. -- Tom is Ainur but of what order we are never told. -- We don't even know how many orders of Ainur there are. - user23715
(2) @user23715: There is no evidence that Tom is an Ainu. There is some evidence that he is a nature spirit of some kind. I am not sure how you came to such emphatic conclusions. - Shamshiel
@Shamshiel -- Evidence for Tom Bombadil being an Ainu: Tom is far more powerful than anything in Arda, more powerful than the Istari, not beholden to any Valar, and simply was before there was "nature" to be a spirit of. -- Tolkien's world is not quantum - the effect cannot precede the cause. Tom is clearly not a "nature spirit", nor anything pantheistic. -- Tom being from among the unknown orders of the Ainur is the only logical choice. -- Logic, driver of my "emphatic conclusions". :) - user23715
(4) @user23715: Logic that disregards all inconvenient evidence to the contrary, such as Morgoth being first. And you are, in fact, wrong that TB is stronger than the Maiar; we are explicitly told that TB does not have the strength to resist Sauron. He is simply of a different nature that is not affected by the Ring. Power to defy our Enemy is not in him, unless such power is in the earth itself. - Shamshiel
@Shamshiel -- Melkor/Morgoth was first of the Maiar to "descend" into Eä. Tom was already there. -- I never said Tom was stronger than the Maiar. Where did you get that from? -- Your quote about Tom's power is from Glorfindel and taken out of context. The context of a finite being commenting on someone far greater than he is. -- Tom seems singularly uninterested in engaging in the outworking of the Song of Creation. It's not his business. Not in the slightest. Watch he will but act he will not, excepting it concerns him in the moment. -- Tom is Ainu, Tolkien left us no other choice. - user23715
(2) @user23715: Morgoth isn't a Maia. Not even the basic facts right; I don't know why you'd think anyoned listen to your conclusions. Nothing out of context about my Glorfindel quote (an Elf who lived among the Ainur.) I don't know what that about preceding nature is about; most people I expect would say he wouldve come into being when the Flame was set in Arda. You should read the decades of essays on this subject which show you wrong. Maiar comment was in reference to: Say rather that the Ring has no power over him. [...] But he cannot alter the Ring itself, nor break its power over others. - Shamshiel
@Shamshiel -- Maiar are set to the task of, in part, working out the Song of Creation in Arda. Melkor was part of that group (only later, after the destruction of the Pillars and theft of the Silmarils, was he renamed Morgoth). He was, as you state, first in to get to work. He was Maia. -- Glorfindel lived for a time among the Valar in Aman.To say he lived among the Ainur is too inclusive -- Tom is an Ainu, and along with the rest of the Host of Heaven, logically (if not temporally) preceded not only the creation of Arda but the Song of Creation as well. He was not Maia? Sure, so what? - user23715
(3) @user23715: Morgoth was one of the Valar. Even after being called out, you failed to fact-check this basic fact you have gotten wrong throughout the discussion. There is also no evidence Tom preceded Arda. - Shamshiel
@Shamshiel -- Morgoth was cast beyond the Walls of Night into the Void after the War of Wrath. That excludes him from being numbered among the Valar. There are now 14, was 15. -- Valar is a title, Maiar is "genetic". Melkor/Morgoth is still a Maia but not a Vala. Melkor has lost his title. -- The Ainur are functionally numberless (and, to the Children if Illúvatar, mostly nameless as well). Tom was first - "first" with no qualifier. Thus we must conclude Tom is from among the unnumbered orders of the Ainur. -- Even immortal beings born out of Arda show decay. Tom shows no pull of Arda. - user23715
(1) @user23715: I recommend reading LotR, HoME, and the Silmarillion before commenting any further. Or, you could ask questions and get answers here. You are mistaken about too many things to correct in comments and you aren't contributing anything but misinformation. - Shamshiel
@Shamshiel -- Says the person who cites no references for his claims either. LOL :D FWIW - I looked up each fact before typing my previous comments. -- Besides, the Internet is big enough for both our opinions. - user23715
(3) I'd like to add something: in the council or Elrond, Gandalf mentions that Bombadil would not keep the ring unless, perhaps, all creatures in Middle Earth would ask him to and even if he did, he (Gandalf) suspected that he would not understand why and would possibly forget about it. That seems to indicate, in my opinion, that the Ilúvatar theory doesn't hold. - Apollo
Also, you said that other maiar that figure in the LotR seem to succumb to the ring's power. That's not true because no maiar appear in this book, except the balrog, Gandalf the white (maybe) and Saruman after his death and none of them is exposed to the ring. Istari are not the same as maiar. They are indeed maiar, but they are subject to a body in a fashion that it changes them while they keep that form. Bombadil could be a maia. He is just not concerned about anything or anyone else to be of particular interest to the general mythos except as an interesting exception. - Apollo
(2) Why does everyone think members of the Council for sure knew Bombadil's nature? What they said is just what they thought. It's not Truth from the Author. Also, whatever the author writes himself is meaningless if it's not in the text. Only the text matters. And stuff characters say is just based on their own limited knowledge. - Adam Cross
I think the Illuvatar theory falls on Goldberry. Who is she then? I think the Maiar theory is by far the most feasible. Why would all Maiar be affected by the Ring? That would imply that Sauron is the most powerful of them, which is not necessarily so. There are lots of Maiar who might be more powerful: Eonwe, Gothmog, Melian, Arien. Most interestingly Melian, who was incredibly powerful in her own land, where she could even hold back Morgoth, dragons and balrogs from invading. But she held no power outside her own domains. Exactly like Bombadil. - Amarth
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[+142] [2013-12-27 14:45:11] user8719

Out of universe, Tolkien has two remarks published in Letters that explain who Bombadil is meant to be; the first in Letter 19:

Tom Bombadil, the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside...

And the second in Letter 144, first the background (excerpting quite heavily):

Tom Bombadil is not an important person – to the narrative ... he represents something that I feel important, though I would not be prepared to analyze the feeling precisely ... the story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side ... but both sides ... want a measure of control.

And then Tom's role in all of this:

But if you have, as it were taken 'a vow of poverty', renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless. It is a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war.

In universe, we know he's not Eru from Letter 153, first of all from the intro:

He also cited the description of Bombadil by Goldberry: 'He is.' Hastings said that this seemed to imply that Bombadil was God.

Then Tolkien's rebuttal (I've left out a lot here and refer you to Letters for the full discussion):

As for Tom Bombadil, I really do think you are being too serious, besides missing the point. (Again the words used are by Goldberry and Tom not me as a commentator) ... Frodo has asked not 'what is Tom Bombadil' but 'Who is he' ... Only the firstperson (of worlds or anything) can be unique. If you say he is there must be more than one, and created (sub) existence is implied. I can say 'he is' of Winston Churchill as well as of Tom Bombadil, surely?

Aside from the "enigma" quote in Letter 144, there is another source for who Bombadil may be, and that's given in the published Silmarillion, chapter 2, which itself was derived from a late essay called Of the Ents and the Eagles:

Behold! When the Children awake, then the thought of Yavanna will awake also, and it will summon spirits from afar, and they will go among the kelvar and the olvar, and some will dwell therein, and be held in reverence...

This is IMO a credible source. Tom is evidently a nature spirit, and this source explains the origin of nature spirits in Middle-earth (note also that only "some will dwell therein"; evidently there are others that won't).

The only thing left out is Tom's claim to be "Eldest", and here I'm going to refer to a passage from Letter 153 which I quoted earlier and will quote again:

the words used are by Goldberry and Tom not me as a commentator.

This is important, and it must be emphasised: for all of the claims made about Tom, Goldberry is saying them, Tom is saying them, but Tolkien is not. These are words spoken and claims made by characters in Tolkien's world, not by Tolkien himself. This is a point that Tolkien returns to in the context of Treebeard, also in Letter 153:

Treebeard is a character in my story, not me; and though he has a great memory and some earthy wisdom, he is not one of the Wise, and there is quite a lot he does not know or understand.

There's a clear distinction being made here, and that is that words spoken or claims made by a character in the story should not be seen as a definitive authorial statement, and the same should be borne in mind when considering Tom.


(9) There is also some more prominent evidence for the existence of "spirits" other than the Ainur, namely Ungoliant, who (not to make a direct quotation) manifested herself from the darkness. So it's not implausible that Bombadil manifested himself from nature/the earth, as you say. - Ryan Reich
(14) @RyanReich - just noticed in the Valaquenta: "whether of the Valar and the Maiar, or of any other order that Iluvatar has sent into Ea" (my emphasis) - user8719
(2) I remember an old Prof. of mine comparing Bombadil to a progenitor of both the Aesir and the Vanir. Superior to both; but not one or the other. - alphaapple
Re @RyanReich - his comment and user8719's reply there-to -- the answer should be updated to include those tidbits as they are the answer. - user23715
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[+31] [2011-07-29 15:55:20] Aphaea

Here is a pretty in depth essay on the possible identity of Tom Bombadil, and it also has a lot of interesting links: Who is Tom Bombadil? by Gene Hargrove. [1]

The conclusion is that, if Tom is to be more than an enigma, Tom is either a nature spirit, or is Aule, one of the Valar(or a manifestation thereof). His mastery over the ring and lack of a desire to possess earthly power or things is offered in support of the latter position. After a lenghty examination, the bottom line taht the essay offers is this:

If Tom is Aule, however, there is a moral dimension, indeed, a heightened one, for Tom's appearance in the story, although only a "comment," serves as a sharp and clear contrast to the two evil Maiar, Sauron and Saruman, both of whom were once his servants before turning to evil and darkness. Unlike their former master, these two followed the ways of Melkor, envy, jealousy, excessive pride, and the desire to possess and control. As Tolkien explained to his proofreader, Tom's role was to show that there were things beyond and unconcerned with domination and control. On the surface, this view of Tom seems to make him unrelated to all other things and events in Middle-earth - indeed, anomalous. As Aule, however, Tom is not beyond and unconcerned anomalously, but rather is located at the core of morality as it existed in Middle-earth, as the ultimate exemplification of the proper moral stance toward power, pride, and possession. In fact, in terms of the moral traits that most fascinated Tolkien both as an author and as a scholar, Tom Bombadil is Tolkien's moral ideal.

I thought it was particularly interesting that while Tolkien wanted to leave some enigmas in his writing, he also probably had an explanation for himself since he liked to reconcile any "errors". So the fact that Tom Bombadil was conceived as a separate story and later integrated into LotR doesn't mean that he didn't have an idea of how Tom fits into the overall universe.

[1] http://www.cas.unt.edu/~hargrove/bombadil.html

(3) Blinded by distracting background image. - Joe
(1) The link may be interesting – I have not looked yet – but your answer says rather too little for my taste. - PJTraill
(2) This is actually a poor answer, you shouldn't make us go elsewhere to get the answer we're looking for here, bring the content here. - Möoz
I added in the closing argument to illustrate the point being made in the essay - KorvinStarmast
4
[+21] [2011-08-02 22:07:31] Lukekelly75

I believe, rather fancifully, that Bombadil is simply the spirit of middle earth manifest as a sentient, magical being. He might have acted as guardian of the ancient places and as these places diminished so did Bombadil's influence. However, he will always be as unassailable and unknowable as the very earth itself!


5
[+8] [2015-05-12 06:45:58] Paul Draper

And even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).

-Letter 144


That said, I think we can show what Bombadil is not.

Tom is not a man, hobbit, elf, or dwarf

...or any other sort of "normal" creature.

The ring had no effect on him.

Tom is not a Maia

Gandalf was also a Maia but he was tempted by the Ring. Likewise, Saruman, the Balrog, and Sauron were able to seduced by the Darkness.

In contrast, Tom has little interest in the affairs or "politics" of Middle Earth.

Tom is not a Valar

As far as it is told, the Valar live exclusively in Valinor. After the destruction of the Two Lamps, the Valar never interacted directly with the affairs of Middle Earth. And after Númenóreans reached Valinor, it was removed from the rest of Arda.

Tom is not Eru

Tom was not all-powerful, at least according to the Rivendell elves:

"But in any case," said Glorfindel, "to send the Ring to him would only postpone the day of evil. He is far away. We could not now take it back to him, unguessed, unmarked by any spy. And even if we could, soon or late the Lord of the Rings would learn of its hiding place and would bend all his power towards it. Could that power be defied by Bombadil alone? I think not. I think that in the end, if all else is conquered, Bombadil will fall, Last as he was First; and then Night will come."

-Fellowship of the Ring

Of course, Glorfindel could be wrong.

But Tom as Eru would be rather inconsistent with other manifestations of divine beings. Generally, the more powerful the being, the further removed from Middle Earth he is. The wizards (Maia) could not contend with Sauron directly. The more powerful Valar -- Melkor included -- did not live in Middle Earth at all.


Clues

Though Tom and his origins may be deliberately an enigma, that doesn't mean there aren't clues painting a vague idea.

Recall that Glorfindel's said he would be "Last as he was First".

In the same meeting, Galdor says,

Glorfindel, I think, is right. Power to defy our Enemy is not in him, unless such power is in the earth itself.

So the clues:

  • Tom is unaffected by normal "human" emotions/ambitions
  • Tom is very, very old, even "First"
  • Tom cares more about nature than politics or people
  • Tom is compared to "the earth itself"

Tom Bombadil is an incarnation of Arda, or perhaps a steward of Arda, or of Middle Earth. He's a "Mother Earth"/"Father Time" figure of sorts. We can't know exactly, since it is supposed to a mystery. But that's the gist. Human emotions have no more effect on him than they do on a tree, or rock. He is as old or nearly as old as the Earth itself, he enjoys nature, and he cares for it. And he has been there for a very, very long time.

EDIT: I found this essay on Tom Bombadil [1] by Gene Hargrove, which describes him similarly, as a Pan-like "nature god".

[1] http://www.cas.unt.edu/~hargrove/bombadil.html

(1) Well put. Lukekelly75 and Theorlok have posted answers with similar conclusions before you. I myself think he is Ëa, that is, the embodiment of Creation. That would explain why he was on the World before the rivers and the forest, how he can remember "the first acorn", and how he was there even before the Valar and Maiar came down from their celestial crib to hang out at this new Creation thing. - Junuxx
While it is emphatically true that "Tom is not a Maiar", etc., it does not follow that he is therefore an "incarnation of Arda" or some such. -- Tom is Ainur for certain. -- What is uncertain is to which order of Ainur he belongs (if any). -- Tom's full nature/purpose may remain largely a mystery but that does not leave any room for him to be a Pan-like nature god. -- @Junuxx -- Tom is older than Creation; ipso facto not a manifestation there of. - user23715
@user23715, why do you say that he is older than Creation -- that is, there was a time when Tom existed but "Creation" did not. - Paul Draper
@PaulDraper -- Poor choice of words. -- I should have said, Tom is logically prior to Creation. -- Creation, in Tolkien's milieu, happens in the "midst of" eternity. -- Logically prior to Creation there is the time in the presence of Eru Illúvatar (when the Song of Creation is being sung by the Ainur), then the working out of Creation (involving the Valar and the other Maiar that follow them) in Time, then (after the End of Days) another eternity stretches forth. -- Also, speaking of "eternity past" and "eternity future" is strictly from a temporal POV... finite minds and all that. - user23715
Too late to Edit but, in my previous comment it should read --- ... Logically prior to Creation there is the eternity in the presence of Eru Illúvatar... - user23715
@user23715, sure, but why do you think that Tom existed in that time before Creation, rather than just contemporaneously with it? - Paul Draper
(2) Because Tolkien's Creation is expressly not pantheistic. -- Tom is presented as an immortal sentient being while not being associated with the Maiar as either a Valar or lessor power. Not is he counted among the Children of Illúvatar. We know there are other orders of Ainur and that not all the Host of Heaven was tasked with working out the Creation by going down into Eä. Yet here we find Tom in Eä as "eldest" and of sufficient power as to be not just Maia in general but Vala in particular. -- At root Tom is a mystery not to be solved but that does not mean all possibilities are open. - user23715
@user23715 yes Tolkien's creation has one supreme god. But that is not unlike from Greek Mythology (origin of the "Pan" comparison), and in fact there are a number of other parallels. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… - Paul Draper
Tolkien's Middle Earth is perhaps best described as pre-Christian or pre-Judeo-Christian. The supreme divine in Tolkien's legendarium -- Illúvatar -- is precisely El Shaddai. -- Eä was not subject to henotheism; though certainly a degenerate form of piety could trend that direction, it was a path resulting from lies not "one option from many equal ones". It was nothing like Greek Mythology -- on purpose and from the very beginning. - user23715
@user23715 you are drawing lines where none exist. Worship -- organized or otherwise -- is rare to nonexistant in Tokien's writings. - Paul Draper
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[+8] [2016-06-12 00:39:02] Anonymous

None of the other answers mention this, but I feel it's important to note that Tom Bombadil was originally a Dutch doll belonging to one of Tolkien's children, Michael. One day Michael threw it in the toilet, but it was rescued and it became the protagonist of a story fragment Tolkien invented for his children. He later wrote a poem about him called ‘The Adventures of Tom Bombadil’ (1934), long before the writing of the Lord of the Rings began.

Sources:

Who is Tom Bombadil? [1]

Narrative Models in Tolkien's Stories of Middle-Earth [2]

tba tokiengateway.net – Tom Bombadil

tba Who or what was Tom Bombadil?

[1] http://www.cas.unt.edu/~hargrove/bombadil.html
[2] http://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/fichero_articulo?codigo=1975822&orden=74928

(2) That's good. Feel free to add some more details, quotes in particular, indicating similarities between the Bombadils. - Adamant
(5) Interesting out-of-universe answer. Also, this is probably me being crazy, but I feel like this almost works as an in-universe answer: who is Tom Bombadil? He's a child's doll, given life by Eru and transported thousands of years into the past to sing and dance in a forest! Now, can you imagine any being less susceptible to the power of the One Ring than a child's plaything? It all makes sense! (Although Pinocchio with the One Ring would worry me...) - Molag Bal
I reprotected the question. You wouldn't have had trouble editing your answer anyway, I think, but now you have >10 reputation so you are good to go where protected questions are concerned. - Adamant
Is it okay if I edit it at a later date? Only I just looked at the clock and what I intended to be a five minute single-line comment, took almost two hours all in all, and I've got an appointment tomorrow... I have got some ideas on how to expand it though, so I'll check back as soon as I've got some spare time. - Anonymous
Certainly, edit it whenever you feel like it. Sorry about that process taking so long, but thanks for your contribution. - Molag Bal
@MolagBal also he is eternal since he isn't really alive... - PmanAce
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[+7] [2012-12-18 12:25:19] Theoriok

I once read a fairly convincing theory that Bombadil is the manifestation of Arda, the world. Alas I cannot find the article again to link to it.


Why was this downvoted? - Theoriok
probably because it says basically the same as the answer directly above by Lukekelly75 - Michael Borgwardt
(1) Except I mention Arda, the world itself, and Lukekelly75 mentions Middle-Earth, a continent on that world. I would've put it in a comment on his answer, but I seem to only be able to comment on my own answers. - Theoriok
You need 50 reputation to be allowed to comment everywhere, mainly to prevent automated spam. - Michael Borgwardt
(1) I agree...like Mother Earth...but Father Earth. - Paul Draper
The article may have been this: tolkien.slimy.com/essays/Bombadil.html - NathanS
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[+7] [2015-01-26 20:07:12] OpaCitiZen

It strikes me as a surprise that Oldest and Fatherless: The Terrible Secret of Tom Bombadil [1], one of the more interesting fan theories about Bombadil -- written by a certain livejournal user, km_515 -- isn't mentioned here yet. So, here it goes. All in all, this obviously unofficial theory says Bombadil is an ancient, almost timeless evil rivaling Sauron & Co., biding its time until it can reclaim what it once ruled. Let me give you a quote:

The spell that binds Bombadil to his narrow and cursed country was put in place centuries ago by the Valar to protect men and elves. It may last a few decades more, perhaps a few generations of hobbit lives. But when the last elf has gone from the havens and the last spells of rings and wizards unravel, then it will be gone. And Iarwain Ben-Adar, Oldest and Fatherless, who was ruler of the darkness in Middle Earth before Sauron was, before Morgoth set foot there, before the first rising of the sun, will come into his inheritance again. And one dark night the old trees will march westward into the Shire to feed their ancient hatred. And Bombadil will dance down amongst them, clad in his true shape at last, singing his incomprehensible rhymes as the trees mutter their curses and the black and terrible Barrow-Wights dance and gibber around him. And he will be smiling.

( source [2], again)

Do click the link and read the whole thing for the rather intriguing reasoning. Keep in mind though, that its author also writes:

Do I think that Tolkien planned things in this way? Not at all, but I find it an interesting speculation.

:)

[1] http://km-515.livejournal.com/1042.html
[2] http://km-515.livejournal.com/1042.html

...aaaand the reason for the downvote is? :) You don't like the theory, which is explicitly non-canon, but is interesting and thoughtful anyway? - OpaCitiZen
(13) Probably because you shouldn't attempt to answer questions with something that you know is fan-fiction? I don't disagree it's interesting speculation/fan-fic; I disagree that it's suitable as an answer in scifi.se. - Andres F.
(2) Another significant problem with this theory is that Gandalf says that the borders that Tom stays within are self-imposed "And now he is withdrawn into a little land, within bounds that he has set, though none can see them", not imposed on him by a magical barrier. It also wouldn't make sense for the Council of Elrond to consider giving him the ring if he were truly a dangerous evil force. I like the out of the box thinking though - Kevin Wells
(1) @AndresF.: I don't think that fan-fiction is necessarily off-limits, but that OpaCitiZen fails to make any case that this particular fan-fiction is at all convincing. Indeed, the author agrees Tolkien did not plan it like that, which I find enough reason for a ▼. - PJTraill
(2) @PJTraill Fan-fiction is definitely frowned upon when trying to answer a work of fiction which is not originally fan-fiction itself, and for which there might be a canonical answer. Fan-fiction as an answer is unsuitable because who's to say whether it's the "right" answer or not? What if I answer with a different, opposite fan-fiction answer? Who is right? - Andres F.
@PJTraill Questions about fan-fiction are ok (though not my cup of tea), because an answer can be canonical within the work of fan-fiction itself. - Andres F.
The reason Bombadil allows Barrow-Wights to dwell in Old Forest is exactly because he's so benign. He doesn't harm anyone, even evil creatures, unless and until he explicitly needs to harm them to prevent them from harming someone else. - Joe C
There was a spec fiction some 40-45 years ago that I read. It took the "what if" line of "what if they left the ring to Bombadil rather than going to Mordor to unmake it?" And it ended similarly; Sauron's hosts defeat Sauron's enemies one by one after destroying Aragorn's army in front of the black gates. When Sauron's hosts get to Tom's Land, Bombadil strides forth and, being the eldest, brings down something like the Gotterdamerung with the very earth rising up to destroy his foes. I wonder if this fan fiction person had also read that. - KorvinStarmast
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[+6] [2012-12-22 14:49:40] johnny tea

Tolkien - in one of his letters - specifically stated that Bombadill is not Illuvatar. There is a reference in Tolkien's earlier writings to nature spirits (Fays, Leprawns) and such, and my own feeling is that Bombadill is one of these - a being as old as the world whose purpose may occasionally intersect those of the Valar (and in this case Sauron), but who works out his own task under Eru and takes little part in the struggles of Elves, Men and demons. Tom's remit is to do with the Earth itself and his power and remit are dealt according to that. He is outside the 'politics' of the peoples of the Earth, but not immune should Sauron crush nature itself. Whilst not a maia undoubtedly Yavanna (as instructed by Eru) would know of Bombadill, his fellows and their modus operandii. One of the mischevious folk; seemingly anarchic and a law unto themselves, but built into the fabric of the world since its beginnings by Eru (or a byproduct of the dissonnances between Melkor's discord and Eru's harmony in the Great Music, but still extant by the sovereign will of Eru Himself and given purpose by Him).


(4) Do you have a quote from the letters re: not being Eru? - DVK-on-Ahch-To
(1) How could Tolkien be so sure :)? - TGar
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[+5] [2013-01-22 08:39:02] Karl

He was there before anything else yet he is not Iluvatar - that only leaves the real creator of that world - so for my money TB is Tolkien


Is there a way to remove this answer? Illuvatar "is" the "real" creator of Eä, the World that is. - MadTux
(8) @Earendil you're looking at it from an in universe perspective, where as Karl is basically stating that Tom Bombadil is a "Mary Sue" for J.R.R. Tolkien. - Monty129
(4) @Monty129 Tolkien didn't write in that style, though - MadTux
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[+5] [2013-05-11 19:59:29] jacen.garriss

Bombadil has to be a Maia. He himself said he was alive before the Big People. Who are elves and men. Tolkien said Bombadil wasn't Eru in his letters. There was nothing else in the Silmarillion before the elves besides Eru, the Valar, and the Maiar.

Eldest, that's what I am. Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the rivers and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn. He made paths before the Big People, and saw the little People arriving. He was here before the Kings and the graves and the Barrow-wights. When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent. He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless - before the Dark Lord came from Outside.

~ The Fellowship of the Ring


Do you have a quote from the letters re: not being Eru? - DVK-on-Ahch-To
(4) He didn't have to be a Maia! There might have been some other things in Arda, apart from the Ainur. - MadTux
@MadTux And what would those be? I can't remember anything that was on Arda besides the Ainur before the elves came. - jacen.garriss
(1) @jacen.garriss - Ainulindale: "But Manwe was the brother of Melkor in the mind of Iluvatar, and he was the chief instrument of the second theme that Iluvatar had raised up against the discord of Melkor; and he called unto himself many spirits both greater and less, and they came down into the fields of Arda and aided Manwe, lest Melkor should hinder the fulfilment of their labour for ever, and Earth should wither ere it flowered". - user8719
(1) @DarthSatan would those greater and lesser spirits be the Maia? It seems kind of ambiguous. - jacen.garriss
@jacen.garriss - it's only ambiguous if you read the sentence in isolation. If you read the actual full book it's clear. According to the Valaquenta the Valar and Maiar entered Arda all at the same time ("those of the Ainur who desired it arose and entered into the World at the beginning of Time") - with the obvious exception of Tulkas - but these spirits came later. - user8719
@DarthSatan Okay, when where these spirits created then? I don't remember any mention of them being created when the Valar and Maiar where created. - jacen.garriss
@jacen.garriss - that would be a good topic for a separate question; for now I'll leave it at: "who said they were created at the same time as the Ainur?" - user8719
Robert Foster (The Complete Guide to Middle Earth) makes the case for Bombadil being a Maia who went native. - KorvinStarmast
Actually, the correct answer is - Bombadil has to be an Ainur. The Maiar had a particular task in the shaping of Eä and the Valar are their leaders, but not all Ainur are Maiar. - user23715
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[+2] [2014-07-12 00:10:29] please delete me

I would like to add a theory: Tom Bombadil is Tolkien's ego.

From a psychological standpoint, Tolkien delved deep into his unconscious to create the story. He didn't direct it intentionally, per se, but let it tell itself.

Even here, though, Tolkien('s ego) is still master, and could do anything. In order to leave the Hobbit/LotR universe as is he could not get too involved, but he could visit it, and it would have no power over him. He could also help when asked. Though he takes no action on his own.

I had this in mind when listening to the book and found it to make sense to me.


(1) Since Tolkien's ego made the story that destroyed Sauron, having its manifestation be declared to be uninterested in the ring and indifferent to getting rid of it doesn't seem to fit well. - Oldcat
He delved into his unconscious to find the story "happening" much like one does in a lucid dream. In lucid dreaming too, forcefully changing the story causes destabilization and a wake-up. Tolkien's ego couldn't destroy the ring, as it would be too strong an incursion and destabilize the world itself. His disinterest in the ring was that it held no power over him and he could not do anything. It was just interesting to him to hold the major problem in the world. - please delete me
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[+2] [2015-01-29 06:12:06] antlersoft

Clearly Tolkien's intention was to have Tom be a mystery, but if we are allowing an interpretation outside of Tolkien's intention, I have a theory to suggest that I maintain accords with everything in the texts, and which no one else here has yet suggested: Tom was Iluvatar's prototype, which Iluvatar created in Arda for practice before he created the Children. He has a form akin to that of Men or Elves, but not all their features, or frailties. He is the eldest of all things created in Arda, and is tied to it, but is unique. Goldberry and her father the River and similar creatures may be spirits summoned by the awakened thought of Yavanna, but Tom is distinct. His power comes mainly from being the eldest; he was created before all the rules of nature were finalized and stands a little outside them.


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[+2] [2017-05-17 21:03:27] Mike

I think Tom is an embodiment of the music of the Ainur. All his power derives from song - he has a song for old man willow, and one for the Barrow Wight. 'Tom's songs are stronger songs...' When Goldberry is asked who he is she answer 'He is....' This is an echo of Iluvatar's "Ea' when he creates Middle earth from the music of the Ainur.


(4) Could you add some of the quotes you are referencing to back this up? - Adamant
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[-4] [2015-06-22 07:34:24] Ahtar Porola

Yes, a lot of comments on the right track.He was one of those "lesser and greater spirits"/ "other orders" sent into Arda. He is the Green Man, Pan, Kernennos (Herne). Eru is the Universal Creator. Arda is just one amongst millions of worlds created in Ea The Universe. Eru has created lesser Gods and each world has a life-spirit/Earth-God supported by elementals, just as Eru in Heaven is supported by the Ainur in their two orders, Valar & Maiar. Goldberry is one of those elementals (water). Eru created lesser Gods (Earth-bound-Demi-Gods), Ainur (Archangels/His Executive Cabinet), Maiar (Angels/The Divine Administration/Government/Bureaucracy)and other orders of Agents/Operatives (Istari etc) as agents of creation. Certain of them tasked with the agency of sub-creation in different levels of power/authority. Eru has delegated/decentralised some of his creative powers in greater and lesser amounts according to the roles and capacities of his subjects, this trickling down to humans who, although it is limited have been gifted with free will/agency to act as agents of God's Creation.


(5) You really need to add line breaks and paragraph breaks to your answers. Solid blocks of text are almost impossible to read. - Wad Cheber stands with Monica
(1) Do you have any sources to support your claims? - Often Right
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[-5] [2013-03-09 19:49:08] Istari of gold

No-one really knows for sure, but my favourite theory is that he is the physical incarnation of Arda (The planet the continent of Middle-Earth is part of).


(1) It might be best to sight where this theory comes from, as well as any additional information to make this a complete answer. - Monty129
I agree...like Mother Earth...but Father Earth. - Paul Draper
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