In the vast universe of Tolkien fandom, there is perhaps no figure more polarizing than Tom Bombadil (though perhaps Peter Jackson is up there, too). Some Tolkien fans swear by this character, while others loath him. When it quickly became clear that he was not going to make an appearance in Jackson’s films, there was a similarly divided response. Some felt that this was a deep betrayal of an essential component of Tolkien’s vision, while others breathed a welcome sigh of relief. I was of the latter mind.
I’ll be the first to admit that for a long time I was decidedly not a fan of Mr. Bombadil. He was too foolish and silly, too full of sing-song and rhyme, to be pleasing to me. He just seemed so out-of-step with the other parts of the novel that I personally found infinitely more interesting. Try as I might, I just could not find the charm in the ridiculous. I read through these sections, but they always felt like a tedious hurdle to jump over, the one separating the quaint and enjoyable sections dealing with the Shire from when things got good starting with the incidents at Bree.
Through the years, though, I’ve come to really appreciate this interlude of the novel. Sure, it doesn’t have the soaring height of operatic grandeur that we see in the sequences, but it does have some truly sinister bits. Who does not feel a faint thrill of terror at the power of Old Man Willow, whose heart is rotten but whose sway over the Old Forest is unparalleled? Who doesn’t feel a faint chill upon seeing the barrows rearing above Tom’s house, knowing that there are wights living there?
On this most recent reading of the novel, however, it is the passages detailing the homely virtues of Tom’s house that provided me the most pleasure as a reader. Tolkien was an absolute master of creating atmosphere, of showing us how particular spaces and places were more than just settings. Places like the House of Tom Bombadil represent an entire way of life, an ethos that saturates every aspect of it. In this case, it is an oasis in a world grown increasingly chaotic. However, it is an oasis that is itself dangerous, a place that operates according to its own rules.
And it is precisely those own rules, which Tom alone seems to have mastered, that really sets this part of the novel apart. Bombadil remains an enigma to even the most devout and meticulous of Tolkien fans, and I for one think it’s better that we remain in the dark about whether he is one of the Maiar, or whether he is something else altogether. To some extent, Bombadil seems to exist outside of history. The events of the world outside–that have such dramatic, larger-scale historical consequences–don’t really seem to affect him in any meaningful way (recall that the Ring has no effect on him).
This is not to say that this sequence isn’t important in terms of history; far from it. After all, this does include the sequence in which Tom relates to the gathered hobbits the glimmers of the history of the North that the Hobbits, in their blissful ignorance, have largely forgotten. Though the reader doesn’t know it at this point, these are the rival kingdoms that emerged after the splintering of Arnor, as well as the rise of the Witch-king. There is something hauntingly beautiful about these tales, rendered all the more so by their inscrutability. They are part of the vast skein that underlies this particular thread in the pattern of Tolkien’s world.
And, of course, I would be remiss without mentioning the fair Goldberry. Unlike the other two prominent women in this universe–Galadriel and Éowyn–we don’t really learn much about her. She does, however, fit nicely into the way that Tolkien tended to view women, with her golden hair and her inscrutability. One gets the sense, though, that there is a great power that she, like Tom, keeps carefully concealed. Again, though, I see this as one of the things that makes her such a compelling character, and I am grateful that Tolkien doesn’t tell us more than he absolutely needs to.
So, I have to admit, I’ve become quite fond of Tom Bombadil. Comforting and enigmatic, powerful yet aloof, he remains one of Tolkien’s most fascinating creations.
And that is saying quite a lot, indeed.