Early on in The Lord of the Rings, the hobbits meet a character who saves them from trouble twice and who yet doesn’t appear again in the whole book: Tom Bombadil, the most enigmatic figure in Tolkien. Many readers hate him: he seems a distraction from the grim conflict looming over the whole world; indeed, he doesn’t express interest in it, and even his manner of dressing, talking, and singing seem to belong in another book (his name has the folksy ring of “Johnny Appleseed’ or “Jack the Giant-Killer”). For these reasons the movie adaptations have simply left him out. His appearance in the narrative is also apparently random; he could have appeared almost anywhere as an interlude in the action, yet for some reason Tolkien places him near the beginning of the journey — as if he were meant to make a lingering impression, to stay in our minds as a significant thought or an overtone of possibility. If the book as a whole is only an adventure and conflict narrative, then Tom Bombadil may indeed be an unnecessary diversion, and Tolkien might have made a mistake — but we see throughout that Tolkien is a shrewd and subtle story-teller, and the presence of a figure like Tom surely signals that the ambition of the book reaches further than mere adventure. One reason readers dislike him is that he makes an impression disproportionate to the few pages in the book allotted to him, and yet this impression is not enfolded literally into the larger plot. Whenever a great writer gives us a character or episode that does little to further the plot but is simply there, you can bet that the presence of this is to add some kind of commentary to the action, to reveal a new level of meaning to the plot.
Tolkien himself seems to want to keep this character enigmatic, undeveloped. In his densely conceived fictional world, every character and creature seems to have a designated place in space and time, a history and a genealogy, so it is significant to find one so shadowy and at the same time so powerful. Very few people in the book have even heard of him. Gandalf knows him but is reticent about him, and Elrond himself is unsure who he is (258), even though they are neighbors. Why would Tolkien have created a character like this? Understanding this might help us to see more deeply into the kind of book The Lord of the Rings really is.
Tom Bombadil appears when the hobbits are ensnared in the malevolent Old Forest, rescues them, and takes them home. He comes to us “singing nonsense” (116) and wearing “an old battered hat with a tall crown and a long blue feather stuck in the band.” (117) A little later, “Tom was all in clean blue, blue as rain-washed forget-me-nots, and he had green stockings.” (129) The dress belongs to one of those itinerant older male figures of fairy tales, a bard or a peddler, and it expresses whimsical lightness of spirit — no solemn wisdom, no obsession with power, unlike the whites, blacks and greys that are worn by those whose interests center upon power and governance. The trees listen to him — not because he is somehow owns them but because of natural authority. According to Goldberry, “The trees and the grasses and all things growing or living in the land belong each to themselves. Tom Bombadil is the Master. No one has ever caught old Tom walking in the forest, wading in the water, leaping on the hill-tops under light and shadow. He has no fear. Tom Bombadil is master.” (122) In a book that concerns itself intensely with questions of rulership, Tom appears then as a different kind of ruler, with a different kind of authority, uninvested in genealogy or force but having something to do with ease and fearlessness.
“Who is Tom Bombadil?” asks Frodo. “‘He is,’ said Goldberry, staying her swift movements and smiling.” (122) At this the reader wonders: Is he God, the I Am? — or if not God, then some being who exists in an eternal present and who can take no predication? When Frodo later asks Tom “Who are you, Master?” the response is equally strange:
“Eh, what?” said Tom sitting up, and his eyes glinting in the gloom. “Don’t you know my name yet? That’s the only answer. Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless? But you are young and I am old. Eldest, that’s what I am. Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the river 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.” (129)
He is something between an unfallen Adam and Prajapati, the primordial man of the Vedas, but unlike such figures he carries none of the solemnity of The Father; rather, he is an Uncle, trusted, jovial, affable yet distant, earthy yet also ethereal — the primal permaculturist, letting the things around him be themselves. If we take these his self-description literally, he is a supernatural figure, enlarging his own stature by speaking of himself in the third person and turning himself into a pagan earth-god.
Let us listen to his reply carefully. “Eh what?” He is surprised by the question, as if such a question were strange to him: Why would anyone ask such a thing, and what do we ask for when we ask it? Who is the who we are looking for? We know from personal experience with those close to us, and from experience of ourselves whenever we say or do things that we never thought were in us to say or do, that the person we can claim to know is not the same thing as the person before us who has a fathomless capacity for generating surprises. “Don’t you know my name yet?” — as if we know him already, as if he were already an intimate part of our lives. The yet is powerful. “That’s the only answer.” The question is the only answer? Either we know the name or we don’t, but Tom is saying something deeper — “Don’t you know my name yet?” is the only answer to “Who are you?” Perhaps in all honesty this is true of all human relationships: there are people we know and people we don’t know, and of those we know, we know the names, whatever names may be, whatever we really call them by in our heart of hearts. With our intimates it is rarely their social names that we name them with when it matters. “Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless?” This is a counter-challenge to the naming challenge. Who are you? is not the same as What is your name? Tom Bombadil, after all, is a ridiculous name for an eternal pagan god; just so, “Frodo” may be a ridiculous name for who he is, which he does not know. Who he is is alone and nameless. What could he mean? Frodo is not the representative of all the social relations that his records and genealogies, his ties with family and friends, his list of legal possessions and bonds; Frodo is something else, which cannot be summed by all the relational tags — he is the being that underlies them and moves through them, inhabiting and animating them. The name “Frodo” is as idiotic as “Tom Bombadil.” The being Frodo is a vast abyss of surprises that cannot be determined beforehand. Perhaps this is true of all beings, perhaps it is true only for certain figures such as Tom and Frodo; Gandalf certainly recognized this depth in Frodo. It is a depth that is boundless in time and space because it is coexistent with all time and all space — soul itself, which animates us in our space-time dimension but that also lives in eternity, and lives outside the space-time continuum.
Carl Jung in an essay called “Synchronicity” describes a number of cases of deja vu, when we know that an experience we are now having has been experienced before; or of knowing that something has happened when a loved one on another continent falls seriously ill or dies; or of seeing clearly an event that has not yet happened, but that then happens. Ordinary experience requires contiguity in space and time, but experiences like the ones just given — which most of us have had — show that the psyche does not need spatio-temporal contiguity for experience. It has one foot outside space and time. Thus, Tom Bombadil sounds like a supernatural figure if we interpret him, literally, to mean that in the world of space-time he preceded, chronologically, the raindrop and the acorn; but what he means is that the place he really lives from, outside space and time, precedes and succeeds and is coeval with all the moments of history. He is free, and this is why he is fearless and why the Ring has no hold on him. It is also why Gandalf later says that the Ring cannot be entrusted to his safekeeping because Tom will lose it carelessly; from his point of view, what’s more interesting about it than a raindrop or an acorn? His is a position for which the epic and the heroic have no significance, and if Frodo is to accomplish his task he has to move on. Tom Bombadil may have the fundamental truth of things, but the greater story that is to be fulfilled needs us to honor him, worship him, and then leave him behind. Nonetheless, he is the first to reveal that the essence of Frodo is profound and nameless, and therefore invulnerable to the forces of evil. He gives Frodo reason to have faith in something great in himself that might win, or at any rate not lose, and being attuned (if only partially) to this depth, Frodo is able to undertake the great task.
Some have wondered if Tolkien might have intended to unmask Tom Bombadil later as a force for evil; after all, he presides over the Old Forest and the Barrows, both places of sinister malevolence and ancient grudges. But neither of these is “evil” in the same way that Sauron is evil. They are naturally spiteful, hateful, places, and Tom is matter-of-fact about them as a gardener would be about aphids and weeds. The beings of these places may be dangerous, but they are not threatening on the level of significance — whereas the Ring and its makers have the power to make human life and hobbit life into a grey thing not worth living, Tom is beyond their drama — and perhaps in this respect, he helps Frodo to focus on the more interesting drama, the one about goodness.