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(This is another of my speculative pieces and nothing to do with Star Wars. This one is for an older trilogy.)

Old Tom Bombadil. Possibly the least liked character in The Lord of the Rings. A childish figure so disliked by fans of the book that few object to his absence from all adaptations of the story. And yet, there is another way of looking at Bombadil, based only on what appears in the book itself, that paints a very different picture of this figure of fun.

What do we know about Tom Bombadil? He is fat and jolly and smiles all the time. He is friendly and gregarious and always ready to help travellers in distress.

Except that none of that can possibly be true.

Consider: By his own account (and by Elrond’s surprisingly sketchy knowledge) Bombadil has lived in the Old Forest since before the hobbits came to the Shire. Since before Elrond was born. Since the earliest days of the First Age.

And yet no hobbit has ever heard of him.

The guise in which Bombadil appears to Frodo and his companions is much like a hobbit writ large. He loves food and songs and nonsense rhymes and drink and company. Any hobbit who saw such a person would tell tales of him. Any hobbit who was rescued by Tom would sing songs about him and tell everyone else. Yet Merry – who knows all the history of Buckland and has ventured into the Old Forest many times – has never heard of Tom Bombadil. Frodo and Sam – avid readers of old Bilbo’s lore – have no idea that any such being exists, until he appears to them. All the hobbits of the Shire think of the Old Forest as a place of horror – not as the abode of a jolly fat man who is surprisingly generous with his food.

If Bombadil has indeed lived in the Old Forest all this time – in a house less than twenty miles from Buckland – then it stands to reason that he has never appeared to a single hobbit traveller before, and has certainly never rescued one from death. In the 1400 years since the Shire was settled.

What do we know about Tom Bombadil? He is not what he seems.

Elrond, the greatest lore-master of the Third Age, has never heard of Tom Bombadil. Elrond is only vaguely aware that there was once someone called Iarwain Ben-Adar (“Oldest and Fatherless”) who might be the same as Bombadil. And yet, the main road between Rivendell and the Grey Havens passes not 20 miles from Bombadil’s house, which stands beside the most ancient forest in Middle Earth. Has no elf ever wandered in the Old Forest or encountered Bombadil in all these thousands of years? Apparently not.

Gandalf seems to know more, but he keeps his knowledge to himself. At the Council of Elrond, when people suggest sending the Ring to Bombadil, Gandalf comes up with a surprisingly varied list of reasons why that should not be done. It is not clear that any of the reasons that he gives are the true one.

Now, in his conversation with Frodo, Bombadil implies (but avoids directly stating) that he had heard of their coming from Farmer Maggot and from Gildor’s elves (both of whom Frodo had recently described). But that also makes no sense. Maggot lives west of the Brandywine, remained there when Frodo left, and never even knew that Frodo would be leaving the Shire. And if Elrond knows nothing of Bombadil, how can he be a friend of Gildor’s?

What do we know about Tom Bombadil? He lies.

A question: what is the most dangerous place in Middle Earth? First place goes to the Mines of Moria, home of the Balrog, but what is the second most dangerous place? Tom Bombadil’s country.
By comparison, Mordor is a safe and well-run land, where two lightly-armed hobbits can wander for days without meeting anything more dangerous than themselves. Yet the Old Forest and the Barrow Downs, all part of Tom’s country, are filled with perils that would tax anyone in the Fellowship except perhaps Gandalf.

Now, it is canonical in Tolkein that powerful magical beings imprint their nature on their homes. Lorien under Galadriel is a place of peace and light. Moria, after the Balrog awoke, was a place of terror to which lesser evil creatures were drawn. Likewise, when Sauron lived in Mirkwood, it became blighted with evil and a home to monsters.

And then, there’s Tom Bombadil’s Country.

The hobbits can sense the hatred within all the trees in the Old Forest. Every tree in that place is a malevolent huorn, hating humankind. Every single tree. And the barrows of the ancient kings that lie nearby are defiled and inhabited by Barrow-Wights. Bombadil has the power to control or banish all these creatures, but he does not do so. Instead, he provides a refuge for them against men and other powers. Evil things – and only evil things – flourish in his domain. “Tom Bombadil is the master” Goldberry says. And his subjects are black huorns and barrow wights.

What do we know about Tom Bombadil? He is not the benevolent figure that he pretends to be.

Tom appears to the Ringbearer in a friendly, happy guise, to question and test him and to give him and his companions swords that can kill the servants of another evil power. But his motives are his own.

Consider: it is said more than once that the willows are the most powerful and evil trees in the Forest. Yet, the rhyme that Bombadil teaches the hobbits to use in conjuring up Bombadil himself includes the line, “By the reed and willow.” The willows are a part of Bombadil’s power and a means of calling on him. They draw their strength from the cursed river Withywindle, the centre of all the evil in the Forest.

And the springs of the Withywindle are right next to Tom Bombadil’s house.

And then there is Goldberry, “the river-daughter”. She is presented as Bombadil’s wife, an improbably beautiful and regal being who charms and beguiles the hobbits. It is implied that she is a water spirit, and she sits combing her long, blonde hair after the manner of a mermaid. (And it is worth remembering that mermaids were originally seen as monsters, beautiful above the water, slimy and hideous below, luring sailors to drown and be eaten.) But I suggest the name means that in her true state, Goldberry is nourished by the River – that is, by the proverbially evil Withywindle.

In folklore and legend (as Tolkien would know well) there are many tales of creatures that can take on human form but whose human shape always contains a clue to their true nature. So what might Goldberry be? She is tall and slender - specifically she is “slender as a willow wand”. She wears a green dress, sits amidst bowls of river water and is surrounded by the curtain of her golden hair. I suggest that she is a Willow tree conjured into human form, a malevolent huorn like the Old Man Willow from whom the hobbits have just escaped. If she is not indeed the same tree.

So, if this is true, then why does Bombadil save and help the ringbearer and his companions? Because they can bring about the downfall of Sauron, the current Dark Lord of Middle Earth. When Sauron falls, the other rings will fail and the wizards and elves will leave Middle Earth and the only great power that is left will be Bombadil.

There is a boundary around Bombadil’s country that he cannot or will not pass, something that confines him to a narrow space. And in return, no wizard or elf comes into his country to see who rules it, or to disturb the evil creatures that gather under his protection.

When the hobbits return to the Shire after their journey to Mordor, Gandalf leaves them close to Bree and goes towards Bombadil’s country to have words with him. We do not know what they say. But Gandalf was sent to Middle Earth to contend against Sauron and now he must depart. He has been given no mission to confront Bombadil and he must soon leave Middle Earth to powerless men and hobbits, while Bombadil remains, waiting to fulfill his purpose.

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

To speculate further and more wildly:

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.


( 248 comments — Leave a comment )
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Mar. 22nd, 2011 03:34 pm (UTC)
I almost like this more than the Star Wars post. Awesome job! What I would give to hear the conversation between Gandalf and Bombadil...
Aug. 12th, 2011 03:33 pm (UTC)
This is some brilliant stuff
I am really taken-aback by your posts so far. You have managed to find some really original readings of narratives that are *very* closely studied by some really devoted fans. I am very impressed and hope that the rumors that you have more of these in your head is true.
Aug. 12th, 2011 04:34 pm (UTC)
Hey. I just stumbled across this and I have to say, as one of the tiny minority who actually missed Tom Bombadil just a little bit in the movies, this is a deliciously dark interpretation of him. Very nice.
Feb. 3rd, 2013 09:41 pm (UTC)
I didn't even realize most fans hatted Tom. I just assumed everyone was as pissed off about him being cut out as I was.ut
(no subject) - aredridel - Jan. 3rd, 2014 06:13 am (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 6th, 2011 11:11 pm (UTC)
Most intriguing...
A very compelling argument indeed. I'll never read the story the same way again.
Jul. 9th, 2012 03:51 pm (UTC)
Re: Most intriguing...
Nor will I...

The mermaid reference really got me
Dec. 7th, 2011 12:09 am (UTC)
Definitely didn't think of it that way before. How about this as additional speculation? In fairy tales, such as the ones you refer to, there is usually some sort of test of the Hero (or Heroes, as Mercedes Lackey would put it) that they must pass in order to get the "reward" (princess, riches, prizes, destruction of the Ring of Evil, what have you) at the end. This test is usually given by some sort of cunning creature (say, a Fox) who tests the Hero's smarts/character and determines if the Hero goes on or not. I wonder if Bombadil serves this purpose?

True, he has to rescue them from themselves (so to speak), and he's not testing Frodo or Sam, but your bit of "questioning them and testing them and to give them weapons etc. etc." made me think of that.

So aside from Bombadil's motivations as becoming the last Dark Lord of Middle Earth, he could also be keeping an eye out for the competition and currying favors at the same time, a "I provided for you, now you have to be my friend" time of alliances. I don't know. I just thought I'd throw it out there.
Dec. 7th, 2011 12:12 am (UTC)
Not only do I buy this, but this further cements Tom Bombadil as my favorite character in all of LOTR.
Dec. 7th, 2011 12:31 am (UTC)
You see evil, I see dangerous
Or, perhaps, 'wild'.

There were a few of us that missed Tom from the movies. I know I missed him quite a bit.

There are a few holes in your reasoning. First, what do hobbits love? Food. And do you suppose that, if asked by their host not to tell where they were so well feed, they would honor that request? I do, and that is part of why I think farmer Maggot wouldn't talk about Tom.

As for Gildor and company, they are headed into the West; there is no harm in exposing himself to them, as they won't be spreading tales of his existence around Middle Earth.

Second, hobbits are home bodies; they seldom venture outside of the Shire. That, plus the Old Forest's dark nature are plenty of excuse for those few that do venture out to avoid the place. Or, like Merry, go in only far enough to say that they had, before they leave again. And, as long as they leave in peace, there is no reason for Tom help them. Between the trees, Goldberry and the other spirits of the place he has all the company he desires.

You write that he clearly hasn't rescued any hobbits, but that is not all that surprising, for the reasons above and this, remember that hobbits are known as sensible people. When they start into the Old Forest, and realize that it isn't a friendly (or even a normal) place, they will turn around and leave. And, even if they didn't and Tom helped them, it isn't clear that he would have had to reveal himself to them to do so, or that they would know it was him if he did (or that he would give his name when he did).

Note that Fangorn has just as dark a reputation as the Old Forest. "Dark" doesn't require it to be evil, it just requires it to be dangerous. And certainly both forests are that, and both with reason. And, just as importantly, both would be a lot more dangerous without the powers that lived there.

And don't forget that, as the hobbits return to the shire, Gandalf rides off to meet and talk with Bombadil, and we see him again many years later, with no word of warning passed to the shire before then.
Dec. 12th, 2011 09:29 pm (UTC)
Re: You see evil, I see dangerous
I agree on your interpretation of 'Dark'. I would further like to add that Dark may just be the chaos of creation, I feel like there is no good or bad in the Old Forest, just danger. Perhaps it's the same 'Dark' that was in the unexplored Jungles--that darkness of lack of knowledge. We imagine the 'Dark Ages' to be a 'bleak' time because know so little, we conjur up evil images, but there was great variation from city to city. It's possible there was a more equal balance of good and bad, we just know nothing of it, and I think that applied to these 'Dark Forests'.
Dec. 7th, 2011 12:36 am (UTC)
He's not lost in all adaptations, he is one of the main characters in the Lord of the rings Online game. he's one of the main quest people in the beginning of the main storyline.

What i think he secretly is, is a barrow-weight lord or an ancient spirit of the forest capeable of shapeshifting
Aug. 11th, 2014 02:15 am (UTC)
The Lord of the Rings Online didn't exactly follow canon too well.
Dec. 7th, 2011 01:29 am (UTC)
Oh, I loved Bombadil! However, this is pretty awesome.
Dec. 7th, 2011 02:41 am (UTC)
i do not know you, but this is a masterful peice of writing, and i would like to bake you a cake for being so awesome. but i won't because that would be weird, so have internet cake instead.

that last paragraph sent chills up and down my spine.
Dec. 16th, 2011 06:31 pm (UTC)
The cake is a lie.
Dec. 7th, 2011 01:13 pm (UTC)
Tom Bombadil
Very interesting - and isn't it odd that so many people feel that Old Tom is innocent and benign? I have always felt that there was a dark and malevolent side to Tom, although my feeling is that he represents an incarnation of The Horned God (Cernunnos, Hernes, The Green Man ...) from Celtic mythology. This is, of course, a field that Tolkien would have been well aware of and easily able to adapt to his own purposes.
Jan. 3rd, 2014 10:08 am (UTC)
Re: Tom Bombadil
This - or some version of Pan.
Dec. 7th, 2011 04:09 pm (UTC)
Some basic errors
This is a really cute theory, but I think you made some very basic mistakes.

The reason the hobbits have never met Bombadil is because they only venture into the very fringes of the Old Forest. Likewise, the fact that his home is less than twenty miles from the road to the Grey Havens is irrelevant; if you've ever walked a long distance on foot, you know that twenty miles is nothing to sneeze at in a straight line. Draw a circle with a twenty mile radius from the road and you have over 1200 square miles of territory; it's not surprising that the elves wouldn't have run across him, especially since he doesn't like to be found. This is all splitting hairs though, because it's clear that some elves know of him. They don't know much about him, but they do have a name for him.

The idea that he's lying about how he knew the hobbits were coming is not supported by the story. Tom is at one with the forest; he certainly could have heard the rumor of their passing from the trees. Likewise, it's not hard to imagine that Tom does talk to Farmer Maggott from time to time. Maggott is taciturn and grim; not the type to go tell stories around the Shire about his weird mystical friend in the Old Forest. Also, hobbits are plain, practical folk, likely to dismiss such outlandish tales (see their reactions in the early part of Fellowship to stories of giants).

I really don't see why you think the Old Forest is the second-most dangerous place in Middle-Earth. It's probably not even the tenth most dangerous of the small subset of places that Tolkien actually described. It's an uncanny, unwelcoming place, sure. Is it more dangerous than the Paths of the Dead, which only one living man may walk and survive? Is it more dangerous than Barad-Dur, home of Sauron, or Cirith Ungol, home of the deadliest of Ungoliant's spawn? More dangerous than Mirkwood, where stepping off the paths without the protection of Thranduil's wood-elves is nearly a death sentence? More dangerous than Dagorlad, where will-o-wisps lead travellers astray to drown in the ghost-haunted swamps? Furthermore, the Barrow-Downs may be in some sense part of Tom's "country", but as he and Goldberry make clear, Tom does not control his country. Rather, he is an integrated part of it. It would not be his style to purge the countryside of all evil simply because he could. He seems to be some sort of nature spirit, content to let be what already is, unless urgent need and his responsibilities as a host take precedence.

I think you really got confused when you said that all of the trees in the Old Forest are huorns. I don't think that's true at all; are you confusing the Old Forest with Fangorn? Even in Fangorn we don't have a clear indication that ALL of the trees are huorns. Old Man Willow seems to be a kind of huorn, or something related to them, but nowhere are we given an indication that the trees of the foreboding Old Forest are anything more than trees that resent the presence of intruders. Don't forget that Tolkien had a deep reverence for trees, and considered them living creatures that could feel pain, and that he could commune with.

You theorize that Bombadil was in Middle-Earth "before Morgoth set foot there." This is impossible because Morgoth (then known as Melkor) went to Arda as soon as it was created. You theorize that Bombadil was "ruler of the darkness" before Morgoth -- since Morgoth created the darkness by throwing down the Two Lamps, I don't see how that's possible.

I think a lot of the problem people have with Tom Bombadil is that he is deliberately presented as a mystery. He doesn't fit neatly into our categories of good and evil. It's fun to speculate about who or what he might be, but I don't think even Tolkien knew. And honestly, I think you've strayed very far from what he intended or what is supportable in the text with this guess.
May. 30th, 2012 05:52 am (UTC)
Re: Some basic errors
I came to the comments to say this, thanks.
Re: Some basic errors - (Anonymous) - May. 30th, 2012 07:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Some basic errors - (Anonymous) - May. 30th, 2012 09:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Some basic errors - John Herrington - May. 30th, 2012 10:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
Thank you - (Anonymous) - May. 30th, 2012 10:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Some basic errors - (Anonymous) - May. 31st, 2012 04:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Some basic errors - (Anonymous) - Jul. 9th, 2012 04:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Some basic errors - geekosaur - Oct. 1st, 2012 05:09 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Some basic errors - (Anonymous) - Oct. 6th, 2013 07:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Some basic errors - Mitchell Willie - Nov. 10th, 2014 02:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Some basic errors - (Anonymous) - Oct. 11th, 2012 01:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Some basic errors - (Anonymous) - Feb. 12th, 2013 01:53 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Some basic errors - Landon Starcurse - Mar. 26th, 2013 12:54 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Some basic errors - Fausto Saporito - Jan. 14th, 2014 10:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Some basic errors - (Anonymous) - Dec. 13th, 2014 11:39 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Some basic errors - (Anonymous) - Feb. 3rd, 2015 11:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 7th, 2011 08:20 pm (UTC)
Came here via a friend's Facebook page and I have to say this is wonderful! I could never work out why Bombadil played such a random and minor part in the trilogy when he was obviously so powerful. You've provided an answer which fits and has also made my skin crawl a bit.

The way you write about the darkness and hatreds of the Old Forest reminds me of Michael Scott Rohan's novel "The Forge in the Forest" where a hapless band of travellers are lured into a forest which is controlled by a Bombadil-like archetype who acts like a man-friend, but instead bends humans to its will and transforms them, or picks them off one-by-one, including using a willow-spirit woman.
Dec. 7th, 2011 11:38 pm (UTC)
I am of course one of the few Tom Bombadil fans.

I have no problem believing in a friendly, gregarious being, always ready to help travellers in distress. He fits in with characters such as Aslan & Fizban.
Aug. 10th, 2012 12:07 am (UTC)
Re: Hunh
Let's not forget Nakor
Re: Hunh - (Anonymous) - Sep. 23rd, 2012 06:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Hunh - (Anonymous) - Jan. 4th, 2013 07:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
i AGREE - (Anonymous) - Jul. 31st, 2013 05:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Hunh - (Anonymous) - Jul. 15th, 2014 07:19 am (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 8th, 2011 04:45 am (UTC)
Two views on the Bombadil connection...
User kengr referenced to your post from Two views on the Bombadil connection... saying: [...] Next we have Oldest and Fatherless: The Terrible Secret of Tom Bombadil [...]
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