WHAT IS TOM BOMBADIL?
Thoughts and Discussion by Steuard Jensen
(Created 17 Feb 2001)
(Last updated 27 Oct 2002)
(Many thanks to Conrad Dunkerson and many other participants on the
Usenet newsgroups rec.arts.books.tolkien and alt.fan.tolkien for
helpful comments and encouragement on earlier versions of this essay.)
What is the nature of Tom Bombadil? Many answers to that question
have been suggested over the years, and quite a few arise regularly.
Even some common ones have clear evidence against them, but a handful
of ideas have weathered the long debates without producing any
convincing counterarguments. In this essay, I will explain why some
ideas can be firmly rejected, and why a few remain appealing.
Background to the Essay
(Feel free to skim this section.)
Before going on, I must acknowledge that I cannot be truly
objective in what follows. I have done my best to base every claim on
rational arguments supported by original texts and to avoid bias in my
presentation, but I do prefer one answer to the question: I have long
advocated the idea that Bombadil is in some sense the incarnation of
Arda itself. Despite my best efforts to treat all reasonable
possibilities equally, some subtle bias in that direction may be
inescapable. I do not expect such bias to affect which theories I
label as truly not viable: I will not make that strong claim unless
the evidence appears inescapable.
A few notes on source texts are in order. _The Lord of the Rings_
(henceforth abbreviated LotR) is the primary text of reference, and in
the face of conflicting evidence its statements will carry more weight
than those in other references. (Quotes from LotR will generally be
identified only by chapter title.) _The Hobbit_ will also be treated
as a canonical source, though its contribution to the discussion of
this issue is limited. Some essential information comes from the
"Ainulindale" and the "Valaquenta" in _The Silmarillion_. All of this
has been checked against the final drafts and notes in _Morgoth's
Ring_, and I believe it to be a trustworthy guide to Tolkien's intent.
There is a great deal of information about Bombadil in _The Letters
of J.R.R. Tolkien_ (henceforth referred to as _Letters_, or implicitly
by reference to a specific Letter number). While Tolkien does not
seem to have felt as "bound" to statements in his letters as he did to
published texts, they give glimpses of his thoughts that we could not
hope to know otherwise, and I will treat them as a trustworthy source
of information and insight. When I refer to "canonical" texts in this
essay, I mean the sources listed above.
Other texts can shed light on Bombadil, but should not be taken as
authoritative. Because the Middle-earth of _The Book of Lost Tales_
is so different from that of LotR, information from those early
stories is not directly relevant to a discussion about the later state
of the mythology. However, a few references to the Lost Tales here
show ideas that Tolkien considered while constructing his mythology.
While _The Adventures of Tom Bombadil_ was published while Tolkien
was alive, its two poems about Tom are not trustworthy guides to his
nature: the book's Preface says that their Bucklandish authors had
"little understanding of his powers" and that the first poem is "made
up of various hobbit-versions of legends concerning Bombadil". I make
little use of them here; the information lost is in any case minimal.
Bombadil does appear in the "History of _The Lord of the Rings_"
volumes of the "History of Middle-earth" series, but those books will
not be used here. Bombadil was introduced into the story before its
relationship to the greater mythology was entirely established, so his
place in the Silmarillion cosmology may have changed enormously
between the first and final drafts. Thus, changes in his character
and description as the story developed are likely to have been
significant, and quoting anything other than the final version could
be extremely misleading.
Introduction to the Debate
A great number of identities for Tom Bombadil have been suggested
over time. Some of the more common are:
* Eru Iluvatar
* Some particular Elf, Man, Dwarf, or similar person
* a Maia (presumably one of the many not specifically named elsewhere)
* a nature spirit, either one of many similar beings or somehow unique
Some have suggested that Tom is an insertion of Tolkien himself into
the tale, but we are interested primarily in "story internal"
explanations: even if Tom were meant to represent Tolkien himself, our
interest is in how he fits into Middle-earth. Beyond that, the
correspondence between Tolkien and Bombadil simply isn't very strong.
Considering all these possibilities, our first task will be to
reduce confusion by eliminating positions that have obvious and fatal
weaknesses. Even before that, however, I must acknowledge that some
believe the search for Bombadil's nature to be fundamentally hopeless
(by Tolkien's design). Beyond the general lack of information that
Tolkien provides about him, this claim finds support in Letter #144:
"As a story, I think it is good that there should be a lot of
things unexplained (especially if an explanation actually
exists)... And even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas,
as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally)."
At least when this letter was written, then, Tolkien did not intend
for Bombadil's nature to be evident: that unresolved question is part
of the charm of the tale. While this is a valid objection, there are
several reasons to hope that we can come closer to an explanation than
To begin with, the comment "especially if an explanation actually
exists" in this paragraph suggests that Tolkien had one in mind and
that he tried to make the _existence_ of that explanation apparent.
Thus, we might still hope to find subtle and unintentionally helpful
clues pointing to the answer. Even more important, there is much more
information about Middle-earth available now than when this letter was
written in 1954. It seems fair to hope that the information in
_Letters_, _The Silmarillion_, and elsewhere could fill in crucial
gaps and cast light on Bombadil that Tolkien did not expect.
This essay assumes that Tolkien did have an explanation in mind for
Bombadil (even if only a general idea, as would probably be needed to
make sure he didn't outright conflict with other "known" facts about
Middle-earth). As Tolkien said, hidden explanations make reading the
story more enjoyable, and for some of us part of the fun comes in
trying to uncover them. I do respect those who prefer not to delve
into these mysteries; this essay is simply not for them.
THEORIES WITH FATAL FLAWS
One of the strongest constraints on Bombadil's nature comes from
Glorfindel's words at the Council of Elrond. Objecting to Tom as a
guardian of the Ring, Glorfindel says,
"...soon or late the Lord of the Rings would learn of its hiding
place and would bend all his power toward 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."
Unless Glorfindel is flat out wrong, this makes it clear that Bombadil
is weaker than Sauron in a direct conflict of "power," whatever that
term means (it might well include Sauron's full military strength).
Galdor concurs, saying that
"Power to defy our Enemy is not in him, unless such power is in
the earth itself. And yet we see that Sauron can torture and
destroy the very hills."
Galdor admits to knowing "little of Iarwain save the name", so it must
not take great learning to make general statements about his power and
perhaps its source. Significantly, nobody at the Council objects to
either of these statements. It seems likely that whatever limited
knowledge Galdor based his comments on was common among the wise and
learned Elves at the Council. More specifically, Elrond is clearly
reasonably familiar with Bombadil and Gandalf seems to know quite a
bit about his nature and abilities, but neither of them object.
Although it is exceedingly unlikely that so many knowledgeable
individuals at the Council were mistaken, some have suggested that
they intentionally concealed the truth. This cannot be disproved, but
it would be very different from the treatment of other secrets at the
Council. For example, when Gloin asks about the Three Rings, Elrond
states that "of them it is not permitted to speak", but nevertheless
violates that prohibition (to a small degree). He does not feign
ignorance or even simply remain silent: this Council does not seem to
have been a place for partial truths.
Given this, it seems very reasonable to accept the Council's
statements. This choice is corroborated in Letter #144, where Tolkien
says that "Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil
to continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left for him in the
world of Sauron." While it does not speak directly of a conflict
between the two, this quote makes it clear that Bombadil would be in
some sense "killed" if Sauron was victorious, just as Glorfindel said.
The first and clearest casualty of this conclusion is the theory
that Bombadil is Iluvatar. Tolkien states this directly _Letters_: in
Letter #181 he says that "There is no 'embodiment' of the Creator
anywhere in this story or mythology", and in Letter #211 he states
that "The One does not physically inhabit any part of Ea." As if that
weren't enough, Tolkien describes Tom's interests and motives in many
places, but the motives of the all-powerful Creator probably could not
even be expressed in words. All this makes the Eru theory probably
the least likely explanation for Bombadil that still arises regularly.
The constraint from the Council is much stronger than this. The
"Valaquenta" says that eight of the Valar "were of chief power and
"the Aratar, the High Ones of Arda: Manwe and Varda, Ulmo, Yavanna
and Aule, Mandos, Nienna, and Orome. Though Manwe is their King
and holds their allegiance under Eru, in majesty they are peers,
surpassing beyond compare all others, whether of the Valar and the
Maiar, or of any other order that Iluvatar has sent into Ea."
This includes all of the Valar whom I have seen suggested as
identities for Bombadil except for Tulkas. I cannot believe that any
of these great powers would be so weak (in any sense) that "the power
to defy our Enemy is not in him". The gulf in power and majesty
between the Aratar and even the greatest of the Maiar is "beyond
compare": I do not believe that even Sauron and all his armies could
"kill" Manwe or Aule, for example. (Although Tolkien wrote that
"Sauron was 'greater', effectively, in the Second Age than Morgoth at
the end of the First", that was because Morgoth alone among the Valar
had expended his native power to gain control over the physical world.
No "unfallen" Vala would do such a thing.) On this basis, I do not
believe that Bombadil could be any individual on this list.
The theory that Bombadil is Tulkas escapes this argument, but it
suffers from a fatal personality mismatch. According to the
"Valaquenta", Tulkas "delights in wrestling and contests of strength"
and "his weapons are his hands". Bombadil's only weapons appear to be
his songs; he shows no interest in physical prowess. Also, Bombadil
fights "evil" only when he walks into it or is called, precisely the
opposite of Tulkas who came to Arda specifically to battle Melkor.
While it is conceivable that his personality could have reversed in
these ways, there is no reason to think that it did.
There is other evidence that Bombadil is not one of the Valar. In
"In the House of Tom Bombadil", Tom says of himself, "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."
Bombadil says that he "was here already", not merely that he "had been
here": this implies a long term presence in the area; in fact, this
passage gives the impression that he never left. However, we read in
_The Silmarillion_ that after the destruction of the Lamps, "the Valar
came seldom over the mountains to Middle-earth". (The only Valar said
to spend much time there were Yavanna and Orome, and apart from
Orome's time _with_ the Quendi before the Great Journey these seem to
have been brief visits rather than extended habitation.) While
falling short of a complete proof on its own, this strongly implies
that Bombadil is not one of the Valar.
Another argument is that the Valar were the governors of Arda and
deeply concerned with the fate of the Children of Iluvatar (only
during the Akallabeth are we told that "the Valar laid down their
government of Arda"). However, when asked if Bombadil could guard the
Ring, Gandalf says that, "He might do so, if all the free folk of the
world begged him, but he would not understand the need." Even in the
unlikely event that a Vala abandoned his responsibilities and chose to
ignore all of the evil (and good) in the world, it could never be said
that he would not understand the struggle.
While I believe that the arguments above are more than sufficient,
I should also point out a basic difficulty with the most common
Bombadil-as-Vala identification, the claim that Bombadil and Goldberry
are Aule and Yavanna. Later, I discuss the strong connection between
Goldberry and water, particularly the river Withywindle. This would
be very surprising for Yavanna, who cares far more for plants and
animals than for rains and streams. Goldberry does not show any
particular interest in living things (except water lilies). For his
part, Bombadil shows almost no interest in craft or building and a
great deal of interest in living things, entirely contrary to Aule's
character. If Bombadil had to be one of the Valar, Aule might be the
best fit, but he does not, and the fit simply is not that good.
Finally, we can safely conclude that Bombadil did not belong to any
of the "major races": Elves, Dwarves, or humans (including hobbits).
The fact that the Council of Elrond even considered whether Bombadil
could hold off Sauron's full power seems proof that he was not some
mere Elf or human, however strong. Finrod, a Noldo of Valinor, held
out against Sauron briefly when he was captured with Beren, but even
he eventually succumbed. And then, Sauron was seeking information,
not trying to slay his captives outright (which proved much easier).
Bombadil himself provides an even stronger argument when he tells the
hobbits that "When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already":
he was there before the Elves arrived, and they were awake before all
other sentient races in Middle-earth. (It goes without saying that
Bombadil is not an Ent, Troll, or other such race: in addition to the
failings above, they were clearly non-human.)
This leaves just two serious theories to consider. One, that
Bombadil is a Maia (or an "unaffiliated" Ainu), presumably one not
named specifically elsewhere in the texts. The other, that Bombadil
is some sort of nature spirit of a type never explicitly mentioned in
Tolkien's writings after LotR. Each of these has advantages and
disadvantages, and I do not believe that we have enough information to
decide between them. The two may not be entirely distinct (some minor
Maiar might be well described as "nature spirits"), but we will treat
them separately below.
BOMBADIL AS A MAIA
We begin by considering the theory that Bombadil is one of the
Maiar. In this essay the term "Maia" will refer to any of the Ainur
who entered Ea other than the Valar. This may be an abuse of
language: Tolkien defines "Maiar" in the "Valaquenta" when writing of
"servants and helpers" of the Valar, but some Ainur could have entered
Ea entirely unaffiliated with the Valar and their labors (Bombadil
displays no clear affiliation). As the following discussion does not
distinguish between them, I treat both cases together. I have chosen
to use the term "Maia" rather than "Ainu who is not a Vala" mostly for
convenience, but also because it is the most common claim of this
sort. Note that under this definition a "Maia" could potentially be
as powerful as the lesser Valar.
Arguments Favoring Bombadil as a Maia
The primary argument for the theory that Bombadil is a Maia is a
simple process of elimination: of all the sentient "races" explicitly
named in canonical texts, the only group we have not ruled out is the
Maiar. This is a very familiar argument, but despite the criticisms
and alternate suggestions discussed below its strength cannot be
emphasized enough: any other claims about Bombadil's nature are in a
way presumptuous, as they require us to add new dimensions to
Middle-earth without direct support in Tolkien's canonical writings.
While few Maiar are named or described in _The Silmarillion_ or
Tolkien's other writings, there are many indications that their
numbers were very great. The "Valaquenta" makes this clear: "Their
number is not known to the Elves, and few have names in any of the
tongues of the Children of Iluvatar". Thus, while Bombadil is not
named in _The Silmarillion_ and is not similar to any of the Maiar
described there, that in no way proves he was not one of them.
In addition to these general arguments, there is at least one quote
that suggests more directly that Bombadil may be a Maia. In the
chapter "Homeward Bound" in LotR, Gandalf tells the hobbits that he is
"going to have a long talk with Bombadil: such a talk as I have
not had in all my time. He is a moss-gatherer, and I have been a
stone doomed to rolling. But my rolling days are ending, and now
we shall have much to say to one another."
Gandalf's words suggest a kinship between the two (but certainly do
not prove one). In particular, the second sentence could indicate
that the main difference between Gandalf and Bombadil was their role
in world affairs: active or passive, respectively. As we know that
Gandalf is a Maia (in a special situation, to be sure), this would
suggest that Bombadil is one as well.
Bombadil also interacts with the Ring in surprising ways. It does
not make him invisible, he is able to make it invisible, he sees Frodo
wearing it, and Frodo is able to hand it to him without a second
thought. If Tom were a powerful Maia (or other very powerful being)
with active power over the Ring then all this is easily explained.
However, passive explanations that do not require Tom to be
particularly powerful exist as well, and Gandalf advocates a
passive view at the Council of Elrond: "Say rather that the Ring has
no power over him." To decide between these possibilities we would
need a much greater understanding of the Ring; without that, this
evidence is of little use.
This theory gives an easy explanation for Goldberry as well: if
Bombadil is a Maia, Goldberry is almost certainly the same. In some
ways, she fits that role even better than Bombadil: her affinity for
the Withywindle and her many songs about it would be very natural if
it had been her main contribution to the Music of the Ainur. More
broadly, Tom and Goldberry's frequent singing might reflect their
memory of being part of the original Music.
Objections to Bombadil as a Maia
Despite this strong case for the theory that Bombadil is a Maia,
there are questions that it leaves unanswered. To begin with, Tom
tells the hobbits, "Eldest, that's what I am." This seems to be an
important clue to Bombadil's nature, and is repeated at least twice at
the Council of Elrond: Elrond tells us that Bombadil's Elvish name
"Iarwain Ben-adar" means "oldest and fatherless", and as quoted
earlier Glorfindel says that Tom would be "Last as he was First".
What could "Eldest" or "First" mean for one of the Ainur? Only
three answers seem reasonable: that Bombadil was the "first" Ainu
created by Iluvatar, the first Ainu to enter Ea, or the first Ainu to
reach Arda or Middle-earth. However, none of these seem consistent
with Glorfindel's word "Last": Sauron at least would remain after
Bombadil was gone.
Related is Tom's claim (from "In the House of Tom Bombadil") that
"He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless--before the
Dark Lord came from Outside." This almost certainly refers to Melkor
(the dark was never truly fearless once he set his evil in motion),
but it could refer to his original arrival in Ea or to his return to
Arda from the "outer darkness" in the days of the Lamps. The former
interpretation might suggest that Bombadil was present in Ea before
any of the Ainur arrived, although such a reading is not necessary.
Another question left unanswered by the claim that Tom is a Maia is
his indifference to the Ring. As Gandalf says in the Council of
Elrond, "if he were given the Ring, he would soon forget it, or most
likely throw it away. Such things have no hold on his mind." This
attitude is entirely opposite that of all the other Maiar involved
with the Ring in the book: Sauron, Saruman, Gandalf, and conceivably
even the Balrog are all strongly drawn to the Ring. More generally,
even the Valar sometimes fell victim to Morgoth's plots, and the Ring
may have provided abilities that even a very powerful Ainu could lack.
Why, if Bombadil is a Maia, is he not tempted by the Ring?
Speaking of Bombadil, Tolkien says in Letter #144 that
"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."
To avoid the lure of the Ring, such a "vow" must be absolute. Even
those who simply desire to observe and understand the things around
them can be tempted by power. As a scientist, for example, the Ring
might tempt me with visions of how much we could learn about the world
if more people were excited by the quest for knowledge. Bombadil
somehow overcomes all such temptations effortlessly. It seems
impossible that any human could be so successful, and it is difficult
to believe that any of the Ainur would be entirely unaffected. This
is not proof that Tom is not a Maia, but that theory leaves the
question of his immunity to the Ring unanswered.
There is also at least one argument against the idea that Goldberry
is one of the Maiar. Goldberry is consistently called names like
"daughter of the River", but it is not at all clear in what sense this
could describe a Maia. In particular, a Maia whose part in the Music
of the Ainur focused on the Withywindle would more appropriately be
called its "mother" than its "daughter". I have found no good way to
reconcile this language with the Maia theory.
BOMBADIL AS A NATURE SPIRIT
To reasonably argue that Tom Bombadil is not a Maia, we must
suggest an alternative. As pointed out earlier, this requires a
greater freedom to modify Middle-earth than may be appropriate for us
as mere readers of Tolkien's works. However, if we could find a
"unique" and simple theory that explained the known facts without
being inconsistent with what we know of Middle-earth, a claim that
this was Tolkien's unstated intent would probably be justified. With
this goal in mind, we can begin to explore other options.
Tolkien's own comments in Letter #153 provide support for looking
outside the list of "usual Silmarillion entities" to explain Bombadil:
"Also T.B. exhibits another point in his attitude to the Ring, and
its failure to affect him. You must concentrate on some part,
probably relatively small, of the World (Universe), whether to
tell a tale, however long, or to learn anything however
fundamental - and therefore much will from that 'point of view' be
left out, distorted on the circumference, or seem a discordant
oddity. The power of the Ring over all concerned, even the
Wizards or Emissaries, is not a delusion - but it is not the whole
picture, even of the then state and content of that part of the
One could read this as saying that Bombadil, despite being in nature
similar to the Wizards, falls outside of the main picture because he
is not affected by the Ring. However, an equally natural reading is
that the picture of Middle-earth presented in LotR is incomplete in a
more fundamental way. This 'active' interpretation encourages us to
expand our knowledge of the "content of that part of the Universe" by
identifying a new type of being, of which Bombadil is an example.
Among the first hints that Bombadil could be some sort of nature
spirit is his first mention in _Letters_: in Letter #19, Tolkien asks
his publisher "Do you think Tom Bombadil, the spirit of the
(vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside, could be made into the
hero of a story?" Like the early drafts of LotR, this 1937 letter
cannot be considered trustworthy: Bombadil may have changed a great
deal as he was assimilated into the legendarium. However, it provides
a starting point for our investigation, showing that Tom Bombadil was
a "nature spirit" when Tolkien first imagined him. It seems
reasonable to wonder if this view remained unchanged.
Canonical support for this claim can be found in Galdor's statement
at the Council of Elrond: "Power to defy our Enemy is not in him,
unless such power is in the earth itself. And yet we see that Sauron
can torture and destroy the very hills." Galdor directly associates
the power of Bombadil with that of "the earth itself", and even uses
Sauron's ability to destroy the hills as an argument that Sauron could
defeat Bombadil. This may be the strongest evidence that Tom is
essentially related to the natural world. It is also difficult to
reconcile with the Bombadil-as-Maia theory: a Maia may have helped to
shape the earth, but the ability of another Maia to reshape it
elsewhere is hardly an argument about their relative power.
Goldberry as a Nature Spirit
Because Bombadil is said to be "Eldest" and otherwise unique, he is
a poor starting place for understanding a general class of beings. On
the other hand, Goldberry is a relatively simple character, so we
begin with her. The evidence suggesting that she is a nature spirit
can teach us about them as a class, and because she and Tom are likely
similar in nature this gives indirect evidence about him as well.
One of the strongest statements supporting this identity for
Goldberry comes from Letter #210, in which Tolkien says "We are not in
'fairy-land', but in real river-lands in autumn. Goldberry represents
the actual seasonal changes in such lands." This letter, written well
after LotR, indicates that Tolkien saw Goldberry as a nature spirit in
some sense, one associated with river-lands and seasons.
The repeated statement that Goldberry was "daughter of the River"
also fits well with this idea. If nature spirits in Middle-earth
arise in association with features of the natural landscape (a
possibility discussed below), it would be fitting for a spirit
connected to the Withywindle to be called its "daughter". Names
aside, Goldberry's voice is repeatedly compared to water and the
river, and her songs evoke potent water imagery:
"Then another clear voice, as young and as ancient as Spring, like
the song of a glad water flowing down into the night from a bright
morning in the hills, came falling like silver to meet them".
--"The Old Forest"
"...there came falling gently as if it was flowing down the rain
out of the sky, the clear voice of Goldberry singing up above them.
They could hear few words, but it seemed plain to them that the
song was a rain song, as sweet as showers on dry hills, that told
the tale of a river from the spring in the highlands to the Sea far
"Goldberry sang many songs for them, songs that began merrily in
the hills and fell softly down into silence; and in the silences
they saw in their minds pools and waters wider than any they had
known, and looking into them they saw the sky below them and the
stars like jewels in the depths."
--"In the House of Tom Bombadil"
"...but at that moment a clear call came rippling down."
--"Fog on the Barrow-Downs"
None of this means that Goldberry must be a river spirit, but it
certainly fits that idea very well. The imagery is frequent and
unambiguous: Goldberry certainly felt closely tied to the river,
whether by nature or by choice.
A close connection with the Withywindle is also indicated by Tom's
story of finding Goldberry: in the chapter "In the House of Tom
Bombadil", Tom sings of water lilies
"in a wide pool, deep and clear, far down the Withywindle; there
they open first in spring and there they linger latest. By that
pool long ago I found the River-daughter, fair young Goldberry
sitting in the rushes."
Anyone can sit in the rushes by a river; this does not mean she was a
nature spirit. However, like the earlier quotes this is consistent
with the notion that Goldberry was intrinsically associated with the
Withywindle and its seasons; it may be significant that Goldberry's
pool held the most lasting spring and summer lilies.
A seasonal connection is also found in Frodo's verse at their first
meeting ("In the House of Tom Bombadil"): "O spring-time and
summer-time, and spring again after!" Frodo connects Goldberry with
spring and summer, although we don't know the inspiration for his
words: one of Bombadil's unrecorded songs, some deep perception of her
true nature, or simple poetry. The first quote describing Goldberry's
voice mentions spring as well.
A last and very subjective argument along these lines comes from
Frodo's reaction to Goldberry's voice at the beginning of the chapter
"In the House of Tom Bombadil":
"He stood as he had at times stood enchanted by fair elven-voices;
but the spell that was now laid upon him was different: less keen
and lofty was the delight, but deeper and nearer to mortal heart;
marvelous and yet not strange."
This reaction seems very appropriate in response to a nature spirit
associated with the seasons. Where the Elves feel strange to mortals
because their immortality holds them above the world's changes, a
spirit of the seasons might seem marvelous but would be familiar to
them on a very deep level: change is a fundamental aspect of mortal
life. This quote also gives another hint that Goldberry is not one of
the Ainur: the Ainur always seem even more "lofty" than the Elves.
Other Possible Nature Spirits
If Bombadil and Goldberry are nature spirits, it is possible that
they are the only ones Tolkien ever mentioned. However, the more
potential nature spirits we identify, the more likely it is that such
beings were part of Tolkien's vision for Middle-earth. Also, several
examples would be necessary to learn anything about them as a general
class. While the examples that follow are not meant as convincing
evidence that the "canonical" Middle-earth contains nature spirits,
they support that idea and help inspire the specific theory about them
presented in the next section.
Tolkien's earliest stories explicitly contain "nature spirits" of a
sort. "The Coming of the Valar" is _The Book of Lost Tales I_ tells
of "the sylphs of the airs and of the winds", "the spirits of the foam
and the surf of the ocean", and
"the sprites of trees and woods, of dale and forest and
mountain-side, or those that sing amid the grass at morning and
chant among the standing corn at eve. These are... brownies, fays,
pixies, leprawns, and what else are they not called, for their
number is very great... they were born before the world and are
older than its oldest, and are not of it, but laugh at it much, for
had they not somewhat to do with its making, so that it is for the
most part a play for them..."
In the language of the later stories, these spirits were the Maiar.
However, while the "Valaquenta" says that "in Middle-earth the Maiar
have seldom appeared in form visible to Elves and Men", these spirits
seem to have been known throughout the world.
Later revisions hint that Tolkien changed his mind on the origin of
some of these spirits. The last outline for "Gilfanon's Tale" says of
the "Shadow Folk" that
"These were fays (C); no one knows whence they came: they are not of
the Valar nor of Melko, but it is thought that they came from the
outer void and primeval dark when the world was first fashioned."
("(C)" refers to an intermediate outline; I am not sure what it means
here.) In the Lost Tales, all of the Ainur who entered the world were
called Valar, so at least some "fays" now had very different origins.
While none of this reflects Tolkien's later vision, it shows that he
did once imagine nature spirits in Middle-earth.
As already stated, there are no obvious examples of nature spirits
in Tolkien's later writings, and most of the beings in Middle-earth
are explained in one place or another. However, there is at least one
wholly unexplained race in the canonical texts: the giants seen by
Bilbo in _The Hobbit_. While we cannot prove that they are nature
spirits, that possibility suggests some interesting conclusions.
Some have suggested that the giants were not real, but this claim
is difficult to support. Bilbo both sees them ("he saw that across
the valley the stone-giants were out, and were hurling rocks") and
hears them ("They could hear the giants guffawing and shouting").
Thorin worries about being "picked up by some giant" and Gandalf "was
far from happy about the giants himself." Gandalf mentions them
later, too: he hopes to "find a more or less decent giant" to block
the goblins' new gate, and he tells Beorn about them. In short,
giants have a firm presence in _The Hobbit_, and it is not our place
to reject them. They may even be present in LotR: some suggest that
the stones that fall near the Fellowship on the Redhorn Pass were
thrown by giants, though they remained unseen in the blizzard.
What are giants, and why are they absent from Tolkien's other
published writings? (They did appear in drafts of LotR, but most
references to them were either removed or evolved into the Ents.)
They could be very large humans, just as hobbits are very small ones,
but this does not explain their lack of involvement in Middle-earth.
They could be independent Maiar with a fondness for chaos, but this
also leaves a great many questions unanswered. They could be a
particularly large breed of troll, unable to travel far from their
great mountain lairs lest they turn to stone in the sunlight. Many
explanations are possible, and none are entirely satisfying.
We are interested in the possibility that giants are nature
spirits, so we will look for similarities between them and Goldberry
with this possibility in mind. The more similarities that we find,
the more likely it is that they are "related", and the better our
understanding of nature spirits in general.
One clear similarity between Goldberry and the giants is that both
seem to stay in a relatively small area. Goldberry is only seen near
the Withywindle, and giants are only seen high in the mountains.
Another is their affinity for particular aspects of their home
territory: as noted above, Goldberry is closely connected with the
Withywindle, while the giants are called "stone-giants" and seem to
spend a great deal of time with rocks. This suggests a general rule:
nature spirits are associated with some particular feature of the
landscape, and are unable or unwilling to be separated from it. Just
as Goldberry is "daughter of the River", each giant might be the "son"
of a particular mountain peak.
A more subtle similarity is that they are all connected in some way
to the conditions of the world around them. We have already seen
evidence that Goldberry is associated with the growing seasons, from
Tolkien's direct comments to Frodo's verse to the spring and summer
lilies of the pond where Bombadil found her. For their part, the
giants are only seen during the great thunderstorm, and if they do
appear in LotR it is in the midst of a blizzard: their connection
appears to be with violent weather.
A Specific Theory About Nature Spirits
On this admittedly tenuous foundation, we can make a broader
conjecture about these beings. Nature spirits, we suggest, are each
associated with some lasting feature of the physical world which is
the source of their being; they cannot stray far from it.
Furthermore, they are not always active (perhaps not even always
physically embodied): each is associated with some condition in the
world around their "parent". This is little more than a guess, but it
is a framework that not only admits both Goldberry and the giants as
nature spirits but explains some of their behavior as well.
Could anything in the known cosmology of Middle-earth justify the
existence of such spirits? There is indirect evidence supporting at
least one possibility. As told in the "Ainulindale", Iluvatar sent
"forth into the Void the Flame Imperishable" and gave the Music of the
Ainur independent existence. We later read that the Elves believed
that "in water there lives yet the echo of the Music of the Ainur more
than in any substance". Perhaps parts of the world harboring
strong "echoes" of the Music gained some measure of independent
existence themselves. An argument can be made that the independent
existence connected with the Flame Imperishable implies consciousness,
and it would not be surprising for conscious spirits in Middle-earth
to take a humanoid forms.
Because echoes of the Music were strong in water, river spirits
would presumably be among the most common nature spirits, so Goldberry
fits naturally into this picture. Similarly, significant features of
the landscape like mountains might well hold such echoes: mountain
spirits seem very natural as well. This theory even sheds light on
the idea that nature spirits depend on the conditions around their
"parents": echoes of the Music might naturally be strengthened when
the surroundings most nearly matched the "original concept" of the
parent feature. That is, the Withywindle may have been first imagined
in the Music in the context of spring and summer, so in those seasons
the echoes would be clearest and its associated spirit would "come to
life". We know that the Misty Mountains were "reared by Melkor to
hinder the riding of Orome" [Silm., "Of the Coming of the Elves"], so
it is sensible that their most "natural" state would be filled with
storms and chaos. Bilbo's "thunder-battle" certainly qualifies, and
the Fellowship's blizzard clearly would as well.
Bombadil Himself as a Nature Spirit
With a theory about nature spirits in hand, we can finally try to
apply it to Bombadil himself. In some ways, doing so weakens this
essay: there is no single theory that all nature spirit proponents
support, and discussing a specific one makes it possible to mistake
its flaws for flaws in the entire nature spirit concept. Despite
this, I believe that a fair judgment requires the theory that Tom is a
Maia to be compared with a theory that is equally detailed and
specific. For better or worse, that is my choice; I rely on the
reader to sort the specific from the general.
If Tom is a nature spirit of the sort proposed above, we must
identify the feature of the natural world that gives rise to him. It
is promising that he seems bound to a small area just as Goldberry and
the giants are; he states this himself in "Fog on the Barrow-Downs":
"Tom's country ends here: he will not pass the borders. Tom has his
house to mind, and Goldberry is waiting!" However, his country is
just too varied. A spirit associated with the Old Forest would be
unlikely to travel so far across the Downs, while a spirit of the
Downs would be unlikely to travel deep into the Forest and beyond (in
the poem "Bombadil Goes Boating", he even visits Farmer Maggot in the
Shire). No single natural feature seems to define "Tom's country".
Moreover, Gandalf's words at the Council of Elrond directly state
that Bombadil has not always been bound to his current lands:
"now he is withdrawn into a little land, within bounds that he has
set, though none can see them, waiting perhaps for a change of
days, and he will not step beyond them."
According to this, not only did Tom once range outside "his country",
but the boundaries of that country are voluntary (and the reason he set
them seems unknown). It seems difficult to identify Bombadil as our
sort of nature spirit when he hardly seems localized at all.
Difficult does not mean impossible, however. Many facts fall into
place if we conjecture that Tom is the spirit associated with Arda,
with Middle-earth itself. Within "the vast halls of Ea", Arda is
certainly a substantial and lasting feature, and many of the greatest
Ainur centered their Music upon it. While its scale is enormous, it
still seems reasonable that this "feature of the natural world" would
have an associated nature spirit.
We can also guess at the condition in Middle-earth that would make
its nature spirit "active". Letter #153 says that Bombadil is
"a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science: the spirit
that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature,
_because they are 'other'_ and wholly independent of the enquiring
From this, we can guess that Tom was inspired to activity when
surrounded by independent, individual things that he could observe,
study, and interact with. This is certainly the "natural state" of
Middle-earth, as it was filled with all manner of interesting
geographical features and living things in the Music.
Thus, Bombadil might have become conscious of his surroundings as
soon as distinct weather patterns and seas and mountains began to
form, and it seems certain that he would be fully aware as soon as
living things appeared in Middle-earth. All this fits well with his
statement from "In the House of Tom Bombadil" that "Tom was here
before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and
the first acorn." It is not clear to what degree Tom would have
existed before the Valar and Maiar arrived to shape the world, but his
word "Eldest" and Glorfindel's "First" could easily refer to his
status as the first "native" inhabitant of Middle-earth.
Why would Bombadil withdraw into such a small area of Middle-earth?
Two reasons come easily to mind. First, his chosen country is wild
and uncultivated, so both its living things and its geographical
features are closer to their natural state. The orchards and fields
of the Shire or Bree-land might hold less interest for him than
untamed woods and deserted hills. Second, after ages of wandering,
Tom may have finally decided to settle down with his favorite river
spirit, and it is entirely possible that he needed to remain nearby to
keep Goldberry happy and "active" in his house. It is even possible
that Tom's collection of water lilies was what allowed her to live in
his house, away from the river. Tom may have needed to stay nearby to
tend the lilies and keep them growing through the winter.
This conjecture provides reasonable explanations for many of the
puzzles and hints about Bombadil. For example, Tom and Goldberry's
singing could reflect the echoes of the Music of the Ainur that gave
rise to them. This would not necessarily explain the power of those
songs over other beings, although it is plausible that echoes of the
Music that formed the world might have power within it. (While the
stone-giants are not heard to sing, their "guffawing and shouting"
might not be a terrible approximation to Melkor's part in the Music.
Or, Bombadil and Goldberry's love of music might not be typical.)
Another strength of this explanation is its close agreement with
other known facts about Bombadil. If he is the spirit of all Arda,
Galdor's statement at the Council of Elrond becomes obvious, even to
one who "knows little of [him] save the name": "Power to defy our
Enemy is not in him, unless such power is in the earth itself." These
words fit our theory perfectly.
Tom's interactions with the Ring provide more examples. Its
failure to turn him invisible might have a very simple explanation: it
might treat the spirit of Arda just as it would a piece of Arda such
as a rock or a metal chain. (A different and perhaps better
explanation is that Tom's complete lack of desire for the Ring may
have kept it from even "knowing" he was there.) As for the Ring's
corrupting effects, if Bombadil's very existence stems from a desire
to understand independent things in his surroundings, then there is
good reason for him to have truly
"taken 'a vow of poverty', renounced control, and [taken his]
delight in things for themselves without reference to [himself],
watching, observing, and to some extent knowing,"
which Tolkien says in Letter #144 is the key to avoiding the lure of
the Ring. We do not fully understand the twin worlds of the Seen and
Unseen in Middle-earth, but nature spirits could as likely as not be
aware of both, allowing Bombadil to see Frodo wearing the Ring. There
is still no clear explanation for his ability to make the Ring itself
disappear, but the spirit of Arda might be very familiar with gold and
with the uses of Morgoth element in it. We would need a considerably
better understanding of the Rings to say anything for sure.
We have already discussed how Glorfindel's word "First" applies to
Bombadil, but this theory also suggests why Bombadil would be "Last"
in the event of Sauron's victory. Just as "hobbits as miserable
slaves would please him far more than hobbits happy and free", Sauron
would eventually impose his own order on all of the wild and natural
things left in the world. (Gandalf fears this sort of victory when he
tells Denethor, "I shall not wholly fail of my task... if anything
passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and
flower again in days to come.") Tolkien writes in Letter #144 that
"Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to
continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left for him in
the world of Sauron."
Without any independent natural things left in the world to interact
with, Bombadil would no longer have the stimulus that made him
"active" in the first place. Thus, as soon as Sauron's victory was
complete and the last of the world fell under his domination,
Bombadil's reason for existing as an active, independent spirit would
be gone: he would be the Last independent "native" inhabitant of
Middle-earth just as he was the First.
After all this discussion, the true explanation for Tom Bombadil
remains in doubt. While we have narrowed the range of possibilities
substantially, both the theory that he is one of the Maiar and the
theory that he is a nature spirit seem quite viable. In the end, each
person's decision rests largely on how willing they are to extrapolate
beyond Tolkien's published words to guess at his true intent.
Identifying Bombadil and Goldberry as Maiar is a natural choice
which fits all of the known texts well, and which leaves only a few
mysteries about them unanswered. This is a very reasonable position
to take, particularly for those who prefer not to be overly aggressive
in inventing answers to the mysteries in the books.
Identifying Bombadil and Goldberry as nature spirits can provide
ready explanations for most of the mysteries about them, but this is
not surprising: if you make up an explanation from scratch, you can
choose one that fits the facts. On the other hand, the specific
nature spirit theory presented in this essay is based on a relatively
simple premise; there is not much room to "fine tune" the theory to
fit the texts. If previously unknown writings by Tolkien matched the
"predictions" of this theory, it would be greatly strengthened. Even
without such tests it remains quite appealing, at least to the more
venturesome scholars of Middle-earth.
In the end, the only firm conclusion that we can reach is that Tom
Bombadil remains an enigma; Tolkien seems to have succeeded after all.
Even if Tom is never to be understood, I think that we have learned a
bit about Middle-earth by searching for an answer, and I, at least,
have enjoyed the quest.
 In "Fog on the Barrow Downs", Bombadil makes what could be an even
stronger statement: "Out east my knowledge fails. Tom is not master
of Riders from the Black Land far beyond his country." The meaning of
"master" is unclear, but this suggests that Tom does not see himself
as "stronger" than the Nazgul.
 Because we do not fully understand the Ring, I will not even try
to list the many possible explanations for Tom's interactions with it.
However, I will mention a few possible starting points in constructing
them. Much more analysis would be needed before any of these could be
accepted, but I hope they show that explanations in which Tom has no
great power over the Ring are at least possible. (Some of these ideas
and at least one other are addressed in the section "Bombadil Himself
as a Nature Spirit".)
Tom's total lack of desire for the Ring may have kept it from
recognizing him as its "owner" rather than as an inanimate object, and
therefore prevented it from turning him invisible. His ability to
turn the Ring invisible may have resulted from his examination of it
if he recognized the mechanism by which it did the same. If the Ring
causes invisibility by transferring the body into the world of the
Unseen, then Tom's ability to see Frodo might just show that he could
see both worlds. Finally, the Ring clearly knows its current "owner"
(whether it is being carried or not), and Frodo's reluctance to give
the Ring to others may have come from fear of losing that status. As
Bombadil had absolutely no desire for the Ring and thus may not have
been a potential "owner", that reluctance may have been absent.
 Another unexplained being is Old Man Willow. We know even less
about him than about Bombadil; he could be related to the Ents or
Huorns. If he were instead a nature spirit as discussed later in this
essay, he would probably be associated with the Old Forest. It is not
clear what conditions would make him "active" (or if we even see him
so), but like Tom's his songs have some power which could indicate
some kinship between them.
Yet another possible nature spirit is Ungoliant: _The Book of Lost
Tales I_ defines her once as "the Primeval Night personified". Even
in _The Silmarillion_, she is said to have "descended from the
darkness that lies about Arda"; it is not clear if she was an Ainu.
Still more possible nature spirits are the Watcher in the Water,
Beorn, the speaking ravens and thrushes of the Lonely Mountain, and
perhaps even the Great Eagles and the Ents. (Some of these might not
fit well with the specific nature spirit theory suggested here.)
 The comments of the Fellowship on the Redhorn Pass in "The Ring
Goes South" may be relevant here. Boromir says, "Let those call it
the wind who will; there are fell voices on the air; and these stones
are aimed at us." Aragorn replies,
"I do call it the wind. But that does not make what you say
untrue. There are many evil and unfriendly things in the world
that have little love for those that go on two legs, and yet are
not in league with Sauron, but have purposes of their own. Some
have been in this world longer than he."
The last sentence in particular gives another hint that Middle-earth
contains beings absent from the usual lists. Gimli adds that
"Caradhras was called the Cruel", which may indicate a belief that the
mountain itself could somehow act. (Aragorn makes a similar comment
in "The Departure of Boromir": "The River of Gondor will take care at
least that no evil creature dishonors his bones." Notably, Faramir's
sighting shows that this prediction came true.)
 This differs somewhat from the latest text in _Morgoth's Ring_; I
assume that these are among the "slight stylistic changes... without
significance" or emendations not "of any importance" that passed
without comment in the discussion of "Ainulindale D".
 I use the term "Arda" here with some reservations. In some of
Tolkien's later writings "Arda" refers to the wh