Who on (Middle) earth is Tom Bombadil? The question has vexed generations of fans and probably produced more speculation than any other aspect of the mythology of Middle Earth. The Good Professor himself is little help in answering the question. ‘… 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 p174.
Given this statement it seems unlikely we will ever decide who ‘the Master’ is, which is just as well, but to keep the stone rolling I would like to offer some new interpretations which I have not come across elsewhere. These speculations are based on the work of Dr John Carey of University College, Cork, who has been examining how the ancient Celtic myths of Ireland were recorded and — to a degree — even accepted by the Catholic monks who wrote them down and thus preserved them. This is interesting both intrinsically and also because I would think it likely that Tolkien himself knew these sources and the problem these Irish Catholic monks were struggling with was one familiar to Tolkien: how to reconcile his fundamental Catholic faith with his love for the pagan lore and legends of these isles?
Now the Irish monks of the sixth century onwards were faced with the same problem. While the rest of Europe was struggling against waves of barbarian invasions Ireland enjoyed three hundred years of relative peace during which it earned the title ‘the land of saints and scholars.’ Around the great basin of the Mediterranean the old gods of Greece and Rome had long ceased to be objects of religious awe, becoming either buffoons or degenerates and sometimes both at once (Zeus seems to have spent most of his time assuming animal shapes and violating beautiful virgins). So it was not surprising that the early Church adopted one of two modes of explanation of the Classical gods: either they were human beings of long ago whose tales had, over the course of centuries, become so inflated that they were deemed to be gods (an idea which goes under the name, believe it or not, of euhemerism), or they were demons, delegates of the fallen angel Lucifer sent to deceive mankind. And given the centuries of persecution and martyrdom endured by the Church in a Roman state under the tutelage of these old gods it is not surprising that the verdict of the Church Fathers on the Classical pantheon was harsh.
But in Ireland the situation was different. There Christianity had but lately supplanted druidism and had done so peacefully. Indeed John Carey speculates that many members of druidic families may well have entered the Church themselves, bringing with them, largely intact, the legends and stories of the old gods. So, the monks had a problem. Should they simply declare the old gods to be demons, defeated by the new God, Christ? All the records, according to John Carey, show they were extremely reluctant to do that. Instead, over the coming few centuries various scribes and monks — the two terms being pretty well synonymous at the time — proposed variations on three, theologically very daring, schemes.
Their first reading of the old legends was that the old gods were half fallen angels. That is, when Lucifer rebelled against God and was expelled with his followers from Heaven there was a third group of angels who sided neither with Lucifer, nor with St Michael the Archangel, but rather were undecided. Thus, although they could no longer dwell in Heaven, yet they did not deserve hell. So they were expelled to the midway point between Heaven and hell, to the Earth, the Middle Earth. Therefore, according to this idea, the old gods were indeed truly supernatural creatures, but not demonic, nor yet quite angelic, but rather set apart on Earth as ‘wise, benevolent and blessed beings’ (Carey 98).
What relevance does this have to Tom Bombadil? Well, the idea of half fallen angels has an echo in the Ainulindale when some of the Ainur, dismayed at the clamour raised up by Melkor, fall silent, not joining with Melkor’s theme but neither singing the music of Illuvatar. However, I cannot say that Tom Bombadil seems to be in any way a creature who cannot make up his mind between good and evil. But if Tom was an Ainur it would explain both his great power and also, possibly, his age. And it would suggest an answer to how, as Glorfindel suggests, Tom Bombadil could be ‘Last as he was First,’ since one would guess the penalty for a half fallen angel would indeed be expulsion from the heavenly realms until the final resolution of all things.
So that is one possible reading of Tom Bombadil. Another is based on the even more theologically daring explanation adopted by some monks for the old gods that ‘these undying, unfallen beings are… descended from Adam, a branch of the human race which somehow escaped the contagion of the Fall with all its dire consequences’ (Carey 98). Thus the old gods were not demons but rather true human beings in the state of perfection in which we were originally created by God.
How does this fit with Tom? Well, I must say I find attractive the idea that Tom Bombadil may represent primordial man, unfallen and unsullied, and that would certainly explain why the Ring can have no power over him, and why he has no fear. And another area where this interpretation resonates is that if Tom is primordial man he would indeed be the first and the last. If one looks at Genesis chapter 2, there one sees an account of creation where Adam is created first and then the ‘Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name’ (Genesis 2:19-20). This seems to me to approximate to Tom being the Master yet not owning the land and creatures where he lives. They are each their own but Tom is their Master, like Adam in the Garden before the Fall.
The final explanation adopted by the old Catholic monks of Ireland for the old gods of their land is one that Tolkien certainly employed for his own mythology, even if he was unaware that he had been anticipated. For they suggested that the old gods were, in fact, angels, pure and simple, messengers from God Himself sent to prepare the way for the coming of Christ. In the mythology of Middle Earth the Valar are, of course, angels rather than gods, so our final suggestion for Tom is that he may be a fully fledged, completely unfallen Valar. But for myself he seems just too earthy to be an angel.
So, is Tom a half fallen angel, an angel on holiday, or Adam’s unfallen twin brother? Of course, I cannot say for certain, but I hope you might have found interesting how other people, many centuries before the Good Professor, struggled to solve problems similar to those he wrestled with himself.
Quotations are from a lecture by Dr John Carey (19/1/98) Early Irish Christianity: the Baptism of the Gods. Lecture given at the Temenos Academy. Cassette available from: The Temenos Academy, PO Box 203, Ashford, Kent TN25 5ZT. E-mail: email@example.com
Books by Dr John Carey include:
A Single Ray of the Sun: Religious Speculation in Early Ireland. Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies. ISBN 189127103-.
King of Mysteries: Early Irish Religious Writings. Four Courts Press, Dublin. ISBN 185182572X.
The Celtic Heroic Age: Translations of early Celtic fragments). Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies. ISBN 1891271040.