Chapter 7 of The Fellowship of the Ring
After being chased by Black Riders, lost in the Old Forest and molested by a malignant tree, the hobbits take a break. They spend this chapter singing, bathing and catching up on their sleep. At the centre of it all is the enigmatic figure of Tom Bombadil, undoubtedly the most controversial figure in The Lord of the Rings. Tom has a polarizing effect on people. He seems to be especially hated by screenwriters. As Peter Jackson said of his decision to give Bombadil the shove:
The main reason is not just time or pace, but one of simple narrative focus ... the Bombadil sequence has so little to do with Sauron or the Ring, it is difficult to justify the screen time. It simply doesn't give us any vital new information. A very simplest rule of thumb that I use in movie storytelling is to try and further the story with each new scene.Perhaps it's true that Tom doesn't advance the narrow story of the destruction of the Ring. But if that's all there is to The Lord of the Rings, then you have a pretty impoverished view of the trilogy. I mean to say, once they're captured by the Uruk-hai, Merry and Pippin don't advance this storyline either, but no one goes around slicing their detour through Fangorn and Isengard out of the frame. So why does Tom take it in the neck?
I think that one of the reasons that people don't like Bombadil is because he is a deeply ambiguous figure, and people (in general) don't like ambiguity. Ambiguity is especially bad in a screenplay, where it tends to confuse the Members of the Academy. However, it is precisely this ambiguity that makes Tom such an important element in The Lord of the Rings. Tom may not be important to the plot narrowly construed, but he casts a fascinating light on the larger, richer story of Middle-earth.
There are a lot of theories about who Tom Bombadil actually is. A lot of theories. Is he a Maiar -- that is to say, a semi-divine being (like Gandalf)? Is he the physical embodiment of the song of the gods? Is he God himself? Some fans look for clues in Tolkien's letters, where the author describes him (somewhat awkwardly) as "an exemplar, a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science." (Letter 153, Sept. 1954). In my view, trying to slot Tom Bombadil into a tidy map of Tolkien's mythology is approaching the issue precisely backwards. The question isn't how we use Tolkien's other writings to understand Tom, but how does Tom help us understand Tolkien's mythology.
First off, I think the best way to encounter Tom Bombadil is the same way that the hobbits encounter him: as a living being who comes "charging through the grass and rushes like a cow going down to drink." Like us, the hobbits also want to understand exactly who and what Tom is. But Tom resists their interpretations as stoutly as he does ours. In response to Frodo's inquiries, Goldberry says, "He is, as you have seen him." The next day, when Frodo asks Tom directly, he replies, "Don't you know my name yet? That's the only answer. Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless?"
That last answer reminds me of the Zen koan, "What was your original face before you were born?" And indeed there's something of the stench of Zen hanging around Tom. Like in Zen, his immunity to interpretation isn't an accident -- it is his essential quality (Indeed, in the letter quoted above, Tolkien says "I don't think Tom needs philosophizing about, and is not improved by it.") All that we, or the hobbits, can know about Tom is that we don't know about Tom. Even his immunity to the Ring of Power shows that he seems to exist outside the established order of things (As one astute commentator has noted, Tom literally "looks through" the Ring).
So what does this zero add up to? Anyone with an interest in Tolkien and an internet connection knows that there are thousands of fans who seek to understand the "Legendarium" of Middle-earth. Tolkien himself invites this practice, by carefully constructing in The Silmarillion and other works a complex but cohesive mythology -- so internally consistent that it seems to come alive. As one of my favourite commentators on this site, Zhu, has pointed out, part of Tolkien's mythology is a hierarchical Chain of Being, with the creator god Iluvatar at the top and Valar, Maiar, Elves etc. cascading on down. Thus, there is a strong temptation for readers and fans to want to systematize every character and element in The Lord of the Rings -- to understand where it comes from and how it fits into the Chain of Being.
The only problem with this approach is that a truly systematized world is a dead world. Real world mythologies are always populated with the irrational and inexplicable: How come Zeus transforms into a swan to have sex? Why do the Norse gods keep listening to Loki's advice? Where do Cain and Abel's wives come from? I think Tolkien grasped this point. Although he clearly had a powerful impulse to organize his own world, he also understood that there must be enough room for the mysterious, the irrational and the unknowable to let the whole thing breathe.
Tom plays that part. He lets us know that Middle-earth will always defy our full understanding. Nor is he the only one in Tolkien's writings. I would argue that in The Silmarillion, Ungoliant takes a similar role. Consider: after a carefully laid out cosmology which seems to explain the origins of absolutely everything ("The Music of the Ainur"), Tolkien abruptly presents this giant, malevolent void-spider. Ungoliant tears into the story. She has no origin, no place on the Chain of Being and seemingly no death. She literally comes out of nowhere. Just like Tom.
In sum, Tom Bombadil teaches us something vital about Tolkien's mythology: that it can never be fully comprehended. His ambiguous and mysterious nature let us know that ambiguity and mystery are at the heart of The Lord of the Rings.
[Image credit: The Brothers Hildebrandt "Tom Bombadil" Acrylic on Board (1976).]
You can find my commentary on Chapter 6 here.