- This section has been moved here from the main Tom Bombadil page because contributors' theories do not belong in the main page about the character, which should contain only factual information taken from Tolkien canon. Selected information that is canon can be moved back to the main page as needed.
In regard to his nature, Tolkien once said that some things should remain mysterious in any mythology, hidden even to its inventor. He placed the fate of the Entwives in this category, as well as the Pets of Queen Berúthiel, although hints of the latter story have emerged in posthumously released materials.
Tom Bombadil's mythological origins in the cosmology of Middle-earth have puzzled even the most knowledgable of Tolkien-lore. Speculative ideas about his true nature range from simply a wise Elven hermit to an angelic being (a Maia or Vala), to the creator, who is called Eru Ilúvatar in J. R. R. Tolkien's mythology, to a nature spirit, or even to the Spirit of the Music of the Ainur.
It is important to know that Tom was not only "Eldest" (his Sindarin name is Iarwain Ben-adar (Oldest and Fatherless), Dwarves named him Forn (Eldest), and Men Orald (Eldest)) in terms of the characters in The Lord of the Rings, but he was also most certainly one of J.R.R. Tolkien's earliest literary creations. Tolkien's biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, relates that Tom was inspired by a Dutch doll that belonged to the professor's eldest son Michael. This doll was said to have looked very splendid (it had a real feather in its hat), but Michael's brother John did not like it, and one day he decided to stuff it down the lavatory. The doll was rescued, and survived to become one of the heroes of the spontaneous stories that were told to the children at bedtime. These predate the writing of The Lord of the Rings. Tom Bombadil was, however, part of The Lord of the Rings from the earliest drafts.
The most common theory is that Bombadil is a Maia, supported by his claim that,"Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn [...] he knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless — before the Dark Lord came from Outside". Morgoth, the Dark Lord, was the very last of Ainur to enter Arda (excepting Tulkas); all the other Valar and Maiar, as per Tom's description, had existed there for some time before his arrival. However, this wouldn't explain why he was utterly unaffected and uninterested by the One Ring while other Maiar including Gandalf and Saruman could clearly be influenced by it.
Other possibilities (compatible with the above theory) are that he is an abstract concept; possibly the embodiment of Arda itself, a veritable "Father Nature", or some kind of 'spirit' which, unlike the Maiar, was of a non-divine nature. Not only does the Ring have no effect on him, but Tom himself seems unable to affect the Ring in return. This shows that Tom was outside the divine plan and struggle and had no position in it. During the Council of Elrond it is suggested that the Free-Peoples entrust the Ring to Tom, but this is rejected due to the probability that he would lose it, because according to Gandalf, such things had no hold on his mind. It is also stated that if Sauron were to regain the Ring, Tom Bombadil would be the last to fall. It is also stated by Galdor 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.' implying that Bombadil is in some way connected with the very earth itself.
A newer theory is Tom is the Physical Embodiment of Spirit of the Music of the Ainur. This theory is a spin off of the nature spirit theory. But it asserts that in his essence Tom is the Spirit of the Music of the Ainur and this explains his unique power and its limitations, his timelessness, his disposition, his affinity to song, his power via song over trees and barrow-wights and many of the other oddities found in his character(see external link below).
The Music Theory operates with the understanding that any spirit must be understood to be what they are personally most related to. The argument is Tom, though close to nature, ultimately separates himself from the Forest by battling against Old Man Willow and by having a different disposition than that of the Old Forest which is described as dark and full of hate for everything that goes about freely. Tom on the other hand, relates himself to song constantly, even when he was fighting the barrow-wight: "None has ever caught him yet, for Tom, he is the Master: His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster." Tolkien chose to portray Tom with a unique relation to music and that must not be overlooked. This theory has the advantage of answering many of questions around Tom more fully than the others. Indeed, the Tom, in Tolkien's world, carries within its meaning a reference to music.
Some suggest there are linguistic clues suggesting that Tom Bombadil is an avatar of the physical universe. When Frodo asks Goldberry who Bombadil is, she first replies, " He is." When Goldberry tells Frodo "He is," she is using the common tongue. Had, however, she been speaking Elvish, she would have said "Ea" Note how similar this is to the puzzle (say "friend" and enter) that Gandalf must solve to enter Moria. The answer is literally spelled out but turns on a proper translation.
Another theory in regards to the word "Ea" is that Tom Bombadil is related to the "Secret Fire" referenced in the Silmarillion. In the Silmarillion, it states, "Therefore Ilúvatar gave to their vision Being, and set it amid the Void, and the Secret Fire was sent to burn at the heart of the World; and it was called Ea." If Tom Bombadil is indeed "Ea", then that might just put him in a different light seeing him as the heart of the World where the Secret Fire exists, which is the very essence of what created Arda. Tom Bombadil therefore is not affected by the Ring because he does not care for such things. He is, or contains within himself, the substance of creation. Also, it states that Melkor sought out the Secret Fire, but could not find it because it was with Eru only. This also suggests that Tom Bombadil is directly tied to Eru if he is indeed "Ea".
There is a theory that Tom Bombadil is an Ainu governing the "time" of Middle Earth. He and Gandalf both state that he is the "eldest" and assuming this is true, no one person could possibly be older than time itself, save for Eru Ilúvatar. The ring has no effect on him because the ring has nothing to offer him; time is already immortal, and neither good nor evil. He has no real concern because his existence will still be around whether or not Sauron gets the ring back. Another hint to this idea of him being or governing time is his wife is said to govern the nature in Middle Earth. This could be a reference to Mother Nature and Father Time, with Goldberry and Bombadil occupying their roles, respectively. His wife describes him as being "Master of wood, water and hill." Time does effect all these, and even in the riddle battle between Gollum and Bilbo one of Gollum's riddles involves something that has dominion over many things with "trees" and "mountain" included, the correct answer that Bilbo gives is time.
Another possibility is that Tom Bombadil represents a friend, or many friends of Tolkien; the absolute infallibility of the character presents the idea that Tolkien himself did not believe that his own creations could affect Bombadil, a trait that would be true of Tolkien's friends and family, though he would not entrust the "ring" to Tom, suggesting that although he respects the ideas and opinions of his friends, he would not allow them to significantly change the path of the story. This again puts him at an abstract level.
Another theory is that Tom is the first living, sentient being produced by the music of Eru, prior to Melkor's dis-harmonies being added in. This would make him a sub-creation "echo" of biblical Adam, prior to the consumption of the forbidden fruit and expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Such a theory neatly explains nearly all the enigmas of Tom's nature: as a being that does not (and perhaps cannot) know death, he is rightly unconcerned with events like the the War of the Ring. As a being that does not know hunger for power or any other form of personal corruption, the One Ring can hold no power over him and would be no more than a meaningless bauble. Tolkien himself repeatedly referred to his own work as "sub-creation" reflecting the greater Creation embodied in his Roman Catholic faith, and combined with Tolkien's love for the unspoiled Oxford and Berkshire countryside which he stated that Tom embodied the spirit of, the allegory to the Garden of Eden and Adam, the "eldest and fatherless" human, seems a rather solid conception of the character.
Another theory is that Tom Bombadil is in fact a representation of Tolkien. He is eldest, because he existed before the books, he saw the first raindrops, because he wrote it, thus seeing it, he is immune to the powers of the Ring yet seems to have enough power to save the world all by himself, yet he does not, because he wrote it all down, knows what's going to happen and chooses not to interfere, for the sake of the readers. Tolkien, however, has stated that there is no embodiment of him in his works.
There is still yet another theory that Tom Bombadil (and/or his wife, Goldberry, depending on the reader's gender) is representative of the reader themselves. Supporting evidence for this includes his ability to make the ring "appear and disappear at will" (the readers' opening and closing of the book) and his ability to see Frodo even when wearing the ring (Frodo is still described in the book while wearing the ring, and therefore to the readers, he is still 'visible'). Just like Tom, the ring has no power over the reader despite its evil nature. It has been suggested that Tom Bombadil's house provides a place of safety for the reader, especially as the Lord of the Rings is a sequel to The Hobbit, a children's book, where readers are constantly reassured (e.g. in the Battle of the Five Armies, not only is Bilbo placed next to Thranduil and Gandalf, but the reader is told that he will get through it). Therefore, the House of Tom Bombadil provides a safe place for the reader, close enough to the familiar safe 'haven' of the Shire as seen in The Hobbit, yet a gateway from this safety to the danger and adventure to come. This theory of easing the reader into the danger to come is supported by similar techniques employed by Tolkien in The Hobbit, where the dwarves arrive gradually to Bag End, thus easing Bilbo into the whole idea. The passage about Tom Bombadil speaking of things such as the dark one coming a long time ago may seem to contradict this theory at first, but it may also support it. If we take this section of the book to help ease the reader into the dark and dangerous world ahead from the children's book before it, we are able take this passage to simply show that there is a lot more to Middle Earth than just the dragons, treasure and giant spiders The Hobbit presents us with.
Still another theory is that Tom Bombadil is simply a thought, a living, breathing, tangible thought that changes form and remembers all, for his Mind was there before any other being-he is the first that was created, awakening even before elves and definitely before evil. Because Tom Bombadil was before the Dark Lord in Middle-Earth, he would not have any knowledge or feeling of evil-he would view it as child's mischief or a plaything, or a game, perhaps. Due to this whole lack of evil, he would not be corrupted by anything-and thus the stresses and weights on other living things would not affect him. Only the things that live for many years, the things that are almost not temporary, are of any concern to him, and the way he sees it, no small thing as a few lives of men or a few years is to be sorrowful over. When something that was Old dies, however, it does change his mood, likely due to the fact that he misses it and desires permanence in the world. Because of this will to have permanence, his form can likely change to whatever form is needed for that age-and this theory states that he was first simply a spirit, and then weathered the first age as either a spirit or a tree or some other form of still life-and it is not until the second age that he made his home, found Goldberry (though it is likely that he found her in the first age), and settled down as a living humanoid being.
Perhaps the most far-fetched theory yet states that Tom is not really the jolly old being we see, but in fact, something eviler, and much more powerful, than Sauron and many other characters. More information about this theory can be found below. It mainly states that Tom draws his power from the willows itself, and with Sauron gone, he can set his plans into motion, whatever they may be.
One more theory features that Tom is the concentrated good will of the once neutral elder forest. This goodwill was split from the forest and manifested in Tom, making him unable to leave this area and converting the forest to the dark place, it is now. His resistance for the ring leads from the already split in half pure minded being, the ring can't affect him, because all the evil what is left, is in the forest itself. Invisibility works only on the ring - this may lead to the conclusion that the ring tries to affect Tom but the spell which separates the good from the bad and holds them in one place is more powerful, or Tom isn't a living being.
One theory suggests that Tom Bombadil is actually the Witch-king himself. Speculation is based on the facts that:
- When Frodo speaks about his encounter with the Nazgul, "There was a glint in his [Tom Bombadil's] eyes when he heard of the Riders." This could be that Bombadil was scared when he heard the name of his true identity.
- In the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, Sauron tells the Nazgul to search for Frodo. However, when Frodo's company are are at Bombadil's table, Bombadil says "...I was waiting for you. We heard news of you, and learned that you were wandering..."
- In the Barrow-wight scene, Tom Bombadil simply orders the Barrow-wights to leave, which they do without argument. Why? Because in the Appendices of The Return of the King, it is stated that there were "evil spirits out of Angmar........entered into the deserted mounds and dwelt there.” According to the theory, these spirits are the Barrow-wights and the Witch-king sent them out of Angmar, so that proves that the Witch-king/Tom Bombadil has control over the Barrow-wights.
The theory explains that Tom is simply lying about being the eldest and the Elves are kind enough not to reveal this secret (one example is Elrond, as he knows the Tom’s true identity and that is the reason for his refusal to give the One Ring to Bombadil). However, this theory is unrealistic due to the fact that the Witch-king would be more than capable of stealing the ring.
- The Riddle of Tom Bombadil, The Encyclopedia of Arda
- Tom as the Spirit of the Music of the Ainuris a theory which explores Tom's origin in relation to the Music while examining the weaknesses of the other theories.
- What is Tom Bombadil? by Steuard Jensen (a detailed explanation)
- Who is Tom Bombadil? by Gene Hargrove (a somewhat unorthodox but well-presented essay)
- images of Tom Bombadil
- http://km-515.livejournal.com/1042.html, a possibly controversial theory that states Tom is an evil being, something more powerful then anything in the books.