In Defense of Tom Bombadil


As I said last week, reactions around the tubes to my story How I Defeated the Tolkien Estate at The Toast have been overwhelmingly positive, when not slightly confused about whether or not it actually happened (it did[n’t]). Funnily enough, the part of the story that people seem to enjoy the most isn’t so much the satire of Tolkien, but the satire of Academia. Academia is apparently less an Ivory than a Dark Tower for those of us who’ve spent any time in it.

Still, there has been some criticism, and that’s that I insulted the character of Tom Bombadil. In the story I wrote:

Translating the Red Book led to more than a few surprises. I discovered that the Tom Bombadil chapters weren’t original to the text at all, but had been inserted by a different author at a later date. They’re written in the Adûni dialect of Bree, not Sûzat, and judging by the sloppy handwriting, whoever wrote them was almost certainly drunk, a child, or both.

It’s easy to take potshots at Bombadil, so I did. He’s a ridiculous character, a sort of whimsical hobo who wanders around singing silly songs and making rhymes, and contributes little to the plot. He rescues Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin from an evil tree and a haunted tomb, and puts them up at his cabin for a while, and then vanishes from the narrative.

We also don’t even know what Bombadil is. He’s completely unaffected by the Ring, and he claims to have been around since before “the first raindrop and the first acorn… before the Dark Lord came from Outside,” and is known by others as “oldest and fatherless.” He’s ancient, older than Galadriel, older than Treebeard, older even than Sauron. He might be a Maia spirit (an angel, basically, like Gandalf and Sauron), or a Vala (an archangel or god), or even Eru/God Himself, though none of those fit.

Many people feel his chapters are a pointless diversion from the main story, and it’s telling that neither Peter Jackson nor Ralph Bakshi included him in their adaptations. Hell, Jackson didn’t even include Bombadil in his Hobbit trilogy, despite throwing in literally every other Middle-earth character he has the rights to. I mean, we even got a scene set in freaking Rhosgobel, but no Bombadil.

I actually LIKE the Tom Bombadil chapters, but you can’t write about Lord of the Rings as a translated ancient text and not address the weird incongruity that is that section of Fellowship of the Ring. Love them or hate them, the Bombadil chapters are famous (or infamous) for how weird and out-of-place they seem. But, really, that’s the beauty of them. Bombadil works BECAUSE he’s so damn weird. There’s really nobody else like him in the genre.

Tom Bombadil makes The Lord of the Rings. Wait, wait, HEAR ME OUT. Take out Bombadil, and Tolkien’s epic isn’t that different from the hundreds of high fantasy epics that came in its wake. Funny and fantastical as they can be, there’s nothing in Star Wars or Harry Potter or Game of Thrones as delightfully WTF as Tom Bombadil, and those epics are the poorer for it.

Part of Bombadil’s charm, and the frustration with him, is his pure apathy for the plot happening around him. The Ents and Eagles also take some convincing to get involved, but Bombadil can’t even be bothered to be bothered. How many other epics have a character who gives not a single shit about the narrative in which they find themselves? Sure, you have your jaded jag-offs like Han Solo here and there, but they usually get roped into the plot eventually. Bombadil cares about the other characters in the story, but couldn’t care less about the story itself.

And that is the key to understanding Bombadil’s true nature, and his place inside and outside the story.

As a commenter on this Quora thread states:

The character of Bombadil is older than the Middle Earth universe itself — in real life, I mean, in terms of Tolkien’s creative work. Tom was a character in Tolkien’s poetry for children long before The Hobbit and LotR came into being — hence he is “oldest.”

He was based on a Dutch doll with which Tolkien’s children liked to play. As a doll, he would certainly be “fatherless,” and he would also be “fatherless” in the genealogy of Arda, as he was in no sense a creation of Eru Ilúvatar.

I love this theory. The reason Tom doesn’t seem to fit in the story, the reason Tom doesn’t care about it, and isn’t affected by its central object, is because he’s not part of it. He wandered in from a different story.

It’s a delightfully meta explanation, and one that works well with Tolkien’s overall project. After all, storytelling and myth-making are central concerns of Tolkien’s, and central themes of his work. The entire conceit of the Red Book of Westmarch is based on how stories are told, retold, added to, passed down, and translated. The earliest versions of Tolkien’s tales were actually framed as stories told to an Anglo-Saxon mariner who washed up on an Elvish island off the coast of Valinor. Bombadil is just this theme made manifest.

So, yes, Tom Bombadil is a diversion, but isn’t part of the point of visiting a different world in a book the diversions? Tom Bombadil makes Middle-earth a deeper, richer, weirder, and more meta place, and thank Eru for that.

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