Who is Bombadil? He is. According to his wife, Goldberry, and his creator, J. R. R. Tolkien, we are to be content with this. I, for one, am, because I trust the author about his own intentions and take his words as the final word about them.
But that doesn’t mean that I cannot have my own thoughts regarding such a particularly mysterious, and intriguing figure. And, as it is, I like Bombadil. Though most readers of Tolkien’s work will agree that he is a mystery, he is often found to be annoying, disruptive and, even, incongruous with the story’s style.
[…] 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, Letter #144
Tom Bombadil is an enigma, and that is just right as it is. There is no need to explain.
I suppose he has some importance as a ‘comment’ […] and he represents something that I feel important, though I would not be prepared to analyse the feeling precisely […] 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.The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Letter #153
Bombadil is a comment, a symbol of what is good and ought to be preserved, and a thing for itself, outside the story. Yet, despite his apparent immunity to major powers, such as the Ring itself, he would not be left unaffected by the actual destruction of his environment. This is of consequence, but I will come to it later on.
A common theory about Tom Bombadil’s true identity is that he is supposed to be Eru Ilúvatar himself—or at least, his incarnation in Middle-earth. Tolkien denied this, and I don’t see why I or anyone should dispute this. It is an understandable theory, as Tom Bombadil is ancient, of incomparable power and nature, and inexplicable. But he is a being for himself and his surroundings, not involved or interested in the dealings the rest of the world and its peoples.
And I, personally, don’t think it would suit Tolkien to portray his creator of Arda in such a manner—though I don’t want to make assumptions about him in that regard, just as I don’t agree with those who argue that Bombadil would not fit Tolkien’s style and narrate, because what an author includes in his work suits his style and narrative. But, aside from Tolkien’s own denial of this particular theory, I have another reason for my own thoughts regarding it: Tom Bombadil is, though older than all of Arda, not necessarily older than anyone or anything else.
“Eldest, that’s what I am. Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn. He made paths before the Big People, and saw the Little People arriving. 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. He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless—before the Dark Lord came from Outside.”The Fellowship of the Ring
Tom Bombadil lived before the world was created, or, at least, before it was as one knew it. He knew a time before “the Dark Lord came from the Outside”, which might refer to Sauron or Morgoth, although it isn’t clear whether or not he lived before their rebellion, or even before their creation.
All this does not mean that Bombadil is the great creator himself. Nor does it mean that he is one of the Ainur, as is another popular theory. As the Maiar are not immune to the One Ring’s influence, and all Valar are named and known, I consider this unlikely. Nor would it be in accordance with his singularity, and his deep connection to the place his is in.
Now, there’s a few who like the idea of Tom being evil. But it doesn’t appear to be in his nature, it doesn’t agree with Tolkien’s own comments, and wouldn’t explain what made him so different from all other life in Middle-earth. A special evil being or spirit, of greater power than is otherwise known—yes, that might be an appealing idea if one finds a jolly old man to be too boring without a sinister background, but it would still leave us where we are. Who is he? What is he? Why is he—like that?—so other?
But one of those evil theories, that he is indeed the evil spirit of the forest, comes remarkably close to my own thoughts about him.
Tom Bombadil, as Goldberry said, “is”. He represents himself, and his right to be in the story does not need an explanation, nor an apology, as it was only up to the author to make this decision. He existed, in a way, before many a part of the Legendarium, and in that sense, his own explanation of himself and his great age might be even a nod to the reader. The Lord of the Rings is, after all, a fictional translation, and many a thing just a means for the reader from our world to understand the going-ons in another. Who knows what his counterpart in the “original” Red Book of Westmarch would be, with no Dutch doll to inspire the “translator”? But I should not dive too deep into a story which, in this sense, doesn’t exist.
Shoving the art of writing and the science of stories aside for a moment, and look at the story from within, as if it were real. What could explain Tom’s nature?
I assume my idea is not better than most. But it does appeal more to me. It has so for a while, though I just now got around to writing it down.
He is older than all that is known and seen in Middle-earth, though not likely older than anything else. He is not affected by the One Ring as any mortal (or even immortal) man or otherwise sentient being would be, yet “there would be nothing left for him” under Sauron’s rule. His wife is “the River-woman’s daughter” and likely a spirit. He claims the land does not belong to him, but to itself, yet it seems also inseparable from him. He is not evil, it does not appeal to him or have immediate power over him, yet it does also not agree with him. He is not precisely good, nor does he care much about the dealings and doings of other people and beings.
His demeanour and nature are lively, earthly, and robust. And thoroughly physical—although apparently a spirit or spiritual being, he is exceedingly bodily and alive, concerned first and foremost with his wife, his land, and his food and drink. So physical, indeed, that no supernatural power seems to appeal to him so much as to fall for it, so different is his own interest, his own nature incompatible with a thing such as the One Ring.
Now I get to the tricky part—because I don’t want to make any sort of assumption about J. R. R. Tolkien’s own ideas, nor would I claim my theory to be in accordance with his intentions. But I want to say what my own idea is anyway, and I like it, because, even though I don’t think that that’s what’s supposed to be true in the book, at least not directly so—not clearly, specifically, though possibly, just possibly, at the edge of it—it is beautifully fit, compatible so to speak, not really wrong.
Tom Bombadil is Middle-earth. In one way, or another. Its spirit, perhaps, or its man-like form, its protective soul, or a representative, for the reader only, or even for its inhabitants. He, as Verlyn Flieger said, does not desire to dominate, and hence cannot be dominated. I think that is, perhaps, because he dominates all that is in his nature to dominate, and is dominated by all that his in his nature to be dominated by. Not more, nor less.
He came to Middle-earth with its creation, and he is Middle-earth in all its states and stages. He does not want more than Middle-earth, but he cannot have less than Middle-earth, because it is he and he is it. He is. Mind you—not Arda, not Eä, only Middle-earth. But Middle-earth, in its entirety.
Made and sent by Eru, but not as a person, but as a place, he cannot exist in accordance with pure evil—there would be nothing left for him—but not intervening in the doings of and dealings of his own inhabitants. At least, not going further than nature itself, in the shape of a jolly old man, could or would do.
So much for my theory.
But in truth and canon and fact, Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow, bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow. None has ever caught him yet, for Tom, he is the Master: His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster. That, I suppose, is all we ought to know.