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Tom Bombadil

I’m not a JRR Tolkien fan—I like him, but I’m not really into him. I watched the LotR films when they first came out and was surprised I liked them—I was reluctant to go, since I prefer science fiction, but I found I really liked them. Then I read the books, but not properly—and I tended to prefer the films still (which I’ve watched quite a few times).

There’s this character in his work, Tom Bombadil, that seems to mystify people quite a bit; but it’s obvious to me who this character is. He was Tolkien’s first creation, apparently, and I think that shows in the name—somehow he doesn’t feel “part” of the LotR mythology to me, he feels a bit crude and childish; and that’s because he was Tolkien’s first attempt at a fictional character.

Tolkien says the character plays no real role in the narrative of the LotR—he’s just there to be “a mystery”, as even required in a mythical world. Well, to me it’s obvious that Tom Bombadil is the Godhead: he is “I am what I am”, or tat tvam asi (“Thou art what thou art”). Indeed, his wife, Goldberry, even says, with reference to him, “He is.”

Tolkien apparently denied that this referred to “I am what I am”, but I suspect he did so because to assert identity between this character and “I am what I am” would be seen as profane to a Christian audience and to wider English society.

However, it conforms to other aspects in Bombadil’s character; he is referred to as “the master” and “the eldest” who existed “before time” (the first character, both in metaphysics and in Tolkien’s own fictional creation). Bombadil is entirely unaffected by the ring of power: when Frodo wears it Bombadil can see him when he is invisible to all others—and Bombadil can put the ring on and be unaffected by it, not turn invisible. He has no desire for it, so cannot be corrupted by it. He “looks through it with his blue eye” (Aryan).

Frodo has two dreams in Bombadil’s house, one that concerns Gandalf that comes true and one that realises its truth as he journeys to “the Western Lands” at the story’s end—in other words, he dreams of his own ascension to what is, in effect, heaven in Tom Bombadil’s house.

When it is suggested that Bombadil be entrusted with the ring Gandalf says he’ll just lose it because it wouldn’t seem important to him. At the story’s end, Gandalf goes to spend time with Bombadil in the woods—because he is a “moss-gatherer”, he’s just doing his own thing (wrapped up in his own business in an unselfconscious way).

Tom Bombadil only does things for their own sake, for their own joy—hence he is entirely self-sufficient. He is free from the desire to control, hence he controls all—it makes him the opposite to Sauron, who is all about control.

Indeed, he plays with the ring—throws it in the air and makes it disappear, then makes it appear in his other hand. That’s because the ring means nothing to him, it’s just an object to play with—whereas everyone else is filled with desire for it.

He’s taken out of the films, of course, because the films were made to make money—they’re not done for their own sake, so he makes no sense in them.

So all Bombadil wants to hear about from Gandalf is not their great adventure but his conversations with Middle Earth’s ancient Ents—with the trees. It’s an allusion to the Tree of Life, to the Hermetic tree in tantra and kabbalah. The trees are our souls, the birds are the angels.

After all, Bombadil claims to have been there with “the first raindrop and the first acorn", and that he "knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless—before the Dark Lord came from Outside". In other words, he is the primal mystery: the Godhead that creates for its own sake, as a divine game, and without condition—and, therefore, from pure love.


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