In the Middle Earth portrayed by Peter Jackson, the One Ring is universally potent. No character or creature remains entirely immune from its corrupting effects. As a result, the conflict surrounding the Ringbearer’s quest encompasses all that there is. Frodo fails, and the world is lost. Frodo destroys the Ring, and the world is saved. Generally speaking, Tolkien paints a similar picture with regard to the Fellowship and its allies – their individual worlds do indeed existentially depend upon the result of Frodo’s errand. However, a key difference remains, one whose illustrative importance clearly separates original from adaptation regarding the concept of will and choice. That difference is Tom Bombadil.
Though he is a narrative oddity, the utter separation of Bombadil’s little world from the cares and tribulations of Middle Earth at large merits some scrutiny. The hobbits’ sojourn into the Old Forest, Bombadil’s residence, and the Barrow Downs represents a significant break from both overall plot and locational narrative. During this time – and it is no accident we receive no clear idea of the span the travelers spend as Tom’s guests – the tantamount importance of the Ring and its master are summarily brushed aside. The object itself becomes trivial in Bombadil’s hands, a prop for his playful legerdemain. The question inevitably arises: who is Tom Bombadil? If one examines Bombadil in an analytical light, several cases become possible, each substantiated to an uncertain extent by the text. Is he Nature itself, Arda personified? Perhaps he is an avatar of the Vala spirit Aule, and Goldberry his wife Yavanna. Is Bombadil Iluvatar? Or perhaps he is some mysterious Maia spirit. Every attempt to positively locate Bombadil within the ontology of intelligent life Tolkien provides must inevitably be left open-ended. Tolkien emphasizes this point in his letters: “he needs no philosophizing about”. His role is peripheral to the primary story arc, and his fundamental enigmatic nature demonstrates that the Lord of the Rings is in no way all encompassing, or reported by omniscient narration (Letter 153).
Though we must be content with Tom’s vague ontological status, Tolkien in the same letter does give Tom leeway to be interpreted as a representation of certain ideas and traits otherwise left unconveyed. Tom is no simple allegory – the story offers an array of such threads that may be picked up. There is one in particular I would like to focus on. Repeatedly, Bombadil is referred to as “Master”. In his letter, Tolkien explains what this entails: “he has no desire for possession or domination at all,” (Letter 153). In the chapter “In the House of Tom Bombadil”, Frodo yields the Ring to his host, who is triumphantly unaffected by its corruption and enchantment (Bk. 1, Ch. 7). Later on, during the Council of Elrond, Gandalf asserts that the Ring is powerless over Tom, because “he is his own master,” (Bk. 2, Ch. 2). For all his immunity to the Ring’s power to instill a desire for dominance, Bombadil is a supremely dominant character. The means by which he divests Frodo of the Ring is a peremptory command: “Show me the precious Ring!” Frodo’s obedience is instantaneous, and it “astonishes” him, (Bk. 1, Ch. 7). The Ring’s attraction is this: it can bend others to the holder’s will. Tom appears to possess that power even without the Ring. But doesn’t this act signify ultimate evil?
I for one am unwilling to view Bombadil as a creature of malice. His intentions – if they exist at all – are indistinct, clouded by untold depths of time. He is inherently selfish – he cares not for the problems of the world outside, but his attitude assumes an inherent conservatism and respect for the lives and wills outside of his own. Though it is unlikely Tolkien viewed Nietzsche’s works with high regard, one particular interpretation of the “will to power” concept is particularly relevant here. While the traditional interpretation of Nietzsche’s words, enigmatic as Bombadil himself, is that the natural morality of humanity is based upon dominance over others, it is possible Nietzsche intended his dominant figure to sublimate even that impulse, achieving dominance over the self, the highest form of mastery. Bombadil has achieved perfect mastery over himself. The self in this case is split between master and servant, with each fulfilling its eponymous role. A reflexive conception of an individual’s mastery necessitates continual negation of free will (the power to choose) – every time a choice is made and an action embarked upon, the other choices are irrevocably lost. If the negation of free will is Evil, then conscious life is a continual succession of evil, which seems a patent absurdity.
Recall Tolkien’s words: Tom has no desire for domination. In other words, the perfect master has no desire for mastery, as that mastery is already in place (over, first and foremost, the self). Bombadil thus illustrates a vital component of the morality of free will and choice in Tolkien’s secondary reality: patterns of mastery and domination already exist, are intrinsic to the natural and social reality of Middle Earth, and cannot be meaningfully classified morally. Sam is the servant of Frodo. A knight of Rohan owes service to King Théoden. Bombadil may command Old Man Willow. These relationships are neither explicitly good nor evil – they simply are, as, presumably, Iluvatar intended them. The Bombadil character thus necessitates a revision in the morality of free will and choice. Denial of free will, not as an act but as a state of being, is not evil unless it contradicts the hierarchical equilibrium of Arda as envisioned by Iluvatar. Melkor’s dominance was perverse because he desired more of it than he was originally allotted. The Ring’s dominance shares this perversion: it stimulates a desire for dominance beyond what is right and proper. Gandalf using the Ring, for example, “would make good detestable and seem evil” by assuming undue dominance over the wills of others, even for the purpose of defeating Sauron (Letter 246).
Tom Bombadil is triumphantly free from all desire for dominance and power, and paradoxically appears all the more omnipotent. His self-mastery ensures he remains in keeping with the hierarchical equilibrium of Middle Earth, and he cannot fall into Evil. The depth of the interlude in which he is Master, however, extends far beyond this one point. Bombadil is also both storyteller and Elf-friend, and husband to Goldberry, whose identity is yet another puzzle. He has the power of naming (the ponies) and control over the weather and the land. In Letter 153, Tolkien describes Tom as a kind of muse of pure knowledge. Finally, during Bombadil’s chapters, the hobbits are beset by spells of sleep and strange visions and vistas of time, the most portentous possibly being the vision of ancient Men after the adventure of the Barrow-Downs, the last with a star on his brow (Bk. 1, Ch. 8). Make of that what you will.