Who is Tom Bombadil?
When I walked into class on Wednesday and saw that this was a question we were going to address, I was thrilled. Every since I first read the books I have been enchanted by the character of Tom Bombadil. Why was he there? What does he mean? What is his role? He always remained a character of intrigue because it is seemed so clear to me that he is important but it was not always clear to me why he is important.
A few years after I had first read the books, I was in my high school Latin class and we were discussing Philosophy that day, specifically the story of the “Ring of Gyges”. For those of you unfamiliar with the myth, Gyges was a shepard in Lydia who one day discovers a ring in a tomb. He decides to put it on and realizes that rotating the ring 180 degrees around his finger causes him to become invisible. After discovering this he goes to report to the king on the status of the flocks. Upon his arrival he uses the ring to seduce the Queen and murder the King, eventually becoming the King of Lydia himself. He uses the ring to gain power and wealth. This story related to us in Plato’s Republic to call into question whether anyone would be able to resist the temptation of the ring, to resist the ability to gain power and wealth through immoral acts if they were positive that there would be no consequences. To me the answer was yes, Tom Bombadil. Tom Bombadil was unaffected by The Ring, it had no power over him, temptation had no power over him.
However, it was not until discussion on Wednesday that I began to understand why. Why Tom Bombadil was important? and why he was able to resist the temptation of The Ring? After discussion I believe I have found some of the answer to these questions that have been haunting me for years. We discussed the role that Tom Bombadil plays is that of the storyteller. He tells the hobbits stories of different times and different places, and through these stories he enchants them. He employs Fairy-Stories to create Fantasy just how Tolkien believes it should be used, as related to us in his essay "On Fairy Stories". And so, the hobbits upon the moment of Recovery, or returning to their Primary World, are able to see the world in a new light, they are strangers entering the Perilous Realm. It is at this point also that the reader begins to become enchanted, begins to enter the Perilous Realm herself.
“Tom Bombadil is the Master” Goldberry explains to the hobbits, “He has no fear,” (Lord of the Rings, 124). While this statement is never fully explained in the text, we are just told that is does not mean that he owns the “wood, water, and hill,” but rather that each thing belongs to itself. Tolkien never seemed to believe that the Middle-Earth belonged to him but rather that he was writing down something that already existed. Tolkien seems to criticize the idea of the sub-creator owning his sub-creation in the story “Leaf by Niggle.” In the story Niggle became obsessed with his painting, his creation, however he did not think of it as something that others would appreciate and never looked to others for help or advice, and thus he never finished or was satisfied with his work. It wasn’t until Niggle let Parish give him help and advice that his creation could be fulfilled, he had to denounce the fact that it did not belong solely to him in order for the creation to flourish. Tom Bombadil is the storyteller, he is the master, he is Eldest.
“Tom was here before the rivers 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 Lord of the Rings, 131).
Tom was there before Middle-Earth existed. His role is the sub-creator of the land. It is because of this that he is not only unaffected by The Ring, but also able to make it disappear. As the sub-creator he is fulfilling the most innate of rights given to men, he has already created his world, he does not need power or wealth. He has no reason for wanting to disappear, nothing he could gain from it. He is content because he has seen his creation grow and flourish. It is this unselfish creation that Tolkien endorses and believes to be so important to human existence.
Tolkien juxtaposes this type of creation to the creation of the rings of power by Sauron. Sauron claims ownership over The Ring, he also has a distinct purpose of gaining power when he forges the rings. There is nothing unselfish about his sub-creation. It is because of this that Sauron cannot fully exist without his creation and his creation is always seeking to come back to him, they depend on each other and in this way neither is fully satisfied. This type of creation seems to be harmful, yet also innate in humans. In Tolkien's poem to C.S. Lewis Mythopoeia, he writes,
"... though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seeds of dragons - 'twas our right
(used or misused). That right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we're made." (Tolkien, Mythopoeia)
In this passage, Tolkien is acknowledging that creation can be misused, but argues that misusage of creation is still our innate human right. Sauron may have misused creation and he did suffered for his misuse, but it was still his right to create. Humans constantly are making things that they believe will help them to get ahead, creating things that we come to rely on and that in return could not operate without us, like cars and weapons. However, these things rarely leave us feeling content. Not in the way that Tom is satisfied with his world, or Niggle ultimately is with Niggle’s Parish. It becomes clear that while it is human tendency to be sub-creators, what we chose to create and our intention behind our creations matters. Tom Bombadil is the ideal image of a sub-creator. He does not take ownership, he is unselfish with his creation, and therefore he is content.