What amazes me about Tom Bombadil, and what I think amazes everyone else who tries to answer the question, “Who or what is Tom Bombadil?” is that there is not a clear answer. Tom Bombadil, unlike every other creature that one encounters in the Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit, does not fit into the neatly defined categories of beings that inhabit Middle-Earth. One of the things that Tolkien says about Fantasy in “On Fairy-Stories” is that it is an exercise of reason, and that it is hard because of this. It is hard to create a world that is as orderly as our own, but that has key differences, because those differences tend to breed paradoxes. Tom Bombadil appears to be one of those paradoxes, inserted into the otherwise extremely orderly Middle-Earth. This is what draws many people to look at Tom Bombadil more closely and to attempt to figure out where he fits in the classification systems that Tolkien set up. Theories that Tom Bombadil is Eru Ilúvatar himself, or one of the angelic Vala or Maia, have abounded. A personal favorite theory is that Bombadil is in fact the spirit of the land itself, explaining his lack of care for the One Ring as being a matter for the beings who inhabited the land, not the land itself.
But Tolkien never let those theories take hold. He is always quoted as saying that Tom Bombadil is one of those mysteries that will never be solved, like the Entwives. This of course has not stopped anyone from trying to figure out whom and what Tom is of course, but the fact remains that we will never truly know, simply because it seems likely that even the storyteller himself didn’t know. Tolkien’s universe is notable, if for nothing else, for its strict internal consistency. Yet even a storyteller as consistent as Tolkien allowed a few inconsistencies to slip through. It is curious that the one thing that eludes even Tolkien himself is another storyteller within Tolkien’s story. Tom is a kind of sub-sub-creator. He uses the power that Tolkien says the realm of Faerie is filled with: enchantment, which is very specifically mentioned as Tom tells stories to the hobbits fresh out of the Shire.
Tom uses the power of fairy-stories, the power of the stories of Middle-Earth, to give the hobbits the same things that we gain from fairy-stories. The stories allow the hobbits to recover their sense of the Shire and the world that they are used to, and prepares them for their journeys ahead in realms they hadn’t even begun to imagine. It allows them to escape, not only from their perilous encounter with Old Man Willow, but from their secluded little lives that cannot grasp the gravity of their errand. And it gives them consolation, showing them that even though there is danger, and history, and danger in that history, there is always the possibility that they will succeed. Yes, there is a possibility that they will fail, that everything will end in catastrophe and the Dark Lord will rule over Middle-Earth to the detriment to every living creature, but there is also the possibility that they will win, they will not just get past the Barrow-wights that await them just beyond Tom’s humble home, but that they will make it all across the land and becomes legends themselves. Both possibilities exist within the story, but that is a hopeful fact, not a disheartening one.
And it’s all of that, the heart of Fantasy with a big F that makes Tom Bombadil’s enigmatic nature so important. The realm of Faerie, also known as the Perilous Realm, is supposed to be enigmatic, beyond description. Each person can experience Faerie in their own way, but there is no way for a person to truly capture that experience with mere words and give their experience to another person. Tom Bombadil is the gateway to the Perilous Realm. Just beyond him are the Barrow-Wights, but beyond that is a land of other perilous and wondrous adventures. Tom Bombadil couldn’t be anything classifiable because he is the storyteller and the realm the storyteller transports the hobbits and the reader to all in one.
Tom Bombadil is in many ways the most magical thing in Middle-Earth. Whereas the feats of wonder that the Elves or other creatures perform can be considered merely “Art”, Tom’s power over language and his ability to enchant the hobbits is just as supernatural as Gandalf’s staff. For Tolkien the most powerful Art of all was words, rhetoric, and storytelling. There is not god or being that inhabits this power though, no force that can explain it. It is merely something that is innate in the creation we find ourselves in, and so we create ourselves, Tolkien’s sub-creation. So how could Tolkien, in any good conscience, make the storyteller, the one who leads the hobbits into the Perilous Realm for the first time, and who is the maker of Fantasy in Tolkien’s created fantasy, into anything other than a figure as enigmatic as Tom Bombadil?
Tom Bombadil is unclassifiable, but that is because he is something so true to the experience of living, of being human (or hobbit or elf or what have you), that he can stand on his own as nothing more than the embodiment of storytelling, of sub-creation, perhaps not in the allegorical sense but in the sense of his presence being applicable to our lives. Readers will continue to wonder for generations where Tom fits into the mythology of the Lord of the Rings, and I don’t think Tolkien would have it any other way. Tom is that sense of wonder we get from any truly excellent fairy-story. He gives that wonder to the characters in the story, and to the readers of that story. Tom Bombadil is wonderful, both because he enchants us so, and because he shows us that that enchantment isn’t just for great men, or for children, or for any specific group, but for anyone who is willing to be enraptured by his story.