“Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow;
Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow.”
– from “In the House of Tom Bombadil”
Oh, Tom Bombadil. By far the weirdest, least-understood character in The Lord of the Rings, which is why you’ve never heard of him if you only watch the movies. He appears, more or less out of nowhere, to rescue Frodo and company in the Old Forest and the Barrow-downs, and then he disappears from the story again, never to reappear except in brief references by other characters. He constantly spouts nonsense rhymes and wears funny clothes, yet he controls of one of the scariest regions in all Middle Earth (which, ironically, is really close to the Shire). And no one seems to know who or what he is, not even Gandalf or Elrond.
Here’s what we know about Tom from his short appearance in The Fellowship of the Ring:
He’s older than the Shire, older than Sauron, and probably even older than Morgoth and the Exiles from Valinor.
“Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn.”
The Ring has no power over him; in fact, it seems to be the other way round.
“Tom laughed again, and then he spun the Ring in the air–and it vanished with a flash. Frodo gave a cry–and Tom leaned forward and handed it back to him with a smile.”
He’s immensely powerful (see above), yet he only uses his power within the boundaries of his own land.
“Tom’s country ends here: he will not pass the borders. Tom has his house to mind, and Goldberry is waiting!”
Of course, just living in his country takes plenty of power. The Old Forest area is chock-full of malicious trees and evil ghosts; the chapter “The Barrow-Downs” was the only one that really unsettled me when I read LOTR at age 10. But it’s no problem for Tom–or Iarwain Ben-Adar, as the elves call him. All the trees and ghosts obey him, and him alone (though he doesn’t control them all the time). He seems tied to the land, somehow, and is even married to the personification of the Withywindle River. He’s completely uninterested in everything beyond Deadman’s Dike and the Buckland Gate, which is why, despite his immunity to the Ring, Gandalf says it’s not safe to leave it with him. He would probably just forget about it!
When the hobbits ask Tom who he is, he replies only with his name, saying, “That’s the only answer!”
Of course, that has never been enough to satisfy LOTR fans. There are dozens of theories about Tom’s true identity – is he a Maia, like Gandalf? Is he an incarnation of one of the Valar? Some have even suggested he might be Iluvatar himself – the Creator God of Middle Earth (though that one doesn’t seem to hold water, given Tom’s identification with one small, specific piece of Middle Earth). Click this link to see a much more sinister theory.
Personally, I don’t think J.R.R. Tolkien had a story in his head about who Tom Bombadil is or where he came from. Some things in Middle Earth are meant to be mysterious and unexplained–look at the Paths of the Dead and the Pukel-Men, for instance–and I think Tom is one of them. If anything, he might be a representation of the Green Man.
All I know is, I love him. I love him to bits, from his yellow boots to his goofy hat. And I’m soooo glad he wasn’t in the movies, because Hollywood would have ruined him. Probably by trying to explain him. I like a little unsolved mystery in my stories.