The Curious Case of Tom Bombadil

The Curious Case of Tom Bombadil September 5, 2023

“Fair lady!” said Frodo again after a while. “Tell me, if my asking does not seem foolish, who is Tom Bombadil?”

“He is,” said Goldberry, staying her swift movements and smiling. Frodo looked at her questioningly. “He is, as you have seen him,” she said in answer to his look. “He is the Master of wood, water, and hill.”

There have been many theories, some better than others, as to who—or rather, what—Tom Bombadil is. From him being the embodiment of Eru Ilúvatar, to one of the Valar or Maiar, to something within mythology called a “nature spirit,” to even Tolkien himself, fans and scholars alike have put forth their various ideas. Whatever he is, one thing is for certain: Tom is an enigma. In fact, he very well may be the most unique character in all of Middle-earth, even perhaps an out-and-out one of a kind.

With a bright blue jacket and yellow boots, Tom can be found frolicking all throughout the Old Forest. He lives with his wife, Goldberry, near the river Withywindle. He has a red “ripe” face which is covered by a long brown beard. Bombadil’s origins, though unknown, are as ancient as Arda itself. It is said that he has been present since before the rivers or trees, and long before the coming of the Valar. So far as anyone knows, Tom is completely unique, as there are no others like him in all known writings.

Because this is a blog that focuses a lot on mimetic theory, when thinking about imitative desire specifically, Tom’s one-of-a-kind status becomes especially noteworthy in that he doesn’t seem to have any. Or, rather, his desires are so fixed that it’s not obvious if he has a model of desire, or if he is simply designed to do that which he does, day in and day out, until the end of his days.

Of course, that is not to say Tom is programmed, or that he isn’t “free.” I noted in The Wisdom of Hobbits that the freedom of the will should not be thought of as complete and utter spontaneity, as German philosopher Immanuel Kant once said, but as the freedom to do the good. Tom is free in this sense because he is, to quote Hayden Head, “utterly content with his ‘being.’” He lacks nothing, therefore he has no reason to pursue more—whether wealth, power, or status.

This is what I mean when I suggest that Tom Bombadil, having no external model of desire, just does what he is designed to do. Tom cares for the woods and dotes on Goldberry, all in jolly singsong fashion, simply for the sake of these things—every day, probably the same as the last (depending on the weather) in his little corner of Middle-earth. Or, as Tolkien himself puts it in Letter #144, Tom is connected to the renunciation of control: “a delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself.”

Now, while Tom Bombadil is assuredly a key figure in The Fellowship of the Ring—rescuing Merry and Pippin from Old Man Willow, defeating the Barrow-wight on the downs—his lack of mimetic desire also makes him a liability when it comes to the Ring or the Quest. In fact, when Elrond considers giving the Ring to Bombadil for safe-keeping, Gandalf reminds him that he may follow orders, “if all the free folk of the world begged him, but he would not understand the need. And if he were given the Ring, he would soon forget it, or most likely throw it away. Such things have no hold on his mind.”

What does this mean, exactly?

As we will discuss in my forthcoming book Mimetic Theory & Middle-Earth, the Ring represents power, most specifically the power to oppress. And as both model and object, the Ring is doubly desirable—when Sauron pours his own will into the Ring, it becomes something much more than the sum of its parts. But Tom has no desire to oppress, no desire to “own” anything. When Frodo asks Goldberry, “Then all this strange land belongs to him?” she quickly retorts, “No indeed!” before continuing: “that would indeed be a burden ( … ) The trees and the grasses and all things growing or living in the land belong each to themselves. Tom Bombadil is the Master.”

As Master, Tom is unconcerned with things like magic rings, even if that magic ring is the One Ring forged by the dark lord Sauron. When Frodo shows him this Ring, for instance, Tom’s initial reaction is to laugh. When Tom places the Ring on his finger, he again laughs before not disappearing. Incidentally, when Frodo places the Ring on his own finger, he is still visible to Tom.

Is it any wonder, then, why Gandalf advises Elrond not to involve Bombadil in the Council? The Wizard is completely correct: the Ring would never be safe with Tom, not because Tom is an enemy to the Free People of Middle-earth, but because he simply has no concern for it. Tom lives with no fear, even fear of the Ring. Further, his desires are not derived from the desires of others, and therefore he could take on no other as a model (even positively); Tom is completely set apart from Middle-earth. Everything that shares the land with Tom belongs to itself, and he is the Master—not a master who lords over others, but one who is master over his own desires, a being who is perfectly whole as is.

This makes Goldberry’s response to Frodo so telling. “Who is Tom Bombadil?” He is! In other words, there are no reference points for Tom. There are none like him. Our theories, though fun, are entirely an adventure in missing the point, because Tom has been and will continue to be a mystery. Here’s Cliff Quickbeam Broadway driving the point home:

Tom exists as an uncommitted, uncategorized blank slate. He is the one being so open to interpretation, so predisposed to our imagination, so designed for our wondering. It is not surprising that we love Tom so much, that we pursue this debate so tirelessly, because we each craft our very own Tom Bombadil in our minds—and it is the Professor who intentionally left Tom open to such interpretation.

And so, when I suggest that Tom is an enigma, I mean it. He is not like anyone else because he is outside the bounds of mimetic desire. For good or for ill, this is who Tom is. He is unlike us, and unlike every other being who has ever called Middle-earth home. And because of that, we should learn to be okay with not having a category to place him in. As Goldberry tells Frodo, he simply is. Tom’s being is his is-ness, and because he is fully whole in the entirety of his being, he remains the “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” that we’ve all grown to love so dearly.




Also, if you’ve been digging my work on here, and want to see me be able to continue writing as close to full-time as humanly possible, please take a look at my Patreon page at Even $1 a month helps bigly!

About Matthew J. Distefano
Matthew J. Distefano is an author, blogger, podcaster, and social worker. He lives in Northern California with his wife and daughter You can read more about the author here.

Browse Our Archives