I’m writing this in reaction to some common criticisms of the Tom Bombadil sections of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, especially the common accusation that it is a needless diversion that has little to nothing to do with the rest of the story. Oh, not so. Let me explain….
There’s a lot of mirroring going on the LotR. Some people stand as opposites to other people, while some are more like complements or metaphorical siblings. The Shire (tranquility) stands against Mordor (war), Rivendell (life/hearth) against Moria (death/ruin), Frodo against Gollum (until they change to complements and then adversaries again), Gandalf against Saruman, etc. For complements, there’s Frodo and Sam, Merry and Pippin, Gandalf and Elrond. And… Galadriel and Tom Bombadil. **record scratch** Uh, what?
You heard me. They are both among the oldest beings in Middle-earth. Tom’s Elvish name is Iarwain Ben-adar — “Oldest and Fatherless”. Both guard domains untouched by time and outer-world events. And both are tested by the One Ring, and both pass that test — although it is a real trial for one and a passing fancy for the other.
Let’s speak about craft for a moment. Writing craft; building a story that unfolds across a vast novel (divided into “books” but published, initially, in three volumes). When you’re telling a story set in a different world than ours, you must explain that world and how it works. This is best done in bits and pieces as the story unfolds; an ungainly info dump early on is enough to cause many readers to just close the book and walk away. LotR begins in the Shire, a very familiar place to English-language readers. As Frodo & Co. journey out of the Shire, the world gets more and more strange and dangerous. Well, really, it begins to get dangerous inside the Shire, as the Black Riders begin their hunt, which is what forces our intrepid crew of Hobbits to exit the fields they know and enter the Old Forest, a place rife with dreadful folklore.
The Old Forest and Tom Bombadil sequences introduce us to elements of Middle-earth that will be important later. They provide foreshadowing for similar but unrelated parts of the world.
Old Man Willow shows us that certain trees — especially very old ones — have personalities and aren’t necessarily friendly. Later on, when Merry and Pippin enter Fangorn, this fear of unfriendly trees hangs heavy. When we finally encounter the Ents, it’s a pleasing surprise for the reader, partly because it’s not a rabbit pulled out of a hat. That trees can talk and walk is foreshadowed, even if dimly, in the encounter with Old Man Willow.
Likewise, the Barrow Downs and the Barrow Wights tell us that the dead rest uneasily in certain places in Middle-earth (and they are tied to kingship). Besides providing Merry with the weapon that will unravel the Witch King’s magical defenses, the barrow scenes foreshadow the Paths of the Dead. If we didn’t have this little clue about ghosts in Middle-earth, then when we get to the Paths of the Dead scene, it would have the sense of an author just making something up late in the tale because he needs it.
Tom’s house foreshadows Lothlorien. There are truly old places in this world that still retain the power of the past and resist the tides of time. Frodo’s dream within Tom’s house foreshadows his final journey to the West.
Now, one thing people don’t seem to like is how cavalier Tom is with the One Ring. If it’s so damn dangerous, and he is so free from its power, then don’t the trials of the rest of the book fall flat? I don’t think so. Frodo knows not to give the Ring to just anyone — Gandalf, of all people, refused it. Tom’s unserious reaction to the Ring sets up an action Frodo later takes that would otherwise, IMHO, come off as reckless. That is, he offers the Ring to Galadriel. I believe that he thinks, even if unconsciously, that Galadriel will have the same reaction to the Ring as Tom did — remember, I argue that she and Tom mirror one another. This is why he freely gives it to her, seeing no harm in it (and hoping she can take it from him and relieve his burden). That this powerful ancient Elf almost fails the test reinforces how he cannot let anyone else have the Ring (especially not Boromir later). I believe that Tom’s reaction to the Ring is what makes Frodo’s later offer to Galadriel make sense.
Hence, I believe that the Tom Bombadil scenes aren’t simply superfluous to the rest of the story but are integral and serve necessary functions in the narrative unfolding of Middle-earth’s worldbuilding. Novels set in modern times need almost no worldbuilding, since we readily recognize our world and know its rules of engagement. We might be surprised by characters’ actions now and then, but rarely by the world itself. Not so with fantasy and science-fiction, where the world is a character and requires explanation. Tom’s scenes early in the story, just as our Hobbits leave hearth and home to enter unknown lands, reveals in miniature some of the challenges the book’s characters will face later on.
Finally, another reason I’m fond of Tom is his literary lineage. Tolkien loved The Kalevala, the Finnish national folk epic. It’s leading hero, Vainamoinen, is clearly an inspiration for Tom, filtered through Tolkien’s young imagination. Both are “Oldest and Fatherless” — Vainamoinen is the first man, born of the Virgin of the Air. Both use songcraft to work their magic. Tolkien was fond of Tom and didn’t want to examine too closely why he kept wandering into his stories. I suspect he didn’t want to break the spell that had been cast upon him when he was younger, hearing and reading of the exploits of Vainamoinen.
Let us put aside our modernist critic’s mindset and let ourselves come under the spell of Tom and Goldberry and the Old Forest, and let his songs chase away dead ideas about Tom’s key role in the epic.
P.S. Peter Jackson should have shot some Tom Bombadil scenes for the Extended Editions, with Mark Rylance as Tom. Ah, but who would play Goldberry?
ADDENDUM: Further thoughts: Why is Tom so goofy? Why not ask: Why are the Hobbits so goofy? They live in a bubble, protected from outside turmoil thanks partly to Tom and the Old Forest, which provides a barrier against much of Mordor’s evil. I suspect that Tom’s appearance is partly a means to appear less threatening to his Hobbit neighbors. He is clearly in contact with Farmer Maggot, so perhaps, over time, he adopted his present persona as much for them as for himself. (Or vice-versa?)
ANOTHER ADDENDUM: A bit more about worldbuilding. Most of us first read LotR when were young, when were naïve readers — we weren’t examining it from the perspective of writing an English lit paper or dissecting it for craft lessons. Later, when we come back to it — as so many of us do — we accept its events as given. We might critique the pace or the language (so unmodern!) or whatever, but we don’t tend to question the mighty worldbuilding. And so, we often miss the invisible pattern that was, on our first read, laid out for us step by step, on the road that lies just ahead. This is what I’m getting at with the foreshadowing I refer to above. Things that seem tangential to the major goings-on in the rest of the book are actually clues that are, piece by piece, building your acceptance of Middle-earth and its logic. Tom’s world is a bridge between the provincial, humorous Shire and the greater world of dire historical events. It still has a whiff of whimsy about it, something which will progressively fade from the main narrative as the Fellowship quest commences. (It’s often only with Merry and Pippin that this humor is maintained, at least until their journey to Rohan and Gondor.)