Who is Tom Bombadil really, you my ask?
I had a close friend of mine ask me that question recently, apparently the email the question was encoded in became buried under two or three months of Facebook notifications – Facebook is going to be the end of us all I’m sure – at that time my friend was listening to the Lord of the Rings with his school age son. Listening to??? I had thoroughly parsed the Silmarillion in print by age 12, mom’s Book of the Month Club selection for September 1977 – mine!
I suppose that was why my friend asked me the question, because he thought I probably knew the answer. So, in case you haven’t managed to find the unabridged and authoritative answer to the question yourself – here it is.
It begins in the beginning:
In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat Verbum. Hoc erat in principio apud Deum. Omnia per ipsum facta sunt: et sine ipso factum est nihil, quod factum est. In ipso vita erat, et vita erat lux hominum: et lux in tenebris lucet, et tenebrae eam non comprehenderunt. Fuit homo missus a Deo, cui nomen erat Ioannes. Hic venit in testimonium ut testimonium perhiberet de lumine, ut omnes crederent per illum. Non erat ille lux, sed ut testimonium perhiberet de lumine. Erat lux vera, quae illuminat omnem hominem venientem in hunc mundum. In mundo erat, et mundus per ipsum factus est, et mundus eum non cognovit. In propria venit, et sui eum non receperunt. Quodquot autem receperunt eum, dedit eis potestatem filios Dei fieri, his qui credunt in nomine eius: qui non ex sanguinibus, neque ex voluntate carnis, neque ex voluntate viri, sed ex Deo nati sunt. Et verbum caro factum est, et habitavit in nobis: et vidimus gloriam eius, gloriam quasi unigeniti a Patre plenum gratiae et veritatis.
Again in quasi-Elizabethan English:
In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and God was the word. This was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him: and without him was made nothing, which was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men: and the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. This man came for testimony, to give testimony of the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light: but to give testimony of the light. It was the true light, which lighteneth every man that cometh into this world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came into his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, he gave them power to be made the sons of God, to those that believe in his name. Who, not of blood nor of the will of flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God are born. And the word was made flesh, and dwelt in us (and we saw the glory of him, glory as it were of the only begotten of the Father) full of grace and verity.
Rot a peck of pa’s malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface. 
Nobody is completely sure what that really means. Joseph Campbell, and Henry Morton Robinson had this to say about it in A Skeleton Key to Finnegan’s Wake:
And towards the Orient [rory end to] the rainbow was to be seen casting its reflection on the face of the waters. This rainbow, the sign of God’s promise and man’s hope, with its seven hues of beauty, is one of the dominant images of Finnegan’s Wake. It balances the thunderclap, the signal of God’s wrath and man’s fear.
“Rory” connotes Rory O’Connor who was High King of Ireland when the royal brow of the conqueror, Henry II, came up over the eastern horizon. This brow was the coming of the new age, as was the rainbow in the time of Noah. 
True enough – probably – however, Uncle Terrence and I also think [the Wake is after all at all times a multi-level pun] it evokes very powerfully the image of The Word, the creative actualizing force of God’s mind moving across the unformed, chaotic potentiality of the mind-of-God we get from Genesis [notice how tautological this syllogism is]:
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. 
The creative power of the Word in all of its literal and figurative forms is a central concern of Tolkien’s work, and that comes directly from Biblical tradition – and on tangents from other magical and folklore traditions as well. It is important to understand where this comes from and how Tolkien envisioned it working; without knowing this, much in the LOTR and especially the Silmarillion remains obscure. What you have to remember, first off, is that Tolkien was and old skool Christian, and was in fact was responsible for bringing C.S. Lewis from the peregrinations of the apostasy of his college years into the Church of England to become one of the foremost Christian apologists of the 20th century.
Like Lewis’s Narnia stories, Tolkien’s Middle Earth is at a deep level Christian allegory, though not as exclusively or deliberately, so as it seems, was Narnia. Tolkien works out many Christian themes deliberately, though in a deeply personal and very idiosyncratic manner – wrapped around the mandrel of pagan, pre-Christian mythology and heroic story structure. Modern post-Christian readers of both authors tend to deny this, are repelled by it, or are ignorant of this fact for various reasons and tend to pay attention almost exclusively to the shimmering outer garment of pagan, pre-Christian linguistic, literary, and mythological structure and ignore the soul of the Old Man within the shroud, who was at heart deeply informed by his Christian religion – not that he might not have also deeply questioned it. You do not go through any portion of the Battle of the Somme without questioning your religion.
As I said, it’s my personal thesis that Tolkien was working things out on many levels through his stories over a long period in his life, you will have to decide for yourself what conclusions he may have reached. But, very clearly he was deeply, and personally involved with his own myth making – just go visit his and his wife’s grave to discover that.
As an Aside – On the subject of the order of dressing, Uncle Joe [Campbell] had this to say years ago at the Ojai Foundation while speaking on the subject of Graal legends:
“When Jesus said, ‘I and my father are one,’ they crucified him. When [Mansur Al] Hallaj said, ‘I and my beloved are one,’ they crucified him. I think it was, Hallaj who said, the function of the orthodox community is to give the mystic his aim, namely union with the All. But after the death of Hallaj. The Sufis got the message, and this is the answer: You live, you wear the outer garment of the Law. You do. And the inner garment of the mystic way. And, let me just say, before you put on the outer garment, you gotta put on the inner one, huh? That’s just the order of getting dressed. So, uh, there’s that. When it comes time to live with all of the goats its no problem because you know they are tigers, its just they haven’t caught on yet. So, that’s my message for this afternoon. [Applause] Thank you. 
Trying to come back around so some kind of a point.
Tolkien, old skool Christian as he may have been, was certainly not a textual literalist, he was a textual scholar, was trained in the techniques of textual analysis [pre post-modern ones], understood that texts had histories, so on and so forth. Tolkien certainly wasn’t writing the LOTR as a device to make Christianity more easily available to ignorant, post-modern, Christ-avoidant children in quite the literal way C.S. Lewis seems to have intended with Narnia. I happen to think Tolkien was working through it all for himself as well as fashioning, rather self-consciously, a romantic ante-textual mythology for a modern Christian England. The three ages of Middle Earth were intended by Tolkien to flow seamlessly into the fourth age of modern man, our age – or maybe somewhat stumblingly.
Understand how the creative power of the Word through the Voice operates in Tolkien’s conception is crucial to understanding Tolkien’s mythos and several of its important characters, including Tom Bombidill. [Goldberry too!]
This is Tolkien’s account of the Creation from The Music of the Ainur in Ainulindalë [Story of the Ainur]:
There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them propounding themes of music, and they sang before him, and he was glad. But for a long while they sang each alone, or but two together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly…. 
This is key, the creative power of Ilúvatar is his thought, which is what he is, and is transmitted and enacted by the Word, which is music in Tolkien’s conception.
And it came to pass that Ilúvatar called together all of the Ainur and declared to them a mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed…
…Then Ilúvatar said to them: ‘Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song. 
Here Ilúvatar commences the instigation of the creation of Middle Earth by the Ainur. Here there commences the differentiation between Ilúvatar as source or wellspring of creation, to the Ainur as agency and agents of the creation. Thought to song. Thought to song, to creation. This is to say, essentially – ABRAHADABRA – it is created as it is spoken.
We see here that in Tolkien’s mythos Ilúvatar is, in fact, the undifferentiated thought of God, the mind of God, the godhead, the Holy Spirit. The Ainur play the role of angel or seraphim to the Holy Spirit of Ilúvatar in the act of creation. This craftsman-creator role of the Ainur can be likened to the gnostic and neoplatonic conceptions of the demiurge,
To the various Ainur were to be given different theme or roles in the upcoming Great Music [Great Work, or Creation], some lesser, some greater, some broader, some more clearly defined. The singing out of this Great Music by the choruses of the Ainur brought about Ea – Creation – the physical dimensionality that would be the abiding place for the upcoming Middle Earth.
The nub of this thought is that Creation originates in the meta-physical, pre-dimensional space of mind – the imagination-which-is-God – the domain of meaning and language which is not the physical space-time continuum we ordinarily think, one precedes and creates the other – or so it seems.
So far, so good?
So far this is all very biblical – mostly biblical because you cannot completely exclude the gnostic subplot of the Christian tradition – including the rebellious light bringer Melkor [Lucifer], the flaw in the Great Music, the casting down into Ea of Melkor, all of which is necessary for us to have a story that we are interested in reading and has some explanatory power over our flawed human condition.
Now, there were two distinct classes of Ainur: the Valar and the Maiar. The Valar were the more powerful, princely, and sovereign class of Ainur and the Maiar were a lesser order, with more limited and specific powers and who were more or less beholden to one of the Valar for their authority and ability to act – its was all a bit feudal really. Here is what the Old Man had to say about the Maiar from Of the Maiar in Valaquenta [Tale of the Valar]:
With the Valar came other spirits whose being also began before the World, of the same order as the Valar but of less degree. These are the Maiar, the people of the Valar, and their servants and helpers. Their number is not known to the Elves, and few have names in any of the tongues of the Children of Ilúvatar, for though as it is otherwise in Aman, in Middle Earth the Maiar have seldom appeared in a form visible to Elves and Men. 
What resulted from this, mythologically speaking, was – layered beneath Eru/Ilúvatar – a pantheon of Gods and Goddesses at the top and a complex biota of demigods, nature spirits, and elemental denizens of various types and degrees below them. But not elves or faeries! The Elves [fays/faeries], Dwarves, Ents, and Men were all the “Children of Ilúvatar” and the proper inhabitants of Middle Earth, a completely new category of being separate from the Ainur and with unique origins, fates, and relationships with Ilúvatar. Elves and Men were created directly by Ilúvatar. The “Children of Ilúvatar” were created within and were confined to Ea – except there was this whole mysterious bit about the ultimate fate of Men and whether that was to be within Ea or without dwelling with Ilúvatar the truth of which is only hinted at – and it is a Christian hint BTW.
On theory holds that Tom Bombadil, as best anyone can tell, was one of the Maiar, one apparently who tarried after the episode of the creation of the world and went a little rustic after the original period of the creation of Middle Earth and all of the other Maiar departed for Valinor, the land of the Valar, to make room for and await the arrival of the “firstborn,” the Elves in other words, or in still other word the Eldar. Elves being the first to arrive on the scene [so it was written] were the “elder race.” If any Maiar remained behind when the act of creation was complete they generally remained discretely invisible to Elves and Men.
What makes Bombadil [and Goldberry, people keep forgetting Goldberry!] a bit of a problem in this regards is his physical form. Tolkien’s mythos really doesn’t have a well explained conception the Ainur as physically incarnated forms, and I really mean that in the ‘meat’ sense of the word. For instance Gandalf – Mithrandir – was also known to be a Maiar, one of the house of Manwë possibly, sent from Valinor on a special mission to combat Sauron, but it remains ambiguous how much ‘meat’ there is in middle the physical form of this angelic being once in Middle Earth. The physical form can be destroyed but the spirit is more difficult to kill as we all found out with that episode on the bridge with the Balrog.
That’s one theory anyway.
Its a bit of a problem, or an enigma, Tolkien never says unambiguously who Tom Bombadil was, what he was, or were he came from – from within the Middle Earth mythos. Tolkien, on a couple of occasions, does say a bit about the origins of the character Tom Bombadil as a literary character, but he seems to prefer to keep the nature of Bombadil himself a mystery.
Tom Bombadil sprang from the Old Man’s pen, apparently, in much the way the March Hare did for Dodgson, in his Alice Books, inspired by events and things around him – and the need for a story for the children in his life. This story being that he was inspired by the misadventures of one of his children’s dolls which eventually turned into the poem The Adventures of Tom Bombadil in 1934 and later Bombadil Goes Boating. This was at the time that Middle Earth and its history was starting to gel within Tolkien, when different characters and themes were emerging in contexts and stories that were not directly related to what later crystallized as The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and the Silmarillion – starting in 1937 or so. So part of the ‘problem with Tom Bombadil’ is that he was imported from an outside episode into the later canon without a clear conception of his origins in place, being provided – or presumably needed.
Bombadil in the LOTR was almost purely a literary device to get the Hobbits from here to there, provide them with an adventure, a learning experience, and to give us, the audience, a chance to peek through the veil into the deeper mythological past of Middle Earth. But of course that is not completely true either, Tolkien as writer was also looking for any kind of an excuse to shoe horn Bombadil into the story.
Fancy that, the mythological past of a mythological past – how self-referential.
Interesting, one might think being self referential might make things rather flat, like looking in a mirror. I suppose it can in the hands of a shoe maker, but with the right touch – as Douglas Hofstader demonstrated – one can also create the appearance of greater depth, like standing between two mirrors can cause a feedback loop in an infinite regress of mirrors – QED [or GEB].
Elsewhere in the LOTR Bombadil’s character is sketched in a bit, but as a mystery or enigma within ME mythos. For instance, Bombadil refers to himself as “Eldest,” Elrond refers to him as “Oldest and fatherless” and by the Sindarin name: Iarwain Ben-adar. Dwarves called Bombadil Forn [Old Norse ‘ancient’ or ‘distantly past’]; among Men he was called Orald [compare to German: uralt: ‘ancient’, ‘original old’, ‘eldest’). All of these names in some fashion derive from eldest, first, or original, but does that make him first as creator or creature?
We know the creators, the Ainur, were first and came from outside Ea [Creation] and that everything created came through them and remained in Ea, except Elves and Men because they have spirits themselves and require an infusion of the Flame Imperishable from Ilúvatar himself. Thus the Tom Bombadil question supposes the question, creature or creator? and whose?
When Frodo asked Goldberrry who Tom was, she replied, “He is. He is as you have seen him. He is master of wood, water, and hill.”  Very Zen of Goldberry.
This is what Bombadil had to says of himself when Frodo posed the same question to Tom himself:
Eh, what? Don’t you know my name yet? That’s the only answer. Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless? But you are young and I am old. Eldest, that’s what I am. Mark my words my friends: Tom was here before the river 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. 
If you notice, all of the events Tom lists are all historical events of Middle Earth that are described historically elsewhere, and most quite recent as far as things go, as recent as the middle of the Third Age. Of course we can’t be entirely sure that Tom wasn’t being a bit whimsical when he claimed to have remembered the first raindrop – maybe he was just being Irish. Was he remembering that as having ‘been there’ or just ‘being’? Clearly Tom predates himself to the arrival of Melkor, which places him very early in the game, but not at the beginning, the other Ainur were already in fully in place creating Middle Earth in all of its spectacular detail. If Tom were a created ‘spirit’ himself he could only have been of the Ainur, one of the Maiar but not the Valar because all of that number are known. All of this would circumstantial evidence in support the notion that Bombadil was a Maiar, but not conclusive evidence of the fact.
Others have tried to hang their coat on the Bombadil “Maiar gone wild” thesis, but it’s a pretty circumstantial coat hook.
Which suddenly brings to mind another connection between to Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, and Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil, namely the mythological symmetry between, on the one hand, the giant Fionn mac Cumhaill [Tim Finnegan] lying sleeping in the Dublin landscape waiting to waken and defend Éire, and the river goddess Liffey who as a dyad correspond to the characters of Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker and his wife Anna Livia Plurabelle in Joyce’s book.
Tim Finnegan buried in the Dublin landscape and the river goddess Liffey, and Tom Bombadil “master of wood, water, and hill” and the river’s daughter Goldberry. See? You really cannot talk about Tom Bombadil and Goldberry separately. Who ever they are, what ever they are, they seem to be manifestations of the same phenomena – in love with each other. Goldberry is the river that flows though the heart of the landscape of Tom Bombadil.
Tell me you’ve heard this theory from someone else before.
So, that leads us to:
Of the Viconian thunder …of a once wallstrait oldparr, and simply continued on and on without interruption for three or four ages of the world as first husband and wife, the theory being that even if perfected humanhood was not passed onto their children once cast out of the Garden of Eden, death still somehow eluded them both. So, here we are again back at Joyce again – “Finnegan begin again” – and yet another uncanny mythological resonance between The Wake and the LOTR.
Erstwhile Tim Finnegan of the old Irish drinking ballad is, in Joyce’s Wake mythology, one of the many eponyms of Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. Archetypally, HCE and his wife Anna Livia Plurabelle represent Adam and Eve and all of their children down through the generations – “…Haveth Childers Everywhere…” – Thus Tom and Goldberry represent Adam and Eve themselves – according to theory.
riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. 
A theory, of course in need of some evidence.
There is, of course, no connection that I have been able to discover between JRR Tolkien and James Joyce, but it does seem somehow evident that they may have both smoked the same brand of pipeweed.
This theory naturally demands an explanative process, or course none exists within Middle Earth meta theory. The origins of Middle Earth’s Men and their ultimate fate is kept equally obscure to both the readers of Middle Earth stories and its denizens, even the Valar knew nothing of the origins of men except that they knew they world follow the arrival of the firstborn. This is quite curious because Tolkien goes into some detail about the rather dismal waiting period in the face of general demographic decline that awaits the shades of the departed Eldar as they queue for reincarnation in Middle Earth. The Old Man goes in to even greater detail of the conviviality of the long afternoon garden party of the Undying Lands that await the Eldar [and selected guests] who have departed Middle Earth, but not so much their immortal coil. Tolkien’s silence on the matter of what awaits the souls of departed Men stands in rather stark contrast. Tolkien is also conspicuously silent, in and out of mythos, about any connection between his Middle Earth Men and biblical accounts of the Garden, Mankind, and their Fall into history in our Earth.
So, Tom Bombadil is in fact Tim Finnegan – or maybe not.
A final theory
A final theory, which has gained currency in certain quarters, is that Tom Bombadil is a self-created manifestation of the elemental energy of Middle Earth itself. This idea makes perfect sense if we remember that in Tolkien’s conception that it is the magical power of the Word that creates, that the song sings itself into existence:
Eru/Ilúvatar => Ainur => Ea.
Where the operative process ” => ” is always song.
There is a trans-dimensional connection here; Creation is the mind of God pulled inside out through its own navel by the handiwork of the coat-wire-fishhook Word. The act of the creation is woven into the creation. Think on it. You yourself are evidence of the process, you are self-conscious, self-reflecting, enlivened dirt that dreams of new creations and goes forth and creates them by precisely the same magical formula used by God to create Heaven and Earth.
ABRAHADABRA – it is created as it is spoken.
Creative power and agency is inherent in the creation.
So, perhaps Tom Bombadil is simply the man-ifestation of the elemental energy of the created world in one particular patch of landscape between the River Brandywine and the Barrow Downs with the Withywindle running down the middle. What we are saying other words is that Tom Bombadil is, by musical magic, just some part of the Shire that stands up and walks around and makes rhymes in a 7-beat meter – and a river runs through it – which somehow makes a literary connection to Norman Maclean, another gael, from Missoula, deeply involved with words written in the patterning of raindrops on stones from the basement of time over flowed by a river filled with slithy spirits clad in rainbow fishes mail.
Some things, though, were obviously meant to be left as mysteries
1. Joyce, James, Finnegan’s Wake (New York: Penguin, 2000) 3.
2. Campbell, Joseph and Robinson, Henry Mortimer, A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1944) 52.
3. Engelbrite, Michael Peter, American King James Bible (public domain, 1999) Genesis 1:1
4. Campbell, Joseph, Grail Legends, audio lecture at the Ojai Foundation c.1980
5. Tolkien, JRR, The Silmarillion, ed. Christopher Tolkien (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 3.
6. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 3.
7. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 17.
8. Tolkien, JRR, The Fellowship of the Ring, ed. Christopher Tolkien (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 124.
9. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 132.
10. Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake 3.
11. Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake 3.