Tolkien: Tom Bombadil as God

tom-bombadilHey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo! Ring a dong! hop along! fal lal the willow! Tom Bom, jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo!

I am going to return to The Silmarillion anon but in the meantime, here’s something to cause MCQ and RAF certain pain.

If you only know the Lord of the Rings via the Peter Jackson films you will not know Tom Bombadil. A shame but an understandable one. He’s a weird character who doesn’t do a great deal to progress the story of the journey of the Ring from The Shire to Rivendell.

Tom is one of Tolkien’s earliest creations, named after one of the Tolkien children’s dolls and the subject of a 1934 poem. His cameo appearance in The Fellowship of the Ring is as a mysterious, somewhat ridiculous character, who aids Frodo and company in the Old Forest.

I believe that Tom represents an incarnation of God in a story in which God seems otherwise to be absent. In Tolkien’s legendarium, this is Eru, also known as Ilúvatar, the great creator of the world (see the Ainulindalë and Valaquenta). It would be more accurate to state that I believe Tom could be God. He need not be but the reasons for so believing are compelling and so I choose to believe.

First the obvious counter-arguments. Tolkien himself was not keen on the idea. This might seem to kill the whole fanciful notion dead except that I do not believe that Tolkien is the sole proprietor of the tale: he is but the sub-creator and like old Niggle, the tree he paints is not the tree itself.

The second objection is that Tom is not very godly, with his yellow boots and silly rhymes. This does not worry me. If you expect God to be the Mormon-type CEO, busy doing lofty things in the universe, Tom is obviously not him. If you prefer the perfectly holy God of Catholicism — whose one Incarnation was similarly austere, serious, and holy — then Tom is obviously not him. I am not tied to such an image of God, however, so this objection fails. There is a huge space in the tale for Ilúvatar to fill — his interventions in the world are otherwise few and far between. Where has he been in the meantime? Wandering the Old Forest, of course.

In no particular order, here are the reasons why Tom is God:

  1. He is not concerned about the One Ring. The Silmarillion tells us that Ilúvatar is supremely confident that all the music — including the discordance of Melkor (Satan) — will redound to his will. Even the Ainur (demigods) would not be that confident. Tom has the air of someone with an eternal perspective (to borrow a Mormon term). Gandalf worries that Tom would lose the Ring if given it, such is his disinterest. Gandalf is not capable of such calm but then Gandalf is not God.
  2. Given that confidence, where better for God to spend his time than in his creation, enjoying the simple pleasures of leaf and stream? I must admit that this appeals to my aesthetic of heaven.
  3. Tom’s power is in his singing. Ilúvatar’s creation was one led by music.
  4. Tom describes himself as the “Eldest” and the “Master,” one who has been on Earth since the beginning (Cf. the Ancient of Days). At the very least, this places him above the mortal realm. That he stands at the head of the immortal realm is revealed by his wife Goldberry, who answers Frodo’s question, “who is Tom Bombadil?” with a simple “He is.” (Cf. ʾehyeh ʾašer ʾehyeh.)
  5. Tom represents the hoary old trope of the King Incognito.
  6. Tom rhymes in alliterative verse. The first such example of this in English is Caedmon’s Hymn. Note the words (emphases added). Words matter in Tolkien and this is a remarkable connection:

    Now [we] must honour the guardian of heaven/the might of the architect, and his purpose/the work of the father of glory/as he, the eternal lord, established the beginning of wonders/he first created for the children of men/heaven as a roof, the holy creator/Then the guardian of mankind/the eternal lord, afterwards appointed the middle earth/the lands for men, the Lord almighty.

So there. A reasonable, nay, a compelling case for Tom being God. One need not believe, of course, but it would make you a miserable sod to do so. As consolation, I offer the remarkable Tolkien Ensemble:

Comments

  1. My favorite literature/entertainment figure I associate with a being closest in personality and motivation with my Mormony view of God is actually Doctor Who’s The Doctor. Finds worth in everyone, desires to save even the wicked,and sorrows at their deaths. Has fits of frustration every now and then because his associates aren’t living up what he sees as their potential. Is constantly working behind the scenes to save the people of worlds without number, but mostly without the recognition or understanding of the majority of those worlds. Lonely when not traveling and working with/on someone. And sometimes just as jolly, silly, fun and ridiculous as Bombadil’s songs. ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7li5eZ3JZbA )

  2. Sure, that works too.

  3. Coffinberry says:

    Interesting, and I have felt that way myself.. I have myself taken Tom and Goldberry’s house as a metaphor for the Temple.

    What makes the theory of Tom as God especially powerful from a Mormon point of view, I think, is that Tom is not a single actor, but rather is partnered. Goldberry is an essential part of who he is, is profoundly powerful and omniscient in her own right, and they two cannot do what the do or be what they are without both together. Goldberry is the heart and motivating source for what Tom does, and they dance the dance of life and living together. I just realized that when I imagine Heavenly Mother, I am imagining Goldberry.

    One last thought. Goldberry herself I think confirms your theory: asked “who is Tom Bombadil?” she answers “He is,” echoing the answer “I Am” given to Moses.

  4. SteveP says:

    Ronan, when we last wondered the hills of Gondor and toured the Mill on the Brandywine River and you expounded this theory I was completely converted. It seems a very Kierkegaardiean notion as well–the rational absurdity of the infinite becoming finite, with yellow boots and feathered cap. I love that Tom takes the most powerful object in Middle Earth, the object over which all the great players are fighting to control, the Ring that will redefine all destinies, the most corrupted thing in existence, and does palor tricks with it. Of course he is Eru! Of course.

  5. anonlds says:

    Bombadil is the devil. He is absolutely concerned with the ring. He never helps anyone, yet he helps Frodo? Why? Because he wants the ring destroyed to eliminate rival Sauron, leaving middle earth all to himself. Gandalf understands that Bombadil is not on the side of good. He could be seen as neutral, but can anything really be neutral? Why would Valar cast a spell to limit Bombadil to the forest? Why do the evil Barrow Wights who are also tied to the forest obey him? The only rational explanation of why he chooses to help frodo is so that he can eliminate threats to his forest and his forest can expand to cover all of middle earth giving him control for his evil purposes. Bombidil is patient and cunning, but if he is God he is an evil one.

  6. In my mind you left out the most compelling piece of evidence. When the hobbits were under attack from old man Willow, having never even heard of Tom Bombadil, they called out to him for help. It seems to me that God is the only being that can be known by people who’ve never heard His name.

  7. anonlds says:

    Isn’t the Willow his wife?

  8. anonlds says:

    Oh yeah, his wife was Goldberry the rivermaid/spirit/maia

  9. It’s true that Tom “doesn’t do a great deal to progress the story of the journey of the Ring from The Shire to Rivendell” (other than saving the Hobbits from the barrow-wight, of course), but at the same time, he plays a key role in the eventual demise of the Witch-King and the victory on the Pelennor fields as it is Tom that provides the barrow-blade that is apparently the only weapon (or one of a rare few, perhaps) that was suited to that purpose. So while I get the reasoning for leaving Tom out, I always thought this omission (and the significance of the barrow blade to the Witch-King’s defeat to be be regrettable in the films.

  10. Another point to back up the Tom is Eru theory is Tom’s many names. He calls himself Tom Bombadil out in the world, but in his house he calls himself “Eldest,” as you point out. The Elves call him Iarwain Ben-Adar, meaning “Eldest and Fatherless.” The men of Rohan and the vales of the Anduin call him Orald, an old English word meaning “really old.” The Dawrves called him Forn, and I don’t think Tolkien gives a translation for Forn, but I think I read somewhere that Forn means “Ancient” in some old Scandinavian tongues.

  11. http://ilfuocosegreto.wordpress.com/

    My blog about J. R. R. Tolkien!

  12. Love this, Ronan. Very persuasive and, as you know, I’m of a mind with you on this. For me your numbers 4 and 6 are the strongest arguments.

  13. JKC (@11:42), I really like that. Thanks.

  14. Leonard R. says:

    I will add my “amen” of agreement.

  15. Maybe this is a stretch, but he also appears to be associated with the sun, as many Gods are. He wears yellow boots to go with his blue coat. Nights around his house are scary, but the hobbits are reassured that morning will come, indeed they wake up to Tom’s reassuring whistling and blustering about. The rain doesn’t seem to get him wet, although he seems to prefer to stay indoors on Goldberry’s washing day.

  16. I can’t believe you actually went there. Wasn’t the facebook post bad enough?

    You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?

  17. Pish posh. I’m not going to repeat myself here after all the facebook drama, but there are umpteen million reasons why Tom cannot be Eru and almost no (legitimate) reasons to believe it. The only reason you give that carries any weight is number 4. 3 is clearly wrong as (as you well know) it is the Ainur that make the music of creation, not Eru, so the fact that Tom’s power is in singing argues for him being one of the Ainur or Maiar, not Eru. The other reasons you give are mere coincidence or completely irrelevant to the question, it seems to me. Therefore, Tom is a Maia or at best one of the Ainur who entered Eru’s creation at the beginning.

    If you want an additional reason, beyond the ones I aready gave on facebook, there’s this:

    1.”Thus it came to pass that of the Ainur some abode still with Ilúvatar
    beyond the confines of the World; but others, and among them many of
    the greatest and most fair, took the leave of Ilúvatar and descended into
    it. But this condition Ilúvatar made, or it is the necessity of their love, that
    their power should thenceforward be contained and bounded in the World,
    to be within it for ever, until it is complete, so that they are its life and it is
    theirs. And therefore they are named the Valar, the Powers of the World.”

    AINULINDALË, p. 15-16.

    Thus if Eru entered the world, his power would also “be contained and bounded in the World, to be within it forever, until it is complete, so that they are its life and it is theirs.” And yet that cannot be the case for Iluvatar, who has a role to play outside his creation, as he is called upon by the Valar on occasion.

    2. Gandalf is not God, you say, and that’s true, but Gandalf knows stuff:

    “Wisest of the Maiar was Olórin. He too dwelt in Lórien, but his
    ways took him often to the house of Nienna, and of her he learned pity
    and patience.

    “Of Melian much is told in the Quenta Silmarillion. But of Olórin
    that tale does not speak; for though he loved the Elves, he walked among
    them unseen, or in form as one of them, and they did not know whence
    came the fair visions or the promptings of wisdom that he put into their
    hearts. In later days he was the friend of all the Children of Ilúvatar, and
    took pity on their sorrows; and those who listened to him awoke from
    despair and put away the imaginations of darkness.”

    VALAQUENTA, p. 26

    Olorin is Gandalf, “wisest of the Maiar.” Given that, if Bombadil was Eru, wouldn’t he have known it? Instead, Gandalf sits in the Council of Elrond and concludes with the others that Bombadil does not have the power to defy Sauron, a mere Maia.

    3. “For it is said that after the departure of the Valar there was silence,
    and for an age Ilúvatar sat alone in thought.”

    QUENTA SILMARILLION, p. 37

    Eru sat alone in thought after the departure of the Valar who went to Arda. Therefore Eru could not have been the “oldest and fatherless” Bombadil who walked the forests of Middle Earth before the Elves were born.

    4. Eru gave men, his younger children, the gift of death, which means that they leave the circles of the world, and are not bound to it. How does this make any sense if he himself is tromping and dancing around in the forest. Clearly, he allows men, his children, to leave the world, so that he can gather them home to himself before the end:

    “Yet of old the Valar declared to the Elves in Valinor that Men shall join in the Second
    Music of the Ainur; whereas Ilúvatar has hot revealed what he purposes for
    the Elves after the World’’s end, and Melkor has not discovered it.”

    QUENTA SILMARILLION, p. 38

    5. And finally: I give you the fall of Numenor:

    “Then Manwë upon the Mountain called upon Ilúvatar, and for that
    time the Valar laid down their government of Arda. But Ilúvatar showed
    forth his power, and he changed the fashion of the world; and a great
    chasm opened in the sea between Númenor and the Deathless Lands,
    and the waters flowed down into it, and the noise and smoke of the
    cataracts went up to heaven, and the world was shaken. And all the fleets
    of the Númenóreans were drawn down into the abyss, and they were
    drowned and swallowed up for ever.”

    I don’t think Manwe called upon Iluvatar while Iluvatar was running around in big yellow boots in the forest, nor did Iluvatar show forth his power in between carrying water lillies for Goldberry and making up nonsense rhymes. But you are free to believe otherwise, of course.

  18. I pity you, Mark. Such anger. Such overreach. Such denial. And such complete lack of imagination.

  19. Anger? No, seriously, no anger, just anguish over your willful misconstruing of scripture. I am overwrought in fear for your immortal soul.

  20. Mark,
    Your proof-texting is NDBF-like.

  21. Dang, that hurts dude. No need to get nasty. A simple confession that I rule would have been fine.

  22. Ronan, it appears, is a Tolkien Truther. Sad but, unfortunately, not entirely unexpected.

  23. But perhaps the most compelling reason to believe that Tom is Eru is the plain and precious ancient teaching, long-forgetten by the loremasters (and omitted from the canon, which was obviously incomplete and also corrupted by the followers of Melkor) that the first intelligent being of the races of middle earth and was the only father and only god with whom the races of middle earth have to do. Since it is clear Tom was the first and Eldest, he has to be the father and god of all the races of middle earth.

  24. Ha! JKC FTW.

  25. Trevorm says:

    “Tom Bombadil is our Father and our God, and the only God with whom we have to do.”

  26. Agree.

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