Tom Bombadil — Tolkien's Hidden Message For The Despairing Humanity

Tolkien said that Tom "is not an important person  to the narrative," but “he represents something that I feel important."
Mysterious forest
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After watching the first “Lord of the Rings” movie back in 2002 and then reading the book for the first time, I immediately knew why Peter Jackson didn’t include Tom Bombadil in the movie. He simply doesn’t fit the rest of the plot. He seems too silly of a character for a story of such grandeur and style.

Someone was singing a song; a deep glad voice was singing carelessly and happily, but it was singing nonsense.

Perplexed as I was about him, I couldn’t help but notice that he always speaks in rhyme. Or rather sings in rhyme. His every sentence is a song. “A stronger song.”

Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow,
Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow.
None has ever caught him yet, for Tom, he is the Master:
His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster.”

Are languages getting simpler or more complex over time?

It wasn’t until I delved into Owen Barfield’s works that I started seeing deeper into the mystery of Tom Bombadil. Owen Barfield, “the first and the last Inkling” as he is often called, lived a very long life of almost a century and had a profound influence on both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

C.S. Lewis referred to his extended dialogue with Owen Barfield as “the great war,” and he, Lewis, eventually experienced a profound mind shift from a purely atheistic and Darwinian theory of language to seeing language as the primary reality. Initially, Lewis argued that language evolved slowly over time — from simple sounds to more complex syntax and grammar.

Owen Barfield objected by saying that the further back we go in history the more complex the language becomes. In the times of Shakespeare and Chaucer, the language was so metaphorically rich that a modern reader would probably have a hard time following. The closer we get to our time, the simpler the language gets.

In our day, the language is fragmented (just as the consciousness it proceeds from), and there’s a constant need for definitions because we don’t seem to know what we mean.

What is the meaning of the Greek word "pneuma"?

Grass, wind, sunset
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The ancients didn’t seem to have such a problem. John the Theologian used only one Greek word “pneuma” where English translators had to use three — “wind,” “blow,” and “Spirit” (John 3:8):

The wind bloweth where it will, and thou hearest the voice thereof, but knowest not whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.

The English translators had to use three different words instead of one to make sense out of this sentence. But the ancients must have heard something like this:

The Spirit inSPIRES where it will, and thou hearest the voice thereof… so is every one that is born of the Spirit.

And it made perfect sense to them — because their consciousness was not yet divided. Hearing wind in the willows, they would not say: “It’s just the wind; there’s nothing else to it.” They would simultaneously think three things: “It’s the wind. It is blowing. The Spirit is breathing” (πνεῦμα pneuma, πνεῖ, pnei, Πνεύματος, Pneumatos.)

But these thoughts would not be separate in their minds. It would be one instant flash of a “heart-mind” intuition.

The Inklings believed in the existence of one proto-language, of which our modern language is but a distant echo. C.S. Lewis describes this literary/philosophical insight in his cryptic poem “The Birth of Language.”

In this poem, the Sun symbolizes Logos, the center of universal Meaning, “whose burning flings supernal things like spindrift from his stormy crown.” The Sun throws “intelligible virtues down.” Those virtues are the fiery, meaning-saturated words, that come, as it were, fresh out of the mouth of God.

At this point, words are still full of the creative power of the Sun. And the first “suburb of the Sun” that they “lave and beat” upon is Mercury. As a god of language, Mercury changes those supernal and most concrete celestial virtues into “proper names.”

What are Mercury's powers?

Women playing musical instruments
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In ancient lore, the poet, when visited by muses, would often be described as endowed with the “gift of speech.” Such a person is able to use words in the most powerful way, setting listeners’ souls on fire. This is a gift of Mercury.

Those words, or “proper names” inspired by Mercury, become conduits of uncreated divine energies that transform and awaken the soul of the listener.

The words, each with a distinct taste, “churn the sky’s abyss” — that is, they leave Mercury as proper names, charged with divine energy. But as they go through the cold of night to their next destination, Earth, they gradually lose their churning and heat, their youth and being. They grow in human definitions and lose their divine Meaning.

Devoid of celestial clarity, they cry out for definitions. But the more definitions they acquire, the less clear they get. They are further “dimmed” by definitions. Yet there’s a counter-power to break the spell of abstraction and bring words back to their celestial clarity.

“Yet if true verse but lift the curse, they feel in dreams their native Sun.”

The art of naming — speaking the right words — will do the trick.
Words regain their fiery power. The Babylonian curse of confusion is lifted, and we tremble at the sound. We wake up.

Lewis wrote:

Poetry I take to be the continual effort to bring language back to the actual.

How did Middle-Earth start?

Mysterious butterflies
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It’s hardly surprising that the worlds of Lewis and Tolkien are created in Music. Narnia begins in the Song of Aslan. Tolkien’s creation begins in the Music of the Ainur.

In his 1925 fairy-tale The Silver Trumpet, Owen Barfield forged a wonderful metaphor for the awakening power of Sound. The voice of the silver trumpet worked miracles. Its magic is described in a way that suggests similar connotations to what Lewis would call the “curse-lifting” power of the restorative language.

The effect of the silver trumpet on the inhabitants of the Mountainy Castle was staggering — its spell-breaking power was so remarkable that it was even able to assuage surges of evil in the heart of spiteful princess Gamboy. Its sound was irresistible to the point of catching people unawares and awakening them to something which words could not express. It was, so to speak, the Mercurian gift of a fiery speech in the form of a musical sound.

Yet if true verse but lift the curse, they [words] feel in dreams their native Sun [the Source].

For the Inklings, the “true verse” is that proper speech that lifts the curse of Babylon. It creates, makes, and effects what it names. The Greek word “poesis,” from which we derive the modern word “poetry,” literally means “making.”

What does Tom Bombadil symbolize?

Stream in the forest
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Tom Bombadil seems to be the incarnation of this curse-lifting power of the Right Speech. 

‘You let them out again, Old Man Willow!’ he said…Go to sleep! Bombadil is talking!’

Since Tolkien himself never mentioned who Tom Bombadil was, the only information we can glean about him comes from the text itself. And we learn several important things:

  1. Tom describes himself as Master.
  2. He calls himself the Eldest.
  3. He speaks in rhyme.
  4. His songs are “stronger songs” — stronger than any curse or spell imaginable.
  5. He is a jovial character. 

In The Silmarillion, the act of creation begins with Music, namely the first theme of Iluvatar — the theme of creation.

Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Iluvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Iluvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void.

In the book of Proverbs 3:22–31, there is a similar passage that may shed light on the mystery of Tom Bombadil:

“The Lord brought me [wisdom] forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old; I was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be…Then I was constantly at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind...By me kings reign...and princes govern.”

The first theme of Iluvatar (the wisdom of creation) is the oldest “thing” there is. It always rejoices. And by it “princes govern.” Wisdom is the Master. Tom Bombadil seems to be the personification of the first theme of Iluvatar — the pure poesis, the pure making, the Song of God, the eternal Logos. He represents the creative power of the Right Speech.

In the beginning was the Word. (Jn. 1:1).

Tom is poetry itself. He talks, and things happen. Curses are lifted. Spells are broken. Shadows dissipate. And we see the mind of Iluvatar peeping from behind the curtain of the world.

And then it seemed to him [Frodo] that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.

What does the term "perichoresis" mean?

Folklore dancers
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In the 4th century AD, three Cappadocian Fathers (St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, and St. Basil of Caesarea) used the Greek word “perichoresis” to describe the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Literally, the word means “circle dance.” They saw God as the eternal circular flow of love. Eternal dance.

Tom Bombadil is always dancing, hopping, and singing. Not only that — he invites the hobbits to join in the dance.

Hop along, my little friends, up the Withywindle! Tom’s going on ahead candles for to kindle.

And again:

Hey! Come derry dol! Hop along, my hearties! Hobbits! Ponies all! We are fond of parties. Now let the fun begin! Let us sing together!

At this point, Goldberry joins in:

Now let the song begin! Let us sing together! 

At first sight, the graceful moves of Goldberry and Tom’s odd caperings don’t seem to match. Yet Tolkien says that “in some fashion, they seemed to weave a single dance…”

Is Tom Bombadil Eru Iluvatar?

Forest and river illustration
Image from Pixabay

Tom’s nonsensical songs and caperings may seem like silliness, but it’s more a sign of his Joviality (kingliness — in this, he is akin to Jove, Jupiter). In Roman mythology, Jupiter is the king of the gods associated, among other things, with jocundity and triumph over Saturn (the god of the underworld, death).

He represented joy, in particular that pleasure and heartsease which come in late spring and early summer when all vestiges of winter have finally vanished. (Planet Narnia, Michael Ward.) 

In his kingly joy, Tom is Master over wood and dale — no one has “caught him yet.” Not even the Ring. The Ring has no power over him. Tom is not Eru, but Eru is in Tom. Tom is the song of Eru, before which the shadows flee. Like pre-fall Adam, Tom governs his world by speaking to things, and they obey his bidding.

Have you met Tom Bombadil in your life? Do you hear his stronger songs? He lives right here in the heart of the Old Forest, amid shadows, Barrow-downs, and the malicious Old Man Willow. And that’s where the road leads us going ever on and on, down from the door where it began…

Tom may not be so important for the plot, as Tolkien himself indicated in a letter to Naomi Mitchison. He is

“not an important person — to the narrative”, even if “he represents something that I feel important, though I would not be prepared to analyse the feeling precisely. I would not, however, have left him in, if he did not have some kind of function.”

Tom Bombadil may not be so important for the narrative, and that’s why he was left out of the movie, but Tolkien never saw the story as the primary reality. The primary reality is the language, in which the story is born. Tom is this “verse that lifts the curse.” He is the Music of Iluvatar, the Silver Trumpet that awakens us from slumber and gives us a vision of another world.

‘Let us shut out the night!’ said Goldberry. ‘For you are still afraid, perhaps, of mist and tree-shadows and deep water, and untame things. Fear nothing! For tonight you are under the roof of Tom Bombadil.’

I am a translator and blogger who believes that all change comes from inside out, not from outside in.

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