Reading Middle-earth – Chapter 7: In The House of Tom Bombadil
We’ve finally arrived at the house of Tom Bombadil and the fair lady Goldberry.
I thought about reading up on all the different interpretations of Tom and his place in the story, but I decided against it. I want to come at him fresh. He is, after all, a pretty polarizing character—you either love him or you hate him.
I love him.
Ho! Tom Bombadillo!
I first read The Lord of the Rings when I was 12 years old, but honestly I barely read it. I read all the words, but I think I was more concerned with finishing it before one of my bookworm friends. This doesn’t mean I didn’t love my first reading; I fell in love with Middle-earth. I didn’t savour it much, though. Subsequent read-throughs have been slower and more deliberate, letting myself linger on images and questions. That being said, certain parts of my first reading stuck with me. “In The House of Tom Bombadil” is one of those parts, which is notable because my endless rewatching of the movies didn’t reinforce it.
I’ve never forgotten Tom Bombadil, and his lovely lady Goldberry. The time the hobbits spent in their house is one of the clearest pictures of The Fellowship of the Ring I have in my mind, second probably only to Bag End and the Shire. ‘Clearest’ isn’t the right word, maybe brightest; that feels right. The ineffable quality of Tom and Goldberry make them difficult to pin down and impossible to ignore.
The hobbits’ reaction to Tom and Goldberry is far from the incredulity and annoyance many people recount when asked about the Master of the wood and the River daughter. The oddness the hobbits perceive is of a different order; it’s more awe-inspiring than head-scratching, yet still different again from the moonlit grace of the elves.
After reading “In The House Of Tom Bombadil” I’m always struck by my desire to spend just a little more time there (just like Frodo). I can’t think of a better place to be stuck for an extra night.
Before long, washed and refreshed, the hobbits were seated at the table, two on each side, while at either end say Goldberry and the Master. It was a long and merry meal. Though the hobbits ate, as only famished hobbits can eat, there was no lack. The drink in their drinking-bowls seemed to be clear cold water, yet it went to their hearts like wine and set free their voices. The guests became suddenly aware that they were singing merrily, as if it was easier and more natural than talking.
Frodo was glad in his heart, and blessed the kindly weather, because it delayed them from departing. The thought of going had been heavy upon him from the moment he awoke; but he guessed now that they would not go further that day.
Readers have speculated that Tom is a powerful Maia or Valar, powerful spirits and godlike powers respectively in Tolkien’s mythology, but whatever Tom Bombadil and Goldberry are, they are nothing if not good hosts. For all their mysterious power and questions about their origins and purpose, the pair essentially put up a bunch of tired hobbit hikers for two nights.
Theirs is a type of hospitality mostly foreign to modern readers, with our highways, hotels, and obsession with minimizing walking time. Hospitality of this more inconvenient sort has been outsourced to Airbnb, where comforts are features and the host is comfortably absent. We can travel the world independent of the inconvenient people who make the world worth exploring. Unless of course, I’m renting an apartment from them.
The hobbits have encountered hospitality before and they’ll encounter a fair bit ahead, even as the world darkens. But Tom Bombadil isn’t the friend of friend and no one has called ahead; this is charity turned hospitality which will beget more charity (I mean charity here as the virtue, not donating money). The welcome Frodo and the hobbits receive at Tom’s cottage is bookended by their rescue from Old Man Willow and their dark encounter with wights on the barrow-downs, both times when Tom Bombadil exercises his power.
In his house Tom puts his power to a different use, and perhaps it’s truest: the enjoyment of what is. Out in the woods there are trees and birds, rivers and lilies, but at home there is the table, the fireside, and gathered guests.
Twice the hobbits sit around the fire with Tom, sometimes asking questions and sometimes sitting in silence. The second time, Tom, completely unaffected by its power, makes light of the ruling Ring. This more than anything else asks insistently, “Who is this?”
Making Sense of 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. […] He has no fear. Tom Bombadil is master.’”
When I read this my mind immediately calls up passages in the Bible when God refers to himself as I AM. Is Tom Bombadil God? It seems unlikely, since Middle-earth has a transcendent all-powerful god in Ilúvatar, though he and his angelic heralds, the Valar, aren’t mentioned in The Lord of the Rings.
I followed this thought and happened on the idea that Tom might be an incarnate Ilúvatar, since Jesus makes his claim to deity by repeating God’s I AM statements. But then I remembered that Tolkien “detested allegory in all its forms,” and my head started to hurt.
Do we really need to know who Tom Bombadil is or where he comes from; why he can handle the Ruling Ring with a smile and wink? Does he even matter? I think he does, because while he’s eminently ignorable, it’s impossible to forget him—the master in yellow boots singing nonsense rhymes.
The more I consider Tom Bombadil, the more I think he exists in world to just be. There are things in Middle-earth (and this world) that we can’t sufficiently explain; they just are—Tom is. There are limits to our ability to classify and quantify our world, or to do this in a meaningful way, at least. This is the same it’s silly to say, “The should’ve used the eagles to fly the Ring into Mordor and drop it in Mount Doom.” No. Do you know why? Because giant eagles don’t belong to anyone; they aren’t available to be deployed—they do whatever they damn well please, they’re wild!
Tom Bombadil is wild in the same way. He’s somewhere between the inscrutable eagles and exalted elves; sort of perfectly normal in the sense of a simple goodness that’s always just out of reach. This accounts for the hobbits’ awe and my inability to get Tom and Goldberry out of my head. Even when I ignore them for months or years at a time, Tom is there in my heart, setting a table and singing a song.