In the House of Tom Bombadil & Fog on the Barrow-Downs
Who is Tom Bombadil?
Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow: he is what he is not. He is neither man nor dwarf nor hobbit, for clearly he is immortal. He is not an Elf, for he is called “Eldest,” and knew the dark under the skies before the stars were made and the Elves awoke. Tolkien himself left Tom Bombadil a mystery, save to note in a letter to Peter Hastings in September 1954 that Tom Bombadil was not God (in Middle-earth, Eru). Tom Bombadil is not essential to the “story,” and yet, as Tolkien wrote to Naomi Mitchison on 25 April 1954, “he represents something that I feel important.” He is essential to the story because of what he is.
Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow: he exudes a natural joy that seems strange in the context of Middle-earth. He remembers and muses in sadness upon the futility of men, of their petty conflicts and their passing through the world. Yet he is jolly, full of laughter and dance. Nothing phases him, nothing bothers him, and nothing can overcome his particular devotion to his Goldberry. The color of his boots seems trivial: and yet, his boots are yellow.
None has ever caught him yet, for Tom, he is the master: he fulfills the ancient imperative “Know Thyself” and thereby is not constrained by anything of this world beyond himself. Most surprising, perhaps, is Tom Bombadil’s interaction with the Ring:
“It seemed to grow larger as it lay for a moment on his big brown-skinned hand. Then suddenly he put it to his eye and laughed. For a second the hobbits had a vision, both comical and alarming, of his bright blue eye gleaming through a circle of gold.”
The comical bright blue eye replaces the menacing bright red eye of Sauron. The Ring has no power over Tom Bombadil: he is beyond it. Though he depends on Frodo’s success (as the victory of Sauron would ultimately lead to his undoing), he is outside of the struggle between cosmic good and evil. Instead, he follows the cyclical tides of local kindness and natural wickedness. In some capacity, he invokes a sort of pre-Original Sin outlook: he is being as it could have been had not the Rings of Power been forged, had not Elves and men chosen the darkness over the light.
His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster: and yet, Tom Bombadil has restricted his domain. At the Council of Elrond, Gandalf will note that Tom Bombadil once traversed across all the lands of Middle-earth, but has as of late drawn up the boundaries of his small patch of forest. Why? In the end, is the natural struggle secondary to the cosmic battle? Can Tom Bombadil not endure the age of men as he has endured all other ages? Do even the most eternal of things pale to something greater than eternity?
Even after all this musing, we are left without true answers. How do we comprehend one whose boots are yellow? There are things beyond the limits of the human mind: there exist depths that man’s intellect cannot achieve. No matter what we know, no matter what bits and pieces of the world we strive to comprehend, existence is ultimately a mystery: and in embracing that enigma do we embrace life itself.
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.