Who is Tom Bombadil? Readers of J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, have been asking this question ever since the epic tome first appeared in print in 1954. Novice fans of the book as well as diehard veterans of Tolkien’s Legendarium are equally perplexed by this mysterious character. In their quest for answers, many have scrutinized every jot and tittle from Tolkien’s pen, but the esteemed author never reveals in the novel, in his letters, or in his other writings exactly who Tom is. Those who have only viewed Peter Jackson’s film trilogy (2001–2003) also wonder who this bewildering fellow is, since the director opted to exclude Bombadil from his big screen adaptation altogether. Jackson has stated the reason he cut Bombadil was because he felt that the character wasn’t essential to the basic plot of the story. Some readers of TheLord of the Rings agree – not only do they ask, “Who is Tom Bombadil?” but they also ask “Why is he there?”
C. R. Wiley, in his accessible yet perceptive little book In the House of Tom Bombadil, argues that we need to change the way we approach the “who?” and “why?” of Tom Bombadil. Wiley suggests we need to grapple with the question, not as a modern scientist or as a Sherlock-like sleuth, but as a philologist steeped in medieval lore. This makes good sense given that Tolkien was a philologist and professor of Anglo-Saxon and Medieval English at Oxford University. His understanding and appreciation for languages and for the legends that grew from them helped shape every aspect of Tolkien’s Middle-earth mythology. If we are going to really understand Tom Bombadil, we must see him as an outworking of both Tolkien’s love of language and lore.
A quest for answers
Tackling the question of Bombadil’s identity and his role in the novel seems as insurmountable a task as a lowly hobbit saving Middle-earth from Sauron. But with hobbit-like humility and a dash of Tookish boldness, author C.R. Wiley sets out to answer the baffling questions surrounding Tom Bombadil. Wiley has no pretentions of being an expert on Tolkien; there are highly qualified and highly esteemed authorities on Tolkien’s Legendarium, even a growing number within academia. But the debate on the identity of Bombadil rages inconclusively among experts in ivory towers just as often as on social media platforms among amateurs.
What Wiley brings to the discussion about Tom Bombadil is his honest and relatable quest to uncover the function that he plays in Tolkien’s Middle-earth masterpiece. Wiley is, however, no mere dabbler in Tolkien’s Legendarium. In fact, he is steeped in the works of Tolkien, as demonstrated by his effortless citing of The Lord of the Rings alongside Tolkien’s other, lesser known and (certainly) lesser read works, such as The Silmarillion, The History of Middle-earth, and Leaf by Niggle. Wiley is also steeped in the works of C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton – writers and thinkers who helped to influence and shape Tolkien’s own writing and thinking.
But perhaps the most valuable aspect of Wiley’s approach is his background as a pastor and preacher. Like a faithful minister of the Word of God, he is vigilant in handling the text as it is, on the page; he is careful about contextualizing and cross-referencing words, phrases, and concepts within Tolkien’s broader works. He also avoids reading too much into the text. This is helpful, since Tolkien was fastidious with his work, striving for accuracy and consistency across all of his writing, even works that were not published until years after his death. Tolkien was also committed to telling a good story in the best way possible. This is why Wiley, throughout his book, handles the paradoxes and tensions of Tolkien’s text not as inconsistencies to be brushed aside, but rather as brushstrokes of a master artist at work.
For such a meticulous and calculated author, an author who spent decades crafting his mythology, why would Tolkien permit such a cloud of mystery to surround this unforgettable and prominent character? Wiley helps us see that the mystery is no mistake: Tolkien intentionally made Tom Bombadil an “enigma.” Like Peter Jackson, Tolkien also asserts that Bombadil is not important “to the narrative”; but then he adds that “he represents something that I feel important, though I would not be prepared to analyze the feeling precisely. I would not, however, have left him in, if he did not have some kind of function.” Though not important to the plot, Bombadil possesses, according to Tolkien, an important function in the text.
A different way of knowing