In the House of Tom Bombadil
The question of who Tom is might be best left for a special session after we have read through The Council of Elrond, where we learn more about him. I’ve chosen to concentrate on who he is not, and who Goldberry might be.
I will mention one comment I found on Quora:
“Gandalf is a classic Mentor character… Tom Bombadil comes from somewhere else entirely. In a contemporary outlook, we can see Bombadil as kind of a Zen Master… a wise adviser, to be sure, but someone with that Zen-like attitude ‘the world comes and the world goes; the rulers come and the rulers go; but nothing ever really changes from my Nirvana-like outlook.’
“Bombadil, it must be admitted, has an outlook almost nothing like any other character in Tolkien’s tales. From what part of Tolkien’s subconscious did he cook up this character? Who can say?”[i]
You could also say that he is more worried by abuse of authority than Gandalf was. And indeed, Saruman from a similar background became evil. Gandalf felt he could not take the ring, while Tom is not influenced.
But overtly, who are these people? Tom is small for a human, though bigger than a hobbit. Possibly he can adjust his size. Goldberry isn’t mentioned as being larger, which would have been something unusual. Both are standard fairy-tale figures: welcoming hosts, but not important in the Quest. They are also part of the gradual build-up from the almost-familiar hobbit world that gives it a much stronger sense of reality.
Goldberry is definitely more than human:
“In a chair, at the far side of the room facing the outer door, sat a woman. Her long yellow hair rippled down her shoulders; her gown was green, green as young reeds, shot with silver like beads of dew; and her belt was of gold, shaped like a chain of flag-lilies set with the pale-blue eyes of forget-me-nots. About her feet in wide vessels of green and brown earthenware, white water-lilies were floating, so that she seemed to be enthroned in the midst of a pool.”
She welcomes them, and sees that Frodo is an Elf-friend:
“The light in your eyes and the ring in your voice tells it”.
Clearly, she is familiar with elves and with those mortals who know them. And she also makes a strange answer when Frodo asks who Tom is:
“‘He is the Master of wood, water, and hill.’
“‘Then all this strange land belongs to him.’
“‘No, indeed.’ She answered, and her smile faded. ‘That would indeed be a burden,’ she added in a low voice, as if to herself. ‘The trees and the grasses and all things growing or living in the land belong each to themselves. Tom Bombadil is the Master. No one has ever caught old Tom walking in the forest, wading in the water, leaping of the hill-tops under light and shadow. He has no fear. Tom Bombadil is Master’”
Their lack of knowledge might seem to contradict the poem commentaries in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, where he is known to hobbits but seen as comic. But those logically arise from Frodo and the others telling about Tom on their return.
Note also the comment: Goldberry speaks ‘as if to herself’. From the poem, we can suppose she was a dangerous water-sprite whom Tom has won round to his own viewpoint of rejecting power. But she has maybe not entirely accepted it. She needs to remind herself that Tom is Master but does not possess most of what is there.
It may be significant that she is absent when Tom asks Frodo to show him the One Ring. It has no power over him – but over her? Adding this as a little extra would be an interesting extra when the book gets dramatized again, probably as several seasons of one-hour programs. (The current Amazon plans are for the period between the two books, which is a sensible beginning.)
More mundanely, Goldberry can step down to act as the nice little housewife. She reminds Tom that the hobbits need to be refreshed. And four hobbit-sized beds and slippers have been prepared. We later learned that there was news of them from the High Elf Gildor. Tom also knows of Farmer Maggot and has a regard for them. Presumably they often have guests, hobbits and others.
During the meeting of ‘Rangers Of Mordor Minor’, our Coventry ‘Smial’ (local Tolkienian group), someone suggested that perhaps Tom and Goldberry are Father Time and Mother Earth. That is one reading, certainly. It would explain why Tom has always been there and seemingly does little. As I said, I’ll be coming back to the topic in connection with the extra details given at Council of Elrond. Where, significantly, his name to the elves is given as ‘oldest and fatherless’.
Having arrived at Tom’s house, the hobbits refresh themselves and eat. As in the house of Beorn, no meat is served. But the magic is much stronger: there is water that seems like wine, while singing seems more natural than talking.
Frodo then has a dream that’s he later recognises as Gandalf imprisoned by Saruman and rescued by an eagle, with the Black Riders near. And Pippin has an unspecified dream that frightens him.
From Appendix B, we learn that Frodo saw the past. This is the night of the 26th September, while Gandalf escaped on the 18th.
The next morning, breakfast is there, and it is Goldberry’s washing day. A wash for the entire local landscape, it seems:
“As they looked out of the window there came falling gently as if it was flowing down the rain out of the sky, the clear voice of Goldberry singing up above them. They could hear few words, but it seemed plain to them that the song was a rain-song, as sweet as showers on dry hills, that told the tale of a river from the spring in the highlands to the Sea far below. The hobbits listened with delight; and 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.
“The upper wind settled in the West and deeper and wetter clouds rolled up to spill their laden rain on the bare heads of the Downs. Nothing could be seen all round the house but falling water. Frodo stood near the open door and watched the white chalky path turn into a little river of milk and go bubbling away down into the valley.”
What’s equally interesting is how it affects Tom, or rather how it does not:
“Tom Bombadil came trotting round the corner of the house, waving his arms as if he was warding off the rain – and indeed when he sprang over the threshold he seemed quite dry, except for his boots. These he took off and put in the chimney-corner. Then he sat in the largest chair and called the hobbits to gather round him.
“This is Goldberry’s washing day,’ he said, ’and her autumn-cleaning. Too wet for hobbit-folk – let them rest while they are able! It’s a good day for long tales, for questions and for answers, so Tom will start the talking.’
“He then told them many remarkable stories, sometimes half as if speaking to himself, sometimes looking at them suddenly with a bright blue eye under his deep brows. Often his voice would turn to song, and he would get out of his chair and dance about. He told them tales of bees and flowers, the ways of trees, and the strange creatures of the Forest, about the evil things and good things, things friendly and things unfriendly, cruel things and kind things, and secrets hidden under brambles.
“As they listened, they began to understand the lives of the Forest, apart from themselves, indeed to feel themselves as the strangers where all other things were at home. Moving constantly in and out of his talk was Old Man Willow, and Frodo learned now enough to content him, indeed more than enough, for it was not comfortable lore. Tom’s words laid bare the hearts of trees and their thoughts, which were often dark and strange, and filled with a hatred of things that go free upon the earth, gnawing, biting, breaking, hacking, burning: destroyers and usurpers. It was not called the Old Forest without reason, for it was indeed ancient, a survivor of vast forgotten woods; and in it there lived yet, ageing no quicker than the hills, the fathers of the fathers of trees, remembering times when they were lords. The countless years had filled them with pride and rooted wisdom, and with malice. But none were more dangerous than the Great Willow: his heart was rotten, but his strength was green; and he was cunning, and a master of winds, and his song and thought ran through the woods on both sides of the river. His grey thirsty spirit drew power out of the earth and spread like fine root-threads in the ground, and invisible twig-fingers in the air, till it had under its dominion nearly all the trees of the Forest from the High Hay to the Downs.”
The trees in the Old Forrest resemble the huorns that Merry and Pippin meet later – and Treebeard has a lot in common with Tom, though they seem not to know each other. Tom treats Old Man Willow as misguided rather than evil. Even hobbits have taken land from the trees, at some much earlier date. Tom himself has a clearing.
He also explains he is Eldest – from the beginning of the world, implicitly, making him a Maia, one of the original angelic spirits. That merits a whole session, as I explained earlier
Tom then asks to see the ring, and Frodo trusts him. He is alarmed when Tom puts it on and does not vanish, and makes it vanish before returning it. Frodo doubts this is still his ring, so puts it on to ensure he vanishes as far as Merry can see. He himself notices no change.
He wants them to set out the next day, but cannot be entirely sure of the weather:
“’I am no weather-master,’ he said; ‘nor is aught that goes on two legs.’”
Tom warns them against the barrows and wights, and tells them how to summon him.
Copyright © Gwydion M. Williams.