Lessons From the True Ring Lord

Published in The Faithful Imagination: Winged Lion Press Book

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the name Gandalf appears roughly 1,168 times, the name Frodo Baggins, 1,983 times, but the name Tom Bombadil appears just 145 times (Johansson, 2014).Given name references alone, it is safe to say that Tom Bombadil is a largely elusive ‘enigma’ (Gazzolo, 25) in The Lord of the Rings. Over the years, critics and readers of the novel alike, have offered numerous hypothesis as to who Tom Bombadil is. Co-authors Klaus Jensen and Ruairidh MacDonald begin their essay “On Tom Bombadil” with the image of Frodo in the Old Forest staring in awe at Tom Bombadil as Frodo asks “who are you?” Jensen and MacDonald go on to write that the question “Who is Tom Bombadil?” has been asked by nearly all who read The Lord of the Rings when Bombadil’s character first steps out onto the page.

Many critics have written Tom off as an anomaly – a nobody character who holds little to no importance outside his brief appearance in The Fellowship of the Ring. Other critics have figured Bombadil to be some sort of nature spirit or child-like jester. Even Tolkien himself appears conflicted over Tom’s true role, writing “Tom Bombadil is not an important person to the narrative” while later noting “Bombadil represents something that otherwise would have been left out” (Letter 144). And while some critics have gone as far as to give Bombadil mystical or divine qualities, for a character who never makes it into any of the Jackson film adaptions, one might find themselves asking, how important can Tom Bombadil really be? Nonetheless, we know that writers can create characters that have an effect on the plot that goes beyond anything they themselves may have anticipated as the writer. I believe that Bombadil is one such creature. There are those, including myself, who beg to differ that Bombadil’s limited appearance in the narrative does not necessarily make him an insignificant character.

Therefore, I argue that Tom Bombadil, through his unique relationship to the ring, maintained childlike nature despite the extensive knowledge and power he possesses, and influence within and outside his boarders in regards to light and redemption, encourages readers to become more in tuned to the realities of the world around them while letting go of the notion of having to be in control. In drawing conclusions such as these from Tom Bombadil, I argue readers can take away from his character, the significance of being in harmony with all things, and the unique example that Bombadil’s character provides in transcending the novel’s greatest victimizer, temptation.

Regardless of what critics have to say regarding the relevance of Tom Bombadil’s character, he is the only one across the entire 1000+ pages of the narrative who has the ability to overcome the power of the ring. This is a crucial ability, as arguably, the entire purpose of The Lord of the Rings, is to overcome the power of the ring by ridding Middle Earth of its presence. Though, to begin uncovering Tom’s uncanny ability, it’s necessary to note the qualities of the ring, and the book’s impressions of the scope of the ring’s power. Our first introduction to the ring is with Bilbo at the Shire. Bilbo has possessed the ring for many years, keeping it a secret (31) from the other Hobbits. Only Gandalf knows that Bilbo possesses it, and councils him to get rid of it. Gandalf reminds Bilbo that “[the ring] has gone too far, it has got far too much hold on you. Let it go! And then you can…be free” (34). “I’ll do as I choose” (34) Bilbo responds, blinded to the reality that when it comes to the ring, he has no ability to ‘choose’. The ring has an uncanny habit of fooling those who possess it into thinking they are in control, when in fact, they are not. In reality, it is by mere chance, not choice, that Bilbo leaves the ring behind. He doesn’t choose to leave it; it falls on the floor and Gandalf picks it up.

In Gandalf’s earliest conversations with Frodo on the ring, Frodo asks why the ring is far more dangerous than Frodo suspects and Gandalf replies “in the end it would utterly overcome anyone of moral race who possessed it” (46). Gandalf talks about the physical fading one begins to experience after being under the ring’s influence for too long, and the immediate power of invisibility one receives from wearing the ring (47).

In terms of individuals being able to give up the ring on their own accord, Gandalf tells Frodo “for [Bilbo] gave it up in the end on his own accord: an important point” (49) However, in reality, this is not true of any of the long-time ring bearers: Gollum, Bilbo, or Frodo. Some sort of outside source had to intervene in order to pry the ring from all of its beholders. Gollum had to fall from an abyss, and Frodo had to have his finger bit off in order to be released from its power. Perhaps the inability to rid oneself of the ring connects to the inscription on the ring itself to which is written “one ring to rule them all…and in the darkness to bind them” (50). This points not just to the dark (evil) nature of the ring but its purpose in “ruling” over all who come in contact with it. Even the strongest, most powerful characters in the novel like Gandalf, feel unmatched against the ring’s power.

After hearing of the dark nature of the ring, Frodo asks Gandalf to take the ring, to which Gandalf responds “No! With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly…the wish to wield it would be too great for my strength” (61). Not even the mighty wizard Gandalf has strength enough to resist the temptation, yet an odd, forest-dwelling creature named Tom Bombadil does. While it seems that Gandalf is right when he says “This is the Master Ring, the One Ring to rule them all.” (50) we must not forget that Tom is also described as “master” (124) by Goldberry. Indeed, I’d argue, over the ring, he is.

It is in the Old Forest, when standing beside Frodo and his friends that Tom asks for the ring. Frodo gives it to him.

“Then suddenly [Tom] put it to his eye and laughed… his bright blue eye gleam[ed] through a circle of gold. Then Tom put the Ring round the end of his little finger and held it up to the candlelight. For a moment the hobbits noticed nothing strange about this. Then they gasped. There was no sign of Tom disappearing. Tom laughed again, and then he spun the Ring in the air – and it vanished with a flash. Frodo gave a cry – and Tom leaned forward and handed it back to him with a smile” (133).

This is the only paragraph in which someone shows a full and total resistance to the ring’s power. Tom not only is unafraid to take the ring, he asks for it. Then once he possesses it, he finds it amusing; Tom laughs where others cower in fear.

Further, and this is quite symbolic, Tom sees through the ring. This is highly connective to ‘the Eye’ described in the dead marshes. In this scene, Frodo feels the weight of the chain around his neck as he always does, yet it is explained that “it was more than the drag of the Ring that made him cower and stop as he walked. [It was] The Eye: that horrible growing sense of a hostile will that strove with great power…to pin you under its deadly gaze, naked, immovable” (630). The “eye” of the ring shows up again atop Mount Doom. As Frodo puts on the ring instead of throwing it into the fire we learn “[that] the Dark Lord was suddenly aware of him, and his Eye piercing all shadows licked across the plain” (946).

Yet through this singular moment in the Old Forest, Bombadil’s blue eye peers through the hole in the ring, peering out to the other side when all others find themselves entrenched within. In other words, it is not the eye of the ring that holds power in this moment, but the eye of Tom Bombadil. And since the above passages show the “eye” of the ring being the eye of the Dark Lord himself, the fact that the eye of Bombadil sees right through the ring seems to suggest that Bombadil sees through the Dark Lord himself. Throughout the book, the ring is a force working within each of its beholders as one of “the two powers [that] strove in him” (401). Yet in an instant, the eyes and laugh of Tom Bombadil become the only power evident. The ring lies silent in his dark palm.

Critics have more easily dismissed Tom’s relationship to the ring, however, given that outside of his boarders, he has no real role in bringing about its destruction. In fact, at the council of Elrond, sending the ring to Bombadil is discussed, yet ultimately turned down as Gandalf notes “he would be an unsafe guardian, perhaps forgetting the ring, or tossing it aside” (265). Gandalf continues further that Bombadil can be of little help to the end goal as “he cannot alter [the ring’s] power over others” (266) Glorfindel concludes that “power to defy our enemy is not in him” (267).

While conceding that yes, Tom does not in any physical way (given his power over the ring) help to bring about its demise, and while Tom may not possess the interest to hold onto the ring, I’d assert that the significance of Tom’s relationship to the ring is not that he does something about it, but that he is immune to its corruption. Tom’s resistance in and of itself to the ring, proves that the ring is not all powerful and that it is possible for it to have limits. I disagree with Glorfindel’s statement that “power to defy the enemy is not in him” (267). Tom has already defied the enemy’s power by denying the ring. Tom may not participate in the destruction of the ring, but his immunity to it shows that there is a power greater than evil at work in the book. Frodo (the one chosen by Gandalf and the council to carry the ring) and protagonist of the entire tale couldn’t show us that; he failed in the end -- the ring defeated him. The ring does not defeat Bombadil. Therefore, I argue his presence in the novel is imperative, as without it, the ring (and thus evil) wins over all characters.

In addition to his immunity from the ring’s powers, within his own boarders, Tom also holds tremendous power of his own. In other, words he is not just a laughable being who happens to be in the right place at the right time. Anne Marie Gazzolo, author of the book Moments of Grace and Spiritual Warfare in The Lord of the Ringsnotes in her article “The Enigmatic Presence of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry” that “[Tom] could have with the power that is in him done far more than to command that the spirited tree release the hobbits, but he does not” (25). She also notes that for a creature “who loves to sing in nonsensical rhymes, who holds and wields wondrous power over others, [he] remains unaffected by how that [power] could corrupt” (25). This is contrary to Gandalf’s view that because of the power he himself possesses, the ring would be able to use that power to corrupt. As Tom, while possessing unique power of his own, is un-phased by any sort of power the ring has to offer. This signifies my overall take-away to readers that Tom is not influenced by temptation, but that he allows himself to live in harmony with the world, instead of needing to have control over it.

Kerry Brooks notes in the commentary “Tom Bombadil and the Journey for Middle-earth” how “[Tom] seems to embody the higher level of “goodness” that they hope to gain by destroying the Ring” (13). In other words, in Tom’s ability to resist the ring’s allures, he has “destroyed it” in a way, as it loses all its influence. Furthermore, even outside of Tom’s boarders, his power over the ring is known. At the council of Elrond, Erestor asks “it seems that [Bombadil] has a power even over the Ring” (265). Gandalf replies “No, I should not put it so. Say rather that the Ring has no power over him. He is his own master”…… (265). Thus two masters meet – one a ring, one a creature, and the one who emerges triumphant is the creature, Tom Bombadil.

In addition to Tom’s unique relationship to the ring, he maintain his childlike nature despite his power and timeless understanding of the knowledge and histories of Middle-Earth. Walking along beside Tom through the forest, the hobbits listen intently as Tom speaks of ancient things and “they [begin] to understand the lives of the Forest, apart from themselves, indeed to feel themselves as the strangers where all other things [are] at home” (129-30). Through the words and presence of Tom, the young hobbits begin to see just how great and vast the realm of Middle-Earth is and the depth with which “Tom’s words laid bare the hearts of the trees and their thoughts” (130). The hobbits, in wonder, begin to understand that there is so much more beyond the Shire than they ever could’ve realized on their own. Thus readers can infer, that regardless of his jovial and carefree mannerisms, Tom has a thorough and expansive knowledge of the world.

Though despite his incredible age, Tom remains the most childlike character in the novel. However, this very persona has brought forth concerns from critics. Specifically, Jensen and Macdonald share that the introduction of Bombadil’s singsong and jovial character represents a “sudden regression to a more traditional fairy-tale form [that] is not an easy pill to swallow for the adult reader” (37). In other words, Tom has been accused of being “a child’s amusement in a grown up novel”. In fact, one of the criticisms of fantasy in general is that it is juvenile (CP). Thus, for some, Tom’s presence only adds to this assumption of fantasy being, according to our class course packet, “for immature audiences, leading many critics to assume a lack of complexity, seriousness and sophistication” (9).

Critics have especially attacked the childlike way in which Bombaidl appears to speak and sing. Indeed, author Lynn Forest-Hill, a UK Tolkien Society's Education Officer writes in response to critic Thomas Kullmann on Bombadil’s supposed “nonsense rhymes”. Lynn Forest-Hill in her article “Hey dol, merry dol…” claims that while perhaps entertaining, Tom’s songs are “nevertheless song[s] of power in [their] own right… going beyond our expectation and comprehension” (97). She notes that Tom’s musical style “reliant on rhythm rather than meaning, defines his control over the natural threats of the forest” (102). In other words, Tom’s childlike music is not just for show, but contains much of his power and influence. Forest-Hill argues that Tom’s character holds a complex, unique, and systematic approach to language that is anything but “childlike”.

In my own refutation to these claims on Tom’s childlike nature, I’d argue that his ability to maintain this quality given all that he knows, is part of what makes his character so significant. As while he reminds readers of childlike ideals, he, at the same time, has existed longer than perhaps even the world of Middle-Earth itself. Tom tells Frodo “Eldest, that’s what I am. Mark my words my friends: Tom was here before the river and the trees…he knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless – before the Dark Lord came from Outside” (173).

Other characters in The Lord of the Rings also recognize Tom’s ancient presence. At the council of Elrond, when discussions of the ring are brought up, Elrond remarks “but I had forgotten Bombadil, if indeed this is still the same that walked the woods and hills long ago, and even then was older than the old.” In other words, while Tom may act the most childlike, he is the oldest and wisest seemingly of all others. While he has the experience beyond most adults, like a child, Tom has maintained his childlike joy and peace despite all that he has seen and experienced, in addition to the power that he possess. A reoccurring thread throughout The Lord of the Rings is that wherever there is both power and knowledge comes the fear of corruption, yet not for Bombadil. Thus, by possessing the best of both childlike and adult qualities, Tom calls readers to embrace the truth that we don’t have to be one or the other in order to be in tuned to the realities of the world around us.

Further on this point, Brooks notes that in The Lord of the Rings “the ring betrays the characters true nature” (12) though we see how for Tom, this is not so. Klaus Jensen and Ruairidh MacDonald echo this sentiment explaining that “We call Bombadil a fool because he appears a fool by our everyday standards, and because to him everything is simple. His step is sure and his tongue never slips. He desires nothing and thus he has everything” (38). In many ways, Tom, like a small child, is content with the simplicities, happy over the smallest of things, not concerned with the larger, weighing issues of the world as grown people are. Accordingly, Jensen and Macdonald note that “it is with Bombadil that the mythical image of childhood is evoked in its purest form” (42).

Typically, small children are immune to vices that grip us as we age and gain greater power and authority over our lives. However, Bombadil is able to combine childlike outlook with ‘adult’ power, and still maintain goodness. Tolkien notes in ­­his letters that “if you have as it were, taken ‘a vow of poverty’, renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without references to yourself, watching, observing and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless” (Letter 144). In other words, Bombadil has made the very idea of power meaningless. He is not tempted by power, because he is content with the essence of who he is; thus Bombadil is better able to see the world how it truly is, while helping readers to do the same.

This brings us to a key quality Bombadil possesses relating to Tolkien’s Fairy-Story notion of “recovery”. According to our class course packet, this sort of literary recovery “allows the reader to become childlike again, viewing the Primary World as if it were brand new – viewing it not naively but authentically” (13-14). In other words, this idea of recovery argues that through a scene or character, readers can better see and understand the world as it truly is, instead of what one has convinced themselves to be true. I’d argue Tom’s character, in its harmonious, child-like freedom with the world, is a vehicle in which readers can once again regain touch with how the world can be if we let go of our need to control, and instead open ourselves up to how we can live peacefully and at liberty with our surroundings.

Another criticism of Tom’s character, is that his personal decision or inability to leave the boarders of his home shows a limited influence of his involvement or relevance in the novel as a whole. Author Forest-Hill concedes this in referencing “the power and effect of Tom’s language appear to be geographically limited when he refuses to cross the border of the lands he controls” (103). At the council of Elrond, Gandalf shares a similar sentiment saying “[Tom] is withdrawn into a little land, within bounds that he has set, though none can see them, waiting perhaps for a change of days, and he will not step beyond them” (265). This begs the question, for a character who only ever stays in one place, what little significance or influence can he have?

In refutation, I’d argue that Tom’s influence spreads far and wide, even if his physical presence does not. Creatures and beings from all over Middle-Earth know of his presence, and each has their own name for him. Elrond brings this up also at the council, saying “[Bombadil] was not then his name. Iarwain Ben-adar we called him, oldest and fatherless. But many other names he has since been given by other folk: Forn by the Dwarves, Orald by Northern Men, and other names beside” (265).

Bombadil’s name has traveled far and wide, and through those he did personally meet, Gazzolo claims Tom “enabled…to fulfill the roles they were meant to because he was involved with what went on within his boarders” (26). It was not that Tom needed to go beyond his boarders, but that through his words and actions within them, he allowed for Frodo to acquire the strength and insight needed to complete his mission. In many ways, Tom is a guide, echoed by Jensen and MacDonald “his primary function is to be a guide” (37).

Still, the text itself does note several places in which Tom has a direct impact on events that happen later on in the story. What is most important to note in each of these occurrences, is that a moment of darkness turns to one of light at the recollection of Tom’s name. The first example appears when Frodo and Sam are taken by a barrow-wright into a hole under the ground. In their distress, they call out to Tom and “there was a loud rumbling sound as of stones rolling and falling, and suddenly light streamed in, real light of day. A low door-like opening appeared at the end of the chamber beyond Frodo’s feet; and there was Tom’s head (hat, feather, and all) framed against the light of the sun rising red behind him (187-88).

The second example is in Shelob’s lair, as Sam is preparing to fight the spider. We learn,

“And he laid his hand upon the hilt of his sword; and as he did so, he thought of the darkness of the barrow whence it came: I wish old Tom was near us now!’ he thought. Then, as he stood, darkness about him and a blackness of despair and anger in his heart, it seemed to him that he saw a light: a light in his mind, almost unbearably bright at first, as a sun-ray to the eyes of one long hidden in a windowless pit” (719).

The final example of Tom’s lasting influence beyond his boarders is at the end of the story when Frodo is sailing away on the sea. “On a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of song that came over the water. And then it seemed to him 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” (1030).

For an ‘insignificant character’, Bombadil seems to invoke strength and resilience in the face of great adversity for the supposed ‘main’ characters. Even Gandalf mentions in accompanying the hobbits on their return trip home that “I am turning aside soon. I am going to have a long talk with Bombadil: such a talk as I have not had in all my time. He is a moss-gather, and I have been a stone doomed to rolling. But my rolling days are ending, and now we shall have much to say to one another” (298). After all the group has been through, Gandalf seems to feel a need to return to Bombadil – Gandalf’s rolling stone is coming to a halt at Bombadil’s home.

On a deeper note of significance, I’d argue Tom is the only character to transcend the novel itself by accomplishing what every other character hoped to accomplish but never truly could. Tom Bombadil overcomes the ring, while remaining both childlike and wise. In addition to that great feat, the utterance of his name brings light into dark places, serving as a place of redemption for the hobbits who invoke his name. No other character in the novel accomplishes any of these things. For readers, I’d argue Tom’s character represents a message of solidarity, freedom, and relief from temptations. I’d encourage readers to see Tom’s character as an inspiration for greater harmony rippling throughout the literary world of the novel and a challenge for readers to pursue this same goal of harmony in their own lives.

Upon entering Tom’s dominion, Frodo is lost, in more ways than one. All odds are again him, yet in Bombaidl’s home, Frodo experiences a sense of redemption. I argue, readers can take with them the same feeling after reading about Tom. Jensen and MacDonald assert that “[Bombadil] embodies the central theme of redemption running through the work on every level as a hidden, transformative presence (37). My favorite quote about Tom is also from Jensen and MacDonald who sum up the entirety of the novel’s goal in this statement: “the ring journey confronts Frodo with the question of how to transcend himself and partake of the divine while remaining a mere mortal” (39). I’d argue that Tom has done just that, and by his example, inspires readers to do the same.

Works Cited

Brooks, Kerry. “Tom Bombadil and the Journey for Middle-Earth” Mallorn: The Journal of the Tolkien Society. Winter 2014. Iss55: p.11-13.

Forest-Hill, Lynn. 'Hey dol, merry dol': Tom Bombadil's Nonsense, or Tolkien's Creative Uncertainty? A Response to Thomas Kullmann” Connotations. 2015/2016. Vol. 25.1

Gazzolo, Anne Marie, “The Enigmatic Presence of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry”

Amon Hen: The Bulletin of the Tolkien Society. 2013. Vol.244, p.25-26

Jensen, Laus & MacDonald Ruairidh, “On Tom Bombadil: The Function of Tom Bombadil” Mallorn: The Journal of the Tolkien Society. 2006 Aug; Iss44: p.37-42

Johansson, Emil. “Character Mentions in the Lord of the Rings”. 13. Dec, 2014.

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary One-Volume Edition”. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2004.

Middeljans, April. “Fantasy.” English 3840: Lewis & Tolkien. Course Packet. Seattle Pacific University. Winter 2018. p. 5, 13-14

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