Would It Have Been Better If Tolkien Told Us What Tom Bombadil Is Or Not?

When J.R.R. Tolkien originally published the Lord of the Rings in 1954, it literally paved the way for an entire genre of high-fantasy that is still beloved in our modern world, from Harry Potter to Game of Thrones. And Peter Jackson’s 2001-2003 film adaptations of the trilogy also garnered an unprecedented amount of success, winning 475 awards out of 800 nominations, including 11 Oscars, making it the most awarded film series in cinematic history.

There are many aspects that make the fantasy of the stories so alluring to readers and viewers alike. One of the major attractions of the series is that it takes place in a world completely unlike our own. Tolkien spent most of his life crafting a complex world full of kingdoms, languages, and peoples with their own lineages and histories. There are so many layers packed into this beautifully complex universe, and at the heart of it all is a simple story of loyalty, friendship, and bravery in the face of true evil. Another element of the series that makes the fantasy so appealing is the vast array of creatures in the 3 books, from the Nagul on their black horses, to the Watcher in the Water and the Balrog of Moria, to the vast array of creatures who fight in the great battles of the world, men, dwarves, elves, hobbits, orcs, beasts and even the odd cave troll.

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One such creature is Tom Bombadil, the mysterious sprite who lives in The Old Forest. The books never explain exactly what kind of creature he is. All that is known is that he is one of the oldest creatures of their world, older than the trees and the rivers, as old as the stars themselves. He seems to have many unusual powers, like being able to command people to sleep and obey his will, and giving prophetic dreams and visions that help the members of the fellowship on their quest. He plays a small but essential part in The Fellowship Of The Ring when he saves the hobbits from the Barrow-downs and allows them to seek refuge in his house from the dangers around them. During this time he also demonstrates that he is able to wear the One Ring and feel absolutely none of its allure or power. As a character, he is perhaps one of the biggest mysteries of the story. So why didn’t Tolkien explain this bizarre man further?

It seems strange to many fans, considering Tolkien was such a stickler for detail and spent years pouring forth reams and reams of detail about the family trees of the hobbits, and the history of the Numenorians, across several books from The Silmarillion to The Children of Hurin and the Unfinished Tales. It can therefore be assumed that the mystery surrounding Tom Bombadill was no oversight, but an intentional choice made along his journey to writing the trilogy. Some people feel this choice was the wrong one, and that it would have been better for Tolkien to have explained who, or at least what, Tom Bombadil is. On the other hand, many like the mystery element and feel that Tolkien had many good reasons for keeping the character this way.

The first of which may be that Tom Bombadil is a creature of the forest, and as such, it makes sense that little is known or understood about him. Tolkien was a huge lover of nature and held the workings of the natural world in high esteem. He felt that humans should show a degree of respect for nature, and not try to tamper with it or understand it to the point of hubris. Saruman and his corruption of the once beautiful haven of Isengard is a prime example of this, and of how people can be made to suffer when they take advantage of the world’s resources for their own selfish agendas. Perhaps Tolkien left Bombadil as a mystery as a nod of respect to Mother Nature herself.

Another reason for this omission could be simply that it is a plot device to help readers get into the mindset of the hobbits. For many of the four who originally set out of The Shire, it is the furthest they have ever ventured from their homeland and their quiet, unassuming lives. Therefore, it makes sense that everything they see would be overwhelming and deeply mysterious compared to the simplicity of their lives up to this point. Perhaps in leaving Bombadill’s identity and origin unknown, Tolkien wanted to make the audience sympathize with how new and intriguing their journey is.

Whether the story would have been better or not with the revelation of Tom Bombadill’s true identity is down to individual preference of course, but there is no denying the fact that either way, the stories were groundbreaking at the time of their original release, and inspired a love of fantasy that is hugely successful to this very day.

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