Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Tom Bombadil 'has no fear' - what is the significance?

In the Lord of the Rings chapter entitled 'In the House of Tom Bombadil'; in response to a question from Frodo concerning 'who is' Tom Bombadil, his wife Goldberry responds:

Tom Bombadil is the Master. No one has ever caught old Tom walking in the forest, wading in the water, leaping on the hill-tops under light and shadow. He has no fear. Tom Bombadil is master.

The stand-out significance of this is that Tom has no fear.

This is unusual, perhaps unique among the healthy and long-lived inhabitants of Middle Earth - even Gandalf, Saruman and Sauron experience fear; because to have no fear is usually a defect - unless there is indeed nothing to fear.

To be afraid is necessary, for almost every living thing, since it is fear which protects us from harm.


And this exactly seems to be the case with Tom: he rationally has no fear, because he has nothing to fear, because nothing can harm him - which means that Tom Bombadil cannot neither be hurt nor killed.

Tom is the Master, because he is invulnerable - he has never been 'caught'.


Why would he be invulnerable? Probably because he is a god of some kind. But the other gods we are told of are vulnerable, can be harmed, and experience fear.

Why would Tom in particular be impossible to harm?

Perhaps because he wants nothing, but is absolutely content with what he has, and what he has cannot (or at least will not) be taken from him...

Or if it may be taken from him at some point in the future (as seems all too likely, seems in fact to have happened - assuming Tom is not still to be found on Middle earth), then concern for that future loss casts no shadow over the present.



Anonymous said...

I am not deeply enough read even in the History of Middle-earth much less the Tolkien literature to know what the current state of 'the Bombadil discussion' is.

But I recall someone (as I then thought) plausibly arguing the thesis that Tom might be one of the Valar, and indeed (if I recall aright), Tulkas.

(I do not now know how plausible this is - a lone Vala apparently simply, continuously in Middle-earth, much as the Istari come to be, in one sense, but seemingly with less than their scope of stewardly responsibilities - though I am confident that if Tolkien concluded that was indeed the case, he could show why it was so!)

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@DLD - Yes, that is one possibility - although Tom's character does not seem Valar like. He seems to have no 'care' for the general good of Middle Earth as appropriate to a guardian god; but rather a non-interventionist approach. But maybe Tom abandoned his original mission and went native - analogous to Radagast the Brown.

Anonymous said...

I saw Tom Bombadil as a personification of Nature, which as a whole cannot be destroyed or injured as a genera. - Dale I

Anonymous said...

I agree with Dale.

I considered Bombadil one of the Valar until a re-read in which I noticed that when the discussion of sending the Ring to him comes up, it's mentioned that eventually even he will fall. "Last as he was first."
This description of his ultimate end struck a chord. What was in Arda before everything else? Nature. What will remain after everything else dies? Nature.

Nathaniel said...

On a re-read it struck me how unique and wonderful Tom is. I thought one important thing to not forget or neglect in him is the child-like joy, happiness, and even foolishness that is an element of the Good. While the elves make merry, there is always a sort of seriousness or sadness about it, while Tom demonstrates that (Edenic?) joy, pre-fear, pre-evil but persisting and protected on earth.

I do not think he represents nature itself, because he is distinctly masculine, and while Goldberry has great magic and power over nature she also is a daughter, not "mother nature" - I think he is rather closer to pre-fall, eternal, immortal, child-like man - but not quite that either. His magic is more spontaneous and intrinsic also than Gandalf's, so he is not a wizard either, but does appear to be a lesser god, or one-off supernatural creature (a pre-man, eternally innocent, powerful creation of God?).

It would be a wonderful thought that he might still live to-day, reminiscent of Elrond's speech about hidden realms and powers of good still alive and potentially near us.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Nat - Nice comment!