Every adaptation of The Lord of the Rings makes cuts, but none are quite as bulky as the three chapters that are cut in every single adaptation. These concern a mysterious woodland… being named Tom Bombadil. The chapters divide readers, with some finding them enjoyable and fitting the early parts of the story, and others finding them entirely unnecessary and silly.
Who Is He?
In Tolkien’s novel, the Old Forest right outside the Shire is the first stepping stone in a grand journey. Pippin, Frodo, Sam all have heard childhood tales about it, and Merry teases them a bit for this, having lived on its borders all his life. Interestingly, once they get there, it is Merry who gets stuck in Old Man Willow, a living tree. He is saved by none other than Thomas K. Bombadil (Alright, I made up the full name and middle initial), who sings a song to set him free.
Bombadil is described as “a man, or so it seemed,” but not as tall as one, with a blue coat, beard, blue eyes and a red face. He is constantly jolly and often singing, and he invites the hobbits back to his home to rest up. His wife is Goldberry, the “Daughter of the River,” which I suppose means his father-in-law was Old Man River (Was Bombadil cut from Showboat too?).
Bombadil seems to have no care for the world outside of his country, and the part of his character that intrigues (or confuses) every reader is that the ring doesn’t affect him at all! First, when Frodo puts it on, he is totally visible to Tom. Then, when Frodo hands the ring to Tom, he slips it on his finger and remains visible, tosses it around a bit, and hands it back to Frodo. In his realm, he is in complete control. When the hobbits leave his home and get trapped on the Barrow-downs by wights, he immediately comes to their aid, saving them and giving them weapons.
The hobbits make their way to Bree, and Bombadil never returns to the story. He’s mentioned only two more times. The first is in Rivendell, where he is briefly brought up at the Council of Elrond, where it is mentioned he has been in Middle-earth longer than the elves. It is suggested that Bombadil take the ring, but Gandalf points out that he would probably just throw it away or something.
He gets one more brief mention during the return journey in The Return of the King, where Gandalf says he’s off to speak with him. We hear very little of what actually was spoken between the two, except that Bombadil is the same as he always was.
In Defense of Bombadil
Look, I get why the chapters are left out from basically every adaptation, but they aren’t just filler in the book, even if they might feel like it on the first read through. First, as I mentioned above, the Old Forest is sort of a starter level for the hobbits as they go deeper and deeper into the wide world, but there’s another reason for its existence. When Merry and Pippin enter Fangorn forest in The Two Towers, they expect to come upon evil, but on the contrary, Treebeard is a kind mentor to them. The forest close to their home had some evil in it, but the one far away did not. Home isn’t always innocent, and faraway lands aren’t always dark.
The account with the Barrow-wights also plays a part much later. It is pointed out that weapons Tom gives them were made specifically to fight the evil forces of Angmar. When Merry and Eowyn take down the Lord of the Nazgul, the Witch-king of Angmar, it is only possible because of Merry’s sword. However, this aspect is left out of every single adaptation, although it is perhaps implied in Jackson’s adaptations when Aragorn gives the hobbits weapons. Without this, it leaves the audience wondering how the Lord of the Nazgul, a spirit with no true physical form, can be defeated by normal weapons. Besides, the Barrow-downs incident is creepy and atmospheric. There should have been some way to work it in! Couldn’t you have Aragorn save them from the wights or something?
Just because Bombadil isn’t directly tied to the destruction of the ring doesn’t make him a pointless character. Do you like the Balrog, for instance? He is not tied to Sauron or Saruman’s forces, and yet he is a force that has existed in the world for ages. Tolkien’s story is one of a changing world, and these characters exist to expand it.
But Really, Who Is He?
So what kind of character has complete power over nature, is unaffected by the pure evil of the ring, and is even arguably above good and evil?
But, but… the elves call him Iarwain Ben-Adar, which means “Ageless and Fatherless!”
Tolkien had no problem leaving Bombadil an enigma, but he did clarify this one fact specifically:
There is no embodiment of the One, of God, who indeed remains remote, outside the World.
So there’s that. He’s not God. To be fair, if he was God, he wouldn’t have the same code of morals, would he? Bombadil is truly committed to doing good, but only in his part of the world. The ring is outside of his focus and it does absolutely nothing to him.
Sometimes you come across a theory that is so insane and twisted that you have to give it a second look. This theory is one that has been around since the nascent days of the internet, but now you can find the thing at Flying Moose. No joke, this is a theory that suggests that Tom Bombadil and the Witch-king of Angmar are one and the same. It goes over a few comical points like “You never see the two of them together” and a few semi-serious ones like suggesting Tom, like the wraiths, had heard word of the name Baggins. Then we see the real meat of the theory. Tom sees Frodo when he puts the ring on, just like wraiths can. Tom casts the Barrow-wights away, something a king of that realm would be able to do. This was a kingdom that the Witch-king of Angmar had conquered, so if Tom and he are the same entity, he would have that power.
However, this theory ultimately falls into the same trap most conspiracy theories do. It looks great if you only look at the arguments in its favor. It sadly does not bring up the glaring argument against—If Tom Bombadil is the head Nazgul, why doesn’t he take the ring? The theorist suggests that the Witch-king is perhaps remorseful, but he needs to expand on this more. Tolkien makes it clear that the ring-wraiths exist solely to find and capture the one ring, so if one is handed it, he would take it.
Alright, so if he’s not God or an undercover force of evil, who is he? Is he just a plot device that doesn’t jive with the rest of the narrative? The early chapters definitely feel more episodic like The Hobbit, but obviously Tolkien had something in mind for this guy. It is made clear that if Middle-earth falls under Sauron’s power, he will too, but he will be one of the last to go. He controls the natural forces of the forest and is married to the “Daughter of the River.” Maybe he’s a Father Nature figure.
Perhaps he has been around forever because he is literally as old as the trees.
If he is a personification of the natural world, it makes sense that he hasn’t changed by the end. If Sauron prevails, he will ultimately be destroyed, but if Sauron is defeated, there will be little change. The ring has no effect on the natural world unless it returns to its maker, and Bombadil is the only other character over whom the ring equally holds no power. Maybe Gandalf’s goodbye to him is a farewell to the natural world of Middle-earth as a whole before he sails across the sea.
Ultimately, I like the Bombadil chapters and I completely understand why they exist. They wouldn’t have worked later in the tale, but for where they are, they fit right in. More than anything, I really really wish the Barrow-wights had been included in just one adaptation. They are sorely missing.