Of all the second-tier characters in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy–and there are many–few perhaps raise as much discussion or garner as much criticism as Tom Bombadil, the mysterious figure whom the hobbits encounter in their first adventures outside the Shire. Here is a short synopsis of his role in the book, hopefully without too many spoilers:
- The hobbits leave the Shire and get into trouble.
- Tom Bombadil bails them out.
- The hobbits leave Tom Bombadil and get into trouble.
- Tom Bombadil bails them out and escorts them to the next town.
Bombadil then disappears entirely from the story, having dragged the reader through two and a half chapters punctuated by childish poetry and nonsense words, in which nothing particularly momentous happens and the menace of the Black Riders is completely absent. At least that’s the criticism.
Some might even go so far as to refer to Bombadil as the Jar Jar Binks of Middle-Earth: annoying, hard to understand, and mostly pointless (though at least no one would label Bombadil as incompetent).
It is true that there are faster-moving portions of the story, and indeed for those very sensitive to time this episode may seem like a needless extravagance: witness that the incidents are completely glossed over in the 1981 radio series, as well as the Peter Jackson movies. (Interestingly, Bombadil was included in the now-lost 1955-6 radio series; but as that production was thoroughly panned by no less a critic than Prof. Tolkien himself, perhaps among producers Bombadil suffers from guilt by association.) But to say that Bombadil contributes nothing positive to the story is unfair. At any rate, one could make the argument that, if the Bombadil segment is redundant, so too is the interlude in Lothlorien… in which, again, nothing happens (nothing action-y, anyway) and the inhabitants don’t appear again until after the climax.
At the highest level, of course, one could suggest that the entire epic is unnecessary. Countless lives were lived before the publication of The Lord of the Rings, and countless lives continue to be lived with little or no exposure to the books, or even the movies. So perhaps necessity isn’t the best measure to use in this debate.
So what does the Bombadil section contribute to the story?
Even from the narrative perspective, there are contributions. First, Bombadil fills the narrative space between the Shire and Bree. While in the Peter Jackson movies it is apparently possible to make the trip from the Shire to Bree is a single evening marathon, the distance in the book is a little longer. Gandalf is absent and they have yet to meet Strider, so Bombadil acts as a sort of temporary chaperone through the hobbits’ first foray into the wild. Not wholly unrelated to that point, the adventure allows the hobbits to grow. There is a distinct difference between the blind panic in their first Bombadil-bailout compared to Frodo’s more hands-on role (so to speak) in the Barrow-wight adventure. He still needs rescuing, but at least he’s able to grapple with the problem and hold the fort until help arrives. The hobbits’ growth is perhaps symbolized by the fact that, when they leave Bombadil, they are for the first time armed. Third, the pause in the action allows time for introspection and a bit of foreshadowing (another similarity to the Lothlorien visit).
But perhaps the most significant contribution–and maybe the one that Bombadil’s critics fail to see as a contribution–is to what we might call “local color.” Bombadil gives us a look at the sorts of characters that inhabit Tolkien’s world. True, we’ve already met hobbits, elves, and a wizard; and other creatures are hinted at (did you notice the (presumed) Ent in the Shire in chapter 2 of Book I?). But here’s a couple of people who are completely different. In fact Bombadil is never completely explained, even by his (also-enigmatic) spouse Goldberry. (Readers of The Silmarillion may reasonably peg them as Maiar, but that’s never explicitly stated). We do learn that Bombadil is a great storyteller; unfortunately we aren’t given the stories themselves, which is a shame: new material concerning what’s hinted at in the book might do better in the shops than trotting out the The Silmarillion’s grimmer bits in new packaging.
To be fair, I’m not a great fan of Tom Bombadil. There are other characters who contribute more to the story, but it seems unfair to make him out as pure dead-weight. After all, if nutrition were the only measure by which we judged our food supply, there are a lot of people in the spice-and-flavorings industry who might suddenly find themselves out of work.