The Lord of the Rings Reread

LotR re-read: Fellowship I.7, “In the House of Tom Bombadil”

In chapter 7 of The Fellowship of the Ring, “In the House of Tom Bombadil,” not a whole lot happens; but since it’s the principal chapter with the eponymous Bombadil, there’s nevertheless much to talk about.

What Happens

Tom Bombadil and Goldberry feed the hobbits dinner and give them beds for the night. Frodo dreams of Gandalf escaping from Orthanc about a week earlier, though he doesn’t recognize it as such. Pippin and Merry have nightmares of Old Man Willow that are dispelled by the memory of Goldberry’s words.

The next day, as Goldberry calls rains for her “washing day,” the hobbits and Bombadil share stories. Suddenly, Tom asks Frodo to show him the Ring, and when Frodo hands it over, Tom puts it on without vanishing and then makes it vanish, temporarily. He also proves able to see Frodo when Frodo puts the Ring on. At the end of the chapter, the hobbits resolve to set out the next day, armed with a rhyme to call Tom in need.


I guess we’ll start with the obvious questions: who are Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, and what role do they play in the story? (I nearly posted about this chapter and the next together, so as to be able to address the latter question completely, but I think we can manage.)

As for the “who” question, there are a surprising range of proposed answers. (Two thorough summaries are by Steuard Jensen and the Encyclopedia of Arda.) I want to discuss three possibilities here: the theory that Tom and Goldberry are Valar, specifically Aule and Yavanna; a solely LotR-textual analysis; and authorial intent.

First, the theory that Tom and Goldberry are slumming Valar, i.e., the most powerful spirits bar the Creator himself, otherwise very similar to polytheistic deities. I confess I have only quickly skimmed the above essay, because I really hate the whole idea. Let me see if I get past my inclination to just say, “No!” and set out why.

  1. If true, this would be the only thing in the text that a reader could not at least get a sense of solely by reading the text + Appendices. (Okay, I have a vague memory of some introduction somewhere saying that none of Tolkien’s references in the book are orphaned except the cats of Queen Berúthiel, so maybe the only other thing.)
  2. It would completely change the feel of the story to have such powerful beings hanging out unacknowledged (and this goes double for the theory that Tom is the creator himself). And this means that the reading experience would be vastly different for people who somehow figured it out and for people who didn’t. This seems even more inconsistent with the rest of the book’s approach to exposition than the first point.
  3. I don’t think it’s consistent with their own words. Tom says, in response to Frodo’s question about his identity, “Don’t you know my name yet? That’s the only answer.” Similarly, Goldberry identifies herself as “daughter of the River.”

So, that brings us to the analysis that depends solely on the text of Lord of the Rings, without reference to The Silmarillion or other writings.

Here’s the full quote of Tom’s in response to Frodo:

“Eh, what?” said Tom sitting up, and his eyes glinting in the gloom. “Don’t you know my name yet? That’s the only answer. Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless? But you are young and I am old. Eldest, that’s what I am. Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn. He made paths before the Big People, and saw the little People arriving. He was here before the Kings and the graves and the Barrow-wights. When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent. He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless—before the Dark Lord came from Outside.”

Here’s what Goldberry says when Frodo asks,

“ . . . who is Tom Bombadil?”

“He is,” said Goldberry, staying her swift movements and smiling.

Frodo looked at her questioningly. “He is, as you have seen him,” she said in answer to his look. “He is the Master of wood, water, and hill.”

“Then all this strange land belongs to him?”

“No indeed!” she answered, and her smile faded. “That would indeed be a burden,” she added in a low voice, as if to herself. “The trees and the grasses and all things growing or living in the land belong each to themselves. 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.”

Goldberry, as noted above, identifies herself as the River’s daughter; she is presented with strong water-nymph associations and can call rain.

From these, I draw the conclusion that they are both deeply linked in some sense to nature and the land. Tom seems to be an embodiment, or outgrowth, or some such, of the (local) land itself; while I see no reason to doubt Goldberry’s account of herself. And I find myself, now, untroubled by being unable to be more precise: since Tom is so willfully against more precision, what else can a reader do?

Finally, for those who accept authorial intent as a valid source of information (which I also seem okay with, at least when it comes to “factual” things that aren’t contradicted by the text or my sense of the story), here’s what Tolkien said about Tom:

I do not mean him to be an allegory—or I should not have given him so particular, individual, and ridiculous a name—but ‘allegory’ is the only mode of exhibiting certain functions: he is then an ‘allegory’, or an exemplar, a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science: the spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature, because they are ‘other’ and wholly independent of the enquiring mind, a spirit coeval with the rational mind, and entirely unconcerned with ‘doing’ anything with the knowledge: Zoology and Botany not Cattle-breeding or Agriculture. Even the Elves hardly show this: they are primarily artists. (Letters 192)

Putting it another way, Tolkien says Tom “represents certain things otherwise left out.” (Quoted in the article “Bombadil’s role in The Lord of the Rings,” about which, more later.)

* * *

Now, the roles of Tom and Goldberry, which I find a more interesting question. Let’s do Goldberry first, since she tends to be overlooked.

First, she obviously and heavily prefigures Galadriel. Ann McCauley Basso has an exhaustive discussion of the parallels in her article “Fair Lady Goldberry, daughter of the River.” Basso suggests that this prefiguring serves two purposes. First, it allows Goldberry to act as a bridge between the rustic women seen so far and the noble women to come, giving the hobbits a way to start appreciating those women. (Basso argues that except for Goldberry, every woman in LotR falls into these categories: Lobelia, Mrs. Maggot, Ioreth, and Rosie Cotton on the one hand, and Galadriel, Arwen, and Eowyn on the other. (Are these, in fact, the only women with speaking parts in LotR? I can’t think of more, but then I forgot Lobelia completely earlier.)) Second, as one of a number of events that are paralleled later, Goldberry is “an important element of the rising action.”

(I disagree with Basso’s emphasis on a number of other points, including her argument that there’s a lingering sense of danger about Goldberry from her first appearance outside of LotR, but these structural points seem useful to me.)

Taryne Jade Taylor, in “Investigating the role and origin of Goldberry in Tolkien’s mythology,” argues that her role is “to cleanse the hobbits and awaken them to the power of love and knowledge.” Her autumn-cleaning rain keeps them in the house and gives Tom the opportunity to tell them stories about nature that give them wider knowledge after Old Man Willow, and that set them in a historical context (more on this later). Moreover, she also sings to them, “songs that began merrily in the hills and fell softly down into silence; and in the silences they saw in their minds pools and waters wider than any they had known, and looking into them they saw the sky below them and the stars like jewels in the depths.” This demonstrates how she’s opened their minds to deeper understandings than they previously possessed.

(Taylor also links Goldberry to Proserpina/Persephone and the Celtic goddess Etain, and argues that their house is in Faerie, which I don’t find very useful, but someone else might.)

In addition, Goldberry’s words are the ones the hobbits remember in the middle of the night when they have nightmares.

Bombadil, as I said above, gives the hobbits context both natural and historical. I have to quote possibly my favorite paragraph of the re-read to date here:

Suddenly Tom’s talk left the woods and went leaping up the young stream, over bubbling waterfalls, over pebbles and worn rocks, and among small flowers in close grass and wet crannies, wandering at last up on to the Downs. They heard of the Great Barrows, and the green mounds, and the stone-rings upon the hills and in the hollows among the hills. Sheep were bleating in flocks. Green walls and white walls rose. There were fortresses on the heights. Kings of little kingdoms fought together, and the young Sun shone like fire on the red metal of their new and greedy swords. There was victory and defeat; and towers fell, fortresses were burned, and flames went up into the sky. Gold was piled on the biers of dead kings and queens; and mounds covered them, and the stone doors were shut; and the grass grew over all. Sheep walked for a while biting the grass, but soon the hills were empty again. A shadow came out of dark places far away, and the bones were stirred in the mounds. Barrow-wights walked in the hollow places with a clink of rings on cold fingers, and gold chains in the wind. Stone rings grinned out of the ground like broken teeth in the moonlight.

The shift of voice starting with “Sheep were bleating” is very effective, and ever since I noticed this paragraph on my first time through the re-read, I’ve been seriously impressed by it.

Michael Treschow and Mark Duckworth, in “Bombadil’s role in The Lord of the Rings,” point to this as one way that Tom prepares the hobbits to go on with their quest. In addition, he literally “sees right through” the Ring, providing a new perspective on its danger (see below), and gives them the plot-significant knives (in the next chapter). Further, in the next chapter Frodo will have the dream of the West, which, though he doesn’t recognize it, will be his ultimate goal/reward. Treschow and Duckworth argue that Tom himself is positioned as the goal for characters: Gandalf, Galadriel, and Frodo all eventually come to points where they can cease striving and fighting and seeking external mastery. They cite in support Gandalf’s desire to speak with Tom at the end.

I’m not wholly convinced by this last point, but it’s interesting to think about. And I am more reconciled to Tom’s presence in the narrative now than I was. Earlier, I was leaning towards a slightly negative opinion of Tom in the narrative, because he was unaffected by the Ring and I found that odd, especially at this point in the story. People had a wide range of opinions on this, though, and I’m curious to hear what you all think.

* * *

Only one little non-Tom and Goldberry comment, after all that:

On my first time through the re-read, I said that I was unhappy about Frodo seeing Gandalf escaping Orthanc. An anonymous commenter suggested what I thought was a pretty neat solution: the One Ring was responding to Frodo’s desire to know what was happening with Gandalf, which it could do because Gandalf wears one of the Three. The dream isn’t real-time, but I’ll still take it.

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