Why did J.R.R. Tolkien stick this odd figure into The Lord of the Rings? What’s Tom Bombadil’s purpose in the story?
No doubt he’s a mysterious character. Elrond, the Lord of Rivendell, confesses he knows nothing about Bombadil. Gandalf calls Bombadil “the eldest and fatherless,” and the dwarves refer to him as “the ancient” or “belonging to the ancient past.”
But theologian Dwight Longenecker argues that Bombadil is central to the theme of Tolkien’s sweeping epic, which unites Christian themes with pre-Christian European myths. Longnecker sums up Bombadil’s role in this gorgeous, remarkable paragraph:
Tom Bombadil, like paganism, is there before everything else. He represents therefore the primitive and natural instinct in man. He stands for the Neanderthal gazing in wonder at his sister the moon and his brother the sun. He points to the rustic soul connecting silently with every living thing and knowing that there is something and someone beyond. He is the child trembling at the thunder and smiling with spring rain. As such he stands for mankind, formed from the earth at one with the earth and all that is within it. He is at one with nature and at the same time the steward of creation. Tom Bombadil is simply Tom Bombadil, but if he must be compared to anyone else in the Christian cosmos, then he and Goldberry are Middle Earth’s quaint and beautiful echo of Adam and Eve.
Understanding Bombadil helps us better appreciate Tolkien’s work. By honoring and even celebrating pagan Europe, Tolkien declared that the pagan past is not some gross error or accident, nor a dead realm to be shunned or forgotten, but a vital part of who we are today. The past, says Tolkien, is full of wisdom and genuine feeling we moderns can re-discover and appreciate.
Tolkien’s theology was decidedly different from fundamentalists, such as the Puritans, who intellectualized religion and sought to “purify” themselves and the rest of society of traditional practices and beliefs. In their zeal to rid the world of its backward and sinful ways, the Puritans hung their fellow citizens as witches. How different is that mindset from today’s fundamentalists in ISIS and the Taliban, who have also declared war on what they see as a sinful, fallen world? Whether they’re blasting pre-Islamic statues or butchering “infidels,” they’re acting on their belief that the existing order must be destroyed so the One True Way can prevail.
And aren’t we guilty of the same thing when we beat ourselves up for past mistakes? Or for having made the wrong choice long ago? I’ve always believed that theology and philosophy arise from one’s self-image. Those who loathe themselves are often unforgiving toward others. Accepting your whole self means, as Dickens put it, living “in the Past, the Present, and the Future.” It’s the first step toward self-forgiveness, which leads to forgiving and loving others.