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Lord Of The Rings: Tom Bombadil's Backstory Explained

Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy is full of strange and fantastic characters. Elves, dwarves, men, hobbits, wizards, orcs, trolls, and goblins all take their turn soaking up screen time. Even so, there are still plenty of individuals from J.R.R. Tolkien's voluminous source material who were left out of the on-screen action.

One of those is Tom Bombadil. The eccentric character is a fan favorite that makes multiple outlandish appearances early on in the books. He hosts Frodo and his three hobbit friends as they travel between the Shire and Bree. He also saves them from a run-in with some ghastly foes (who aren't in the movies, either). Along with taking up a portion of the story with his larger-than-life personality, Bombadil is also referenced several times throughout the text. He's brought up at the Council of Elrond, Gandalf makes plans to visit him after the Ring is destroyed, and the witty fellow possibly even makes an unconfirmed appearance in one of Sam Gamgee's original poems.

Tom Bombadil is, by his very essence, a mysterious individual. When you add on the fact that he was left out of the films, he becomes a downright enigma — trust us, even Tolkien would agree. The author made that clear more than once in his personal letters. We decided to tackle the puzzling conundrum that is Tom Bombadil to figure out who this fellow with his colorful garb, jolly personality, and over-the-top behavior really is. The results? Tom Bombadil's backstory explained.

Why was Tom Bombadil left out of the Jackson trilogy?

Before we get too lost in the metaphorical weeds, let's answer one of the biggest questions of them all. Why was such a popular character dropped from Peter Jackson's movies? In fact, why has he been cut out of pretty much all cinematic and radio adaptations?

It's a question that's irked fans for a long time. It turns out, though, that Jackson actually cleared the air on the decision in an interview with Ain't It Cool News way back in the late '90s, before The Fellowship of the Ring had even hit theaters. When asked about Bombadil's potential involvement, he quickly clarified that the character had been axed from the script. Along with the length of the film and the pacing, Jackson said that the primary reason for his exclusion was that "the Bombadil sequence has so little to do with Sauron or the Ring, it is difficult to justify the screen time."

In other words, he doesn't add to the larger narrative. It's a fact that even Tolkien was well aware of. In a letter in 1954, Tolkien literally stated that, "Tom Bombadil is not an important person — to the narrative." Of course, he went on to explain that the character brought his own value and function to the Middle-earth experience. Still, if the author was already aware of the insignificant effect that Bombadil had on the storyline, it should come as no surprise that the character was one of the first elements to go when it came time to create a script.

Tom Bombadil is an enigma

If Tom Bombadil isn't necessary to the story, the natural follow-up question is why is he so popular? One easy answer is that he's an enigma. It's as simple as that. In a world that J.R.R. Tolkien spent a lifetime fleshing out, Tom Bombadil remains stubbornly unexplained.

The mysterious character had already been invented much earlier in Tolkien's life. He first appeared in a publication of the Oxford Magazine over two decades before The Fellowship of the Ring came out. In other words, Bombadil wasn't a new element in Tolkien's mind when he wrote The Lord of the Rings. In fact, in a letter to his publisher in December of 1937, Tolkien pointedly referred to the preexisting character as "the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside" and even threw out the idea of making Bombadil the "hero of a story" all on his own.

Nevertheless, in spite of his long acquaintance with Tom Bombadil, it turns out that Tolkien left the character underdeveloped on purpose. In the same letter where Tolkien mentioned that Bombadil wasn't necessary to the narrative, he also explicitly stated that, "As a story, I think it is good that there should be a lot of things unexplained (especially if an explanation actually exists). ... And even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally)." In a world of winded explanations and drawn-out stories, Bombadil remains intentionally enigmatic — to the great delight of readers everywhere.

No one knows what kind of creature Tom Bombadil is

The mysterious nature of Tom Bombadil has led to a smorgasbord of different potential explanations of what kind of creature he is. The most common suggestion is that he's a Maiar — that is, an angelic spirit, like the Lord of the Rings wizards. Other theories postulate that he's everything from a "Father Nature" figure to a sort of "master of time" or an embodiment of the "secret fire" that Gandalf references on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. Wilder ideas propose that he's the Witch-king in disguise or even Tolkien himself.

Another common theory is that Tom Bombadil is a physical manifestation of Ilúvatar, the creator in Tolkien's universe. This is rooted in the fact that he's referred to as "He is," echoing the Biblical concept of God referring to himself as "I am." While this would certainly go a long way in explaining a lot of Tom's quirky, overpowered behavior, it turns out to definitely not be true. Tolkien himself addressed it in another letter where he explained that Bombadil tends to represent "a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science."

This close connection with nature is reinforced in the books at the Council of Elrond, where it's stated, "Power to defy our Enemy is not in [Tom Bombadil], unless such power is in the earth itself." All things considered, perhaps it's best to stick to Tom's own description of himself when he tells his hobbit guests who he is, quipping, "Don't you know my name yet? That's the only answer."

He's really, really old

Bombadil's mysterious nature is certainly central to his personality. Even so, there's still a decent amount of information out there — some vague and some more specific — that can help to provide a more well-rounded view of the character.

Take, for instance, his age. In a world replete with old creatures and immortal beings, Tom Bombadil makes everyone, even the elves, feel like children. While we're never given a numerical figure, it isn't an understatement to say that Bombadil is on the shortlist of the oldest creatures in all of Middle-earth history.

In The Fellowship of the Ring, Tom tells Frodo and his companions, "You are young, and I am old. Eldest, that's what I am. ... Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn." He goes on to point out that he predates practically every living thing in Middle-earth, saying that he "made paths before the Big People, and saw the little People arriving. ... When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already. ... He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless — before the Dark Lord came from Outside." 

Later in the book, Elrond also refers to him as "older than the old" and calls him "Iarwain Ben-adar," which means "oldest and fatherless." Needless to say, Tom is very old, though little else is known about his origins or where he came from.

Tom Bombadil lives in the Old Forest

What with being so old and all, it makes sense that Tom Bombadil would've settled down somewhere by the time of The Lord of the Rings, like Elrond at Rivendell or Galadriel in Lothlorien. And it turns out that the merry fellow lives in a snug little house not far from the borders of the Shire, right in the heart of the Old Forest.

What's the Old Forest, you ask? It's from another portion of the books that didn't make it into Jackson's films. The little forest butts up against the east side of the hobbit homeland, and in the original story, Frodo and his friends decide to cut through the wood to avoid the Black Riders. While dodging the Ringwraiths is a good idea, though, it turns out that going through the Old Forest is not. Many of the trees are partially alive (though not full-blown Ents), and eventually, a willow tree hassles the four travelers.

This is when they bump into Tom Bombadil for the first time. After saving them from the malicious tree, Bombadil takes them further into the wood, where they discover his home, a humble house set on a green hill in the middle of the forest. While there's no explanation of how long he's lived there, this is clearly Tom Bombadil's home turf, and he doesn't wander far from it. In fact, in The Return of the King, Gandalf even calls Bombadil a "moss-gatherer," implying that he never goes anywhere.

Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow

While Tom Bombadil may be a homebody, that doesn't mean he's boring. On the contrary, one of Tom's defining characteristics is his jolly, go-lucky outlook on life. The guy is always laughing, singing, and dancing. Seriously, even when he's confronting evil trees and ghouls, the dude is chipper the whole time. He also dresses in flamboyantly bright colors.

All of this is best exemplified when the hobbits meet Bombadil for the first time. The first thing they hear is Tom singing a ridiculous tune that includes the lines, "Hey dol! Merry dol! Ring a dong dillo!," as well as, "Tom Bom, jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo!" Seriously, it's absurdity at its best.

Once he comes into sight, the ecstatic enigma is seen wearing an old hat with a long blue feather. He's also sporting yellow boots and a blue coat and has the bodily appearance of a stocky man with a long brown beard, a face wrinkled with laughter, and bright blue eyes. From his spunky lyrics to his colorful clothes, dynamite dancing, chipper attitude, and laissez-faire outlook on life, Tom Bombadil is far and away one of the most nonsensical creatures in all of Middle-earth.

Yeah, he's married

Tom Bombadil is the definition of a quirky personality who never seems to take things seriously and whose preposterous behavior could be difficult to live with at times. Nevertheless, there's one person who certainly doesn't mind spending all of her time with him — his wife, Goldberry. A surprising match for her boisterous husband, Bombadil's significant other is yet another Middle-earth manifestation that comes with a vague, underdeveloped backstory.

What little we do find out is that she's an attractive spiritual being called the "River-daughter." If you were only judging by looks, she appears to be way out of Tom's league. However, Goldberry clearly has kept up with her romcoms, as she knows that looks are hardly what counts, and under the surface, the pair of love birds seem to be a match made in heaven. In fact, in one of Tolkien's extraneous publications called The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, it's explained that the pair met when Goldberry pulled a prank on Tom after he came near her river. Smitten by the beautiful sprite, Bombadil ended up asking her to be his wife, and they proceeded to have a ceremony attended by woodland creatures.

Once Frodo and company arrive on the scene, Goldberry is comfortably living in Tom's home near the river. In fact, Tom is actively retrieving water lilies from the tributary for her when he first stumbles onto the hobbits. Once back in the house of Tom Bombadil, Goldberry helps care for the guests and engages in conversation more than once.

Tom lives a retired life

Tom Bombadil's life of living with Goldberry in the old forest is unique, to say the least. There's no clarification regarding how long the ageless, enigmatic character has dwelt there. Nevertheless, by the time of The Fellowship of the Ring, he's clearly the one "in charge" of an undefined area around his home. In the book, Goldberry refers to him as the "Master of wood, water, and hill." However, it's clarified afterward that each creature and plant belongs to themselves and that Bombadil has no interest in acting like a ruler. He's simply the top of the local ecosystem.

In other words, while no one is in control of Tom Bombadil, he doesn't rule others, either. He simply exists in his own quiet, out-of-the-way nook of Middle-earth where he sings, dances, and lives alone with his wife. He's closely connected to and respected by the nature that surrounds him, as well. Apart from that, though, Tom does very little to leave his mark on the world around him. As Goldberry states, he simply "is," and that's enough.

Tom Bombadil has unusual powers

Tom Bombadil is one of the most powerful people that the hobbits meet throughout the entire story. Take, for instance, Tom's relationship to the One Ring. The shiny, superpowered trinket is a temptation even to people like Saruman and Galadriel. And yet, when Tom is shown the Ring, he merely laughs at it, puts it on his finger, and doesn't disappear. That's right, Tom is the only person in the entire story over whom the Ring has no power whatsoever. In fact, at the Council of Elrond, this leads to the suggestion that they should send him the Ring for safekeeping, to which Gandalf retorts that he would be a very unsafe guardian since he would probably "forget it, or most likely throw it away."

The other major point in the story where Tom shows off his latent superpowers comes after the hobbits leave his house. They travel out of the Old Forest and try to head across the Barrow-downs, a series of grassy, haunted hills, some of which have old graves of ancient kings and rulers. When the hobbits are trapped by a ghostly Barrow-wight, they sing a song that Tom taught them, and it brings their friend in a hurry. He bursts into the ancient grave, still managing to sing a tune in the midst of the chaos. While we aren't shown the specifics, there's no doubt that he dispatches the ghastly occupant with little trouble. Tom Bombadil may be silly, but there's no doubt that he's powerful, too.

Bombadil bows out

Tom Bombadil's tussle with the willow tree, his defeat of the Barrow-wight, and above all, the lack of power that the One Ring has over him begs the question, why isn't he more involved in the larger narrative? After all, he clearly can pull some powerful moves on both physical and supernatural enemies. However, Tolkien makes it clear early and often that Tom isn't interested in getting tangled up with the affairs of the outside world. In addition, his utter lack of interest in power struggles means he likely wouldn't have taken the situation very seriously, either.

The author clarified this point in the same letter where he pointed out that Bombadil isn't necessary to the greater narrative. In the note, he also explained that the bulk of The Lord of the Rings is a bout between good and evil, adding, "Both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of control." Amidst the back and forth, Bombadil is described as representing a third-party "natural pacifist view." He's the embodiment of those who "delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing."

This is precisely what keeps Bombadil on the periphery of the story. While he's clearly one of the "good guys," the character, by his very nature, is not one to pick sides. He'll do the right thing when it's in his sphere of influence, but he won't go out of his way to get involved.

Tom Bombadil after the Ring is destroyed

Tom Bombadil's primary storyline is buttoned up in The Fellowship of the Ring after he helps Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin escape from the Barrow-wight. He proceeds along with them as they finish their trip over the Barrow-downs, pointing out that he wants to ensure that they get back to the main road without any more mischief. Once they reach the road, he sends them on their way to Bree where they head to the Prancing Pony and meet Aragorn for the first time. In fact, in the books, Aragorn actually sees them when they arrive at the road with Tom and then secretly follows them to the town. While Bombadil comes up a few more times here and there, he doesn't physically enter the story again.

That said, the last time we hear about the jolly old fellow is right before the hobbits reach the Shire on their journey home in The Return of the King. Gandalf is still with them at this point, but he splits off, saying, "I am going to have a long talk with Bombadil: such a talk as I have not had in all my time." After that, we never hear about Bombadil again. The jolly old enigma remains tucked away in his home in the Old Forest, living out his content, pacifistic, retired life with Goldberry. Out of sight and out of mind, he fades into Middle-earth anonymity — just as he, no doubt, would wish.