Alright, friends. The time has come. I’m going to argue today in defense of why Tom Bombadil fulfills an important role in the saga of The Lord of the Rings (the books, not the movies), and how the hobbits’ encounter with him is more than a quirky side quest. Naturally, all the rest of this post is going to be full of various spoilers for the trilogy, so if you haven’t read it and don’t want it spoiled, you should avoid the rest of this one. Otherwise, read on!
So. Tom Bombadil. At a glance, it’s easy to see why he is a figure met with such confusion and so much shrugging. He’s a strange character who speaks in “nonsense” and weird rhymes, and he appears completely unconcerned by the fact that the rest of Middle Earth is in dire peril despite the fact that he seems to have strange powers that could help in the fight against Sauron. In fact, there’s a reason he almost feels more like a cameo than anything else.
And while I grant that he exists in the narrative for the reasons mentioned in the article above (tldr: Tolkien wrote him in when he still imagined LotR as an episodic children’s story much like The Hobbit, and Bombadil was a character who was well known by his own children), I would also argue that the finished narrative we all know and love benefits from his inclusion.
First, the fact that he was there to rescue the hobbits (twice!) is a way to show us readers how dangerous things are beyond the Shire while still having a way for our heroes to survive and continue their journey in one piece. Second– and I recognize that some might view this as an argument against his inclusion– having a character exist beyond Sauron’s influence the way Bombadil does makes a statement on the nature of evil itself without changing how important it is for the quest to succeed for the sake of Middle Earth. And finally, he is the first of three major encounters throughout the saga where an unfamiliar entity is found in the woods and proves to be a friend.
If you’ve read the books, you probably remember that the hobbits meet him almost immediately after leaving the Shire when they decide to go through the Old Forest instead of following the road in an attempt to avoid the Black Riders. The trouble with this, of course, is that they end up running into Old Man Willow who does his level best to end their journey right then and there, and would have succeeded if Tom Bombadil hadn’t come along at just the right moment to save them. From a storytelling perspective, this does two things: one, much like Bilbo and the Dwarves’ encounter with the trolls in the second chapter of The Hobbit, it shows the reader that the adventure has well and truly begun and the characters will need to be on their toes from here on out; and two, it shows that the characters are not alone. They might not have Gandalf with them, but there are people out there who can and will help them when trouble inevitably comes knocking.
It’s also a way to ease us into what will be an epic tale that takes the characters into great peril and darkness. The adventure might have started and the dangers might be entirely real, but we are still quite close to the Shire. And while we, like the hobbits, might have no idea that the Rangers are the ones responsible for keeping that delightful country safe, we do know that the Shire is a uniquely good location in Middle Earth. Doesn’t it make sense that even a half awake forest so near its borders would have a benevolent force like Tom Bombadil in it?
Putting that aside, let us come to the fact that the Ring seems to have no effect on Bombadil, and what that in itself means for the story. I can understand the argument that Tom’s apparent immunity to the powers of the Ring hurts the stakes of the story. After all, if anyone exists beyond the reach of this great evil, doesn’t that lessen the danger? The answer to that, of course, is that it doesn’t. Not for those who do have to contend with it, which is why Frodo’s quest is so important. But having Sauron and the Ring’s reach be something less that absolute is an important statement of Tolkien’s worldview: evil might be great and possessed of overwhelming power, but even at its worst its reach is not complete. Evil is not the greatest power in creation.
And finally, Tom Bombadil’s existence is the first example of help unlooked for appearing in the woods. Because while forests, particularly old forests, might not be safe in any way, neither are they beholden to Sauron. This is something that occurs again and again throughout the entire trilogy, starting with Bombadil and happening again when Merry and Pippin are found by Treebeard after escaping the Uruk-Hai. Given what they do to Isengard after being roused there’s no doubt that the Ents are incredibly dangerous– to their enemies. To the hobbits and those working against Sauron they are strong allies. And the pattern continues when Frodo, Sam, and Gollum meet Faramir in Ithilien, and even to a lesser extent when the Rohirrim are helped by Ghan-buri-Ghan and his people to reach Gondor in time. And with the exception of Faramir, the rest of these encounters, like Bombadil himself, are more or less contained to their smaller corner of the grander story. Yet, like Bombadil, they add to the story as a whole.
So, there you have it. My arguments for why Tom Bombadil is a worthy inclusion in the epic trilogy, and not just a strange leftover that somehow remained. Given the different pacing necessary in a film adaptation, I understand and agree with his exclusion from Peter Jackson’s movies. Movies are an entirely different medium with different pacing requirements. But in the novels? He is a perfect fit.