Tom Bombadil: Cracking The ‘Enigma’ Code

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Introduction: Thinking Outside the Box

How utterly ridiculous – a brash diminutive fellow stomping about nearby hobbit lands with hardly a care in the world! Positively preposterous – only four feet tall and three broad1, yet with power to banish a Barrow-wight and command the spirits of trees! And lo and behold there is even more. To top it all – here we have the one and only being who exhibits immunity with impunity to the most dangerous object in Middle-earth: Sauron’s Ruling Ring. What on earth was Tolkien thinking? How risky and how daring to trivialize the object of the quest so early in the tale. Especially with such a comical character!

Beloved by many, yet reviled by some – the powerful, mysterious and famous Mr. Bombadil has defied complete explanation for decades. Sixty years has elapsed since the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring, but still Bombadil tantalizes us …. oh but wait …. until perhaps now. For finally a way has been found to attack his problematic ‘identity’, comprehend his words and explain his actions, in a different manner. As conventional means have all but failed, the time was overdue to ‘think outside the box’. Of course our options are limited and so in taking such a tack the ‘enigma’, as the Professor hinted, was figured to be no more than a puzzle:

there must be some enigmas, Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, #144 (my underlined emphasis)

Yes, a crafted puzzle that has a solution and one not wholly impossible to piece together. And for those entrenched in a belief that Tolkien created an unanswerable mystery – well they may be in for a surprise, for this article should dislodge such a mindset.

Now the strongest theories advanced to date have claimed Tom exhibits characteristics becoming of an Ainu (a Vala or Maia), or that he portrays a nature spirit or a spirit of the Music. Some of the weaker ones propose Tom could represent an unfallen Adam, the Reader, Eru, or even Tolkien himself. Neither the strong or weak go all the way to explaining Tom. Indeed Master Bombadil truly has been a riddle – a riddle for far too long!

Most curiously, Tolkien once named the renowned British war-time politician Winston Churchill in an analogy involving Tom. In a mildly condescending draft response to a reader, Tolkien wrote:

I can say ‘he is’ of Winston Churchill as well as of Tom Bombadil, surely?
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153 

Had the faintest of clues been given away? Even though the letter was never sent, in a most subtle manner had Tolkien wanted the correspondent to first recall and then ponder memorable words from a rather famous war-time broadcast2:

“It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; … but perhaps there is a key.”
– British Radio Broadcast, October 1939 by Winston S. Churchill

Could Tolkien have been hinting that indeed a key existed to the enigma of Tom?

Key or not – ultimately any solution claimed as ‘the answer’ must be able to withstand rigorous examinations, leaving no room for inconsistencies. It must comprehensively address the more curious behavior, deeds and words spoken by Tom (or about Tom) in the novel. And to be viable, it must also embrace noteworthy remarks in Tolkien’s letters. It must be a unifying theory that explains it all – down to the least detail. Well what a challenge – but let’s see how far I can go!

In an attempt to promote an all-encompassing theory, I will branch into subject matter rarely touched upon in ‘Tolkien studies’. An unconventional approach is not a sign of desperation. Rather, as you will see, it could easily be viewed as enlightening – for appealing evidence points to Tolkien’s books having far more in them than others have yet discovered.

Hence to reveal these findings, this essay is split into four parts. The first section will expose and explore the unique role Tolkien placed Bombadil in. Then a section is needed to discuss Tom’s more unusual actions and his inherent power. The third will touch upon certain areas of scholarship which have perhaps been too superficially addressed in the public domain. The last, and probably the most controversial, will identify Tom’s genus.

[Please bear in mind that what follows is a hypothesis, and though sometimes a factual portrayal is presented – this is just literary style and for effect. Also it is recommended that the reader reserves criticism until all has been revealed.] 

Part I – The Secret Role Played by Bombadil

The Cosmogonical Drama

Before delving into Tom in detail, it is necessary to try to ‘climb into’ the Professor’s skin. However to do so, quotes most closely associated with Tom must be extracted then pondered. Such methodology is used consistently throughout, with special care and consideration paid to contextual applicability. Though as one will discover, when it came to Tom – the Professor was deliberately evasive and his words were often cryptically arranged. In this case, it is best to be open-minded about the interpretation of quotes.

Now Tolkien felt:

“… there should be a lot of things unexplained (especially if an explanation actually exists); …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #144, April 1954

Fortunately the explanation does exist, though just as Tolkien stated much later, I found that a longer one was needed:

“There is always something left over that demands a different or longer construction to “explain” it …”.
– Letter to Przemyslaw Mroczkowski, January 1964, private collection     (Tolkien’s emphasis)

To begin to explain – a step back is needed to provide background into Tolkien’s way of thinking about the setting of his legendarium writings. Due contemplation of the arena for The Lord of the Rings is imperative. For it will allow us to eventually place Tom into the cosmology.

Without doubt, all should agree that Tolkien’s focus was Middle-earth. Beyond question the region is center-stage for most of the legendarium. The term ‘stage’ is important, for the historical writings of his myth-based world were, it is reasoned, imagined as part of one long and continuous play: the so called ‘cosmogonical drama’3.

Stage plays were essential to Tolkien’s creative thought process. They allowed a practical way of immersion into another world; a sub-created world full of living people where a pseudo-secondary reality could be intimately experienced while seated within a theater’s confines.

Tolkien and his family are recorded as having enjoyed many theatrical performances – in particular those scripted by Barrie, Milne and of course William Shakespeare. Having been schooled in the Bard’s works and being worthy of appointment as the Professor of English Literature at Oxford University, undoubtedly there was blanket familiarity with the more famed phrases. And so in reflecting on Hamlet’s memorable line: “To be, or not to be, that is the question …”, Tolkien already knew for his own play – Eru would cry out: “Eä!” or “Let it Be4.

At the point “Eä!” was uttered, the Universe was created and the Professor’s great drama could now be imaginatively played out as a theatrical production. But the world needed a stage. Or conversely as so strikingly put in Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’: “All the world’s a stage.”!

The World is not Enough – A Vital but Missing Element

In making the whole world a stage for the ‘greatest’ of performances, Tolkien’s historical chronicles needed to immerse the reader into wholly believable fantasy. Believe it or not, part of the exercise was simply:

“… an experiment in the arts of long narrative, and of inducing ‘Secondary Belief.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #328

Real stage-plays fell short of being able to provide true secondary belief as such creations lacked a needed:

“… inner consistency of reality.”
– On Fairy-Stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

A more potent form of artistry than either live-drama or plain imagination was required. Ultimately it was necessary to meet the requirements of the:

“Faërian Drama – those plays which … can produce Fantasy with a realism and immediacy beyond the compass of any human mechanism. As a result their usual effect … is to go beyond Secondary Belief.”
– On Fairy-Stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

To personally obtain such enchantment, it is hypothesized that his own Faërian drama, and its setting, was made mentally analogous to a theatrical play conducted inside a theater. In fact Tolkien himself, in discussing Tom, stated:

“This is like a ‘play’, … ”.
– Letter to Przemyslaw Mroczkowski, January 1964, private collection   (Tolkien’s emphasis)

So why should we not think of it that way? Adding substance to such a mode of inquiry, is the deep impression permanently but subliminally present from a bygone mesmerizing performance. Written in Tolkien’s diary after a live-showing of Peter Pan:

“Indescribable but I shall never forget it as long as I live.”
– The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, Chronology Hammond and Scull, April 1910

Despite live-drama having limitations, left was a tough to admit residue. The lasting impact of ‘Peter Pan’ allows us to take the ‘play’ premise further and intelligently speculate on why Tolkien placed such emphasis on a stage performance. If we do so, it is not unreasonable to postulate that his entire mythical Universe was conceptualized as housed within the walls of a theater. Outside existed the Void where dwelt Eru and subordinate spirits who had declined to be part of the drama. As for the inside, the majority of the stage can be thought of as Arda – the Earth5, with center-stage being Middle-earth itself. Still as one knows, there is more to a theater than just a stage. There always exist discrete regions, wholly independent of the stage itself, that reach out and touch it.

Such zones, of course, invariably include a backstage area (dressing rooms, a place for props, holding zones for the actors, etc.); side regions for the cast to enter and exit (commonly known as ‘wings’); an orchestra pit and without fail – a spectator seating/standing area (the auditorium). Tolkien envisaged these zones, it is theorized, as independent planes of reality that adjoined the stage, yet existed in tandem. This concept was of utmost importance:

“… the simultaneity of different planes of reality touching one another … part of the deeply felt idea that I had …”.
– Letter to Przemyslaw Mroczkowski, January 1964, private collection

So how does this novel idea concern Master Bombadil? Well if we ‘step into’ Tolkien’s skin, take his advice, and imagine his mythical history acted out “like a ‘play’ ” – we soon come to realize that one vital element was missing. It was something very important to him, but perhaps in a little bit of an idiosyncratic way; because it necessitated Tom to be given a secret role:

“… he represents something that I feel important, …”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #144

“… he represents certain things otherwise left out.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153

And that most “something … important” which would “otherwise” have been“left out” was:

‘the audience’.


For yes, even though to some readers Bombadil came across as a “discordant ingredient”6, to Tolkien he was nothing of the sort; Tom had at least one very secret and crucial “function”.

“I would not, however, have left him in, if he did not have some kind of function.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #144

Many producers have said that ‘the audience’ are the most important constituent in a play. Since without them, any play is simply a rehearsal. The showing becomes a practice session – boiling down to no more than a trial run. This undeniable fact bothered Tolkien immensely. To the extent, that in his mind, the drama could not be initiated. However he covertly acknowledged it was a peculiarly personal desire as he:

“… would not be prepared to analyse the feeling precisely.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #144

Tolkien needed a representation of the audience – be it only one member. There simply was no way around the issue; out of necessity, this was to be Tom Bombadil’s primary secret role.

Without Tom, the fantasy-based Faërian drama could not be perfect or complete – but the Professor remained deliberately coy about the matter for many years. For us however, the mystery could not be solved without a crucial correspondence. In a letter to Przemyslaw Mroczkowski, Tolkien finally suggested (in a roundabout manner) that meeting Tom would rather be like meeting someone associated to a theatrical production – but ‘off-stage’. He just about gave the game away with cryptic tips7 such as “producer”, “stagehands”, even “author”. But seemingly8 he left his friend to guess a purposeful omission. Consequently by 1964 he came close to revealing Tom’s most significant role. Except his personal puzzle was amusing to him. In a teasing way, despite several inquiries – he refused to outrightly provide the solution. 

Tom’s Path to Middle-earth

Though I have provided a plausible reason as to why Tolkien assigned Tom a secret role, I have yet to explain how this all fits in with his depiction in the novel and the Professor’s other private remarks. To surmount these barriers, I will need to lay out the process of his assimilation. Because the route Tolkien took to begin his integration is crucial to gain full understanding. Bear with me for a short while longer, and things will automatically start falling in place.

Well before The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien had assigned the name of Tom Bombadil to a Dutch doll belonging to one of his children. Later, a poem was published in a 1934 edition of The Oxford Magazine called The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. Tom had initially been named and largely characterized with no thought to the mythology in mind. It was not until 1937, in a letter to the publisher – Stanley Unwin, that the possibility was aired of including his mischievous invention in a new novel: The Lord of the Rings:

“Do you think Tom Bombadil … could be made into the hero of a story?”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #19

In Letter #19 he mulled enlarging “the portrait”. Tolkien was bound by preplaced constraints in terms of look, dress-sense9 and personality – but not role. Already enamored by his whimsical creation, he decided to incorporate Tom very early on in the production of the ‘trilogy’. However, as we can see in the drafts, he almost immediately began developing “the portrait” by enhancing power and infusing more mystery than in previous rhyme.

Having originated outside of the pre-existing Silmarillion mythology, Tolkien had to first find a way to import Tom into the cosmology, then geographically find him a satisfactory place to dwell, and then integrate him into the plot. In the early poetical work, Tom had essentially been displayed as a care-free nature-loving spirit embodied in flesh, and until 1937 Tolkien had clearly thought of him as an anglicized one dwelling locally: “the spirit of the (vanishing)10 Oxford and Berkshire countryside11. But how could Tom, of the poem, be most easily assimilated into his great play? The answer was a little stroke of genius. The process would be gradual. Tom would first enter the theater through a different door than the other characters. He would be the much needed representation of ‘the audience’ and enter the Universe via the door usually reserved for the public.

tom enters the theatre from outside
Tom enters the Theater from ‘Outside’

The early actors and crew of the ‘great drama’ would, of course, access the theater by a back door meant for the cast, set-producers and stagehands12. Yet singularly for Tom, Tolkien had ingeniously found a way of entry into the cosmology outside of the typical pattern within the legendarium, and consistent with his unique situation. This way – Middle-earth could not be the source of his birth:

“… he has no historical origin in the world described in The Lord of the Rings.”
– Tolkien letter to Christopher Fettes – 1961: Hammond & Scull, The LotR, A Reader’s Companion p.134

Quite clearly, the comment above was doubly applicable, because in expounding on Tom’s origin earlier in the same letter, he confirmed:

“… there are two answers: [i] External [ii] Internal; …”.
Tolkien letter to Christopher Fettes – 1961: Hammond & Scull, The LotR, A Reader’s Companion p.133

Tom’s ‘external’ existence pre-trilogy was factually undeniable. Fortunately the path to allow this charming character into the cosmogonical drama was a dilemma which could be neatly solved. In Tolkien’s mind, ‘internal’ to the tale, Tom would enter the Universe in a separate plane of existence. One that perhaps was his very own. Nevertheless even though the route to Middle-earth had been found, Tom was not yet physically in it, and as said before, nor of it.

Curtains to Poverty

And so upon creation of the Universe (the theater itself), Tom could wander in from ‘Outside’, and make his way via the figurative aisles to his imaginary seat reserved in the auditorium. With the script written, an off-stage pre-play already enacted (the creation of the Ainur, Music and Vision), much of the cast and stage crew were now ready to arrive on stage and help set up. The time was now ripe for the cosmogonical drama to get underway. But before obtaining his ticket from the box office – our Tom was constrained by a certain rule. That rule is the normal one that all theater-goers face when seeking entry. Tom had essentially:

“… taken ‘a vow of poverty’, renounced control, …” allowing him to take “delight in things for themselves … watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #144   (Tolkien’s emphasis)

We, as theater-goers, are there to watch, listen and enjoy our chosen spectacle too. Without fail we cede control, as we are obligated to allow the performers to partake in their duties. In addition, we cannot take any ownership or make claim to anything inside the theater. We most certainly cannot walk out during the play, or even after it, with the props or other fixtures. In effect, strict unwritten rules constrain us to leave empty-handed – just the way we walked in.

This is the ‘vow of poverty’ that Tolkien alluded to in Letter #144. Tom’s pure heart equipped him for this very mission. Tom silently pledged never to keep anything that belonged to another in the theater, for himself13. His role forbid it.

In tandem to such a ‘vow’ – and fittingly in our role as spectators, just like Tom:

“… the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control … become utterly meaningless … and the means of power quite valueless.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #144

This was later reiterated; because just like any audience engrossed in a typical play, Tom did:

“… not want to make, alter, devise, or control anything: just to observe and take joy in the contemplating the things that are not himself.”
– Letter to Nevill Coghill, see Addenda and Corrigenda to The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book (2014) Edited by Scull and Hammond

Quite simply, for on-stage props and happenings, a true member of the audience should have:

“… no desire of possession or domination at all.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153

For patrons are always aware it is just ‘a play’, and of the ensuing marring were control or custody forcefully taken without invite.

Now a vow of ‘poverty’ is quite different from one of ‘non-interference’. Indeed audience participation is not uncommon in plays. We are allowed to laugh, applaud and even boo. Occasionally onlookers may be invited onto the stage to play some minor role and let’s say: ‘help the play along’. As we shall see, Tom eventually made it onto the stage and entered the physical plane of Arda – aiding the long-running narrative in a small way.

But first, Tolkien allowed him to be seated in a separate plane of reality ready for the set-up and then show to begin. That is why per The Fellowship of the Ring he was “First”, “oldest” and “Eldest”; because the curtains cannot be drawn open and the play cannot start until the audience is settled. And that is why he was intended to be “Last” – because once the curtains finally close, Tom will have witnessed its ending. At that point, the play is officially over and the audience must leave. For Tom, the way out would be back via the theater entrance door from whence he came: “Last” through it “as he was First”. Naturally, when the theater lights are put out, we can all understand why: “Night will come”. The great cosmogonical drama set over several Ages (viewable as specific Acts) had a beginning and a perceived end14, and required Tom’s continual presence as the manifestation of the audience.

I'm Here - Let 'The Cosomogonical Drama' Begin!
I’m Here – Let ‘The Cosomogonical Drama’ Begin!

Then finally, as the metaphorical curtains opened, the ‘Time’ for Arda’s clock to start ticking had come. With Tom seated in a different plane of reality, he could watch the early cast/stage-managers/stagehands (The Valar and the Maiar) arrive ‘on stage’ to mold, vitalize and enrich. That is why in Letter #153 he was insinuated to be: “Eldest in Time”; because Time15 began with their descent into Arda. And that is how there is no conundrum of who was the first to Arda. Melkor with his great brethren, were ‘on the stage’ whilst Tom was watching the saga unfold from his own separate dimension. For when the said curtains were pulled aside, the Earth was bare and only “ancient starlight” provided illumination. This is the one time that we can truly say, as Tom did, that “the dark under the stars … was fearless”. Because at the very beginning, its surface was uninhabited by Melkor, his lieutenant Sauron, other loyal spirits, or for that matter – any creatures of evil.

Different Planes of Reality

The contrivance of alternate planes of reality (in literature) is not unique to Tolkien. His great friend C.S. Lewis employed a similar technique in the Narnia series. However what is certainly unparalleled, is the idea of linking them to a play conducted inside a theater.

The first obvious literary occurrence of Tolkien’s own dabbling in extraneous planes of existence is found in The Hobbit. When Bilbo disappeared in wearing the Ring, the Professor attributed the phenomenon down to departure from one dimension and entry into another separate one:

“… he is really in a separate picture or ‘plane’ – being invisible to the dragon”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #27         (Tolkien’s emphasis)

However it wasn’t until The Lord of the Rings that the concept was actively expanded upon. The level of sophistication increased with Tom blazing the trail. Windows into a different world, in relation to our merry fellow, are strongly hinted at through the expressions:

“This is like a ‘play’, … there are noises that do not belong, chinks in the scenery, glimpses of another different world outside …”                                           – Report on Auction of Letter to Przemyslaw Mroczkowski, January 1964 (private collection) – Lotrplaza: Thread ‘Tom B. Peeling the Onion’, 7/6/09.       (Tolkien’s emphasis)


“… there is always some element that does not fit and opens as it were a window into some other system.”
– Tolkien letter to Christopher Fettes – 1961: Hammond & Scull LotR Companion p.134

Tom, on the stage, did “not fit” or truly “belong”. He was part of a bigger story, but as we shall later see – not of an entirely foreign mythos:

“… the world is so large and manifold … there is always something that does not come in to that story …, and seems to belong to a larger story.”
– Letter to Nevill Coghill, see Addenda and Corrigenda to The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book (2014) Edited by Scull and Hammond

One question which naturally arises is: how many different planes of reality did Tolkien conceive within the Universe? From the early days of The Hobbit we know there were initially at least two. Bilbo when placing the Ring on his finger was on his way to fully passing into another world. Even so he was partially still in physical Middle-earth – as his body had yet to completely fade. Gandalf in the sequel confirms the existence of a kind of ‘half-way house’:

“ ‘… while you wore the Ring … you were half in the wraith-world …’ ”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Many Meetings

By the time of The Lord of the Rings we were told that, for some, the planes did not just touch – but they overlapped:

“ ‘… for those who have dwelt in the Blessed Realm live at once in both worlds, …’ ”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Many Meetings

The same manner of existence applied to Bombadil – except Tom also had access to another plane of reality: the auditorium (or ‘Viewing Gallery’ as I will often call it henceforth). Because if we examine the evidence it strongly points to Tom possessing simultaneous admission rights to at least three different dimensions. As well as the Physical World and Viewing Gallery, clearly he could see a Ring-wearing Frodo who had entered the ‘Wraith-world’:

“ ‘Hey there!’ cried Tom, glancing towards him with a most seeing look in his shining eyes.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

To clarify how multi-dimensional worlds can exist within Tolkien’s mythology, and to aid understanding – a Venn diagram is provided below:

‘Flat World & Cosmology’ Venn Diagram
(Tom’s accessibility to different planes of reality, before Númenor’s downfall)


A Drama within a Drama

Although I have already mentioned three different planes of reality, two16 more certainly existed. In Eru removing Aman from physical Arda, another plane was created – to which passage could be obtained from Middle-earth via Elven-ships sailing the ‘straight way’.

The clue allowing us to explore the idea of Tom being linked to a fourth dimension is Frodo’s bizarrely tangible vision. While under the merry couple’s thatched roof, the Undying Lands were glimpsed – notably when our fine fellow was close by:

“… either in his dreams or out of them, … a grey rain-curtain, … rolled back, and a far green country opened before him …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

We must ask ourselves, why here and why Bombadil? Why did Frodo not have such a realistic vision of “a far green country” when in the Elven kingdoms of Rivendell or Lothlórien?

The most logical answer this writer can find speculates that Tom’s role, as representing the audience, permitted him to observe happenings anywhere within Eä – even after the removal of Aman from the physical ‘circles of the world’17. Thus Frodo all too fleetingly espied the Blessed Realm through a window purposely opened by Tom.

Our unsuspecting hobbit had been caught in the net of a Faërian drama:

“If you are present at a Faërian drama you yourself are, or think that you are, bodily inside its Secondary World. The experience may be very similar to Dreaming …”.
– On Fairy-Stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

In an enchanted state, his mind was being manipulated without an awareness of the local controller:

“But in Faërian drama you are in a dream that some other mind is weaving, and the knowledge of that alarming fact may slip from your grasp.”
– On Fairy-Stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

Yes, from the: 

“… real river-lands in autumn
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #210

an opening had been conjured to the land of Faëry by a higher entity – giving him hope to stay the course. Somewhere out there was a place the Dark Lord could never assail and it was there awaiting Frodo!

Then given a strong probability that Tolkien envisaged Tom as capable of accessing four different dimensions – the Venn diagram can be appropriately updated. Illustratively another plane of reality is depicted as an out-of-plane circle touching at Point ‘A’ – with the Universe now enclosing all planes in spherical fashion. Notionally – the intersecting planes of Physical Arda, The Wraith-world and Aman can be idealized as multiple overlapping stages within the theater. Some of these stages have paths to each other – yet all adjoin the auditorium.

It must also be noted that the doors of entry into the theater were shut once ‘the play’ properly got underway. Those that had come in from ‘Outside’ (including Tom) were constrained to stay within the theater (Eä) until the drama had come to its ordained end.

‘Bent World & Cosmology’ Venn Diagram
(Tom’s accessibility to different planes of reality, after Númenor’s downfall)


Are you looking for Belle’s ? – No, I’m just looking!

We must take special care to heed how Tom said: “he remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn”. The Fellowship of the Ring text does not state: ‘felt’ the raindrop or ‘held’ the acorn. How believable is it that Tom was physically in Middle-earth at coincidentally the exact places and times of these monumental scientific occurrences, and then accidentally witnessed them? And nor does it matter whether his utterance was referring to local habitat or to all Arda – for clearly these were primeval short-lived events.

It is far more believable that Tom had a specific purpose and was avidly watching the wonder of creation and then evolution from his own special ‘Viewing Gallery’. It is then no surprise that he came endowed with distinct desires – those atypical of a part-historian and part-scientist, exemplifying a:

“… spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature, because they are ‘other’ …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153     (Tolkien’s emphasis)

More to the point, like a typical spectator in an auditorium, it was his role to watch the play intently. To observe major events, yet be :

“… entirely unconcerned with ‘doing’ anything with the knowledge: …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153     (Tolkien’s emphasis)

For, just like Tom, if you were a member of the audience of a riveting play, the objective would be to focus on the performance:

“… without reference to yourself, …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #144

Ideally you would:

“… take your delight in things for themselves …”,
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #144

and be left with nothing but memories of the acting and the scenes.

Delighted though Tom must have been, he had also passed a stern test. While evolution and creation had rapidly advanced in the ‘Spring of Arda’, he had managed to refrain from interfering. By staying in the auditorium, he had achieved self-mastery and proven self-control.

“ ‘… He is his own master. …’ ”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Council of Elrond

We too, when in an audience, must similarly exercise self-control. No matter how passionate the circumstance – we must absolutely reject any temptation to intrude by leaping onto the stage. We have to master ourselves. And so in this manner, Tom personified the ideal spectator. The good news was that after such perfect behavior he was ready. The reward would lead to a new phase. Unbeknownst to him, a beautiful nymph-like woman would emerge from water: Goldberry was awaiting ‘on stage’!

Tom’s jump to Physical Arda – The Main Stage

After uncounted years, the time for ‘peeping Tom’ was over. He was now destined to achieve marital bliss and live in harmony with other beings, yet still fulfill his all-important purpose. Because at some point in Middle-earth’s history, Tom transitioned from being entirely in the audience dimension to the physical one of Arda.

After shaping and enrichment, sentient anthropomorphic life began to awaken on land and it is conjectured Tom became so enrapt that the viewing zone failed to sate a growing hunger. He wanted to experience ‘the play’ as closely as possible. To physically touch it and interact with the cast was the inevitable next chapter; and in due time he also knew he had a minor part to play ‘on stage’.

Whether Tom was invited onto the stage, as audience members of an actual play can be, is unknown. Usually such a role in the overall story line is designated by the script-writer to be small, yet nonetheless can be of significance. Perhaps this was subtly conveyed per the following quote:

“Tom Bombadil is not an important person – to the narrative.”
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #144

Ultimately Tom was constrained by his ‘vow of poverty’. Yes, he could interfere in a small way, ad lib, but fundamentally he could not claim ownership over anything belonging to someone else. Especially to the main prop of the Third Act18. However in placing himself ‘on stage’, a panoramic vista was forfeited – his focus would now be tied to a local zone:

“He merely knows and understands about such things as concern him in his natural little realm.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #144

Tom would now behave as an “exemplar” – an ideal model of that specific audience whose delight is biased towards nature and evolution. In becoming

“… a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science …”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153

a flesh clad Tom, nevertheless, was still bound by his basic function. Placed in the role of an audience member – to step ‘off the stage’ and run away with the Ring, if given the chance, would be ridiculous. To carry it off into another dimension – where it might have been beyond Sauron’s grasp would have caused incalculable havoc on ‘the stage’. Under the worst scenario it might even lead to ‘the play’ ending prematurely. Given as much:

“ ‘… he would not understand the need. …’ ”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Council of Elrond

for to him – ‘the show must go on’. So even if all the good cast:

“ ‘… begged him, …’ ”,
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Council of Elrond

he was still unlikely to comply.

Likewise, if Sauron could somehow eliminate Tom – then as Glorfindel obliquely commented: “Night will come” – meaning ‘the show is over’ and the theater lights would have to be switched off. However it is highly unconventional for a stage actor to kill off the audience – to say the least. But the point Tolkien covertly made, is that if Sauron had destroyed Tom, justification to the drama continuing would have evaporated. Without a dedicated onlooker watching throughout – ‘the play’ would effectively have come to an abrupt end.

Then in bumping into the hobbits seemingly by accident at their first meeting, an astute Tom recognized the finger of providence. His time had come:

“ ‘ … Just chance brought me then, if chance you call it. …’ ”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil   (my underlined emphasis)

The plea for aid could not be ignored. Star actors were in trouble and only the ‘audience’ was in a position to help!

Dramatic further assistance at the Barrow was to follow. And it would be Tom’s ‘pièce de résistance’ for this performance. In rescuing the hobbits a second time and equipping them to face a particular type of danger – Tom knew that he had done his small part ‘on the stage’. That part which was designated in the Music before the building of the world – had finally been fulfilled. But straight afterwards, he could return to the function he had originally been generated for: watching, laughing, clapping and enjoying the play unfold – but now just in his little chosen land.

Perhaps it might help if one pictures use of a ‘Holodeck’ from the Star Trek series. A play can be programmed and crew members can enter a fictitious setting – yet know that a performance is proceeding around them while fully participating in it. The crew members are as close to viewing the play in a secondary reality as possible. Yet they know they cannot be harmed or affected by the props inside the play (Holodeck). For as and when the need arises, they can simply step out – just as empty handed as when they stepped in. Picture Tom, in comparable fashion, being able to step in and out of his own ‘Holodeck’ (i.e. off ‘the stage’ into ‘the auditorium’) whenever he desired. And just like Star Trek – Tolkien had made sure that this particular user of the ‘Holodeck’, could not be affected by any harmful prop within. The Professor really was ‘light years’ ahead of his time!

Dreaded Allegory – The Plot Thickens

In making Tom a manifestation of the audience, Tolkien ventured into an area that he immensely disliked: that of allegory.

I dislike Allegory – the conscious and intentional allegory ...”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131

In a somewhat convoluted response to a proofreader, Tolkien disguised Tom’s role as a literary device:

“I suppose he has some importance as a ‘comment’.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #144     (Tolkien’s emphasis)

All the same Tom’s secret role was most definitely allegorical, both consciously and intentionally. Just a few months later, Tolkien just about confessed to hidden allegory outright:

“I do not mean him to be an allegory … but ‘allegory’ is the only mode of exhibiting certain functions: …”,
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153   (Tolkien’s emphasis)

 and even more forcefully:

“… he is then an ‘allegory’ …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153   (Tolkien’s emphasis)

One might view a remarkable admission, somewhat camouflaged and couched as a half-hearted apology, as a touch humiliating. Because Tolkien had in a way betrayed one of his own strong convictions. He clearly wasn’t entirely happy about Tom representing an abstract idea:

“I mean, I do not really write like that: …”,
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #144

but it circumvented an equally abstract craving: the ‘lack of an audience’. Unfortunately allegory was the most conveniently available method to exhibit a very unusual function, and in the end – Tolkien capitulated.

One can quite readily understand why there was genuine reluctance on the Professor’s part to reveal more during the years after The Lord of the Rings release. Yet his qualms may have gone beyond any inner guilt from such self-inflicted heresy. A confession to concealed allegory might lead to academics questioning whether other secret meanings were buried within his tale, and who knows what else? Once the cat was out of the bag – who could tell how it would pounce? Such worries might well have gone through his mind; it would be much simpler and less stressful if Tom’s hidden role remained a private affair.

Our sensitive Professor lacked confidence. Despite the resounding success of The Hobbit, there had been worrisome doubt to whether his magnum opus would be equally well received:

“I have never had much confidence in my own work, … I feel diffident, reluctant as it were to expose my world of imagination to possibly contemptuous eyes and ears.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #282       (my underlined emphasis)

Understandably caution prevailed; exposing Tom as another unique layer of imagination to his sub-created world, would become a step too far.

It is theorized that Tolkien placated himself by expanding Tom’s function beyond acting as ‘the audience’ – to include several ideals, one of which was to display a certain mode of pacifism. Tolkien wanted an ‘on-stage’ actor who was not all peace-loving, but one truer to reality. The near-neutral character that knows the difference between right and wrong – who has immense power – but just does barely enough to assist those in trouble and no more. Unquestionably we cannot view Tom as completely pacifist. After all, he armed the hobbits, broke a branch off Old Man Willow and threatened to denude him of his leaves. In addition, he evicted the Wight from the Barrow thus robbing him of his ‘home’.

Unfortunately for Tom, Tolkien also made it clear that once ‘on stage’, even the audience was vulnerable to unforeseen events in the drama. In the fight between good and bad – those on the fence or those that leaned to one side unfavorably, would be fair game for the Enemy. Duly if the forces of evil prevailed, the resulting maelstrom would catastrophically engulf all in Middle-earth. Tom could and would not be an exception. So then a nonaligned stance, though seemingly moral, had issues in that:

“… there are in fact things with which it cannot cope; and upon which its existence nonetheless depends.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #144

Nevertheless despite a semi-impartial role, there was more to the picture. Not to be forgotten, Tom’s depiction in medieval England19 per abandoned snippets20  preceding the 1934 poem could now also be logically justified. For Tom, continuing in his secret guise, is still with us today – as the play’s end has yet to be reached. Hmm …. Tolkien might well have felt there were some distinct advantages to retaining him in The Lord of the Rings with a hidden long-lived mission. Because now loose-ends could be simply tied up and everything about Tom pre-The Lord of the Rings would slot neatly into place.

Lastly, in rounding off this first deliberation on allegory, there exists a distinct possibility of a further twist. Though I have discussed two functions, there is likely to have been a third – another ‘off-stage’ role that will be revealed in Part II. Undoubtedly Tolkien weighed the merits of any allegorical connections very, very carefully; ‘T.B. or not T.B.?’ – was the vexing question. Should the taboo be broken in this one instance? Or could he justify it all as a personal joke?

It is probable the predicament was wrestled with many a time. A decade after publication of The Lord of the Rings, the Professor disclosed he had been tempted to “tinker”21 with Tom to bring him into line with the rest of the written legends. However, as we know, he resisted the urge. This is an important point that I shall come back to in Part IV. Tom’s comical behavior and peace-loving demeanor would help cloak his true and secret role.

Summary: Part I
  • The cornerstone and crux of this theory is that Tolkien contemplated his feigned historical myth (of which The Lord of the Rings is a part) acted out as one continuous theatrical play: ‘the cosmogonical drama’.
  • Tolkien mentally conceived his myth-based Universe as existing within the walls of a theater with physical Middle-earth being center-stage.
  • Different zones of a typical theater were conceptually imagined as different ‘planes of reality’ that existed simultaneously while ‘the play’ was being enacted upon the theater’s stage.
  • Crucially – ‘the play’ needed the audience’s presence to begin – otherwise it could only be thought of as a rehearsal. A ‘practice session’ however, was a wholly unacceptable situation.
  • Tom Bombadil’s secret principal function was to be the sole and continuous representative of ‘the audience’. This is why Tom is an immortal and this is how Tolkien gave him a primary purpose.
  • In 1964 Tolkien surreptitiously hinted that Tom had been given the allegorical role of an off-stage and aloof participant of ‘a play’ in a letter to his close friend Przemyslaw Mroczkowski.
  • Tom was eased into the legendarium, through a different theater door than the rest of the early cast/crew, into a seating area reserved for the audience. This separate mode of entry (in spiritual form) was an acknowledgement of an initial existence independent to the myth, and was part of the process of his assimilation.
  • Metaphorically, the curtains opened and the Arda based ‘play’ initiated once Tom was seated – resulting in him being: “Eldest in Time”.
  • The presence of Tom in an alternate plane of reality at the very beginning of Arda-based Time solves the seeming conundrum of the Valar being the first to Middle-earth and his primeval presence per The Lord of the Rings. The Valar were the first to the stage (physical Arda) while Tom was in his own separate viewing plane.
  • The ‘audience role’ explains the context of both how and why Tom was “First”, “oldest” and “Eldest” per The Lord of the Rings. It answers why he will be “Last” in that ‘the play’ is over once Tom has either seen its intended ending, or can no longer act as a witness.
  • At the very beginning when the curtains first opened, Tom had truly known the dark under the stars as “fearless” – before the arrival of evil. As ‘the play’ progressed he eagerly watched creation take place ‘on the stage’. He beheld the first raindrop and acorn from the audience zone – not felt or captured them.
  • During Arda’s early history, Tom proved self-mastery by resisting the temptation to interfere in any way with ‘the play’. He remained in the zone of the audience as an onlooker only.
  • At some historically unknown point, after Treebeard’s ‘awakening’, Tolkien further integrated Tom into the drama by an incarnation into physical Middle-earth. There he could enjoy ‘the play’ more closely and fulfill a small role ‘on-stage’. This embodiment (birth through union of spirit and flesh) neatly solves the paradox of the Ent being “the oldest living thing … in Middle-earth” and Tom being “Eldest”.
  • Tom’s intervention ‘on stage’ is minimal – as would be expected from an audience member. Thus he is not “important to the narrative”.
  • Tom only intervenes when a major actor (Frodo) requests aid and nobody but ‘the audience’ can help.
  • Most importantly, Tom representing ‘the audience’, provides the only credible theory that not just notes his odd personality, but also automatically explains his behavior. We can now understand why he has “renounced control”; why he delights in “watching” and “observing”; and why he cannot take ownership ‘on stage’ despite being Master of his country.
  • To advance our understanding of Tom, we must shed a ‘natural’ tendency to dismiss an allegorical explanation. Tom is in part: an allegory – a literary device – and begrudgingly admitted so by Tolkien.
  • Tom’s mainly pacifist and comical acting, along with his early out-of-legendarium depiction as a tangible nature-oriented spirit, masked his secret role.
  • Tolkien’s sophisticated plan for integrating Tom into the world of The Lord of the Rings was deliberately cryptic, done extremely carefully and notably – with an element of mischief.

Continue to Part II


1  As depicted in the abandoned ‘King Bonhedig fragment’ (see Tolkien A biography, The storyteller, Humphrey Carpenter). The Lord of the Rings description is similarly a stout burly being, shorter than a typical human male. There is no indication Tolkien ever changed his mind on physical measurements.

 A potential triangle of Tom, Churchill and the word ‘enigma’ – is a fascinating one. There is actually no definitive evidence that Tolkien ever heard or read about Churchill’s 1st Oct 1939 broadcast. On the other hand, it is known Tolkien took interest in politics and world affairs. Understanding the views of the nation’s respected leaders would naturally have been important for someone who strongly identified himself as English and had fought for its soil. Particularly as such a time in Britain’s history was a very tense and trying one, with a resurgence of the Old Enemy.

Just four weeks before the airing, Britain had declared war on Germany. Priscilla and Edith had tuned in to the announcement on the family wireless (J.R.R. Tolkien Companion & Guide, Chronology: 3 Sep 1939). At that tumultuous period, Briton’s were glued to the radio and eagerly scanned newspapers for tidings of impending conflict. Anxiety and fear was rife. Just one day before Churchill’s broadcast the entire population had been told to register for an identity card.

As a veteran with first-hand experience of the true horrors of war, one might expect Tolkien to have been especially alert. His sadness reported at the 3rd Sep 1939 war declaration no doubt resulted from memories brought back of the terrible suffering and the grievous loss of several close friends from the Great War. One can sympathize at the dreadful blow knowing his able-bodied sons were eligible for duty.

Apart from ‘enigma’ theorized as filed away in a memory of that famous speech, the other curiosity is its seldom employment. Tolkien never used the word ‘enigma’ itself in any known literary works or private correspondences other than the one involving Tom. In terms of variants he did employ:

(a) ‘enigmatic’ : in a personal remark made of C.S. Lewis per Letter #278,
(b) ‘Enigmata’ : to title his 1923 Anglo-Saxon riddle verses – ‘Enigmata Saxonica Inventa Nuper Duo’.

The fact remains that ‘enigma’ (or any variation thereof) was extremely rarely used vocabulary. It is not unscholarly to speculate that Churchill’s speech was recollected in Tolkien’s Letter #144 response. For ‘riddles’ and ‘enigmata’ from his own work should have struck a chord with ‘riddle’ and ‘enigma’ from Churchill’s broadcast. Rightly we should wonder whether the purported triangle’s existence has merit.

3  Letter #131.

 Letter #212 – cited as equally authoritative as The Silmarillion:“Let these things be”.

 Used in the context of the ‘Earth’ within this essay. Tolkien also described Arda as the Solar System with Earth as its center of focus (see Morgoth’s Ring).

6  Letter #153.

7  Letter to Przemyslaw Mroczkowski, January 1964 – Christies Auction, Sale 5822, Lot 76 – partial extracts recorded per website: – Thread: ‘Tom B. Peeling the Onion’ posting: 7th June 2009, ‘Dorwiniondil’ reporting on Charles Noad’s viewing of the letter.

Picture in Footnotes

8  From the extracts, it cannot be deduced whether Tolkien fully revealed Tom to his friend. The available evidence suggests Tolkien just left a trail of strong clues.

9  With the exception of a peacock feather (inappropriate to a European flavored ecosystem for Middle-earth) replaced with a kingfisher or swan feather, in his hat.

10 Letter #19. The “vanishing” aspect was carried over to The Lord of the Rings by portraying Tom’s land similarly much reduced in range from ancient times.

11 It appears the countryside from Tolkien’s home-counties bears distinct resemblances to Tom’s land. The River Cherwell in Oxfordshire sporadically dotted at its edge with Willows resembles the Withywindle. Wytham Woods may have been inspirational for parts of the Old Forest and indeed the naming of the Withywindle Valley. The Berkshire Downs are highly reminiscent of the Barrow-downs with the stone rings of the Rollright Stones and Wayland’s Smithy burial mound bearing similarities to the stone circles and Barrow the hobbits encountered after leaving Tom’s house. Tolkien appears then, to have transferred much of his own local habitat wholesale into a very specific zone for the novel.

12 The analogy proposed is that the Ainur played multiple roles as early actors (The Valar), on-stage directors (The Valar) and stage-crew (The Maiar and The Valar). The set-up of the stage was, in a way, like a mini-prequel with the play starting proper upon the awakening of the Eldar (the Elves).

13 We must note that even when ‘on-stage’, the brooch from the Barrow was given away to Goldberry.

14 Tom’s awareness of the play’s ‘ending’ can be deduced through his words “… till the world is mended.”Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs.

15 Morgoth’s Ring, The Annals of Aman: Time began with the creation of Eä, but its measurement (Year 1) began with the arrival of the Valar in physical Arda. With respect to Tom, “Eldest in Time” appears to make most sense when connected to the latter. Tom does not relay any memories beyond those connected to Arda.

16 Though not sequentially so, a fifth plane of reality (not mentioned in the body of this article) appears to have been created by the Valar in expelling Morgoth from the ‘physical’ Universe. As is well-documented, even the Valar were constrained to remain in the Universe until the drama was complete, but this new plane of reality was likely designed not to violate those bounds. In Tolkien’s mind, perhaps this fifth plane was also metaphorically thought of as a region belonging to a physical theater. In particular, the ‘Door of Night’ through which Morgoth’s spirit was thrust might have been viewed as a one-way door in a theater’s back wall leading to a closed off holding-zone backstage. Guarded over by Eärendil in the heavens, the ‘Timeless Void’ into which Morgoth was thrust might be considered as behind the ‘Walls of the World’ (stage back wall) – but still within the Universe (physical theater). As Tolkien pointed out in Myths Transformed, the Elves were probably mistaken that this prison was the same as the ‘Timeless Void’ from whence the Ainur came.

17 The circles shown in the Venn diagrams have a resonance with the “circles of the world” documented by Tolkien in Letters #131, #212, #245, #297, #338 and The Return of the King, Appendix A.

18 Analogy for the Third Age per ‘The Tale of Years’ – see Appendices, The Return of the King.

19 See The Return of the Shadow, The Old Forest and the Withywindle. Medieval place name: “Stoke Canonicorum” now Stoke Canon in Devonshire was cited in Tom’s journey. “King’s Singelton, Bumby Cocalorum and Long Congelby” appear to be imaginary – but are decidedly rustic and English in make-up.

20 There exists the ‘King Bonhedig fragment’ (a paragraph of an unfinished tale including Tom – see Footnote 1) and the ‘Germ Poem’ (see The Return of the Shadow, The Old Forest and the Withywindle) which precede the first published material about Tom.

21 See Footnote 6.



2/6/16 – Added quote: “I mean, I do not really write like that: …”.

3/12/16 – Added: “Tom would now behave as an “exemplar” …”  and quote: “a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science”.

3/28/16 – Footnote 15, Was: “jail-zone”, Is: “holding-zone”.

4/20/16 – Footnote 8, Was: “Middle-earth”, Is: “European flavored Middle-earth”.

Added: “our options are limited and so”.

4/26/16 – Footnote 15, Added: “Though not sequentially so,”.

5/6/16 – Added paragraph beginning: “Unfortunately for Tom …” ending with quote: “… there are in fact things with which it cannot cope; and upon which its existence nonetheless depends.”

5/7/16 – Added: “& Cosmology” to titles of Venn Diagrams.

Added: “Dramatic further assistance at the Barrow was to follow. And it would be Tom’s ‘pièce de résistance’ for this performance.”

6/3/16 – Was: “And that “something … important” which would otherwise have been“left out” was:”, Is: “And that most “something … important” which would “otherwise” have been“left out” was:”.

Was: “a very secret”, Is: “at least one very secret”.

Was: “Tom Bombadil’s secret role.”, Is: “Tom Bombadil’s primary secret role.”

Was: “Tom’s true role”, Is: “Tom’s most significant role.”

6/6/16 – Was: “Faërie”, Is: “Faëry”.

6/8/16 – Was: “And that is how the conundrum of our cheerful chap versus the great Ainur (including Melkor) being the first to Arda is solved.”, Is:”And that is how there is no conundrum of who was the first to Arda.”

Was: “and his brethren”, Is: “with his great brethren”.

Was: “almost”, Is: “just about”.

Was: “cosmogony”, Is: “written legends”.

Summary – Was: “conundrum”, Is: “seeming conundrum”.

Was: “jagged outcrops”, Is: “burial mound”. 

6/18/16 – Added: “but subliminally”.

Was: “mythical”, Is: “myth-based”. 

Was: “stated”, Is “so strikingly put”.

Added: “(in a roundabout manner)”.

6/23/16 – Was: “yellow-haired nymph”, Is “nymph-like woman”.

Was: “would have ended the play prematurely”, Is: “would have caused incalculable havoc on ‘the stage’. Under the worst scenario it might even lead to the play ending prematurely.”

Was: “nature spirit”, Is: “tangible nature-oriented spirit”.

Was: “nature spirit”, Is: “nature-loving spirit”.

7/12/16 – Was: “condescending response”, Is: “condescending draft response”.  

Added: “Even though the letter was never sent”.

“was Tolkien advocating the correspondent first recall”, Is: “had Tolkien wanted the correspondent to first recall”.

7/28/16  – Was: “secondary reality”, Is: “pseudo-secondary reality”.

Added – From: “Real stage-plays …” to: “… plain imagination was required”.

Added: “Despite live-drama having limitations, left was a tough to admit residue.”

Added: New Note 2. Renumbered others.

8/19/16 Added: “throughout”.

Footnote 2, Added: “Anxiety and fear was rife.”

9/13/16 Added: “Believe it or not, part of the exercise was simply: “… an experiment in the arts of long narrative, and of inducing ‘Secondary Belief.”

9/30/16 Added: “part of”.

What a Colorful Pair!

This essay is best viewed in single page format. If it appears in two column style – an adjustment can be made by selecting zoom at 125% to 175% under the ‘Settings’ tab.
Part III: Fayvorite Colors – The Plot Firmed Up

Our best evidence portraying how the Bombadil chapters developed in The Fellowship of the Ring results from The History of Middle-earth series. Except for some minor matters, text that concerns Tom and Goldberry In the House of Bombadil and Fog on the Barrow-downs more or less reaches final form by the early 40’s. Unfortunately hardly any clues within The Return of the Shadow or The Treason of Isengard point to when Tolkien actually finished fiddling. Though The Lord of the Rings was laid aside for quite a while upon Tolkien’s said completion in 1949, there is virtually nothing to suggest any emendations (of interest to us) were incorporated afterwards. Some frantic editing was certainly performed just prior to The Fellowship of the Ring being published in 1954 – but nothing specific has been reported regarding the merry pair. There is a good chance then, that however Tolkien viewed our couple in the early 40’s ended up being the same as at publication in the mid 50’s. That or any evolution to the legendarium mythology allowed them to neatly slot in anyway.

When it came to the published account, the color ‘green’ was extensively employed in the chapters involving Tom and Goldberry. Whether from mixing or not, green was doubly suitable. Because as well as signifying a deeper and secret function, it also nicely meshed in with the predominant hue found in nature. Wasn’t that dandy! Tricksy Tolkien had in a way created a clever distraction that fooled the reader into a false sense of comfort. How can I be sure? Well I really can’t be one hundred percent. Yet the evidence at the end of this color analysis leads me to believe my hunch is totally correct.

So upon review of the issued The Fellowship of the Ring, we can see that Tolkien made no changes to Tom’s boots of yellow or the blue hue of his jacket. In one change of outfit during the hobbits’ stay, a familiar color was once again assigned. Tom came newly and aptly garbed:

“… all in clean blue, blue as rain-washed forgot-me-nots, …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Having already linked forget-me-nots to Goldberry, Tolkien the fond and learned botanist – I’m sure would have been thinking of the blue-petaled English marsh variety scientifically known as:

Myosotis scorpioides: Water Forget-me-nots.
– The Flora of Oxfordshire, by Killick, Perry, Woodell


The Blue & Yellow Blooms of Myosotis scorpioides: Water Forget-me-nots 


Tom’s other new clothing is consistent with my opinion of the Professor’s ‘fay-mentality’; Tom unsurprisingly:

“… had green stockings.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Goldberry, on the other hand, left the reader a little puzzle. At our first encounter, her dress is mainly green shot with beads of silver just like her wedding outfit from the 1934 poem. But her belt is described to be of:

“… gold, shaped like a chain of flag-lilies set with the pale-blue eyes of forget-me-nots.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

We must take a step back here and question whether the belt truly was formed of metallic gold, or whether the hobbits were initially mistaken, or whether Tolkien took adjectival liberties.

There is certainly some confusion on this point. At the threshold of the entryway into the house, in the “golden light”, the belt may indeed have looked like gold. Be that as it may, after a few steps into the room she is then said to be:

“… clad in living flowers.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Also Tom later tells us:

“Here’s my pretty lady … with flowers in her girdle!”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Given some conflicting and ambiguous text, the reader is left to wonder whether the belt, as initially described, was truly forged from precious gold. For indeed it would be a marvelous piece of workmanship truly worthy of a queen if “shaped like a chain of flag-lilies”. Seemingly something so ostentatious is not entirely at odds with a very stylishly portrayed female. Nevertheless what puts the matter mightily in doubt is that flag-lilies and forget-me-nots also arise in Goldberry’s wedding garland per the 1934 The Adventures of Tom Bombadil poem. In that case they were most definitely flowers:

“… his bride with forgetmenots and flag-lilies for garland …”.
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1934

The likely answer is that Tolkien had those very same flowers now modeled into a girdle for Goldberry. Though the flag-lilies were near-enough to gold, they were really yellow:

“… glædene ‘iris’, in my book supposed to refer to the ‘yellow flag’ growing in streams and marshes: sc. iris pseudacorus …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #297


Yellow Flag Iris

Yellow Flag Iris, by Francis Russell, 1820-1915


In any case, what we have then with blue/yellow forget-me-nots and a gold or yellow flowered belt is a combination of colors that when mixed make up either plain green or metallic green.

Later on in the episode the ‘gold’ belt was exchanged, along with robes, for equally stunning exterior wear. The lady of the house came clad all in silver with a new white girdle. Her shoes were described to be like fish scales; presumably then of silvery coloring. Visually the outfit must have looked spectacular. To use a modern-day phrase: out of this world!

No other clothing or accessories were ever mentioned again in connection to Goldberry except the gifted brooch from the barrow. Here once more, quite intentionally, Tolkien via Tom chose ‘fairy-mixable blue’:

“… a brooch set with blue stones, many-shaded like flax-flowers or the wings of blue butterflies.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

In summary, for The Lord of the Rings, the colors of clothes/adornments were as follows:

Tom: Blue, Yellow and Green
Goldberry: Green, Blue, Yellow (Gold), Silver and White

Thus we can see how the only color added to the duo’s attire after the published poetry was ‘white’. And both ‘silver’ and ‘white’ are distinct enough not to be readily associable to green. So what may we inquire, was their significance?

Given Tolkien’s extensive Celtic and medieval book collection and clues bound up in On Fairy-stories, undoubtedly it was known that there were colors other than green strongly connected to the realm and peoples of Faerie. It was the particular variety of fairy-folk mythologized within the British Isles that he was most interested in. The earlier the recorded material the better, and so it is thought that white and silver featuring prominently in Celtic legends and English medieval texts was concluded as also apt for fay-beings. Some pertinent examples are:

White: Arawn’s dogs, Morgan le Fay’s ermine cape and chalk veils, blossom from the sacred apple tree

Silver: The bough of the apple tree, the Banshee’s comb, Nuada’s hand

Deliberately then, white and silver were colors assigned to Goldberry too. Perhaps we should not be surprised because just as Tolkien had doubly provided a coded and nature related color to Tom, so had he for Goldberry. Symbolized then were:

“… real river-lands in autumn. Goldberry represents the actual seasonal changes in such lands.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #210

The whole Withywindle valley underwent seasonal changes in coloration as waters dwindled and surged and as the climate changed through the year. One can easily imagine how river-land flora naturally sprouted, expired and renewed through the seasons. Special emphasis was placed on the color of Withywindle aquatic plants tying them directly in with Goldberry’s colors. Without restressing the flora making up her belt, other examples are:

“… on a tray a small pile of white water-lilies”,
“… her gown was … green as young reeds, …”,
“The floor was … strewn with fresh green rushes.”,
“… water-lilies, green leaves … to please my pretty lady.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil   (my underlined emphasis)


The European White Water Lily, Nymphaea alba


Water itself – the life-force of the Withywindle and its borders, was alluded to be both silvery and white hued before the hobbits even reached Tom’s house:

“… the white glimmer of foam, where the river flowed over a short fall”,
“… white mists began to rise and curl on the surface of the river …”,
“… glad water flowing down … came falling like silver to meet them: …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil    (my underlined emphasis)

Imagery of silver connecting water to Goldberry’s clothing became strong once inside:

“… her gown was … shot with silver like beads of dew; …”.
“… she was clothed all in silver with a white girdle, and her shoes were like fishes’ mail.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil   (my underlined emphasis)

There is no doubt that Tolkien wanted Goldberry firmly intertwined with the river, its margins and its flora. Commensurately the Professor specially brought-out the fay associated seasonal colors of the region. Goldberry’s clothing was destined to become an ideal medium for reflecting that.

Lastly when it came to attire – the hosts of the house had a special luxury item for welcoming guests. Even though hardy-soled hobbits might not have needed them, all four were provided with pairs of soft slippers. Guess what color? Oh yes once again how extraordinarily ‘convenient’ for fairy-folk: green, green, green and green!

Perhaps for some, the point has been made – but the story doesn’t quite end there.

It is now an opportune moment to switch from clothing and adornments to examining other symbolism involving color. Yes it’s time to take another look at Tom himself. What exactly was the reader’s first impression of him? More pertinently, what perception did Tolkien want to leave at first sight? Perhaps that initial imagery (as I surmised of Goldberry – see ‘Goldberry – The Enigmatic Mrs Bombadil, Part I’) was intended to be highly significant?

If I am right – indeed first looks were intended to count. Apart from the worn blue and yellow, Tom was also described as having a:

“… face … red as a ripe apple, …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Old Forest    (my underlined emphasis)

And there we have it!

In a nutshell Tolkien’s masterpiece riddle both exposed and solved. For the red, blue and yellow are reducible to just ‘red’ and ‘green’. Which is, as Spangenberg and many other scholars have noted, in line with otherworld residents having :

“… a pronounced fondness for green, second only to red …”.
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Tolkien’s ‘game with rules’, Lisa Spangenberg 

Yes, the two most beloved colors of fairies – were reflected in Tom. Dealt so deftly was a masterstroke by Tolkien. There in front of our very eyes were open clues telling us Tom was of the fairy race. And I have little doubt that indeed this was Tolkien’s intent because of the way the riddle was echoed in On Fairy-stories. Once again after stating:

“We should look at green again and be startled anew …”. 
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

Tolkien tells us not to be:

“… blinded … by blue and yellow and red.”
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

Which is an equation that, when solved, inevitably leads us back to the two foremost fairy colors: ‘green’ and ‘red’!


Jack and the Beanstalk, Victorian Cautionary Tales c. 1869
(Note the predominantly green and red attire of the Giant)


Then what about Tom’s ‘brown’ beard? How did that come into play?

Well ‘brown’ is traditionally the color of the soil – giving him an earthy side. Which attunes well with Shippey’s perception of Bombadil being:

a kind of exhalation of the earth …”.
– J.R.R. Tolkien Author of the Century, Chapter II, T.A. Shippey

Which makes me think Tolkien originally also intended him to be a sort of ‘earth-fairy’ possessing Paracelsian elemental qualities reflected by an ability to travel underground. For quite pointedly, Frodo when trapped in the Barrow heard Tom’s voice: 

“… far away, as if it was coming down through the ground …”. 
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs  

Am I done? Is that it? The answers are decisively no. Because now we understand that there is a strong liklihood of concealed color symbolism – we must endeavor to root out the rest. And so when it comes to ‘green’ and ‘red’, Tolkien once again cunningly gave away that indeed the hobbits were in the presence of fairies. Exactly how? Simply by restricting the colors in Tom’s vegetable patch or flower garden to only ‘red’ and ‘green’. Singled out were ‘green’ for the runner beans1 and their leaves, and ‘red’ for their flowers:

“… the red flowers on the beans began to glow against the wet green leaves.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil


Jack and the Beanstalk, Warwick Goble c. 1890


Yes here was a plant that had the quality of Faerie intrinsic to its very essence. Understandably though, one still might question and comment: ‘Is that all? Seems a bit of a weak ploy.’

But oh no it wasn’t! Now that we recognize a ‘fairy connection’ we must put the proverbial two and two together to solve a mystery. Why of all the possible vegetables in an English vegetable garden did Tolkien include only one? And that of a kind whose stalks shoot up vertically:

“… the view was screened by a tall line of beans on poles; …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Why did the Professor neglect to mention any flower types in the flower garden, yet happily related the bean vines had ‘red’ blossoms? Was there more than just color symbolism involved?

To provide an overarching reason for seemingly the most innocuous of insertions – again we must hark back to mythology; in particular – English folk tales. Though it might sound like I’m repeating myself ad nauseum, really the coupling of our myths and folklore to his own story is a founding principle of Tolkien’s work. Speechified as downright English – Tom was deliberately connected to that most English of fairy tales: Jack and the Beanstalk2 .

Who was that odd-looking old man whom Jack had traded with? Might he have been Tom?

“He hadn’t gone far when he met a funny-looking old man, who said to him, ‘Good morning, Jack.’ ”
– English Fairy Tales3, Jack and the Beanstalk, Joseph Jacobs 1890

Surely only a fairy4 being would have been in possession of magic beans?


The Queer Old Man, Jack and the Beanstalk, English Fairy Tales, F. Steel, 1890 (Illustration by Arthur Rackham)


Then after the swap what happened to Jack’s cow: ‘Milky-White’?

Hmm … for our tale clearly Tom has access to a providing farm animal. After all, the extent of dairy produce on the dinner table was substantial:

“… yellow cream and honeycomb, and white bread and butter; milk, cheese, and green herbs and ripe berries …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil   (my underlined emphasis)

Given the length of the stay of four ravenous hobbits – not to mention the isolation of Tom from neighbors5 – one can readily deduce that there was plenty of fresh milk available on site. Obviously Tom must have had a large barn type structure to shelter the hobbits’ five ponies with room for Fatty Lumpkin too. Along with them must have been stored a copious quantity of hay. Then it is surmised Tom must have had ample room and feed for a cow6. And why a bovine and not a herd of goats? Well that is because Tolkien explicitly amplified the cream was “yellow” by stating it twice. Goats produce only cream which is white in color, whereas cows produce (like butter) the yellow sort.

So we can see that there was no shortage of food during the hobbits’ respite. With presumably much of it being milk based, we might ascertain Tom’s cow was a prodigous producer. Resonating with:

“… Milky-White, the best milker in the parish, …”.
– English Fairy Tales, Jack and the Beanstalk, Joseph Jacobs 1890

And one can readily imagine that legends of Milky-White and her ample output originated in hobbit folklore to be passed along through the ages to our own world’s myth through blended and corrupted tales of Tom’s residence being awash in ‘white’ ‘milk’:

“Frodo … watched the white chalky path turn into a little river of milk and go bubbling away down into the valley.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil    (my underlined emphasis)

To search for further findings to bolster the Jack and the Beanstalk link requires digging into adjacent material; for Tolkien, in Conan Doyle fashion, spread out the evidence.

To the hobbits who exactly were these black men, so much larger than them (and thus in comparison – of ogreish size), who had invaded a thoroughly English Shire with such animosity for its inhabitants? Many of the rustic little people had never encountered the Big Folk; from their viewpoint they must have looked gigantic:

“Sam … was finding his first sight of Men … quite enough, …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, At the Sign of the Prancing Pony

Apart from the ‘ogre’ fueled chase echoing Jack’s experience, what about that heightened sense of smell? What was all the sniffing about?

“…inside the hood came a noise as of someone sniffing …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Three is Company


The Ogre in Black, Jack and the Beanstalk, English Fairy Tales, F. Steel, 1890 (Illustration by Arthur Rackham)


Presumably it was connected to Aragorn’s revelation:

“… at all times they smell the blood of living things, desiring and hating it.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, A Knife in the Dark

Hmm … the smelling of blood combined with raw hatred!  Now where have I seen that theme before? Yes we must hark back once again to Jack and the Beanstalk and that most famous of English rhymes:

I smell the blood of an Englishman,
Be he alive, or be he dead,
I’ll have his bones to grind my bread.

– English Fairy Tales, Jack and the Beanstalk, Joseph Jacobs 1890

Isn’t the similarity becoming obvious now? Isn’t it obvious how The Lord of the Rings mirrors Jack and the Beanstalk in that both heroes look out from a window on to beanstalks first thing in the morning!

“So Jack jumped up and dressed himself and went to the window. And what do you think he saw? Why, the beans … had sprung up into a big beanstalk …”,
– English Fairy Tales, Jack and the Beanstalk, Joseph Jacobs 1890

“Frodo ran to the eastern window, and found himself looking into … a tall line of beans on poles; …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Most cleverly, Tolkien had interwoven well-known English folklore into his story with a combination of affinity and diffused variance. For to the Professor, to repeat what has already been emphasized:

“… there was always a kernel of fact behind a legend.”
Lecture of 14 February 1938, Report in Amon Hen 28, August 1977

And in that process of oral hand-down some inevitable corruption had occurred. It turns out that it was the Horn of Buckland which mustered the hobbits against the ogreish Black Riders. And the likely order for it to be blown came from The Master of Brandy Hall. Which is all too similar to Jack rallying his people by sounding a horn at the Ogre’s gate in Lang’s version of the tale:

“The men … pressed forward to say that they would serve Jack … to the castle, … they marched … and Jack blew the horn …”.
– Jack and the Beanstalk, The Red Fairy Book, Andrew Lang, 1890

Even more remarkable – the hobbits of Buckland were supposedly the originators of the ‘Fee-fi-fo’ part of the rhyme7:

– The Fellowship of the Ring, A Knife in the Dark

Just maybe in Tolkien’s mind the missing ‘fum’ was a distorted: “run”. Perhaps this had all got jumbled up in ‘The Cauldron of Story’, leaving a ‘run to safety’ as a little puzzle for the reader to sort out!

“Fatty Bolger … knew that he must run. And run he did …”. 
– The Fellowship of the Ring, A Knife in the Dark    (my underlined emphasis)

Hmm … the aural resonances leave much to ponder! But objectively there are simply too many coincidences for the prognosis not to be true. The evidence is incriminating. Especially as left was much more than ‘a kernel’, and yet further connections to Jack and the Beanstalk are going to be revealed.

Also yet to be exposed are new revelations of Tom being entwined in at least two more traditional fairy tales. The stuff is hidden. Hidden exceedingly deep. But in the end – when all is extracted – much that is new will come to light. More importantly after all this time – we will finally understand Tolkien’s master-plan for the plot!


1  The beans were originally and explicitly described as ‘green’ themselves – see The Return of the Shadow.

2  Tolkien certainly knew of Jack and the Beanstalk. He mentions the tale in his 1936 Beowulf lecture.

3  Jacob’s rendition is generally acclaimed as the one closest to the original tale. Benjamin Tabbart’s moralized version of 1807 and the 1734 Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean are not as well recognized.

4  In Benjamin Tabert’s, Andrew Lang’s and Edwin Hartland’s versions of Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack did meet a fairy – but after climbing the beanstalk.

5 According to Bombadil goes Boating, the Bucklanders were not altogether friendly towards Tom. The distance between Tom’s house and the Marish was too far to allow Maggot as a source for fresh and regular dairy produce. Besides Tom appears to have no viable means of transport between the two residences, let alone anything to trade.

6  Just as Hammond and Scull (The Lord of the Rings – A Reader’s Companion, pg. 113) have pointed out that by eating bacon at Maggot’s – the Shire-Hobbits must have kept pigs – an application of similar logic leads to the deduction of Tom having access to a cow.

7  Mark Hooker has similarly pointed out a rhyming resonance to the Jack and the Beanstalk tale in A Tolkienian Mathomium.

What a Colorful Pair!

This essay is best viewed in single page format. If it appears in two column style – an adjustment can be made by selecting zoom at 125% to 175% under the ‘Settings’ tab.
Part II: Fayvorite Colors – Early Influences to the New Plot

By the time Tolkien initiated the gargantuan effort of writing The Lord of the Rings – the idea of fairies being of diminutive size had been virtually abandoned. For many years, there were no signs that little flower-fairies in the Qenya Lexicon of circa 1915 would be part of the developing mythology:

“Ailinóne … a fairy who dwelt in a lily on a pool” …
“Nardi ‘a flower fairy’ ” …
“Tetillë is a fairy who lived in a poppy”.
– Parma Eldalamberon 12, Quenya Lexicon, c. 1915

If there was any reconsideration – it happened after The Lord of the Rings had been published, and it is by no means certain that Tolkien was firm on the matter1For all intents and purposes, remarks in his 1939 ‘Fairy Stories’ lecture governed his thoughts. And they were not altogether flattering.

Among extensive notes that never made it to the actual delivery, he admitted how he had once suffered acute embarrassment at the hands of a little boy:

“I was walking in a garden with a small child. I was only nineteen or twenty myself. By some aberration of shyness, groping for a topic like a man in heavy boots in a strange drawing room, as we passed a tall poppy half-opened …”. 
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Flieger & Anderson

The question was then posed:

“ ‘Who lives in that flower?’ ”
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Flieger & Anderson

The child knowledgeably retorted:

“ ‘No one’ … ‘There are Stamens and a Pistil in there.’ ”
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Flieger & Anderson

It seems Tolkien was quite taken aback. Perhaps such a blunt encounter cemented his position in the published account where he openly admitted a strong aversion to miniature fairies – ala Michael Drayton or William Shakespeare:

“… that long line of flower-fairies and fluttering sprites with antennae that I so disliked as a child, …”.
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf


Rabbit Among the Fairies, John Fitzgerald, 1823-1906 


Tolkien was not alone among his compatriots in dismissing the notion of the ‘wee-folk’ being really tiny. C.S. Lewis seems to have been very much on the same page:

“I have found no trace of anyone believing or ever having believed (in England or Ireland) in the tiny fairies of Shakespeare, which are a purely literary invention. Leprechauns are smaller than men, but most fairies are human size, some larger.”
– Letter from C.S. Lewis to Mary W. Shelburne, 9 Oct 1954

As evaluated in Part I, Bombadil and Goldberry were not quite human-size, but neither were they far off. If as I have surmised the couple really were conceived as fairy creatures, they certainly weren’t diminutive. However on one matter Tolkien kept some consistency. He refused to drop the fairy-flower theme altogether. There was so much material already engraved in the hearts and minds of the English that there had to be some valid mythological link; and Tolkien wasn’t willing to completely discard a firmly established Edwardian and Victorian fad. And so as previously shown – Goldberry, though petite, could still be modeled after a flower-fairy – a ‘fairy of the yellow water-lily’.


Water-Lilies and Water Fairies, Richard Doyle, 1824-1893


With the topics of ‘fairies’ and ‘mythological links’ fresh in our minds, by now readers ought to have grasped that The Lord of the Rings from the very beginning had its roots in:

“… myth … fairy-story, and … heroic legend on the brink of fairy-tale …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131

Few realize how deep those roots went when it came to Tom Bombadil. On that matter I will save an enormously interesting and entirely new revelation for the next essay. But for now Bombadil’s connection to fairy-story will continue to focus on ‘colors’. In picking up from where I left off at the end of Part I, long overdue is a much needed re-look at the symbolism Tolkien imbued.

An unearthing of credible and pertinent information required only logical and minor ferreting on my part. Unsurprisingly it was once again necessary to zoom in on remarks made by Tolkien for the 1939 Andrew Lang Lecture: ‘Fairy Stories’. However before I visit that crucially important part of the puzzle – I will deliberate a little on Tolkien’s 1925 note on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

“… green was a fairy colour …”.
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon., 1925. pg. 86 line 151

Why, we must ask ourselves, did the Professor feel that way? What made him come to such a conclusion? Surely it couldn’t have been just the Sir Gawain and Green Knight tale?

“If we are introduced to a green man, with green hair and face, on a green horse, at the court of King Arthur, we expect ‘magic’; and Arthur and Gawain should have expected it also, we think. As indeed most of those present seem to have done: ‘a phantom and fay-magic folk there thought it’ …”.
– “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, Tolkien, J. R. R., The Monsters and the Critics


The Green Knight and his Green Horse, The Cotton Nero


Because the man was green obviously meant there was something amiss; but why indeed should “we expect ‘magic’ ” ? What conditioned Tolkien and Gordon to think along such lines? Well – the answer probably lies in the multitude of times ‘green’ has been mentioned in association with fairy beings. Particularly when it came to those of the British Isles.

According to English folklore, the ‘Greencoaties’ were the names of fairies that dwelt in the countryside of Lincolnshire. Nearby the ‘Greenies’ were fairy residents of Lancashire. And of course the Scottish Highlands and Ireland both have many Celtic inspired tales of fairy-type creatures clothed in ‘green’. The medievalist Lisa Spangenberg provides three catching and more specific examples:

“I think Tolkien is right about green as a fairy color. We have many references to fairies and green, but I shall be charitable and only refer to three. In the ballad “Thomas the Rhymer” the fairy Queen’s skirt “was o’ the grass-green silk”. In the twelfth century Ralph of Coggestall and William of Newbridge tell stories about mysterious green otherworld children. The Sídhe, the Irish otherworld residents, have a pronounced fondness for green, second only to red …”.
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Tolkien’s ‘game with rules’, Lisa Spangenberg


Thomas The Rhymer and Fairy Queen, The Scottish Fairy Book, E.W. Grierson, 1918


As Spangenberg points out, “legions of scholars” have written about “the meaning of green” and on “green as a fairy color”. Of her cited examples, we know Tolkien almost certainly knew of all three2. Just as important – they are quite sufficient to prove the point. Given that – it’s now that I would like to turn attention back to The Lord of the Rings. The emphasis will be placed on scrutinizing a time period between 1938 and 1940. This being an acutely critical developmental period for the new plot and cast.

So some four years after the published poetry: The Adventures of Tom Bombadil – Tom, Goldberry and some accompanying characters were revived for what became The Fellowship of the Ring. ‘Green’ and its links to Faerie (and so to our couple) is conjectured to have been very much on Tolkien’s mind for those formative Bombadil chapters sketched out in the late 30’s. A glimpse of this peeks through from Tolkien’s revelation of a new Celtic fairy-tale he had been working on.

In August 1938, not too long after embarking on The Lord of the Rings, The King of the Green Dozen:

“ … an unfinished pseudo-Celtic fairy-story”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #33

was offered to Allen & Unwin. It was about:

“… the King of Iwerddon, whose hair and the hair of his descendant’s twelve sons is coloured green.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #33, Footnote 2

Yet another glimpse can be seen in a slightly earlier lecture Tolkien gave in February of the same year. From out of his coat pocket, and conveyed in all-seriousness to a post-lecture gathering at Oxford’s Worcester College, was pulled a supposed real leprechauns’ shoe. Smaller than a human’s (but not tiny) and reptilian in feel, the shoe was of course green. Presumably in Tolkien’s mind it was: ‘fairy-green’:

“One undergraduate asked about the truth underlying all legends – he referred especially to Dragons – and Tolkien said, “Yes – there was always a kernel of fact behind a legend.” He pulled out of a pocket… a leprechaun’s shoe! It measured about six to seven inches and was very green, as if lizard’s skin, with a long thin pointed toe.”
– Lecture of 14 February 1938, Report in Amon Hen 28, August 1977


The Leprechaun and his Legendary Pointed Shoes (Courtesy of Wikipedia)


Yes significantly it was in this time period (circa 1938 to 1939) that the early chapters, which included Tom, were both being written and undergoing revision in the process of his assimilation. It was also in this same period that Tolkien preparedfor his landmark March 1939 lecture: ‘Fairy Stories’.

Realistically in prepping for the lecture, The Lord of the Rings must have been at the front of his mind. One can imagine that if Tolkien had constructed ‘the Bombadils’ to be fays – then some of his ideas may have seeped through to the presentation itself. And so they did– as best as we can tell!

When it came to ‘fantasy’ and ‘color’ it appears Tolkien was heavily influenced by the introductory words of Maisie Ward for G.K. Chesterton’s 1938 posthumous release: The Coloured Lands. No amateur to science and given his love of painting, the Professor was palpably familiar with the fact that:

“… there are only three ‘primary’ colours.”
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

Those in art being:

“… red, blue and yellow, …”.
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript A, Flieger & Anderson  (Tolkien’s underlined emphasis)

Before even introducing the “ ‘primary colours’ ”, general colors and their adjectival importance to both Faerie and the creation of ‘fantasy’ were voiced:

“We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such “fantasy,” as it is called, new form is made; Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.”
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf   (my underlined emphasis)

More pointedly after talk of a need to ‘escape’ through the act of sub-creation, and using an example of blending colors, he then decided to place special emphasis on green:

“We should look at green again and be startled anew …”.
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

But then after asking us to ponder on that color, he tells us not to be:

“… blinded … by blue and yellow and red.”
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

Remarkable indeed – because of course green is not made from red. Just yellow and blue are. Which in itself is quite startling. Because individually blue and yellow are so different from green.

In writing these thoughts, the Professor’s mind appears not to have been clouded by alcohol intake. Absinthe – a popular drink at the turn of the 19th Century – had led many (even some academics) to experience the hallucinogenic effects of the ‘Green Fairy’!


Absinthe – ‘The Green Fairy’, Albert Maignan, 1895


Joking aside, following on in the essay from these initial thoughts on color was the process described as ‘Recovery’. To achieve this one must regain:

“… a clear view.”
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

To see:

“… things as we are (or were) meant to see them … freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity …”.
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

Laid bare then, the action he ever so subtly asked from us is: to regain a “clear view” of what comprised ‘green’. Left for us to unravel was to distinguish from ‘green’ – the colors: ‘blue’ and ‘yellow’. A stance that might well have been applicable to his own newly developing fairy-like tale:

“Fantasy is made out out of the primary world. So Green is made out of Yellow and Blue; but redirects attention to them, throws indeed a new light on them.”
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Flieger & Anderson

Given such an opinion, there is no reason why we cannot apply the principle in reverse to his fantasy character: Tom Bombadil. We ought to take a fresh look at his primary clothing colors of blue and yellow and redirect attention to them. Yet once we do so, we are led full circle in that:

“… we must hark back to … green”.
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript A, Flieger & Anderson    (Tolkien’s underlined emphasis)

For of course to the Professor:

“… green was a fairy colour …”!
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon., 1925. pg. 86 line 151

And Tolkien was right. In a way a sensation of ‘joy’ was experienced by this writer in:

“… a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth.”
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

Hard to believe? Well much later Tolkien confessed that some of what was contained within The Lord of the Rings:

“… was a practical demonstration of the views … expressed”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #234

in his ‘Fairy Stories’ lecture of 1939.

The comment was directed at the adult nature of the book – it being one with fairy-story elements, yet styled unlike those traditionally written for children. However one cannot help but feel that the essays’ points about ‘green’, the ‘mixing of colors’, and the importance ‘of others’ was reflected by another “practical demonstration” for the tale. In particular, for us, an application of coloring that symbolized the fairy side of this very unusual couple.


The Blue to Golden-Yellow to Green Progression from the Heart of the Peacock Feather5


Let us not be fooled, the supplementary evidence is far from weak. Tolkien must have known the pairings’ color of clothing handily made a coding for fay-creatures. Really then we should stand up and applaud with aplomb. How inventive! That fertile and lithe mind had managed to figure out a path justifying Tom and Goldberry as from another realm – namely that of Faerie. What we have to do now is verify whether this hidden design was carried through to final form.


1 As the mythology developed to the point where spirits from before the creation of the Universe were termed the Ainur and sub-categorized as the Maiar and Valar, Tolkien appears to have subsumed some of the earlier fays into the Maiar. Notably he did conceptualize that:

“… the Maiar robed themselves like other lesser living things, as trees, flowers, beasts.”
– The History of Middle-earth, Morgoth’s Ring, Myths Transformed    (my underlined emphasis)

Though of course being robed as a flower is not quite the same as a diminutive fluttering fairy.

2 Thomas the Rhymer is mentioned in the On Fairy-stories essay. The story of the green children of Woolpit is documented in E.S. Hartland’s English Fairy and Other Folk Tales (see ‘Works consulted or cited by J.R.R. Tolkien’ per Tolkien On Fairy-stories by Flieger and Anderson). The ‘Sídhe folk’, the Irish Otherworld residents also known as the the Tuatha Dé Danann are mentioned in The Lost Road and Other Writings and documented in J. MacDougall’s Folk Tales and Fairy Lore in Gaelic and English (see ‘Works consulted or cited by J.R.R. Tolkien’ per Tolkien On Fairy-stories by Flieger and Anderson). His grasp of this core part of Celtic mythology is patently evident from his 1932 essay: The Name ‘Nodens’.

3 Chronologically, Tolkien began writing The Lord of the Rings (~ December 1937) before an invitation (November 1938) to be the keynote speaker for the ‘Andrew Lang’ lecture at St. Andrews. Just one month prior to lecture delivery (March 1939) we know he had completed the chapters involving Tom Bombadil and Goldberry and had revised them several times (Letters #33 & #35).

4 The original content of the lecture delivery was altered and expanded upon in 1943 and later published as an essay (On Fairy-stories) in a memorial to Charles Williams (Letter #145) in 1947.

5 Bombadil in the 1934 The Adventures of Tom Bombadil had his hat adorned with a peacock’s feather. Paulolapetus of ‘The Lord of the Ring’s Plaza’ in thread ‘Tom B. Peeling the Onion’ has suggested that the feather endowment was modeled after the fairy figure in Estella Canziani’s painting ‘The Piper of Dreams’.


‘The Piper of Dreams’ by Estella Canziani, 1914


According to my proposed theory, the color symbolism of the feather is again one appropriately reflective of a fairy being.

What a Colorful Pair!

This essay is best viewed in single page format. If it appears in two column style – an adjustment can be made by selecting zoom at 125% to 175% under the ‘Settings’ tab.

What follows is a five part series of essays that mainly discusses a unique approach to looking at Tom and Goldberry from a color-coding standpoint. The conclusions are intriguing. If true, they show another aspect of the author’s highly agile and creative mind – once again one that could think ‘outside the box’!

Part I: Fayvorite Colors – Early Days

Though in Part IV of ‘The Enigmatic Mrs Bombadil’ I have suggested that Goldberry has Paracelsian roots as an ‘elemental’, I have also hinted that Tolkien dually viewed her as a fairy being – a fay. Such a prognosis behooves a second look at Tom. Why revisit the matter – one might ask? After all wasn’t Tom neatly wrapped up in ‘Cracking the Enigma Code’?

The answer to the last of the questions above is a definite: No! Because though I’ve established within the confines of my theory that Tom eventually became a ‘Maia’ – he almost certainly wasn’t originally conceived as so. We can be reasonably certain of that simply because the term ‘Maia’ first appeared in Tolkien’s vocabulary in the 50’s – close to two decades after Tom’s first unveiling to the public. Undeniably Tolkien’s hierarchy of his own legendarium beings evolved. Given this pertinent fact, we ought to try and establish whether Tom evolved too. Progressive tracking might help us understand not just more about the merry pair, but also provide us with further insight into the story and perhaps Tolkien’s own character.

In a way we need to divorce ourselves from the final results and try to understand Tom and Goldberry over distinct phases. That way we may be able to reconstruct an evolutionary pattern. To work towards that goal, in this first phase I will try to attack the period up to publication of the original The Adventures of Tom Bombadil poem. What indeed did Tolkien consider these two in 1934 while completely oblivious of The Lord of the Rings to come? Unfortunately the clues are scant and we must rely much on guesswork.

All we have is the Doll, the ‘King Bonhedig1 fragment’, the ‘Germ poem’, the 1934 The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and perhaps one remark made by Tolkien prior to starting The Lord of the Rings in earnest, where Tom was referred to as:

“…the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside, …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #19

Michael Tolkien’s doll does lend us some threadbare clues. We know it was probably wood-jointed, likely pretty hardy2, atypically Dutch in design and possibly manufactured in Holland too. It wouldn’t be a stretch to presume that Tolkien’s son played with it not only inside the house – but also in a garden setting while resident at Northmoor Road. One can easily imagine a sunny Spring day with daffodils blooming in the grass and the children at play with their toys and father, while Oxford church bells faintly tolled in the background – an ever present reminder of Christ Church College’s Great Tom.


Garden of 20 Northmoor Road, Oxford, J.R.R. Tolkien Artist & Illustrator, Hammond & Scull


Perhaps this sort of circumstance triggered the doll’s naming, for it is quite possible that a spontaneous idea arose. Particularly as the Professor admitted that:

“… it is the particular use in a particular situation of any motive, whether invented, deliberately borrowed, or unconsciously remembered that is the most interesting thing to consider.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #337

With that thought in mind, I’m going to suggest a new origin for Tom’s surname which I think is equally as plausible as Hooker’s in The Hobbitonian Anthology.

Tolkien may have just imaginatively put together a faux history. Though the doll was now a fixed inhabitant of England, unquestionably it had some Dutch heritage which just may have been acquired along a journey accompanying England’s ancestors in Germany – the Saxons. Just like the ‘Tollkühn’s’ – the toy had been on a migratory trek but was now firmly an Oxonion. In effect, the doll was part English, part Dutch and part German and thus deserved a name that reflected all three chunks of its heritage. Perhaps he felt that the doll had some mythological history and was the long lost image of a nature spirit which had now become attached to his local countryside?

Anyhow, the ‘Tom’ – I am guessing was the English appropriation, while the ‘dil’ came from the Dutch de affodil (English asphodel) – very befitting from a man who, as we saw with Goldberry, enjoyed involving a botanical side to naming etymology. But what about the ‘Bomba’? Where did Tolkien get that from? Which German would he have selected?

For that I am going to suggest a person I have already introduced – namely: Paraclesus. A man whose real name was: Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim. And so to honor a sub-branch of ancient mythology, my proposal is that the partial name of a renowned medieval mythologist, botanist and alchemist was subtly incorporated into a mix. For Tom in the 1934 poetry reflects a being highly reminiscent of a Paracelsian ‘Earth Elemental’. A spirit that Tom Shippey has not only described as:

a kind of exhalation of the earth …”.
– J.R.R. Tolkien Author of the Century, Chapter II, T.A. Shippey

but also referred to specifically as an:

“… elemental ….
– New Learning and New Ignorance: Magia, Goeteia, and the Inklings, T.A. Shippey


The Paracelsian Elemental of the Earth (Gnome) – Gjellerup’s Den Ældre Eddas Gudesange (1895)


One can quite understand how the staunchly Germanic surname of von Hohenheim, or the Grecian rooted Phillipus, Aureolus and Theophrastus, would have been immediately discarded for consideration – as would have been the Greek and very German sounding ‘-stus’. But ‘Bomba’ was really the most intriguing and unique sounding portion of Paracelsus’ actual full name, as well as that of the doll, echoing Tolkien’s assertion:

“… I should not have given him so particular, individual, and ridiculous a name …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153

Is there a possibility that Tolkien kept his naming for our merry fellow at a very simple etymological level? Were the English ‘Tom’, The German ‘Bomba’ and the Dutch ‘dil’ all combined to simply give ‘Tom Bombadil’? Who knows? At the end of the day – I freely admit my solution is just a guess. An educated guess perhaps. But nevertheless just as likely as many others.

Before I move on to the main thrust of this essay – there is one other interesting detail we can extract from the early writings – and that relates to the size of both Tom and his consort. 

From the ‘Bonhedig fragment’ we know Tom was well below normal human height and stocky in build:

“Four foot high in his boots he was, and three feet broad.”
– Tolkien A biography, The storyteller, Humphrey Carpenter

Then later in his published 1934 poetry Goldberry was described as a ‘little’ water lady.

Obviously she was slighter in build – and we can reasonably assume she was shorter than Tom too. Otherwise it would be odd for him to refer to her as ‘little’. Despite being petite Goldberry appears fully compatible with Tom. This would put the couple as somewhere between hobbits and humans in height – seemingly closest to dwarves. Though of course, that they were most definitely not. Does this get us anywhere? Probably not very far. All we can say is that even at this early stage – the pairing had a puzzling peculiarity about them. A peculiarity that might be revealed by skipping forward for a moment and investigating color symbolism in The Lord of the Rings.

Despite me promising not to do so, in this case it is advantageous to look forward in order to look back. For one matter which stares us in the face, yet puzzlingly has been pretty much overlooked, is how vividly Tom and Goldberry were described compared to others in The Lord of the Rings. A review of the entire ‘trilogy’ reveals that no other characters were singled out with so much emphasis placed on the color of their clothes and worn accessories. An intriguing thought thus surfaces. Could Tolkien have had a special underlying reason in mind for the happy couple? To probe whether there is significance to this observation, we must now rewind back to early times and investigate those historical depictions.

The first textual mention of color occurred in the so-called ‘King Bonhedig fragment’ from the late 1920’s or early 1930’s (exact date unknown). Tom had a:

“… blue feather, his jacket was blue, and his boots were yellow”.
– Tolkien A biography, The storyteller, Humphrey Carpenter

This rendition is consistent with Michael Tolkien’s wood-jointed doll which was confirmed by his elder brother John to really:

“… wear the same bizarre clothing mentioned in The Lord of the Rings.”
– Conversation reported in Mallorn 5


A Vintage Dutch Doll – perhaps in the style of Michael Tolkien’s


Because the doll and ‘Bonhedig fragment’ colors are identical, Tom’s genesis colors are concluded to be: Blue and Yellow. To the best of our knowledge this is the case from both toy and textual standpoints.

Our next encounter with Tom where color arose is in poetry per The Adventures of Tom Bombadil from 1934. Tom was again described as owning yellow boots and a blue jacket. But now the feather in his hat specifically became a greeny-blue peacock’s. Whether this was the one and same bird which donated the apparently pure blue feather of the ‘Bonehedig fragment’ is unknown. In any case, no other clothing colors were acknowledged outright except Tom was crowned for the wedding with buttercups. Not to be missed then, was how Tom had more yellow gracing him.

We can see that if anything – Tolkien stayed steady (color-wise) in taking Tom from his origin as a toy into jottings and then full-fledged published verse. There appears to have been little desire to radically alter him despite the fact that yellow for male boots is quite odd, and a rarity in both fiction and fashion of the pre-40’s.

Turning our attention to fair lady Goldberry, her first mention to the public was also in the same 1934 rhyme. Therein she was described as wearing a gown of green by the rushes at capture and then silver-green matrimonial robes. Her wedding garland was of entwined flowers – flag-lilies and forget-me-nots, however their colors were not explicitly revealed.

The designated coloring of apparel and adornments at first published poetry and pre-The Lord of the Rings was thus:

Tom: Blue, Yellow and Green
Goldberry: Green and Silver

At this point it might be fruitful to kick back and pontificate on what sort of beings Tolkien envisaged Tom and Goldberry to be. A mystery it is, and one which does not have an immediately obvious answer. Nor is it easily resolvable. Because at the time of this early literature, the evidence that there is points to ‘The Adventures’ poetry having been written in good part for personal pleasure. It seems that at the poem’s conception and during its creation, there had been no intent to bring the pair into the already existent Silmarillion mythology.

Exactly what Tom was in Tolkien’s mind right then is uncertain. Obviously he wasn’t human. His ability to interact and communicate with both animals and unnatural beings, coupled with a potent power of command, put him in an entirely different category to mortals. If I were to take a stab, I think a reasonable guess is that Tom was imagined as a fairy-creature – meaning one from the land of Faerie. And if I were to further speculate, it is possible Tolkien cleverly justified such an attribution by realizing that as outfitted – the combination of blue and yellow made green3.



For in his own words:

“… green was a fairy colour …”.
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon., 1925. pg. 86 line 151

And it is this pronouncement which is of greatest significance. Though green is also the color of nature, to Tolkien who was wrapped up in the subjects of fairy-stories and mythology – it was more. Indeed much, much more. Leaving us obligated to look at matters, that might seem trite, from a bold new perspective.

So what is to come will focus heavily on looking at the enigmatic pair from an angle of ‘color’ not explored before. And re-assuredly more evidence on the matter of color-mixing will duly follow, though first I must briefly turn back to a 1934 Goldberry.

Our yellow-tressed lady though predominantly clad in fairy-hued green, also had one garment tinged with beaded streaks of silver. Nonetheless, as I will emphasize later, silver was also ‘a fairy color’. Then as a compatible couple with compatible dress, there is every reason to believe Goldberry and Tom initially came from the same bucket. In other words, the probability is high that the merry couple were intentionally created as otherworldly fays. Once again, as far as we can tell – this was done independent to the legendarium mythology.

So to summarize, though it is not readily apparent: Tom is virtually in a splintered state. His entire attire when looked at in reverse through the lens of a painter’s prism – is ‘fairy-green’. Goldberry of course – in plain sight – is mainly dressed in ‘fairy-green’!



1  The 2014 revised and expanded re-release of The Adventure’s of Tom Bombadil by Hammond & Scull provides no further significant information about Tom himself.

2  The doll is known to have survived being thrown into a toilet by John – Michael’s elder brother.

3  In ‘artistry’ – not in ‘light’.

Goldberry: The Enigmatic Mrs Bombadil

This essay is best viewed in single page format. If it appears in two column style – an adjustment can be made by selecting zoom at 125% to 175% under the ‘Settings’ tab.
Part IV: Elementary My Dear … What’s It?

Even at the very early stages of drafting The Lord of the Rings chapters depicting Tom and Goldberry, Tolkien clearly put considerable thought into the characters he wished to include in addition to the depth of the narrative. In February 1939 he confessed:

“The writing of The lord of the rings is laborious, because I have been doing it as well as I know how, and considering every word.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #35

Much later he confirmed the book:

“… was written slowly and with great care for detail, …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #328

No doubt much of the initial effort was directed towards:

“… the construction of elaborate and consistent mythology …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #19

And the end result was a:

“… coherent structure which it took … years to work out.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #190

Yet at first read there seems to be ample incoherence and many inconsistencies when it comes to our idyllic couple. For many readers have felt that the side adventure between the borders of Buckland and Bree was unnecessary. Opinions have often been voiced that it was a distraction which never added much value to the tale. It has been argued that an omission would have rid Middle-earth of two of its weirdest characters. And to some – that would have been no major loss.

Quite rightly the reader is entitled to be a little perturbed. Here we have the unusual situation of a rambunctious wrinkly old man cohabiting with a beautiful young maiden who exhibits a degree of worrisome servility. The contrast in looks and dress code from ancient and stout with a wardrobe of inelegance, to youthful grace with stylish garb – cannot be missed. Most peculiarly, both of them almost continuously sang while oddly even their talk seemed to rhyme. And some of this ineloquent nonsensical verse is decidedly annoying. To make matters worse, comic relief was added of the strangest kind in belittling the power of the Ring. Crassly put maybe – still it is understandable how one can enjoy The Lord of the Rings overall, yet actively dislike Tom and Goldberry.

The age disparity between the merry pair is one matter which has been frowned upon. Without foreknowledge of the 1934 The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, a casual reader could have been confused over their exact relationship. One can sympathize how for a mid-50’s BBC broadcast, with perhaps just The Lord of the Rings at-hand, a presenter might automatically have assumed a non-marital relationship. Tolkien was obviously aghast at the misinterpretation:

“… worse still was the announcer’s preliminary remarks that Goldberry was his daughter (!), …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #175

Another point of mixed feelings is signs of a scandalous abduction or even elopement! In the poem: The Adventures of Tom Bombadil – Tom forcibly removes Goldberry from her habitat and then seemingly coerces her to be his wife. The situation is a little muddy as some view her as a tad flirtatious and the departure from her river abode as a happy event. Her mother, the ‘River-woman’, although falling short of voicing disapproval, clearly misses her presence:

“… on the bank in the reeds River-woman sighing …”.
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1934 (& 1962) poem

Whether we readers like it or not, there exists the slightest undertones of kidnapping and brain-washing resulting in a subtly sinister aspect to the episode. Tom had a ruthless streak in him as is evidenced by the way he dealt with Old Man Willow and the Barrow-wight. Hints of this trait can be glimpsed in the Bombadil goes Boating poem. Though much was said in jest, the hobbits of Buckland were certainly wary of him with their verbal raillery being:

“… tinged with fear …”.
– Preface to: The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1962

Undeniably the implication by the phrase:

“ ‘… you’ll find no lover!’ ”,
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1934 (& 1962) poem

is that Tom would become Goldberry’s lover. Whatever the sexual connotations, negatively compounded by mismatched ages, to Tolkien – Tom was not the proverbial ‘dirty old man’. Far from it I do deem. As a devout Christian, Tolkien may never have realized that an issue would even arise in the minds of some readers.

To the Professor – Tom and Goldberry represented an ideal couple blissfully in love, and in harmony with all good and natural creatures within very discretely defined lands. Many have compared the pairing to Adam and Eve in their first dwelling; and maybe such an arrangement was deliberately portrayed that way. Married in the eyes of God, with the local animals being auspicious witnesses, is not too unlike the state of the first couple in the Garden of Eden. And this biblical face is perhaps more so reflected in Goldberry. For being a source, per my proposal of Part III, she is indeed Eve-like.


Adam Digging and Eve Spinning, Medieval Painting on Wall of Broughton Church, England


Beyond companionship, Tom offered Goldberry a great deal. He provided wisdom, knowledge, protection, laughter, a new home and importantly a new way of life. Instead of aquatic fare, the food on Tom’s table was from the soil and animal produce. It was a different type of life – which nonetheless Goldberry neatly slotted into while still being nearby her old haunt. There are absolutely no signs that Tom constrained Goldberry in any way, or that she was unhappy. She displayed tolerance to Tom’s songs and complemented them with her own. For the reader at least, the one verse explicitly recited was far less irritating than his oft repetitious lilt.

Despite all of these interesting matters, when it comes to Goldberry, there are still a couple of loose ends that need tying up. One of these is identifying the type of creature she represented in Tolkien’s mythology. The other is the River-woman. Beyond the obvious, who was she? What was she? And if Goldberry was a mythological source as I suggested in Part III, was her mother something even more basic?

We must ask ourselves, why is there no sign of her blessing the wedding. Why does Goldberry visit her mother’s pool only once a year? Had Tom forbidden her attendance at the marriage ceremony? Had he quarreled with his future mother-in-law? Was Goldberry a bad daughter in forsaking kin for Tom? Why had she become so estranged when the pool was relatively close by? And where in all of this is Goldberry’s father? Questions upon questions arise – if we choose to let them!

To attempt to tackle these seemingly unanswerable mysteries we must employ logic and once more try to fathom Tolkien’s underlying purpose. In particular we must once again heed his remarks on myth and invention:

“… I am interested in mythological ‘invention’, and the mystery of literary creation (or sub-creation as I have elsewhere called it) …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #180

“ But an equally basic passion of mine ab initio was for myth …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131    (Tolkiens italicized emphasis on ‘ab initio’)

From its inception Tolkien desired to create a new tale which not only linked to our history but also our mythology:

“After all, I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth’, and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131

And so for Goldberry being a forerunner from deepest antiquity, as I surmised in Part III, ‘Myth and Fairy tale’ could be reasonably added to the statement:

“Legend and History have met and fused.”
– On Fairy-Stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

Just like his creation of Sellic Spell, which was an attempt to imaginatively reconstruct what lay behind the fairy tale element of Beowulf, I believe he tried to make sense in his own mind of our world’s fairy tale water-entities. But I have a sneaking suspicion, as I have already alluded to in Part II, that there was a little more to the essence of Goldberry and her mother. To piece together the few rudimentary clues available – we must examine the case for these two creatures belonging to the legendary race of ‘elementals’.

A belief in elementals goes back to a time before the known beginnings of religion. Ancient peoples held a doctrine that inanimate things, and even animals and plants had souls of their own. However such soul-forms return to chaos, as the components of their constitution are incapable of manifesting any higher spiritual activity upon death. Elementals as they are now termed have been, perhaps wrongly so, cast under the general designation of fairies and fays. Paracelsus in the 16th Century classified his elementals as belonging only to inanimate matter – specifically the ancient Aristotle elements: air, water, earth and fire.



Paracelsus (Philippus von Hohenheim), 1493-1541


Given this mythology has roots in some our world’s most ancient literature, and undoubtedly Professor Tolkien’s knowledge of that – we are obliged to consider whether he included elemental-type entities in his writings. If so, we ought to consider whether there is sufficient evidence implicating Goldberry and maternal kin to be of that race too.

Now to the best of our knowledge in very early hierarchy, Tolkien had already pigeon-holed many of our world’s mythological creatures – though inhabiting our physical planet – as originating outside of it:

“… the Manir and Suruli, the sylphs of the airs and of the winds.”
– The Book of Lost Tales I, The Coming of the Valar and the Building of Valinor

“… brownies, fays, pixies, leprawns, … for they were born before the world …”.
– The Book of Lost Tales I, The Coming of the Valar and the Building of Valinor

Almost certainly belonging to the mix were mythological water-spirits. For prior to this, in the Qenya Lexicon Tolkien had compiled a list of mer-folk and nymphs – mermaids being among them.

One can reasonably conclude that at this early stage of development:

(a) Tolkien had familiarized himself with elementals, for ‘sylphs’ was a word invented by Paracelsus.
(b) An origin outside of the physical Universe made such creatures semi-divine.

In this same time period, but somewhat later, we have a telling clue in that he pondered on classifying some mythical female water-entities, namely mermaids, as either:

“… earthlings, or fays? – or both …”.
– The Book of Lost Tales II, The Tale of Eärendel

If I were to take an educated guess, pre-The Lord of the Rings Tolkien wasn’t quite sure where mermaids should be placed because of possibly belonging to another wholly different category to fays; a category he obviously termed: “earthlings”. But exactly what were they?

Our best evidence can be found in a document called The Creatures of the Earth. Within, he labeled ‘Earthlings’ as ‘wood-giants, mountainous-giants, pygmies1 and dwarves’. Listed below ‘Earthlings’ in a pseudo-hierarchical ‘chain of being’ were: ‘Beasts and Creatures’ and then ‘Úvanimor/Monsters’. If I were to hazard another guess, ‘Earthlings’ were mentally grouped with others (I suspect with those further down the chain) as those whose bodily matter was destined to remain within the confines of the planet but whose spiritual essence eventually dissolved into nothingness or spread into nebulous impotency. Indeed if that were the case ‘Earthlings’ would be highly befitting terminology.


The Salamander – Elemental of Fire, Paracelsus’ Auslegung von 30 magischen Figuren


When it came to drafting up the Bombadil chapters, there is more evidence that Paracelsian-type elementals were intended to be part of Middle-earth’s rich racial diversity. Old Man Willow was referred to as a:

“A grey thirsty earth-bound2 spirit …”.      
– The Return of the Shadow, Tom Bombadil     (my underlined emphasis)

And then a description of trolls was given as:

“… stone inhabited by goblin-spirit, …”,       
– The Treason of Isengard, Treebeard     (my underlined emphasis)

with the point being that even inanimate matter in Tolkien’s world could be possessed by a spiritual essence.

Even more telling is a preliminary note for his Fairy-Stories paper. While in the process of gathering thoughts on the Bombadil chapters, Tolkien was also engaged in preparing for the Andrew Lang lecture of 1939. It is notable that when discussing a tree-fairy, he acknowledged that though spiritually originating before creation, and:

“… immortal while the world (and trees) last …”,
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Flieger & Anderson

most revealingly for us,

“… it is possible that nothing awaits him – outside the World and the Cycle of Story and of Time.”
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Flieger & Anderson

Again, this evokes the fate of a Paracelsian ‘elemental’, and perhaps parallels the destiny of ‘Earthlings’. Sadly though, for such creatures, he felt from a Christian belief and an after-life perspective – this state of affairs was:

“… a dreadful Doom …”.
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Flieger & Anderson

Still one can understand how the genus of tree-fairies might be debatable and fall into a couple of different classifications. Just like mermaids – they might have been:

“… earthlings, or fays? – or both …”.
– The Book of Lost Tales II, The Tale of Eärendel


Tree Fairy, Cindi and Mama Tree, Grimm’s Fairy Tales – Illustrated by Arthur Rackham


As to the published The Lord of the Rings, again there are further hints that an inert substance could possess a latent ‘fea’. In Legolas’ words during the Fellowship’s journey through Hollin:

“ ‘… Only I hear the stones lament them: …’ ”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Ring goes South

As if to provide emphasis, italicized in the voices of the stones themselves:

“… deep they delved us, fair they wrought us, high they builded us; but they are gone.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Ring goes South

Legolas wasn’t lying here – but though these particular elementals were innocuous to the quest, others were not so benign. Tom Shippey goes as far as finger-pointing the storm on Caradhras to be the work of presumably malevolent:

“… elementals …”.
– J.R.R. Tolkien Author of the Century, Chapter II, T.A. Shippey

Perhaps the strongest evidence and most obvious elemental candidate comes from Tolkien expounding on the nature of Stone-trolls. Worked on by dark powers, such creatures were fundamentally pre-existing spirits inhabiting stone. These barbaric monstrosities of our world’s mythology were readily included into his writings, yet he heavily hinted they lacked that which typified elementals, namely – a soul:

“… when you make Trolls3 speak you are giving them a power, which in our world (probably) connotes the possession of a ‘soul’. But I do not agree (if you admit that fairy-story element) …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153  (Tolkiens italicized emphasis on ‘speak’)

Quite possibly – Tolkien thought there was no place for the spiritual essence of such creatures beyond the physical circles of the World. There was no hall where their spirits were to be gathered upon Earth, and there would be no place for them Outside at the end with Eru Ilúvatar. In effect they were soul-less creatures, and ones associated to the ‘earth’ of Paracelsian lore.


The Children and the Stone Troll, Illustration by John Bauer, 1882-1918


Now the “fairy-story element” for a soul-less ‘water’ entity is best illustrated by the tale of Undine. Because of her resemblance to mermaids of myth and Tolkien’s referral of “earthlings”, it is to her and duly Goldberry that I must next turn.

Tolkien once expressed that he felt:

“… nymphs, … had quite distinct mythological or imaginative origins …”.
– Jack: A life of CS Lewis, Into Narnia, George Sayer

His friend C.S. Lewis was well aware of Fouqué’s nymphean tale of:

“… Undines who acquired a soul by marriage with a mortal”.   
– Letters to Malcolm, C.S. Lewis    (my underlined emphasis)

And no doubt Tolkien with his extensive interests in fairy tales and mythology knew it too.


Fountain of Undine, Kurpark, Baden, Germany


Fouqué himself best summarizes Undine’s dreadful plight and that of other types of elemental:

“ ‘… We should be far superior to you, who are another race of the human family, for we also call ourselves human beings, as we resemble them in form and features had we not one evil peculiar to ourselves. Both we and the beings I have mentioned as inhabiting the other elements vanish into air at death and go out of existence, spirit and body, so that no vestige of us remains; and when you hereafter awake to a purer state of being, we shall remain where sand, and sparks, and wind, and waves remain. Thus we have no souls; the element moves us, and, again, is obedient to our will, while we live, though it scatters us like dust when we die …’ ”.
– Undine, F. de La Motte Fouqué, Project Gutenberg E-book, produced by Sandra Laythorpe         (my underlined emphasis)

If we “admit that fairy-story tale element” – then indeed we can see how and why Tolkien meshed an Undine-like Goldberry into the 1934 The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, and then her entirely land-based married portrayal in The Lord of the Rings. Within the latter there are perhaps just the faintest of clues indicative that her make-up and consistency was something special.

Tom poetically described Goldberry as:

“ ‘… clearer than the water. …’ ”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Old Forest

And then as if to reinforce the point, Tolkien had him practically repeat it:

“ ‘… clearer than clear water…’ ”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Hmm … in acquiring a soul had she transformed from a ‘water elemental’ into an embodied creature, yet retained much of those intrinsic former qualities? Had she become what we might term – a fairy being?

Perhaps additional evidence of an elemental type essence is revealed by the light of a candle which shone through Goldberry’s hand:

“… like sunlight through a white shell.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Unusual I deem for a hand shielding the flame from a draught – for fingers ought not to be splayed open!

All of these are interesting observations which aid a needed reconciliation of the River-woman. Because a possible reason why the mother or mother-in-law situation was not an issue to Tolkien is that in the sense of a physical anthropomorphic being (as we might imagine) – the River-woman simply wasn’t one! For perhaps she had yet to fully transmute? Or perhaps she was invisible4 to all but gifted beings – such as Tom and Goldberry herself?

Rivers in European mythology were often inhabited by female spiritual forms. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings refers to Goldberry as the river’s ‘daughter’ four times and explicitly the ‘River-woman’ is mentioned once. But it is possible the river was viewed as housing a non-conventionally embodied entity, yet also a source of shelter and nourishment for a more conventional fully morphed human-like being. Therefore it effectively acted maternally in the sense of being a provider and source of comfort and shelter. The river itself was likely there before Goldberry and is thus the elder of the two. Goldberry simply became attached to it after its formation. If that was the case, then most sensibly she can be termed its ‘daughter’.

So the Withywindle (in Tolkien’s mind) may have had another resident female spirit but not a flesh-clad tangible one as mortals could see. For it is quite possible that at the time of writing the early Bombadil poetry, Tolkien thought that the ‘mother’ spirit of the river was elemental in form and permanently locked within the water itself (yet able to move with the flow or against it). Just like the malevolent willow wasn’t really a ‘man’, perhaps she did not display herself as an anthropomorphic ‘woman’. 

Against this, in the poem The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, Goldberry’s mother is seemingly situated outside of the rivers’ waters when lamenting her loss:

“… on the bank in the reeds River-woman sighing …”.
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1934 (& 1962) poem

We have to remember that when it comes to poetry, every matter should not be taken literally. We must also remind ourselves that many details of the hobbit composition must have come from Tom himself – some of which might have become slightly distorted in translation to jest-ridden rhyme. Especially as the final result was:

“… made up of various hobbit-versions of legends concerning Bombadil.”
– Preface to: The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1962

Quite possibly Tolkien viewed the reeds on the bank, whose roots connected down into the water, as osmotically acting like the ears of the River-woman’s spirit. News from afar carried by the wind and reverberating in the flora may have been a way of capturing the river “sighing” in mourning its loss. And so the departure of Goldberry, a being who had added such merriment and beauty to the local habitat, would have been sadly detrimental to the whole river-valley’s essence in a spiritual way.

If we choose to adopt a ‘looser’ reading of the poetry and text, the many problems associated to Goldberry’s parentage can be wholly eliminated. If we choose to embrace the evidence and view Goldberry and her mother as ‘elementals’ – some puzzling text in The Lord of the Rings becomes readily explainable.

Of course, with what we know today, once again I reiterate that absolute proof remains elusive. However I hope that this four part series has meaningfully added to our understanding of Tolkien’s very mysterious little water-lady. The good news is that I am far from finished with Goldberry and Tom. There are many more interesting secrets Tolkien concealed – and the revelations to come about this couple will surprise even the most attentive and scholarly among us!

Notes :

1 Pygmies here, were likely thought of as in the context of being mythological creatures, for they are indeed a term employed by Paracelsus for an elemental of the earth. It is theorized that Tolkien set apart ‘Earthlings’ from the category of ‘Monsters’ due to the former inherently possessing moralistic free will. In other words ‘Earthlings’ were capable of being both evil and good. This seems to be have been reflected in The Hobbit – where in the journey over the Misty Mountains, Gandalf commented about finding “a more or less decent giant”. A ‘mountainous-giant’ under the category of ‘Earthlings’ might well have been what Tolkien had in mind.

In any event the fact that the grouping designated ‘Earthlings’ appears to contain one Paracelsian type elemental, makes one wonder whether other creatures of that lore were deliberated to belong too. It is possible that water-nymphs, mermaids and undine-like entities, were also considered to – if not wholly belong – at least overlap into that same mythological grouping.

Tolkien stated that the spirit had become “imprisoned” in the Great Willow. The implication is that the tree was not its natural habitat.

3 The implication is that Tolkien’s pronouncement about ‘souls’ is applicable to all types of Troll. The comment in Letter #153 of Trolls being “counterfeits” might be associated with the inability of the Dark Powers truly being able to create, thus reflected (for the Stone-trolls) in an unstable design able to be destroyed by sunlight.

4 Paracelsus’ elementals were generally invisible to mortals.

Revisions :

2/6/17  Replaced paragraph after: “But exactly what were they?” with entirely new paragraph.

Incorporated new Footnote 1 and re-ordered existing Footnotes.

Is: “Again, this evokes the fate of a Paracelsian ‘elemental’, and perhaps parallels the destiny of ‘earthlings’.”, Was: “Again, this evokes the fate of an ‘earthling’ and parallels a Paracelsian ‘elemental’.”.

Removed from Footnote 3 : “As ‘monsters’ they would have come under the umbrella of ‘earthlings’ per The Creatures of the Earth.”

Is: “racial diversity”, Was: “bio-diversity”.

Goldberry: The Enigmatic Mrs Bombadil

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Part III: Sirenading in the Rain – A Ban she Washed Away

‘No … No … No!’ – I can imagine scholarly voices crying foul.

‘Those water-nymphs and Undine of Parts I & II – they’re not the best of fits. There are gaping holes. There’s many an instance where Goldberry bears no resemblance to such beings whatsoever.’

At first glance these types of complaints appear quite valid. Thus I can sympathize with a tendency towards the reader being leery. Furthermore I can understand the argument:

‘But water-nymphs are Greek in origin – whereas Tolkien focused on northern myth, so why would he have brought in a southern gal? And besides, Goldberry can’t have been an undine seeking a soul – because Tom wasn’t human. Only marriage to a mortal would have sufficed.’

Such points cannot be summarily dismissed. Oh most certainly Tolkien knew his mythology and was equally well acquainted with fairy tales. An Oxford professor could not possibly have made such elementary mistakes.

Or could he?

One is certainly entitled to doubt the infallibility of an elite university’s don. Yet in this case I concur with naysayers. Yes Tolkien could not possibly have depicted Goldberry erroneously. Unless he did so deliberately. Unless he had a purpose in mind.

But why? What possibly could have led to the poetry echoing a Germanic Nixie when Goldberry tugged at Bombadil’s dangling beard pulling him into her pool:

“… Goldberry, the River-woman’s daughter;
pulled Tom’s hanging hair. In he went a-wallowing …”.
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1934 & 1962


“The Nixy”, Andrew Lang’s The Yellow Fairy Book, illustration by H.J. Ford, 1894


Or why a shimmering dress complete with fish mail-like footwear which has resonances to a mermaid’s scales and forked nether fins?

“ … Goldberry … the hobbits saw that she was clothed all in silver … And her shoes were like fishes’ mail.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil


“A Mermaid”, John William Waterhouse, 1901


On top of water-nymphs and undines of Parts I & II, why so many more faces? Why this mishmash? Why no singularly coherent archetype?

To understand Tolkien’s reasoning, loose threads will need to be drawn together and then tied with a knot of logic. In this currently unraveled state one needs to ‘think outside the box’. So instead of producing a Gordian Knot – the aim will be for a neat little bow. A bow ready to be wrapped around a believable answer which not only provides a plausible explanation – but one that links into his documented thoughts. Such an encompassing solution would be especially powerful if those ideas coincided with Goldberry’s chronological development in The Fellowship of the Ring. But before evidence and a new proposal are supplied – some discussion on other antecedents will emphasize the many guises of Goldberry.

Now much excellent effort has already been spent excavating literature from which Goldberry might have been sourced. Taryne Jade Taylor1 and others have performed admirable work in looking at the Proserpina/Persephone link. Likewise John Bower2 has associated aspects of her to The Maid of the Moor – a medieval poem of unknown authorship which Tolkien might have been aware of.

More convincing likenesses have been made to Celtic folklore figures. One of these is the Goddess Etain of Irish myth which Leslie Jones in The Making of Middle-earth has uncovered. But I will focus on Hatcher’s3 mystical maiden: the Celtic ‘Washerwoman at the Ford’ – another character from Irish myth, and one which perhaps is the source of the legendary ‘Banshee’.


“The Washerwoman”, Artist Unknown


Both the ‘Washerwoman’ and ‘Banshee’ are mythical creatures linked to Faerie. That hidden land of folklore in turn is closely associated to tumuli and mounds found in many regions across the British Isles. To the best of our knowledge the legends of Faerie migrated across from Ireland where a magical underground realm inhabited by fairy-folk was known as the ‘Sidhe’.

The bean sídhe from Irish folklore and the bean sìth from Scottish Gaelic folklore both mean ‘woman of the sídhe’. Both also translate across as ‘fairy woman’. The fabled Washerwoman was a variant of the female fairy known as the bean nighe. She was often described as young and fair, though modern day depictions of both her and the Banshee can take either hideous or beautiful forms. Her doom was to wash blood-stained grave linen ominously portending the death of the one she lamented.


“La Belle Dame sans Merci: The Banshee”, Henry Rheam, 1897


“Bunworth Banshee”, Fairy legends and traditions of the South of Ireland, Thomas Croker, 1825


For The Lord of the Rings, the location of Tom’s house in proximity to the tumuli of the Barrow-downs as well as the Withywindle river, ideally positions Goldberry to play the character of both the Washerwoman and Banshee. A comparative review exposes Celtic lore likenesses in several instances and matters. Individually they might not mean much, but collectively their significance should not be underplayed.


(I) In Cuchulain of Muirthemne4 – translated by Lady Gregory, we have the Irish hero Cuchulain journeying to his last battle:

“And presently they came to a ford, and there they saw a young girl thin and white-skinned and having yellow hair, washing and ever washing, and wringing out clothing that was stained crimson red, and she crying and keening all the time. ‘Little Hound,’ said Cathbad, ‘Do you see what it is that young girl is doing? It is your red clothes she is washing, and crying as she washes, because she knows you are going to your death against Maeve’s great army.’ ”

In terms of look: Goldberry being “young” having “yellow hair”, “white arms” and “slender grace” matches.

In terms of function: Goldberry’s “washing day” ritual technically makes her a ‘washerwoman’.

(II) In Breton Gaelic, Folk-lore de France5: “She appears on the banks of streams, and calls to passers-by to aid her to wash the linen of the dead. If any refuse, he is dragged into the water and has his arms broken.”

In terms of actions: Goldberry pulling Tom into the water in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil matches.

(III) Per the Irish House of the O’Brien Clan (Banshees & the O’Briens):

When the Banshee decides to appear she may take the form of: “A beautiful woman with silver-white hair wearing a long shimmering silver dress.”

In terms of clothing: Goldberry’s “silver dress” matches.

(IV) By the late 19th century, the possession and use of a comb was firmly rooted to the Banshee. It possibly originated from its employment by the Irish Goddess Etain or got mixed-up through the legends of basking sirens and mermaids who similarly have been portrayed straightening their hair.



 “Fair Ligea”, Illustration for John Milton’s: Comus6 by Arthur Rackham, 1921 


 “The Mermaid and the Dolphin”, Illustration for William Shakespeare’s: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Arthur Rackham, 1908


Interestingly the mermaid ‘set-piece’ pose is partially reflected in Bombadil poetry:

“… while fair Goldberry combed her tresses yellow.
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1934 & 1962

Though the Banshee’s comb is always a silver one, in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil its material was not revealed.

In terms of implements: Goldberry’s ‘comb’ matches.


Thus, given these four numbered observations, we can conclude there are some definite similarities to Goldberry in ancient stories of the ‘Washerwoman at the Ford’ and the ‘Banshee’. Which all the more confusingly leaves us two more faces to add to the list. But what was the purpose behind such a perplexing list in the first place?

Hmm … to answer that question requires us to ponder on ‘roots’!

To understand Tolkien’s thinking on how legends and myths arose and how orally they had migrated and diffused across northern Europe, we should pay particular heed to an example laid out in On Fairy-Stories. Meticulously charted was his thought train when it came to the Norse God: Thórr.

Proffered up was how the legend of Thórr might have arisen based on a large, exceptionally strong red-bearded farmer. In broad summary, Tolkien asks how might he have been viewed by a passer-by when out in the fields at a time lightning flashed and thunder sounded? Perhaps a fearful outsider might have thought that a wrathful demi-god had come down from upon high to remind mortals homage was due? Of course the take-away from all of this, is a scenario that shows us a possible ‘root’ to a myth.

Tolkien’s logic trail is not unimportant. Because we can use it to think along the same lines for Goldberry. We need to put ourselves in the Professor’s shoes as best as we can; it’s our best chance for success. Besides the comparison is good – because both ‘Fairy Stories’  material and Goldberry’s ontological evolution in The Lord of the Rings was being sorted out at much the same time7.

How might a traveler from Bree lands or the Shire viewed a yellow-haired maiden washing (presumably clothes) next to a stream in the middle of a downpour? Because without doubt Goldberry was out in the elements. After Tom tells the hobbits:

“ ‘This is Goldberry’s washing day, … Too wet for hobbit-folk …’ ”,
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

our pseudo water-nymph came in from outside after singing from:

“… above them”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Because the song was “the tale of a river” one might conclude that Tolkien placed Goldberry a little further upstream and adjacent to the flow to do her washing. It was nearby as Pippin noted from a westward facing window:

“The stream ran down the hill on the left …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Further downstream the waters had earlier been reported to be brown. Would newly washed-away silt off the hilltop have made a muddy-bottomed rivulet seem reddish from afar?

To a wayward local – perhaps a Shire or Bree hobbit passing by, the sight of Goldberry engaged in washing would surely have seemed bizarre. Washing clothes in near blood-colored waters might have been imagined as the case. Even stranger would have been the singing. So would that have appeared sweet from a distance? Or would the pitter-patter of rain and an added wind have muffled and distorted Goldberry’s melodious tones? From afar, the song might have sounded more akin to Banshee-like wailing or even Washerwoman mourning than one of gladness. What would a terrified passer-by have reported to family and friends?

Just as one can imagine a washerwoman at work, one can also imagine the stream setting as being rocky and boulder strewn to lay clothes upon. There is every reason to believe that Goldberry went out in her silver dress and scaly shoes to perform the washing chore. The Fellowship of the Ring text gives no indication that a change in attire occurred after entering back into the house and before the hobbits reported on her striking outfit. Again, how to a stray traveler would Goldberry have appeared sitting on a rock in a silvery gown blending into similar hued footwear? Coupling such garb with her singing, conceivably could she have resembled what we, in this day and age, would term a ‘mermaid’ ?

Hmm … from Tolkien’s depiction, one can easily imagine how elements of the ‘Washerwoman at the Ford’, the ‘Banshee’ and ‘Mermaid’ legends might have arose. 

Though I have discussed the ‘Washerwoman’, ‘Banshee’, ‘Water-nymph’ and ‘Undine’ while touching on the ‘Nixie’ and ‘Mermaid’, there definitely are other related creatures to this broad spectrum of our worlds’ mythical female water-beings. There are of course Sirens and Lorelei as well as England’s own water hags: Peg Powler and Jenny Green-teeth.



“The Siren”, Edward Armitage, 1888



“Loreley”, Ludwig Thiersch, c. 1860


Perhaps most intriguing of all British water-maidens are ‘The Lady of the Lake’ and Morgan le Fay of Arthurian legend.



“The Taking of Excalibur”, John Duncan, c. 1897
(Morgan le Fay holds Excalibur aloft)



“The Lady of the Lake”, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Morte d’Arthur
Illuminated by Alberto Sangorski, 1912


I will have much to say on these two on another occasion. But for now, it is obvious that all these beings also have traces of Goldberry in their legendary make-up and demeanor. Given a wide-ranging collection of European female water-entities, it is now the appropriate point to consider how all of them have happened to be ladled out of the “Cauldron of Story”. Even more importantly – what ingredients were thrown into the pot in the first place to make the delicious soup of our world’s mythology?

Tolkien’s lucidly declared that at the center of a fairy tale was an inventor. How the invention migrated across different lands and times was termed the processes of: ‘diffusion’ and ‘inheritance’. But the important point to note is that there must have been a source:

“At the centre of the … diffusion there is a place where once an inventor lived. Similarly with inheritance (borrowing in time): in this way we arrive at last only at an ancestral inventor.”
– On Fairy-Stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

And so fairy tales as we know them today were all a result of:

“… three things: independent invention, inheritance, and diffusion, …”.
– On Fairy-Stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

All three:

” … evidently played their part in producing the intricate web of Story.”
– On Fairy-Stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

Unfortunately because distortion, exaggeration and misrepresentation naturally occurred through:

“… diffusion at various times from one or more centres.”,
– On Fairy-Stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

to obtain a true source, the “web of Story” had become exceedingly complex and: 

“… beyond all skill … to unravel …”.
– On Fairy-Stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

To Tolkien, of the three processes:

“… invention is the most important and fundamental, and so (not surprisingly) also the most mysterious. To an inventor, that is to a storymaker, the other two must in the end lead back.”
– On Fairy-Stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

In creating the mysterious ‘invention’, Tom:

“… he is just an invention …”,
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131

and likewise Goldberry, it is theorized that Tolkien exercised his immense creativity and knowledge to formulate two special ‘ancestral’ beings. These entities, placed within a mini fairy tale of the great fairy tale, would be the imagined latent progenitors from which many different folk-tales and legends of early Europe were derived. The Professor, no doubt, desired a fair amount of enigmatic originality; no single archetype would be able to fit to a tee. Because that was not his aim. Indeed quite the opposite. Tom and Goldberry, I believe, were meant to be the historical source material for some of our ancient legends and myth, not the other way round.



The Diffusion of Goldberry8,9 

A – Ireland: Washerwoman at the Ford, The Banshee
B – Scotland: The Washerwoman (Bean Nighe)
C – France: The Washerwoman, Pressina10, Melusine10  
D – Denmark: The Little Mermaid11,12  
E – Germany: Nixies, Undine, Lorelei 
F – Greece: Water-nymphs, Oceanids12, Nereids12, Naiads, Sirens12
G – Wales: The Lady of the Lake,12,13 Morgan le Fay12,13
H – Italy: Water-nymphs14
O – England: Peg Powler, Jenny Greenteeth


Inevitably in inventing sources, Tolkien had been left with just one logical choice. Only certain characteristics and snippets from the merry couple would diffuse across. Perhaps this can be gathered from:

“These tales are ‘new’, they are not directly derived from other myths and legends, but they must inevitably contain a large measure of ancient wide-spread motives or elements.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131

To Tolkien at the very least: 

“… there was always a kernel of fact behind a legend …”.
– The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, Chronology Hammond and Scull, 14 Feb 1938

And sometimes just a kernel. For it would be an exceptional matter for a legend to have matched all the original facts and been handed-down through the ages without any distortion. And that is precisely why no existing archetype matches Goldberry exactly. Gleaning what we can from On Fairy-Stories, and taking a small leap of faith – ‘out of box’ thinking gives us a remarkably sensible, logical and bow-wrapped answer that just about fits all the known facts.

Can I be absolutely sure? Unfortunately when it comes down to it, only the Professor would have been able to provide a rubber stamping. Nonetheless I believe he left us more than enough clues. Particularly compelling are his ideas in On Fairy-Stories which, as he stated, were put to practical use. The:

“ ‘Andrew Lang’ lecture at St Andrews on Fairy-stories; … was entirely beneficial to The Lord of the Rings, which was a practical demonstration of the views that I expressed.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #234

Even more telling was a suggestion that for the case of the half water-nymph Melusine, he had a grasp of how both diffusion and inheritance occurred:

“It is indeed easier to unravel a single thread in the web – that is a detail, or motive or incident – than to trace the history of the picture by many threads.”
– Tolkien On Fairy-Stories, Manuscript A, Flieger & Anderson

Clearly the “detail” and single “thread” he had in mind was his jotting of the previous sentence, namely the:

 “Story of Raimondin and Melusine.”
– Tolkien On Fairy-Stories, Manuscript A, Flieger & Anderson

Had the Professor tracked forward in time to see that tale evolve as Undine and The Little Mermaid? Then backwards, were Melusine’s predecessors Arthurian nymphs and those tracing all the way to Greek legend? 

Possibly so; given the clues – even probably so. For in an update he heavily implied her case was unique. To unravel a thread was humanly impossible:

 “Except in particularly fortunate cases or in a few details.”
– Tolkien On Fairy-Stories, Manuscript B, Flieger & Anderson


Melusine – Original Starbuck’s Logo


So if by good fortune, Melusine’s roots were indeed historically traceable – one can easily fathom the last step. For us, a most important one. Because it was one designed to send us even further back in time.

Expanding on my earlier conclusion, I believe that the intricate oral and literature-based “web of Story”, historically stemming  from various cultures and tribes across Europe, had been imaginatively unraveled by Tolkien himself. Supposedly for this unique case – fairy tales, myth, legend and folklore were all linked. In a place geographically close to Oxford, in a bygone mythical era, was the center of diffusion for a very particular invention. Yes, the source behind the legends of many mystical female water-entities of our world was ultimately Goldberry herself. On the Professor’s part, how neat a “practical demonstration” was that!


1 Investigating the Role and Origin of Goldberry in Tolkien’s Mythology, Mythlore, Vol. 27, 2008.

2 Tolkien Studies 8.

3 Finding Woman’s Role in The Lord of the Rings, Melissa Hatcher, Mythlore Vol. 25, 2007.

4 Cuchulain of Muirthemne, Death of Cuchulain, Lady Augusta Gregory, 1902.

5 Le Folk-Lore de France, P. Sébillot, 1904 & 1905.

6 Comus was known to Tolkien – see The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, Chronology Hammond and Scull, March 1940, Lecture by Charles Williams. It is unknown whether Tolkien had ever seen Arthur Rackham’s 1921 illustrated edition.

7 According to Letter #33, by the end of August 1938 Tolkien had finished drafting all three chapters involving Goldberry. By the beginning of December 1938 per Letter #35, these chapters were revised to the point (as Christopher Tolkien reports in The Return of the Shadow) that they had all but reached their final form. The ‘Andrew Lang’ lecture was delivered 8 March 1939. Much of the preparation for the paper delivered by Tolkien was done in the year before its delivery From the beginning of 1938 through early 1939:

“Tolkien spends considerable time in research and composition. He writes many pages of manuscript, in at least two versions, most of which are heavily revised.”
– The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, Chronology Hammond and Scull, 1938 – early 1939

The overlap for developing the paper’s content and the formation of Goldberry’s character in The Fellowship of the Ring, is thus hardly deniable.

8 The intent of the ‘Diffusion Map’ is to show that all roads eventually lead back to Goldberry. The directness of the paths should not be taken literally. Tolkien pointed out that it is quite possible to have different centers of diffusion. For example, though a legend might have migrated to Germany from England, its progression to Denmark might have resulted from Germany only. This would make Germany a sub-center for further diffusion.

9 The map is fittingly of today’s resultant European geography. It is intended for conceptual illustration only.

10 Melusine – Half serpent & half woman (see Tolkien’s reference in Tolkien On Fairy-Stories, Flieger and Anderson). Pressina is Melusine’s mother and a true water-nymph. Characters are European but particularly associated to France. 

11 The Little Mermaid – Fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. 

12 Goldberry appears to relate knowledge, in song, of waters more expansive than the Withywindle river:

“… and they saw in their minds pools and waters wider than any they had known, …”, The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil.

13 France (Breton) is probably also an appropriate source.

14 Water-nymphs – Per Ovid’s Metamorphoses which is acknowledged as his greatest work. See Tolkien’s oblique reference to Ovid in Letter #163.



1/23/2017 – Added picture of Melusine on Starbuck’s Logo.


Goldberry: The Enigmatic Mrs Bombadil

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Part II: Undineiably a Fishy Story

Many readers have thought of Goldberry as being a relatively simple character. Compared to Tom that seems quite true – at least superficially. But was there more to Tom’s bride than just a passing resemblance to the water-nymph of Greek myth? Did Tolkien stop right there – or were there other facets to her, of a subtler nature, requiring more intense thought and deeper exploration?

One needling matter that triggers further pondering is: how did a water-being leave her river abode to become a domesticated land-based wife? There certainly are isolated cases of akin creatures in Nordic and Teutonic mythologies doing so, but the instances are rare. And so the question must be begged – did Tolkien follow in similar footsteps when shaping Goldberry? Or did the Professor create an entirely new type of life-form from that incredibly fertile mind?

To help answer all of these questions we will need to examine several mythological archetypes, ponder on their applicability, and then in finality try to thrash out whether Tolkien had an underlying purpose. Indeed was there a ‘method to his madness’ or a ‘master plan’? However before we go there we need to remind ourselves how the characters of Tom and Goldberry go hand-in-hand. The complexity of Tom has both frustrated and intrigued many of the books’ fans. Be that as it may, once we probe below the surface, it will become apparent Goldberry was no mere tag-along. Though textually much of her time was spent in the background – she was only a couple of complex and enigmatic steps behind!

An interesting group of archetypes worth looking into that bear some similarity to aspects of Goldberry, and touched upon by Ruth Noel in The Mythology of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, are the “Undine, the Lorelei and the Siren”. Noel only superficially addresses these mythical merwomen, but I shall dig deeper. In particular the spotlight will be directed on the ‘undine’ (also known as the ‘ondine’).

George MacDonald of whom Tolkien was a quite an admirer once wrote:

“Read Undine: that is a fairytale … of all fairytales I know, I think Undine the most beautiful.”
– The Fantastic Imagination, 1893

Published in 1811 and the work of a German novelist, Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué – the tale of Undine was an established and quite beloved fairy-story by the late 19th century. Centered around a water-entity who fell in love with a mortal knight, it recounted how the creature married the man to gain a soul.



Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué


Well what has this all got to do with Tolkien one might ask? In reply I will say that the strands of web are circuitous; for the direct ones are missing. It is here we must observe a convoluted, though some might view fanciful, circle.

The popularity of Undine was great enough to allow the renowned English artist Arthur Rackham to illustrate a re-issue in 1909. Tolkien much admired Rackham’s style and once admitted a drawing he had made of Old Man Willow:

“… probably came in part from Arthur Rackham’s tree-drawings”.
– Tolkien A biography, The storyteller, Humphrey Carpenter



Arthur Rackham


Rackham’s link to Bombadil went deeper than the Great Willow mention, for Tolkien when doling out advice to Pauline Baynes, for illustrating The Adventures of Tom Bombadil booklet of 1962, brought in a comparison specifically naming the artist.

Neither Rackham’s or Blyton’s creative tones were optimal. But ‘caught between the Devil and the deep blue sea’ – the Professor preferred Rackham’s artistry.

“I have not much doubt, however, that you would avoid the Scylla of Blyton and the Charybdis of Rackham – though to go to wreck on the latter would be the less evil fate.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #235

It seems reasonable to presume that Tolkien had at least some familiarity with Rackham’s drawings. And not only that – familiarity at the time work was initiated on The Lord of the Rings. Because Hammond and Scull (per J.R.R. Tolkien Artist & Illustrator) indicate that ‘Old Man Willow’ was sketched for reference purposes at the time of writing The Old Forest chapter.

Nevertheless there is no known record of Tolkien ever having viewed Rackham’s illustrations in Undine. Even though quite a collection of fairy-story books were purchased for his children – none have reported Undine being among them. Nor has the book surfaced in the Professor’s personal library. So for us, the case is speculative – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because we can take comfort in salutary advice:

“… many facts that some enquirer would like to know are omitted, and the truth has to be discovered or guessed from such evidence as there is …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #268

Somewhere along the line (pre-1934), I am guessing Tolkien ran across some drawings of a particular Rackham water-being that ended up being wholly inspirational. Of course given the vast resources at his disposable at Oxford University’s multiple libraries, it is quite possible Undine was accessed there. Equally possible is that C.S. Lewis introduced his friend to the fairy-story given his admiration and familiarity with it:

“He loved the drawings of Arthur Rackham in Undine …”.
– Jack: A life of CS Lewis, Into Narnia, George Sayer

Five of Rackham’s Undine sketches are shown below. All five of them have reasonable connections to Goldberry either in The Fellowship of the Ring or The Adventures of Tom Bombadil poem (1934 or 1962 version).



Drawing 1

[Resonances: Gold belt, yellowy-gold long rippling hair, silvery colored clothes, house prominently positioned next to river waters per TLotR.]



Drawing 2

[Resonances: Yellow hair, stone cottage positioned next to river waters, implied TLotR textual scene of Goldberry passing by a window.]



Drawing 3

[Resonances: Yellow hair, greenish and silvery clothing, river abode below waters per The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.]



Drawing 4

[Resonance: Implied TLotR textual scene of Goldberry out in the rain for her ‘washing day’.]



Drawing 5

[Resonance: Moment before capture by Tom on the river-bank beside the rushes per TLotR and The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.]


Now before I go on to further discuss Undine, it must be emphasized that this writer is well aware of the pitfalls to definitively linking the pictorial art of Rackham to Tolkien. Such dangers were outlined by the Professor himself in Letter #328. Some scholars will also no doubt point to Tolkien’s self-admitted weakness in remembering images and his preference for pure literature. Albeit Michael Drout in his Encyclopedia has noted the inconsistency of though:

“… declaring himself “not well acquainted with pictorial Art”. However on other occasions he admitted a literary debt to visual art.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment, Artists and Illustrators’ Influence on Tolkien

In truth, as an owner myself of Rackham’s illustrated edition – with much of the artwork occupying an entire page – the eye cannot help but be drawn there. Rackham’s drawings are indeed magnetic and possess a unique charm. Partly my own personal experience lends me to believe Undine artistry might well have been subliminally or even consciously present in Tolkien’s mind when Goldberry was first conceived and then later for The Lord of the Rings.

Yes Rackham’s art has a distinct signature to its style. Once one spots a face in the surf – one cannot help but look for more. And it is the Professor’s invention of the Foam-maidens and Foam-fays – the ‘Wingildin’ for the The Lost Tales of the early 20’s that perhaps leaves the barest of vestigial clues. The presence of such beings makes me think Tolkien had encountered the Rackham edition of Undine well over a decade before our first introduction to Bombadil’s fair water-lady.



Four Faces in the foamy water – see Drawing 1 above



Two Faces in the foamy water – see Drawing 2 above


Another link of Undine to Tolkien appears at the outset of his mythological writings. In 1920 after recounting The Fall of Gondolin to Oxford University’s Exeter College Essay Club, the recorder made the following note:

“… a discovery of a new mythological background Mr Tolkien’s matter was exceedingly illuminating and marked him as a staunch follower of tradition, a treatment indeed in the manner of such typical romantics as William Morris, George Macdonald [sic], de la Motte Fouqué etc. …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Note to Letter #163  
  (my underlined emphasis)

Despite the passage of a century, the tale had lost none of its charm among English scholars of mythology and folklore. Counted alongside other notable romantics, perhaps we can glean that Tolkien already knew of Fouqué’s Undine as a young adult. 

Now the term ‘undine’ originates from mythological related theory suggested by a 16th Century European alchemist who went by the pseudonym ‘Paracelsus’. It’s usage became so common that it made its way into all major dictionaries:

“Undine: a female spirit or nymph imagined as inhabiting water”.
– Oxford Dictionary of English, OUP, 2006

The word itself is sourced from the Latin unda, meaning ‘wave’ or ‘water’. We know that Tolkien was familiar with this Swiss-German’s work for at least two reasons. One was that Tolkien mentions him in Letter #239. The second is that Paracelsus was the inventor of the word ‘sylphs’ which Tolkien borrowed for The Lost Tales of the 20’s. Thus it seems reasonable to assume that Tolkien became familiar, well before The Lord of the Rings, with what Paracelsus essentially described as ‘elementals’. Of course, if at this early time the term ‘sylph’ was known to a young Tolkien – undoubtedly ‘undine’ would also have registered. 

As for ‘elementals’, they were proposed to be spirits of the four ancient elements: air, water, fire and earth. Except for the salamander, they took roughly humanoid shapes yet largely assumed and subsumed the form of matter that they were associated to. Undines were of beautiful feminine appearance (when visible to mortals) and explicitly bonded to water – sometimes tailed and sometimes not. 

Then were what Fouqué and we might term water-nymphs, really elementals?

“ ‘Pure and fair, more fair even than the race of mortals are the spirits of the water. Fishermen have chanced to see these water-nymphs or mermaidens, and they have spoken of their wondrous beauty. Mortals too have named these strange women Undines. …’ ”
– Undine, F. de La Motte Fouqué, Project Gutenberg E-book, Editor: Mary Macgregor, 1907     (my underlined emphasis)

For Fouqué, we almost certainly can deduce so – for right at the end of the tale Undine reverts back to her basic form:

“ … she went slowly out, and disappeared in the fountain. … a little spring, of silver brightness, was gushing out from the green turf, and it kept swelling and flowing onward with a low murmur, till it almost encircled the mound of the knight’s grave; it then continued its course, and emptied itself into a calm lake, which lay by the side of the consecrated ground. Even to this day, the inhabitants of the village point out the spring; and hold fast the belief that it is the poor deserted Undine, who in this manner still fondly encircles her beloved in her arms.”
– Undine, F. de La Motte Fouqué, Project Gutenberg E-book, produced by Sandra Laythorpe

More importantly had Tolkien latched on to such an idea and initially thought of Goldberry in her river abode as an undine? Were water-nymphs and undines one and the same in the Professor’s mind too?

In Fouqué’s tale the only way for one particular undine to gain a soul was to marry a man. Tom, though man-like in looks, was an immortal; but it is curious how Tom found Goldberry by the rushes:

“… and her heart was beating!”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Why wouldn’t it be? But was it merely fluttering in affection for Tom or was it the onset of a metamorphic transformation to acquire a soul? It might have been both, because in mythology the heart and the soul have always had strong linkage.

Yet even more curious is how the ending for the earliest full Bombadil poem resulted in marriage:

“Old Tom Bombadil had a merry wedding, …”.
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1934 (& 1962) poem

Hmm – it is interesting to speculate how Tolkien might have fitted our favorite water-being into his mythology. And more so to examine the evidence and case for other elementals. An affirmative conclusion would strengthen Goldberry’s position in the hierarchy of mythological entities connecting ‘his world’ to ours. A hierarchy that perhaps has yet to be fully understood. However such a discussion will be tabled for later.

As far as when Tokien first encountered the word ‘undine’ – it is quite possible he ran across it in Andrew Lang’s Olive Fairy Book in The Story of Little King Loc:

“ ‘He is sitting in the palace of the Undines, under the great Lake; …’ ”.
– Olive Fairy Book, Andrew Lang, 1907 

Issued a couple of years before ‘Rackham’s Undine’, there is little doubt that Tolkien had read this fairy-tale before embarking on the Bombadil chapters in The Lord of the Rings. His preparatory notes for On Fairy-Stories (see Tolkien On Fairy-Stories by Flieger and Anderson) made it quite plain that he had perused all of Lang’s colored books before lecture delivery at St. Andrews in 1939.

Now Arthur Rackham was not the only artist to visualize Undine. The popularity of the tale had spread across the Atlantic to be physically immortalized by two of America’s greatest sculptors.



Isamu Noguchi with ‘Undine’, 1925



‘Undine Rising from the Waters’, Chauncey Bradley Ives, 1884


In terms of portraits, once again the name of John Waterhouse crops up. His enamor with the water-nymph propelled him to paint Ondine in the heyday of Pre-Raphaelite art.



‘Ondine’ by John W. Waterhouse – exhibited Society of British Artists, 1872


Clearly Fouqué’s story had embedded itself in the hearts of the English speaking world by the turn of the 20th century. Even a play was written – notably connecting yellow water-lilies to the tale’s heroine:

“… Among the yellow lilies of the pool.
To greet me with thy kiss. …”.
– Undine: A Lyrical Drama, E. Hamilton Moore, 1902

A couple of years before Rackham’s issue, another British artist named Katherine Cameron had illustrated Undine. The cover of an 1907 edition depicts Undine with a flower garland in her hair – presumably just like Goldberry at her wedding:

“… his bride with forgetmenots and flag-lilies for garland …”.
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1934 & 1962 poems



‘Undine’, F. de La Motte Fouqué, Cover by Katherine Cameron, 1907


And then preceding both Rackham and Cameron, the English artist Rosie Pitman had also taken a crack at drawing Undine. Against one of Pitman’s internal drawings – the following comment was made:

“ … a full blown water-lily, symbolical of Undine’s perfected and spotless soul.”
– Undine, F. de La Motte Fouqué, Illustrations by Rosie M. Pitman, 1897

Were the water-lilies gathered by Tom and brought to Goldberry intended symbolism too? A sign perhaps of another water-nymph’s spotless and perfect soul? A soul which had been acquired through marriage and carnal union?

“ ‘… Never mind your mother
in her deep weedy pool; there you’ll find no lover!’ ”
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1934

Whatever the truth, going back to one of the questions posed at the beginning – at least we have a reasonable mechanism for the transformation of a water-being to one at home on terra firma. In itself this is a vital step. For we must acknowledge, Fouqués Undine is the closest model we have of a fairy-tale creature to which Goldberry might have been partly patterned on. Yes, a river-being Tolkien might have thought as being a link connecting the mythology of our real world to his bygone age.

Though we should not disregard the strength of the discussed peripheral clues, it is the sheer number of pictorial poses in the various issues of Undine which match up to details and hinted events surrounding Goldberry that is most remarkable. Perhaps taking all these matters in combination – we can now head towards unraveling some of the mystery surrounding Bombadil’s little water-lady. However if I am mistaken and everything is truly coincidental – then Goldberry herself might have told me to rapidly dismiss this train of thought and:

“ ‘… Make haste while the Sun shines!’ ”
– Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

I however believe otherwise, and that there is no coincidence – only more purposeful linkage. I have this odd feeling Goldberry’s advice was just a donnish touch – a deliberate insertion of an undiffused forerunner of an ancient English idiom:

‘Make hay while the Sun shines!’

Goldberry: The Enigmatic Mrs Bombadil

This essay is best viewed in single page format. If it appears in two column style – an adjustment can be made by selecting zoom at 125% to 175% under the ‘Settings’ tab.

A four part series that discusses a wholly new approach to looking at Tom Bombadil’s fair lady: ‘Goldberry’.

Part 1: Names, Nymphs and Nature’s Lilies

When it came to origins and sources Tolkien clarified that:

“The etymology of words and names in my story has two sides: (1) their etymology within the story; and (2) the sources from which I, as an author, derive them.”
– Letter to Gene Wolfe from Tolkien, November 1966

Now according to notes in a booklet of poetry issued after The Lord of the Rings, ‘Tom Bombadil’ as a name within the story was likely hobbit inspired – being:

“… Bucklandish in form … ”.
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1962

However we know through the 1934 Adventures of Tom Bombadil, the Professor:

“… had already ‘invented’ him independently …”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153

and prior to The Lord of the Rings.

Because the name had been originally assigned to a toy, we can also reasonably infer that it arose from outside of the Silmarillion mythology. Moreover that it was Tolkien himself who had come up with it:

“… I should not have given him so particular, individual, and ridiculous a name …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153   (my underlined emphasis)

But what exactly prompted such a ludicrously sounding and unique title is far the more interesting question.

Mark Hooker’s ground-breaking thesis: Magnus Thomas Bombadilus Oxoniensis in The Hobbitonian Anthology is perhaps the closest we can currently get to understanding the out of mythology source of ‘Tom Bombadil’. In short, Hooker believes that ‘Tom’ was derived from Oxford’s Christ Church Tower bell – known as ‘Great Tom’. Certainly there is complementary synergy in the exposed Latin inscription and its rhythmic peal; the ‘Bim Bom’ of the bell matches well with Tom’s seemingly nonsensical verse in The Lord of the Rings. Hooker has also suggested that apart from the bell’s ‘Bom’, Bombadil might have been derived from such words as ‘bombio’ to buzz, ‘bombo’ for bass drum – among numerous other offerings.

Equally puzzling as ‘Tom Bombadil’ is the etymological origin of ‘Goldberry’. From where, what, or whom did Tolkien derive that name? Yes exactly what was the history behind its development? Strangely enough, given its simplicity of construction, answers have been elusive. Nonetheless as academics would surely universally agree – Tolkien must have had his reasons, and they undoubtedly would have been well thought out.

Admirably Hooker has researched the Welsh language and resulting translations of ‘Gold’ and ‘berry’ as a possible source (Tolkien and Welsh). The ‘English calque of a Welsh theonym’ as Hooker suggests is perhaps a little difficult to get one’s head around. Happily for the less academically inclined, I will offer up something much simpler and a wholly different viewpoint.

My own inclination is that ‘Goldberry’ would probably have been named after a particular plant because of the ‘berry’ ending to her name. Most likely it would be an aquatic plant; and if so – one native to Oxford and Berkshire river environs. Goldberry is of course associated to the Withywindle in the novel which in turn, as some eminent scholars have remarked, was almost certainly modeled on Oxford’s River Cherwell.

Tom’s singing leaves us a decent clue in hinting that the color ‘gold’ is interchangeable with ‘yellow’:

“Goldberry, Goldberry, merry yellow berry-o!”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Old Forest

So perhaps what we should focus on is vegetation that yields yellow berries common to river-lands in two specific English counties.

Speculating further, Goldberry is strongly linked to water-lilies in the tale. These plants are of the Nymphaeaceae family, where the Latin based scientific designation, as Tolkien almost certainly knew, was inspired by Greek nymphs and sirens. Thus we intriguingly have the water-lily as being synonymous and intricately linked to the legendary female ‘water-nymph’.

For Goldberry – the river-daughter, outwardly nymph-like qualities were strongest in early Bombadil poetry where she was depicted as comfortably at home in her water-dwelling, notably among the lilies:

“… up came Goldberry, the River-woman’s daughter;
pulled Tom’s hanging hair. In he went a-wallowing

under the water-lilies, bubbling and a-swallowing.”
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1934

Complementing Greek mythology, later Teutonic and other North European legends have many examples of mythological merfolk making their abodes in fresh waters below lily-pads. Whether mermaids, water-nymphs, sirens, nixies or undines – these naiad-like creatures were usually young, beautiful and invariably female. Indeed artistic renditions abound depicting them in close association to river flora across a wide pan of European myth.


Fritz Hegenbart – etching from The Journal of Applied Arts and Crafts, 1851

siren_b‘Nordic Thoughts’ – Siren among the lilies



‘Hylas and the Nymphs’, John William Waterhouse, 1896


Absolutely no evidence exists that Tolkien ever viewed any of the above artwork, nonetheless Michael Drout has mentioned Waterhouse and the strong probability of Pre-Raphaelite influences in J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment. Among Waterhouse’s works, ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’ is one of the more renowned portraits. If it had ever made its way to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (where some of his paintings indeed have been exhibited) and perchance the Professor had seen it – I’m sure with his eye for detail he would have noticed two different colored lilies.



Zoom in on Yellow & White Water-lilies, ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’


Getting back to specific flora of Oxfordshire waters – though the lilies Tom brought Goldberry were white, the River Cherwell also happens to seed a more profuse yellow variety.



‘The History of Banbury’, Alfred Beesley, pg. 575


Notably alba and lutea are feminine forms of the Latin words for ‘white’ and ‘yellow’ respectively. Given that the masculine equivalents exist, not unreasonably it can be concluded that these plants spawned from life-giving waters are effectively ‘daughters of the river’.


William Baxter’s ‘British Phaenogamous Botany’, Oxford, 1838

Nuphar Lutea.PNG

Yellow water-lily, Nuphar lutea


Unquestionably Tolkien knew of the yellow water-lily’s existence. It is mentioned in the Appendix to The Book of Lost Tales I as ‘Nénu’ in Elvish form. In all likelihood that derivation was sourced from the lily’s medieval Latin name: Nenuphar, which of course had subsequently led to the scientific Nuphar extraction. In taxonomic descriptions, this plant is also commonly titled the ‘Brandy Bottle’ due to the flask shape of its spent fruit. The flower itself smells like alcohol – and so the ‘dregs of wine’ is an often employed phrase both capturing and conveying its slightly noxious aroma.



‘Brandy Bottle’ – Yellow Water-lily Fruit


A subtle and deliberate inter-connection of Nuphar lutea with the Withywindle tributary and then further to the naming of the “golden brown” ‘Brandywine’ river by Tolkien should not be downplayed. Not everything was in the book and not everything was fully explained.

At this point, with an alcoholic whiff in the air, we need to return to The Fellowship of the Ring text. At our first encounter with Goldberry, I suggest we read her description, then close our eyes and visualize unconventionally. We should try and think in terms of the imagery put out by Tolkien.

Perhaps we should try employing the ‘mooreeffoc’ principle Tolkien recommended in On Fairy Stories and attempt to see what might have become banal from a new perspective. And so if we focus on that very first paragraph, a metaphorical portrait of something other than a woman might mentally form:

“… yellow hair rippled down her shoulders; her gown was green, green as young reeds, shot with silver like beads of dew; … About her feet … white water-lilies were floating …”.  
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

In Goldberry’s initial posture what the Professor predominantly depicted was a mass of wavy yellow hair shouldered atop a green gown raised above what seemed like a watery bed of buoyant white lilies:

“… so that she seemed to be enthroned in the midst of a pool.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Her face was not mentioned, nor the color of her eyes, nor her limbs at this initial description. All of this is so much in contrast to Tom, whom Tolkien happily described at outset as possessing: “thick legs”, “eyes” that “were blue”, and a “face … red as a ripe apple … creased into a hundred wrinkles”. Yes we have a curious divergence for Goldberry from past practice.

So if we think thoughtfully, our slender figured hostess, I deem, epitomized the very essence of a water-lily. Not one of the white variety – but a full-bloomed wavy-petaled yellow lily on a single green water-spattered stalk raised well above the water with roots (represented by her feet) that reached below its surface. By leaving out (in that first paragraph) facial features, the color of her skin and any mention of her limbs – Tolkien left us articulate worded artistry emblematic of a special flower. The gold belt and chair seem to figuratively signify that she was indeed an “enthroned” “queen” of all Withywindle water-lilies, who had once reigned supreme in her shady pool. Such a motif can be reasonably perceived for our fair Goldberry – of course with some lateral imagination!

Perhaps Tolkien enhanced such visual imagery by audible means in her departure from the center of the ‘indoor pond’. To greet her guests, for they were on ‘land’, Goldberry had to metaphorically first pass the water’s edge:

“… her gown rustled softly like the wind in the flowering borders of a river.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Given the linkage observed so far -we are left with little choice but to probe deeper. At this point it is worth scrutinizing the plant and the species, in question, in more detail.

One interesting matter resulting from word origin research, is that the Nymph in Nymphaeaceae also has a dual meaning. Its Latin etymological source: nymphe, also means ‘bride’.

How curious! One can’t help but suspect that Tolkien as a professional philologist knew of this duality. After all, both aspects of nymphe are reflected in the 1934 The Adventures of Tom Bombadil poem. For after early water play, its culmination resulted in a wedding with Goldberry becoming Tom’s spouse:

“Old Tom Bombadil had a merry wedding, …”.
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1934

Perhaps even more remarkable, is that the Greek equivalent of nymphe is numphe; and that nubere in Latin means: ‘take a husband’. Maybe then for a Greek/Latin mix, that is stretchable to ‘nymph – take a husband’. In that light, if bere can be extrapolated to ‘berry’, the ending to ‘Goldberry’ appears highly befitting. Hmm – one can only wonder if Tolkien thought along such lines!

Despite some etymological progress, we must realize that it is our most ancient records of the northern hemisphere that seemingly connect to Tolkien’s mythology. Though we have the beginnings of an ‘external’ linkage of our world to his (from a philological standpoint), what about the ‘internal’ connection? What might have been the derivation of ‘Goldberry’ internal to the tale?

For that, I have a straightforward possibility. Namely that ‘Goldberry’ was simply a Common Speech corruption of the Sindarin: ‘Golodh bereth’ – meaning ‘Elvish Queen’. These alike words tie in with text where at first impression Frodo writes of being:

“… answered by a fair young elf-queen”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

It is quite probable that the Elves knew of Goldberry’s existence before the hobbits. Whether the corrupted rendering was Bucklandish in origin – we do not know. Nonetheless, one can easily imagine the scenario where Sindarin became distorted, and the Buckland hobbits being the first among their kind to have knowledge of her.

External to the tale, there also might have been more than just etymological roots to the name ‘Goldberry’. To establish whether this was the case, we need to once again look at our suspect floral candidate – but from a seasonal standpoint.

And so if we scrutinize the plant – there is most definitely one noteworthy feature to its life-cycle. In Oxfordshire in late spring and early summer is when the yellow water-lily begins its budding. At this point it strongly resembles a berry. Yes a yellow berry; conceivably one might even say: a gold berry!



Yellow Water-lily Buds


Goldberry being “young” and vibrant closely associates her with both early seasons where the ‘berry’, in slow-flowing English rivers, takes shape from a single stem. It is at this point we should recall that ‘nymph’ also means something ‘young and budding’. Despite such a word being used to entomologically describe the larvae of certain insects, it is not wholly inappropriate to think of it in terms of the initial stage of a flower’s development.

Now though full flowering may continue through to September – the yellow water-lily’s budding season is basically over by the end of summer to renew in the following spring. This slots in comfortably with the text’s rhyme:

“Fair River-daughter!
O spring-time and summer-time and spring again after!”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Towards the end of autumn the flower, leaves and stem die away leaving just the root rhizome. It is likely that Tolkien – who had a marked penchant to flora, and who had considerable botanical knowledge, would have known these details. A glimpse of this shines through in one of Warren Lewis’s diary entries where he recorded Tolkien:

“… with his botanical and etymological interests …”
– J.R.R. Tolkien: The Making of a Legend, The Struggle to Publish, Colin Duriez

would take time to note the countryside in long strolling walks in the Malvern Hills. Again in that same vein:

“All illustrated botany books … have for me a special fascination.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #312

When it came to local species, the Professor ought to have regularly espied the more common yellow water-lilies floating on the Cherwell’s surface. Over many years at Oxford, the seasons for emergence of shoots and flowering, and those in which they were absent should have been readily apparent in equally lazy brown waters as those of the book.

During their budding phase the lilies would have been hard to miss – especially on July and August afternoons while on the Cherwell:

“ … floating in the family punt hired for the season …”.
– Tolkien: A biography, Northmoor Road, Humphrey Carpenter

And so this is perhaps an opportune moment to recall that when it came to ‘sources’:

“… it is the particular use in a particular situation of any motive, whether invented, deliberately borrowed, or unconsciously remembered that is the most interesting thing to consider.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #337

Handily for The Lord of the Rings, some of Tolkien’s inspiration literally lay just outside his doorstep. The rivers Isis and Cherwell running through the heart of Oxford had a special bond when it came to its history and connection to water-lilies. William Turner, a renowned local artist, had painted two nationally acclaimed portraits of lilies on the Cherwell.



‘Waterlilies in the Cherwell’ by William Turner (of Oxford), c. 1850’s


Right next to Magdalen College and its campus, where C.S. Lewis had taught and resided, is the famed Lily House. Part of the the oldest botanical garden in England it is one of the few which grows the giant Amazonian Victoria Cruziana lily.



Victoria Cruziana Waterlily, Lily House, Oxford University Botanical Gardens


In addition to the city’s history, the rivers of Oxford certainly played a role in the family’s ‘adventures’. Besides the danger of tripping over willow roots, lily-beds would also have presented tricky obstacles to navigate past. Family man Tolkien certainly was, but he also knew how to look after his children when confronted by the lurking dangers presented by the Isis and Cherwell. In a way Tom was family-oriented too – and if my hunch is correct Goldberry was no different.

Unless further information comes to light we can only guess the truth behind why Tolkien had Tom gather white water-lilies for Goldberry. At first sight the given reason is plain enough:

“… to please my pretty lady, …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Nevertheless the real motive might have been more subtle. Goldberry, as ‘queen of the lilies’ – I surmise, was not just monarchical but also had a semi-symbiotic relationship with her subjects (and no doubt friends): the lilies. The health of various river domains ought to have been much dependent on them. Oxygenation of the waters and the provision of a unique sub-ecosystem by the leaves, was of vital importance. And so it is suggested that Goldberry was just taking care of the eldest and most vulnerable ones from impending winter frosts – something which she did annually. White lilies were her focus simply because their blooms last slightly longer into the season; and yes indeed they survive and can even thrive in containers:

“… in wide vessels of … earthenware, white water-lilies were floating, …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Tom’s task was clearly urgent:

“Tom had an errand there, that he dared not hinder.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Moreover gathering lilies (leaves and all) was a rare event; it had nothing to do with house beautification:

“Each year at summer’s end I go to find them … ”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

So it seems Tom’s bride had not completely forsaken the pool. Consequently the ritual of bathing in it every year at spring-time was perhaps to welcome her new subjects – the buds of new lilies, both white and yellow. Far from abandoning the river’s special inhabitants – she was there to help the aged and nurture the very young!

Of course the above is conjecture. Nevertheless the connection of Goldberry with a flower is impressed upon us at not only at our first meeting, but also our last. There at farewell, once again Tolkien left us with a similar vision of a yellow-headed lily stood proud yet in a green pool like that in Once Upon a Time:

“ ‘Goldberry!’ … ‘My fair lady clad all in silver green’ … her hair was flying loose caught in the sun it shone and shimmered. A light like the water on dewy grass flashed from under her feet.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

And at last sight:

“ … they saw Goldberry, now small and slender like a sunlit flower against the sky: …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs    (my underlined emphasis)

When Tolkien stated that:

“Goldberry represents the actual seasonal changes” in “real river-lands”,
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #210

more than anything else – she symbolized the changes experienced by a flower: the yellow water-lily; another nymphean “daughter of the River”. This native Oxfordshire plant, when budding, I believe – is the ‘external’ and true inspirational source of the name: ‘Goldberry’.


11/11/2016 – Added from : “Despite some etymological progress …” to “… but from a seasonal standpoint.”

Added: “there is most definitely one noteworthy feature to its life-cycle.”

Is: “I believe – is the ‘external’ and true inspirational source …”, Was: “I believe – is the source …”.

12/16/2016 – Added: “And so this is perhaps an opportune moment to recall that when it came to ‘sources’:” & Letter #337 quote.

1/7/2017 – After quote: “… answered by a fair young elf-queen”, replaced paragraph with: “It is quite probable … knowledge of her.”