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 Professors’ 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

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 eventual 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”.


Tudor, Elizabethan and Jacobean Connections

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 – Match me a Bilbo in London

Much beloved, and for many their all-time favorite character, is the remarkable Bilbo Baggins. In speech, personality and mannerisms, Tolkien’s endearing invention initially comes across as the quintessential polite, mind your own business, English gentleman – not quite aristocratic, but certainly prosperous and respectable. Yet there is one obvious part to his composition that is very un-English. And that of course is his first name. Where in the world did Tolkien come up with it? Exactly what or who was the source of his inspiration?

Though a variety of possibilities have been proposed, none are entirely convincing. Not enough to say ‘case closed’. And who knows perhaps the Professor intentionally made it difficult for us? In which case, badly needed is a fresh injection of ideas. Perhaps overdue is a paradigm shift because there’s a very good chance the searches to date have all been executed in the wrong place.

Before we get too deep into our pursuit, we must first take a long hard look at what Tolkien himself said about naming. In The Peoples of Middle-earth he commented that ‘Bilbo’ was in a grouping of several other hobbit names which:

“… had no ‘meaning’ or derivation or connexion with books or legends: …”.
– The Peoples of Middle-earth, The Appendix on Languages

However a caveat was imposed. He conveyed the limitation applied only to names Hobbits gave each other. In other words these were matters ‘internal’ to the tale. What I am most interested in is the inspirational trigger ‘external’ to the tale. Despite the statement below being directed at The Lord of the Rings, there is every reason to believe an external-based naming process (Item (2) below) was established practice – even in the days of writing The Hobbit:

“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

What else did Tolkien have to say about Mr. Baggins that is relevant to discovering a credible source? Perhaps most disconcerting is the very official reply given to the editor of The Observer newspaper. When questioned on the ‘invented’ name for the furry-footed creatures he’d called ‘Hobbits’ and when asked to tell more about Bilbo Baggins, he offered up something quite surprising:

“… I do not remember anything about the name and inception of the hero.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #25

In taking this at face value many scholars have simply opted to give up. Tolkien’s statement is very factual. He advised us not to bother and look:

“I could guess, of course, but the guesses would have no more authority than those of future researchers, and I leave the game to them.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #25

According to his declaration – there is no answer; readers postulations might be as good as his. So in other words with ‘Bilbo’ and ‘Baggins’ – further investigation is pointless. Then we should ask – why should it be a “game”?


Image result for bilbo baggins bag end

Illustration by J.R.R. Tolkien depicting Bilbo


So if we are to believe Tolkien we are faced with the prospect of ‘Bilbo’ possessing no etymological origin. At least not one known to Tolkien or thoughtfully constructed by him. This would then be a case unlike ‘Smaug’ whom the Professor derived from:

“… the past tense of the primitive Germanic verb Smugan, to squeeze through a hole: – a low philological jest.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #25    (italicized emphasis on Smugan)

Hmm … this is kind of odd – ‘Smaug’ had a source but not ‘Bilbo’? Upon further pondering and critical examination we have to take a deep breath and shake our heads. From all we know about Tolkien would he have really just come up with ‘Bilbo Baggins’ without considerable thought. Are we truly expected to believe the very hero of our tale had his names picked randomly? Could this really just be a case of the Professor phonetically liking the combination of two funny sounding words?

The scholar John Rateliff has suggested:

“ ‘Bilbo’ is both a short, simple made-up name appropriate for the hero of a children’s book … Bilbo is almost certainly Tolkien’s own coinage.”
– The History of The Hobbit, The Name ‘Bilbo’, John Rateliff

However though this sounds plausible Tolkien’s explicit newspaper denial is one rare occasion where we must question his veracity and re-examine the issue. Because we know in directly contradicting The Observer assertion he much later provided an ‘external’ origination. Part of ‘Baggins’ was:

“Intended to recall ‘bag’ and meant to be associated (by hobbits) with Bag End … (It was the local name for my aunt’s farm in Worcestershire, which was at the end of a lane leading to it and no further).”
– Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien


Bag End in the 1920's

Jane Neave’s Farm-house, ‘Bag End’, Dormston, Worcestershire


The Professor can’t have it both ways. And it is highly doubtful that a temporary lapse of memory occurred while writing his ‘no knowledge’ disclaimer. Which is why one can rightfully dig deeper. And so upon further reflection left open is the possibility of ‘Bilbo’ still having a structured basis rooted in a philological sense to England. Equally – Tolkien might have plucked the name from elsewhere!

In stepping back and looking at the big picture, there is no doubt that the 1937 release of his new fairy tale to the public at large put Tolkien under considerable pressure. Greatly desired was the book to be a hit. Thus an unexpected attack questioning the originality of his core ‘Hobbit’ invention must have been hugely disappointing. He might have been flustered to the point of volunteering material which was not quite truthful. But only I suspect to quash any further inquiries – especially by academics. In my view this is highly understandable. After all, his professional reputation could have been tarnished – and as you will see, present were problematic things he’d rather not disclose.

Now the fore-name ‘Bilbo’ is an extremely rare one as far as its appearance in the English speaking world. Tom Shippey has discovered a hillin Herefordshire called ‘Great Bilbo’ – though its naming origin remains a mystery. Mark Hooker in The Hobbitonian Anthology has investigated, what I deem as unlikely, links to the French Monsieur Bilboquet. More convincing is a connection to the cup and ball game known as bilbo-catch which historically may have had its origin in a ‘ring’ and ‘finger’ toy – which again has a French connection. The trouble with all of this is that Tolkien appears not to have been overly fond of his Gallic neighbors, and Bilbo’s relations (with their frenchified double-barreled surnames) were not exactly portrayed as a pleasant lot. Nevertheless the theory has considerable merit. Certainly it is one of the two best explanations currently out there. The other being that ‘Bilbo’ was derived from the Spanish sword known as a ‘bilboe’ – thus aptly tying the hero to Sting acquired from the trolls’ lair.

In my view, both proposals have a fundamental flaw for the reason the hero’s naming would then result from an ill-fitting chronological sequence. Per the tale the name ‘Bilbo’ came before the incidents of acquiring the sword or the ring slipping on finger event, not after the fact. A point that Tolkien would have been aware of and thus, I feel, he would have dismissed such propositions.

No – in my opinion the name ‘Bilbo’ must have been originally sourced ‘external’ to The Hobbit and not be related to events within the tale itself. Something in our real world must have triggered ‘Bilbo’ – a bit like the ‘Bag’ of Baggins and likewise ‘Sackville’:

“Sackville is an English name (of more aristocraticassociation than Baggins).”
– Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

Whether the name stemmed from a submerged:

“… ‘leaf-mould’ of memories …”,
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #324

or whether there was another factor – I will leave it to the reader to judge. But if we could come up with a reasonably solid idea and the actual name of a character called ‘Bilbo’ elsewhere in the English-speaking world, and if simultaneously we could come up with some decent connectivity to parts of The Hobbit – then surely it would leapfrog pre-existing theories and jump to the front of the queue. Because we know that Tolkien had indeed set a precedent. By plucking the names of the dwarves (and starring wizard) out of ancient Norse texts – the Professor has used external sources from our real world.

“… the names of the Dwarves in The Hobbit (and additions in the L.R.) are derived from the lists in Völuspá of the names of dvergar; …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #297


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Dwarf List: ‘Völuspá’ (not all versions have the same spelling)


There is then no real reason why we should discount a similar process of ‘plucking’ being used as the basis to arrive at ‘Bilbo’. But from where? If not from books – then maybe from something closely related?

Perhaps the faintest of clues exist in the oft-told story of how one day while marking School Certificate examination papers Tolkien came up with the sentence:

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
– The Hobbit, An Unexpected Party

Sure, all the attention has been focused on the momentous occasion of creating the word ‘hobbit’, but nevertheless since ‘Bilbo’ follows not long after the first written sentence – maybe the tale was beginning to brew in Tolkien’s head. Even though he freely admitted that after writing the first line:

“I did nothing about it, for a long time, …”,
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #163

that’s not sufficient to discount other strands to the initial storyline having formed very early-on.

It is at this point we need to employ some conjecture. It might seem a stretch for some – but at least there is some logic involved. One might ask oneself what examination papers were they? Could they have had an effect on Tolkien’s thoughts as his bored mind wandered? Did the idea behind the first line extend well beyond it, and did the examination papers influence that?

It is recorded since his days at Leeds University the marking of school papers became:

“… an annual chore which he will undertake for many years …”.
– The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, Chronology – Summer 1922, Hammond and Scull

Details of what he actually marked are scant. There is a good possibility that the test paper at the moment of inspiration was of English Literature – and the subject was Shakespearian in nature (or writings of that era). One rare recording tells us he:

“… read two hundred answers on ‘Caesar’s ghost’, …”.
– The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, Chronology – 22 July 1925, Hammond and Scull

No wonder his mind was apt to wander!

Now Tolkien’s accumulated English historical knowledge is known to be very much centered on a period of English history prior to the 1400’s. From the Anglo-Saxons to Middle-english and the age of Chaucer, the Professor’s expert acquaintance is undeniable. Yet less well-known is the likelihood of a vast array of stored information concerning the late Elizabethan and Jacobean eras: the so-called ‘Golden Age’. Oh most certainly Tolkien knew his Shakespeare:

“I went to King Edward’s School and spent most of my time learning Latin and Greek; but I also learned English. Not English Literature! Except Shakespeare …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #163


Image result for king edward school tolkien

King Edward’s School, Birmingham – Probably pre-1930


Yet we also know that he graduated in 1915 from Exeter College at Oxford University with a First-class honours degree in English Language and Literature. Rateliff is probably correct in factually remarking Tolkien:

“… was of course familiar with the full range of English literature up to about 1830 …”.
– The History of The Hobbit, Addendum: The Seventh Phase, John Rateliff

And that gels. Because I would argue that one does not become a Professor of English Language and Literature at Merton without a broader base of familiarity and understanding. For when it comes to literature there was far more to the English Renaissance era than works produced by the Bard of Avon. So just maybe in this particular corner of Tolkien’s reading arena, something triggered an intriguing naming. Perhaps something has been missed by all scholars to date? And the reason why this particular period is so worth investigating, is the inclusion of indisputable Elizabethan/Jacobean vocabulary in Songs for the Philologists; a time period of creativity not that far removed from writing that first famous Hobbit sentence. Adding to this is my contention that the three trolls of The Hobbit were sourced from the same historical era. Thus we have a legitimate line of inquiry. One that we cannot easily discard or tar as absurd.

So we are finally approaching the revelation I’ve been trying to get to all along. That paradigm shift I spoke about earlier now needs to be played out. Needed to be investigated is what many may deem unlikely – a potential adoption of ‘Bilbo’ that has something to do with Elizabethan and Jacobean England. With that thought I must harp back to Shakespeare and his plays.

Foregoing discussion on Tolkien’s recorded dislike of the Bard, I much prefer to balance that out by focusing on the philological side of the equation. Having worked for the forerunner of the Oxford English Dictionary, I’m certain Tolkien would have known that Shakespeare was the inventor (or most likely the first documented user) of more ‘new’ words than any other historical figure as well as its single most quoted person:

“The works of Shakespeare (1564–1616) are more widely quoted in OED than those of any other author …”.
– OED website, Shakespeare in the OED

And the source of these ‘new’ words were of course a set of voluminous plays. Indeed on that basis the Elizabethan/Jacobean time periods were equally rich with dramas from other famed playwrights – where once again many ‘new’ words arose to find their way into our lexicon. These matters should have been dominant in Tolkien’s thoughts. Especially as the Professor said:

“I like history, and am moved by it, but its finest moments for me are those in which it throws light on words and names!”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #205

One can only conclude that as a professional philologist Tolkien had no choice but to actively engage in specialist study. Fortunately both Leeds Universityand the Bodleianat Oxford housed acclaimed collections of many of the earliest surviving works from these eras. Wouldn’t you have thought there’s a good chance the Professor took advantage of the facilities?


.Image result for shakespeare first folio bodleian

William Shakespeare’s First Folio, Bodleian Library, Oxford


Unfortunately the written evidence of Tolkien studying playwrights other than Shakespeare is rather sparse. The most obvious allusion is to Thomas Nashe (per Have with You to Saffron-Walden) in his English and Welsh essay where mentioned is a variant of the more modernistic giant refrain: ‘fe-fi-fo-fum’. But there is one other occasion that a truly remarkable statement was made:

“Adults are allowed to study anything: even old theatre-programmes, …”.
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Flieger and Anderson

Hmm … ‘theatre-programmes’. Not quite ‘books’!

From this ever so revealing sentence, the implication is that Tolkien indeed took some time out to pursue such an interest. Otherwise why mention a relatively obscure branch of literature? Don’t you get the feeling that Tolkien the philologist, who was always interested in ‘roots’, might well have looked at some of the earliest English examples?

As I have already discussed in What a Colorful Pair!, Part IV, I believe Tolkien was well aware of the famous Cony-catching play pamphlets printed for Robert Greene’s plays. Also I believe that there was one other which attracted his attention. A theatre-programme that caught his eye because of a dragon-like5 frontispiece to the quarto:

“I find ‘dragons’ a fascinating product of imagination.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #122

“I desired dragons with a profound desire.”
– Essay On Fairy-stories, J.R.R. Tolkien, 1939

And that drawing was for a Jacobean play written by Thomas Dekker6 titled: Match me in London7!


Quarto of Dekker’s ‘Match me in London’, 1631


Dragon pictures are a rarity among the many play pamphlets that have survived from the English renaissance era. Indeed I can find only one other8. But it is not just the ‘fire-drake’ mentioned in the play who draws interest, it is the character called ‘Bilbo’ who speaks of it:

“BILBO: Another fire-drake!”
– Match me in London, Act 1 – Scene 2, Play by Thomas Dekker

How intriguing! How alluring a connection!

Now featured right at the beginning of Act I, Bilbo is cast as a high-ranking servant of a Spanish nobleman. As one of the two opening actors, Bilbo’s first words are also strikingly evocative:

“BILBO: Thieves, thieves, thieves!”
– Match me in London, Act 1 – Scene 1, Play by Thomas Dekker

In this case they resound with Gollum’s famous cry – originally drafted as:

“Thief, thief, thief!”
– The History of The Hobbit, The 1947 Hobbit, John Rateliff

Clearly we already have accumulated three strong tangencies – but there are also several more!

Match me in London is a play set around fictional Spanish nobility. I will not summarize it for that would extend this essay considerably. In any case there are many freely available sources which do an admirable job. Instead I shall bring to attention some other likenesses in comparing matters in the play against The Hobbit.

Bilbo himself is a shrewd and generally faithful servant9. In a way he is not too unlike Mr. Baggins. With his master Malevento (a wise fatherly Gandalf-type figure) he sets out on a quest to track down a missing Tormiella – the nobleman’s ‘jewel’ of a daughter. She has been in the unwanted clutches of the ‘fire-drake’ Gazetto but elopes with her true love: Cordolente. The ‘diamond’ is seemingly lost yet at the close ends up in the hands of the rightful ‘owner’ – a parodying echo of the fate of Thorin in the triangle with Smaug and the Arkenstone (or its forerunner, the Gem of Girion).

Bilbo, the bachelor, parts ways with his master and follows Cordolente (‘Thorin’) and is not reunited with Malevento until much travel has occurred towards the latter part of the play. Adding to the pursuit of the beautiful ‘gem’ is the King of Spain who also fails in his lustful attempt to woo Tormiella – in a way echoing Thranduil as one of multiple parties seeking to claim a great treasure.

“KING: How shall I get a sight of this rich diamond?”
– Match me in London, Act 1 – Scene 4, Play by Thomas Dekker

Within the play there are mentions of Bilbo opening a door on a fateful day and a cloak of invisibility – not too far removed from Bilbo in The Hobbit finding the hidden Lonely Mountain door and his acquiring a ring of invisibility.

“BILBO: I’ll beat down the door and put him in mind of a … fatal day for doors to be broken open.”
– Match me in London, Act 1 – Scene 1, Play by Thomas Dekker

“BILBO: Unless he wore the invisible cloak.”
– Match me in London, Act 2 – Scene 1, Play by Thomas Dekker

Interestingly it is Bilbo in Dekker’s play who cries out:

“BILBO: … You do me wrong, sir. Though I go in breeches, I am not the roaring girl you take me for.”
– Match me in London, Act 1 – Scene 2, Play by Thomas Dekker

Again a tangency hinting back at our Bilbo (who by the way also wears breeches) not really being a thief. When asked by Malevento: “What thief seest thou?”, the paradoxical quip back is:

“BILBO: … That ill-favor’d thief, in your candle. None else, not I.”
– Match me in London, Act 1 – Scene 1, Play by Thomas Dekker

In any case “the roaring girl” alludes to another Dekker play based on a famous Elizabethan female thief named Molly Frith (aka Moll Cutpurse) who dressed in male attire.


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Frontispiece Quarto of Dekker & Middleton’s,’The Roaring Girl’, 1611


All of this repertoire, which I am suggesting Tolkien engaged in perusing, may have triggered memories of his own household being robbed in Leeds by a dishonest maid and her unsavory cohorts:

“The Tolkien house is ransacked by burglars. … The family discover that their new maid … is a member of a gang of thieves.”
– The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, Chronology – Late November-early December 1923, Hammond and Scull

Other notable similarities in Dekker’s drama reminiscent of various points and scenes in The Hobbit include the mention of ‘woolly feet’, unstable empty barrels in rough waters, a single destiny changing arrow, Bilbo’s trotting and aching heels, and his seeking of Tormiella in the dark:

“GAZETTO: … Thanks, vengeance; thou as last art come, Though with wooly feet, …”.
– Match me in London, Act 2 – Scene 1, Play by Thomas Dekker

“KING: … give this tumbling whale Empty barrels to play with till this troublous seas, …”.
– Match me in London, Act 5 – Scene 1, Play by Thomas Dekker

“KING: … Th’ast but one arrow to shoote, and that’s thy flight,”
– Match me in London, Act 5 – Scene 1, Play by Thomas Dekker

“BILBO: … my heels ache with trotting, …”.
– Match me in London, Act 1 – Scene 2, Play by Thomas Dekker

“BILBO: … I cannot see my young mistress …  … ’tis so dark..”
– Match me in London, Act 1 – Scene 1, Play by Thomas Dekker

And then to round things off it is Gazetto (the ‘dragon’) who seeks revenge for his lost treasure (Tormiella) while we are told by:

BILBO: Tis some Englishman has stol’n her, …” !
– Match me in London, Act 1 – Scene 2, Play by Thomas Dekker

How far Tolkien went with his clever plan – I cannot say. Was Dildoman meant to represent The Master of Laketown – Thranduil’s ‘stooge’? Was evil Prince John in failing to usurp the King meant to lampoon Bolg in his failed attempt to seize a kingdom? Perhaps that’s carrying things a bit too far. But one thing is for sure and that is Dekker’s play has that implausible fairy tale ending where all the good folk live ‘happily ever after’!

All of these noted tangencies feed the fire of parody to a ‘roaring’ crescendo. It’s hard not to believe Tolkien began The Hobbit with subtle parodying intent. Certainly he admitted:

“Mr Baggins began as a comic tale …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #19

It is interesting to note that even his children parodied two of the main characters of The Hobbit well before the book was published and perhaps when it was only partly written down. Michael Tolkien recollects in early readings parodied names such as:

“… Scandalf the wizard and Throw-in the head dwarf …”.
– The History of The Hobbit, Chronology of Composition, John Rateliff

Moreover Tolkien was not shy of using parody himself:

“ ‘The King of the Green Dozen’ is the story of the King of Iwerddon … The Story, which is set in Wales, parodies the ‘high’ style of narrative.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Notes to Letter #33     (my underlined emphasis)

“The toponymy of The Shire … is a ‘parody‘ of that of rural England, …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #190    (my underlined emphasis)

“I had the remarkable, and in the event extremely enjoyable, experience in Holland. … The dinner … speeches were interleaved between the courses. … My final reply was I hope adequate, … It was partly a parody of Bilbo’s speech in Chapter I.”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #206    (my underlined emphasis)

Professor Tolkien definitely possessed a humorous side – and now perhaps his most intimate secrets are being revealed. In comparing Match me in London against The Hobbit it would be too much to expect everything to line-up scene for scene or character for character. For indeed there is much latitude available with this kind of literary technique. Nonetheless surely the true origin of Tolkien’s very special fairy tale lies in a Jacobean play. Surely at the very least – an initial skeleton plot came from the Jacobean drama10. For its hard to deny aspects of Dekker’s tragi-comedy11, as it is known, appear to be richly reflected in the tragic and comedic story of The Hobbit!

Yet despite some scintillating evidence, the reader would be right to skeptically pose the questions:

‘Why select such a Spanish sounding name’?
‘Why choose a fictional play set in Spain’?

I agree – this all seems – so not English. Though as a counter, we must remember that the Match me in London title begs an English parallel to the Spanish setting – and Tolkien seems to have taken up the challenge. Yet for those who want more evidence, we shall see in my next essay a very good reason why ‘Bilbo’ was so befitting!


1  See The Road to Middle-earth, The Bourgeois Burglar.

2  One might reasonably presume that Tolkien was aware of at least one (and probably more) of the aristocrats in England who had historically possessed ‘Sackville’ as a surname.

3  Housed today inSpecial Collections’ and The Brotherton Gallery.

4  Many housed today in the Weston Library.

5  The creature depicted is possibly a gryphon – but it is certainly dragonesque enough to arouse curiosity.

6  Extract from The British Library Web-site: The Bellman of London, 1608

“Thomas Dekker (c. 1572–1632) was an English dramatist and pamphleteer. In 1608 he published his most popular tract, The Belman of London, one of a series of ‘cony-catching’ pamphlets that Dekker wrote to expose the various scams and deceptions of contemporary criminals and confidence tricksters.”

Note the commonality of Dekker’s ‘cony-catching’ pamphlets with those of Robert Greene (see What a Colorful Pair!, Part IV).

7  All quotes are translated from Elizabethan English to a more modern form of English for ease of understanding.

The quote & print source used in this analysis is per The University of Michigan Library (

A tragi-comedy: called, Match mee in London As it hath beene often presented; first, at the Bull in St. Iohns-street; and lately, at the Priuate-House in Drury-Lane, called the Phœnix Written by Tho: Dekker.
Dekker, Thomas, ca. 1572-1632.
London: Printed by B. Alsop and T. Favvcet, for H. Seile, at the Tygers-head in St. Pauls Church-yard, 1631.

8  A quarto for Shakespeare’s: The Tragic History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, dated 1605 and printed by I.R. for N.L.

9  Definitely the junior member of the expedition at outset, Bilbo is nonetheless not a ‘servant’. The view of others in the tale is less forgiving. Bilbo is referred to as:

“… that queer little creature that is said to be their servant.”
– The Hobbit, A Thief in the Night

10  Nor can we discount Tolkien going back to Dekker’s play for inspiration – even after The Hobbit was first published.

11  Courtesy of Literary

“Tragicomedy is a literary device used in fictional works. It contains both tragedy and comedy. Mostly, the characters in tragicomedy are exaggerated and sometimes there might be a happy ending after a series of unfortunate events.”

Tudor, Elizabethan and Jacobean Connections

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.

Right now is an ideal time to take a break from Tom (and Goldberry). Until this point the going has been a tad frenetic leaving way too much information for easy digestion and assimilation. What might help enhance our understanding of this fascinating couple is pondering adjacent matters where much also remains of mystery. For in researching the dynamic duo – other doors have opened behind which lie rooms filled with the promise of discovery. As I continue to reiterate – the effort, thought and academia put into the early Bombadil related chapters of The Lord of the Rings is literary artistry truly at a professorial level. It certainly spilt over to subsequent chapters.

Some, no doubt, will be disappointed that Tom is not featuring prominently in this three-part series. Don’t be. Tantalizingly, there are still many eye-opening revelations in store. In the interim – this first essay will focus on ‘idioms, proverbs and poetry’, while the others will take some pointers from the first and then turn back to The Hobbit. Therein will be explored matters which I believe Tolkien did not want to openly admit. I am going to pursue a train of logic which ought to help us understand a little more about the hero: Bilbo!


Part I – Plagiarized Proverbs and Parodied Playwrights

A suitable point to start divulging a new twist to one of Tolkien’s early works is to wind the clock back to The Hobbit. I want to highlight another way how the Professor made sure that his Middle-earth world was connected to ours. Beyond fairy tale and myth, other methods were found.

Even when first putting pen to paper we know the setting was of a time period:

“… long ago in the quiet of the world, …”.
– The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

A sensible and reputable method of forming a loose-knit bond to our own age was through sayings and proverbs some of which are now lost or survive only in reconstituted form. When discussing hobbits the narrator relates:

“… they have a fund of wisdom and wise sayings that men have mostly never heard or have forgotten long ago.”
– The Hobbit, Riddles in the Dark

Obscure examples (and some that are less so) include:

Chapter 12: “third time pays for all”
Chapter 12: “Every worm has his weak spot”
Chapter 13: “While there’s life, there’s hope” 
Chapter 15: “It is an ill wind, … that blows no one any good” 
Chapter 5: “out of sight and out of mind”1.
– The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

Those not wholly erased from use in our present day sometimes underwent considerable rephrasing:

“ ‘Escaping goblins to be caught by wolves!’ … and it became a proverb, though we now say ‘out of the frying-pan into the fire’ in the same sort of uncomfortable situations.”
– The Hobbit, Out of the Frying-Pan into the Fire

And Tolkien left his readers a little puzzle to solve by themselves:

“ ‘Never laugh at live dragons, …’ … became a favourite saying … and passed into a proverb.”
– The Hobbit, Inside Information

What would today’s equivalent be? Perhaps in Tolkien’s mind it evolved into:

‘Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.’

Or conceivably even:

‘Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.’

Just like The Hobbit riddles had ancient sourcesand handed-down usage, so did the proverbs and sayings. A few can be readily tracked down in our world. For example attributions range from Theocritus in classic Greek writings, to the anonymous author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the era of Middle English; even to Tudor times and The Proverbs of John Heywood.


The Proverbs of John Heywood, 1546 – Notes by Julian Sharman, 1874


For the mythology such sayings, maxims and adages were not just confined to The HobbitThe Lord of the Rings is littered with them. Perhaps little recognized from a quantity standpoint is the cluster which crop up in Bree:

“It never rains but it pours”
“I’m run off my feet”
“One thing drives out another”
“All that is gold does not glitter”
“there’s no accounting for East and West”
“handsome is as handsome does”7 
“You have put your foot in it”
“vanishing into thin air”
“Not all those who wander are lost”
“Strange as News from Bree”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, At the Sign of the Prancing Pony & Strider

Beside this ample selection, it appears Tolkien injected a wry touch of humor (beyond the obvious ‘Town Hole’ jest) for these particular chapters.

What were the A,B,C’S that young Shire hobbits learned? G was for ‘Grand’ but perhaps the A,B,C’S stood for some local geographical places?

Maybe Archet Bree, Combe and Staddle!

And where else would one mind their Ps and Qs but in an inn.

“ ‘… Mind your Ps and Qs, …’ ”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, At the Sign of the Prancing Pony

For traditionally the saying lies in the landlord and customer keeping a close eye on ‘Pints’ and Quarts’ and not getting these measures mixed up when it came to charging or paying!

But surely the biggest inside joke was the ‘Prancing Pony’ itself. Why, one may wonder, did Tolkien decide on such a name for an inn? Was there something behind the imagery of a pony rearing up on its two hind legs?

Hmm … the inside joke was that indeed the landlord had to ‘pony up’ 30 silver pennies!

Now the expression ‘pony up’ was first recorded in England by Thomas Darlington within a glossary of The Folk-speech of South Cheshire issued in 1887. However it is possible Tolkien knew that the first two words of a psalm in an Anglican prayer-book, which was always sung on March the 25th, are ‘Legem pone’. The Latin term became associated with the remittance of debts and was used allusively to convey ‘payment of money’ or ‘cash down’. That meaning of ‘legem pone’ was recorded as early as 1570 by the Elizabethan Thomas Tusser. Coincidentally enough the phrase was most strongly associated to an English quarter day – a day like Michaelmas Day, that debts were settled and payments were made:

“Use (legem pone) to paie at thy daie,
but vse not (Oremus) for often delaie:
Yet (Praesta quaesumus) out of a grate,
Of al other collects, the lender doth hate.”
– Fiue Hundred Pointes of Good Husbandrie, Thomas Tusser, 1580

Hmm … perhaps Tolkien decided Latin, a mispronounced pony and legendary money had all got mixed up in the cauldron of story and history. Perhaps the inn at Bree was the mythical source of it all!


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Legem pone (Psalm 119) and Michaelmas Day – Appearing on Common Calendar


Now another literary avenue Tolkien did not neglect was to force connectivity through nursery rhymes. This was achieved at Bree through Frodo’s song that we all know was an interesting expansion of the modern-day The Cat and the Fiddle. Curiously Tolkien worked on this rhyme, and adapted several other well-known ones to his liking9, many years before The Lord of the Rings. The oddest part about the whole matter from my view is that Tolkien titled his original version in 1923 as A Nursery Rhyme Undone and its Scandalous Secret Unlocked.

Now in our world, several ancient English nursery rhymes are known to be allegorical in nature. Historians have speculated The Cat and the Fiddle to have a deeper meaning. It is supposedly a covert parody of Elizabeth 1st and her court. A ‘scandalous secret’ is explained by the Opies in The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes and summarized in a Washington Post article:

“A … credible story involves England’s Queen Elizabeth I and her court. A 16th century dance, current in her time, was called ‘Hey diddle diddle,’ and Elizabeth had a fondness for dancing to fiddle music. Because she tended to toy with hapless ministers, she sometimes was called ‘the cat.’ The ‘little dog’ could be Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, whom Elizabeth considered marrying and of whom she once said: ‘He is like my little lap dog.’ As for the dish and the spoon, according to The Annotated Mother Goose by William and Ceil Baring-Gould, the courtier who carried ceremonial dishes at state dinners was called ‘the dish,’ and that the lady-in-waiting who tasted the queen’s food to ascertain that it wasn’t poisoned was known as ‘the spoon.’ In fact, a ‘dish’ did elope with a ‘spoon.’ Edward, Earl of Hertford, and Lady Katherine Grey, sister of the ill-fated Lady Jane Grey, fell in love and were married secretly. When Elizabeth found out, she had both imprisoned in the Tower of London, where they lived out their lives, producing two children.”
– The Realities behind the Rhymes, Washington Post, Jennifer Howard, 11 June 1997

Why should this attract my attention? Well because the real thrust of this particular piece of sleuthing is to shine the spotlight on more Elizabethan connections and hark back to the trolls of The Hobbit. These three villains, you might remember (per Color Symbolism – Part IV), starred in an intentional parody of three famous Elizabethan playwrights. At least that is my claim.

So since this renaissance era seems to continually pop up –we ought to take a closer look at another verse in The Lord of the Rings – namely one sung by Sam, which is commonly referred to as the Troll Song. For most there will be no need to jog the memory, nevertheless the first verse is quoted below:

“Troll sat alone on his seat of stone,
And munched and mumbled a bare old bone;
For many a year he had gnawed it near,
For meat was hard to come by.
Done by! Gum by!
In a cave in the hills he dwelt alone,
And meat was hard to come by.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Flight to the Ford

Among scholars it is common knowledge that the origin of this poetry lay well before work was initiated on The Lord of the Rings. For that matter, well before even The Hobbit. It first surfaced as Pēro & Pōdex (Latin for ‘Boot’ and ‘Bottom’) around 1926. Later in 1936 an upgraded version made it into a booklet called Songs for the Philologists privately printed at University College London under the auspices of a former Leeds University student of Tolkien’s. Within this short publication (taken from typescripts handed out at Leeds) were other selections of poetry by Tolkien, but I shall focus exclusively on the troll piece.


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Songs for the Philologists, 1936


Published as The Root of the Boot, the Professor had a particular fondness for it – even to the point of recommending a particular tune to which it should be recited. Fortunately we are aware of all the changes10 from Pēro & Pōdex to The Root of the Boot and thenceforth for The Lord of the Rings.

One of the first items one might question is the reason behind The Root of the Boot’s inclusion into a Leeds University typescript in the first place. Why was it there? What philological significance did it have? It is arguably the most comic of Tolkien’s contributions subsumed into Songs for the Philologists and seems a tad out of place. Certainly some obscure words are included, not in modern-day vocabulary; so of course it might be of some philological interest to university students, who were of course the intended primary audience. But apart from spreading mirth and tickling his own fancy – was there more to it all? Did it have a deeper meaning?

Tolkien, as I have grown to believe, never created anything of literary originality without a decent amount of thought behind it. So can we come up with a reason that has the ring of truth to it? As I have already suggested an Elizabethan angle to the trolls in The Hobbit, could the same have been the basis for the troll in The Root of the Boot too? Could there be more to the published poem than initially registers? Could it have had, like other English nursery rhymes, some allegorical intent? And if so, could the changes made along the way to the final configuration lend us some clues?

To address the above questions there are three items of interest which I want to bring out and briefly discuss before I launch into a more detailed analysis.


(a) The expunging of any matter related to Christianity

The 1936 precursors to the Troll Song have a definite Christian undertone. Unmistakable references are made to Heaven and Hell, along with eternal burning damnation. The classic crowning halo surrounding the heads of medieval depicted angels/saints is mentioned as well as holy Sunday and a churchyard. The mild oath ‘Oddsteeth’ is a carry-down from Elizabethan usage and meant to convey swearing by ‘God’s Teeth’.

By The Lord of the Rings all religious allusions were removed or replaced with more suitable language. This certainly kept the updated poem in line with the tale’s overall lack of religion:

“It is a monotheistic world of ‘natural theology’. The odd fact that there are no churches, temples, or religious rites and ceremonies, is simply part of the historical climate depicted.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #165

(b) The ‘Tom’ of the poetry was not Bombadil

Since we know that Bombadil was not lame – we can immediately eliminate him as a candidate:

“Tom’s leg is game, since home he came,
And his bootless foot is lasting lame;”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Flight to the Ford

“Now Tom goes lame since home he came,
And his bootless foot is grievous game;”
– The Root of the Boot, Songs for the Philologists, J.R.R. Tolkien, E.V. Gordon & others, 1936    (correspondingly identical lines to those in Pēro & Pōdex)

Bombadil’s origin, as stated in the novel, is unknown; he is ‘fatherless’. Besides having an uncle named John (The Root of the Boot and Pēro & Pōdex) or Tim (Troll Song) would provide part of a family-tree and imply that indeed he had a ‘father’. Which ever way one chooses to interpret ‘fatherlesss’11 – the fit isn’t good. Even though the Troll Song reappears12 in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil issued in 1962, nevertheless there are many persons called Tom as the name is far from uncommon or unique.

(c) Elizabethan/Jacobean Playwright Involvement

Some of the more obscure words in the poems also appear in Elizabethan/Jacobean texts – particularly plays. Included are:

‘nuncle’ – Shakespeare, King Lear (meaning: mine uncle)
‘bootless’ – Shakespeare, King Lear, The Two Noble Kinsmen (meaning: useless)
‘mumbled’ – Shakespeare, The Two Noble Kinsmen (meaning: grumbled)        
‘portal’ – Shakespeare, Hamlet (meaning: doorway)


Now of the three matters discussed above – items (a) and (b) are interesting, but merely side issues – so it is the last one (c) that I’m going to dwell upon. Naturally, when one thinks of English playwrights – the Bard of Avon is the first person to come to mind. But I am not about to step onto a well-trodden road and at length reiterate what many other scholars have already observed and written about. Namely Tolkien’s aversion to Shakespeare whose works he:

“… disliked cordially …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #163

All that I will emphasize is that resentment is documented to have been present from schooldays and one can easily imagine such disdain remained with him throughout life. So was the troll in the The Root of the Boot and Pēro & Pōdex a parody of William Shakespeare? Was The Hobbit troll called William synchronized with these early poems? After his Leeds University days, had Tolkien simply continued to voice a long-standing dislike through a second farcical parody?


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‘The Root of the Boot’ – Songs for the Philologists, 1936


We have to remember The Hobbit was the Professor’s first lengthy publication meant for the general public. By no means was he a seasoned writer of fairy tales. We also have to remember that when it came to the plot, Tolkien had no idea Bilbo would eventually be swept into a greater story. He openly admitted:

“Mr Baggins began as a comic tale …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #19     (my emphasis)

Nobody should doubt the early featuring trolls were part of that initial thought-line. Yet Tolkien clearly had regrets with The Hobbit troll naming as voiced much later on:

“… I should not have called the troll William”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153    (italicized emphasis on ‘William’)

And I would reason that in the process of writing The Lord of the Rings he realized he’d made a serious mistake. Tom, Bert and Bill were so out of place with the rest of the names – that they stood out like a sore thumb. Perhaps someone some day would come along and guess his clever little secret? And then ‘poof’ – the illusion of a secondary world with an inner consistency of reality would vanish in a flash! What a disaster that would be!

Yes if the trolls of The Hobbit were indeed modeled on Elizabethan playwrights then how could he justify a mythology-based invented era of long ago? It was one thing taking Norse names for the dwarves and aged wizard from ancient scripts – but quite another admitting the trolls were an inside joke! Yes some of the ancient sources were definitely mythical in nature; and names like Elrond, Beorn, Dain and Smaug encountered far away from ‘home’ simply conveyed a sense of the foreign to the English audience for which the children’s fairy tale was primarily meant. No one would question the authenticity of his invented world from his naming of such characters. However Tom, Bert and Bill were collectively quite another thing!

Once The Lord of the Rings developed into a serious adult fairy tale – I suspect Tolkien realized he couldn’t afford to be so slack. He needed material for the novel and conveniently some of his earlier works could be adapted. The Root of the Boot was certainly one choice. But he had to be careful as allegorical implications were a strict no-no. So I believe that one subtle change was deliberately made to quell the possibility of associating the poem to a parody. One simple change, which would wholly quash any potential disputation, was the recasting of ‘nuncle John’ to ‘nuncle Tim’. Compare:

“It looks like the leg o’ me nuncle John”
– The Root of the Boot, Songs for the Philologists, J.R.R. Tolkien, E.V. Gordon & others, 1936


“For it looks like the shin o’ my nuncle Tim,”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Flight to the Ford

One must ask oneself why did Tolkien decide on such an alteration. ‘John’ or ‘Tim’ – what did it matter?

Oh but it did – for it would entirely destroy the original parody. As my proposition is that Tolkien made the change, because ‘John’ in The Root of the Boot was a lampooning of a relatively well-known playwright from Elizabethan/Tudor times; namely ‘John Heywood’. And he was cast in the poem alongside two famous others. Those being ‘William Shakespeare’ and ‘Thomas Heywood’.


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Now I’m not about to embark on a biography of the Heywoods. There are many sources available for finding out more about their lives and works. A few details that I want to highlight are summarized below.


Thomas Heywood (c. 1574 – 1641)

(a) A prolific playwright and a probable rival of William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616).
(b) Aired discontent at ‘borrowing’ among playwrights – particularly his own poetry by Shakespeare (Jaggard affair13).

John Heywood (c. 1497 – c. 1580)

(a) Another prominent English playwright who died before William Shakespeare’s career took off.
(b) Better known as the first English collector (not inventor) of adages and proverbs.
(c) Shakespeare ‘borrowed’ some of his collected phrases. The following bear great similarity to those documented in various John Heywood works:

“All’s Well That Ends Well” – play title c. 1604
“He must needs go whom the devil drives” – All’s Well that Ends Well
“the ill wind which blows no man to good” – King Henry IV
“fast bind, fast find” – The Merchant of Venice
“Happy man be his dole” – The Merry Wives of Windsor
“swine eat all the draff” – The Merry Wives of Windsor
“Let the world slide” – Taming of the Shrew
“Shall I not take mine ease in mine inn?” – King Henry IV
“Two may keep counsel when the third’s away” – Titus Andronicus


So given the above information on the Heywoods – perhaps you can see where I’m heading. Finally the underlying meaning behind The Root of the Boot is plainly before us. It squarely has a philological backbone. Tolkien has satirically poked fun at Shakespeare (and his contemporaries) for using other people’s works. The poem (as previously provided) can be ‘undone and its scandalous secret unlocked’ when interpreted as follows:

So the troll is a caricature of William Shakespeare. Tom is Thomas Heywood. His uncle14 is John Heywood.


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Thomas Heywood’s ‘An Apology for Actors’ – Connection to Shakespeare


By depicting Shakespeare as ‘chewing on the bones’ of his uncle and grumbling15 at the same time – effectively Tom charges the Bard of using John Heywood’s proverbs and epigrams without permission:

“A troll sat alone on his seat of stone,
And munched and mumbled a bare old bone; …
‘Young man,’ says the troll. ‘that bone I stole;”.

– The Root of the Boot, Songs for the Philologists, J.R.R. Tolkien, E.V. Gordon & others, 1936 

This was plagiarism – so to speak. Shakespeare, in Tolkien’s mind, should have known better. Even if the ‘stolen’ material constituted everyday catch-phrases – as explicitly stated in Pēro & Pōdex, Shakespeare should have: “ask thee leave of me nuncle”.  

And so this literature, which was illicitly dug up, was literally portrayed as grave robbery. That is why Shakespeare is cast as a ‘troll’. The Bard of Avon who rose far above his peers – immortal and all alone, and whose place in English literature was set in stone, had a stain on his character.

Nevertheless though Shakespeare’s actions were not right, a case of outright larceny fails to stand up to legal scrutiny. Writers after all, had up to that time in English history ‘borrowed’ from each other with hardly any legal consequences. Thus an accusation of literary theft is overall not a worthy one. Besides Tom admits that his uncle was no saint in ‘thieving’ phrases from predecessors too:

“For old man John was as proper a thief”.
– The Root of the Boot, Songs for the Philologists, J.R.R. Tolkien, E.V. Gordon & others, 1936 

The charge on Shakespeare thus rebounds on Tom – who comes off much worse16 after booting the troll:

“Now Tom goes lame since home he came,
And his bootless17 foot is grievous game;”.
– The Root of the Boot, Songs for the Philologists, J.R.R. Tolkien, E.V. Gordon & others, 1936 

While Shakespeare’s reputation remained unaffected: 

“But troll’s old seat is much the same,”.
– The Root of the Boot, Songs for the Philologists, J.R.R. Tolkien, E.V. Gordon & others, 1936

John Heywood was a devout Catholic hence the inclusion of the usual black attire for Sunday mass:

“As ever wore black on a Sunday -”.
– The Root of the Boot, Songs for the Philologists, J.R.R. Tolkien, E.V. Gordon & others, 1936 

Uncle John of course was deservedly laid to rest in a churchyard with birches18 – because he played his role as one of the earliest English philologists through his collection of phrases and sayings set forth in his book of proverbs.

“It looks like the leg o’ me nuncle John
As should be a-lyin’ in churchyard .
Searchyard, Birchyard! etc.”.
– The Root of the Boot, Songs for the Philologists, J.R.R. Tolkien, E.V. Gordon & others, 1936 

However just like Shakespeare continued to ‘chew on his bones’ – so have many followed in the Bard’s footsteps – including Tolkien himself!

Yes the Professor also ‘borrowed’ several of Heywood’s amassed phrases for The Hobbit:

“Out of the Frying-Pan into the Fire” – Chapter 6 title
“out of sight and out of mind” – Chapter 5
“It is an ill wind, … that blows no one any good” – Chapter 14

And continued to do so for The Lord of the Rings!

So there we have it: The Root of the Boot – a complex web of proverbs, plagiarism and playwrights – cemented together by a parody masterfully depicted through rhyme. Yes, Tolkien made us think about ‘titles’ in relation to content. No, they were not casually invented. Just as the chapter title: At the sign of the Prancing Pony, and its contents, had ‘signs’ of connections to ‘paying-up’ (legem pone), ancient words/sayings and Tudor/Elizabethan personages – so similarly did The Root of the Boot. Except in the case of the latter the pay-up was of a different kind. For we should think of Boot in the sense of a verb instead of a noun. What exactly was the source (Root) of the kick up (Boot) the backside? In my opinion it was simply a historically famous incident – that Tolkien thought was not only amusing – but of great philological interest!

Hard to believe? Not convinced? Perhaps you might be swayed by the ‘shocking’ revelations in Part II. Never-ever put forward before is entirely new evidence for Tolkien’s choice of the name: Bilbo. And even Mr. Baggins, in anticipating his encounter with Smaug, would have agreed:

There is no fyre without some smoke” !
– The Proverbs of John Heywood, 1546


1  Expressed by the narrator. But still a possibly translation of Bilbo’s from the Red Book. Matches saying in The Proverbs of John Heywood, 1546: “Time is tickell, and out of sight out of minde”.

2  Recorded in 1570 by Thomas Howell, New Sonnets and Pretty Pamphlets: “Count not they chickens that unhatched be, weigh words as wind til though find certainty.”

3  Highly similar to the saying in The Tragedie of Gorbuduc by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville, 1561. Partially reflected in The Hobbit, Queer Lodgings: “Hope for the best and with a tremendous slice of luck …”

4  Several can be traced to The Book of Exeter.

5  Similar to Shakespeare’s original expression in The Merchant of  Venice1596: “All that glisters is not gold”.

6  Equivalent to our modern-day: ‘there’s no accounting for taste’.

7  Appears in John Ray’s: A compleat collection of English proverbs, 1670.

8  Akin to Shakepeare’s expression in The Tempest, 1610: “… melted into air, into thin air”.

9  See The History of the Hobbit by John Rateliff, Note 18 to Chapter V Gollum.

10  See Christopher Tolkien’s commentary in The Return of the Shadow, Arrival at BreePēro & Pōdex is provided in full in John Rateliff’s The History of the Hobbit.

11  See Tom Bombadil: Cracking The ‘Enigma’ Code, Part III, (b).

12  Titled: The Stone Troll.

13  Thomas Heywood complained about William Jaggard wrongly attributing his poems to Shakespeare in The Passionate Pilgrim, 1599. Shakespeare apparently knew about it but is thought to have, for many years, turned a blind eye to the misappropriation.

14  Historians have speculated that both John and Thomas Heywood were related. Especially because they were both writers of plays – a seeming family tradition. However there is no absolute proof of this. In any case, Tolkien might have been thinking along the lines of a ‘lost’ family-tree connection, that would still make an older John – genealogically Thomas’ uncle. 

15  Grumbling in that it was unfair to be singled out. After all such ‘stealing’ had been going on since the dawn of writing.

16  A reflection perhaps of Thomas Heywood having to eat ‘humble pie’ in eventually removing the blame for The Passionate Pilgrim affair from Shakespeare (and placing it entirely on Jaggard) in his An Apology for Actors, 1612


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Thomas Heywood’s ‘An Apology for Actors’, 1612 – Airing Grievances against W. Jaggard


17  Thomas Heywood also used the term ‘Bootless’ in at least two of his plays: Edward IV and The Wise-woman of Hogsdon.

18  See explanation by Christopher Tolkien in The Return of the Shadow, Arrival at Bree. ‘Birches’ represented philological studies while ‘oaks’ symbolized modern literature. These two branches of the English syllabus had different proponents in the Leeds University English department during Tolkien’s tenure. So the poem could quite well also portray a ‘Lit’ versus ‘Lang’ skirmish.


3/14/18    Is: “three-part series”, Was: “two-part series”.

Is: “while the others”, Was: “while the second”.

Angel and Demon, Gospel and Fairy-story


Part IV – Barrows, Battles and Biblical Beings

When it came to ‘barrows’ there is little doubt Tolkien grew reasonably familiar with them from studying North European lore. As well as knowledge obtained from literature – likely was some first-hand experience too:

“The Oxford Don and author J.R.R. Tolkien lived nearby and travelled to the Lambourn Downs with his family and friends. He was impressed by the downs with their sarsen stones, barrows and hill forts and painted pictures of Lambourn in 1912.”
– Wikipedia article on ‘Lambourn’     (my emphasis)

“After Tolkien acquired a car … they would drive west into Berkshire and up onto White Horse Hill to see Wayland’s Smithy, the ancient long-barrow near Uffington.” 
–  J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment, Michael Drout      (my emphasis)

No barrows are explicitly mentioned in The Hobbit, however Tolkien’s own art depicts the approach to King Thranduil’s Hall as vaguely similar to Newgrange – a Neolithic tomb located in Ireland.


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Newgrange, County Meath, Ireland

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Artwork by J.R.R. Tolkien


Real world barrows come in all shapes and sizes. From what we can tell the Wight’s barrow in The Lord of the Rings was unlike Newgrange, and much closer in size and design to Wayland’s Smithy on the Berkshire Downs. Topographically though, its location differed in being set atop a hill.


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Wayland’s Smithy Long Barrow, Oxfordshire, England


In pagan and early Christian times barrow burials in Britain were usually reserved for dignitaries (to which the novel is in good-keeping). Graves were often oriented west-east. West was the direction of the Celtic Otherworld and also Christians believed that this positioning allowed the dead to face Christ when he raised them on Resurrection Day. Once the mounded tombs of the dead enriched with earthly treasures, in mythological writings (if not plundered by men) barrows became the feared abodes of monstrous entities: dragons and wights:

“… the dragon in legend is a potent creation of men’s imagination, richer in significance than his barrow is in gold.”
– Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, Sir Israel Gollancz Lecture, 1936

“… that terrible northern imagination to which I have ventured to give the name ‘barrow-wights’. The ‘undead’. Those dreadful creatures that inhabit tombs and mounds. They are not living: they have left humanity, but they are ‘undead’.”
– Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, J.R.R. Tolkien

It was in Norse tradition that barrows had most strongly an association to evil spirits of the kind in The Lord of the Rings. It is quite probable that the Icelandic Grettir’s Saga greatly influenced a young Tolkien:

“… ‘barrow-wights’ … Glámr in the story of Grettir the Strong is a well-known example.”
– Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, J.R.R. Tolkien

Enough that the eerie setting and gripping battle with the barrow-denizen Karr culminated in a decision to include a wight, barrow-treasure and a pseudo battle-scene. It is worthwhile partly repeating the evocative episode – for not only the vivid terror of the encounter, but also because it is somewhat reminiscent of Grendel’s fight with Beowulf – a matter that surely would have drawn Tolkien’s attention:

“Then Grettir entered into the barrow, and right dark it was, and a smell there was therein none of the sweetest. Now he groped about to see how things were below; first he found horse-bones, and then he stumbled against the arm of a high-chair, and in that chair found a man sitting; great treasures of gold and silver were heaped together there, and a small chest was set under the feet of him full of silver; all these riches Grettir carried together to the rope; but as he went out through the barrow he was griped at right strongly; thereon he let go the treasure and rushed against the barrow-dweller, and now they set on one another unsparingly enough.

Everything in their way was kicked out of place, the barrow-wight setting on with hideous eagerness; Grettir gave back before him for a long time, till at last it came to this, that he saw it would not do to hoard his strength any more; now neither spared the other, and they were brought to where the horse-bones were, and thereabout they wrestled long. And now one, now the other, fell on his knee; but the end of the strife was, that the barrow-dweller fell over on his back with huge din. Then ran Audun from the holding of the rope, and deemed Grettir dead. But Grettir drew the sword, ‘Jokul’s gift,’ and drave it at the neck of the barrow-bider so that it took off his head, and Grettir laid it at the thigh of him.”
– Grettir’s Saga, Chapter 18, Translation from the Icelandic tale by William Morris & Eirikr Magnusson, 1869


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Karr the Old seizes Grettir, Henry Justice Ford, 1901


From Norse origins, barrow-wights were firmly expanded to inhabit English barrows in a fictional depiction by Tolkien himself. In his fragmentary piece recreating the aftermath of The Battle of Maldon:

“TORHTHELM. Why, Tída, you! The time seemed long alone among the lost. They lie so queer. I’ve watched and waited, till the wind sighing was like words whispered by walking ghosts that in my ears muttered.
TÍDWALD. And your eyes fancied barrow-wights and bogies.”
– The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son, Essays and Studies for 1953, J.R.R. Tolkien

But though some had been invaded to become the dwelling of demonic spirits, we must also note barrows have always been closely linked in the folklore of the British Isles to fairy-folk.

The Shee (Sidhe-folk) of Celtic legends dwelt below mounds and barrows in a fabled subterranean realm constituting a dimensionally adjacent otherworld. Making up part of mixed legends, the land of the Shee was sometimes referred to by the Irish as the “Tír na nÓg” – the country of the young. Similarly the Welsh had their own otherworld known as “Gwlâd yr Hâv” – the land of summer. And the Scottish had their version too.

It was to these places that mortal spirits sped and then lingered after death:

“In Ireland this world and the world we go to after death are not far apart.”
– The Celtic Twilight, W. B. Yeats, 1893

“Many go to the Tir-na-nog in sleep, and some are said to have remained there, and only a vacant form is left behind without the light in the eyes which marks the presence of a soul.”
– The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, W.Y. Evans Wentz, 1911: Quote by G.W. Russell

“Highlanders ‘superstitiously believe the souls of their Predecessors to dwell’ in the fairy-hills. ‘And for that end, say they, a Mote or Mount was dedicate beside every Churchyard, to receive the souls till their adjacent bodies arise, and so become as a Fairy hill.’ ”
– The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, Fairyland and Hades, Robert Kirk and Andrew Lang, 1893

I have a distinct feeling Tolkien included such mythology in The Lord of the Rings when it came to Sam, Pippin and Merry’s state of unconsciousness inside the barrow. Had their souls departed? Tolkien had Merry make it more blatant in the drafts:

“ ‘I begin to remember … I thought I was dead …’ ”.
– The Return of the Shadow, The Barrow-wight

It is perhaps from tarrying in a proximate otherworld which allowed their souls to be recalled. Because spiritually this was not their final destination.

Anyhow such Celtic mythology was consistent with that of the English:

“With this he anointed the ears, eyelids, nostrils, lips, and finger-tips, of the two brothers, and they sprang at once into life, and declared that their souls had been away, but had now returned.”
– English Fairy Tales, Childe Rowland, Joseph Jacobs, 1890

Now the exact geographical location of this elusively idyllic yet parallel world varied among the many recorded accounts of the Celts. Some scribes placed it underground and others across an ocean. Tolkien covered both bases by implying spiritual recollection from the latter location as well:

“ ‘You’ve found yourselves again out of the deep water. Clothes are but little loss, …’ ”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs    

A clue that the Professor researched material of this type can be deduced from his marked copy of Andrew Lang’s Yellow Fairy Book. In The Land of Souls story we have a connection of an old man (just like Tom) possessing power over departed spirits:

“… in the murmur of the wind he heard the Master of Life saying to him, ‘Return whither you came, for I have work for you to do, and your people need you, and for many years you shall rule over them. At the gate my messenger awaits you, and you shall take again your body which you left behind, and he will show you what you are to do.”
– The Yellow Fairy Book, In the Land of Souls, Andrew Lang, 1890

Ultimately it appears Tolkien rejected explicit use of this particular fairy tale because of its American-Indian origin. Unsuitable for a North European climate, Tolkien noted in the margin of his copy:

“Red Indians”.
– Tolkien on Fairy-stories, Bibliographies, Flieger and Anderson, 2014

Nevertheless in returning our focus back on Saint Michael from Part I, one can see how his apocryphal accreditation as a caller of souls has a link back to fairy tale and local legends.


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Last Judgment Triptych, Hans Memling, 1467-1471


This Tolkien could take advantage of. Perhaps more so because there was an otherworld land strongly allied to England and adjoined to its own soil. Moreover it was connected to a saint.

From the famed account of the Green Children of Woolpit who had emerged from underground in Norfolk back in the 12th century, it was claimed:

We are inhabitants of the land of St. Martin, who is regarded with peculiar veneration in the country which gave us birth. … where the people are green.” 
– Historia rerum Anglicarum, Book 1, Ch. 27, William of Newburgh, 1189

Now there are merely four saints named Martin appearing in historical records prior to the 12th Century. None of them warrant the honor of having an otherworld named after them – at least that is what Tolkien might have thought. Indeed what would a human saint have to do with a wholly different dimension than the one which we live in? Other such cases are distinctly lacking. Unsurprisingly so – for mortals inherently lack the power of godly creation. This area was exclusively reserved for the divine.

Given the children were quite young and initially unschooled in the English language, perhaps they were slightly mistaken. Or perhaps the account had become muddled in translation. Feasibly it was not ‘St. Martin’s Land’ but really ‘St. Michael’s Land’. A land that he could rationalize God’s heavenly beings would have access to. A land reconcilable as Faerie – inhabited by fairy-folk – the so called ‘fallen angels’ of ancient religious manuscripts:

“St. Michael fought Lucifer and his companions (1^)* ^fo overcame the rebel angels and drove them to hell. Ton ordors of angels were created, the tenth of which went to perdition. Good and evil angels cause dreamsand the nightmare. Out cast angels ai^ elves in the woods and on the downs, …”.
– The Early South-English Legendary c. 1280-1290, Bodleian Library, Horstmann translation    (my emphasis)

Hmm – ‘angels on the downs’ – part of the ‘true tradition’ of English folklore!

Then as to Tom – he was the perfect invention that could be molded to befit a storied archangel, epitomize the ‘English fairy’, and serve as the tie to a legendary otherworld below England’s very soil – all at the same time. Yes, it’s hard not to conclude that Tolkien made Tom the source and ‘true’ origin of these aspects of our folklore and legends in his great tale. And certainly I am not the only researcher to have reflected on the impact of these early texts and St. Michael’s involvement:

“I am also persuaded that Tolkien found stimulus in the … legends of St. Michael … in The Early South English Legendary …”.
– The Road to Middle-earth, Tolkien’s Sources, The True Tradition, Tom Shippey

Yet despite some weighty evidence, the web of intrigue spun around Tom has many other strands worthwhile exploring. One of the stickiest leads us back to The BibleNow in Parts I and III of this series, investigated were several links of our merry fellow to The New Testament. Chronologically earlier biblical links however are much sparser. One matter where Tolkien likely exploited the connection of our ancient world to his mythical one was the ancient manuscript called The Testament of Solomon. Accounted as the wisest mortal there ever has been or will be – King Solomon possessed a great ring. It was a ring from God delivered personally by the Archangel Michael:

“And it came about through my prayer that grace was given to me from the Lord Sabaoth by Michael his archangel. [He brought me] a little ring, having a seal consisting of an engraved stone, and said to me: ‘Take, O Solomon, king, son of David, the gift which the Lord God has sent thee, the highest Sabaoth. With it thou shalt lock up all demons of the earth, male and female; and with their help thou shalt build up Jerusalem. …’ ”.
– The Testament of Solomon, translated by F. C. Conybeare from the codex of the Paris Library

So already one can see akin traces present in Tolkien’s storyline. As usual the shading is subtle but nonetheless it exists. A wise Frodo is handed back the One Ring by Bombadil. An all-powerful ring capable of controlling the satanic Sauron and his demonic Nazgûl. A ring engraved with words of power yet ineffective on just one Middle-earth being. An unfallen being known as Tom Bombadil whom Tolkien mirrored as ‘Michael’ – a Hebrew name which is literally translated as: “Who is like God?”

Conceivably then we have an answer to Tom’s riddling question to Frodo:

“ ‘Don’t you know my name yet? …’ ”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil 

To be considered rhetorically:

“ ‘… who are you, alone, yourself and nameless? …’ ”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil 

Perhaps there is an answer. Perhaps someone like God! 

Because quite remarkably, the literal translation of ‘Michael’ poses us effectively the same question. So just maybe ‘Michael’ is:

“ ‘… the only answer. …’ ” !
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil 

Tracking back to Solomon, the biblical resonance of the Archangel handing over to a mortal an omnipotent engraved ring with the capacity of dominating evil beings is an undertone that cannot be missed. Of course not everything matches. Tolkien would not have expected it – nor should we!

There is little doubt Tolkien knew the story of Solomon:

“ Solomon’s seal was a pentangle in a circle … which is supposed to have had its beginning in the building of the temple by Solomon.”
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Notes to Line 625, Tolkien & Gordon, 1925


Vessel from 150 -350 BC showing the Seal of Solomon


In the same text per notes to line 632, 642 and 645 commentary is provided on the significance of the pentangle emblazoned on Sir Gawain’s shield with regards to the ‘Five Virtues’, Five Wounds of Christ’ and ‘Five Joys’. But the Professor knew the origin of the five-pointed star was far older than Christ’s arrival on the planet. For he recognized it was on the Archangel’s ring that the pentangle was engraved:

“ ‘ … [But] thou [must] wear this seal of God. And this engraving of the seal of the ring sent thee is a Pentalpha.’ ”.
– The Testament of Solomon, translated by F. C. Conybeare from the codex of the Paris Library “

It was a sign of God’s power that none of the fallen could overcome, be they mortal or divine. From gleaning what we can – if indeed the Professor had knowledge of The Testament of Solomon, then he would likely have been aware of related Arabic and Jewish stories. The most famous of which tells of Solomon recovering his ring from a fish which had swallowed it – after losing it to a demon. Again the legend has close undertones to the Déagol/Sméagol/Isilidur/Sauron part of Tolkien’s tale. And so now we see more connections of Tolkien’s mythology to the medieval work of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as well as an even older history.

What was the exact truth behind Solomon’s ring? No one today really knows. And so a blending of the barest of facts was an easy avenue to relate once again his world to ours. How deep Tolkien went with the Bombadil/Michael/pentangle theme is unknown. How subtle the threads Tolkien decided to weave cannot be ascertained with surety. However there are traces of embedded symbolism of the pentangle2 in The Lord of the Rings chapters featuring Bombadil. And I think he accomplished this in three ways:

(a) As a jest. The hobbit’s were under angelic Tom’s protection while spending the night in a penthousewith an angled roof – amusingly then – under a sign of a ‘pent’ ‘angle’:

“They came to a low room with a sloping roof (a penthouse, it seemed, built on to the north end of the house).”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

(b) As a connection to fairy-land – known in Arthurian legend as Avalon – the Isle of Apples:

“There was a fire in the wide hearth before them, and it was burning with a sweet smell, as if it were built of apple-wood.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

An apple when suitably sliced has its innards shaped in the form of a pentangle.


Related image


(c) As a link to the five-petaled flax flower whose sepals display a pentangular pattern:

“He chose for himself from the pile a brooch set with blue stones, many shaded like flax-flowers …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs


Image result for flax flower calyx


Such subtleties certainly bind the whole ‘story’ I have produced much more tightly. Certainly these type of cross-connections were not beyond Tolkien’s intellect or imagination. Indeed they make the academic foundations of The Lord of the Rings more visible and stronger; and to someone like me – the Bombadil episode emerges as all the more satisfying.

In any case, counter-balanced against the medieval Five Virtues/Joys/Wounds symbolized by the pentangle are the five fingers of the Devil. All of these in medieval lore are associated with evil lust to catch humanity:

“The first is, eating before it is time to eat. The second is when a man gets himself too delicate food or drink. The third is when men eat too much, and beyond measure. The fourth is fastidiousness, with great attention paid to the preparation and dressing of food. The fifth is to eat too greedily. These are the five fingers of the Devil’s hand wherewith he draws folk into sin.

This is the Devil’s other hand, with five fingers to catch the people into his slavery. The first finger is the foolish interchange of glances between the foolish woman and the foolish man, which slays just as the basilisk slays folk by the venom of its sight; for the lust of the eyes follows the lust of the heart. The second finger is vile touching in wicked manner; and thereupon Solomonsays that he who touches and handles a woman fares like the man that handles the scorpion which stings and suddenly slays by its poisoning; even as, if any man touch warm pitch, it defiles his fingers. The third is vile words, which are like fire, which immediately burns the heart. The fourth finger is kissing; and truly he were a great fool who would kiss the mouth of a burning oven or of a furnace. …”.
– Canterbury Tales (modern translation), The Parson’s Tale, G. Chaucer, 1380


Image result for maddoo black hand curtain tolkien

Maddo, Pictures by J.R.R. Tolkien, Hammond & Scull


If I were to wager a guess, Tolkien’s intention was to have Bombadil and the barrow scene as the true origin of the folklorish pentangle and devil’s five fingers. The powerful imagery of the hand dates back even further than Chaucer. Indeed to the Early South-English Legendary where Satan:

“His fingers, wherewith he tempts men, have particolar names. The devil begins his temptation of men with bis litae finger.”
– The Early South-English Legendary C. 1280-1290, Bodleian Library, Horstmann translation

Animated5 by a spell from the Barrow-wight, the slaying of Frodo by the corpse hand and a subsequent capture of the Ring would have truly left mankind in a desperate state.

Mixed in with these legends of England were some from other areas of the British Isles. The Barrow-wight (of Tolkien’s conceit) was perhaps, to the Professor, the source of the Irish Púca6 – a malevolent spirit of the fairy-folk. Blackberries too are entwined in the legend. They are not to be eaten after the festival of Samhain because the Púca spits (or urinates) on them leaving them inedible. And also similar to English folklore, the Irish proverb goes:

“At Michaelmas the devil puts his foot on the blackberries.”
– Publications of the Folk-lore Society, Volume 2, St. Michael’s Day, 1879

But Tolkien’s desire for historical and mythological continuity meant he could selectively take core principles and discernible facts and stitch together a magnificently coherent story. His mythology would be the feigned source of our world’s early legends which had become embellished and distorted when passed down the generations. So it was not the devil, Púca or even Barrow-wight that did the stamping – it was Tom:

“… he thought he saw a severed hand wriggling still, like a wounded spider, in a heap of fallen earth. Tom went back in again, and there was a sound of much thumping and stamping.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

And it was not blackberries that were stamped upon but rather the black hand still animated by the residual effect of the Wights’ spell. Equipped with a magical girdle omnipotent Tom would be more than a match for the demon. Perhaps that’s how the origin of an ancient prayer arose:

“Gabriel is my lorica. / Michael is my belt. / Raphael is my shield. / Uriel is my protector. / Rumiel is my defender. / Phanniel is my health.”
– Kuypers, The Prayer Book of Aedeluald, pg. 153    (my emphasis)

And perhaps that’s why the imagery of Satan underneath Michael’s foot is so prevalent in medieval and renaissance art.


Image result for raphael st michael

St . Michael Defeating Satan, Raphael, 1518


At the point where the crawling arm in the barrow was severed at the wrist:

“There was a shriek … In the dark there was a snarling noise.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

Because shrieking and snarling is typical of what demons do when intimidating or under attack:

“There abides Minos horribly, and snarls; he examines the sins at the entrance; …”.
– The Divine Comedy, Canto V, Dante 1320, translation by C.E. Norton

“ ‘Be quiet!’, said Jesus sternly. ‘Come out of him!’
The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.7 ”
– The Bible, New International Version, Mark 1: 25-26

In line with biblical tradition it was barren lands where the demon was banished:

“Shrivel like the cold mist, like the winds go wailing,
Out into the barren lands far beyond the mountains!”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

For the desert, where Jesus was tempted by Satan, is classically the abode of demons:

“The demons Resheph, Lilith and Azazel clearly show the influence of the DESERT and other religions upon Israel. Resheph was the Caananite god of plague and pestilence (Deut 32:24 “burning heat”, “plague”; Hab 3:5), Lilith was the Mesapotomian storm demon who in the OT becane a night demon of the wilderness (Isa 24:14 “night hag”, and Azazel was the desert demon …”.
– Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ‘Demon in the Old Testament’, W. Mills. & R. Bullard, 1990

And then returning to Solomon and the building of his great temple for God, demons of angelic origin were employed; but in this task it was forbidden to use ‘iron’:

“In building the temple, only blocks dressed at the quarry were used, and no hammer, chisel or any other iron tool was heard at the temple site while it was being built.”
– The Bible, New International Version, 1 Kings 7 

Conybeare in commenting on The Testament of Solomon observes:

“… the fear of iron on the part of evil spirits is a feature common to both old and recent folk-lore.
– The Jewish Encyclopedia: Apocrypha-Benash, Isidore Singer, Cyrus Adler

In line with the extensive discussion in Part II, we have an answer why fairies (fallen angels per ancient English texts) were also averse to ‘iron’. This was the decree of God:

The word of the Lord came to Solomon: “As for this temple you are building, if you follow my decrees, observe my laws and keep all my commands and obey them, I will fulfill through you the promise I gave to David your father. And I will live among the Israelites and will not abandon my people Israel.”
– The Bible, New International Version, 1 Kings 12:13 

And that edict appears to have been obeyed by Tom in his avoidance of all things made of ‘iron’!

So to summarize – what I have exposed is a submerged layer of religious parallelism beyond the obvious. How deep Tolkien went in entwining Tom in with a Christian theme is hard to say. But from my research – I think there are still some surprises to be uncovered. To come, we will see how I believe Tolkien left us a pair of puzzles that when solved expose the foremost of Christian symbols in the Bombadil chapters. These of course are: The Fish and The Cross!

Can you figure out what he did?


1  Consistent with the hobbits’ experiences while under the auspices of Tom.

2  Note that the pentangle did explicitly make it into the mythology:

“The land of Númenor resembled in outline a five-pointed star, or pentangle, …”.
– Unfinished Tales, A Description of the Island of Númenor, J.R.R. Tolkien 

3  Originally a simple structure (Middle English homilies describe Jesus’ birthplace in the manger as a ‘penthouse’).
4  Once again we have a connection back to Solomon.

5  Remote animation appears to be Tolkien’s own touch. Such an ability is not reflected in the tales of the ‘undead’ corpses known as the Draugr and  Haugbui of Norse legends – ultimately the source of Tolkien’s Wight.

6  Tolkien’s awareness of this mythological creature can be gleaned from:

“… Anglo-Saxon púcel ‘goblin demon’, a relative of the word púca from which Puck is derived …”.
– Unfinished Tales, Part Four – The Drúedain, J.R.R. Tolkien 

7  Cited is one of several instances of demonic spirits ‘shrieking’ on expulsion by the power of Jesus.



1/14/18 – Added: “Hmm – ‘angels on the downs’ – part of the ‘true tradition’ of English folklore!”

Was: “As for Tom”, Is: “Then as to Tom”.

Added from: “Conceivably then” to “Tracking back to Solomon”.


Angel and Demon, Gospel and Fairy-story

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Part III – The Gospel According to Tom

The average rational person is right to be wary of conspiracy theories, hidden agendas and so called cryptic secrets. Yet remarkably the evidence gathered so far points to a plausible basis for some organized trickery within The Lord of the Rings. However once everything is exposed the reader will see it really is not trickery but a hitherto invisible framework which is built on solid foundations. But to draw such a conclusion with reasonable certainty, we still have a ways to go.

Unlocking the safe holding Tolkien’s innermost concealments requires knowledge of a specialist kind. Unfortunately mythology and fairy-stories are simply not everybody’s cup of tea. Thus the Forest of Days in which the Tree of Tales resides has often been avoided as the foliage is dense. Besides it is full of bewildering paths which have led even the inquisitive astray. Moreover the undergrowth of garbled and stunted mythology narrowing our route is not easily slashed aside. For most – the machete is, in any case, missing from the toolbox due to a general lack of schooling and education in Celtic legends. Or it has rusted away in some forgotten corner consonant with recessed memories of childhood fairy tales adults can only dimly recall.

So the task is a tough one. Indeed daunting for the less scholastically inclined. To approach the inner nave where the Tree is located requires the sharpest of blades to clear away the last brush. Because the researcher then has to scrutinize The Lord of the Rings text for signs of the subtlest of pertinent insertions. 

Once we get close to the Tree the realization soon dawns that Bombadil’s name is not inscribed on just one of the leaves carpeting the forest floor – but many. And as we get even closer, the branches are seen to have not just mythology and fairy tales carved in the bark, but also religious stories. Whether we like it or not – to reveal more of the underlying matter and mystique surrounding angelic Tom – a probing of the religious kind is deserved. Especially as his affiliation to the Archangel Michael has hurtled to the forefront of this investigation.

The good news is that though mythology over time has become interwoven with religion, the latter is closer to many peoples hearts. Even those not of the Christian faith – many understand and are familiar with the stories forming the cornerstones behind the Old and New Testaments. Which conveniently leads us back to Tolkien, his faith and The Lord of the Rings. 

Though many articles have been written concerning what has been perceived to reflect Tolkien’s statement:

“The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; …”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #142

– few of them consider or even touch upon Tom. And those that do barely scratch the surface. My intent is not to rehash matters already well-discussed among seasoned scholars where Christian symbolism within the novel is strongly suspected. Instead the intent is to break new ground. Indeed that has been my primary aim all along. To bring to your attention unrealized academia underpinning the Bombadil episode. For I have taken the approach of the entire affair involving Tom and Goldberry simply being an exercise. In doing so, I have imagined myself as one of the Professors’ students and The Lord of the Rings as a text book. Because not to be forgotten is the elephant in the room – namely Tolkien the scholar, teacher and lecturer. What he chose to include in The Lord of the Rings has already been established to be based very much on academic material. So why not Bombadil too?

Tolkien’s vast array of knowledge in terms of in-depth detail was not just confined to specialist medieval works, languages and philology. There were others areas of expertise. We have already seen how his personal passion on botany has been adeptly entwined in the characterization of Goldberry. So how can we possibly neglect looking at our merry couple through a lens of religion? Especially since a life-long bond to Catholicism meant a vast reservoir of accumulated information was his to tap at whim. Such depth of understanding is readily reflected in the Professor being tasked to translate Jonah for The Jerusalem Bible. There is virtually no scholar of any repute who will claim Tolkien’s expertise was lacking in the realm of biblical knowledge.


Acknowledgements for The Jerusalem Bible included J.R.R. Tolkien


So included in a scrutiny of the text involving Tom must be a search for Christianity. It’s a quest that I wholly acknowledge Tolkien would not have wanted his readership to embark on. For in the end, he preferred us to view his opus as work of art. Not for us to peel away the paint to reveal the early sketches below – but to enjoy and revel in the finished product. Impertinently then on my part I’m once again going to dive into dangerous waters.

Before I begin to relate new discussion points – a few comments on Tolkien’s style and technique are necessary. There is no doubt that certain Christian themes were inserted into the text. One should heed that the method employed was one where:

“… the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #142

However The Lord of the Rings constituting a grandiose fairy tale meant that nothing was overt:

“Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131     (my emphasis)

Nevertheless the Christian themes were there – but subtly infused with delicate finesse. Tolkien also took the tack of declining to embed messages – and of course – nothing should ever be pinpointed as directly allegorical. The Professor was too clever a man to consciously allow that to happen. 

In voicing he was under no constraint to follow:

“… formalized Christian theology, …”,
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #269

we must ask ourselves – how could he? For the inevitable result would have manifested itself as instantly recognizable allegory. So where does that leave us? How can we best interpret the: religious element is absorbed into the story? In pondering the matter, my own conclusion is that it was a cleverly crafted substratal schema which made The Lord of the Rings in his mind:

“… a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #142

And Tolkien was so pleased that those of similar outlook saw:

“ ‘ … a world in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light from an invisible lamp’ ”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #328


Related image

God’s Word as set down in the Christian Bible guided Tolkien’s Story-line


So in other words fragments and echoes are all that we can mine. Similarities but not outright copies. Parallels but not obvious mimicry. Another way of putting matters is – the best we can hope for is to observe points of tangency – and not directly match biblical events detail for detail. Undoubtedly such a search is on firm ground. The Lord of the Rings is described by Tolkien himself as a:

“… heroic-fairy-romance …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131

While the Gospels related a:

“… a fairy-story: the greatest.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #89

Moreover the mini tale of the side-adventure with Tom embraces all the essence of a fairy-story. Because it contains the essential elements of ‘fantasy, recovery, escape and consolation’ within. A ‘perfect fairy-story’ in itself and one that could almost stand alone. With a blend of religion and fairy-tale in mind – the reader ought now to be fore-armed to proceed.


Gospel Parallels

(a) The first and perhaps the most obvious parallel I’m going to expose is one in which Tom is only a fringe player. If I asked the question of the reader:

‘What is the most infamous financial transaction in the history of our world’, there will be I’m sure, some scratching of heads.

Some might think of the ‘give-away’ of Alaska by Russia. Others might think of the many unscrupulous Ponzi schemes which have robbed decent folk of their lifelong savings – leaving them destitute beyond any hope of recovery. But Tolkien I contend would have thought that personal wealth or even that of a country, no matter how many millions were involved, as relatively unimportant. Such monies were not even in the same league as the amount agreed to trade the life of Jesus Christ by one notorious man. For it was Judas Iscariot who betrayed the ‘Son of God’ for a mere 30 pieces of silver!

Do any of us seriously believe that Tolkien was unaware of the infamous amount or its significance? Of course he knew. And of course the working-in of a theme of betrayal, silver coins as well as a matching quantity into his book was purposely done. It was Barliman Butterbur whose hospitality was spurned by one (or more) of his guests, with the price of treachery ultimately being 30 silver pennies!

“… thirty silver pennies was a sore blow to him, …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, A Knife in the Dark

This was the extent of Christian symbolism Tolkien decided to display: betrayal of the innocent and 30 pieces of silver. There were no disciples or pharisees involved nor a Christ like figure who was crucified. But there was enough embedded that an unmistakable echo would resound in the hearts of those of like faith.

Tom’s part was only peripheral. He rectified the financial situation by sending the escaped ponies back as restitution for the innkeeper’s loss. In other words from a pure financial standpoint some small good eventually came out of the original monetary transaction. In a way this parallels the biblical account where Judas’ 30 silver pieces were eventually used to buy a ‘potter’s field’ to bury the dead of foreign faith/origin.

So now that one Christian aspect involving Tom has been made plain1 – we can rightfully ponder whether there is more. What else is symbolized in these early chapters? Not just that, we must also ask ourselves: what was the Professor’s purpose?


Judas Returning the Thirty Silver Pieces by Rembrandt, 1629


Unsurprisingly the rest is much more subtle. To be honest it is so subtle that only Tolkien himself can provide verification. A cloaked inclusion of Christian elements was possibly effected to subconsciously reassure the reader (and perhaps himself) that even in pagan times a Christian God was not wholly absent. A remark by a reader in which Tolkien showed particular delight probably captures what he hoped the religiously astute would grasp. Once again:

“… but you’, he said, ‘create a world in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light from an invisible lamp.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #328

It is unlikely that there were direct moralistic parables or Catholic preaching inserted into the text. Indeed Tolkien vociferously denied such presence. Yet nonetheless the faintest of biblical resonances appear spread throughout the episode. Possibly included were these additional New Testament parallels:

(b) Jesus’ first miracle where water was turned to wine – echoed in the Hobbits’ first meal with Tom and Goldberry:

“The drink in their drinking-bowls seemed to be clear cold water, yet it went to their hearts like wine …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

(c) Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life. The opening of Lazarus’ tomb by rolling aside the entrance stone, and the miracle of his raising from the dead – echoed by Tom’s opening of the Barrow tomb and spiritual recall of Sam, Merry and Pippin:

“There was a loud rumbling sound, as of stones rolling and falling, …”, and
“Wake and here me calling!”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

(d) Jesus on numerous occasions exorcising unclean spirits, echoed by the departure of a spirit which appears to have cohabited with Merry:

“ ‘… Ah! the spear in my heart! … What am I saying? …’ ”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

The Roman soldiers’ spear to check for Jesus’ death while nailed to the Cross is also reputed to have penetrated through to this vital organ.

(e) Baptism – echoed by Tom’s words outside the Barrow:

“ ‘You’ve found yourselves again, out of the deep water. Clothes are but little loss …’ ”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

(f) The annual ritual of Tom delivering white water-lilies to Goldberry is somewhat akin to the depiction in famous religious art of another archangel (Gabriel) bringing white Madonna lilies to Mary at the time of the Annunciation (Spring).

“I had an errand there: gathering water-lilies, green leaves and lilies white to please my pretty lady, …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In The House of Tom Bombadil

Water-lilies they may have been in the case of Tom – but nevertheless the likeness is a close one. Perhaps Christian imagery was the true:

“… water-lily motive, …”
– The Return of the Shadow, Tom Bombadil

Tolkien was so keen on developing. For though it was Fall, Bombadil undoubtedly brought “lilies of Spring” to Goldberry, Thus once again we are left with a form of veiled Christian symbolism!


Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1472 – 1475


Nor is Tolkien the only one to have associated Cherwell’s water-lilies to the blessed Madonna. The Oxford poet Frederick Faber2 published a book of poetry in 1840 titled: The Cherwell Water-Lily and Other Poems. In it, the first poem (of the same name) directly linked Mary to the river’s water-lily. Three lines in particular stand out:

“Deep rung St. Mary’s stately chime

Fair Lily! thou a type must be
Of Virgin Love and Purity”.

If Tolkien had ever read the verse – the last two lines would surely have a struck a chord with Goldberry:

“Thou art to him a very fairy
A widowed father’s only daughter.”

Daughter of the river the water-lily was described to be – but for Tolkien’s tale it was Goldberry who was the fairy-like “river-daughter”3.

(g) Though not directly involving Bombadil, it was just after Michaelmas Day closed that the attack on The Prancing Pony took place. The cock crow at dawn, heard in the inn quarters, signaled a sellout had already taken place:

“He opened his eyes, and heard a cock crowing lustily in the inn-yard.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, A Knife in the Dark

Likewise in a synchronized attack, the Black Riders waited for Michaelmas Day to pass before raiding Crickhollow. Again a cock crowed:

“… a cock crowed far away. The cold hour before dawn was passing.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, A Knife in the Dark

The betrayal in this instance was probably unwitting or passive:

“ ‘ … And it is possible that in the morning even a Black Rider that rode up and asked for Mr. Baggins would be let through. It is pretty generally known that you are coming back to live at Crickhollow.’ ”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, A Conspiracy Unmasked

A third cock crow in The Return of the King symbolized Denethor’s desertion of stewardship duty had finally occurred:

“Gandalf did not move. And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, …”.
– The Return of the King, The Siege of Gondor

The three cock crows and associated betrayals in The Lord of the Rings echo the prediction of Jesus when it came to his apostle Simon Peter:

“ ‘… before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.’ ”
– The Bible, New International Version, Luke 22:34


Image result for simon peter bloch

Peter’s Denial by Carl Heinrich Bloch, 1875


This is the way Tolkien mixed in the biblical message. Not a single rooster crow  – but three separate ones, each signaling a specific betrayal had just occurred.

(h) The prediction of Christ’s resurrection – echoed on the day Bombadil defeated the demon – the revelation that one day:

“ … The crownless again shall be king.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Strider

With these eight examples – Tolkien made sure that core elements of The New Testament were symbolically represented in the chapters linked to Bombadil. One wouldn’t be able to identify the exact source. All that could be felt was the warmth of the Christian radiation.

Am I done with religion and Tom? The answer to that is an emphatic: No! The last essay in this series will explore more direct connections to St. Michael. My aim is to enlighten the reader on the building blocks behind the scene inside the Barrow. To be discussed among other subjects is Solomon’s ring, Sir Gawain’s pentangle and the animated imagery of the crawling hand!


1  The biblical analogy is made all the more obvious by the sheer scarcity of other mentions of money in The Lord of the Rings. Especially when it came to specific amounts.

A progressive rejection of the early Christian disciple names ‘Timothy Titus’ and ‘Barnabas’ for the inn-keeper (see The Return of the Shadow) also took place in drafting out the plot. From such naming, one can logically deduce that Tolkien was actively thinking along biblical lines.

2  Tolkien had other connections to Frederick Faber. As one of the more important clergy-men of the Birmingham Oratory, Faber was at one point second to Cardinal Newman (the founder) himself. Tolkien was brought up under the guardianship of Father Francis Morgan (after his mother had died) who knew Cardinal Newman personally. The Oratory and the teachings of the resident priests were well known to Tolkien in early childhood. It was here that the regular ritual of the Blessed Sacrament became ingrained.

Religious study was most certainly part of the curriculum and Father Faber’s books were likely to have been read and studied. As well as The Cherwell Water-lily, other books written by Faber include The Blessed Sacrament and The Foot of the Cross; or, The Sorrows of Mary. Such material has been so well regarded that it is even in print today. Tolkien’s devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and Mary is recorded in his letters (Letters #49 & #142). In such respects he seems to have followed in the mindset and footsteps of Father Faber.

It is possible that the ‘sighs’ of the River-woman on the bank in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil for the loss of Goldberry had Christian undertones. The two Saint Mary’s Church’s associated to Oxford University lie reasonably close by to the Cherwell (University Church of St. Mary the Virgin & St. Mary Magdalen). At times they too mourn the departure of the child and the Saviour. From Faber’s work – Mary’s loss is poignantly depicted:

“When the sound of the scourging went up to heaven, the smothered sighs of Mary’s bursting heart went up with it.”
– The Sorrows of Mary, The Compassion of Mary, Frederick Faber    (my emphasis)

 Tolkien may have been aware that the river Cherwell in Oxfordshire had some historic basis for a resident water-nymph. Thus the Withywindle was a correspondingly suitable candidate from a mythological standpoint. 

“… Where many a Water-Nymph her Streamlet leads …
… Sometimes, we from the Cherwell’s winding Stream …”.
– Juvenile Poems on several occasions, By a gentleman of Oxford, 1764

According to A Thames Voyage by Thomas Noel of Merton College, Oxford:

“… The water-nymph’s delight !
Those milk-white cups with a golden-core, …”.
– The Flowering Plants of Great Britain, Vol. I, Anne Pratt, 1855

In Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion, many English rivers are depicted with their own-water-nymph. The Cherwell too possesses one (see map center below).



Map extract from the Poly-Olbion, Michael Drayton, c. 1613

Angel and Demon, Gospel and Fairy-story

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Part II: Celtic Gods and Fairies Ironed Out

Tolkien once famously wrote:

“… I have always been seeking material, things of a certain tone and air, and not simple knowledge. Also – and here I hope I shall not sound absurd – I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131

This rather sorrowful soul baring has been presumed to convey the driving impulse behind the sprouting of his mythology. Yet though the Silmarillion tales started the process, undoubtedly an eventual carryover to The Lord of the Rings aimed at and resulted in a grand and largely unified work. The heart of the newer myth was based of course upon the race of Hobbits and the Shire – Tolkien’s representation of ancient peoples in rural England from a bygone era.

One way connectivity could be provided to his feigned era was through mythological works. The Professor was patently aware that there existed an abundance of folklore and simple fairy tales which the English could claim as their very own. Sadly alongside the plethora of ‘lower mythologies’, written epics were distinctly lacking. What survived of ‘higher mythologies’ had grave faults:

“… the Arthurian world, but powerful as it is, it is imperfectly naturalized, associated with the soil of Britain but not with English; and does not replace what I felt to be missing. For one thing its ‘faerie’ is too lavish, and fantastical, incoherent and repetitive. For another and more important thing: it is involved in, and explicitly contains the Christian religion.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131

It was the latter matter that obviously perturbed him most. However Tolkien almost entirely dodged the issue when it came to ‘religion’. He left a feeble and unsatisfactory explanation:

“For reasons which I will not elaborate, that seems to me fatal. Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary ‘real’ world.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131

But why was it a taboo, in his eyes, for fairy tales to possess explicit elements of religion? Why, for example, shouldn’t the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight story (whose root clearly lies after the New Testament) contain open references to Christianity? Why shouldn’t it still be classifiable as a ‘true’ fairy tale? Didn’t fairies come under the rule of God? So why did an incompatibility exist?


Related image


Whatever the answers, Tolkien felt there was something not quite right about it all. Unless there is some standard, unbeknownst to me, I suspect the reasons were more personal than justifiable by logic or innate law of the Universe. In any case for our fairy tale of interest, the setting in antiquity of The Lord of the Rings, was such that:

“… the ‘Third Age’ was not a Christian world.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #165

Despite an essentially pagan era, Tolkien articulated that:

“I have deliberately written a tale, which is built on or out of certain ‘religious’ ideas, but is not an allegory of them (or anything else), and does not mention them overtly, still less preach them, …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #211    (Tolkien’s italicized emphasis on ‘not’)

So what were these ‘religious’ ideas? How had he built them into his story? Obviously they weren’t ‘explicit’, so where are they concealed? And more importantly for us – how is Tom Bombadil involved?

Perhaps one of the keys to Tolkien’s rationale with Tom lies in his On Fairy-stories paper:

“Andrew Lang said … that mythology and religion … are two distinct things that have become inextricably entangled, though mythology is in itself almost devoid of religious significance.”
– On Fairy-stories, Lecture by J.R.R. Tolkien St. Andrews 1939, Available in Tree and Leaf

So though undoubtedly myth and religion had over the ages become interwoven, it is the Professor’s openness to historical sundering and refusion that attracts my attention:

“Yet these things have in fact become entangled — or maybe they were sundered long ago and have since groped slowly, through a labyrinth of error, through confusion, back towards refusion.”
– On Fairy-stories, Lecture by J.R.R. Tolkien St. Andrews 1939, Available in Tree and Leaf

Was Tom caught up in an intricate Web of Story involving sundering and refusion? The reason why I ask is that, as revealed in The Road to Fairy Land Part II and Part I of this series, we have his unexpected association to the Celtic god Lugh and the Christian Archangel Michael. Remarkably there is a strong affinity between them in our world.

Clustered across the landscape of Oxfordshire and Berkshire are several concentrations of churches named after St. Michael. Researchers have pointed out that a unique St. Michael ‘ley line’ exists over a larger extent of England. Very simply put, ley lines are alignments of monuments, religious places and prehistoric sites in a straight line. It is possible Tolkien was aware of Alfred Watkins and his ley line theory1, but at the time of writing his opus the St. Michael one had not been discovered. I’m sure the Professor would have been quite unsurprised that the English St. Michael ley line ran across both Berkshire and Oxfordshire – yes, Bombadil country!


The St. Michael Ley Line 


Even without specific ley line knowledge, I have little doubt Tolkien knew St. Michael permeated the soil of the local countryside; and that belonging ran deep into history. Evidence suggests a cult of the archangel particularly flourished in England during the Middle Ages. It appears St. Michael took over from the pagan god Lugh:

“In the Gnosis, St. Michael symbolizes the sun, and thus very appropriately at St. Michael’s Mount, Cornwall, at Mont St. Michel, Carnac, and also at Mont St. Michel on the coast of Normandy, replaced the Great God of Light and Life, held in supreme honour among the ancient Celts.”
– The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, W. Y. Evans-Wentz, 1911

As part of the assimilation, the ancient Celtic calendar feast: Lughnasa, named in honor of the deity Lugh, was absorbed into the Christian calendar and celebrated instead on Michaelmas day:

“The Christian Church did not oppose the continuation of the festival marking the beginning of the harvest…..but the different names applied to it obscured its pagan origin. As the Christian church often substituted the archangel Michael for Lugh, the festival was transformed into St. Michael’s Day or Michaelmas and moved to 29 September.”
– Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, James MacKillop, 1998

“In Scotland the Lughnasa celebrations tend to group around St. Michael’s Day or Michaelmas on September 29, the archangel Michael having been substituted after Christianization for Lugh.”
– The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore, Patricia Monaghan, 2004


St. Michael and the Devil, Book of Hours, 15th Century
(Halo and  Sun Imagery!)


So now one can see why and how cleverly Tolkien slotted in links to both Michael2 and Lugh3 within his mythology. Bombadil in Tolkien’s mind – I conclude, was the mythical forerunner and true root of the legends behind these two in the British Isles. And really it didn’t matter in which chronological order our history had them arising. Given Tolkien’s comment, I can imagine these two had fused, sundered and refused from his feigned Age to ours.

Lugh the Irish cognate of the continental Gaul god Lugus isn’t the only Celtic deity I wish to discuss. But before I go on to examine his Welsh counterpart Lleu (another deity of light), I want to briefly mention the Celtic god ‘Esus’ from Gaul. There is little known about him – yet what information we do have tells us his Celtic name translates as ‘Master’, and that he has power over the willow-tree.

A Bas-relief from France depicts him as a bearded woodman, and ancient writings record trees, in association to the god, were used to bind people against for punishment purposes. From all of this one can see shades of Master Bombadil’s rebuke of Old Man Willow and the trapping of Merry and Pippin incident!

“ ‘My friends are caught in the willow-tree,’ cried Frodo breathlessly.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Old Forest

“Tom, sprang away, and breaking off a hanging branch smote the side of the willow with it.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Old Forest


Esus, Stone Carving found under Notre Dame Cathedral, France
(The god is depicted as smiting a willow tree)


Along with Esus – also contrived, I believe, as possessing a fragmentary link in antiquity to Bombadil is Lleu of The Mabinogion. Lleu’s title was similar to Lugh’s – yet slightly different. He was known as Lleu Llaw Gyffes: ‘Bright One of the steady hand’. A semblance of such dexterity likely appears through Tom and his careful transportation of Goldberry’s water-lilies:

“In his hands he carried on a large leaf as on a tray a small pile of white water-lilies.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Old Forest

We then see the leaf and lilies skillfully balanced in one hand:

“ ‘Whoa! Whoa! steady there!’ cried the old man, holding up one hand, …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Old Forest

Even after his leap, in outrage at the willow’s entrapment of the two younger hobbits, no lilies were lost:

“ ‘What?’ shouted Tom Bombadil, leaping up in the air.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Old Forest

It isn’t till after his aerial display of gymnastics that we see him:

“Setting down his lilies carefully on the grass, …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Old Forest

Hmm … Bombadil certainly possessed a ‘steady hand’ – no arguing that!

Now Lleu in legend was married to the beautiful goddess: Blodeuwedd4, whose name means ‘flower face’5. Supposedly she was made by a great magician from the essence of flowers alone solely to be Lleu’s bride. Again we see resonances in Goldberry’s close relationship with water-lilies which I have emphasized in great detail in Goldberry, The Enigmatic Mrs Bombadil, Part I. One should recall how the etymological name of the yellow variety – has roots which roughly translate to: ‘be a bride’!


Lleu’s Betrayal, Celtic Myth and Legend, C. Squire, 1908


In the fourth branch of The Mabinogion we are told how Lleu was practically invincible. Only under extreme circumstances could he be slain. When asked by Blodeuwedd, Lleu reveals it must be from a wound inflicted by a special spear – but there were other conditions:

“And I cannot be slain within a house, nor without. I cannot be slain on horseback nor on foot.” “Verily,” said she, “in what manner then canst thou be slain?” “I will tell thee,” said he. “By making a bath for me by the side of a river, and by putting a roof over the cauldron, and thatching it well and tightly, and bringing a buck, and putting it beside the cauldron. Then if I place one foot on the buck’s back, and the other on the edge of the cauldron, whosoever strikes me thus will cause my death.” “Well,” said she, “I thank Heaven that it will be easy to avoid this.”
– The Mabinogion translated by Lady Charlotte Guest, 1849 edition

Tolkien must have had a good laugh – for I have a strong suspicion he knew the story behind one of the most famous of Welsh deities6. Looking past the comical side – just as I have tried to do – he might have observed that Lleu’s vulnerability occurred while naked. Perhaps his personage was missing a vital piece of clothing. Perhaps it was garb associated to another legend largely set in Wales, namely: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight7? Perhaps Lleu was only susceptible when deprived of a certain ‘green girdle’. And maybe the other requirements were mere fluff. Speculation I know – but that’s what mythology is all about. Piecing together fragments of truth from various legends might lead to one not unreasonably guessing what lay behind a bizarre ‘Achilles heel’.


Lleu rises as an Eagle, The Mabinogion, Lady Guest translation, 1877
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)


Jumping back to Goldberry – there are more connections to her in Welsh folklore by way of human looking female water-nymphs. Beautiful maidens known as the ‘Gwragedd Annwn’ inhabited hill-side lakes, and were sometimes reported as combing their tresses on the surface of the water. Categorized as Welsh fairies (Tylwyth Teg8) and devoid of all fish appendages, they were similar to Fouqués’ Undine whom I discussed in: Goldberry, The Enigmatic Mrs Bombadil Part II. Such a similarity was pointed out by Sir John Rhys (Tolkien’s one-time tutor) under the chapter title: Undine’s Kymric Sisters in Welsh and Manx (Volume 1, 1901).

Now in Welsh folklore it was not unusual for a man to take a fairy wife9:

“Tylwyth Teg … fairy maidens may become the wives of human men.”
An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Katherine Briggs, 1976

Several orally handed down tales collected in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s10 share common aspects involving mortal nuptials with the Gwragedd Annwn. One feature is that the maiden, usually as a dowry, brings along super-productive cattle which greatly enrich11 the household. Another curiosity is that the marriage contract is deemed broken if the husband strikes the wife three times. Even if it is accidental or even if the blow is the lightest of taps – it makes no difference. Thrown into the mix – the relationship is also terminated if she is struck by anything made of ‘iron’. And indeed we see this latter occurrence in the case of a Welsh water-nymph who agrees to become the wife of a common herdsman.


The Lady of The Lake, The Welsh Fairy Book, W. J. Thomas, 1908


In the version related by Elias Owen, once again the ‘little old man’12 pops-up in the fairy tale:

“… but before he could take her away, a little fat old man came to them and begged him to give her back to him, to which the youth would not listen.”
– A Collection of the Folk-tales and Legends of North Wales, Elias Owen, 1887

An agreement:

“… was made between them that he was to have her to wife until he touched her skin with iron, …”.
– A Collection of the Folk-tales and Legends of North Wales, Elias Owen, 1887    (my emphasis)

This, to the husband’s dismay, accidentally happened. Consequently the green clad fairy woman abruptly departed while taking her cattle (and progeny from previous generations) with her into the lake:

“ ‘Come thou Einion’s yellow one,
   Stray horns–speckled one of the Lake,
   And the hornless Dodin,
   Arise, come home.’ ”
– A Collection of the Folk-tales and Legends of North Wales, Elias Owen, 1887

In one Welsh tale the Tylwyth Teg cows are led into the water, not by a lake-maiden – but by our ubiquitous little man:

“… the shepherd saw a little fat old man playing on a pipe, and then he heard him call the cows by their names13 … He then beheld the whole herd running to the little man and going into the lake.”
– Welsh and Manx Vol. 1, The Fairies’ Revenge, Sir John Rhys

Now The Stray Cow tale, as told in The Welsh Fairy Book, greatly resembles Owens’ version.


The Stray Cow, The Welsh Fairy Book, W. J. Thomas, 1908


The words of the fairy woman recalling the beasts match-up almost identically. For us the intriguing links are fourfold. Firstly Einion, who took a fairy for a wife and lived in fairyland, is once again mentioned (see The Road to Fairyland Part III). Secondly these lake-fairies are depicted like Goldberry as:

“… clad all in green, …”.
– The Welsh Fairy Book, The Stray Cow, W. Jenkyn Thomas, 1908

Thirdly, in resonating with ‘Milky-white’ from the Jack and the Beanstalk fairy tale, they possess:

“… milk-white kine …”.
– The Welsh Fairy Book, The Stray Cow, W. Jenkyn Thomas, 1908

Fourthly, and perhaps most poignantly, as she departs forever into the lake with the beasts – left behind to mark the spot where they had disappeared is a:

“… yellow water-lily …”.
– The Welsh Fairy Book, The Stray Cow, W. Jenkyn Thomas, 1908

And so after all of this we can see how woven around Goldberry and Tom is much Welsh fairy-lore.

A yellow water-lily and green clothed water-fairy along with a little old man and prodigiously productive cattle link indirectly back to The Lord of the Rings and further connect to other famous fairy tales. All part of a well thought out plan – I continue to reiterate. One with a sound infrastructure, for Tolkien was not going to add to the multitude of:

“… garbled and ill-invented tales.”
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Flieger and Anderson, Manuscript B – pg. 272

In echoing the Professor – much had got mixed-up in the ever-bubbling ‘Cauldron of Story’. With Tolkien’s ‘soup’ ladled out and set before us, and with all that I have exposed in this essay and others, perhaps for the first time within the serving – we can glimpse the ‘bones of the ox’!

Much of Tolkien’s strategy is now laid bare. For we have almost come full circle with some of my earlier essays. The inventive thought and scholastic effort put into characterizing Tom and Goldberry is nothing short of brilliant. One can fully understand how the ‘imaginary’ world with a:

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

is far from an understatement. Some of that remark may well have been directed at these enigmatic two.

Despite some rather eye-opening advances, I’m not quite finished with discussing Welsh mythology in relation to our odd couple. Right now there are two small but significant items needed to be touched and expanded upon. In repetition – the first is that according to Welsh fairy tales, the Tylwyth Teg, and perhaps fairies in general,  are adverse to iron14. If they touch it – they disappear.


The Tylwyth Teg, British Goblins, Wirt Sikes, 1880


It is noticeable, that nothing is stated to be of iron in Tom’s house. Additionally a small yet revealing oddity is – of the treasures Tom carried out from the Barrow – none were of iron or had any iron content:

“When he came out he was bearing in his arms, a great load of treasure: things of gold, silver, copper, and bronze15; …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

And of the blades Tom armed the hobbits with – again none of iron or steel were selected:

“For each of the hobbits he chose a dagger … wrought of some strange metal, light and strong, …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

Lastly, the Tylwyth Teg are renowned for their extraordinary auditory powers. Flamboyantly put by Sir John Rhys:

“They were sharp of hearing, and no word that reached the wind would escape them.”
– The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, Fairy Faith in Wales, W.Y. Evans Wentz, 1911

Perhaps based on Welsh lore Tolkien endowed our very Welsh sounding and rooted Iarwain Ben-adar (aka Tom Bombadil) with such sensitivity too. From the barrow, Frodo’s voice was heard when Tom’s name was invoked. Whether it was by magical means, divine powers or by an acute natural ability common to fairies, one cannot say for sure:

“Come Tom Bombadil, for our need is near us! …
… far away, as if it was coming through the ground or through thick walls, an answering voice …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

Hmm … all in all an infusion of yet more subtle linkage – one might conclude!

So in summary one can only marvel at Tolkien’s genius. So much was packed into Bombadil/Goldberry episode that plainly we were all unaware of. And now at last the links of our world’s fairy tales and mythology to his are becoming more logical and lucid. Though I cannot prove Tolkien knew each and every tale I have cited, nevertheless we know when it came to the British Isles, he was one who:

“… always felt the attraction of the ancient history and pre-history of these islands, …”.
– English and Welsh, Essay and O’Donnell Trust lecture by J.R.R. Tolkien

Indeed we should not be fooled. The few chapters starring our remarkable couple have an intense academic structure underpinning some of the happenings. Imbued with Celtic touches of Welsh, Irish and Gallic mythologies alongside a good dose of English fairy tales, these chapters are rich in the lore of the British Isles and nearby lands. Yet though I’m nearly done with discussing fairy tales, legends and folklore – when it comes to Tom and Goldberry much still remains hidden pertaining to religion. It’s time to expose more about the ‘holiness’ in the chapters to which they connect!


1  Published in The Old Straight Track: Its Mounds, Beacons, Moats, Sites and Mark Stones, 1925.

2  See Angel and Demon, Gospel and Fairy-story Part I.

3  See The Road to Fairyland Part II.

4  Blodeuwedd has another meaning in Welsh, namely: ‘Owl’. Traditionally the owl is shunned by all other birds – destined to spend day and night alone, or with a mate. Juxtaposed is Goldberry’s explicit lack of companions in the mythology after marriage to Tom – particularly those of humanoid form. She – in a way – appears to be alone.

5  Interestingly in Irish legend, Cuchulainn (Lugh’s avatar) loved Blathnat, which means ‘little flower’. Connectivity to a flower theme thus appears in both Welsh and Irish Celtic legends.

6  Tolkien was certainly familiar with Lady Guest’s translation of The Mabinogion (see Bibliography of Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, Tolkien & Gordon, 1925). The account of Lleu occurs in the fourth branch. Also, Tolkien taught medieval Welsh at Leeds University (see The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #7). The Mabinogion was likely to have been part of the curriculum.

7  Gawain has also been noted as a sun-hero. Sir John Rhys has observed how the Beheading Game, involving Cuchulainn, also appears in ‘The Champions Bargain’ (which Tolkien knew of per his Sir Gawain & the Green Knight publication in 1925). This cross-fertilization of Celtic legends with Arthurian tales is a matter Tolkien was undoubtedly aware of.

8  Tolkien certainly knew of the Tylwyth Teg – See Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Flieger and Anderson, pg. 29.

9  Contrast Welsh folklore to: “It was often said (in other families) that long ago one of the Took ancestors must have taken a fairy wife.”, from The Hobbit, An Unexpected Party. Note that in both cases it is the female that is the fairy and taken from her natural environment. 

10  See for example: British Goblins, Lake Fairies, Wirt Sikes, 1881; The Welsh Fairy Book, The Lady of the Lake, W. Jenkyn Thomas, 1908; The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, In Wales, W. Y. Evans-Wentz, 1911.

11  A bestowing of ‘magical’ cattle by Welsh lake-maidens is aligned with the giving of great gifts by English lake-women from Arthurian romance. Even William Shakespeare seems to have recognized that such treasures came from deep waters. In the words of the fairy queen Titania to Bottom:

“I’ll give thee fairies to attend on thee,
And they shall fetch thee jewels from the deep, …”.
– A Midsummer’s Night Dream, William Shakespeare, ~1595

12  Possibly one of the Bendith y Mamau – Welsh fairies of short stature and ugly appearance, seen on occasion to ride horses. Here again we see more resonances to Bombadil.

13  The names of the cows are capitalized by Sir John Rhys as: ‘Einion’s Yellow One, ‘Stray-horns’, ‘Particoloured Lake Cow’ and ‘Hornless Dodin’ (Welsh & Manx Vol. I, The Fairies’ Revenge, 1901). Their summoning by the ‘little old man’ is reminiscent of the names used by Bombadil for the hobbit ponies under a similar calling.

14  In trying to discern the truth about what really lay behind the marriage contract – one might find the ‘three blows’ condition as incredulous. Especially if mere contact can cause an inadvertent ‘blow’. Tolkien – as I do – might have thought the touching of ‘iron’ causing disappearance possessed more credence. Particularly as this aspect of Welsh mythology is repeated in a publication Tolkien researched for his On Fairy-stories paper (see Bibliography of Tolkien On Fairy-Stories, Flieger & Anderson):

“The Fairy bride, in Wales, vanishes on being touched with iron.”
– The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns & Fairies, Fairyland and Hades, Robert Kirk, Comment by Andrew Lang, 1893

Also, the ‘iron/vanishing’ phenomenon seems to have genuine connections to folklore. Perhaps that’s why in Scottish folklore bannocks for Michaelmas were not supposed to be baked with metal (in case they were of iron). Perhaps Michaelmas bannocks were the original forerunner of the modern ‘fairy cake’:

“Fairy, Fairy bake me a bannock, and roast me a collop, …”.
– The Popular Rhymes of Scotland, Robert Chambers, 1826

15  Bronze is made from Copper and Tin.

Angel and Demon, Gospel and Fairy-story

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.

Many months ago I started out by audaciously proclaiming Tom Bombadil was uniquely associated to an abstract concept. That being a role which allegorized the ‘audience’ of Eru Ilúvatar’s great ‘play’. Despite the logic and the evidence – the hypothesis is, for some, a hard one to embrace. Since then, I have taken a much gentler path and slowly introduced new ideas. Yet the intent is to eventually loop back and fuse the somewhat detached theatrical postulation with my later more conventional analysis.

In methodically inching forward it has been advocated that The Lord of the Rings storyline developed with an underlying theme unexplored by scholars. Tom and Goldberry have been exposed to possess links to ‘elementals’, ‘faërie beings’ and even a demi-god – through classic European fairy tales and mythologies. Bit by bit the evidence has accumulated. And slowly but surely Tolkien’s purpose is becoming clearer. So by now it should have dawned upon the reader that these two are among the most complex and secret of all Tolkien’s invented characters. However despite all the ‘new’ stuff, believe it or not there is still plenty more to uncover, and with that – understanding to be had.

The following set of four essays go a long way towards binding the threads already developed into one logical and coherent story. Indeed that is my aim. Yet there is still one major surprise before I begin to do so. There is still one piece of the jigsaw needed to be taken out of the box and brought into the light.

All this time the largest and most central chunk of the puzzle has been hidden right under noses. For the Professor left it well within our grasp. Finally after more than six decades the time is ripe to expose a remarkable secret and consequently the true nature of the light surrounding Tom. The intensity of the halo is bright – yet a cloud has fogged our vision. For we have all been staring blindly, unable to penetrate the billows of mist, when before us the irrefutable answer to the Bombadil enigma requires only blowing away a wispy layer!


Image result for angel cloud halo wings


.As the reader shall see, new and relevant information has surfaced which cannot be ignored. Its exposure yields and confirms an unrealized deeper substructure to the story affirming my earlier prognosis. To unearth this material requires almost Sherlockian discipline. Likewise its insertion uses a skill set one can quite easily imagine to have been acquired by a master philologist. We must not forget that the art of telling a spellbinding tale, woven with matter that provides the reader with a truly multi-dimensional experience, is difficult enough in itself. But Tolkien possessed both mastery of the English language and specific knowledge to add in an entirely academic side, raising the worth of the work enormously. On a personal basis – it became meaningful to him beyond a pure story. 

Yes, the academic points of tangence are becoming too numerous to overlook. Those who might dismiss the many unique revelations so far as entirely coincidental – will have to reconsider their positions. First and foremost we must not forget that Tolkien was a Professor of a rare sort. If we patronizingly doubt his intellectual ability to include, in the most subtle way, fragments and traces of our world’s fairy-stories/myth – in a latent manner – we are indeed belittling an extraordinary talent. His artful methods should be appreciated and complimented – not doubted. Especially when the evidence becomes overwhelming beyond reason.


Part I: Archangel Tom

Despite The Lord of the Rings being:

“… a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; …”,
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #142

by the very end of the edit process – all ‘overt’ mentions of doctrine were removed. Tolkien willfully:

“… cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #142

A change of policy took place; instead a secondary and subtle method of inclusion became entirely preferential:

“… the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #142

It is quite possible the Professor desired to go further than he had, and alter even more material; yet the constraint imposed by an already enmeshed timeline would prove too formidable a hurdle. Such untangling would have cascaded into a horrendous revision affecting a great deal of the text. And the change I am talking about relates to a specific date involving Master Tom.

If I asked the question:

‘Which single day in The Fellowship of the Ring spans across more chapters than any other?’, I bet many ‘experts’ would be unable to fire back an answer without mulling it over and perhaps even consulting the book. It’s a little nugget of information that, in all probability, has never been much thought about.

What was so special about September 29th of the year 3018 that it straddled Fog on the Barrow-downs, At the Sign of the Prancing Pony, Strider and A knife in the Dark? Yes, it is by no accident that I have chosen this very same day and month to issue this essay. And indeed its choice was no accident on Tolkien’s part either.

Within the appendices the date is casually remarked upon in a most nonchalant and unassuming manner:

“29 Frodo reaches Bree at night. Gandalf visits the Gaffer.”
– The Return of the King, Appendix B, 3018, September

But though Tolkien told the truth – there was more he declined to highlight; because purposely omitted was any mention of the Barrow rescue. The sun rose and there was Tom on the morning of September 29th – a day known in England as: ‘Michaelmas Day’. That famed day in English tradition and the Christian faith that celebrates God’s glorious and mighty angel. A day which is holy and one of festivity, coinciding with one of the four historic ‘quarter days’ purposely embedded within the book1.


Image result for archangel michael

Archangel Michael tramples Satan, Guido Reni, 1636


For dedicated followers of Tolkien the answer is earth-shattering. So startling that the enormity of it might take time to sink in. Because Tom was modeled, in part, on the greatest of all named Christian angels: the ‘Archangel Michael’2. Never discussed before among scholars or readers is this most significant and indisputable of assertions.

Hopelessly in the grips of a superior foe, our hapless hobbits needed aid from an omnipotent entity to overcome the fearsome Wight. Of all the threats on their journey to Rivendell, the terrifying encounter was:

“… perhaps the most dangerous moment of all.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Many Meetings

With words of rhyming power Tom cast out the demon from his barrow home:

“Get out you old Wight!”,
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

just as Lucifer had been cast out from his home in heaven by Michael.

Such a similar chord is too striking to have been accidental. The journey of the hobbits and the timing of the rescue was meticulously planned. Tom’s dramatic appearance at dawn was no coincidence. Nor was the submerged Christian symbolism. Indeed, as Tolkien more or less confessed, certain core elements of faith were deliberately infused into the narrative. In embedding at least three faith-based ‘quarter days’, Tolkien may have been hinting, that in his mind, distinct dates important to Christianity had been preordained by God (Eru Ilúvatar for the novel) as holy. A kind of foreshadowing of the salvation history to come.

Our knowledge of Saint Michael (as the archangel is also known) is scant. Mentions within the Bible proclaim him as the leader of God’s angelic host and the main protagonist in the heavenly battle against the fallen angel we now call the Devil. Though we know only a little about his character and deeds, many quirky traditions have embedded themselves as part of his celebratory day. Most importantly, for us, much is present within The Lord of the Rings which shares commonality. No other singular date in the novel exhibits such a quantity and degree of folklore and religious parallelism for this particular theme.

Biblical accounts tell us St. Michael fought on Earth against Satan for the body of Moses3 – which when comparing against the Barrow episode, is similar to Tom ‘fighting’ for the bodies of the hobbits. Michael won the contest just like Tom.

He is the guardian over the land of God’s chosen people – Israel. But one can understand Tolkien felt England was just as special. A country that those of Dutch heritage (of which our Dutch doll Tom was one) literally translate to be: ‘Angel Land’4. Just maybe the archangel was also the guardian of England too. For the Bible records that each nation was assigned an angel to protect its inhabitants.

Though there is no biblical warrant, Roman Catholics believe St. Michael is the summoner of the souls of the dead for weighing and judgement. Mirrored indeed through Tom recalling the seemingly ‘lifeless’ trio of Sam, Pippin and Merry back to consciousness.


 St. Michael weighing souls, Doomsday painting, Wenhaston, England 


In English folklore St. Michael is the patron saint of horses – echoed by Tom’s close affinity with ponies:

“Sharp-ears, Wise-nose, Swish-tail and Bumpkin,
White-socks my little lad, and old Fatty Lumpkin! …
… they answered to the new names that Tom had given them for the rest of their lives.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

And he is the patron saint of the police – the ‘boys in blue’. Tom’s ‘uniform’ is similarly colored:

“Bright blue his jacket is, …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

In medieval times the quarter days were also lawful occasions to settle debts. Again we see inserted symbolism as Frodo and the innkeeper square accounts for services rendered for the period of the stay. All obligations were intended to be tallied and made good by the ‘start of the new quarter’:

“He’s welcome … so long as he pays in the morning.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, At the Sign of the Prancing Pony

English historical documents record how bills were often settled with bushels of barley – likely joked upon by Tolkien nicknaming Butterbur: ‘Barley’.

Now this was also the time to hire new servants, exemplified by:

“Strider shall be your guide.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Strider

Traditionally the celebration involved a feast at which bread was freshly baked5, and for those who could afford it – a goose was served. At the inn for supper:

“There was hot soup, cold meats, … new loaves, …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, At the Sign of the Prancing Pony    (my emphasis)

And although the types of “cold meats” aren’t stated, nevertheless the importance of ‘geese’ to the overall picture, to my mind, too conveniently appears on this same day:

“… the dogs were yammering and the geese6screaming.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Strider


The Michaelmas Goose (courtesy of website:


In line with folklore, we must note the hearty meal at the inn was consumed after the demon’s defeat. The origin of a celebratory tradition perhaps? So with that thought, a most telling detail for us is the legend that after the Devil was cast from heaven on the 29th – the landing site was a thorny blackberry bush. Satan cursed it, scorched the fruit with his fiery breath and stamped and spat upon it (or even worse – urinated on it). Thus the tradition goes – blackberries should not be picked after Michaelmas Day – being unfit for human consumption.

Masterfully inserted into the text – the only mention ever of ‘blackberries’ within the entire novel occurs on September 29th when the hobbits eat at the Prancing Pony. Provided as part of the evening meal:

“There was … a blackberry tart, …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, At the Sign of the Prancing Pony

Of course one can logically assume those blackberries must have been gathered before the 29th of September!

‘Okay there is an awful lot that matches up. But why Archangel Michael?’, the reader should rightfully ask.
‘What was Tolkien’s purpose?’

The reasons are multifaceted. While the main explanation is the one promoted all along – namely Tolkien’s desire to link back to the folklore and legends of our world, others exist which are bluntly obvious. I have little doubt that St. Michael, was near and dear to Tolkien’s heart. His second son was given this same saintly name and as a devout Roman Catholic, Tolkien strongly believed in the existence of guardian angels7. Given as much, we can fully understand why a St. Michael type figure was included as an intercessor on behalf of the good folk of Middle-earth, in situations of dire emergency. We must note, that when Tom Bombadil’s name was invoked in the barrow – to use Tolkien’s words:

“… as a Catholic might on a Saint, …”,
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153

indeed this angelic being responded with aid.

What else is quite plain? Well Michaelmas term was of course the beginning of the academic year at Oxford since founding days. And talking about ancient things – Tom, the ancient spirit of the region, was appropriately and likely deliberately connected to Oxford’s oldest surviving building: the Saxon Tower of Saint Michael’s Church at the North Gate8. Here there exists an intriguing link of ‘lilies’ to ‘Archangel Tom’ as we see in the novel. The church itself contains a renowned medieval stained glass window. In a shape representing the body of Christ are white lilies – the famed: ‘Lily Window’.


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The Lily Window, St. Michael’s Church at the North Gate, Oxford


So tracking back to the book and Tolkien’s own mythology – effectively, even after the Valar had withdrawn with their entourage to Aman, Eru had not wholly abandoned the Elves and Men of Middle-earth. No indeed – an angelic being was there among them as one of the Ainur ready to intercede if called upon. Looks can be deceiving, and to use Tolkien’s thoughts on simplicity and ordinariness within the divine plan – perhaps a slightly shabby wrinkly little fellow was:

“… a symbol of the real nature of holy things in a fallen world.”
– Tolkien & The Silmarillion, Tolkien as Christian Writer, Clyde Kilby

Angels are of course guardians – at least the ‘good’ ones. As Tolkien reminded his youngest son:

“Remember your guardian angel. … God is (so to speak) also behind us, supporting, nourishing us … The bright point of power where that life-line, that spiritual umbilical cord touches: there is our Angel, facing two ways to God behind us in the direction we cannot see, and to us.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #54

Setting stereotypical looks aside, happy-go-lucky Tom unquestionably behaved as a guardian to the hobbits within his lands. Though he came without a set of wings, warrior or cherubic looks, or the majesty of Gandalf the White:

“Gandalf was … an angelic emissary …”,
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #268

“G. is not, of course, a human being … I wd. venture to say that he was an incarnate ‘angel’ …”,
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #156    (Tolkien’s italicized emphasis on ‘incarnate’)

nevertheless I strongly suspect Tolkien considered Tom as an equivalent. Really then it’s not surprising if Bombadil (just like Gandalf):

“… can act in emergency as an ‘angel’ …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #156

However my real reason for including the wizard as a comparison point, is that the 29th of September is also known as ‘The Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels’. If both are ‘angels’ within the mythology – then one can quite understand why this very particular date is doubly applicable. Again it would be beyond ridiculous to advocate the departure of Gandalf from Middle-earth, exactly three9 years later on September 29th 3021, was merely another extraordinary fluke:

“29. They come to the Grey Havens. Frodo and Bilbo depart over Sea with the Three Keepers.”
– The Return of the King, Appendix B, 3021, September


Image result for michaelmas goose historic


Could Gandalf, who played so important a role in the demise of Sauron, be entirely forgotten in our history? Was the feast of ‘All Angels’ the last dim memory of the great hero from the now distant Third Age? Hard to say how the Professor felt about this aspect of connectivity. But without doubt both Gandalf and Tom were considered by Tolkien as angelic beings.

Yes the game is up. The implanted symbolism is too strong. Tom is no longer a huge mystery. And though many will not like it (because let’s face it – we all have our personal ideas), it’s time to shelve non-aligning theories and update those old articles.

Angelic Tom most certainly is. But such a divine order is not mutually exclusive. Tolkien’s casting of him as one of the Ainur does not preclude Tom from also being an incarnate creature of Faërie and a source for much of the myth of our world. In which case we can no longer avoid touching upon the dreaded subject of ‘allegory’ – a topic I have shied away from actively discussing in this essay. Because at this point I have decided that it is unfair to jump to conclusions hastily.

The reader is entitled to understand the whole story, and yes there is quite a bit more. Nevertheless the ‘Michael analogue’ is weighty. It’s hard not to leap to an immediate verdict. Whether Tolkien stepped over the line, and with his own definition condemned himself:

“… ‘allegory’ … resides in … the purposed domination of the author.”,
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Foreword to the Second Edition

is a matter we ought to deeply ponder. Was the selection of September 29th “purposed domination of the author” ? Is the reader (now knowing the significance of this date10) forced to forever associate Tom with Michael the Archangel?

Until Tolkien’s full purpose is known, a stay of judgement is fair. Yet a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. For once we comprehend more of the Professor’s plan, it will almost certainly throw up substantial controversy!



1  Along with Michaelmas Day (September 29th), the three other traditional English calendar quarter days when significant events occur in The Lord of the Rings, in the year 3018 are:

Christmas Day, Dec. 25th:  The Fellowship leave Rivendell. The ‘birth’ of the quest to destroy the Ring. Christians celebrate this day as the birth of Jesus Christ.

Lady Day, March 25th: The fall of Sauron. Catholics celebrate this as Annunciation Day – the angel Gabriel’s visitation to the Virgin Mary announcing she would conceive the Son of God. In medieval England this day was also taken to be the date of the Crucifixion. So in both cases of mankind’s feigned and real history, these are true beginnings of new eras.

Midsummer Day, July 1st: The marriage of Arwen & Aragorn and the unification of the long sundered Half-elven bloodline. Traditionally Midsummer Day was celebrated on the 24th June as an English quarter day. So although called the same name – the dates do not exactly align. Catholics celebrate June 24th as St. John the Baptist Day.

It is probably by no accident that on June 24th 3018 it is Gandalf who takes Aragorn to find a sign reaffirming that a new Age had begun and its future was bright. It is on this day that the journey begins up Mount Mindolluin, culminating in discovery of the precious sapling on the 25th.

In a way, Gandalf acts as a herald and messenger. He is an angelos (see Letter #181) in conveying that the sign of hope and ‘salvation’ is hidden. Arguably there is Christian symbolism subtly inserted that portrays salvation itself will ultimately arise from a simple seed ‘in the wilderness’ at a time unknown to mankind. In the mythology, the seed is a product of a series of events (arguably beginning outside of Time) and with which the fate of the world is bound (meaning the Two Trees, the Silmarils and ensuing events). 

Gandalf thus mirrors some aspects of the story surrounding John the Baptist, whose cries ‘in the wilderness’ heralded that the path of salvation was near at hand. As a messenger, John the Baptist proclaimed that path was through Jesus Christ. 

2  Michael is an angel in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. His name appears in Christian Scripture five times, thrice in the Book of Daniel, and once each in the Epistle of St. Jude and the Book of Revelation.

3  “But Michael the archangel, when contending with the devil he disputed about the body of Moses, durst not bring against him a railing judgment, but said, The Lord rebuke thee.”, The Bible, American Standard Version, Jude 1-9.

4  No doubt the ‘Angel’ has been historically distorted – originally being ‘Angles’ of Danish and North-German extraction.

5  St. Michael’s bread (Michaelmas Bannock in Scotland), is supposed to be made without metal implements, but no one knows why. I suspect Tolkien thought of an apt mythological reason which will be revealed in Part II.

6  There are only two mentions of ‘goose’ or ‘geese’ within the novel. Gandalf at Rivendell raises the same observation as Butterbur does at the reaction of these animals to demonic beings. One might rightly wonder if Tolkien decided the saying: ‘your goose is cooked’ arose in a mythological sense from the Bree episode, with the screaming geese effectively betokening their own sacrificial doom was nigh – in honor of a future Michaelmas Day.

7  See The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letters #64, #89 & #213.

8  Perhaps symbolically intended by Tolkien, the hobbits felt that safety and sanctuary awaited once they had passed by the ‘north-gate’ of the Barrow-downs:

“… the gap in the hills, the north-gate of the Barrow-downs. If they could pass that, they would be free.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

A tenuous link thus exists with St. Michael’s at the North Gate, Oxford.

9  Again in a ‘fairy tale’, here we have another example of the ubiquitous number ‘3’.

10  The various calendars associated to The Lord of the Rings are provided in Appendix D. The situation is complex in trying to relate the Tale of Years calendar with the Shire and Númenórean ones, all back to our current day Gregorian calendar. To cut to the chase – the four dates listed under the Tale of Years which I have specified under Note 1 as matching/approximating to the old English ‘quarter days’ were considered by Tolkien to be of great significance. Indeed holy significance – because as Tolkien said in Letter #142 – The Lord of the Rings is “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work”. As sourced from a mythological era, these particular four dates were meant to be carried forward from prehistory through to fulfillment in biblical times and then to current times, and to be venerated essentially unchanged. And this is regardless of whether the The Lord of the Rings fictional dates exactly match up with our current Gregorian calendar or not. We need look no further than the noteworthy fictional dates, themselves, being prime examples of employed symbolism where:

“… the religious element is absorbed into the story …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #142

Also of interest, Tolkien associates the Númenórean calendar of Middle-earth most closely with our Gregorian calendar (see Letter #176) for which September 29th is designated as Michaelmas Day. ‘Old’ Michaelmas Day under the Julian calendar fell on October 11th (or 10th).

The Road to Fairyland

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: The Opening Command – Simply Childe’s Play

This essay is split into three parts. The themes discussed in parts ‘a’ and ‘b’, aid a deeper understanding of the revelation in part ‘c’. If I am right, for the first time we will grasp much of the true story behind the Barrow-downs adventure. We will finally fully comprehend what happened between the green mounded hill and Frodo’s capture by the Barrow-wight.


Part IIIa: Adults and Detail

A matter unrecognized among general readers, and perhaps some scholars, is that at outset Tolkien envisaged The Lord of the Rings to be of roughly similar length1 to The Hobbit. At a point some fourteen months after first putting pen to paper, he felt he was over halfway through as:

“… The Lord of the Rings – had reached2 Chapter 12 (and had been re-written several times), running to over 300 MS. Pages …”,
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #35

requiring an additional:

“… 200 at least to finish the story that has developed.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #35

Aiming for around 20 chapters (assuming ~60 percent had already been written), the book would have run to about where Farewell to Lórien ends up being in the finished item. Anticipated was a relatively short production, and knowing so we must realize that the entire Bombadil episode would have constituted a substantial part of the tale. Given as much, we ought not to be surprised if Tolkien input intense effort into the early chapters. And indeed he did – of a scholastic nature. For far more academic material was inserted than will ever come across no matter how many re-readings are undertaken. That is unless the reader is well-acquainted with fairy tales, Celtic mythology, medieval works – and can connect the ingenious infusion of all three within the text.


Image result for The Hobbit Fellowship of the Ring easton press

.The Easton Press Editions of Tolkien’s Works
(Side-by-side thickness comparisons are deceptive)


For these initial twelve chapters Tolkien complained:

“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

Not that the rest was less diligently crafted:

“It is written in my life-blood, …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #109

The Professor had poured his heart and soul into the exercise. Using immense skill he left an underlying structure which few have fully comprehended; and that is especially true when it comes to Tom and Goldberry. Such attention to detail was particularly necessary because the targeted audience was an older age group – a faction more critical and certainly less forgiving than young folk:

“I really meant it was running its course, and forgetting ‘children’, and was becoming more terrifying than the Hobbit. It may prove quite unsuitable. It is more ‘adult’ …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #34

“I think The Lord of the Rings is in itself a good deal better than The Hobbit, but it may not prove a very fit sequel. It is more grown up – but the audience for which The Hobbit was written has done that also.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #35

Already a flavor of the professional criticism to come had been received from both peer writers and the media in the aftermath of The Hobbit. For example the acclaimed author Arthur Ransome had quibbled about an irksome inconsistency of:

“… Gandalf’s use of the term ‘excitable little man’ as a description of Bilbo. He cited other, similar uses of ‘man’ or ‘men’ to describe dwarves and goblins.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #20 (see notes)

Even more worryingly The Observer had published a letter questioning the originality of the name: ‘Hobbit’. Tolkien vigorously defended the story’s core invention but readily admitted some minor errors had crept in and improvements were desirable. Still he had been primed as to the type and depth of critiquing to come.

Though Tolkien had expected research, only under specific circumstances would it be sanctioned:

“When they have read it, some readers will (I suppose) wish … to analyze it, … they are, of course, at liberty to do these things – so long as they have first read it with attention throughout.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #329    (Tolkien’s italicized emphasis on ‘first’)

It had to be diligently performed, be objective in nature and undertaken with careful thought. Those are obvious baseline criteria for a pedantic philologist – because in no uncertain terms Tolkien demanded we pay attention to the text. However while still alive, he felt independently conducted research was unnecessary as he was always there to be directly asked:

“I do not know why they should research … after all I hold the key.”
– Niekas interview, 1967


Cover of Niekas Fanzine #18 – containing transcript of Tolkien interview, 1967


The trouble with all this is that the Professor, though willing to expand on many topics, was reluctant to give us the keys to Bombadil. Whenever asked, the questions were deflected or cryptically responded to. So to ferret out answers we are left with limited options. Nevertheless our quest requires us to take a path.

The path I have chosen – is indeed one that really is not so strange. Indeed it is one we can discern from many of his comments as a valid one. A roadway paved of blended mythology and fairy tale was simply a continuation of the themes underlying The Hobbit. The road headed in the right direction, because undoubtedly noted was the glowing praise published in a highly reputable English newspaper:

“… one of the book’s charms appears to be its Spenserian harmonising of the brilliant threads of so many branches of epic, mythology, and Victorian fairy literature.”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #25

Tolkien confirmed the approach had mostly been correctly interpreted:

“As for the rest of the tale it is, … derived from (previously digested) epic, mythology, and fairy-story …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #25

And so encouraged by success, it is fairly obvious that following a tried and tested route was a no-brainer when it came to The Lord of the Rings. His own tastes echoed the desires of many others. Nor was he afraid to admit the internal seed came deeply implanted:

“But an equally basic passion of mine ab initio was for myth (not allegory!) and for fairy-story, and above all for heroic legend on the brink of fairy-tale and history, …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131

A later admission relates how relieved he felt knowing his long-standing belief was vilified:

“… it remains an unfailing delight to me to find my own belief justified: that the ‘fairy-story’ is really an adult genre …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #159

‘So where are we heading?’ one might ask.
‘There’s nothing radical here – it’s common knowledge Tolkien tailored The Lord of the Rings towards adults, and his extraordinary efforts in formulating the text are equally well-known among scholars:

“Hardly a word in its 600,000 or more has been unconsidered. And the placing, size, style, and contribution to the whole of all the features, incidents, and chapters has been laboriously pondered.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131

Well all I am requesting at this stage is that readers bear the adult nature of the book, as well as Tolkien’s penchant for mythology and fairy-stories, uppermost in their minds when it comes to later revelations in this essay.


Part IIIb: Cross-fertilization of English and Celtic Fairy Tales

Moving chronologically back to the story’s beginning, of the many problems Tolkien faced early on in constructing an elaborate tale – there were two that particularly concern us. The first was what was he going to do with Tom Bombadil. The second was a major preoccupation in preparing an ‘Andrew Lang’ Fairy-stories lecture paper. Refreshing his memory on Andrew Lang’s twelve fairy-story books (and no doubt many other fairy tales) must have had an impact in itself. Dealing academically with ‘faërie’ and ‘fairies’, over the course of five months3, might simultaneously have led to contemplating roles and firming-up genera for our merry couple. Particularly as this time period overlapped with his formulation/revision of the chapters involving Bombadil.


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Andrew Lang’s Twelve Colored Fairy Books


In putting out a thesis about fairyland and fairies – was his new ‘fairy tale’ going to be devoid of such a place and creatures? Were the many historical accounts telling of fairy encounters just mumbo-jumbo? Were the tales of how men and women have disappeared with the fairies, oblivious of a different pace of time in the mortal world, totally fictitious? Hmm … these were issues not easily ruled upon. Though eventually a decision had to be made.

When it came down to it – the choice was quite straight-forward. For The Lord of the Rings key lacunae would need filling. Unfortunately his ‘race’ of Elves just wouldn’t do:

“Elves is an English word, but the nature and history of the peoples so-called in my books has little or nothing to do with the European traditions about Elves or Fairies.”
– Tolkien Letter to L.M. Cutts, October 1958

Such a point cannot be stressed enough; we must divorce ourselves from thinking European fairies and Tolkien’s Elves were synonymous or equivalents. Such a position even appears to exclude the Tuatha Dé Danann, which many scholars would find a touch incredulous.

Now if we look carefully there is not a single explicit mention of ‘faërie’, ‘fay’, ‘fairy’ or similar namesakes in the entire novel. However omission of specific terminology wouldn’t pose too much of a problem as long as the book contained them and buried within were reasonable pointers inferring so. It’s my belief that dwelling on the sub-topics of ‘faërie’ and ‘fairies’ for his lecture essay presented a neat solution about what to do with Tom and Goldberry. The:

“… ‘adventure’ on the way.”,
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153

rendered an ideal plot device.

But there was another problem. Till then he had only ever described one faërie to the public at large, namely the: ‘Faërie in the West’. But that’s not the way it was going to be. He needed to connect our folklore/legends/myths with his mythical age. Thus ultimately he was faced with the dilemma posed by all the accounts of faërie in European historical literature, particularly those tied to the soil of the British Isles. Moreover there existed a plethora of records pertaining to supernatural and very ‘peculiar’ fairy-like beings, ranging from tiny to ~human-size, inhabiting England and nearby lands. These were in no way reconcilable with the demi-gods and High Elves dwelling in a paradise-like otherworld sited across an expanse of water from his pre-existing Silmarillion mythology. Nor were any of the ‘peculiar’ sort anything like the noble Elves of Middle-earth. A thousand years of our world’s history could not be simply brushed under the carpet. There had to be something more to it all.

My personal thoughts are that Tolkien wrestled with such dilemmas actively. Giving due consideration to these matters – a tandem solution was at hand. I believe he thought it best to include faërie-beings into a new ‘Middle-earth Faërie’ specifically created for the novel. With one swipe of logic – a tenable path opened up offering a solution with Tom and Goldberry at the heart of it.

Now the concept of two faëries is by no means an unfamiliar one. For the Celts of Ireland – the land of Tír na nÓg– an idyllic island situated far out west in the ocean is deeply embedded in their lore. It is equally relevant as the one below hills in which the sidhe folk dwelt. Likewise in Welsh Celtic legends there are also two faëries purported to exist. In Arthurian lore (naturalized later to England) – the land of Avalon is also storied to be across a watery expanse, while Annwn is situated under the earth. But it is possibly a direct account of an otherworld below the very soil of England that spurred Tolkien to design in Middle-earth Faërie. The extraordinary account of the famed Woolpit children emerging from underground in Suffolk in the twelfth century is an intriguing tale evoking debate even to this day. It was Ralph of Coggeshall and William of Newburgh who both recorded how two strange green-skinned children were found by locals, lost and unable to communicate in English.

Practically starving, all the boy and girl would eat were ‘green beans’ which they devoured readily. Later after learning the language – the girl claimed they had come from another land and had got lost after stumbling out of a cavern. They had then become disoriented by the bright sun; a sun which didn’t exist in their world. Astoundingly she recounted all the folk in their land were green tinged too.


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Woolpit Village sign honoring The Green Children


Tolkien might well have been fascinated5. Hmm … ‘beans’ – a legendary item in English fairy tales! Were green beans solely responsible for their pallor? Then were the children from faërie? Were beans regular fairy-food, and is that why the Green Knight (in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) portrayed a similarly hue? Perhaps the account was inaccurately documented. Perhaps there really was a green sun in an otherworld below England and it was the cause of such skin shading. Perhaps it was so low on the horizon – that only at high altitudes could it be directly glimpsed – leaving the general aura of light described by the children as true!

It is these sorts of ideas and thoughts that may well have whirred about in the Professor’s mind. Particularly because he once confessed an attraction towards stories of strange lands below the earth:

“I am extremely fond of the genre, even having read Land under England with some pleasure …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #26

Inevitably and inexorably – one can understand why a Middle-earth Faërie was included in The Lord of the Rings, and as I have suggested – how it came to possess a green sun.

Now Fairyland as a land-based otherworld in historical literature has always had a strong connection to ‘green hills’ in our world. The fairy tale accounts are numerous – and as examples I have listed an assortment below from both Britain and Ireland.

Celtic Tales:

“ ‘… I come from the Plains of the Ever Living,’ she said, ‘there where there is neither death nor sin. … And in all our pleasure we have no strife. And because we have our homes in the round green hills, men call us the Hill Folk.’ ”
– Celtic Fairy Tales, Connla and the Fairy Maiden, Joseph Jacobs, 1892    (my underlined emphasis)

“The Queen o’ Fairies she caught me
In yon green hill to dwell.”
– English and Scottish Ballads, Tam Lin, 1904    (my emphasis)

“On a certain night the old man told him the green round hill, where the fairies kept the boy, would be open.”
– Popular Tales of the West Highlands Vol. II, The Smith and the Fairies, J. F. Campbell, 1890    (my emphasis)

English Tales:

“Away rode the prince and Kate through the greenwood, … They rode on and on till they came to a green hill. The prince here drew bridle and spoke, ‘Open, open, green hill, and let the young prince in …’ ”.
– English Fairy Tales, Kate Crackernuts, Joseph Jacobs, 1890    (my emphasis)

“ ‘Go on a, little further,’ said the henwife, ’till you come to a round green hill, surrounded with terrace-rings, from the bottom to the top; go round it three times, widershins, and each time say:’Open, door! Open, door! And let me come in.’ ”
– English Fairy Tales, Childe Rowland, Joseph Jacobs, 1890    (my emphasis)

“Once upon a time … there was wont to walk many harmless spirits called fairies, dancing brave order in fairy rings on green hills with sweet music.”
– Fairy Gold: A Book of Old English Fairy Tales, Ernest Rhys, 1906    (my emphasis)

Not only ‘hills’, but a connection of ‘mist’ with fairies also existed. The Tuatha Dé Danann concealed themselves at times with the féth fíada or fairy mist (also known as the: ceo Sídhe). The Welsh fairies, the Tylwyth Teg, according to Sir John Rhys’ investigations6 frequented mountainsides covered with mist. And so it might have been a Welsh tale which caught the Professor’s eye:

“One day when it was cloudy and misty, a shepherd boy going to the mountains … came to a hollow place … where he saw a number of round rings. He recognized the place as one he had often heard of as dangerous … He tried to get away from there, but he could not. Then an old, merry, blue-eyed man7 appeared. The boy, … followed the old man, and the old man said to him, ‘Do not speak a word till I tell you.’ In a little while they came to a menhir (long stone). The old man tapped it three times, and then lifted it up. A narrow path with steps descending was revealed, … ‘Follow me,’ said the old man, ‘no harm will come to you.’ …”.
– The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, Einion and Olwen, Walter Y. Evans-Wentz, 1911    (my emphasis)

The blue-eyed old man descended into an otherworld – a merry old man endowed with the characteristics of a creature of faërie – and one Tolkien could reconcile as Bombadil perhaps? Equally interesting is the hollow setting and the menhir, and it being key to entry. Once again we have the usual number of ‘three’ so abundantly common in fairy tales. Perhaps then, there was a way into faërie; perhaps it involved green hills, a hollow place, mist, a solitary menhir and the number three?

What this Welsh Celtic tale resembled in part was The Adventures of Covan the Brown-haired8 – an Irish Celtic fairy tale. And that equally may have resonated with the Professor. Because therein was another old man – the ‘Spirit of old Age’ who was linked to a youthful golden-haired damsel depicted as combing her hair. The story itself centered on three sons who sought for their sister after a mysterious disappearance. It was the youngest who in the end succeeded and saved not only his sister but restored his brothers who had been turned to stone.


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Covan the Brown-haired, The Orange Fairy Book, Andrew Lang, 1906


Tolkien probably felt much had got mixed up in the ‘pot of soup’. Yet his sympathies appear to have belonged to the English and their fairy tales (as opposed to Celtic ones), believing they reflected a truer account of fairies:

“… the English) have the true tradition of the fairies, of whom the Íras and the Wéalas (the Irish and Welsh) tell garbled things.”
– The Book of Lost Tales, Volume II, The History of Eriol or Ælfwine

His former tutor Sir John Rhys (Professor of Celtic Studies at Oxford) had deduced that much cross-fertilization had taken place between English and Celtic tales. Tolkien might have found it hard to disagree with one particular case. Because The Adventures of Covan the Brown-haired and Einion and Olwen9 certainly resonate with that great English fairy tale: Childe Rowland.


Part IIIc: The Lord of the Rings and the Way into Middle-earth Faërie

Now Wilfred Rowland Childe, a poet and critic, was a family friend of the Tolkien’s – and indeed Christopher’s godfather. However, as far as I can tell he had nothing to do with our story of interest: Childe Rowland. Regarded by the great folklorist Joseph Jacobs as his favorite tale, its salubrious historical significance was not lost but instead emphasized:

“ ‘Childe Rowland,’ is mentioned by Shakespeare in King Lear, and is probably, as I have shown, the source of Milton’s Comus. … Certainly no other folk-tale in the world can claim so distinguished an offspring.”
– English Fairy Tales, Childe Rowland, Notes and References, Joseph Jacobs, 1890

The story centers around a quest by the youngest son of a widow to bring back his missing sister, Burd Ellen10, to the mortal world. Two of his brothers had failed trying and in the process been captured by an Elf king in Elfland (also called the ‘Land of Faery’11). Merlin, the famous wizard in Arthurian lore, features prominently in relating the cause behind the mysterious disappearance of the young girl; furthermore advice is provided to all three brothers on how to win her back. In the end it is Childe Rowland who rescues his sister and saves his other siblings too.

There are a number of points in the tale which directly interest us when it comes to The Lord of the Rings. These include a mention of ‘Middle-earth’, a ‘Dark Tower’, the hero being a ‘widows’ son’, a variant of the famous giant refrain: ‘fe-fi-fo-fum’, as well as a ‘restoration of souls’. However I will not dwell on these further – except to state that here we have yet more examples of links to Tolkien’s novel involving classic fairy tale. Instead what I want to focus on is the way Burd Ellen inadvertently entered Elfland and then relate that back to The Lord of the Rings.

Although there are possibly several ways for mortals to stumble into the fabled realm of the fairies, I have a feeling Tolkien was intrigued by Burd Ellen’s accidental entry method in chasing a ball around a sacred site. Childe Rowland seeking an explanation is informed by the ‘Warlock Merlin’ that she:

“… must have been carried off by the fairies, because she went round the church ‘wider shins’ – the opposite way to the sun.”
– English Fairy Tales, Childe Rowland, Joseph Jacobs, 1890

Jacobs explains:

“ ‘Widershins’ is probably … analogous to the German ‘wider Schein,’ against the appearance of the sun, ‘counterclockwise’ as the mathematicians say—i.e., W., S., E., N., instead of with the sun and the hands of a clock; …”.
– English Fairy Tales, Childe Rowland Notes and References, Joseph Jacobs, 1890

Apparently as ancient pagan tradition has it, to travel contrary to the sun’s course is considered unlucky as ones’ shadow is always left behind. To go widershins – meaning to travel around an object counter-clockwise – was an act contrary to God’s design. Burd Ellen ran against the light, so that her shadow was not visible to her – and this left her vulnerable.


Burd Ellen, English Fairy Tales by J. Jacobs, Illustration by J. Batten, 1890


Childe Rowland is not the only example of a British fairy tale where the term ‘widershins’ is employed. The prose version of the Tam Lin ballad also uses it:

“ ‘But how did you get there, Tamlane?’ said Burd Janet.
‘I was hunting one day, and as I rode widershins round yon hill, a deep drowsiness fell upon me, and when I awoke, behold! I was in Elfland. …’ ”.
– More English Fairy Tales, Tamlane, Joseph Jacobs, 1894

Yet it seems too easy for mortals to attain a passport to enter faërie simply by completing one widershins circuit around a hill or a place of worship. If my intuition is correct Tolkien thought along the same lines. In pagan worship standing stones were objects central to druid rites, and of course in pre-history there were no churches. Getting into faërie in ancient times was more believable if menhirs were involved, and just like the Childe Rowland depiction, the number of circuits made was that ubiquitous number ‘three’:

“Go on a little further, … till you come to a round green hill, surrounded with terrace-rings, from the bottom to the top; go round it three times, widershins, and each time say: Open, door! open, door! And let me come in. and the third time the door will open, and you may go in.”
– English Fairy Tales, Childe Rowland, Joseph Jacobs, 1890    (my emphasis)

Another case of ‘third time pays for all’! Then perhaps in fairy tale lies the ancient proverb’s source!

In any case it’s time to turn to The Lord of the Rings and understand how cleverly Tolkien manipulated the text when it came to the green rimmed hill and standing stone sitting atop. By including some most mysterious events, he left us a puzzle to solve. Oh no – he wasn’t about to explain each and every point as fairy tales so often do for children. This was a riddle – a riddle meant for adults – in an adult fairy tale. It was up to us to arrive at a solution. And if we look carefully and think like adults – indeed we can!

The Fog on the Barrow-downs text tells us that in coming from the south, the hobbits reached a dished hill with a mounded rim and rode up and across its top. Peering towards the north, presumably when close to or at the northern rim, they decided not to descend but to take a break. At this point it is clear the four friends had bypassed the center of the hollow and the standing stone. The only question we need to concern ourselves with right now is:

‘On which side of the enchanted stone had they passed?’

In looking northwards atop his pony, we are told Frodo glanced towards the east however the sight made him uneasy:

“… on that side the hills were higher and looked down upon them; and all those hills were crowned with green mounds, and on some were standing stones, pointing upwards like jagged teeth out of green gums.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

Given that the text tells us:

“… they turned from the sight …”,
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

in deciding to ride towards the center of the hollow, the logical deduction is that indeed the hobbits had passed by the stone on the eastern side as opposed to the western one. Otherwise they would have turned towards those disconcerting range of high hills. The turn had to be an anti-clockwise one conducted north-east of the stone. Thus they had come from the south, must have ridden past the stone’s eastern side and left it behind them as they had made their way to the hill top’s northern perimeter. So indeed we can safely conclude about a half a circuit had been completed ‘widershins’ by the point the decision was taken to head backwards towards the standing stone from their northern vantage point.

After reaching the stone and unloading their ponies, they set their backs on its east face. Presumably the hollow was deep enough to mask the view of the menacing eastern hills. Anyhow at their awakening, as the fog rolled in, the text tells us they then made a bee-line for:

“… the western rim.”,
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

only to see the sun set before their eyes. The next question we have to ask ourselves is:

‘Which way around the menhir did they go and then which way did they come back?’


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.Plucked from the Fairy Circle, T. H. Thomas Illustration from Wirt Sikes’s British Goblins (1880) – Note direction of travel is counter-clockwise


The text is not explicit. And Tolkien possibly left it that way intentionally. In this case we must, as adults, make a logical deduction. Did they complete one anti-clockwise circuit and go around the stone widershins or not? Did four hobbits make a total of at least three complete laps? Well he left it for us to deduce knowing full well that those who were prepared to scrutinize the text and who were well-versed in English fairy tales would have been able to astutely guess the correct answer!

Using the lore embedded in fairy tales in combination with faith in our judgement might have been fine with the Professor. There is after all mathematically a 25% chance that an anti-clockwise route was taken – which are odds not to be sneered at. But I believe Tolkien would have both expected and wanted us to use logical reasoning to obtain the most likely answer. As an example it is worth repeating his line of thinking when it came to the question of Shadowfax accompanying Gandalf aboard ship:

“I think Shadowfax certainly went with Gandalf [across the Sea], though this is not stated. I feel it is better not to state everything (and indeed it is more realistic, since in chronicles and accounts of ‘real’ history, 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

In other words, there is nothing wrong in mentally challenging oneself to solve the ‘riddle’ using intellect, logic and “such evidence as there is”.

‘Which path around the stone would the hobbits have gone after awakening in fright? Which way around would they have gone in heading towards the western rim of the hollow?’

To solve the dilemma one must ask oneself: ‘Would their secondary focus have been northwards towards leaving the Downs or southwards back towards Bombadil?’

Logic tells us that despite heading west their path lay northwards, and one can easily imagine them glancing that way in hope of a glimpse through the fog of that all important:

“… gate-like opening at the far northward end of the long valley …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

Thus one might reason they rounded the menhir on the north side, and in reaching the hollow’s western rim, a three-quarters circuit widershins resulted.

‘But what about on their way back to the stone. For surely they must have returned to gather belongings?’

Again we can employ a dose of logic. The ponies and their positioning are key here. As the text states, after initially reaching the standing stone, the hobbits had removed all packs so that:

“Their ponies unburdened strayed upon the grass.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

Once at the western rim, as the sun set and the fog closed in, clearly conveyed is a hurry to leave that forbidding place. It seems logical the hobbits would have directly headed towards the ponies, then led them back towards the standing stone to re-lade their gear which must have been earlier off-loaded nearby it.

‘But in which quadrant were the ponies?’

Tolkien left us a telling clue in that Bombadil later related the ponies:

“… sniff danger ahead which you walk right into; and if they run to save themselves, then they run the right way.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

After all, a ‘sixth-sense’ gloom seems to have hung over the beasts in being portrayed in the hollow:

“… standing crowded together with their heads down.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

If I were to hazard a guess – I would say they were located in one of the two southern quadrants closest to Bombadil and furthest from the impending danger beyond the hill’s northern slope. Thus in gathering the ponies and then heading back towards the standing stone to collect the pony packs – one complete circuit ought to have been made ‘widershins’ by each hobbit! At least three in total!


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Counter-clockwise – Widershins (Widdershins)


Finally Tolkien’s masterful ploy, so adeptly inserted that it’s hardly noticeable, is revealed for all to marvel at. This is why Tom didn’t want the hobbits:

“… a-meddling with old stone …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

This was the way for a mortal to open up the way into fairyland. Not three taps on a menhir but three times around one widershins! For indeed the sudden magical appearance of the standing stones, functioning:

“… like the pillars of a headless door, …”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

where there had been none before, provided the entrance into what I term: Middle-earth Faërie!

So for the first time ever and after more than sixty years, we can connect all the pieces of the puzzle and truly comprehend the essence of this portion of the story. But more so we can appreciate Tolkien’s genius in the way English fairy tale was once again woven into the story along with a riddle for adults to solve.

And if you think that the revelations so far are eye-opening, prepare for something even more dramatic in my next essay. It is time to switch full attention back to Bombadil and expose one of his greatest secrets. A secret that enthusiasts should find absolutely astounding. A secret so carefully concealed that once again it’s been missed by every reader of The Fellowship of the Ring since the day it was published!



1  In terms of chapter quantity, but not total number of equivalent pages.

2  The statement is not specific enough to determine whether Tolkien had just started on Chapter 12 or finished it.

3  The Andrew Lang lecture award offer was officially sent to Tolkien on 8 October 1938. Lecture delivery date was 8 March 1939.

4  Tír na nÓg is translated as the ‘country of the young’. It is regarded by some scholars to be equivalent to Hy-Brasil.

5  The tale of The Green Children was published in E. S. Hartland’s English Fairy and Other Folk Tales, 1890. Per ‘Bibliographies’ in Tolkien On Fairy-stories by Flieger and Anderson, Tolkien cited or consulted this work for his On Fairy-stories paper.

6  See Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, Vol. I, Fairy Ways and Words, 1901 by Sir John Rhys.

7  In one version he is a ‘little fat old man with merry blue eyes’ (Welsh Folk-lore A Collection of the Folk-tales and Legends of North Wales, Men Captured by Fairies, 1887 by Elias Owen). Curiously the ‘little old man leading a mortal to an otherworld’ also arises in Owen Goes A-Wooing in The Welsh Fairy Book, 1908 by W.J. Thomas.

8  The tale was published in Andrew Lang’s: The Orange Fairy Book, 1906.

9  The tale was repeated by Sir John Rhys in Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx and appears in The Welsh Fairy Book, 1908 by W.J. Thomas under Einion and the Fair Family.

10  In Flora Annie Steel’s, English Fairytales, 1918, the sister is called ‘Burd Helen’.

11  See Flora Annie Steel’s, English Fairytales, 1918.



10/16/2017 – Added: ‘This is why Tom didn’t want the hobbits’. Added quote: “… a-meddling with old stone …”.

The Road to Fairyland

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: Sir Tom and the Green Hill at Night

‘Belt-up Tom! Belt-up as a knight should when going into battle against the forces of evil. And wear that precious belt every day – for you know not when the wicked will strike!’

Is that the advice Tolkien would have given his beloved creation? Hmm … what exactly lay underneath that bright blue jacket? What held up his green stockings that The Lord of the Rings reader should have known – and that Tolkien full well knew?

The Professor belatedly revealed the source of Tom’s near-invincibility in 1962 many years after The Lord of the Rings was published. Still the updated Adventures poem cannot be ignored. It is unquestionably part of the mythology and most definitely inseparable from it. Tom’s possession of a very particular belt meant a hidden power was with him when worn:

“… green were his girdle …”.
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1962

Because the girdle was undoubtedly, in Tolkien’s mind, the same as the one owned by the wife of Lord Bertilak of Hautdesert – a fay creature from the medieval Sir Gawain & The Green Knight tale. The legendary girdle itself was a potent source of defense, shielding its wearer (under specific terms) from being slain in combat or else how:

“ ‘… For whoever goes girdled with this green riband, while he keeps it well clasped closely about him, there is none so hardy under heaven that to hew him were able; for he could not be killed by any cunning of hand.’ ”
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Sir Orfeo – Tolkien’s translation

Taught by Tolkien at Oxford over many years and the subject of his own published academic views, the Arthurian romance was one which he could justly claim to be an expert of. It seems that once again Tolkien’s desire to link ancient fairy tale to his own myth is exhibited through selection of this fabled article. Who was the original owner, he must surely have pondered while studying Sir Gawain & The Green Knight? Where did it come from and how was it passed on? Though I have speculatively provided answers, perhaps it doesn’t really matter. What we now know with almost absolute certainty is that Tom once possessed it.

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Sir Gawain & The Green Knight, Tolkien & Gordon


Tom in the tale was so cock-sure of himself. Maybe some of the swagger came from a concealed item of clothing. Endowed with a miraculous quality, its magic could only be overcome by someone mightier than the one who had placed the enchantment or by deceitful guile. Despite Lady Bertilak’s claim, those were the usual provisos.

Yet the chances are it wasn’t just the green girdle which was pulled from Sir Gawain & The Green Knight and surreptitiously absorbed into The Lord of the Rings. A strong suspicion exists that Tolkien also represented Sir Gawain’s quest destination: the ‘Green Chapel’. Subtly placed in the Barrow-downs adventure are indications of a similar holy feature in the landscape.

In Sir Gawain & The Green Knight – the Green Chapel in Tolkien’s own words was:

“… nothing else than a fairy mound; …”.
– Sir Gawain & The Green Knight, Tolkien & Gordon, Note to Line 151

It was barely more than a hillock of grass at which the hero would meet his doom. Nevertheless the eerie location resonates with the shallow hill which the hobbits encountered soon after leaving Tom and Goldberry.

“About mid-day they came to a hill at noon whose top was wide and flattened, …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

The slope being mild enough to ride their ponies up meant that it was just a gentle tumulus. Be that is at may, this too was a sacred place with its single stone standing ominously atop. Yet not sacred to pagans (or obviously Christians) – but instead to fairy-folk. For I believe this was pictured as another ‘fairy mound’. And it was to Celtic legends that Tolkien turned for the halt in the journey.

Exactly why? Well I can do no better than articulate using established scholars’ words. At a higher level:

“Tolkien’s works are deliberately complex and multi-layered, drawing on many traditions, … The principal conceit of Tolkien’s legendarium is that it stands as a lost prehistoric tradition, of which the many myths and legends we know in our primary world are meant (fictively, by Tolkien) to be echoes fragments and transformations.”
– Tolkien and the Study of His Sources, What Does It All Mean, Jason Fisher

At a lower level seeding was accomplished through:

“ … the author’s habitual practice of working through early English texts to trace their “deep roots” back to some hypothetical prehistory.”
– Tolkien Studies Vol 8, Tolkien’s Goldberry and The Maid of the Moor, John Bowers

Thus it should come as no surprise (as we have already seen) how both sophisticated and unsophisticated fairy tale textual fragments were subsumed into The Lord of the Rings. Effectively this meant we were left with an enveloping work containing the germs of others whose shoots would eventually grow and intertwine into the Tree of Tales. For fundamentally Tolkien’s opus:

“… is a ‘fairy-story’, but one written … for adults.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #181    (Tolkien’s emphasis)

With the premise that the focus would be :

“… ‘English’ … that is because I am English … no one of us can really invent or ‘create’ in a void, we can only reconstruct and perhaps impress a personal pattern on ‘ancestral’ material …”.
– Letter to L.M. Cutts, 1956

And that ancestral material would have to include Celtic facets. Simply because the most ancient surviving prehistory of England (particularly Oxfordshire and Berkshire) visibly are neolithic mounds, barrows and stone monoliths left behind by the primeval forefathers of those peoples. Including Celtic tales fundamentally made sense since such records form some of the oldest written links to these monuments and features.


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Lambourn Seven Barrows, Berkshire


Some scholars will no doubt point to Tolkien’s aversion to Celtic myth for which he felt:

“… a certain distaste: largely for their fundamental unreason. They have bright colour, but are like a broken stained glass window reassembled without design. They are in fact ‘mad’ … but I don’t believe I am.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #19

However given an extensive collection of books in his personal library – we know the Professor was well-versed in the individual tales of the ancient inhabitants of the British Isles:

“I do know Celtic things (many in their original languages Irish and Welsh), …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #19

Obviously his proficiency was sufficient to warrant award of the inaugural lecture under the O’Donnell Trust in 1955. Titled: English and Welsh, the published piece covered much specific to Welsh Celtic legends.

The Professor was absolutely right. Celtic tales were in many cases disjointed, repetitive and of overlapping themes without ordered structure (unlike those of the Greeks). A lack of coherency bothered Tolkien – because these were legends fringing his own beloved land of England. Yet he had no choice but to deal with them as much had seeped across porous borders; especially when it came to fairies:

“The English fairy … has borrowed more and more … from Ireland and Scotland, … from the daoine sithe … ”.
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Flieger & Anderson  (Tolkien’s emphasis)

Without getting into detailed reasoning, let it just be said that Tolkien tried to make sense of many of the stories. In the end he failed, as all scholars have, to give them ordered consistency. Nonetheless some sense could be grasped and cleverly he blended select pieces together to make a cogent narrative for his own book:

“… this is an ‘imaginary’ world …”,
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #190   (Tolkien’s emphasis)

created to possess:

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

As well as the standing stones and associated rings, part of the plan was to transfer the rolling hills and gentle tumuli of his local countryside to a similar zone in the book. Indeed there are several on the Lambourn Downs, just a few miles from his home town of Oxford, which he could have based the scenery of the Barrow-downs chapter upon. One famous mound in Oxfordshire – the bowl barrow Dragon Hill, is highly reminiscent of Tolkien’s design. In any event, it was particularly important that a hill was included – for from a fairy tale standpoint, time and again, this would be the place where magical happenings first sprung.

Bearing all this in mind I cannot help but believe that Tolkien largely based the shallow hill of the Downs on one slightly further afield; indeed one sited in Ireland: the famed ‘Hill of Tara’. As legend has it within hollow hills dwelt the race of the Fairies. Here in Irish folklore lay the entrance to the underground land of the Celtic daoine sithe (Tuatha-Dé-Dannan). A spiritual place which in folklore is acknowledged as simply a fairy mound under the guardianship of the Celtic god Lugh (also spelled Lug).


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The Historic Hill of Tara, County Meath, Ireland


The hill of the novel was not meant to be an identical copy – but one whose resemblance was unmistakably akin to the knowledgeable. The Irish hill in County Meath was ‘slightly’ modified in terms of architectural features for the tale. Instead of two distinct mounds at the top, Tolkien merged them together to make one:

“… shallow saucer with a green mounded rim.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs


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Two rimmed mounds at the top of the Hill of Tara
(Mound on right with round saucer-like inner bowl,
Mound on left with the ‘Stone of Destiny’)


The ditches and outer humps were discarded while the hollow turfed circle at the hill’s summit was kept. Perhaps the circle was the source of the legendary ‘fairy ring’ – the place where the fairies would come out to dance. This then, was no innocuous tumulus. Close by were barrows and underneath all this region lay fabled ‘Middle-earth Faërie’. So significantly the dished hill was marked by a special stone. In the middle of the hollow Tolkien placed the equivalent of Tara’s ‘Stone of Destiny’.


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Lia Fáil: The ‘Stone of Destiny’ – atop Hill of Tara


This was Frodo’s destiny – to lie above the realm of the fairies oblivious of the matter. Yet to slumber against a sacred stone was no accidental act. The reader was made aware that for the hobbits it was:

“… a sleep they had never meant to take.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

Described as a “warning finger” and imbued with magical powers the enchanted standing stone was characterized to resemble the one at Tara. Furthermore it shared commonality with the one the Irish hero Cuchulainn1 fell asleep against:

“Cuchulainn went away to a menhir where he sat down and fell asleep.”
– The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, The Sick-Bed of Cuchulainn, Walter Evans-Wentz

Unfortunately the hobbits knew not what peril they were in. Foolishly they had not heeded the first of Tom’s warnings:

“ ‘… Don’t you go a-meddling with old stone …’ ”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Even more unfortunately they had slept on the wrong side:

“… they set their backs against the east side of the stone.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

Positioning themselves on the ‘trigger’ side had unleashed a magical fog – starting the process of opening up a way for mortals to enter the Perilous Realm. As the Sun’s power waned thick fog rolled in much like that encountered by the Irish hero Conn at Tara. Irish legend has it that when touched (by Conn the rightful king of Ireland), the stone:

“… screamed all over the land. This was followed by a thick fog, out of which rode a fairy prince, …”.
– Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion, The Insular Celts, John Rhys, 1888

Swiftly this was followed by teleportation to Lugh’s house, suggesting a magical link between Tara and the demi-god’s residence.

In any case, when it came to the Lia Fáil – for all others who touched it, there would be nothing but complete silence. And so quite appropriately (presuming similar modeling) the hobbits sensed no immediately obvious effect slumped up against the standing stone of the dished hill. Nevertheless that Middle-earth ‘otherworld’ for the novel (which the Celts termed as the Annwn or the Sidhe), and whose entrance was to be heralded by the sudden appearance of two magical standing stones, would soon be accessible. For Frodo:

“… suddenly he saw, towering ominous before him and leaning slightly towards one another like the pillars of a headless door, two huge standing stones.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

This mysterious hill with its ominously erect stone was the key to opening a portal linking two different planes of reality. A dangerous place it was for common folk, amid equally dangerous barrows close by. But no matter what the peril – aid would be there for those who asked. For the hobbits had a fairy on their side. An angelic knight would emerge from between two magical menhirs – perhaps modeled on those real ones adjacent to Tara.


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On the fringes of the Hill of Tara beside a Church are two standing stones


With his legendary seven-league boots2 he would be there in a flash:

“Bright blue his jacket his and his boots are yellow. …                                           His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

Belted for battle with an enchanted green girdle – Tom would save them from disaster. In the nick of time he would arrive, but less like a mortal knight and more like a divine fairy. For the legend of Conn at Tara tells us that the “fairy prince” from the fog:

“… disclosed the future history of his country …” and “… is stated to have been called Lug, …”.
– Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion, The Insular Celts, John Rhys, 1888

Because the disclosure was about future Irish monarchs we have a situation paralleled in The Lord of the Rings. Another fairy-being similarly transmitted to the hobbits a faërian projection of lordly men and a Gondorian king perhaps to come. When Bombadil:

“… spoke they had a vision as it were of a great expanse of years behind them, like a vast shadowy plain over which there strode shapes of Men, tall and grim with bright swords, and last came one with a star on his brow.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

As myth handed down from time immemorial perhaps the Barrow-downs scene became distorted. Perhaps the fairy prince that rode out from the fog was really Tom on Fatty Lumpkin! And just maybe the legend morphed even more from a fairy-rescue to one made by a demi-god:

“… Lug … as a sun-god occupies a distinguished place in Irish legend.”
– Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion, The Insular Celts, John Rhys, 1888


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Lugh, shown triple-faced, Reims region, France


Indeed it is not hard to see shades of the hypothetical origin of the Celtic solar god Lugh in The Lord of the Rings. For, very powerfully depicted, there was a ‘red-faced’ Tom at the barrow:

“… framed against the light of the sun rising red behind him.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

By invoking the Sun’s energy – the Wight was evicted from the Barrow:

“Vanish in the sunlight!”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

Adding to a solar-deity semblance was Lugh’s other role as a Storm-god:

“I’ll sing a wind up and blow leaf and branch away.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Old Forest

From what we can tell from surviving statues, Lugh was crowned with leaves just like Tom’s:

“… thick brown hair was crowned with autumn leaves.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Last but not least is that the Celtic god was titled Lugh Lámfada meaning ‘Lugh of the Long Arm’. Once again this was cleverly characterized in The Lord of the Rings. This time through Master3 Bombadil immobilizing the hobbits beyond arm’s length:

“… holding up one hand, and they stopped short, as if they had been struck stiff.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Old Forest   (my underlined emphasis)

Hmm … yes I know there is a lot to ponder upon; yet a mixture of fairy tales and Celtic legends allows us to solve and finally fully comprehend another mysterious happening in the fog-laden chapter. We should acknowledge that there is still much to uncover, and remind ourselves only Tolkien knew it all. Even the most renowned of scholars has noted there are things in the novel that appear inexplicable:

“… the incident in the barrow is most mysterious …”.                                             – J.R.R. Tolkien Author of the Century, pg. 67, Tom Shippey

What exactly was the green light in the Wight’s barrow that seemed to emanate from the ground about Frodo and then slowly intensify?

... a pale greenish light was growing round him. … the light seemed to be coming out from himself, and from the floor beside him, …”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

The scholar John Garth has put forward a theory4 that the scene may have been linked to Tolkien’s World War I trench warfare experiences and the combative deployment of poisonous gases. But this appears tenuous, especially because Tolkien refers to the aura as ‘light’. A far better and more believable explanation is that here we have simply a continuation of a fairy theme. In tandem with my fairy tale approach advocated all along, very succinctly – the green light was part of Tolkien’s vision of Middle-earth faërie. Here by the tumuli of the barrows, where two different worlds came closest to touching, the veil was thinnest. It was here why we can truly understand why:

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

And that was because Tolkien added to its folklore importance by giving his Middle-earth faërie a ‘green sun’! A sun which was beginning its ascent5 in fairyland below!


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A Rising Green Sun (or thereabouts!)


Have you fallen over? If not read on, because quite astoundingly it is all codified in On Fairy-stories.

In perhaps his most interesting paper, advice from a personal perspective on secondary world-building remarkably flowed down into his own novel. For an inexperienced novelist trying to invent a fantasy world, Tolkien lectured: 

“Anyone … can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it. But that is not enough …”.
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

Surely Tolkien took the words of St. Augustine who mused upon the creativity of man. Emphasizing that though he had never seen a ‘green sun’ nevertheless it was within his:

“… power to conceive of it as square, …” or “… what color I please, …”,        
– The Doctrinal Treatise of St Augustine of Hippo, Chapter 8

Picking up from where St. Augustine left off, Tolkien warned intense effort would be necessary:

“To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun6 will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, …”.
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

Otherwise it would not possess “an inner consistency of reality”. The reader would disengage and be thrust back into the primary world. However if sufficient ‘realism’ was input, at the end of the exercise would be success:

“Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.”
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien available in Tree and Leaf

A virtual confession was thus voiced in his paper On Fairy-stories. Tolkien in no roundabout way told us his intentions for The Lord of the Rings. How could he not practice what he preached? Especially as to all intents and purposes confirmation was openly aired: The Lord of the Rings:

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

in that ever so revealing ‘Fairy Stories’ lecture of 1939. A ‘green sun’ for Middle-earth Faërie was Tolkien’s creative artistry at its very best!

Lastly (for this essay) when it comes to Tara, Bombadil and Celtic fairy tales, it is really not that surprising that Tolkien strengthened the trio’s relationship by deliberately including an archaeological artifact of relevance. The famed ‘Brooch of Tara’, although descriptively dissimilar to the one described in Fog on the Barrow-downs, is nonetheless a brooch.


The Celtic Brooch of Tara


Being arguably the most treasured of all Ireland’s ancient jewelry it is the only significant piece associated to the Hill of Tara. Again in a remarkable parallel, the most precious item of jewelry from the barrow hoard was a brooch7:

“He chose for himself from the pile a brooch …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

Hmm … a case of history repeats itself!

“These tales … must inevitably contain … ancient wide-spread …. elements. … long ago certain truths and modes … were discovered and must always reappear.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131   (my underlined emphasis)

So in finishing off Part II – out of all of this we should note a couple of things in readiness for Part III. One matter is how Tolkien much preferred not to discuss all that he had hidden within The Lord of the Rings. The second is that without doubt Tolkien did indeed conceal matters in the novel. Clyde Kilby’s report on Tolkien passing on:

“… if I would hold it confidential, he would “put more under my hat” than he had ever told anyone.”
– Tolkien and The Silmarillion, Clyde Kilby, Summer with Tolkien (Kilby’s emphasis)

has the ring of truth. Thankfully Tolkien left us a discernible path; and that truth is at last emerging. Because without doubt Tom and Goldberry are gelling together thematically with fairies, fairy-stories and Faërie. The links are becoming strong. However for the fog-bound hill episode there is one vital piece of the puzzle missing. One link is still needed to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

When it comes to fairyland – Tolkien’s masterstroke has yet to be revealed. It is so subtly concealed that the embedding is a piece of literary genius to be marveled at. In the next essay we shall finally understand the mechanism behind ‘the way in’. We will finally understand the ‘Open Sesame’ command and how masterfully Tolkien linked it to English fairy tale!


1  Recorded as a reincarnation of Lugh. Tolkien was certainly aware of Cuchulainn – see Sir Gawain & The Green Knight, Tolkien & Gordon, Note to Line 2452.

2  Tolkien’s awareness of such a magical item cannot be doubted. See – Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B pg. 250, Flieger & Anderson.

3  Lugh was also described to be a ‘master of all trades’ which is perhaps reflected by Tolkien’s assignation of a ‘master’ title to Bombadil.

4  Frodo and the Great War, in The Lord of the Rings, 1954–2004: Scholarship in Honor of Richard E. Blackwelder, ed. Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2006).  

5  As opposed to it having ‘set’ when Frodo entered Middle-earth Faërie in passing between the standing stones. The Wight’s spell in retaliation of Frodo’s sword-stroke instantaneously sealed off the barrow from Middle-earth Faërie (and thus the green sun’s light) in a presumed attempt to cutoff external aid.

6  The idea seems to have intrigued Tolkien at least since 1931: “You may say green sun or dead life and set the imagination leaping.” –  The Monsters and the Critics: And Other Essays pg. 219. Also see comments by Flieger & Anderson – Tolkien On Fairy-stories, pg. 111.

7  Another famous Celtic brooch from Scotland is perhaps closer to what Tolkien had in mind:


Rogart Brooch ~ Celtic 8th Century – set with blackish-blue stones in butterfly wing pattern (Courtesy of Wikipedia)



10/16/2017 – Added:  ‘By invoking the Sun’s energy – the Wight was evicted from the Barrow.’ Added quote: “Vanish in the sunlight!”.

Is: ‘Adding to a solar-deity semblance was Lugh’s other role as a Storm-god.’ Was: ‘Adding to such semblance was Lugh’s other role as a Storm-god.’

The Road to Fairyland

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The ensuing essays form a three part interconnected series that discuss Tom Bombadil through the lens of a suppositious affiliation to ‘fairyland’ – specifically with respect to The Lord of the Rings. In employing such an angle several slightly odd textual matters begin to fall into place. When combined these articles end up providing us with more meaning to the Bombadil segment of the tale, as well as exposing a layer of depth not appreciated before.

Revealed will be Tom’s further tie-in to three other classic fairy tales. Also a re-look at the initial leg of the journey across the Barrow-downs from a dual viewpoint of Celtic mythology and fairy tale will grant the reader a vastly new perception of Tolkien’s contrived landscape. It is quite possible much more was put into the midday halt and accompanying scenery than has so far been understood. Accordingly, we will finally grasp the cardinal essence of the story line behind the Barrow-downs mini-adventure. Bared will be a woven-in intricacy so paramount and so subtly finessed, that it has escaped every single reader of Tolkien’s masterpiece since publication. And I do not make so bold a claim lightly!


Part I: On the Border of ‘Middle-earth Faërie’

Before the reader gets too involved in thinking about the merit of Part I’s title, it is emphasized upfront that this essay is not meant to be a generic discussion of ‘faërie’. Nor is it one that delves into the Elven kingdoms in Middle-earth. Rather it is one tailored to considering the idea of Tom’s residence possibly being situated nearby or within a faërie of sorts itself. However before we get too deep, some discussion of terminology ought to come in useful.

Now the Professor employed the term ‘faërie’ (in capitalized or lower-case form) many times within his works. Thankfully he furnished us his with own definition at a time closely coinciding with the early formation and editing of The Lord of the Rings chapters depicting Tom. In his March 1939 On Fairy-stories lecture, Tolkien told us:

“Faërie is a perilous land.”, a
– On Fairy-stories, Andrew Lang Lecture, March 1939  (my emphasis)

“… land, full of wonder …”, serving as
– On Fairy-stories, Andrew Lang Lecture, March 1939  (my emphasis)

“… the realm or state in which fairies have their being.”
– On Fairy-stories, Andrew Lang Lecture, March 1939  (my emphasis)


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Andrew Lang, 1844 – 1912


For him, faërie was primarily a place – the so-called ‘Perilous Realm’. Putting aside the question of whether fairies really exist outside of imagination, Tolkien believed the concept and perhaps origin of faërie began with man as a sub-creator in the so-called ‘invention’ of a fairy tale. And that tale might have been born indirectly from hearsay or directly from personal experience; yet it would likely have possessed at least a nugget of truth. A genuine fairy tale always exhibits a magical face and is more often than not set in the land of faërie. A place which is not only the natural habitation of fays (fairies) but also contains creatures such as:

“… elves and … dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: …”.
– On Fairy-stories, Andrew Lang Lecture, March 1939

Tolkien made plain that for humans with a natural bent towards make-believe:

“Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was the heart of the desire of Faërie.”
– On Fairy-stories, Andrew Lang Lecture, March 1939

Of great significance is the employment of the term: “Other-worlds”. Most notably it is delineated in plural form. And thus the case can be made that ‘faërie’ was not in his mind limited to a singular ‘Other-world’ where all these fantastic creatures existed in some corner or at some time within its own chronological history. For us, it is essential to grasp the concept and possibility of several other-worlds being present in Tolkien’s literature. These can simply be equated to secondary worlds, being distinct from our primaryone.


In Fairyland, Andrew Lang, Originally illustrated 1870 (above 1979 reprint)


The most definite and obvious other-world of his sub-created mythology is voiced in Bilbo’s poetic recital at Rivendell:

“from Otherworld beyond the Sea”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Many Meetings, Poem: Eärendil was a mariner

The fabled realm of the ‘gods’, also known as ‘Elvenhome’, and once part of the primary world had, due to the transgressions of men, been sundered away into a separate other-world. Initially termed as ‘Faëry’ in some of the earliest works of the mythology (see The Book of Lost Tales Vols. I & II) – by the time of The Hobbit it had become titled:

“Faërie in the West”.
– The Hobbit, Flies and Spiders

Naturally, as the publication of The Hobbit was swiftly followed by the inception of The Lord of the Rings which in turn early on was hindered by preparation for the Andrew Lang lecture, one might wonder whether multiple worlds in the forefront of Tolkien’s mind actively led to another jump in a developing mythology. After all, though witches, trolls, giants, dragons2 and other such fantastical beings ‘might’ intrude into our primary world – they really belonged to faërie; but for Tolkien, certainly not the ‘Faërie in the West’. Because the idyllic ‘Blessed Realm’ where:

“… naught faded nor withered, neither was there any stain upon flower or leaf in that land, nor any corruption or sickness in anything that lived.”,
– The Silmarillion, Of the Beginning of Days

was wholly incompatible.

And so where exactly was the faërie of all those monsters and fay creatures? Was it just a place that resided in his mind, or the minds of other fairy tale inventors? I do not think so. Rather I believe that for The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien sub-created a faërie in Middle-earth consistent with existing real-world mythology from the soil of England and nearby lands. Intimately connected to ‘Middle-earth Faërie’ (my expression) and central to the plan, was Tom Bombadil.

Yet one might ask: ‘Why bother? Was it absolutely necessary to create another faërie? And where is the proof?’

The simple answers, to the first two of the above, again revert back to Tolkien’s basic desire to blend in some of the most ancient folklore and legends of the European continent and thus provide coherent mythological roots. Absolutely necessary would be the presence of historical connections to our own world. After all if there was little to nothing ancestral in common – we might as well be reading a story set on an entirely make-believe planet. Yes, maybe one similar to Earth, but certainly not authentic, nor one we could happily relate to or empathize with. It was those historic links which were so essential. And this could best be achieved by entangling our world’s ancient myth and fairy tales deeply into his own story line.

Then what were the instances where the land of faërie pops out to the forefront in our early literature? Where exactly does faërie loom large?

Actually the examples are reasonably numerous and there is sufficient evidence Tolkien knew all below and others too:

(a)  Thomas the Rhymer being carried off into fairyland upon the Queen of Faërie’s milk-white steed.
(b)  Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, entering Annwn while lost in a magical fog and spending a year in the Welsh otherworld per the Mabinogion.
(c)  Sir Orfeo entering the realm of Faërie.
(d)  King Arthur’s Avalon – described as both across the water in the west but also at Glastonbury Tor.
(e)  The ‘Land below Woolpit’ where two legendary green children emerged according to Ralph of Coggeshall.
(f)  The fabled realm below hilly mounds in the legends of the Celtic Tuatha-de-Dannan.


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 Riders of the Sidhe, John Duncan (1911)


This might be all fine and dandy – but again one might ask: ‘Where is the evidence of a ‘Middle-earth Faërie’ in The Lord of the Rings, and how does Bombadil fit in?’

The answers to both questions have already been touched upon in Tom Bombadil: Cracking The Enigma Code, but will we greatly expanded on in Part III of this series. From my part, Tom has consistently been advocated as a fleshed-out manifestation of a faërie-being throughout the series of essays output so far. However in order to aid our understanding, I need firstly to revisit Tom’s dwelling and its location.

As I deduced in Tom Bombadil: Cracking The Enigma Code, Tom’s residence lay on the very boundary of two worlds. Those being our primary world and the one I loosely described as the ‘auditorium’. But in my view the ‘auditorium’ is an abstract concept serving multiple purposes. One of these was functioning as an alternate world – effectively another plane of existence. Another purpose is that it illustrated in simple terms how different worlds could overlap and how portals can potentially connect them to each other.

For us considering the matter – a leading remark in The Lord of the Rings, which other scholars have picked up on, is the crossing of a seemingly magical threshold in passing through Tom’s doorway. The manner of description has a teasing hint of the supernatural to it:

“… the hobbits stood upon the threshold and a golden light was all about them.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Another hint is the ‘coincidental’ meeting of the hobbits and Tom in the Old Forest:

“Just chance brought me then, if chance you call it.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

In discussing fairies, seemingly this encounter was echoed in On Fairy-stories:

“Our fates are sundered, and our paths seldom meet. Even upon the borders of Faërie we encounter them only at some chance crossing of the ways.”
– On Fairy-stories, Andrew Lang Lecture, March 1939   (my emphasis)

Perhaps Tolkien had Tom in mind; especially because he was simultaneously drafting him into The Lords of the Rings as well as preparing his Andrew Lang thesis:

“Most good ‘fairy-stories’ are about the adventures of men in the Perilous Realm or upon its shadowy marches.”
– On Fairy-stories, Andrew Lang Lecture, March 1939

Was the hobbits’ escape from the malevolent Old Forest followed by a dreamlike trek to Tom’s abode – effectively on the shadowy marches of a Perilous Realm? The problem faced by the inquisitive scholar, trying all too hard to extract the truth from The Lord of the Rings, and summarized so neatly by Tolkien is that:

“It is difficult to define the boundaries of this realm …”.
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Anderson & Flieger

Unfortunately there was:

“… no password or signpost that will announce infallibly when the border is crossed.”
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Anderson & Flieger


.Image result for sign road to fairyland etsy

A Non-directional Signpost 


.All on offer, as a meager clue, that a crossing had been made was:

“Magic (even if not explicitly named) is one of the tokens by which you shall know it: …”.
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Anderson & Flieger

One had to recognize that:

“Over the border there will be magic though it will not always be opened or named.”
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Anderson & Flieger

Some readers will likely disagree – but arguably the most magical place depicted in any part of the novel was Tom’s residential zone. Though what appears to be ‘magic’ is used elsewhere, never was it employed so often or as astonishingly as during the travelers’ short stay.

To those not in the know, potent magic must have been invoked by Tom to keep rainfall off all but his boots. Making the ring vanish having rendered it ineffectual must have astounded the hobbits. It must have seemed like the most powerful sorcery of all. And then there is that dreamlike vision of the Undying Lands which only happened once throughout Frodo’s quest. Its description matches better than anything else, Tolkien’s own definition of a ‘Faërian Drama’ in On Fairy-stories. So collectively, surely these were unmistakable trademarks of faërie! Surely Frodo and company had crossed over the border? If not – they must have been really, really close!

Subtle is the best way to describe Tolkien’s methodology. A substratal hint such as the smell of ‘apple-wood’ burning in Tom’s hearth – a tree connected to both the fairy lore of the Celts and even more strongly with the Arthurian otherworld Avalon: The Island of Apples – is too soft an undertone to use as proof.


The Death of King Arthur in Avalon, James Archer, 1860


Equally subtle is how both Tom and Goldberry were portrayed as being so close to the ‘magic’ of Nature, possessing much knowledge and power over some of its elements. Frodo sensed this unusual harmony fairly early on:

“… the spell that was now laid upon him was … nearer to mortal heart; marvellous and yet not strange.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

If in the presence of fairy-folk, this gels with:

“For it is man who is, in contrast to fairies, supernatural … whereas they are natural, far more natural than he.”
― On Fairy-stories, Andrew Lang Lecture, March 1939

Then there is attire, size and location attestation (corroborated by eyewitnesses) in English folklore that Tolkien probably knew about3 :

“I had often heard, of Fairies … At some times they would seem to dance …The place near which they most ordinarily showed themselves was on the side of a hill … appearing like men and women, of a stature generally near the smaller size of men. Their habits used to be of red, blue, or green, according to the old way of country garb, with high crowned hats. One time a person living at Comb saw, …”.
― English Fairy and Other Folk Tales, The Fairy Fair, Edwin Sidney Hartland, 1890  
(my underlined emphasis)

Don’t the emphasized words resonate with the book? Tom too is a being smaller than a man who danced along in his blue jacket and tall crowned hat while heading back to his home nestled below a hill not far from the village of Combe!

Furthermore Tom’s green girdle – may not have been his only magical garb. An ability to travel fast may have been fairy tale linked to those standout big yellow boots. It would not be at all surprising if Tolkien had endowed Tom with a pair of legendary ‘seven-league boots’. These adjust to the wearer, allowing him, when needed, to traverse seven leagues for every stride taken. Was myth and fairy tale behind why:

“… His feet are faster.” ?
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

Is that how he appeared so quickly at the barrow?


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Tom Thumb stealing a pair of seven-league boots, courtesy of Wiktionary


Hmm – you can see where I’m heading. We are inexorably drawing nearer to a conclusion that the whole mini-episode revolved around faërie and fairy-beings. So taking the above into account, perhaps in combination with other factors such as fairy tale linkage, the evidence is becoming too strong to ignore. Yet there is more. Indeed much more.

We have already seen in What a Colorful Pair – Part IV, how almost certainly Tolkien applied the widespreadtheme of the ‘little old man as a fairy’, thus connecting Tom to Jack and the Beanstalk. Quite remarkably there are at least two more examples buried (and never uncovered before) in The Fellowship of the Ring. It is theorized Tolkien’s own accumulated knowledge and minor research led him to reinforce the same theme by including elements of the tale of The Blue Mountains as recorded in Andrew Lang’s The Yellow Fairy Book. Within is the character of an extremely long lived (hadn’t seen a soul for three hundred years) old man (presumably of fairy race) who has the ability to rapidly travel vast distances, and with a whistle can call the birds of the world. It is theorized that this last aspect was alluded to by the following:

“And there was Tom whistling like a tree full of birds.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

Just as likely is the inclusion of snippets from a Grimm fairy tale: The Little Folks’ Presents. Once again the tale involves the proverbial little old man, and just like the Bombadil episode – disappearing gold. Two innocent travelers comically have their heads shaved after accidentally stumbling upon a fairy gathering upon a hill. For us an important point is that they allow the old man (presumably a fairy) to proceed without complaint. Afterwards they are told to fill their pockets with coal which later turns to gold. However one of the men wants to return for more – but due to his greed loses everything and is disfigured as punishment. The tale not only highly moralizes the folly of avarice. but it also highlights what the fairy wants – which is a set quantity of human hair in exchange for a set portion of gold. However, the most interesting part for us is the implied ‘fairy pact’7  between the two mortals and the little old man. In order to seal the agreement:

“… the old man clapped them both on the shoulder, in a friendly manner …”.
– The Little Folks’ Presents, Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm   (my emphasis)

Such an act is also present in The Fellowship of the Ring where Tom, as an old man, taught the hobbits a summoning verse. Then via a specific motion:

“… he clapped them each on the shoulder with a laugh …”,
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil   (my emphasis)

 his side of the ‘fairy pact’ was thereby sealed in agreeing to answer a distress call.


Presents of the Little Folks, Anne Anderson, 1930


Hmm … three fractured fairy tales involving little old men possessing fairy-like powers all bundled closely together within the text appears too much to be pure coincidence. Leaving us to wonder whether this cluster was echoed by:

“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. 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   (my underlined emphasis)

Hmm … so Tom appears and reappears via fairy tale perhaps? Be that as it may, undoubtedly the text’s most interesting and well-disguised fairy tale of all is yet to be exposed. To come – we will finally see the ‘missing’ link that gives the entire plot of the Barrow-downs adventure both meaning and purpose!


1  Which is cast by Tolkien in his mythology as ours, but in a bygone fictional epoch.

2  Tolkien’s following remark is of significance:The dragon had the trade-mark Of Faërie written plain upon him. In whatever world he had his being it was an Other-world.”On Fairy-stories.

3  See ‘Bibliographies’ in Tolkien On Fairy-stories. Edwin Hartland’s English Fairy and Folk Tales is listed as a source of information.

4  These boots also crop up in a plethora of European fairy tales. The most notable English one is: Jack the Giant Killer.

5  For example, there are at least four instances in Grimm’s Fairy Tales where a little old man plays a magical role in the story.

6  Much the same theme is also present in Joseph Jacob’s The Swan Maidens per Europa’s Fairy Book.

7  A ‘fairy pact’,  seems also to have occurred in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight between the fairy Bertilak and Gawain. Within that tale the agreement to exchange winnings at the end of the day was sealed via the action of a drink.



What a Colorful Pair!

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Part V: Fayvorite Colors – Much Later Days

By no means am I done discussing hidden fairy tale within The Lord of the Rings. Nor unveiling its innermost secrets. Perhaps its beginning to dawn that not everything’s been discovered within Tolkien’s masterpiece. Yes the book still holds many intimate secrets. Secrets so subtly placed and adeptly interwoven that they appear to give the story an air of three-dimensional depth – yet in reality their true function was to provide a layer of deeper meaning.

As an active teaching Professor, Tolkien knew all about the inquisitiveness of students. As an accomplished philologist his mind was naturally attuned into inquiring on sources and rooting out connections through the use of logic. With the tables turned, here was an opportunity for students to try their skills out in a slippery exercise of his devising:

“I fear you may be right that the search for the sources of The Lord of the Rings is going to occupy academics for a generation or two.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #337

And we know such a thought train was present from the outset, because in 1938 he passed the following remark about academic inquiries pertinent to The Hobbit:

“But would not that be rather unfair to the research students? To save them trouble is to rob them of any excuse for existing.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #25

What he took from our world’s ‘Cauldron of Story’ and transmuted into his own literature could most definitely be tracked down and extracted. Although he didn’t fully approve, he knew researchers would try to break the ball to seek its bounce. After all hadn’t he followed such a path throughout his philological career? How then could he justifiably complain? So the only sensible proviso, I believe, was for the researcher to employ judicious logic and attain sensible answers within the confines of mythology, folklore, fairy tale and the early history of his beloved land. Only then could sense be made of many baffling details within the story.

After Beowulf, perhaps the literature of ancient England Tolkien was most impressed with were Arthurian legends. As we shall see, the combination of such legends with the motif of color was put to good use. For stunningly it is incidentals well after The Lord of the Rings that we must particularly heed. We must remind ourselves of the fairy-color ‘green’. Then in tandem we must focus on more poetry. In particular, poetry about Tom. Because in 1962, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil poem was republished along with a new one about Tom within a booklet of rhymes in fulfilling a request from Tolkien’s aunt, Jane Neave.


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The Adventures of Tom Bombadil – 1962 Edition,  Illustrated by Pauline Baynes


The stated purpose for the new poem, and no doubt minor changes made to the original, was:

“… it performs the service of further ‘integrating’ Tom with the world of the L.R. into which he was inserted.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #237

Make no mistake – Tolkien thought very carefully about the suitability of all the selected poetry – going to considerable lengths in ascribing Middle-earth authorship throughout the booklet. When it came to Bombadil, though stated that he was known to Buckland-folk, there was relayed a tempered warning that:

“… they had … little understanding of his powers …”.
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, Preface, 1962 release

Despite many of the poems being:

“… on the surface, lighthearted or frivolous, …”,
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, Preface, 1962 release

Tolkien gave away that if one was to listen carefully:

“… one may uneasily suspect that more is meant than meets the ear.”
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, Preface, 1962 release

In 1965 the same message was repeated but the tone suggested something decidedly recondite:

“… these things have a serious undercurrent, and are not meant at any point to be merely comic …”.
– The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, Chronology 25 June 1962, Hammond & Scull

To insert this “serious undercurrent” and hint at what lay behind some of “his powers”, Tolkien made some purposeful and ever so subtle alterations to the original Adventures poem. One of these, inexplicably, has not caught the eye of Bombadil scholars acquainted with Arthurian lore.

Two extra lines were formulated for the very first verse. To the second new line, one difference to Tom’s look was an assignment of a new feather to his hat. Not so remarkably Tolkien chose a white plume which, as explained in the preface, was a result of rivalry between the Swan and Kingfisher. Still as already discussed, white is ‘a fairy color’. So no big deal – the hue was good and suitable.

Of much more significance was the first new line to the updated poem. To Tom’s apparel was an acquisition of leather breeches. In itself this is not so odd as the garment was not designated any coloring. It is what held them up which is far more important. The first four words to the first new line Tolkien inserted are utterly astounding. Tom was now the proud owner of a belt. Not any old belt – but one described as a girdle. Not any old girdle – but a green girdle:

“green were his girdle and his breeches all of leather;”
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1962 release

If anyone in the world should have known the ramifications of a ‘green girdle’ and its connection to beings of Faerie – it would have been Tolkien! It is incomprehensible that his update was accidental. And thus it is to the legendary green girdle of the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight tale that I will soon turn.


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The ‘Green Girdle’ symbolically wrapped around Gawain’s Pentangle from ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’


But before I hammer home that Tolkien knew exactly what he had done; I need to firstly provide a synopsis of the medieval tale and then sensitize the reader to Tolkien’s indisputable intention of connecting Tom to our own world’s myth and history.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a medieval poem of unknown authorship dating from around 1,400 A.D. It is over 2,500 lines long, preserved on vellum parchment, and is also known as MS Cotton Nero A.x in honor of a former owner: Sir Robert Cotton. It tells the tale of King Arthur’s fabled knight Gawain, and his encounters with a man of gigantic proportions, but bodily of green hue and attired with the same colored clothing. After openly riding into King Arthur’s court, a challenge was issued to all present to deal him a blow in return for one a year later. Gawain takes up the challenge and beheads the Green Knight only to find that he is not a man but a fay creature who picks up the head and rides away.

Gawain constrained by his oath to seek out the Green Knight, nearly a year later partakes in a quest to find his home – the Green Chapel. After facing much adversity during his journeying, Gawain finally comes upon a castle whose lord and lady welcome him warmly, and inform him the Green Chapel is close-by. However he is enticed by the lady while her husband is away hunting. Gawain resists her advances multiple times – but in the end he takes an offering of her ‘green girdle’; a magical object that will save him from from any deadly or injurious blow from the Green Knight. He accepts the girdle and on this one occasion breaks a promise to the lord of exchanging winnings at the end of each day.


Illustration from ‘MS Cotton Nero A.x’


At the Green Chapel the Green Knight reveals himself to be none other than the lord himself who is fully aware of his wife’s actions. Indeed this is just a plan by Arthur’s half-sister, Morgan le Fay, to dishonor the King’s court. The axe blows dealt by the Green Knight were mere feints and Gawain leaves basically unharmed but the final swing nicks his neck. This is explained as the price of not keeping his promise in failing to disclose the gift of the girdle. Gawain perceives a moral failure on his part – though the Green Knight declares the fault is small. The famous green girdle is thereafter wrapped as a baldric around his shoulder as a mark of failure and shame. Upon his safe return to Arthur’s court the tale is told and Gawain is greatly honored for his loyalty and courage.

Tolkien was extremely impressed by the ‘Gawain’ tale. The text was studied in great detail and for students, a book comprising a pseudo-annotated version of the work was published in 1925. This was done while at at Leeds University and in conjunction with his associate: Professor E.V. Gordon. Therein the tale was described as:

“… an excellent one for the purposes of the romancer.”,
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Introduction, Tolkien & Gordon, 1925

being a story:

“… shaped with a sense of narrative not often found in Arthurian romance.”
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Introduction, Tolkien & Gordon, 1925

Some twenty eight years later Tolkien delivered a scholarly lecture in Glasgow titled Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and voiced similar sentiment.

There is zero doubt of Tolkien’s expertise on this medieval work. As well as producing scholarly publishings on the subject, he taught it as part of his lecturing classes at Oxford University. Nor can we doubt his awareness of the motif and importance of the green girdle to the tale and its crucial role in the final outcome. But where did it come from one might ask? How did the lady of the castle come to possess it? Was it a gift from Morgan le Fay? If so, was the magic imbued by her or was its lineage far older? These are not altogether unnatural questions that the Professor ought to have asked himself.


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Morgan Le Fay by John R. Spencer Stanhope, 1880


The trouble is the answers could not be extracted from the manuscript itself. Nor from any other source. And though from a scholastic standpoint a dead-end had been reached, that wouldn’t be constraint enough to prevent him from linking the same green girdle to his mythology. Tolkien knew that in Arthurian romance – the givers of great gifts were English water-nymphs. The Lady of the Lake bestowed Arthur his legendary sword Excalibur and its enchanted scabbard. And then we have Morgan le Fay1,2 who has her embryonic roots in Breton folklore as a water-fay. Though cast as Arthur’s half-sister, she is the cause of much mischief in plotting his downfall. For example, she sent out the gift of a magical drinking horn which reveals infidelity. Also she is cast as the provider of a richly jeweled mantle used in an attempt to trick Arthur – for wearing it causes death. Though she did not succeed on that occasion – she is said to snatch Excalibur upon his actual demise.

The gifting of magical objects and clothing by water-nymphs (or those that had transitioned to land beings – ala Goldberry) in anglicized versions of the Arthurian myth is then by no means uncommon or unusual. Thus with reasonable logic we can answer how came Tom to possess a girdle of invincibility.


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‘The Lady of the Lake’ by Lancelot Speed, (1860-1931) from: ‘The Legends of King Arthur and His Knights’ by Sir James Knowles


The most obvious route is a bestowal from Tom’s consort: Goldberry. Cast as a water-nymph in the poetry, Hammond & Scull comment:

“Goldberry in The Lord of the Rings has stature, and powers, not even hinted at in the 1934 poem.”
– The Lord of the Rings, A Reader’s Companion, In the House of Tom Bombadil, Hammond & Scull

Though I cannot prove it – I suspect Tolkien had even more in mind for Tom’s fair lady. By logically creating a simple path – left in the poetry was the slickest of clues that those knowledgeable in Arthurian tales could easily digest. Yes he mistakenly left it late. But better late than never. Once again the researcher could logically fathom out a path that completed the circle of mythos, legend and historia.

Throughout these essays I have drummed home Tolkien’s desire to connect modern day folklore/fairy tale with ancient northern Euro-centric stories and somehow link them into his mythology. An awareness of a desirable blend was there from the days of The Hobbit and certainly he sought-for such qualities to be part of The Lord of the Rings:

“I found the blend of vera historia with mythos irresistible.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #26

To Tolkien:

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

Woven into his tales would be nuggets of Europe’s most ancient legends. To make my point about the inclusion of elements from the Sir Gawain and Green Knight tale, a couple of alike insertions first used in The Hobbit and all but repeated in the sequel are:

“ ‘Third time pays for all. …’ ”.
– The Two Towers, Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit

“ ‘…Thrice shall pay for all, …’ ”,
– The Return of the King, The Field of Cormallen

echoing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

“ ‘third time, turn out best’ ”.
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Tolkien & Gordon, 1925, Notes to Line 1680

And believe it or not – Tolkien prolifically added in such elements when it came to Bombadil too. One highly probable inclusion in The Lord of the Rings is based on the manner ladies were introduced in medieval times. Per The Fellowship of the Ring Tom presents Goldberry as follows:

“ ‘Here’s my pretty lady!’ … ‘… clothed all in silver-green …’ ”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Which follows traditional medieval introduction:

“… ‘that lovely one under linen’ … ‘fair under garment’ …”.
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Tolkien & Gordon, 1925, Notes to Line 1814

Though a resonance exists, it is Tolkien’s poetry about Tom that has undeniable historical linkage to our world. The brand new poem of 1962, and the second in the booklet to feature Tom, had hidden undercurrents only knowledgeable scholars would have been able to detect.

In Letter #240 Tolkien disclosed three specific insertions:

“… the otter’s whisker sticking out of the gold, …”: from the Norse Nibelung legends (Völsungasaga);

“… the three places for gossip, smithy, mill, and cheaping …”: from The Ancrene Wisse;

“… the hanging up of a kingfisher to see the way of the wind, …”: from Vulgar Errors (1664) by Sir T. Browne



‘Ancrene Riwle’ Cotton MS Cleopatra C VI, f. 4r’  (later adapted for other communities of anchorites under the title ‘Ancrene Wisse’)


It is possible that there was at least one more:

“… bogies from the Barrows”,
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1962, Bombadil goes Boating

manifesting his own attempt at recreating a segment of English history:

“And your eyes fancied barrow-wights and bogies.”
– The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son by J.R.R. Tolkien, based on a fragment from the Battle of Maldon

For the purpose of rooting Tom into our world as well as more firmly into the mythology, Tolkien used hobbit folklore as a pretext. The good news was that even the original 1934 poetry depicting Tom’s invulnerability would now become fully compliant and explainable with his new ‘green girdle’. Yet a chance to create a little mischief could not be missed. When it came to the Bombadil goes Boating poetry the admitted historical connections were a supposed:

“… donnish detail …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #240

But make no mistake – they were all deliberate. Tom’s connections to real-world historical folklore/legends were intentionally hidden. And their revelation was intended for the eyes of the Illustrator and Publishing House owner only. We must not lose sight of that.

Nor must we lose sight of the admissions themselves (Letters #237 & #240). In that light, how can we possibly view ‘the green girdle’ addition to the original Adventures poem as a mere accident?

“green were his girdle and his breeches all of leather;”
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, 1962

How could the invention of a wholly new line possibly have been an absent-minded slip?


1   The Breton name for a water-nymph is a ‘Morgan’. Antecedents are thought to include Morrigan – an Irish Celtic water goddess, ruling over rivers and lakes, and Modron a Welsh water goddess.
2   ‘Le Fay’ is an ancient word for a ‘fairy’ in french form.