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 Be”4.

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 ‘offstage’. 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 carefree 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 offstage 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 theatergoers, 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 ‘halfway 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 multidimensional 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 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 halfhearted 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 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 ‘offstage’ 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 offstage 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 firsthand 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”.



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.
In Defence of a Different Approach to Bombadil Research

After 28 articles the reader is both entitled to and fully deserves a summary. Besides it would be unfair to finish up leaving an impression that everything is solved, explained and nothing else awaits discovery. That said – I’m firstly going to comment on my reporting style and then dwell a little on the other Bombadil research out there before I condense findings and ultimately dole out conclusions.

Now throughout I have adopted a style of writing intentionally meant to be free of abstruse jargon or complicated syntax. Since the prose has been tailored both for the academic and novice, it’s deliberately kept simple and lucid. My aim is solely to allow easy assimilation and understanding no matter the age or level of educational background. After all, everybody deserves to comprehend the complexity behind Tolkien’s most mysterious characters and the precision and lengths he went to shape them.

Though the articles could have been shortened and kept a tad more concise, I have consciously taken the approach of employing more everyday vocabulary and preferred a little wordiness to get my points across in the hope of eliminating ambiguity. With ‘the answer’ being lengthy – all the essays required alignment to eliminate contradictions. As such they necessitated careful planning with the purpose of building a ‘story’ possessing backbone that could be gradually and coherently fleshed out.

All the submitted essays are decidedly radical, and formulated with such intent. Having laboriously conducted extensive research I am well aware that the material exposed is far from mainstream and that nothing like these discoveries has ever been presented before. But that does not concern me. Not in the slightest. Because I am not catering to those who insist on rigidly sticking to their own interpretation of Tolkien’s words and are unable to make connections or follow paths of logic. Neither am I interested in what I see as oft regurgitated matters that the Tolkien scholastic community have put forward, all too regularly, in different shades of expression. By that I intend no offence – but disappointingly it is generally the same old stuff, in repackaged guise rarely advancing something new – let alone eye-opening. What exists in the public domain does not contain the breakthrough I desire. Nor I believe, what the avid reader craves.

Despite the surprising nature of my articles, I still believe they pander to the bulk of Tolkien aficionados. We all want to know the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But what is it? Do you not think that I have mulled upon whether my version – is the real truth?

Of course one must examine, probe and question. Yet I have exercised considerable self-criticality. And in the end – I urge the reader to acknowledge that it is hard, if not impossible, to just randomly pull cogent congruent threads, that tie in with all that we know about Tom and Goldberry, out of a hat. I could not invent such fluidity – even if I was paid to try. Especially when the flow circulates around subjects which were Tolkien’s forte: fairy tales, myths and legends, English history and Christianity. Yes my idea of Tolkien’s inventive path doesn’t have the hallmarks of mere coincidence, or for that matter – contrived fakery.

In first reading The Lord of the Rings – I, like many, was thoroughly bemused over the merry couple as well as the Barrow-downs episode. A goofy oddball mocking the One Ring – really? A ‘just call my name’ instantaneous rescue – really? It simply didn’t make sense in an adult story. Yet Tolkien’s prose seemed so thoughtfully and carefully constructed. Even more so than The Hobbit which was confirmed by:

“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

Most disheartening was that despite all the books and Internet articles perused – hardly any shed further light beyond what could immediately be grasped from the tale and the few largely evasive remarks within the Professor’s released letters. Frustratingly it seemed as if the vast majority of the community were simply prepared to accept Tom and Goldberry as enigmas and leave it at that. The relatively small number of articles and theories which had been published were altogether unsatisfying in that they just didn’t delve deep enough. Nor could they explain the dynamic duo entirely. Glossed over were far too many loose ends.

To that point of considering and evaluating other academic propositions, I am not about to pick them all apart one by one and lay bare their flaws. Though of course there are matters which match – there are also many quotes within the story and comments made privately in Tolkien’s letters that cannot be aligned to the investigative author’s theory, no matter which it is. I have yet to see anyone tightly explain Tom’s powers within the context of their hypothesis. And hardly any attempt to address the information contained within the letter to Mroczkowski in 1964 or the one for Coghill in 1954. Certainly they all fail to provide an all-encompassing solution.

Tolkien stated that Tom belonged to a greater story which would take much effort to elucidate. Would it be impossible to reconstruct it? Could the information available be enough to piece together a credible answer?

Bilbo might have set out on a quest to recover treasure – but for me, I had my own personal quest for ‘riches’ in Tolkien’s world. I challenged myself and actively sought fitting explanations for these bizarre individuals and the short adventure after the hobbits’ departure. ‘Nature deity par excellence’1 as Anne Petty puts it – simply wasn’t good enough. Nor was Shippey’s ‘Genius Loci’2, or his prognosis of the barrow incident being “especially mysterious”3. It seemed to me that the ‘experts’ really weren’t expert enough to provide concrete help. And if not concrete – at least offer reasonably grounded solutions beyond the superficial.

In this matter – I must simply be honest, forthright and blunt. Even including the ‘experts’ – my belief is that not a single person who has read The Lord of the Rings has understood how sophisticated Tolkien made these two characters. Added to that pronouncement – not a single person has truly understood the Barrow-downs episode and thus the storyline. It might sound like I’m blowing my own trumpet, but there’s really no way to cushion it. I stand by my diagnosis – even though it appears it’s me – against the rest of the world.

So education and enlightenment are my primary aims. Because the news should be spread how there truly is a ‘One Theory’ that demystifies it all. And even recognized scholars should not be dismissive as much is worth pondering over – even if initially the research results seem hard to swallow. One needs to be patient and intake it all. A rich academic lode has been exposed and we should be prepared to mine it. I doubt if the seam is exhausted. I doubt if I have excavated all the ore. But given a set of new tunnels – those intrigued should embrace the opportunity to further our understanding of Tolkien’s world by participating in the dig.

The trouble is that many folk have ingrained views – especially towards Bombadil. Some readers will no doubt be sympathetic to Tolkien’s stance of a few matters deserving to remain enigmatic:

“He is best left as he is, a mystery.”
– Tolkien letter to Christopher Fettes – 1961: Hammond & Scull LotR Companion p.134

Unfortunately that’s not palatable when the storyline cannot be understood. I cannot emphasize that enough, nor more politely. Yet to gain comprehension, Tom is key. We must figure him out before the tale will unravel before us.

I’m sure the author was quite aware of the quandary. Caught in a dilemma of his own making, Tolkien took the easier route. He swept Tom under the carpet leaving him for scholars to sort out. He steadfastly stuck to his guns refusing even to edify a close friend by insisting Bombadil:

“… won’t be explained …”.
– Tolkien Letter to Nevill Coghill, 21 August 1954

At most he was only prepared to tantalizingly acknowledge an answer existed:

“… there is always something left over that demands a different or larger construction to “explain” it’ . Tom Bombadil is an example of this.”
– Christie’s, Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts, auction catalogue, London, 1 June 2009, lot 76

After a multitude of articles we can all see how long an explanation is needed. Tolkien couldn’t possibly have articulated everything about Tom without expending a great deal of energy. Sadly for us, I think he was against offering a partial story. It was all or nothing. And in the end – what he willingly gave away was practically ‘nothing’. For it would take a book to lay Tom bare – and its writing would likely expose many secrets of his world – some perhaps too personal for common revelation. This can be readily deduced from Clyde Kilby’s interaction with the Professor many years after The Lord of the Rings had hit the bookshelves. Kilby relayed Tolkien’s extreme reluctance to open up:

“… discussion of his most deeply private world was simply impossible for him.”
– Tolkien & The Silmarillion, Summer with Tolkien, Clyde Kilby

When it comes to research, it is my belief that the type I have conducted – looking in great detail at the text, making literary connections and employing logic – was precisely the type Tolkien would have grudgingly accepted. Especially as the demand made was that we read the story:

“… with attention throughout.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #329

Minutia were incredibly important to the Professor:

“I like things worked out in detail myself, and answers provided to all reasonable questions.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #144

“… I am a pedant devoted to accuracy, even in what may appear to others unimportant matters.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #294

Yet strangely enough – despite the hordes of scholars who have pored over The Lord of the Rings for some sixty plus years – major things still have been missed. That is water under the bridge now for fortunately some of those missing elements provide enough clues that if one didn’t entirely concentrate on the story – and instead employed lateral thinking, then indeed the jigsaw pieces could be snapped in place. The steps I have taken in selecting, orienting and positioning those pieces are successively incremental. Nothing impossible to imagine. And no incredibly large jumps of faith – at least not any without supplementary or corroborating evidence. In any case what leaps have been taken are small compared to those Tolkien took within his core discipline of philology in extracting the historical and regional evolution of words with associated phonetics. Yes they are tiny steps measured against those the Professor had to deal with in a field that was often subjective and incredibly difficult to substantiate. So when it comes down to it – the obstacles faced in The Lord of the Rings are easily overcome for those well versed in mythology, fairy tales, the Christian religion and historical English texts. Only one piece of equipment is essential in the researcher’s arsenal. And that’s an inquisitive mind adept and flexible enough to enjoy solving puzzles!


Getting down to the heart of Tolkien’s plan, my verdicts are no different from those expressed all along in this journey. Both Tom and Goldberry were designed to be sources of many of our world’s fairy tales, folkloric stories and legends.

Weakly or strongly Tom is the ultimate source behind:

The Irish Leprechaun
The male English fairy of the Jack and the Beanstalk tale
The fairy man of The Little Folks Presents
Hop o’ My Thumb
The Welsh fairy herdsman
The Irish Celtic god Lugh Lámfada
The Welsh deity Lleu Llaw Gyffes
The Gallic Celtic god Esus
The Welsh bard Taliesin
The Paracelsian Elemental of the Earth
The apocryphal texts of the Archangel Michael
The apocryphal texts of the Grigori (Biblical Watchers)

Weakly or strongly Goldberry is the ultimate source behind:

The Greek water nymph
The fairy tale: Undine
The Paracelsian Elemental of Water
Mermaids, Lorelei and Nixies
Jenny Greenteeth & Peg Powler
The Welsh deity Blodeuwedd
The Welsh Gwraig Annwn 
Mythology behind the yellow water-lily
The Washer Woman at the Ford
The Banshee
The Christian links to the white water-lily
The yellow water-lily of The Gold Spinners fairy tale.

No doubt more awaits unearthing. But for now, I want to conclude by summarizing matters related to ‘allegory’. As far as Tolkien’s statement:

“… my mind does not work allegorically …”,
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #144

that is hardly believable when it comes to Bombadil. His 1964 letter to Professor Mroczkowski contains enough within it to generate extreme skepticism.

I conclude that for inclusion into the mythology, Tom was reinvented4 and specially designed with allegorical intent. Because Tolkien conceded when it came to providing an explanation:

“ … any attempt to explain the purport of myth or fairytale must use allegorical language.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131

And so I have little doubt that Tolkien’s “allegorical language”, to explain our fairy tale character Tom, would have been one employing theatrical terminology. Because Tom, as I reiterate, was purposefully cast to represent the ‘audience’ of the great ‘cosmogonical drama’.

However as far as The Lord of the Rings is concerned, every one of Tom’s words, actions and tricks can be related to ‘applicability’. The Professor would I am sure have argued that theater-based analogies are just ways of simplifying thinking about other worlds and all that might stem from them. While the religious aspects to Tom would probably have been argued as veiled forms of symbolism to a Christian story. Even the seemingly incriminating date of the 29th of September, yes even St. Michael’s day and all its ensuing consequences – does not make Tom an allegory of the Archangel. Where after all did the 29th of September originate? Not as part of Biblical canon – that’s for sure. In the end it is down to folklore and man-made tradition the reasons and true origins behind which are lost in the mire of time. Indeed Tom and all his varied characterization was simply a case of Tolkien taking advantage of literary fragments of European myth, legends, fairy tales and folklore and astutely stitching them together for his mythical history. Yes indeed – a case of ‘applicability’ is my final conclusion!

By now it should be obvious, but it must be emphasized that Tom and Goldberry are Tolkien’s own unique creations. They are not copies originating from anyone else’s mind or work. They are masterful inventions crafted and then carefully remolded for the mythology with utmost skill and thought. They are breathtakingly complex and so subtly entwined with our own world – that it beggars belief!


Right now I’m going to take an extended break from publishing new articles. Over the next few months existing essays will be revised, appended and partially re-written. Some new material will also be incorporated providing supplementary evidence.

One day (given the energy) – I hope to come back and expose other ‘new’ facets to Tolkien’s world. One of my first endeavors will be to clear up another perennial mystery, namely: what happened to the Entwives? The ‘answer’ (rather my understanding of what Tolkien had in mind) is again highly intriguing. Certainly it is worth an essay or two!


1  See: The Road to Middle-earth, A Cartographic Plot, T. Shippey.

2  See: One Ring to Bind Them All: Tolkien’s Mythology, A. Petty, 1979.

3  See: Author of The 20th Century, The Lord of the Rings (1) Mapping Out A Plot, T. Shippey.

4  From the poetry: The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (published in The Oxford Magazine, 1934) to fit The Lord of the Rings.



1/26/19  Added The Welsh deity Blodeuwedd.

The Last Stage

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 V – The Watcher of the World Play

Mainly missing from the analytical treatment so far is a healthy dose of good old-fashioned ‘philosophy’. It’s not just a necessary tonic, but a vital part of the medicine. Because from Tolkien’s profoundly erudite views we can extrapolate, in a logical manner, and thus grasp the simplicity of the structural set-up behind his mythological world. In turn, such philosophical discussion will yield rewards. For it will lead back to Bombadil and reinforce his role in the whole affair. If all the administered therapy through the previous 27 essays has been dutifully digested, with one last article the ailment that afflicts the curious can be completely cured. That maddening ‘ache’ left behind in the hearts of those dissatisfied with Tolkien’s tale can be remedied. Yes lasting relief is at hand for a legion of troubled readers – unhappy, unwilling or unable to let Bombadil go.

So onward to philosophizing over that quartet of age-old ideological enigmas:

‘What is the meaning of life?’
‘Why are we here? Who put us here? And where are we going?’

Ah yes … those great mysteries of our existence! Those perplexing questions mankind has sought solutions to since the dawn of consciousness. Indeed, ever since the realization that our place on the planet was unique, few have escaped from pondering on such matters – and least of all Tolkien.


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Despite the tragedies inflicted in childhood with the early death of his parents, and then as a young adult, from the untimely loss of several of his closest friends in war – it was religion that kept Tolkien going. For strangely enough it was faith that enabled him to rationalize and come to a personal acceptance of his position within the ordained hierarchy of the Universe. God was key to it all. A man’s place on the planet, along with all the accompanying sorrow and joy during life, could be reconciled by first believing in a Christian God – and then through submission to His will.

Tolkien was once asked that most difficult of questions by a young child:

“What is the purpose of life?”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #310

His answer provides us some noteworthy insight as to his thought process. Quickly and adeptly he managed to swing the subject round to pondering upon the reality of God:

“ ‘Why did life, the community of living things, appear in the physical Universe?’ introduces the Question: Is there a God, a Creator-Designer, a Mind to which our minds are akin (being derived from it) so that It is intelligible to us in part.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #310

For the Professor God was undeniable; the evidence lay before humanity’s eyes. For in nature everything before us was ‘other’:

“… we did not make them, and they seem to proceed from a fountain of invention incalculably richer than our own.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #310

Then if ‘everything’ resulted from a supreme inventor possessing vast knowledge and incredible power, His motive should not be questioned:

“If we ask why God included us in his Design, we can really say no more than because He Did.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #310

So if we logically extend this a little further, we can reasonably deduce that for Tolkien, all creation happened because of God. The inhabitants of Earth, the planets, the Sun and Moon, the stars, the very Universe – were all due to God’s will. Globed within undetectable boundaries, all matter as we know it, was subject to the irreversible passage of Time. This was the seen world, but there were also unseen ones – comprising, for his faith: ‘Heaven’ and ‘Hell’. And they did not exist within the same confine.

So just as mankind has never be able to crack, with definitive proof, the enigmas resulting from our existence – nor confirm the presence of ‘other worlds’, it was easier to bypass it all and just accept we are here on this lonely planet because of God’s ‘plan’. To accept our mortality, and to some degree – where our fates led was really the only logical choice. It was not the part of a Christian to question God’s intentions. Yet certainly a far superior intelligence must have had a purpose.

Now when it comes down to it, I think the easiest way for Tolkien to intellectualize God’s master plan was to conceptualize it as His great ‘play’. There was a script, that He the Author had ‘written’ – with both a beginning and an end. We humans were the primary ‘actors’ on the ‘stage’. Gifted with a large degree of ‘free will’ we are thus able to shape, within limitations, our destinies and the outcome of ‘history’. This was God’s great Drama – the history of the world. And He was interested in every bit of it.


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St. Thomas Aquinas – philosophized the reason for our existence is God


Of course my thoughts are a guess; Tolkien never explicitly stated so. Nevertheless I feel it’s a reasonable presumption because in the act of sub-creating his own myth, Tolkien used very much the same concept. However he added his own twist by splitting the drama up into two halves. The main performance of the Ages comprising Time within the Universe was preceded by:

“… a cosmogonical myth: The Music of the Ainur …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131

Before the act of our world’s creation much of the plot had been shown, like a ‘rehearsal’, to the Ainur in vision form:

“Their power and wisdom is derived from their Knowledge of the cosmogonical drama, which they perceived first as a drama (that is as in a fashion we perceive a story composed by some-one else), and later as a ‘reality’.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131   (my underlined emphasis)

This gathering by Eru Ilúvatar of his angelic offspring, The Music and the vision revelation were all parts of the ‘Creation Drama’, however for the Ainur:

“The Knowledge of the Creation Drama was incomplete: …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131   (my emphasis)

Certain elements in the rehearsal had been intentionally left out awaiting those of the enamored Ainur to discover for themselves.

Out of all this we most note how repeatedly the term ‘drama’ was employed. Whether for the earlier portion of the story Outside: the ‘Creation Drama’, or after the genesis of the new world: the ‘cosmogonical drama’ – the message is that Tolkien points to the overall story acted out as a ‘rehearsal’ and then a proper ‘play.’ In itself this is a very simple idea and one we can all readily understand.

If Tolkien really thought that way, then we must look for further confirmation. By inferential extension if indeed he imagined his entire mythological story as a ‘drama’ then there ought to be hints of a ‘theater’ and a ‘stage’ with ‘actors’ and a ‘script writer’ etc. Tolkien ought to have left some other clues. Fortunately numerous comments in texts and correspondences provide evidence aplenty:

From The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien with my underlined emphasis:

“… the actors are individuals” – Letter #109
“… the intrusions of the Children of God into the Drama – Letter #131
“… Men do not come on the stage …” – Letter #131
“The theatre of my tale is this earth …” – Letter #183
“… the whole great drama both of history and legend …” Letter #205
“The Fall of Man is in the past and off stage …” – Letter #297

From various chapter’s of Morgoth’s Ring, again with my underlined emphasis:

“The Great Music, which was as it were a rehearsal …”
“… God’s management of the Drama …”
“… the principal Drama of Creation …”
“… the Drama by Eru …”
“… the Valar who were to be actors.”
“… the Drama of Arda is unique.”
“… presented as visible drama to the Ainur.”

Even more clearly, the arrangement is openly conveyed by the ‘wise’:

“… Eru could not enter wholly into the world and its history, which is, however great, only a finite Drama. He must as Author always remain ‘outside’ the Drama, even though that Drama depends on His design and His will for its beginning and continuance, in every detail and moment.”
– The History of Middle-earth, Morgoth’s Ring, The debate of Finrod and Andreth   (my underlined emphasis)

How can we possibly issue a denial when its spelled out in such a clean-cut manner? I’m not about to debate the finer nuances or exactness of Tolkien’s comments – but essentially my views have not changed from those laid down in my very first essay. In Tolkien’s mind the bounded Universe could be likened to a ‘theater’ with the ‘stage’ being our planet in which his mythical drama involving Men and Elves (the Children of God) would be played out. As script writer for his ‘play’, this was reason enough for remaining on the sidelines:

“… I do not really belong inside my invented history; and do not wish to!”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #309   (Tolkien’s italicized emphasis on ‘inside’)


By now readers might be scratching their heads. Or perhaps that light bulb has finally gone on? Perhaps some have already made the next connection given the vast emphasis I’ve placed in previous essays on the importance of period plays to the Mythology’s roots. Yes, by no means was Tolkien’s idea unique. It had already been thought out and expressed by the Elizabethans in English Renaissance drama.


Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre (2nd construction), Hollar’s View of London, 1647


One of Shakespeare’s most famous dialogues was:

“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; …”.
– As You Like It, William Shakespeare, 1599

Similarly, in another play:

I hold the world, but as the world, Gratiano; A stage where every man must play a part, …”.
– The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare, c. 1596-1598

Even better put were words by Thomas Heywood echoed by those of Thomas Middleton:

“The world’s a Theater, the earth a Stage, Which God and nature doth with Actors fill, …”.
– Prefix to An Apology for Actors, Thomas Heywood, 1612

“The world’s a stage on which all parts are played.”
– A Game of Chess, Thomas Middleton, 1624

Hmm … so far things tie in with all that was stated so long ago. My postulation however is that Tolkien took the idea one step further than anyone else had done. If a solely literary performance his magnum opus was to be – then a permanent audience would still be necessary to ‘watch history’, even if it were feigned. Otherwise any acting on the literary ‘stage’ would end up being fundamentally no more than another rehearsal. Such a seemingly minor detail was a sticking point that could not be overcome. His book-form tale would still need a dedicated onlooker from beginning to end.

In encumbering himself with a rather eccentric self-stipulation, as I stated in my very first essay, Tolkien found a purpose for a very special character. Cast in a dramatic story – Tom Bombadil was destined to be conferred an idiosyncratic role. It was he that would be the much needed representation of the ‘audience’. How do we know? Well, almost given away in Tolkien’s correspondence with a close friend were traceable clues from which we can reasonably guess the Professor’s intent:

“ ‘ … This is like a ‘play’ … there are noises that do not belong, chinks in the scenery’, discussing in particular the status of Tom Bombadil in this respect”.
– Letter from Tolkien to Przemyslaw Mroczkowski, 1964, Auction contents, Christie’s Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts, 1 June 2009   (my underlined emphasis)

Why is this like a play? – We’ve had enough discussion on that already!
Whose noise doesn’t belong? – Bombadil’s of course!
What are the chinks in the scenery? – Glimpses of another world off stage, the tandem ‘auditorium’!

Yes if Tolkien himself used a theatrical analogy and then as discussed in Tom Bombadil: Cracking The ‘Enigma’ Code – Part I – extended it to tell us the world outside contained ‘the producer, stagehands and the author’, then why can’t Tom allegorically be thought of as the ‘audience’? Especially when the Professor told us that (just like any audience member) Tom is ‘outside the problems of power that involve the other characters’ in not belonging to ‘the main pattern of the Legendarium’.


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The Earth’s a Stage when viewed from an Auditorium!


Now we must not be fooled by the hostility the Professor displayed towards man-made theater-drama on several occasions:

“The radical distinction between all art (including drama) that offers a visible presentation and true literature is that it imposes one visible form. Literature works from mind to mind and is thus more progenitive.”
– Tolkien Essay On Fairy-stories, Note E, 1947

“I think the book quite unsuitable for ‘dramatization’, …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #131

The comments above have nothing to do with the idea behind his mentally conceived great play. Indeed there is no conflict because what Tolkien intimated is absolutely true when viewed in context. The traditional stage is unsuitable for depicting fantasy with a good measure of credence. It wasn’t back then, and it still isn’t now. Technology hasn’t advanced far enough to make a worthy dramatization of a story like The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings within the imposed limitations of a regular theater.

Nevertheless when immersed in a mesmerizing performance, it was still possible to lose oneself at moments, and become so immersed – that one felt one was part of a secondary reality. A gifted artist, in small measure, could provide a “visible form” wholly agreeable with spectators. And I think this is what Tolkien himself experienced on occasions when enraptured in a live show. Without consciously being aware his mind was being manipulated by another person (namely the script writer), it was only after the performance and due reflection that full realization of the effect dawned. It was this all too fleeting yet exhilarating experience that, I believe, led him to coin the term ‘Faerian Drama’, for which of course he had his own literary fantasy in mind:

“… ‘Faërian Drama’—those plays which … can produce Fantasy with a realism and immediacy beyond the compass of any human mechanism.”
– Tolkien Essay On Fairy-stories, 1947

If the story-maker is truly successful:

“He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside.”
– Tolkien Essay On Fairy-stories, 1947

With Frodo, it was Tom Bombadil projecting and manipulating an induced vision of “a far green country”. Perhaps this is the clearest example of an actual application in the novel. If that is the case, then highly interesting is a logical presumption that Tom had the ability to not just see things far off but become entwined with them in a ‘secondary reality’. It is because of this ability that my focus turns to a legendary Welsh figure seemingly endowed with a comparable skill.


Along with all the other pseudo alter-egos already discussed in prior articles – Tom the bardic singer of his realm shares traits with Taliesin – the great druid ‘Bard of the West’ from the Welsh Mabinogion tales Tolkien was quite familiar with. Taliesin means ‘shining brow’ and because of this he has loose linkage to the Celtic demigod Lugh1 – a sun god, and the Welsh deity Lleu2 – the ‘bright’ or ‘shining one’. Like no character in historical writings, and as Leslie Jones in Myth & Middle-earth has pointed out – Taliesin’s claims were extraordinary and resonate with Bombadil’s own3 amazing declarations:

“… I was with my Lord in the highest sphere,
On the fall of Lucifer into the depth of hell
I have borne a banner before Alexander;
I know the names of the stars from north to south;
I have been on the galaxy at the throne of the Distributor;
I was in Canaan when Absalom was slain;
I conveyed the Divine Spirit to the level of the vale of Hebron;
I was in the court of Don before the birth of Gwdion.
I was instructor to Eli and Enoc;
I have been winged by the genius of the splendid crosier;
I have been loquacious prior to being gifted with speech;
I was at the place of the crucifixion of the merciful Son of God;
I have been three periods in the prison of Arianrod;
I have been the chief director of the work of the tower of Nimrod;
I am a wonder whose origin is not known.
I have been in Asia with Noah in the ark,
I have seen the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra;
I have been in India when Roma was built,
I am now come here to the remnant of Troia.
I have been with my Lord in the manger of the ass:
I strengthened Moses through the water of Jordan;
I have been in the firmament with Mary Magdalene;
I have obtained the muse from the cauldron of Caridwen;
I have been bard of the harp to Lleon of Lochlin.
I have been on the White Hill, in the court of Cynvelyn,
For a day and a year in stocks and fetters,
I have suffered hunger for the Son of the Virgin,
I have been fostered in the land of the Deity,
I have been teacher to all intelligences,
I am able to instruct the whole universe.
I shall be until the day of doom on the face of the earth;
And it is not known whether my body is flesh or fish.
– The Mabinogion, Lady Charlotte Guest Translation, 1877

Tolkien may well have been intrigued by this wondrous being “whose origin is not known”. But how were all these feats and claims possible? What purpose would have been served by witnessing such historic moments? And then what reason required a presence from beginning to end?


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Taliesin and The Cauldron of Ceridwen, The Mabinogion, C. Guest, 1877


Possible? Well yes – imaginably if one were divine. Or feasibly if one were present in spiritual form. Or maybe if one became engaged through the verisimilitude of a Faerian Drama! Then one could be witness. Then one could feel one was there; that is if the art form possessed “realism and immediacy beyond the compass of any human mechanism”!

But why would one want to?

Perhaps if one was designated a unique role! Perhaps if one were the ‘audience’ of God’s ‘play’!

Yet one boast might have puzzled the Professor exceedingly. How could anyone “instruct the whole Universe” unless He were God Himself?

My feelings are that Tolkien thought of a way. And that was because he desired to provide yet another connection of Tom to the legends of the British Isles. So to extract that I have to turn back to Tom Bombadil: Cracking the Enigma Code – Part II. Therein I hinted at Tom’s secondary role on the planet as the ‘Orchestra of the Play’. But that should get us thinking. What about Outside? What about before the creation of the Universe?

Before I speculate further, I need to turn back to Bombadil’s Sindarin name: Iarwain Ben-adar – construction which I have already stated – positively reeks of Celtic origination. Though I’ve already supplied an etymological possibility – room exists for other interpretations. It is intriguing that ‘Iarwain’ might have been rooted with the Middle Welsh words:

‘arwain’: first, a leader or conductor of music
‘awen’: poetic inspiration

Perhaps the Lady Guest translation of:

Bum yn arwain o flaen Alexanderm

which was given as:

I have borne a banner before Alexander

could equally be interpreted as:

‘I have led the music in front of Alexander’.

Hmm … that ought to further stimulate our synapses!

For the Creation Myth we know the choirs of the Ainur sang to Eru’s command. But who was the conductor of this ensemble? Who organized and directed them in singing the first theme of the Music? No this wasn’t Eru’s role. His contribution can be likened to producing the major chords in creating the overall theme on the ‘music sheet’. It was the Ainur’s task to fill in the melodies and it was for Eru to hearken and enjoy the performance.

Surely then there was a need for a conductor? Without one wouldn’t the Music have been chaotic? Surely Tolkien would have understood this important detail? Once again who was the conductor of the orchestral choirs? Could Tom have been that spirit?

Having played his part in the creation portion of the drama ‘Outside’ – was he now destined to change role and become the ‘audience’, for the Universe-based cosmogonical play, while retaining a trace of his original allegorical role in name-form? Was a multifaceted Tom deliberately modeled to share traits with Taliesin? Is that how myth ended up as historical legend? Perhaps that amazing boast of being able to “instruct the whole Universe” had a grain of truth? 

Who knows for certain? Again I admit, only Tolkien would have been able to tell us for sure whether Tom’s Sindarin title held another remarkable secret! 


Though I am done discussing the origins of the Creation Myth and Bombadil’s potential roles in the ‘play’, I have a sneaking suspicion that Tolkien had an external connection in mind based on actual English drama. Just like I theorized Bilbo had roots in Thomas Dekker’s Match me in London, so too may there have been a similar factor for Tom. It was the Anglo-Irish playwright John O’Keeffe who wrote a lighthearted humor-filled stage play called Peeping Tom of Coventry.


Peeping Tom of Coventry Theatre Programme, John O’Keeffe


Based on a famous 11th Century incident involving Lady Godiva, ‘Peeping Tom’ is faintly reminiscent of:

“ ‘Ha, Tom Bombadil! What be you a-thinking, peeping inside my tree, …’ ”.
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, The Oxford Magazine, 1934   (my emphasis)

However in a closer match – Peeping Tom is described as a:

“… bobadil of a romancer …”.
– Peeping Tom of Coventry: A Musical Farce, John O’Keeffe, 1784, Theatre Programme held at the Bodleian Library   (my emphasis)

And the chorus also echoes snatches from The Lord of The Rings:

Merry is your ding-dong, happy gay and free
Merry is your sing-song, merry let us be.”
– Peeping Tom of Coventry: A Musical Farce, John O’Keeffe, 1784, Theatre Programme held at the Bodleian Library   (my emphasis)

And then there are also two other plays O’Keeffe wrote called A World in a Village – with the character ‘Willo’ and a ‘fal, lal’ tune; and Tony Lumpkin in Town – perhaps parodied in The Lord of the Rings through ‘Pony Lumpkin’! Of course despite several tangencies it may all be coincidental, but something tells me maybe not. After all it would not be the only occasion where Tolkien plucked names from elsewhere!

Setting English drama aside it’s time to dwell upon how Tolkien further integrated elements of theatrical thinking within The Lord of the Rings. To establish further links one needs to view remarks on his On Fairy-stories lecture/essay and attach their significance to his tale. Especially when it comes to the concept of Faerie. Yes that ‘other’ world, dwelling in parallel, yet possessing a connection to our own. Bound historically to the soil of England, a local faerie for Middle-earth was never explicitly stated to be present. Instead the reader had to extract its presence from clues left within the early part of the novel. As part of Tolkien’s structural arrangement, it could be viewed as adjoining the main stage of Middle-earth – our physical world that is – yet unable to be seen or inhabited by all but the most special. A place which was accessible only by a higher order of beings.

Tolkien, I believe, rationalized what I term ‘Middle-earth Faerie’ as equivalent to the auditorium in a typical theater. A sort of secondary world where its gifted inhabitants, because of superior inherent power, could more easily cross over in to our primary world than the reverse. Tolkien explained:

“What is this faierie? … a view that the normal world, tangible visible audible, is only an appearance, Behind it is a reservoir of power …”.
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Flieger & Anderson, Manuscript B

In other words – another world adjacent to ours – suspected but unbeknownst to us. Using this secondary world:

“… fairies … can vanish or appear at will; …”.
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Flieger & Anderson, Manuscript B

Simply by stepping on and off the stage, they are able to tap the power of faerie. Perhaps with Tom Bombadil in mind Tolkien related:

“For the trouble with the real folk of Faerie is that they do not always look like what they are; …”.
– Tolkien Essay On Fairy-stories, 1947

Tolkien clearly thought that some of these special folk were divine ‘fairy’ beings at a very early stage in the development of his Mythology. Given away was thinking about the world and developments within it – being likened to a ‘play’:

“These are the Nermir and Tavari. Nadini and Orossi, brownies, fays, pixies, leprawns … they were born before the world and are older than its oldest, and are not of it but laugh at it much … it is for the most part a play for them; …”.
– The Book of Lost Tales I, The Coming of the Valar and the Building of Valinor  
(my emphasis)

But from my research – Tolkien made Tom the most special of all fairy folk. He was the dedicated watcher of the cosmogonical drama and his position was reinforced by a link to the Archangel Michael4 through ancient religious manuscripts. The Grigori (from Greek ‘egrogoroi’) were a group of angels appearing in the Biblical apocryphal books of Enoch and Jubilee and the Old Testament Book of Daniel. They were sent to Earth to watch over mankind. Topping the hierarchy of angelic beings were four great Watchers: ‘Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Auriel’.


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Angels Michael, Raphael and Gabriel, painting by Botticini, 1470


Under Catholicism even Tolkien believed that from birth to death, human life is under the watchful care of angels ready to intercede when called. But it is how the ancient English thought about angels that particularly interested Tolkien. In a letter to a close friend the Professor commented:

“… on medieval thinking in regard to fallen angels”.
– Letter to Nevill Coghill, 21 August 1954 – documented in Addenda and Corrigenda to The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide (2006) Vol. 1: Chronology, Scull and Hammond

And such medieval thinking is particularly relevant to us. Because fallen angels were not just foes of God pushed out of Heaven. Rather a significant part of the ‘fallen’ were simply the curious who had left of their own accord, and termed by medieval man as elves and fairies:

“… they are angels, but a special class of angels who have been, in our jargon, ‘demoted’. This view is developed at some length in the South English Legendary … When Lucifer rebelled, he and his followers were cast into Hell. But there were also angels who ‘somdel with him hulde’ : fellow-travellers who did not actually join the rebellion.”
– The Discarded Image, C.S. Lewis

One can only wonder if such literature influenced Tolkien to set up Tom as both angelic and of fairy-kind – essentially independent and off on his own. Nevertheless when it comes to angels and medieval accounts – completing the link of the ‘audience’ of the world play to Bombadil through St. Michael are English church records relating the miracle of Monte Gargano5:

“ ‘I am Michael, the archangel of God Almighty, and I continue ever in his sight. I say to thee that I especially love the place which the bull, and I would by that sign manifest that I am the guardian of the place; and of all the miracles which there happen, I am the spectator and observer.’ And with these words the archangel departed to heaven.”
– The Homilies of the Anglo-Saxon Church/XXXIV by Ælfric   (my emphasis)

Aha – the last piece of the puzzle finally falls in place!

We have already seen how Tolkien formulated Tom to be the source of fairy tales, folklore and legends of the British Isles and nearby regions. Ranging from the little old man of the Jack and the Beanstalk fairy-story to demigods such as Lugh, Lleu and Esus, Bombadil would encapsulate characteristics of them all. But that was not enough. From the cauldron’s mix Tom would also be the source of the folklore legend of the little Welsh cattle herd, the leprechaun, and then the mighty bard Taliesin. Yet I believe it was a Christian face that pleased Tolkien most.

To cap it all the Professor employed masterly scholastic and religious knowledge. And that related to the medieval legends of England heavily steeped with the personage of St. Michael. Somehow the Professor dexterously managed to sort out a way of academically linking Tom to the Christian Archangel. That is after tying Master Bombadil coherently to the Mythology’s allegorical substructure.

Thus our angelic fairy Tom, partly because of Tolkien exploiting a desirous affiliation to St. Michael, and partly in fulfilling an idiosyncratic need – would represent the “spectator and observer” – yes the ‘audience’ of Eru Ilúvatar’s great ‘play’!


I'm Here - Let 'The Cosomogonical Drama' Begin!

‘The audience is here. Let the play begin!’

Time to say QED?
Not quite! 
After 28 essays – a summary is deserved where I will wrap up Tom and ‘allegory’.






1  See The Road to Fairyland – Part II for discussion on Bombadil’s linkage to the Irish deity Lugh.

2  See Angel and Demon, Gospel and Fairy-story – Part II for discussion on Bombadil’s linkage to the Welsh deity Lleu.

3  Per The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil with my emphasis:

‘… Eldest, that’s what I am. Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn. …’ .

4  See Angel and Demon, Gospel and Fairy-story – Part I for previous discussion on links of Bomabadil to the Archangel Michael.

5  See The Last Stage – Part II for previous discussion on the Mount Gargano legend.

The Last Stage

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Part IV – Drama in Tolkien’s Life

The stage is now set for two final essays in my efforts to explain Master Bombadil. It’s time to wrap up ‘The Last Stage’. The series was titled, of course, in honor of The Hobbit’s final chapter. Nevertheless there also exists for the reader to dwell upon – an implicit link to theatrical productions. For my intent is to reiterate the importance of ‘plays’ to the Professor’s way of thinking, and to bring to light the final piece of the Bombadil puzzle. But the circle of understanding cannot be complete without harking back to my very first article. Nor without discussing the play origin of Bilbo’s great adventure.


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School Play Pamphlet authorized and attended by Tolkien


As one might recall – an abstract connection of Tom to the theater via an allegorical role as the representation of the ‘audience’ was put forward many moons ago (The Secret Role played by Bombadil). Now finally – I must return to that work. I must bind in the mythical ‘Cosmogonical Drama’ to an extraordinary facet. And that facet is our real world’s historical dramas. Namely English acting productions which played a paramount part in both the creation of The Hobbit and, as we have glimpsed, the characterization of Bombadil.

Before ‘curtain call’ – laid bare will be a few more surprises, but first I’m compelled to strengthen my case by exploring a hitherto unconsidered passion of Tolkien’s. Begging to be directly asked is:

‘How did Match me in London – the inspiration behind The Hobbit tale – come across Tolkien’s desk?
How did Thomas Dekker become known to him?
What prompted Tolkien to take interest in Jacobean drama?’

These are all questions that have to be asked and then answered as best can be. Without doubt there is much unrecorded so we may never be certain – but a viable and believable explanation has to be offered. Otherwise understandably credence on any reader’s part will be mighty hard to gain. The whole series which has so tightly knitted Goldberry and Tom to our world’s mythology, folklore and fairy-stories has a dangling loose end.

Fortunately, yet perhaps not wholly unexpectedly, the creation of The Hobbit followed much the same line of thinking as Tom’s assimilation route into the mythology. All of this revolved around a web of ideas spun around English drama. But before I tie in those final strands – the reader needs to fully comprehend Tolkien’s affinity to classical drama beyond pure entertainment value. Though certainly that was influential.

So what I’m about to do is highlight where and when Tolkien might have had an opportunity to delve into Elizabethan and Jacobean plays beyond those of Shakespeare. In particular I will restrict exploration to a time period before the inception of The Hobbit. For obviously it must have been during this earlier part of life that he ran across Match me in London. Because according to my contention1 the skeleton plot of his first real literary hit originated from Thomas Dekker’s 1611 handicraft.

The lower band of my investigation will be set at the start of Tolkien’s undergraduate years at Oxford University. There is hardly anything of significance relating to acting or participation in drama activities we can gather from his early childhood. In his last two years of attending King Edward’s School, we know he had roles in two plays by Aristophanes: The Birds in July 1910 and The Peace in July 1911. However these were one-off ‘year-end’ productions. Though an interest in drama had begun to be fostered, when it came to studying English playwrights during schooling, Tolkien cleanly confessed it didn’t extend further than 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

Using John Tolkien’s diary entry of New Years Day 19302, the upper band will be set as the summer of 1929. This is the latest the Professor could reasonably have begun writing The Hobbit. What we are left with then is broadly three periods worth scrutinizing. Those being: undergraduate attendance at Oxford University, followed by a Leeds University teaching tenure, and finally early years back at Oxford after his appointment as Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon.

But before I move on to discuss these time spans, I must emphasize that Thomas Dekker was far from an obscure literary personality. Yes, by no means was Dekker considered a lightweight. Acknowledged as one of the most prolific Renaissance playwrights, among scholars his name is regularly associated to a small group of well-recognized dramatists of the era. Nor has his name or talent been forgotten in modern times. The famed British rock band ‘The Beatles’ included poetry from Dekker’s 1603 comedy Patient Grissel in the lyrics of their Golden Slumbers song!


Image result for thomas dekker patient grissel;

Play Pamphlet of T. Dekker’s ‘Patient Grissel’


Also to be emphasized is that our knowledge of what Tolkien read in the period between 1911 and 1929 is quite sparse; there are only eight letters to rifle through in Carpenter’s The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien pertaining to such a time frame. And Hammond & Scull’s Chronology from The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion & Guide does not provide a great deal of further insight. Unfortunately the titles of the books making up the vast bulk of Tolkien’s personal library (greater than 400 books) are still unknown at this time. However we can establish with surety that his reading repertoire was extensive – though it remains largely a mystery.


Undergraduate Period 1911-1915

Now remarkably while in his first year at Exeter College we see Tolkien once again actively engaged in theatrical shows. Just before Christmas of 1911 he was invited back to King Edward’s School and performed in a stage play called The Rivals with fellow TCBS members. Cast in the female role of Mrs. Malaprop, the enactment was a huge hit:

“… the performance was a thorough success both artistically and financially … J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mrs Malaprop was a real creation, excellent in every way …”.
– King Edward’s School Chronicle, The Musical and Dramatic Society, March 1912

Perhaps building on an innate and emerging talent, further acting ensued as part of a regular celebratory occurrence:

“Tolkien probably spends part of the vacation with his Incledon relatives at Barnt Green. They have the custom of performing theatrical entertainments during the holiday, including the farce Cherry Farm probably written by Tolkien.”
– The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion & Guide, Chronology, 2006 Edition, Scull & Hammond, Christmas 1911

In the following year the habitual dramatic activity resulted in a new production:

“He has written a play for them, The Bloodhound, the Chef and the Suffragette. In its performance he plays the leading part of ‘Professor Joseph Quilter …’ …”.
– The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion & Guide, Chronology, Hammond & Scull, Christmas 1912

And we learn that in 1913 while with family he was:

“… apparently again involved in amateur theatricals …”.
– The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion & Guide, Chronology, Hammond & Scull, Late December 1913 – early January 1914


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‘Exeter College Smoker’ – college concert programme, illustrated by Tolkien


So by now we have accumulated enough evidence to glean that plays and theater interested a young Tolkien. Seemingly also deducible is that he excelled in live performing, with a hinted-at aptitude in writing drama too. However so far, we can garnish no specific evidence or knowledge of involvement with non-Shakespearean Renaissance drama.

Nonetheless we also know that during early Exeter years Tolkien gained membership to several clubs. Among these were the Apolausticks3 – a club centered on discussing bygone literary figures. Was Thomas Dekker among them? Who knows – but there is nothing documented one can point too.

It isn’t till we start looking into Tolkien’s English Literature syllabus that it emerges period dramatic studies were part of the educational curriculum. Passing English Literature examinations required the study of literary greats other than Shakespeare. According to Scull & Hammond, Tolkien likely attended:

“… D. Nichol Smith’s lectures on English Literature from Caxton to Milton …”,
– The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion & Guide, Chronology, 2006 Edition, Scull & Hammond, Trinity Term 1914

a period spanning 1500-1674, thus including both Elizabethan and Jacobean times. Then even more apropos – in the Hilary Term of 1915:

“He also attends Sir Walter Raleigh’s4 lectures on Drama in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries …”.
– The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion & Guide, Chronology, 2006 Edition, Scull & Hammond, Hilary Term 1915

And just as pertinent – later on in the Trinity Term of 1915 it is probable he made it to:

“… Percy Simpson’s lectures on Elizabethan drama …”.
– The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion & Guide, Chronology, 2006 Edition, Scull & Hammond, Trinity Term 1915

All of this was done in aid of answering questions in finals. Prior to taking these Tolkien borrowed5 from Exeter College’s library: The Cambridge History of English Literature. This of course references Thomas Dekker and Match me in London. Though to be fair the book series ran to twelve substantial volumes, thus leaving simply too weak a connection to offer as proof.

Although the English Language and Literature exams put forward in the Oxford Regulations of the Board of Studies, set compulsory questions on Shakespeare and Chaucer, other notables such as Dryden, Milton and Caxton were regular candidates. Also it appears it was usual for at least one to be centered on a dramatic figure of the English Renaissance period. For Tolkien’s finals, the renowned Elizabethan playwright ‘Chrisopher Marlowe’ was one of the set questions for Honours Literature students:

“Tolkien sits Paper A5: History of English Literature. There are twelve questions with no limit on the number to be answered: one each on Old English poetry; Langland and Chaucer; William Caxton as writer and translator; Christopher Marlowe; …”.
– The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion & Guide, Chronology, 2006 Edition, Scull & Hammond, 12 June 1915   (my emphasis)

According to the Oxford Regulations of the Board of Studies, Paper A5: would have come under:

“5. The Age of Shakespeare.”
– Examination Statutes, Academical Year 1915-1916, Scheme of Papers

This would probably have been the one whereby a question6 on Thomas Dekker could have been posed.

Hmm … so after careful thought we may justly conclude a determined and studiously-minded Tolkien was virtually forced to study playwrights other than Shakespeare. Both during set lectures and through necessary research in his own time. Indeed per the The Oxford Magazine and also announced in The Academy and Literature – Dekker was certainly not ignored by the academic establishment:

“Mr. A.H. BULLEN’s course of six lectures on “Elizabethan Poets” are now being delivered at Oxford in the New Schools, … the poets selected being: Michael Drayton, Samuel Daniel, Thomas Dekker, …”.
– The Academy and Literature, Volume 35, University Jottings, 1889   (my underlined emphasis)


Image result for thomas dekker shoemaker's holiday

Play Pamphlet of T. Dekker’s most famous work, ‘The Shoemaker’s Holiday’


Leeds University Tenure 1920-1925

On the 1st of October 1920 Tolkien accepted a position of Reader in English Language at Leeds University under Professor G.S. Gordon. When it came to responsibilities, Tolkien’s teaching and research activities were limited to Middle English and earlier – and didn’t extend to an era that I am focused on. However:

“The staff of the School of English Language and Literature at Leeds, in addition to Gordon and Tolkien, consists of only two Assistant Lecturers and one Tutor in English Composition.”
– The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion & Guide, Chronology, 2006 Edition, Scull & Hammond, 1 October 1920

Due to a lack of across the board subject knowledge depth among the various tutors, along with a non-abundant faculty, it is quite possible that Tolkien would need on occasions to teach, when called for, outside of what we understand as his area of expertise. Perhaps this is indicated by:

“Tolkien might also be responsible for the first few lectures in an introductory course on English Literature which begins with … and then moves on to Shakespeare, etc., …”.
– The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion & Guide, Chronology, 2006 Edition, Scull & Hammond, Leeds academic year 1920-1921 

So though Shakespeare might well have been taught – there is also the slightest of clues that there was more from this era that Tolkien knew of. But certainly there’s not enough to indicate other Elizabethan playwrights were lectured on – let alone Dekker.

Lastly while at Leeds Tolkien began earning extra money by marking school certificate papers. But school curricula lacked depth. Detailed study beyond Shakespeare would likely have not stretched to Dekker. However by 1925 Tolkien became an external examiner for the English Final Honour School examinations at Oxford. Disappointingly there isn’t any hint of what Tolkien marked and what his knowledge would need to extend to.


Oxford University Professorship 1925-1929

As a newly appointed Professor of the Anglo-Saxon chair, there can be little doubt that Tolkien’s agenda must have been highly focused on delivering and researching period material exclusively relevant to that Age of English history. Nonetheless a new external factor appeared out of the blue. C.S. Lewis arrived on the scene. In 1926 warm beginnings to a long and mutually beneficial friendship kindled a passion to discuss literature on a regular basis.

Lewis’s arena of expertise complemented Tolkien’s. Indeed he had much to offer because from a literature standpoint 16th and 17th Century English history was his bread and butter subject material. As a lecturer, a student once reported that for Christmas vacation reading:

“He never prepared any lists; the titles just tumbled out of his memory. He once rattled off a list of twenty or thirty Elizabethan and Jacobean plays we might read, …”.
– Remembering C.S. Lewis: Recollections of Those who Knew Him, The Tutor: A Portrait, J.T. Como, 1992

Yes, Lewis’s familiarity with Renaissance drama is echoed by his vast personal library. Within a collection of ~2400 books7 – there’s a substantial quantity belonging to plays and playwrights of this period. Though ones dedicated to the study of Dekker are not among them. This is not altogether surprising since expositions on Dekker’s works were relatively rare prior to the 1920’s. Of the little available, most were classified as collectors items and thus too valuable for the ordinary academic to purchase. In any case the Bodleian Library was near at hand – Lewis didn’t need personal copies for every playwright. As early as 1928 he was using the facility extensively:

“Jack’s description of the Bodleian is classic. … if the Bodleian just had upholstered chairs, and you could smoke, then it would be the most delightful place in the world. … Jack would often sit in Duke Humfrey’s Library, the oldest part of the Bodleian … There he would order the books he wished to peruse, …”.
– C.S. Lewis Life, Works and Legacy: Vol 1 An Examined Life, Bruce L. Edwards, 1997


Image result for old bodleian library .org

Duke Humfrey’s Library, The Bodleian, Oxford


Unless Match me in London is buried in one of the general books on Renaissance drama Lewis possessed, which I have been unable to discover, we can conclude that it is unlikely Tolkien perused it during the many informal evenings spent in his friend’s university lodging. Nor can we say that Tolkien joined him on occasions at the Bodleian. Once again there is no record on the matter. But being an Oxford Don Tolkien absolutely must have used the library in a similar manner to conduct his own research8.

Now Lewis was also a member of another university society:

“Every other Tuesday night was a meeting with the Mermaid Club, reading Elizabethan and post-Elizabethan Drama.”
– C.S. Lewis Life, Works and Legacy: Vol 1 An Examined Life, Bruce L. Edwards, 1997

It was one that often met at a local pub – with seemingly more drinking than academic study – perhaps mirroring Tolkien’s Viking Club at Leeds:

“I am entertaining the Mermaids tonight, drat ’em. They are nothing but a drinking, guffawing cry of barbarians with hardly any taste among them, …”.
– Letters of C.S. Lewis, 1st April 1927, edited by Walter Hooper, 2003

Whether Tolkien ever participated, as perhaps a guest – repaying Lewis for the courtesy of his attendance at The Kolbitars (club meetings held on alternate Tuesdays), is unknown. And again there is no mention of Dekker’s plays ever being read out aloud.

Switching from Lewis to an Oxford Don and colleague of Tolkien’s who is of great interest in this investigation, there is the remarkable Frank Percy Wilson. Remarkable because his life shared so much in common with Tolkien’s. Educated at the very same King Edward’s school in Birmingham he went on to fight in the Somme just like Tolkien. He too required a long hospital convalescence before being discharged from the British Army. In another parallel, his path led him to Leeds University and then finally back to Oxford University where he became a fellow Don in the English department. Both Tolkien and Wilson received degrees from Oxford University.

When Tolkien gained his professorial position at Oxford in 1925, Wilson was present serving as a lecturer. We know that Wilson didn’t leave for Leeds until 1929 where he gained a promotion to Professor of Literature. And though not recorded – it wouldn’t be at all surprising if Tolkien was used as a recommendation. During the four years of co-presence in the 20’s we know Wilson and Tolkien rubbed shoulders in faculty committee meetings. Yet what is of intriguing interest is that Wilson was an authority on Thomas Dekker.

In 1913 Wilson had written a B. Litt. thesis on Dekker while at Oxford University’s Lincoln College. Then in 1924 and 1925 respectively, he went on to publish Dekker’s Foure Birds of Noahs Arke and Plague Pamphlets of T. Dekker. Dekker was Wilson’s prime specialty. As well as possessing an unrivaled understanding of his drama, he spent many years working on a four volume edition of the playwright’s prose works – which sadly never reached completion. According to biographers Wilson was:

“the most learned Elizabethan scholar of his generation, as well as a master of social graces and a witty conversationalist.”
– Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004, Robertson and Connell

Sounds just like the sort of person Tolkien would have relished interacting with. And one can understand how the rarely remarked on cooperation with Wilson in the early 50’s is something we ought to consider. Both Tolkien and Wilson were General Editors of B.L. Joseph’s Oxford English Monographs: Elizabethan Acting.


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Tolkien co-general Editor of ‘Elizabethan Acting’, B.L. Joseph, 1951


Adding to this web of intrigue is that Wilson was C.S. Lewis’s tutor in the early 1920’s. And so within such a triangle one can easily imagine that somewhere along the line Tolkien encountered Dekker’s Match me in London.

Of course I cannot prove it. That would be too high an aim. All that I can do is show that the opportunity was there. There in the right timeframe. And there right in front of him!

Yet, after all of this, the reader is quite entitled to wonder whether I have sufficiently-well answered the three questions at the beginning of this essay. I think not. Of those – inadequately addressed is: ‘What prompted Tolkien to take interest in Jacobean drama?’.

Hmm … it is certainly the most difficult to fathom the reason behind. Resorting to a stab in the dark is of least preference. Even Bilbo would agree! Yet, if not a stab, a leap in the dark I must take!

My belief is that much revolves around the mysterious process of ‘invention’. Specifically the invention of a fairy tale. It is at this ‘last stage’ that I must guess – yet the guess I think is a shrewd one.

We must not forget that by 1925 Tolkien was a Professor. No less a respected Oxford Don; just about the most prestigious academic position one can gain within the English academic system. Tolkien didn’t think like the average person. If a fairy tale was going to be published with his name as author then it better have some sound structure and coherency to it. The background would necessarily require some sort of academic framework. One can quite easily see how such a reflexive action had naturally become ingrained given the institutions and academic works Tolkien had been associated to and become attuned to.

Let’s face it – the quest for a dragon’s treasure-hoard was (and still is) an attractive story-line. Rooted in pseudo historical/legendary accounts of Beowulf and The Story of Sigurd, his tale would similarly need a hero. And why not Jack of English fairy tale fame? Or rather an archetype reflecting his concocted opinion of the true source of the eponymous hero.

Yet who really was Jack? Did anyone know? No – this important detail was long forgotten, but there was one trait which could definitely be surmised. That being: Jack was technically a rather ‘clever thief’. 

Tolkien would loved to have been able to source Jack back much further than Elizabethan times. But this is where the trail went cold. The furthest he could go back was to Nashe’s Have with you to Saffron-Walden9. No disaster though. The same era held some of the earliest depictions of rogues and ‘clever’ English thieves through the five renowned ‘cony-catching’ pamphlets of Robert Greene. 

Tolkien had already become familiar with the cony-catching phrase through Shakespeare where the term is allusively mentioned in The Taming of the Shrew and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Researching Greene’s play pamphlets would eventually lead to those of Thomas Dekker where cony-catching was likewise an important theme. These plays were: The Honest Whore, Bellman of London, Lanthorne and Candle-light, Villainies Discovered by Candlelight, and English Villainies. But then, I speculate, one day he stumbled upon Match me in London – a tragi-comedy with another English thief. One who had stolen a great ‘gem’ from a ‘fire-drake’! 


Image result for thomas dekker cony catching

Play Pamphlet of R. Greene, ‘A Notable Discovery of Coosenage’


Tolkien I am sure spent quite some time pondering on Dekker’s last published play – but from this and these other English historical documents he saw the beginnings of a fairy-story with the hero associated to rabbits and cony-catching. If I were to guess – this is the path that led to The Hobbit. For all of a sudden the threads of a tale came together – a case of ‘bingo’!

Or should I say Bungo10!


For the next article in the series click below

Part V




1  See Tudor, Elizabethan & Jacobean Connections – Part II.

2  See Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, Catherine McIlwaine, pg. 290.

3  Tolkien was actually the founder of the club.

4  Tolkien comments in The Letters of J.R.R Tolkien, Letter #46 that he thought Raleigh was “a good lecturer”. From which we can tenuously suppose that Tolkien enjoyed his lectures on 16th and 17th Century English drama.

5  The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion & Guide, Chronology, 2006 Edition, Scull & Hammond, Addenda & Corrigenda to Chronology 10 June 1915.

6  Dekker’s works spans both Elizabethan and Jacobean eras.

7  The biggest holding of Lewis’s personal library is at the Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Illinois. It reputedly holds a collection of greater than 2360 volumes.

8  At least one record of Tolkien ‘borrowing’ from the Bodleian Library exists. From The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion & Guide, Chronology, 2017 Edition, Scull & Hammond, Addenda & Corrigenda to Chronology 27 February 1939:

“Tolkien consults several books in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, evidently as research for his Andrew Lang lecture …”.

9  See Tolkien’s essay: English and Welsh. Nashe’s play employs a variant of the ‘fe-fi-fo-fum’ giant refrain.

10  According to: A Dictionary of Archaic & Provincial Words, Obsolete Phrases, Proverbs & Ancient Customs, from the Fourteenth Century by J.O. Halliwell Phillip’s, one root of ‘Bungo’ – Bilbo’s father, might be: 

Bung – ‘A pick-pocket’.

Was this another ‘low philological jest’ of Tolkien’s? Where Bungo had ‘picked’ Belladonna’s ‘pockets’ to build Bag End? 

The Last Stage

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Part III – Rhyme and Reason

A matter which cannot escape any reader of The Lord of the Rings – is the large amount of inserted poetry. Not that much has been written about Tolkien’s rhyming techniques, cadence formulations and metrical harmonies. Especially when it comes to the early verses featuring songs by our strange yet delightful duo. However three worthy analyses of Bombadil’s melodies are: Poetic Insertions in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings1,“Hey dol, merry dol”: Tom Bombadil’s Nonsense, or Tolkien’s Creative Uncertainty?2 and Tom Bombadil: Poetry and Accretion3.

Disappointingly, for me, all three articles tend to discuss Tolkien’s strategy more from an overall viewpoint and shy away from homing-in on specific details or interpreting those ‘difficult’ stanzas. My focus though will be limited. Indeed I will only try to peer into minor oddities which I have never seen adequately addressed before in any Tolkien scholarship. At least – not to my satisfaction.

Now the merry couple sang more than their fair share of tunes – with Tom far outstripping Goldberry. In mainly quatrain style, for Tom, Tolkien contrived:

(a) Three different compositions in The Old Forest chapter,
(b) Three distinct songs In the House of Tom Bombadil chapter,
(c) Four tunes in Fog on the Barrow-downs.

Of these – the academic scope will be restricted to investigating aspects of the first two songs from item (a). And only to the extent whereby some of the so-called ‘nonsense’ language is examined:

“… someone was singing a song; a deep glad voice was singing carelessly and happily, but it was singing nonsense: …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Old Forest

To our untrained ears Tom’s lyrics might seem like gibberish – but perhaps to learned musicians a faintly intelligible echo is detectable. An echo that provides a loose awareness and appreciation of how Tolkien further linked our world’s history to his mythological age. All finessed in a very subtle way.

A suitable starting point in a quest for discovery begins with our introduction to Tom’s versified language. Right at vocal outset, the musically inclined and curious reader is allowed to question whether Tom’s singing was truly a ‘bunch of baloney’!

“Suddenly out of a long string of nonsense-words (or so they seemed) the voice rose up loud …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Old Forest   (my emphasis)


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A Book of Nonsense, Edward Lear, 1861
There was an Old Derry down Derry, who loved to see little folks merry …


From the first jingle some rather unusual and ‘difficult’ vocabulary surfaced:

“Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo!
Ring a dong! hop along! fal lal the willow!

Hey! Come merry dol! derry dol! My darling!

Hey! Come merry dol! derry dol and merry-o

Hey! Come derry dol! Can you hear me singing?”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Old Forest

From the second song, as Tom hurried home leaving the hobbits trailing behind, some of that melody was repeated:

“Hey now! merry dol! We’ll be waiting for you!

Hey! Come merry dol!
Hey Come derry dol! Hop along, my hearties!”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Old Forest

And somewhat pointedly, the ‘derry dol’ tune continues to be audible during the hobbits’ stay:

Every now and again they caught, among many a derry dol and merry dol …
‘Hey! Come merry dol! derry dol. My hearties!’ ”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

As you’ve probably gathered, the words and phrases that interest me most are: ‘derry dol’, and to a lesser extent: ‘fal lal’. Undoubtedly we have intriguing words which simply are not commonplace in our language today. In everyday speech, or even regional colloquialism, they are seldom heard. Yet what did ‘derry dol’ and ‘fal lal’ mean? What function did the phrases serve? Or was there none? Was it just purely babble solely crafted for rhyming with an end purpose of creating a catchy tune?

The answers are elusive and once again only Tolkien would have been able provide us with absolutes. Yet there does seem to have been something he had in mind. We can readily understand how “merry dol” was invented to complete the rhyming sequence for “derry dol”. Yet given such a remarkably repetitive frequency, one might conclude an ulterior motive had to have existed. Tolkien’s own internalized rationale must have been strong.

To uncover what Tolkien might have envisioned we first must take a look at what was aired about poetry. In a general sense he commented:

“… it seems hardly ever recognised that the verses in The L.R. are all dramatic: they … are fitted in style and contents to the characters in the story that sing or recite them, and to the situations in it.” 
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #306   (Tolkien’s italicized emphasis on ‘The L.R.’ and ‘characters’)

Yet that does not lead us anywhere fast. Yes all the characters voicing verse have distinct and widely varying personalities, and yes the poems differ according to the singer/reciter/situation – but that’s plain and obvious. All we can reasonably conclude is that Bombadil’s poetry is a touch enigmatic – just like the larger than life character himself. Leading us once again to resort to searching further afield. We must seek outside of the books. We ought to try to understand if meaning to ‘fal, lal, derry, dol’ was sourced outside of the mythology, and then attributed within it by Tolkien’s mind:

“No vocal noises mean anything in themselves. Meaning has to be attributed to them by a human mind.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #294

Now a basic belief of all language etymologists and philologists is that:

“… that every word in every language has originally had a meaning, whether a nation has it by inheritance, by importation, or by composition.”
– Anacalypsis, An Inquiry into the Origin of Languages, Nations and Religions, Vol. I, G. Higgins, 1836

Since the words ‘derry, dol, fal, lal’ are associated to poetic song and only appear in Tolkien’s constructed verse – one of the first things we ought to do is check whether they turn up in poetry and music of our real world. Once more we need to explore such possibilities. Perhaps such a delving will unearth some telltale pointers!

Well we needn’t dig too deep – for indeed they do! ‘Derry, dol, fal and lal’ commonly appear in many ballads and rhymes spread across the British Isles, including Ireland. Too numerous to list – the following provide a mere flavor.

We see them crop up in old nursery rhyme:

“There were three crows sat on a stone
Fal la, la la lal de,”,
– Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes: A Collection of Alphabets, Rhymes, Tales and Jingles, 1877


Image result for mother goose's nursery rhymes 1877 tenniel cover page

Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes, Inside Cover Page, 1877 Edition


in the odd Christmas carol:

“Oh! how soft my fair one’s bosom,
fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la:
Oh! how sweet the grove in blossom,
fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la:”,

– Nos Galan translation from Welsh ‘Musical and poetical relicks of the Welsh bards’, Edward Jones, 1794 (modern adaptation: ‘Deck the Halls’) 

and in Irish and Scottish jesting ballads:

“An old man he courted me, fal the dol doodle,
An old man he courted me, hi derry down;”.
– The Penguin Book of Canadian Folk Songs, An Old Man He Courted Me, 1973 (An Old Irish and Scottish Ballad)

.They arise in slightly more serious Northern-English poetry and opera:

– Poems and Songs, Willy-Ground, Edwin Waugh, c. 1889

“Fal, lal, la!”
– Iolanthe, Song Private–Willis, Gilbert & Sullivan, 1882

Even in the odd dramatic production:

“Sing fol dol derry dol day-oh”.
– Miss Julia, 1958 reproduction of 1888 play ‘Miss Julie’ by August Strindberg

Unquestionably their usage is widespread. Expert opinions tend to favor Gaelic etymological origins. In such refrains in which they appeared the words were:

“… supposed to be mere gibberish, of the popular songs of the English, the Scotch, the Irish, the Welsh, and the French.”
– The Gaelic Etymology of the Languages of Western Europe: And More Especially of the English and Lowland Scotch, Introduction, C. Mackay, 1877

However suspicion has existed that these ‘nonsense’ words date back to antiquity – to the time of the druids. Oral transmission from generation to generation has kept the words alive from a time beyond any surviving written records:

“The Fal, lal, la, the Tra, la, la, the Fa, lew, loo, the Tooral, looral, the Doion, down, derry down, the Tire lire, and other apparently absurd collocations of syllables that do duty in hundreds of widely diffused songs aDd ballads, and that have done such duty for scores of generations as choruses to compositions with which they have no real connexion, are relics of the once solemn worship by the Druids of the Sun and the heavenly bodies.”
– The Gaelic Etymology of the Languages of Western Europe: And More Especially of the English and Lowland Scotch, Introduction, C. Mackay, 1877

Druid origins may be hard to swallow without supportive evidence, but over the ages one can quite understand how:

“These choruses, often repeated, fixed themselves upon the popular ear and memory, and have flourished in the parrot-like repetition of the unthinking multitude for ages after their original meaning has fallen into oblivion.”
– The Gaelic Etymology of the Languages of Western Europe: And More Especially of the English and Lowland Scotch, Introduction, C. Mackay, 1877

So it’s not so far-fetched that the Professor himself – always curious about roots – might well have delved deeper. He too might have wondered along the lines of:

“All who are acquainted with the early lyrical literature of England and Scotland, preserved in the songs and ballads immediately before and after Shakespeare, must sometimes have asked themselves the meaning of such old choruses as ‘Down, down, derry down’ with a ‘fal, lal, la’ … and many others.”
– On the Druidical Chants Preserved in the Choruses of Popular Songs in England, Scotland, Ireland and France, Charles Mackay – published in The Celtic Magazine, Vol. I, 1876

For we know Tolkien consulted such books as Popular Rhymes of Scotland4 in the same time period of incorporating Bombadil into the mythology. Could an idea have struck him that the ‘fal, lal, derry, dol’ choruses would ultimately come from The Lord of the Rings? Could his bubbly bard have had a hand in it? Could Bombadil have been suitable as the ‘true’ source?

Why not? After all no one else in our world could stake a claim! Besides, with The Lord of the Rings essentially being an adult fairy tale, it was quite appropriate to use ‘nonsense’ language. Because such words actually crop up in our world’s fairy tales as well. Both Charles Kingsley and the Grimm Brothers5, authors the Professor was quite familiar with, employ them:

“Two little birds they sat on a stone,
One swam away, and then there was one, eoio

With a fal-lal-la-lady.

The other swam after, and then there was none,
And so the poor stone was left all alone;

With a fal-lal-la lady.”
– The Water-Babies, A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby, Charles Kingsley, 1863


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The Water Babies, Charles Kingsley, 1886 Edition


“The bear snapt them up, but could not crack one of them, do what he would. … scrape it over the strings there, and away it goes merrily, hop, sa, sa! Fal, lal, la!”
– Grimm’s Goblins, The Young Giant and the Tailor, collected by M.M Grimm (translated from the Kinder und Hausmarchen by E. Taylor, 1876)

“ ‘No care and no sorrow,
A fig for the morrow!
We’ll laugh and be merry,
Sing neigh down derry!”
– Fairy Tales By The Brothers Grimm, Hans in Luck, (translations from the Grimms’ Kinder und Hausmarchen by Edgar Taylor, 1826)

And then the renowned British poet and author Walter de la Mare had written a book of fairy poems in 1916 called Down-adown-derry.


Book Cover


Adding this fairy tale connection to those just mentioned, as well as the other pre-discussed wide variety of associations, might have tipped the balance. All of this broadly diffused ‘fal, lal, derry, dol’ might have caught Tolkien’s imagination and set him pondering. But I doubt that for a philologist that the mere existence of odd words, especially of the unintelligible sort, would be enough. I mean enough to have them infused into his great work without thought and due cause.

If they were to be inked in then somehow he would have to more tightly connect happy-go-lucky lilt to an equally merry character. I suspect only then would he have been satisfied. And so it is to exploring appropriate meanings and relationships that I will next turn.

When it comes to ‘fal lal’ the only reasonable ‘exterior’ meaning I can find that Tolkien might have connected to is:

“Fal is an abbreviation of Failte! Welcome! And la as already noted signifies a day.”
– The Celtic Magazine, Volume 1, 1876, A. Mackenzie and A. MacGregor

So ‘fal lal’ might loosely translate to ‘happy days’. In line with:

“ ‘I’ve caught a happy day blown me by the breezes! …’ ”.
– Bombadil Goes Boating, available in The Tolkien Reader

In other words, the ending to:

“… ring a dong! fal lal the willow!”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Old Forest

might just have been Tom’s abbreviated way of saying to Willow-man that these are happy days! For we know that Tom knew he was approaching the great tree just before bursting in on his mischief. This, we must note, is the only time ‘fal lal’ was used in any of Tom’s rhymes. Nor must we forget the syntax is both childish and whimsy – seemingly apt and suited to Tom’s simple carefree nature.

The link of ‘fal, lal’ back to druid chanting might seem a stretch but it’s these sort of connections that Tolkien actively sought. And there is another, that all scholars have missed, included in his later poetry involving Tom. It relates to the willow-wren – a bird hallowed as the mightiest by the ancient druids:

“Willow-wren cocked her tail, piped as she went flying:
‘Catch me first, catch me first! No names are needed. …’ ”.
– Bombadil Goes Boating, available in The Tolkien Reader

The willow-wren is the fabled ‘King of Birds’ across European lore. In Teutonic, the wren is ‘Koning Vogel’ meaning king-bird. In French the bird is ‘Reytelet’ – little prince, while in Dutch ‘Konije’ – little king.

Such titles almost certainly descend from Aesop. His countrymen6, Aristotle and Plutarch, titled the wren ‘basileus’ – king, and ‘basiliskos’ – little king. In fairy tales the willow-wren’s supremacy is impressed upon in Grimm’s The Willow-wren and the Bear, while Aesop’s version reappears in Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales under the title of The Eagle and the Wren7.


Image result for willow-wren fairy tale


Along with fairy tales we have British superstitions, old wives tales and folklore connections to Bombadil’s poems beyond those already exposed8 by Tolkien himself. Catching a falling leaf was a lucky act and would result in a ‘happy day’ or even more:

“… if you succeed in catching a falling leaf you will enjoy uninterrupted happiness and prosperity for the next twelve months.”
– The Monthly Packet of Evening Readings for Members of the English Church, Odds and Ends of Weather Wisdom and Fragments of Folk Lore, July – Dec 1876

Especially if the leaf dropped from a beech:

“Prosperous the beech-tree.
– Taliesin; or, The Bards and Druids of Britain, A Translation of the Remains of the Earliest Bards, and an Examination of the Bardic Mysteries, The Mythological Poems, D.W. Nash, 1858

While the roasting of a wren on a spit was practiced in Europe:

“THE WREN … when wrens are put on a spit to roast, it turns of its own accord – a fact … witnessed … a certain eminent Cardinal furnished the bird, and a hazel rod for a spit. At first they despaired of success, but … the spit … began to turn slowly.” , 
– Goldsmith’s Natural History, Chapter IV, O. Goldsmith & G. Bussey, 1853

it also occurred in England along with a traditional hunt:

“On Christmas Day I turned the spit,
I burned my finger, I feel it yet:
Between my finger and my thumb
I eat the roast meat every crumb.

We were all day hunting the Wren,
– Publications of the Folk-lore Society, Vol 17, The Folk Lore and Provincial Names of British Birds, 1885

All of these matters are present in Tolkien’s post The Lord of the Rings poetry relaying more information about Tom:

“Tom caught a beechen leaf in the Forest falling.
‘I’ve caught a happy day blown me by the breezes!

Little Bird sat on twig ‘Whillo, Tom! I heed you.

‘No names, you tell-tale, or I’ll skin and eat you,
babbling in every ear things that don’t concern you!
If you tell Willow-man where I’ve gone, I’ll burn you,
Roast you on a willow-spit. That’ll end your prying!’

Willow-wren cocked her tail, piped as she went flying: …”.
– Bombadil Goes Boating, available in The Tolkien Reader   (my emphasis)


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Traditional Wren Hunting-song sung in honor of St. Stephen9


But it’s not just these folklore and legendary pieces that should cause us to pause for thought about the willow-wren. Nor Tom’s authority over this little ‘King of Birds’ (see appropriation provided for ‘Ben-adar’ – per Part II). Nor even Willow-man himself10. Most interestingly for us, the Celtic word for ‘druid’ and ‘wren’ are both the same:

“Dryw, … a little bird called a wren, a druid, Dryw’r helyg, the willow wren”.
– A Welsh-English Dictionary, T. Lewis, 1815 

It is these associations I want to explore in a later essay. For yet to be discussed is Tom’s link back to the self-acclaimed ‘greatest’ of druid bards – Taliesin. Named by himself as ‘Chief of the bards of the west’!

But for now, after exploring ‘fal lal’ out-of-mythology derivations, it’s time to turn attention to ‘derry dol’. Where would those words have been etymologically derived from in our exterior world? In such a quest I can offer no absolute proof – but we do know Tolkien instigated a:

“… process of assimilating Tom B. to the Lord of the Rings world.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #240

and that Bombadil goes Boating was a:

“… new Bombadil poem, which … 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

Such a process had to transform not only the early ‘Adventures’ poetic creation, but also the toy of Michael – into an authentic story character. And it wouldn’t be at all surprising if, for The Lord of the Rings, part of the transition was accomplished with almost immediate effect. Even before our first sighting, perhaps the Professor gave away Tom’s real world roots via his initial song:

“Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo!

Hey! Come merry dol! derry dol!”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Old Forest

Tolkien however would have to search further afield than the Oxford (New) English Dictionary to chase down ancient recorded meanings. Quite possibly he turned once again to his former mentor’s monumental compilation for these two words:

“DERRY: Chance, luck …
DOL : Doll, …”.
– The English Dialect Dictionary, Joseph Wright, 1898

Was Tom Bombadil, his son’s toy – the ‘Lucky Doll’ to make it into The Lord of the Rings? Was this how the Professor decided to begin the integration operation? Could there also have been an exterior reason behind: 

“Just chance brought me then, if chance you call it.”,
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

resulting from that lucky thought of including Tom at the very inception of the project:

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


Image result for the adventures of tom bombadil inside title page

Part of the Poem: The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, illustrated by P. Baynes


Yes, as admitted, there were definitely:

“… origins or sources in my mind, exterior to the story, …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #297   (Tolkien’s italicized emphasis on ‘exterior’)

And of course early non-mythology related Tom Bombadil poetry11 was an exterior source. But we are no longer able to question him on whether the path taken to incorporate Tom also explicitly involved Michael’s wood-jointed playmate: the ‘Dutch Doll’. For us it is all too true:

“I regret it, but there is no substitute for me, while I am alive.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #297

Leaving us no choice but to hunt down answers ourselves. Because he made it quite plain in the same letter that insufficient information in the tale existed to pinpoint those fascinating exterior origins.

So who knows for sure – but perhaps for the first time some sensible solutions are now before us. Unless evidence appears to the contrary, the discussed possibilities attributed to ‘fal, lal, derry and dol’ – are to my research – as good as any!


For the next article in the series click below

Part IV


1  Poetic Insertions in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Connotations Vol. 23.2 (2013/14), Thomas Kullmann.

2  “Hey dol, merry dol”: Tom Bombadil’s Nonsense, or Tolkien’s Creative Uncertainty? A Response to Thomas Kullmann, Connotations Vol. 25.1 (2015/2016), Lynn Forest-Hill.

3  Tom Bombadil’: Poetry and Accretion, Tolkien’s Shorter Works: Essays of the Jena Conference 2007, Allan Turner.

4  Popular Rhymes of Scotland by Robert Chambers, 1826. Material used for the Andrew Lang On Fairy-stories lecture in March 1939. See Tolkien on Fairy-stories, Bibliographies, Flieger and Anderson.

5  Translators from German into English that is.

6  Aesop’s fable was known by Aristotle (Historia Animalium 9.11), Plutarch (Political Precepts xii.806e) and Pliny (Naturalis Historia 10.74). 

7  Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales, George Douglas, 1901.

8  See The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #240 for three examples in Bombadil Goes Boating:

“The hanging up of a kingfisher to see the way of the wind, which comes from Sir T. Browne; the otter’s whisker sticking out of the gold, from the Norse Nibelung legends; and the three places for gossip, smithy, mill, and cheaping (market), from a mediaeval instructive work …”.

9 It is possible that the day of Bombadil Goes Boating was intended by Tolkien to be St. Stephen’s day – December 26th. We know “morrow-year” was soon to arrive as “The old year was turning brown”. We also know St. Stephen’s day is the traditional day for ‘hunting the wren’. Celtic folklore has it that St. Stephen was betrayed by a wren resulting in him being stoned to death. Thus the wren is not looked on too kindly on this particular day.

The Christian story appears to be somewhat paralleled in the poem with the wren threatening to betray Tom to Willow-man. While Tom counters with his own threat of killing the bird.

Also, in Celtic lore the little wren was supposed to have been slain by the Welsh demigod Lleu with a stone – resulting in his title of ‘Lleu of the Steady Hand’. See Angel and Demon, Gospel and Fairy-story – Part II for Tom’s connection to this legendary Celtic god. 

10 In tandem with willow-wren folklore there is also some about the willow tree itself embedded in English traditional beliefs and unverifiable Biblical stories.

Our first introduction to Old Man Willow occurs in the 1934 The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. Though Tolkien is without doubt his accredited inventor – there is a possibility that character traits stem, in part, from Biblical apocryphal texts (Gospels of Thomas, and the Gospel of the Pseudo-Matthew).

Jesus as a young boy cursed Annas (a scribe) who with a branch of willow, overthrew pools that had been made for cleansing:

“Thou shalt … be withered up even as the branch which thou hast in hand.” 

And there is another story that Christ as a child was whipped by Mary with a willow withy for being mischievous. Jesus subsequently curses the willow wands. An old ballad known as the Bitter Withy discovered in the early 1900’s spreads the folklore tale that the Willow is an accursed tree whose heart rots from within: 

“Oh bitter withy, oh bitter withy,
You’ve causèd me to smart,
And the withy shall be the very first tree
To perish at the heart.”


Mural of Mary punishing a young Jesus (14th Century Monastery, Ethiopia)


Thus we have resonances from apocrypha back to The Lord of The Rings:

“… none were more dangerous than the Great Willow; his heart was rotten,

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

In English folk-song – the willow tree is reputed to possess the ability to walk, harrying those out late at night. From a Somerset folk song:

“Ellum do grieve,
Oak he do hate,
Willow do walk
If you travels late.”

Echoed in Tolkien’s mythology by:

“ ‘Do you know, Sam,’ he said at length, ‘the beastly tree threw me in! …’ ”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Old Forest

“… and Old Man Willow
tapped, tapped at window-pane, as they slept on the pillow,

– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, Oxford Magazine, 1934

11 The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, Oxford Magazine, February 1934.


The Last Stage

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Part II – Tom and his Lily Cow

Casting an illuminating light on the unexplained part of Tolkien’s mythology is largely a hit or miss affair. On the analysis of sources and deconstruction of his works the Professor once wittily remarked:

“It seems to me comparable to a man who having eaten anything from a salad to a complete and well-planned dinner, uses, and sends the results for chemical analysis”.
– New Worlds 50, The Realms of Tolkien, November 1966


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One of the earliest Tolkien Source Analysis Publications, Lin Carter, 1969


In other words – to Tolkien the inquiry was likely to be more ‘miss’ than ‘hit’ resulting in nothing else but ‘excrement’. Reading between the lines – one might conclude an unfavorable impression had formed from what he’d seen of source analysis up to then. But beyond that the Professor was trying to make a specific point. That being – it was virtually impossible to understand the artistry behind the layout of the meals before digestion and expulsion. This very same point was less crudely explained when invoking the analogy of a tapestry:

“For with the picture in the tapestry a new element has come in: the picture is greater than, and not explained by, the sum of the component threads.”
– On Fairy Stories, Lecture by Tolkien, 1939

He then went on to further elucidate:

“Therein lies the weakness of the analytic (or ‘scientific’) method. It finds out much about things that occur, but little or nothing about their effect in any given story”.
– On Fairy Stories, Lecture by Tolkien, 1939

What Tolkien has said here is extremely applicable. Especially when it comes to The Lord of the Rings, and our enigmatic fairy tale characters Tom and Goldberry. There are many facts known about them. But we have failed to put together a complete tapestry because we have lacked an understanding of the underlying effects they impart to the tale. The threads have been supplied but the sewing has been unfinished because it has been left for us to finish off the stitch-work. Yet we have been unable to order the strands according to color, nor weave them in the right direction, nor cross-link them as they should be. All because proper loom-work desperately requires input outside of the book.

We need to understand Tom and Goldberry’s inter-connection to our world’s fairy tales, folklore, myth and historical texts to correctly sew-in the last threads. It’s the ‘unanalyzable effect’ which has hindered all our attempts thus far. Because the book is simply unable to provide crucial information when standing on its own. So to date, at best, we have only seen a partial picture. But I feel after this series the needlework employed has patched together a much clearer image. An image of their true essence as the Master intended – even if it was only for personal consumption.

I freely acknowledge that I might not have got everything correct. You may have thought the first in a long series of essays was somewhat bizarre; certainly the approach was unconventional. But by the end I think you will have gained – well to be cliche – we shall see what you gained. So onward to the last of the gains!

One thing that we can be sure about is that in Tolkien’s eyes – beyond God, each and every Christian person had his/her own divine or heavenly personage specially assigned as a ‘caretaker’. A devout Professor believed, for such a role, saints and angels provided guardianship over mankind. For himself, St. John was the one to turn to in times of need:

“I was born on the Octave of St John the Evangelist, I take him as my patron …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #309

Likewise Christopher was told an omnipresent ‘guardian angel’ stood by to assist:

“Remember your guardian angel.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #54

Though Tolkien never spelled out exactly who – it doesn’t take much to figure out the most likely candidate!

Given how such Catholic doctrine was actively employed, there can be little doubt that Tolkien’s second son, Michael, must too have had a heavenly guardian bestowed upon him. Again there are no prizes for guessing who. Yes, it’s a near certainty that Michael’s assigned guardian was the Archangel of the same name.

We shouldn’t be surprised if this particular name had been carefully considered before conferral, because with Tolkien a name always stemmed from some story or led to one. The connection where ‘Michael’ became the primary name of parental choice, I suspect, had something to do with the circumstances of the Professor’s lodgings at the time of his son’s birth. Newly appointed to a position of Reader at Leed’s University, Tolkien found accommodation at 21A St. Michael’s Road1. And that was just three weeks prior to Edith delivering baby Michael back in Oxford. This turn of a chapter in his family’s life, and a move to Leeds with a newborn would require apt naming. And what could be more befitting than being under the watch of a mighty angel – especially knowing residence would be taken up in ‘his’ road.


Image result for st. michaels road headingley

A View of St. Michael’s Road, Headingly in Today’s Era


Though this theory sounds plausible – other reasons may have been contributory. One of these is Tolkien’s indebtedness to the nun Mother Mary ‘Michael’ of the Sisters of Mercy in Hull. For she had payed visits during his hospitalization after being sent home with Trench Fever caught during the Battle of the Somme. Tolkien arranged for Mother Mary to become Michael’s godmother2.

Nothing is certain about the Professor’s and Edith’s decision. It is quite possible more than one reason existed in opting for ‘Michael’. But nevertheless the Christian aspect to the name cannot have escaped a religiously inclined father. Indeed his faith was never far from the forefront of his mind. And we can see this with the Archangel. For this highly revered biblical figure even became embedded in an early and amusing short fairy tale. The setting was in medieval times before the reign of King Arthur, and seemingly Tolkien was quite aware of the links of St. Michael to ancient England:

“… on the feast of St. Michael – the King sent a magnificent letter.”
– Farmer Giles of Ham, J.R.R. Tolkien

Yes undoubtedly the Professor was wholly familiar with early English history – and so it’s St. Michael’s connection to Bombadil that I want to initially focus on. There is a little more information we can glean which I haven’t already revealed.

When it came to young Michael Tolkien we know that Tom Bombadil was his toy. We also know Michael was quite fond of the wood-jointed doll, for the story goes that he saved it from being flushed away by John Tolkien down the toilet. It’s intriguing that Michael was essentially the toy’s guardian. One can only wonder if this played a part in Tolkien assigning a like – but counter-facet to Bombadil in The Lord of the Rings!

Another clue that hints at the religious nature of Tom is possibly etymologically encrypted in one of his many titles. We know the Dwarves called him ‘Forn’ and to certain Men he was known as ‘Orald’. But the Elves titled him ‘Iarwain Ben-adar’ – translated in-mythology as: Oldest and Fatherless. Now Tolkien handily related out-of-mythology etymologies for both Forn and Orald as follows:

“Forn is actually the Scandinavian word for ‘(belonging to) ancient (days)’.”
– Nomenclature of The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien


“Orald is an Old English word for ‘very ancient’, evidently meant to represent the language of the Rohirrim and their kin.”
– Nomenclature of The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

Then what about Iarwain Ben-adar? Did that possess meaning in our world?

Many scholars have stated how it’s patently obvious Tolkien’s out-of-mythology title was derived from Welsh. Leslie Jones in The Mythology of Middle-earth has glossed a breakdown to ‘Iar’ and ‘gwain’, ‘pen’ and ‘adar’ – roughly translating as ‘hen-seed head-of-birds’.

But what if Tolkien decided that some ‘Gaelic’ rather than pure Welsh was part of the external roots? It is curious that ‘Iar’ in Old Irish means ‘West’ and ‘arwain’ means ‘leader’. ‘Ben-adar’ might less literally be taken as ‘head of those creatures that fly’. Perhaps an allusion to the beings that flew down (or fell) from Heaven to land in Middle-earth in the medieval ‘Fall of Angels’:

“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. … Out cast angels ai^ elves in the woods and on the downs, …”.
– The Early South-English Legendary c. 1280-1290, Bodleian Library, Horstmann translation

“The people of Jutland declare that when God cast the rebellious angels out of heaven, some fell down on the mounds or barrows and became Hill-folk; others fell into the elf-moors and became Elf-folk; …”.
– A Book of Folk-Lore, Pixies and Brownies, Sabine Baring Gould, 1913


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Archangel Michael and Fallen Angels, Luca Giordano, 1666


According to testimony received by the respected folklorist Evan-Wentz, there were also:

“… those who left Heaven after the fallen angels; …”.
– The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, In Scotland, W. Y. Evans-Wentz, 1911

So in Tolkien’s mind could Tom have been one of the latter? Might ‘Iarwain Ben-adar’ have loosely translated to: ‘Leader of the West, Head of Angels’?

Hmm … in light of all the research ideas brought up about Tom and his connection to the ‘West’ in my previous essay, and on top being a character reflecting a facet of the Archangel Michael – surely such a title would have been rather apt!

It is at this point that a much needed reminder must be shouted out. We must rid ourselves from contemplating Tom as the Archangel Michael himself present in Middle-earth incognito. Tolkien would never have dared to create such allegory or even a matching alter-ego. On my part there cannot be enough emphasis put out on this matter. Very succinctly then – Tom was many things. In a nutshell he was simply a source. A source, among others, for the legends of St. Michael in medieval English mythology as documented in surviving ancient scripts and lore.

It is unfair to expect Tom to possess the extent of power of our world’s Archangel. Or to propose Tom was designed to emulate his foretold deeds:

“… when Antichrist shall have set up his kingdom on earth, it is Michael who will unfurl once more the standard of the Cross, sound the last trumpet, and binding together the false prophet and the beast, hurl them for all eternity into the burning pool.”
– Lives of the Saints, Alban Butler, 1894 Edition

Yet part of his characterization in Tolkien’s mythology, stemmed from a wish to provide a flavor of Christian foreshadowing. Thus I have little doubt of the presence of deliberate parallels with: Tom’s house shaped like a Cross, trumpet-like sound upon Frodo’s rescue in the Barrow and the casting out and banishment of the Wight to a barren place devoid of redemption.

Now I’ve already highlighted the many Christian allusions within the Bombadil chapters per The Gospel According to Tom and Cross Winds from the West. One other method employed by the Professor was I believe ever so subtle. As the hobbits stepped out from the edge of the Old Forest, Tom’s abode could be seen twinkling in the distance. The route to the house “high above them”:

“… wound up on to the top of a grass knoll … down the path went, and then up again, up a long smooth hillside … There was Tom Bombadil’s house before them, up, down under hill.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Old Forest

What was all this: “up, down, under hill” with ‘grey’ grass before them?
What was it all about, and why was it necessary?

In my opinion, Tolkien subliminally inserted another Christian motif. The grey undulating hills could, without too much imagination, be representative of an oceanic or sea-like setting – meaning waves of water. And that would bring to mind that other great Christian symbol: the ‘fish’.


Image result for christian fish

The Christian Symbol of the Fish


A sign of hope, as:

“… half their weariness and all their fears had fallen from them.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Old Forest   (my emphasis)

If one starts to trace out the hobbits’ journey from the forest’s edge in two halves – the first part would have begun at the bottom of the fish’s’ tail (in going up the first hill) – then reached its zenith to end up on the downward leg at the nose. For the second part (or ‘tail’ end of the journey) – if one starts to trace out another line starting at the top of the fish’s tail – continuing down the first hill – yet again (after reaching its bottom) the journey would have ended once more at the fish’s nose (up a portion of the second hill) in reaching Tom’s house. In drawing this out, what we end up with is a well-known sign; namely that of the Christian fish!

The imagery is extremely subtle if it truly exists. And I admit that there is no confirming record. Yet I have this nagging feeling that Tolkien was astuter than even the most ardent scholars give him credit for. So another riddle perhaps? A riddle for an adult to solve? An adult possessing like faith?



Switching away from discussing the Christian theme – it’s now time to turn back to traditional fairy tale. Now I have already conjectured back in The Road to Fairyland – Part I how Tolkien had Tom Bombadil’s big yellow boots and his rapidity – sourced in legendary seven-league boots3. The earliest known occurrence of such magical footwear appears in the Charles Perrault tale of Hop o’ My Thumb – linked loosely by the small size of the hero to the English tale of Tom Thumb. Indeed it has been speculated the two had a common ancestor – whose existence was oral but is now forever lost. Be that as it may, we do see some aspects of Hop o’ My Thumb reflected in a ‘short’ Bombadil with him ‘hopping’ along at least eight times in The Fellowship of The Ring. Moreover there appears to have been a subtly akin referral to Perrault’s ‘giant’ and the ‘seven-league’ boots (seven leagues to a stride), of the same tale, through:

“ ‘But what about these Tree-men, these giants, …’ …
‘… this one was as big as an elm tree, and walking – walking seven yards to a stride, …’ ”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Shadow of the Past



A Scene from Hop o My Thumb, Journeys Through Bookland, 1909


A wry hint at a deliberate inclusion of classic fairy tale is provided by Sam:

“ ‘… Who invented the stories anyway? …’ ”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Shadow of the Past

Tolkien must have indulged in some private chuckling when he had Sam state his belief:

“ ‘… I daresay there’s more truth in some of them than you reckon. …’ ”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Shadow of the Past

Who invented them? And was there ‘truth’? Well surely all the numerous clues left in the text add up to something?

Of course they do! Yes our creative Professor came up with a difficult to instigate – yet novel idea. The idea of making his mythology the ultimate source for many of them. The ‘inventor’ was none other than Tolkien himself!

In all of this analysis we must not forget Goldberry. Finally that time has come to wrap-up my thoughts on Tom’s beautiful consort. She too has more fairy tale links than already discussed (see Goldberry: The Enigmatic Mrs Bombadil). Counterpart to a diminutive Hop o’ My Thumb is Thumbelina in the so-titled Hans Christian Andersen4 tale. Here we see another small and beautiful maiden (indeed extremely tiny) who is associated to a water-lily and ends up finding a partner of similar size. Perhaps one of the most interesting items in the original story is the ending where Thumbelina is renamed:

“You must not be called Tiny any more, … We will call you Maia.”
– Little Tiny or Thumbelina, Hans Christian Andersen, 1835

Apart from appearing in Tolkien’s mythology, Maia5 is the also name of the Greek Goddess of Spring (and rebirth), a shy nymph – eldest and most beautiful of the seven sisters Pleiades star-cluster. These are all very fitting links for Goldberry. Yet I think the most impressive one resides in Andrew Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book6 in the Estonian tale of The Gold-Spinners7.

Within we have a situation where a maiden escapes from the clutches of an old woman, falls in love with a prince, only to be bewitched into a ‘yellow water-lily’. Remaining in this flower form for a year – she is no longer human and just like Fouqués Undine, her soul will be lost because she will never experience in the flesh again:

“… the golden gifts God has has given to each mortal … love, joy, sorrow.”
– Undine, Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, told by Mary Macgregor, 1907

However in passing by the stream the prince hears her lament:

“ ‘Alas! bewitched and all forsaken,
’Tis I must lie for ever here! …’ ”.
– The Blue Fairy Book, The Gold-Spinners, Andrew Lang, 1889


“… a yellow water-lily floating on the surface of the water, …”,
– The Blue Fairy Book, The Gold-Spinners, Andrew Lang, 1889

he realizes: 

“… flowers do not sing, and in great surprise he waited, hoping to hear more. Then again the voice sang: …”.
– The Blue Fairy Book, The Gold-Spinners, Andrew Lang, 1889

So he requests the aid of the Wizard of Finland8 asking him:

“… how I may restore a maiden transformed into a flower to her own form.”
– The Blue Fairy Book, The Gold-Spinners, Andrew Lang, 1889

Uttering the furnished spells he transforms himself temporarily into a crab (and with pincers loosens the roots of the yellow water-lily) and then changes both of them back into human form.

“… say ‘From a crab into a man, from a water-lily into a maiden,’ and ye both will be restored to your own forms.”
– The Blue Fairy Book, The Gold-Spinners, Andrew Lang, 1889


Image result for the gold spinners fairy tale blue fairy book

Scene from The Gold-Spinners, Blue Fairy Book, Andrew Lang, 1889


But was part of the source of The Gold-Spinners – Tom and Goldberry? Had our world’s fairy tale over the ages become an embellishment of Tom grabbing Goldberry among the lilies rather than a prince cutting free a water-lily and transforming her by magic? Is this the way Tolkien reconciled the ‘truth’?

Surely the answer is before us? Surely now we can all see the incredible sophistication behind Tolkien’s plan. How he managed to pick out from folklore and a multitude of fairy-stories a mythological foundation to Goldberry, and all intricately woven around the yellow water-lily. Surely with all the prior noted antecedents it makes perfect sense. Once again – just like Tom – Tolkien created Goldberry to be the source of a wide variety of real-world fairy tales, folklore and legends.


Image result for sandwyck gold-spinners

The Gold-Spinners, Blue Fairy Book, Andrew Lang, Introduced by J. Aiken, Illustration by C. Sandwyk


The last part in this fascinating web the Professor wove involves bovine imagery. As I’ve stated before, the text is so cleverly constructed that one can easily gloss over discretely inserted allusions. Yes allegedly I have focused on little details. But Tolkien was an author to whom little details mattered. And so it’s the imagery of Tom, in a seemingly innocuous piece of text, that draws my interest. The hobbits first sight of Tom was him:

“… charging through grass and rushes like a cow going down to drink.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, The Old Forest   (my emphasis)

This is reminiscent of the Welsh folklore aspects attributed to the merry couple, and already discussed per Angel and Demon, Gospel and Fairy-story – Part II. There we saw cows and Tom mirrored through:

 “… the shepherd saw a little fat old man playing on a pipe, and then he heard him call the cows by their names … 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  
(my emphasis)

and similarly Goldberry, somewhat reflected in the folklore habitation of a Welsh water-fairy in a lake. Quite fascinatingly, for us, the gwraig annwn led her cattle into the water leaving behind to mark the spot where they had vanished that all-important tie of a:

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

Getting back to our initial introduction to Tom, there appears to have been a deliberate effort on the Professor’s part to bring cattle and lilies to the reader’s attention. A matter of some importance, for Tolkien with his expansive horticultural knowledge – would have known the yellow water-lily is also called the ‘Cow Lily’!

Hmm … how did it come to be named so? Nobody knows – but with legendary super-productive cattle slipping9 away into the water leaving nothing but a yellow water-lily as a marker – one can easily imagine Tolkien cobbled together a reason. A reason that involved folklore on the brink of fairy-story!

To solve the last piece of the puzzle, we must also note how the folktale relates that before the Welsh nymph left her watery abode to take a husband:

 “… she summoned to attend her from the lake seven cows, two oxen,
and one bull.”
– British Goblins: Welsh Folk-lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions, 1880, The Realm of Faerie, Wirt-Sikes, 1880   

And tangentially for us, she disappears after singing is heard on the ‘brow of a hill’. However the legend goes that one ‘milky-white’ cow remained from the original herd:

 “The milk-white milch cow gave enough milk to every one … traversing through the island of Britain, …”.
– British Goblins: Welsh Folk-lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions, 1880, The Realm of Faerie, Wirt-Sikes, 1880 

Was this the same cow: ‘Milky-white’ that Jack traded in for beans to a funny old man? Who exactly was the ‘little fat fairy herdsman’? Could it be that Welsh folklore and English fairy tales were ancestrally linked to a common root?

Intriguingly, beyond the plump Welsh herdsman and his counterpart in Jack and the Beanstalk, I suspect Tom was further entwined in this bovine part of the tapestry through religious means. A case perhaps where: 

“… mythology and religion … have become inextricably entangled, …”.
– On Fairy-stories, Lecture by J.R.R. Tolkien St. Andrews 1939, Available in Tree and Leaf, Quote by Andrew Lang

For woven into a barely discernible background was a medieval story that had reached the ears of the faithful in England. So the legend goes – it was the Archangel Michael who saved an ‘ox’ from being slain by an arrow on Mount Gargano:

“The following miracle is recorded of St. Michael : a 299 — 322 certain man of Apulia, named Gargan, shot an arrow at his ox, but by the will of the saint the weapon recoiled and wounded himself.”
– The Early South-English Legendary, Or, Lives of Saints – Horstmann Edition


Image result for st. michael mount gargano

Feast of the Apparition of St. Michael on Mt. Gargano


Hmm … and the ox10 was a white one. Could it possibly be that the animal was really Milky-white of Beanstalk lore?

Hmm … is that how Tolkien’s mind worked? Is all this interlacing true? Could it all be coincidental? I doubt it for Tolkien once said that:

“The Lord of the Rings cannot be garbled …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #210

Oh yes – for a Professor at the top of the list there had to be structured coherency as well as logical linkage to our world. And oh yes – one can now readily see how he achieved it. In no uncertain terms:

“There is, of course, a mythological structure behind this story.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #181

Though the statement was directed at his Silmarillion tales, I have no doubt that it is equally applicable in interconnecting our world’s myths, fairy tales and folklore.

Hmm … then we are faced with pondering something entirely unexpected. Something that has escaped us all.

Perhaps Tom and Goldberry are the most complex of all Tolkien’s characters. Perhaps there is more to their background and make-up than any reader of his work has ever realized. Or for that matter even imagined in their wildest dreams!


For the next article in the series click below

Part III




1  Tolkien took up residence in St. Michael’s Road, Headingly on the 1 October 1920, Michael Tolkien was born 22 Oct 1920 in Oxford (see The J.R.R Tolkien Companion and Guide, Chronology, Scull & Hammond – entries for given dates).

2  See The J.R.R Tolkien Companion and Guide, Chronology, 22 October 1920, Scull & Hammond.

3  The popularity of the Hop o’ My Thumb tale across Europe is evident from Mark Hooker’s comment in A Tolkienian Mathomium that every Dutch child “knows that seven-league boots are called zevenmijlslaarzen”. It is noteworthy that Tom Bombadil was originally a ‘Dutch’ doll.

4  Tolkien’s familiarity with Hans Christian Andersen’s tales is not in doubt:

“I was of course given Hans Andersen when quite young. At one time I listened with attention which may have looked like rapture to his stories when read to me. I read them myself often.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #234

5  The terms Tolkien used for the demigods of his mythology appear to been derived from North European lore. ‘Maia’ from the Danish tale of Thumbelina, ‘Vala’ from the Finnish Kale-vala and ‘Ainu’ from the diminutive folk of Lapland.

6 Tolkien indirectly refers to The Gold-Spinners in preparatory notes for his Fairy-Stories lecture of 1939 when commenting on Lang’s selection of fairy tales:

“In the Blue Book … There are four from Scandinavia; …”.
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Flieger & Anderson

He indicates those four caught his attention being: 

“… an ingredient not often obtained by English people … except in the Andrew Lang books, …”.
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Flieger & Anderson

Interestingly he let slip, without being specific, there was:

“… one which I liked then and like better now.”
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Flieger & Anderson

Given that Tolkien was formulating The Lord of the Rings chapters involving Goldberry in the 1938~1939 time-frame – it’s quite probable that The Gold-Spinners was the tale he was referring to.

7  Titled: The Water-lily. The Gold-Spinners in Andrew Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book. The fairy tale also appears as The Hero of Esthonia, W.F. Kirby, 1895.

8  Again we see a Scandinavian/Nordic ‘flavor’.

9  Interestingly the ‘Cowslip’ flower is remarkably like its watery ‘cousin’ – the ‘Cow Lily’. Both types possess 5 bright yellow sepals/petals of similar size on each bud. It too is a ‘fairy-flower’ (see Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and Tolkien knew it. Deriding Shakespeare’s & Drayton’s portrayal of tiny fairies he invoked the Cowslip:

I suspect that this flower-and-butterfly minuteness was also a product of ‘rationalisation’, which transformed the glamour of Elfland into mere finesse, and invisibility into a fragility that could hide in a cowslip or shrink.”
– On Fairy-stories, Essay by Tolkien, 1947

Hmm … Cow Lilies and Cowslips! I wonder if Tolkien thought there was a long lost connection in their naming? Perhaps the mythology of the Welsh fairy-maiden, her cows slipping away into the lake leaving behind a yellow water-lily as a marker, had something to do with it?

10  An ‘ox’ in olden times could be either a bull or a cow. Although other accounts of the Gargano legend have indicated the creature to be bull, Tolkien may have been inclined to accept ambiguity – preferring a milk producing female ox to align with ‘Milky-white’ of English fairy tale.



7/17/18  Added: Though the statement was directed at his Silmarillion tales, I have no doubt that it is equally applicable in interconnecting our world’s myths, fairy tales and folklore.”

12/5/18:  Added section break “*****”.

Was: “Though that may be so – it’s now time to turn away from the Christian theme and back to traditional fairy tale. I have already”, Is: “Switching away from discussing the Christian theme – it’s now time to turn back to traditional fairy tale. Now I have already”.

Replaced paragraph beginning: “However the Wizard of Finland …” with: “However in passing by the stream … back into human form.”.

Added new footnotes 5 & 6 and reordered existing.

1/21/19  Added Gold-Spinners illustration by C. Sandwyk.

Added quote: “… say ‘From a crab into a man …”.

1/26/19  Added new footnote 4, reordered others.

Added: “in Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book. The fairy tale also appears as The Hero of Esthonia , W.F. Kirby, 1895.”.

Added: he realizes … So”.

Was: “Goddess of Spring, a nymph and the most beautiful of the Pleiades star-cluster.”, Is: “Goddess of Spring (and rebirth), a shy nymph – eldest and most beautiful of the seven sisters Pleiades star-cluster.”.

AddedIt too is a ‘fairy-flower’ … something to do with it?”.

Deleted: “Nevertheless it’s both Goldberry and Tom’s affiliation towards cattle that drives a common bond.”.

Added: “However the legend goes … Jack and the Beanstalk”.

2/4/19  Added: Hmm … and the ox was a white one. Hmm …”.

2/16/19  Added new footnote 10.

Added: “Could it possibly be that the animal was really Milky-white of Beanstalk lore?”.

Added: “is that how Tolkien’s mind worked?”.

The Last Stage

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.

The amount of research one can do in investigating Tom and Goldberry isn’t endless. Inevitably the time nears to wrap matters up. But I make no apology for sidetracking. Because any digressions encountered by the reader along the way have been necessary. They have been planned additions. As the intent has been to expose a whole new dimension to understanding Tolkien’s books. A dimension which to date has evaded even the most scholastically inclined.

If my research is correct, we have all been ignorant as to the depths and variety of oceans Tolkien plumbed. We have been unaware of the degree to which classic English fairy tale pervaded his stories. Nor have we understood the influence of England’s Renaissance era on his works. More specifically we have failed to recognize the extent of academic matter subtly blended into early chapters of his magnum opus: The Lord of the Rings.

What I’ve tried to create with a continuous set of interlinked articles is a coherent and logical story. A story backed up by relevant quotation evidence that casts new perspectives by digging down into the weeds and bringing out details that desperately have needed to be brought to our attention. Much as I would like to have done – to have conveyed a unified theory in a single concise essay was simply an impossible task. That is not my fault – but lies solely with our Professor. It’s a direct reflection of Tolkien – the scholar, the storyteller, the literary artist, the genius. One cannot just grasp the root of a single character or point, and understand all without connecting to others. And beyond the fantasy, lie links to our world. A resulting spider web means every explanation ends up being voluminous – but in the end it all meshes together – and rather neatly at that!

This last set of five essays attempt to further unify previous threads. In reaching back to my initial postulation of Bombadil being cast as the ‘audience of the great cosmogonic play’ – we shall be reminded of why the concept of ‘theater’ was so important to Tolkien. Finally we shall see how it all cross-links with legend, religion and ancient English history.


Part I – Cross Winds from the West

By now, those who have followed my articles closely will not be surprised at Tolkien’s ingenuity. Especially when it comes to concealment. This first article will expose how cleverly Bombadil was tied in with the Christian faith beyond previous discussion. To accomplish that I will focus on ‘directions’ – starting out with Tolkien’s favorite point on the compass: the West!

Now the subject of the ‘West’ and its immense importance to the mythology is worth many an essay. I however, will only focus on its relevance when it comes to Bombadil. And the angle I’m going to first discuss the matter through – is the ‘wind’. For what we need is a breath of fresh air!

Zephyrus the Greek God of the West Wind was not unknown to the Professor. We encounter him in the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight tale:

“Zeferus, Zepyhrus, the West Wind”,
– Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, Index of Names, Tolkien & E.V. Gordon, 1925

“After the season of summer with the soft winds when Zephyrus blows himself gently on seeds and herbs …”.
– Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, lines 516-517, Tolkien & E.V. Gordon, 1925



Image result for Zephyrus, the Greek god of the west wind with the goddess Chloris, W. A. Bouguereau, 1875

Flora And Zephyr – Jacopo Amigoni, 1730’s


And again in Chaucer’s works which Tolkien was greatly familiar with:

“Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth …”.
– Canterbury Tales, General Prologue, Geoffery Chaucer

By the Greeks, Zephyrus was sometimes imagined as an equine deity – the sire of horses. Such a mythological link didn’t escape the Professor. Provided was a fitting description of Gandalf’s steed Shadowfax and a vestigial trace to our world:

“ ‘Were the breath of the West Wind to take a body visible, even so would it appear,’ ”.
– The Two Towers, The King of the Golden Hall

Of the four chief legendary winds of our world, Zephyrus was reputedly the gentlest, most breeze-like and the bringer of growth and prosperity. Accordingly for the mythology – Tom Bombadil viewed the West Wind as kind too:

“The old year was turning brown; the West Wind was calling; … I’ve caught a happy day blown me by the breezes!”
– The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, Bombadil goes Boating

And so did Goldberry. The proverb-like advice given to northbound hobbits was to stay true and keep the:

“… wind in the left eye …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

Blocked by the ridge of their noses – a lucky westerly breeze would do the trick. For just like Greek myth, wind emanating from the west1,2 and blowing eastwards was also supposed to bring good fortune and benevolence. Of course for the tale it was blessed Aman that was located in the far west before its removal from our physical world, and it was Manwë’s fabled winds sourced thence which were meant to disperse evil.

In contrast the East Wind was not anywhere as kind. In Christianity it was a fierce east wind which brought devastation and destruction to mankind. Two well-known examples are:

Moses calls upon the east wind to bring a plague of locusts.
– The Bible, Exodus

It was the east wind which blasted the grain in Pharaoh’s dream.
– The Bible, Genesis


‘The Plague of Locusts’, illustration for “Exodus”, Jan Luyken, 1700


Likewise the East Wind blew cruelly as Frodo approached the barrow:

“Out of the east the biting wind was blowing.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, Fog on the Barrow-downs

Without doubt ‘direction’ was of supreme importance. Danger lurked from taking the wrong choice. Yes, misfortune struck the hobbits when they slept on the ‘east’ side of the standing stone soon after leaving Tom’s house. And Barrow doors which faced ‘east’ (at least the Barrow of capture did), would naturally be the least safe way to pass.

Instructions were doled out with due reason. The hobbits were prudently advised to travel:

“… over the western and lower slopes of the Downs; …”;
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

and if they strayed too close to a barrow to pass:

“… by on the west-side, …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Tolkien was also at pains to stress how outside the Barrow – the ‘west’ side provided safety. Because the unconscious hobbits were carried out by Tom and purposely laid down on that particular side of the mound. Facing the ‘west’, with words of power, was the direction necessary to revive (or more likely, ‘recall’) their spirits.

Despite the circumstances of the times in which The Lord of the Rings was written, the Professor made it clear that the reality of the east being the threat to beloved England was not an implied allegorical allusion. The ‘west’ being the side of ‘blessedness’ for the tale also had no modern day message or equivalence:

“The goodness of the West and the badness of the East has no modern reference.”
– The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology, Hammond & Scull, 6 Aug 1965

However the fabled west, for the mythology, once held Númenor (an Atlantean analogue) and Aman. This echoed much ancient history of the British Isles from surviving Celtic tales. For the Celts, legendary Hy Brasil and the islands of the Otherworld lay to the west.


Hy-Brasil on a map from 1325

Hy Brasil depicted to the west of Ireland on an ancient map, 1325 


Anwnn too in Welsh Celtic lore had an island counterpart to the more commonly discussed below earth location. Known as the ‘land of the dead’ far out to the west of the British Isles, it was here that mortal spirits would tarry before completing their journey. Yet it was not just Celtic recordings but the existence of medieval English writings confirming such tales which likely influenced the Professor:

“In the South English Legendary version of the ‘Life of St Brendan’, a maiden tells Abbot Beryn that he ought to thank Jesus Christ for leading him to the Paradise in the West, …”.
– The Road to Middle-earth, ‘On the Cold Hill’s Side’, T. Shippey 

So finally we have a connection of ‘the West’ to ‘Jesus Christ’. And so, though these salvation analogues were not a “modern reference”, for the more ancient setting of the mythology Tolkien adapted them to fit his character Tom. Tom was steeped in unshakable Christian symbolism.

‘Really? How is this?’, you may ask.

The answer is intriguing. It stems from a deduction that Bombadil’s front door faced ‘west’: the direction for the receipt of ‘good news’. A clue which leads to exposing a much greater matter. With that, for the first time since Karen Fonstad’s effort in The Atlas of Middle-earth – we are going to take a detailed look at the shape of Tom and Goldberry’s house!

Now one may rightfully wonder why Tolkien declined to draw out Tom’s home (which occupies a whole chapter of The Lord of The Rings) yet decided to sketch both aerial and frontal views of Cotton’s farm3. Well perhaps he did and the view has been lost? Or perhaps he did and it just hasn’t been released to the public? Much more likely, in my opinion, is the design was so simple – in being preconceived as special – that he didn’t need to. He knew in his head exactly what shape it was going to be.

The marvelous thing about Tolkien’s works is the depth and detail of the scenes. One can often picture in one’s mind’s eye a vivid layout of the surroundings. The other impressive part is how the image isn’t always instantaneous – because information tends not to be dumped on the reader in one large glob. Instead it is gradually built up as bits spread throughout the text slowly come together to form a credible whole. The technique is masterful – as what appears to be casual storytelling – really is not. There is purpose behind Tolkien’s method – but the final result is so well blended that all one initially perceives is a seamless flow of a gripping story.

So turning back to Bombadil’s abode, there is a distinct possibility Tolkien had something very special in mind when formulating its architecture. Nestled between the edge of the Old Forest and the Barrow-downs and providing a haven from two places of evil repute, there was something about it that nobody else has picked up on. It may have been conceived as part of an intentional puzzle for the reader, or it may just have been fabricated for Tolkien’s self-satisfaction. In any case – that will be for the reader to decide. So let’s explore its layout using information and clues the Professor provided. Unfortunately (as I will later discuss) Fonstad’s view (bottom right below) differs from mine.


Image result for bombadil house fonstad

The Atlas of Middle-earth, K.W. Fonstad


Now an impression of a small4 rural cottage was relayed upon initial entry since the hobbits felt they were:

“ … knocking at a cottage door …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Small – because we can reasonably conclude that the original house had just two rooms on the ground level, consisting of a combined living/dining room and a separate kitchen:

“They were in a long low room, … Goldberry busied herself about the table; …” …
“Tom could be heard about the house, clattering in the kitchen, …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

It is likely that there was only one bedroom upstairs – namely Tom and Goldberry’s. The square footage of the upstairs living area, as far as I can discern, was smaller than ground level – with the bedroom lying over the kitchen. That is because Tolkien told us the long low living/dining room was:

“… filled with the light of lamps swinging from the beams of the roof; …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Note how the Professor carefully used the term ‘roof’ instead of ‘ceiling’. Thus we can conclude there was no other structure above. Despite the living/dining room being ‘low’, its roof was likely a sloping or angled design and covered on the exterior with thatch material:

“Water dripped down from the thatched eaves above.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

The later lower floor addition – described as a ‘penthouse’, completed the living quarters. This is the area in which the hobbits slept. What we should also note – is how once again – the room was ‘low’:

“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

What seems to be stressed is how humble a dwelling this was. Beyond the ‘low’ rooms, Tom and Goldberry’s house was minimalist in terms of furnishings:

(a) The furniture was rudimentary – a wooden dining table and chairs fabricated from river rushes. There were no beds in the penthouse – merely mattresses (presumably hobbit-sized). There were no couches, ancillary tables, sideboards, cabinets, floor rugs, etc. – just a few basic footstools.
(b) No ornaments, artwork or decorative paraphernalia were described apart from some hanging mats.
(c) What was present was very functional: candles for the dining table and mantelpiece, and lamps for the ceiling; single color curtains for the windows and fresh rushes strewn as flooring – providing a warm shield against the cold flagged stone. Mere pots and ewers were available for washing; while drinking vessels were just ‘bowls’ – not cups, mugs or tankards!

The house and associated contents were basic to the extreme. There is not even a mention of a bathroom5 (in contrast to Frodo’s house at Crickhollow). And so one can conclude this couple by today’s standards, or even reasonably prosperous hobbit one’s, truly led a ‘simple life’.

‘Yet so what?’, the reader might respond.
‘What’s the big deal?’

None really apart from the humble abode resonates with Tolkien’s own thoughts of holiness on Earth as conveyed to Clyde Kilby. Tolkien:

“… was moved by the degradation of the birth of Christ in a stable with its filth and manure and saw it is a symbol of the real nature of holy things in a fallen world.”
– Tolkien and The Silmarillion, Tolkien as Christian Writer, Clyde Kilby


Image result for clyde kilby tolkien and the silmarillion

Front cover of Tolkien and The Silmarillion, C. Kilby, 1976


However before one can even dare to suggest similar linkage and expect to be believed – one must first fully explain the significance behind the shape of the merry couple’s abode. It is vital to decipher this part of a ‘puzzle’ for it is pretty key in Tolkien’s ‘master plan’. It is by no accident that we can reasonably work out its design.

Tolkien told us the hobbits stepped into:

“… a long low room, …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Given such a simply relayed depiction, one can reasonably conclude that it was rectangular – with the entry door at the near end, and Goldberry adjacent to the far wall. Both the front door wall and the one situated behind Goldberry must have been the rooms’ shorter sides.

My own conclusion clashes with Fonstad’s, where she has drawn a ‘wide’ room from the hobbits perspective. Yet mine is more logical since it also ties in better with some of the known facts. For instance, we know the hobbits entered the room with a few timid steps after which Goldberry leaped over the lily-laden pots and ‘ran’ to physically greet them. All of this conveys some distance being involved which is more consistent with a ‘long’ dimension. Nor must we forget that ‘long’ was from the hobbits viewpoint, and could be taken as meaning that the room was not squarish – thus conveying shape as opposed to some nebulous length. 

In any case per the text – the table was positioned nearer the door while Goldberry, seated in her chair, was further away being at the far side of the room. We know:

“The room looked westward …”,
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

subsequently leading us to conclude it had only one window; because the text repeatedly mentions just ‘the’ window in this area. However a single window to light up the whole room during the day doesn’t exactly convey a feeling of spaciousness. Yes, the room appears to have been ‘small’.

Previously in leaving the Old Forest, and as the hobbits hurried towards Tom’s house:

“… a wide yellow beam flowed out brightly from a door that was opened.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Behind the residence:

“… the Barrow-downs stalked away into the eastern night.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

So from this we can reasonably conclude the hobbits were travelling from west to east. Thus the outer door was in the short west wall of the original construction along with the previously noted window.

As far as the inside of the living/dining room, there appears to have been only one interior door. In the opposite wall to the entrance was the door leading to the kitchen. We can discern this must have been in the east wall because after looking out of the west facing window on a later occasion, the hobbits turned around to see:

“… Goldberry stood in the door behind, …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

Which Tom then used to bring in their supper:

“Suddenly he hopped through the door and disappeared. Quickly he returned, bearing a large and laden tray.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

But via a short passageway and then by taking a sharp turn, the door also led into the addition: the ‘penthouse’ which was:

“… built on to the north end of the house).”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

So the interior door in the eastern wall must have been reasonably close to the north side of the living/dining room. And the passage must also have led to the kitchen and stairwell. Because of the simple nature of the dwelling there is no reason not to believe the kitchen was anything else but rectangular itself, sharing the same width as the living/dining room. In other words the original house was nothing more than one simple long rectangle in plan-form area with four straight exterior walls.

Then the added penthouse must then have formed a tee in being situated on the north end of the house. There is nothing to suggest that it was as long as the living/dining room plus kitchen – along the common wall that is. Indeed quite the opposite can be sensibly deduced. Since the penthouse eastern window looked out on to a kitchen garden – that implies a corner was present; one wall constituted by the kitchen itself. Similarly one might reasonably assume another corner nook was present at the front of the house, as the western penthouse window looked out on a flower garden. It would not be wholly unreasonable to presume that if one looked from the sky downwards – the aerial shape would have been one where the add-on was centrally located in relation to the overall original house, resulting in a reasonably symmetric Tee.


Image result for TEE SHAPE


Or was it?

It is at this point – I think Tolkien would have asked us to use some logic along the following lines:

“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

Why is such an approach necessary? Because there is another part of the house structure which needs to be evaluated.

What about the chimney stack?

We know that Goldberry’s chair was close to the eastern wall of the living room. Logically Tom’s seat would have been nearby and the positioning of both would likely be fairly close to the fireplace. Besides warmth for themselves – the lilies would have appreciated it too! And so indeed – Tom was close to the fireside:

“With that he jumped out of his chair, and with a bound took a candle from the chimney-shelf …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil   (my emphasis)

while the hobbit chairs were adjacent to his:

“Tom sat on a while beside them …”.
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil   (my emphasis)

Which makes one wonder against which wall would the chimney have been located?

Not against the northern wall, for why build a penthouse around a chimney stack? And that goes for the eastern wall too, as it is doubtful it would have been sandwiched within the kitchen interface6. For both of these scenarios chimney stacks are not easy to clean or service and present additional fire-risk for thatched roofs. It is best if a chimney is located against an exterior wall7. So the most logical site would have been against the long southern wall8 given we are told the hearth was ‘wide’. But as far as positioning, the fireplace must have been located over towards the room’s eastern side nearer the seating, and somewhat away from the front door and western wall.

Certainly some of the chimney protruded into the room as Tom’s wet boots were:

“… put in the chimney-corner.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring, In the House of Tom Bombadil

But with many traditional English cottages – the majority of the stack often lies outside the house. That is especially true when it comes to smaller residences where the chimney would take up much valuable space. Just as problematic – if it lay fully inside a narrowish room, against a long wall, then heat would radiate only locally and not efficiently warm up the entire room.



Image result for medieval cottage ireland thatched

Medieval thatched roof cottage with large exterior chimney stack


So given that we are told the hearth was wide – one might reasonably believe the chimney stack itself was large too. Given that cottage stacks are invariably rectangular in cross-section – we have a situation whereby the stack was likely located is an offset position and toward the seating end of the room, yet mainly outside the interior. So if one thinks about where the chimney lay relative to the overall southern wall of the entire house, which includes the kitchen as well as living/dining room, one might conclude that it was likely to have been relatively central. In all probability just like the penthouse.

So what would the hobbits have seen from the brow of the sheltering hill upon departure? Would they have not wanted to take one last view of Bombadil’s house and bid farewell?

Hmm … they looked in every feature-laden direction but down. And I have a feeling Tolkien wanted the reader to figure that out. This place of sanctuary, which they so reluctantly left, should have been important to them.

If they had looked downwards and viewed the residence below they ought to have seen a shape of utmost importance. One that we all know. Not the shape of a Tee – but the shape of a ‘cross’!

It was the shape of the house, or its exaggerated shadow under the morning sun, that Tolkien wanted the truly curious reader to see in his or her mind’s eye.

Tom’s humble residence was one that had holy significance, echoed by:

“…. I have deliberately written a tale, which is built on or out of certain ‘religious’ ideas, …”. 
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #211


Image result for christian cross shadow


Angelic Tom, from whom the tales of St. Michael in England sprang, foreshadowed the great Christian symbol and the ‘good news’ to come!


For the next article in the series click below

Part II



1  Other examples of a beneficial West Wind in The Lord of the Rings include Treebeard’s song and Théoden’s renewal of vigor:

“When woodland halls are green and cool, and wind in the West, Come back to me!”
– The Two Towers, Treebeard

“ ‘… But a west wind has shaken the boughs,’ ”.
– The Two Towers, Helm’s Deep

 Curiously the Yellow Pond Lily – an American species that looks identical to the European yellow water-lily – is known as ‘The West Wind’ (see Goldberry: The Enigmatic Mrs Bombadil, Part I – for Goldberry’s ties to the yellow water-lily). Whether this detail was mentioned in Tolkien’s botany books is unknown. 

3  See Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator, Hammond & Scull, Figure 175.

4  Per the drafts, Tom Bombadil:

“… lives in a little house …”.
– The Return of the Shadow, Tom Bombadil

 I doubt there was one upstairs. I just can’t picture Tom making multiple trips up and down the stairs carrying pails of hot water.

 Besides, Goldberry’s chair up against the eastern wall and facing the outer door is wrongly positioned for there to be a fireplace along the same wall.

7  There are no pictures drawn specifically for The Lord of the Rings depicting ‘conventional’ homes. The sketch of Cotton’s farm (see Note 2) does appear to show an ‘exterior’ chimney against a kitchen wall.

 A wide hearth and thus a correspondingly wide fireplace would be a logical feature for the long southern wall – perhaps answering why it lacked a window.



12/8/18  Added new footnote 2, reordered others.

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 III – The Iberian Hob Bit

‘Hobbits’ – eh?

Ever thought if there was more behind the name? More than we currently know that is. Ever thought why hobbits were ‘designed’ as small yet so very human-like?

Hmm … the Professor must have had his reasons. Perhaps we can uncover them if matters are viewed from a combination of angles. Perhaps we can attain convergence if those angles include not only fairy tale/myth/legend but also scientific and personal knowledge. But first to the former!

Tolkien’s bent towards mythology and fairy-story undoubtedly became ingrained from early youth. At the forefront lay a strong desire to discover origins. To answer the how, why, when and where behind them presented a worthy intellectual challenge:

“… I feel strongly, the fascination of the attempt to unravel the intricately knotted and ramified history of fairy-tales.
– Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Manuscript B, Flieger and Anderson

Of course the very last knot in disentangling a singular tale is the one identifying the source of its invention and the writer who first documented it. Such knowledge was highly desirable:

“… I am interested in mythological ‘invention’, and the mystery of literary creation …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #180

Buried deep in the past, most often the information is just not traceable. Nevertheless, in discussing the three components making up the history of a fairy-story, Tolkien pronounced:

“… invention is the most important and fundamental, and … mysterious.”
– On Fairy-stories, 1939 (Essay available in The Tolkien Reader)

Mysterious because there is no universal law of nature governing the event. Moreover the cause of ignition which sends a spark inspiring genuine literary creativity is usually a well-guarded matter. For some strange reason writers prefer to surround the subject with an aura of mystique. They tend not to spill all and go ‘open kimono’. Instead they often skirt around the heart of the matter, offer tantalizing details – yet fail to exercise full disclosure.

Occasionally the reason revolves around something too personal to divulge. Other times it’s personal yet thoroughly uninteresting or utterly trivial to anyone but the author. But sometimes that spark of imagination is not true creation but sub-creation. By that I mean it arises through piggybacking off somebody else’s work.

Tolkien candidly admitted that:

“… 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 …”.
– Tolkien Letter to L.M. Cutts, 26th October 1958

Hmm … “ ‘ancestral’ material” – eh? That’s a pretty wide ranging sector. Albeit for an Englishman, and a philologist no less, one might reasonably narrow the range. Saying that, it certainly wouldn’t be too presumptuous to assume “ ‘ancestral’ material” encompassed historical English literature!

So as I have suggested in my previous essay, the seed from which The Hobbit tale sprouted, and indeed Tolkien’s acquiring of the name ‘Bilbo’ – came from bandying about in his head a possible fairy tale extraction. One which could be disseminated from Thomas Dekker’s play: Match me in London. And one that could be construed as ‘fair use’ of another’s work, because of its tangential employment. For once excised the idea was to manipulate basic threads of the plot into a kind of parody. This would be a way of Tolkien impressing his own personal stamp on ‘ancestral material’. Can we honestly say that’s an impossibility? Does such a form of sub-creation really sound so unreasonable?

If we step back and take an honest look at Tolkien’s non-academic works, from what we know – satire and parody played a subtle part in much of the corpus. Adding to my prior list from Part II we can throw in Farmer Giles of Ham:


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Farmer Giles of Ham, J.R.R. Tolkien (1978 Edition)


“Farmer Giles of Ham represents Tolkien’s only medieval parody that both imitates a medieval form or genre and also burlesques medieval literary conventions, ideas, and characters …”.
– Tolkien’s Art: A Mythology for England, Jane Chance, 2001

We can also include The Notion Club Papers – an Oxford based discussion club loosely modeled as a nostalgic parody of Tolkien’s own closely knit literary circle, the Inklings. Nor should we ignore Leaf by Niggle – an oft conjectured self-parody. Then is it so unbelievable that The Hobbit and The Root of the Boot could have parodied elements or themes too?

The logical answer is – ‘Not really’. Indeed there shouldn’t be much of a surprise among academics at all. Given the strength of the evidence in comparing matters from The Hobbit against Match me in London – this avenue of investigation ought to remain open. For indeed we must conclude that Tolkien’s The Hobbit is not entirely unique. Yes it is utterly flabbergasting that another work exists where a character called Bilbo not only talks of a fire-breathing dragon, but also of an article to be worn that causes invisibility. And to boot we have a cry very much akin to the immortal one screamed by Gollum in accusing Baggins of being a ‘thief’. These major threads dominating our particular tale – absolutely cannot have been accidental happenings or sheer coincidence. That would defy all odds.

Sensibly then, one should try and dig deeper and see if more can be understood about the foundations of Tolkien’s magnificent fairy-story. Perhaps we might glimpse Dasent’s ox swish his tail before being served as ‘soup’. Though the Professor would likely not approve – for us it is far too interesting a matter to drop; the ox had a personality before being led to the butcher and it is the beast I would like to get to know better. In other words, the hero and this diminutive branch of the human race quite possibly had more associations to Renaissance England than all we have learned so far. And to that end – while I beg the Professor’s pardon – I’m going to try to peer back in time. Let’s see if it’s feasible to reconstruct what Tolkien was mulling over in his head in the late 20’s and early 30’s.

Some would say straightaway that’s a near impossible task fraught with all sorts of peril. ‘Of course it’s difficult, and hard to sell’, would be my response. I acknowledge it’s pushing the boundaries of acceptable scholarship. But that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try. Our toolbox should heartily use the hammer of logic – even if involves driving nails of speculation into a wooden sign whose post requires orienting in the right direction through dexterous intuition. Indeed we should relish the opportunity to sift the few clues in our possession and eke out what we can that makes sense. One never knows what might result. So with that mode of thinking it’s time to take another look at the English Renaissance era while duly taking account of the Professor’s works.

One of the first things worth looking into is Tolkien’s choice of the name ‘Sackville’ for Bilbo’s relations. Tom Shippey in Author of the 20th Century examines its French connotations quite extensively, but I shall instead try to address what wasn’t resolved – and that is inquire on who Tolkien had in mind when he said:

“Sackville is an English name (of more aristocratic association than Baggins).”
– Nomenclature of The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

Fortunately there aren’t too many notables possessing such a distinct surname so the task is far from arduous. Prominent persons include: Sir Richard Sackville, Sir Thomas Sackville, Sir William Sackville and Vita Sackville-West. Of the four, perhaps the most interesting to us would be Sir Thomas Sackville – because here we have another Elizabethan dramatist. The first Earl of Dorset and one-time chancellor of Oxford University owned Knole House – an immense mansion in Sevenoaks. He also owned other properties including Dover Castle (though residence was never taken up). At some point pre-1900 the castle’s moat was dredged and, remarkably from our viewpoint1, a ‘silver spoon’ was salvaged2!

As a playwright, Thomas Sackville co-authored The Tragedie of Gorboduc (1561) – so reminiscent (in lead character’s name) of The Lord of the Rings hobbit, Gorbadoc3.


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Play Pamphlet – The Tragedie of Gorboduc, T. Norton & T. Sackville, 1561


Yet I am not the first to mention this. So I stake no claim. But what I will point out is that Thomas Sackville wrote a famous letter commending the translation, by one Sir Thomas Hoby, of a famous and widely distributed Italian Renaissance work in England – Baldassare Castiglione’s Il libro del cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier):

“… Whose passing skill, lo, Hobbie’s pen displaies.
To Britaine folk, a work of worthy praise.”
– prefixed to Sir Thomas Hoby’s translation of The Book of the Courtier

The Book of the Courtier was one of those rare publications that have, again, a picture of a fabled flying creature on its title page – evoking, for us, a match with Sackville’s Gorboduc and Dekker’s Match me in London play quartos.



The Book of the Courtier, Baldassare Castiglione, 1528


So given a rather sticky web, it is now an opportune time to highlight another extraordinary connection. Several historical figures from the Elizabethan era – who intriguingly have ‘Hob’ as part of their surname, also have links to ‘bits’ of The Hobbit.


(a) Sir Thomas Hoby (1530 – 1566)

Note how Hoby is spelled ‘Hobbie’ in Sackville’s letter – just one letter away from ‘Hobbit’. The well-traveled Hoby who toured France and Italy for four years kept a detailed diary of his adventure. The expedition was reputedly the most extensive one undertaken by an Englishman that century. His translation of The Courtier . greatly influenced English etiquette and how nobility and upper class gentlemen should behave.

<<Echoes of the bourgeoisMr. Baggins and his distant travels – recorded in “his personal memoirs” per The Hobbit dust jacket blurb.>>

(b) Sir Thomas Posthumous Hoby (1566 – 1640)

The younger son of Sir Thomas Hoby. An extremely tiny man – he has been mentioned as the inspiration behind Shakespeare’s Malvolio in Twelfth Night– a play which has a scene of drunken merrymaking. Shakespeare supposedly satirically poked fun at Hoby, ridiculing him for issuing a legal complaint against overly boisterous neighbors who had entered his house uninvited, made themselves at home, eaten his food, drank his wine, and insulted him.

<<Echoes of diminutive Hobbits and the Unexpected Party at Bilbo’s residence.>>

(c) Sir Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679)

A famous English political philosopher. Quoted upon his deathbed as ready to take his last voyage: “… a great leap in the dark”.

<<Echoes of Bilbo evading Gollum with:

“No great leap for a man, but a leap in the dark.”
– The Hobbit, Riddles in the Dark>>

(d) Thomas Hobson (1544 – 1631)

From whom the phrase ‘Hobson’s choice’ is derived. Meaning there is only one on offer – and not really a choice at all.

<<Echo of Bilbo’s choice of escape path under the Misty Mountains not really being a dilemma – because given the situation there really was no alternative:

“ ‘Go back?’ he thought. ‘No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do!’ ”
– The Hobbit, Riddles in the Dark>>



Thomas Hobson, 1630



What the observant reader might also have noticed is that as well as the ‘Hob’ to these Renaissance era individuals, they are commonly linked by the forename ‘Thomas’6. A coincidence or not? Maybe ‘not’! For the root meaning of ‘Thomas’ is ‘twin’7. And so one might speculate Tolkien put all these connected people together. To the point where the literature surrounding them would somehow be reflected as a ‘literary twin’ in his new English fairy tale (a ‘twin’ of Match me in London).

The plan might well have oriented around the contents possessing parodied elements, while the title (and thus the name of his newly invented race) would result from devious wordplay. Yes the ‘Hob’ part of these famous Elizabethan persons names would be appended with ‘bits’. Comically, this would then reflect pieces of their works (or history) foreseen to be incorporated into the tale. Hmm … perhaps that’s how the name ‘Hobbit’ came to arise in Tolkien’s mind while marking those examination papers!

So one might, not unreasonably, conclude that there’s a good chance the Professor just simply constructed another ‘low’ philological and satirical jest. An extremely complex man and especially deep thinker, it seems that Tolkien had already a collection of thoughts consciously rattling about before that Eureka moment of: ‘I have it’!

“… I invented the word hobbit, and can say no more about it than it seemed to me to fit the creatures that I had already in mind …”.
– Tolkien letter to L.M. Cutts, 26 October 1958   (my emphasis)

Of course ‘Hobbit’ is rooted in the word ‘Hob’: 

“ ‘Hob’ : A sprite, hobgoblin.”
– The English Dialect Dictionary8, Item 3, Joseph Wright, 1898-1905

And of course Tolkien had this uppermost in his thoughts9. Though surely it must have crossed his mind that an all-important question would inevitably be raised – and likely – early on. As a philologist he ought to have a philological answer ready. Upon The Hobbit’s 1937 release, even one of his colleagues at Leeds University wanted him to:

“… speak learnedly of hobbits, and say whether they derived their name from ‘hobs’ or ‘rabbits’.”
– The Annotated Hobbit, Introduction (quote by G.H. Cowling), Douglas Anderson

But Tolkien never gave a philological reply – at least not one in that time frame. Instead much later in The Return of the King appendices he provided what appears to be a remarkable feat of reverse engineering. The word ‘hobbit’ supposedly had its source in ‘holbytla’ – described to mean ‘hole-builder’.

But we should not be confused or distracted. For once again, when critically examined, the information is internal to the tale. Thus the search for an external source has simmered away in the background10. And adding to the list of possibilities is my own.

Tolkien’s late statement: 

“Hobbit  This, I confess, is my own invention; but not one devised at random.”
– The Peoples of Middle-earth, The Appendix on Languages

is entirely believable. However I believe the real non-random reason behind settling on ‘hobbit’ had hardly anything to do with ‘rabbit’ or the word ‘holbytla’. Instead it had an awful lot to do with parodying famous Elizabethans and jesting wordplay. Yes indeed:

“Oh what a tangled web they weave who try a new word to conceive!”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, #319

Needless to say I cannot for sure prove that fellow researchers have all been barking up the wrong tree. But doesn’t it strike you, given all the accumulated ‘parody material’ presented in my research to date, that there might have been far more to Tolkien’s humorous side than previously understood? Professor Tom Shippey is convinced that apart from the personal aspect11, ‘Baggins’ has a duality in both possessing a funny side and a philological one. The funny part being that the name in Lancashire and Yorkshire dialect closely resembles terminology for ‘a meal’ – which hobbits relish partaking in. While the philological one is the word ‘Bagging’ appearing in Haigh’s A New Glossary of the Dialect of the Huddersfield District, a publication which Tolkien contributed to the Foreword.


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A New Glossary of the Dialect of the Huddersfield District, W. Haigh, 1928


To my knowledge it has never been brought up that ‘gins’ might have been added to the ‘Bag’ (of Jane Neave’s Bag End) simply because:

“Let no man hereafter despise the Higgin’s, Wiggin’s or any other names ending in gins, they can prove as ancient a descent as any with a Norman prefix.”
– The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1858   (my emphasis)

Or because Tolkien likely modeled Bilbo on the eponymous English hero ‘Jack’12. And the only surname Jack (of beanstalk lore) ever possessed was ‘Spriggins’ – where once again we must note the ‘gins’ ending to that name:

“The Story of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean.”
– Round About our Coal-Fire, 1734

Much though these are important points, really what I am trying to stress is that if Shippey is correct, as far as ‘Baggins’ having both a comic and serious side, then there is every reason to believe the word ‘Hobbit’ was invented no differently!

Switching gears way from The Hobbit and on to The Lord of the Rings, it seems that Tolkien initially thought of continuing to role Bilbo as an antecedent to Jack of English folklore. As I have already set out (see What a Colorful Pair – Part IV), there are plenty of pointers in The Hobbit harking back to the ‘Jack tales’. In the early drafts of The Lord of the Rings there are a few more concerning Farmer Maggot that I haven’t already mentioned.

Bilbo is described as having to defend himself and his nephew against the ogreish Farmer Maggot and his dog. He kills the animal with a stick, a most unusual action for a hobbit:

“He set a great dog on us, … Bilbo broke its head with that thick stick of his.”
– The Return of the Shadow, A Short Cut to Mushrooms, Note 6

Such a violent act ties back to two specific Jack tales. One where a magical stick is used to apply beatings upon the correct command:

“ ‘Up stick and at it’ ”.
– Jack and His Bargains, The Uses of Enchantment, Jack and The Beanstalk, B. Bettelheim, 1989

And another where a giant (who grinds men’s bones in a mill to make bread) has his dog killed by Jack:

“The giant had a favourite dog, … Jack killed the dog, …”.
– More English Fairytales, The Blinded Giant, Joseph Jacobs, 1894

Ultimately Tolkien abandoned his own akin story-line for an unknown reason. Maybe he thought the link of Bilbo back to Jack would become too obvious. I can’t be absolutely sure, but what I do know is that the storied adventures of Jack – arguably the greatest thief of all time – had migrated all across England, with their source supposedly lying in Cornwall.


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Jack kills the Cornish Giant Cormoran


But Tolkien might have asked himself how far back in history did that go? Perhaps the initial tale which seeded Jack belonged to prehistory: “long ago in the quiet of the world”? My feeling is that Tolkien could live with a Spanish sounding Bilbo, as being apt for representing Jack, because of: ‘Iberian man’!

Tolkien was frightfully interested13 in the origins of the British peoples as he confessed to his son, Christopher:

“I read till 11.50, browsing through the packed and to me enthralling pages of Stenton’s Anglo-Saxon England. … I hope one day you’ll be able (if you wish) to delve into this intriguing story of the origins of our peculiar people.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #95

It was K.W. Humboldt’s ‘Iberian theory’ put forward c. 1817-1821 about racial movements across south-western Europe that caught the imagination in the late 1800’s of some of the brightest historians, anthropologists and ethnologists in Britain. The German’s work pointed British research to conclude the prehistory of their peoples lay in migrations from eastern Europe. Eventually a body of these immigrants found their way on to British soil through what is now Wales and the far west of England. This most ancient group of settlers were loosely termed ‘Iberians’.

In 1880 Professor W.B. Dawkins described the British Iberians at some length in Chapter IX – The Neolithic inhabitants of Britain of Iberian Race in his well-received publication: Early Man in Britain and his place in the Tertiary Period. Fifteen years later for the Scarborough meeting of The Royal Archaeological Institute of Great Britain he opened with:

“The theory that the Neolithic inhabitants of the British Isles are represented by the Basques and small dark Iberic population of Europe generally, has stood the test of twenty-five years of criticism, and still holds the field.”
– The Archaeological Journal, Volume 52, Opening Address of the Antiquarian Section, 1895

Investigations into the earliest ancestors of the British had drawn a myriad of respected researchers. The theories and evidence behind Iberian settlers gained great traction, while Humboldt’s groundwork was deservedly acknowledged:

“Since his time the anthropological researches of Broca, Thurnam and Davis, Huxley, Busk, Beddoe, Virchow, Tubino and others have proved the existence in Europe from Neolithic times, of a race, small of stature, which is common among the Basques as well as all over the Iberian peninsula. This Neolithic race has consequently been nicknamed ‘Iberians,’ and it is now common to speak of the ‘Iberian’ ancestry of the people of Britain, recognizing the the racial characteristics of ‘Iberians’ in the ‘small swarthy Welshman’, the ‘small dark Highlander,’ and the ‘Black Celts to the West of the Shannon.”
– The Archaeological Journal, Volume 52, Opening Address of the Antiquarian Section, 1895   (my underlined emphasis)

Even Tolkien’s tutor at Oxford University, Sir John Rhys, had involved himself in the overall debate:

“Celtic immigrants into these islands found them without inhabitants, or that they arrived in sufficient force to exterminate them. … it has been supposed that the people whom the Celts found here must have been of Iberian origin, and nearly akin to the ancient inhabitants of Aquitania and the Basques of modern times.”
– Lectures on Welsh Philology, Lecture IV, John Rhys, 1877

But for us it is significant that the eminent medievalist and folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould at least partially agreed:

“The original population of Cornwall was probably Iberic, of the same primitive race as the dark-haired population of Ireland, before the island was invaded and subjugated by the Celts.”
– Cornwall, History, Sabine Baring-Gould, 1910


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 The Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, 1834 – 1924


Because crucially he helped widen the debate to consider traditions and beliefs about the fairies – the ‘little folk’:

“By the 1880’s such leading folklorists as Sabine Baring-Gould, Andrew Lang, Joseph Jacobs, and Sir John Rhys were examining oral testimony on the nature and the customs of the ‘little folk’ and the historical and archaeological remains left by them.”
– Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness, On the Origins of Fairies, Carole G. Silver, 2000

As such I have a feeling, though I cannot prove it, Baring-Gould influenced Tolkien. For he along with fellow mythologist David MacRitchie14 made a connection of some of the ‘little folk’ being pygmy peoples. According to Baring-Gould, they were the source of small fairy creatures in the myths spread across south-western England:

“Everything comes out of an egg or a seed. And I suspect that there did exist a small people, not so small as these imps are represented, but comparatively small beside the Aryans who lived in all those countries in which the tradition of their existence lingers on.”
– A Book of Folk-lore, Pixies and Brownies, Sabine Baring-Gould, 1913

It’s quite possible Tolkien took inspiration from little and big people living side-by-side, and much of what Baring-Gould said below about these pygmies essentially being ‘hole-dwellers’:

“They were a people who did not build at all. They lived in caves, or, if in the open, in huts made by bending branches over and covering then with sods of turf. Consequently in folktales they are always represented as either emerging from caverns or from under mounds.”
– A Book of Folk-lore, Sabine Baring-Gould, 1913

Not quite tiny – but nevertheless much smaller humans – are these what Tolkien decided the race of Hobbits really were? Connected loosely through the traditional ‘little folk’ of Cornish folktales, was his invention really a smaller race of migratory man? So maybe Jack of folklore, and thus Bilbo of The Hobbit, was envisaged by Tolkien as one of:

“Sabine Baring-Gould’s pre-Celtic Iberian Pygmies, …”.
– Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness, Changelings in Folklore and Medical Theory, Carole G. Silver, 2000

What is really intriguing in all of this is how some of the ‘little folk’ of Cornwall and Devon (the English south-west) were called ‘Spriggans’. These murky little beings of local folklore are defined by Tolkien’s former tutor in his dialectal dictionary as: 

“ ‘Spriggan’ : “A fairy, sprite, a goblin; …”.
– The English Dialect Dictionary, Joseph Wright, 1898-1905


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Spriggan Sculpture, Marilyn Collins, Crouch End, London


Such a definition ties in quite well with that given earlier for a ‘Hob’ – another ‘sprite’ or ‘hobgoblin’. In addition one cannot help but notice ‘Spriggans’ and ‘Spriggins’ are remarkably similar, both construction-wise and phonetically. Leaving one to wonder if they shared a common etymological and linguistic origin. Though once again I have no proof – maybe Tolkien wondered that too? Then was Jack ‘Spriggins’ of Beanstalk fame really a little ‘Iberian man’ who had, over the ages, become confused as a Hob (a sprite or English goblin)? Were the larger Celtic race ultimately the source of the many giants Jack overcame? Is this how Tolkien satisfied an inner urge to unravel the history behind a fairy tale? Had he purposely picked on England’s most famous folklore character?

Who knows what the passage of time had done in mutating names? But if the answers to all those questions asked in the previous paragraph are ‘yes’, Tolkien could easily live with our hobbit Mr Baggins having Iberian roots. Yes, ‘Bilbo’ with such a Spanish sounding name could still be English and aboriginal. Indeed to our Professor, ‘Bilbo Baggins’ was as English as an Englishman could possibly be!


Onward to the next set of articles in the series:    The Last Stage



1  In connecting to The Hobbit:

“Many of his silver spoons mysteriously disappeared and were never accounted for. Personally he suspected the Sackville-Bagginses.”
– The Hobbit, The Last Stage

2  See: Photography, Volume 6, Tunbridge Wells Amateur, 1894.

3  Scholars have observed that ‘Gorbadoc’ was spelled ‘Gorboduc’ in predecessor manuscripts of The Lord of the Rings on several occasions.

4  Tolkien remarks on Bilbo’s character reveal how he felt about Bilbo prior to his adventure:

“Bilbo… had a good share of hobbit virtues: shrewd sense, generosity, patience and fortitude, and also a strong ‘spark’ yet unkindled. The story and its sequel are not about ‘types’ or the cure of bourgeois smugness by wider experience, but about the achievements of specially graced and gifted individuals.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #281   (my underlined emphasis)

5  Malvolio is taken aback by the frivolity and drunken singing of Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Feste and Maria. The line:

“SIR TOBY … Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?”,
– Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene iii, William Shakespeare

is thought to satirize Posthumous Hoby’s prayer interruption by the unwanted squatters. Incidentally “A niece of King Gorboduc” is mentioned briefly by the Fool in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, thus providing a link back to the Sackville dynasty.

6  In addition to Thomas Dekker and Thomas Sackville!

7  Courtesy of Wikipedia:

“Thomas … is ultimately derived from the Aramaic personal name meaning ‘twin’.”

8  Tolkien might well have turned to Joseph Wright’s dictionary to understand the full usage of ‘Hob’ across England. Indeed the entry occupies nearly two pages.

9  That’s not to say that Tolkien didn’t have other thoughts in his mind that felt apt and he found appealing when it came to ‘Hobbit’:

“It might have been associated with Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt. Certainly not rabbit, as some people think. Babbitt has the same bourgeois smugness that hobbits do. His world is the same limited place.”
– Interview with Charlotte and Denis Plimmer, 1968

“I must admit that its faint suggestion of rabbit appealed to me.”
– The Peoples of Middle-earth, The Appendix on Lanuages

10  For example see: Mythlore, Volume 30, Number 3, Issue 11 7/118, Spring 2012 – The Myths of the Author: Tolkien and the Medieval Origins of the Word Hobbit, Michael Livingston.

11  Meaning ‘Bag End’, Jane Neave’s farm.

12  See: What a Colorful Pair – Part IV.

13  At the time of his Lecture: On Fairy-stories in 1939 – Tolkien was certainly familiar with E.B. Tylor’s Primitive Culture, 1871 – see Tolkien On Fairy-stories, Flieger and Anderson (Manuscript A Commentary [182]). Tylor was the supposed leading authority on comparative anthropology of that era. 

14  MacRitchie’s theory became known in the late 19th century by folklorists as ‘Ethnological or Pygmy Theory’. Per Wikipedia, ‘David MacRitchie’:

“Fairy Euhemerism, as developed by MacRitchie attempts to explain the origin of fairies in British folklore and regards fairies as being of a folk-memory of a ‘small-statured pre-Celtic race’ or what Tylor (see Note 13) theorised as possible folk memories of the aborigines of Britain.”


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”?


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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


.Image result for jane neave's farm bag-end morton

Jane Neave’s Farmhouse, ‘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 forename ‘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


Image result for dwarf list poetic edda

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 setting 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

Getting back to the play, when it comes to the plot, we are told that Bilbo is in danger as the ‘fire-drake’ approaches:

“TORMIELLA: You dally with fire, haste, haste, … ”.
– Match me in London, Act 1 – Scene 2, Play by Thomas Dekker

Prior to this Dekker had Bilbo lightheartedly (yet ominously) describe Gazetto’s abode as one of:

“BILBO: … everlasting Thunder, …”.
– Match me in London, Act 1 – Scene 2, Play by Thomas Dekker

As soon as the ‘dragon’ Gazetto finds out the ‘treasure’ has gone we are told (in an echo of Smaug’s exhibited rage in leaving his bed and chasing after Bilbo):

“BILBO: Signior Gazetto is horne-mad, and leapt out of his Bed, … so that I think he comes running stark naked after me.”
– Match me in London, Act 1 – Scene 2, Play by Thomas Dekker

Remarkably in this foreign setting, the cause behind the lost treasure is thievery involving not a Spaniard but:

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

The ‘dragon’ though, has to patiently wait for revenge:

“GAZETTO: Till then my vengeance sleepes, …”. 
– Match me in London, Act 5 – Scene 2, Play by Thomas Dekker

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

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

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

“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

As to the later part of the plot, Bilbo becomes a shopkeeper10 in keeping close to Tormiella (the ‘gem’) and Cordolente (‘Thorin’). Visited by his old master Malevento (‘Gandalf’), Cordolente is told to look after Bilbo:

“MALEVENTO: Oh, pray son, use Bilbo Caveare11 well.”
– Match me in London, Act 4 – Scene 2, Play by Thomas Dekker

However it is Bilbo that allows the ‘gem’ to be taken away to the King by Lady Dildoman. Seemingly lost, Cordolente then argues with the King (‘Thranduil’) to have her returned. Right at the end of the play, the King relinquishes his claim and allows the ‘diamond’ back into the hands of Cordolente where she rightfully belongs. So once again we see many plot parallels with The Hobbit. Surely this is beyond coincidence!

How far Tolkien went with his clever plan – I cannot say. Was Dildoman meant to represent Bard – 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 drama12. For its hard to deny aspects of Dekker’s tragi-comedy13, 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!


For the next article in the series click below

Part III



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  A faint connection of Gloin likening Bilbo to a ‘grocer’ at outset.

11  ‘Caveare’ was Elizabethan spelling for ‘caviar’ – regarded as a ‘bourgeois’ dish in those times – as it is now.

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

13  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.”


4/15/2018   Was: “towards the latter part of the play.”, Is:“towards the latter setting of the play.”

Was: “BILBO: Thieves, thieves, thieves!”, Is: “BILBO: Thieves, thieves, thieves, …”.

Was: “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

Is: “Getting back to the play, when it comes to the plot … added through to: 

“Gazetto: Till then my vengeance sleepes, …”. 
– Match me in London, Act 1 – Scene 2, Play by Thomas Dekker

4/16/18   Reordered following paragraph and subsequent associated quotes: “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:”.

Added from: “As to the later part of the plot. …” to “… beyond coincidence!”

Was: The Master of Laketown”, Is: “Bard”.

Added new notes 10 and 11. Reordered later ones.


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!


Image result for legem pone anglican prayer

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.


Image result for songs for the philologists

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 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?


Image result for songs for the philologists

‘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 line of thought. 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’.


John Heywood c. 1497- c. 1580


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.


Image result for british library thomas heywood

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 catchphrases – 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


For the next article in the series click below

Part II



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 firsthand 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 fairyland – 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.


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(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


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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, counterbalanced 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


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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.


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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?


Clixk here to find out: Tudor, Elizabethan and Jacobean Connections



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”.