Tom Bombadil: Cracking The ‘Enigma’ Code

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Introduction: Thinking Outside the Box

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part I – The Secret Role Played by Bombadil

The Cosmogonical Drama

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

Now Tolkien felt:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The World is not Enough – A Vital but Missing Element

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘the audience’.


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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom’s Path to Middle-earth

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

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

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

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

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

tom enters the theatre from outside

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

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

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

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

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

Curtains to Poverty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Different Planes of Reality

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Drama within a Drama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, from the: 

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ideally you would:

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

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

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

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

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

Tom’s jump to Physical Arda – The Main Stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

he was still unlikely to comply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dreaded Allegory – The Plot Thickens

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

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

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

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

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

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

 and even more forcefully:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue to Part II


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3  Letter #131.

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

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

6  Letter #153.

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

Picture in Footnotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 See Footnote 6.



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

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

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

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

Added: “our options are limited and so”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6/6/16 – Was: “Faërie”, Is: “Faëry”.

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

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

Was: “almost”, Is: “just about”.

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

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

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

6/18/16 – Added: “but subliminally”.

Was: “mythical”, Is: “myth-based”. 

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

Added: “(in a roundabout manner)”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Added: New Note 2. Renumbered others.

8/19/16 Added: “throughout”.

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

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

9/30/16 Added: “part of”.