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What follows is a five part series of essays that mainly discusses a unique approach to looking at Tom and Goldberry from a color-coding standpoint. The conclusions are intriguing. If true, they show another aspect of the author’s highly agile and creative mind – once again one that could think ‘outside the box’!
Part I: Fayvorite Colors – Early Days
Though in Part IV of ‘The Enigmatic Mrs Bombadil’ I have suggested that Goldberry has Paracelsian roots as an ‘elemental’, I have also hinted that Tolkien dually viewed her as a fairy being – a fay. Such a prognosis behooves a second look at Tom. Why revisit the matter – one might ask? After all wasn’t Tom neatly wrapped up in ‘Cracking the Enigma Code’?
The answer to the last of the questions above is a definite: No! Because though I’ve established within the confines of my theory that Tom eventually became a ‘Maia’ – he almost certainly wasn’t originally conceived as so. We can be reasonably certain of that simply because the term ‘Maia’ first appeared in Tolkien’s vocabulary in the 50’s – close to two decades after Tom’s first unveiling to the public. Undeniably Tolkien’s hierarchy of his own legendarium beings evolved. Given this pertinent fact, we ought to try and establish whether Tom evolved too. Progressive tracking might help us understand not just more about the merry pair, but also provide us with further insight into the story and perhaps Tolkien’s own character.
In a way we need to divorce ourselves from the final results and try to understand Tom and Goldberry over distinct phases. That way we may be able to reconstruct an evolutionary pattern. To work towards that goal, in this first phase I will try to attack the period up to publication of the original The Adventures of Tom Bombadil poem. What indeed did Tolkien consider these two in 1934 while completely oblivious of The Lord of the Rings to come? Unfortunately the clues are scant and we must rely much on guesswork.
All we have is the Doll, the ‘King Bonhedig1 fragment’, the ‘Germ poem’, the 1934 The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and perhaps one remark made by Tolkien prior to starting The Lord of the Rings in earnest, where Tom was referred to as:
“…the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside, …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #19
Michael Tolkien’s doll does lend us some threadbare clues. We know it was probably wood-jointed, likely pretty hardy2, atypically Dutch in design and possibly manufactured in Holland too. It wouldn’t be a stretch to presume that Tolkien’s son played with it not only inside the house – but also in a garden setting while resident at Northmoor Road. One can easily imagine a sunny Spring day with daffodils blooming in the grass and the children at play with their toys and father, while Oxford church bells faintly tolled in the background – an ever present reminder of Christ Church College’s Great Tom.
Garden of 20 Northmoor Road, Oxford, J.R.R. Tolkien Artist & Illustrator, Hammond & Scull
Perhaps this sort of circumstance triggered the doll’s naming, for it is quite possible that a spontaneous idea arose. Particularly as the Professor admitted that:
“… it is the particular use in a particular situation of any motive, whether invented, deliberately borrowed, or unconsciously remembered that is the most interesting thing to consider.”
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #337
With that thought in mind, I’m going to suggest a new origin for Tom’s surname which I think is equally as plausible as Hooker’s in The Hobbitonian Anthology.
Tolkien may have just imaginatively put together a faux history. Though the doll was now a fixed inhabitant of England, unquestionably it had some Dutch heritage which just may have been acquired along a journey accompanying England’s ancestors in Germany – the Saxons. Just like the ‘Tollkühn’s’ – the toy had been on a migratory trek but was now firmly an Oxonion. In effect, the doll was part English, part Dutch and part German and thus deserved a name that reflected all three chunks of its heritage. Perhaps he felt that the doll had some mythological history and was the long lost image of a nature spirit which had now become attached to his local countryside?
Anyhow, the ‘Tom’ – I am guessing was the English appropriation, while the ‘dil’ came from the Dutch de affodil (English asphodel) – very befitting from a man who, as we saw with Goldberry, enjoyed involving a botanical side to naming etymology. But what about the ‘Bomba’? Where did Tolkien get that from? Which German would he have selected?
For that I am going to suggest a person I have already introduced – namely: Paraclesus. A man whose real name was: Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim. And so to honor a sub-branch of ancient mythology, my proposal is that the partial name of a renowned medieval mythologist, botanist and alchemist was subtly incorporated into a mix. For Tom in the 1934 poetry reflects a being highly reminiscent of a Paracelsian ‘Earth Elemental’. A spirit that Tom Shippey has not only described as:
“… a kind of exhalation of the earth …”.
– J.R.R. Tolkien Author of the Century, Chapter II, T.A. Shippey
but also referred to specifically as an:
“… elemental …”.
– New Learning and New Ignorance: Magia, Goeteia, and the Inklings, T.A. Shippey
The Paracelsian Elemental of the Earth (Gnome) – Gjellerup’s Den Ældre Eddas Gudesange (1895)
One can quite understand how the staunchly Germanic surname of von Hohenheim, or the Grecian rooted Phillipus, Aureolus and Theophrastus, would have been immediately discarded for consideration – as would have been the Greek and very German sounding ‘-stus’. But ‘Bomba’ was really the most intriguing and unique sounding portion of Paracelsus’ actual full name, as well as that of the doll, echoing Tolkien’s assertion:
“… I should not have given him so particular, individual, and ridiculous a name …”.
– The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #153
Is there a possibility that Tolkien kept his naming for our merry fellow at a very simple etymological level? Were the English ‘Tom’, The German ‘Bomba’ and the Dutch ‘dil’ all combined to simply give ‘Tom Bombadil’? Who knows? At the end of the day – I freely admit my solution is just a guess. An educated guess perhaps. But nevertheless just as likely as many others.
Before I move on to the main thrust of this essay – there is one other interesting detail we can extract from the early writings – and that relates to the size of both Tom and his consort.
From the ‘Bonhedig fragment’ we know Tom was well below normal human height and stocky in build:
“Four foot high in his boots he was, and three feet broad.”
– Tolkien A biography, The storyteller, Humphrey Carpenter
Then later in his published 1934 poetry Goldberry was described as a ‘little’ water lady.
Obviously she was slighter in build – and we can reasonably assume she was shorter than Tom too. Otherwise it would be odd for him to refer to her as ‘little’. Despite being petite Goldberry appears fully compatible with Tom. This would put the couple as somewhere between hobbits and humans in height – seemingly closest to dwarves. Though of course, that they were most definitely not. Does this get us anywhere? Probably not very far. All we can say is that even at this early stage – the pairing had a puzzling peculiarity about them. A peculiarity that might be revealed by skipping forward for a moment and investigating color symbolism in The Lord of the Rings.
Despite me promising not to do so, in this case it is advantageous to look forward in order to look back. For one matter which stares us in the face, yet puzzlingly has been pretty much overlooked, is how vividly Tom and Goldberry were described compared to others in The Lord of the Rings. A review of the entire ‘trilogy’ reveals that no other characters were singled out with so much emphasis placed on the color of their clothes and worn accessories. An intriguing thought thus surfaces. Could Tolkien have had a special underlying reason in mind for the happy couple? To probe whether there is significance to this observation, we must now rewind back to early times and investigate those historical depictions.
The first textual mention of color occurred in the so-called ‘King Bonhedig fragment’ from the late 1920’s or early 1930’s (exact date unknown). Tom had a:
“… blue feather, his jacket was blue, and his boots were yellow”.
– Tolkien A biography, The storyteller, Humphrey Carpenter
This rendition is consistent with Michael Tolkien’s wood-jointed doll which was confirmed by his elder brother John to really:
“… wear the same bizarre clothing mentioned in The Lord of the Rings.”
– Conversation reported in Mallorn 5
A Vintage Dutch Doll – perhaps in the style of Michael Tolkien’s
Because the doll and ‘Bonhedig fragment’ colors are identical, Tom’s genesis colors are concluded to be: Blue and Yellow. To the best of our knowledge this is the case from both toy and textual standpoints.
Our next encounter with Tom where color arose is in poetry per The Adventures of Tom Bombadil from 1934. Tom was again described as owning yellow boots and a blue jacket. But now the feather in his hat specifically became a greeny-blue peacock’s. Whether this was the one and same bird which donated the apparently pure blue feather of the ‘Bonehedig fragment’ is unknown. In any case, no other clothing colors were acknowledged outright except Tom was crowned for the wedding with buttercups. Not to be missed then, was how Tom had more yellow gracing him.
We can see that if anything – Tolkien stayed steady (color-wise) in taking Tom from his origin as a toy into jottings and then full-fledged published verse. There appears to have been little desire to radically alter him despite the fact that yellow for male boots is quite odd, and a rarity in both fiction and fashion of the pre-40’s.
Turning our attention to fair lady Goldberry, her first mention to the public was also in the same 1934 rhyme. Therein she was described as wearing a gown of green by the rushes at capture and then silver-green matrimonial robes. Her wedding garland was of entwined flowers – flag-lilies and forget-me-nots, however their colors were not explicitly revealed.
The designated coloring of apparel and adornments at first published poetry and pre-The Lord of the Rings was thus:
Tom: Blue, Yellow and Green
Goldberry: Green and Silver
At this point it might be fruitful to kick back and pontificate on what sort of beings Tolkien envisaged Tom and Goldberry to be. A mystery it is, and one which does not have an immediately obvious answer. Nor is it easily resolvable. Because at the time of this early literature, the evidence that there is points to ‘The Adventures’ poetry having been written in good part for personal pleasure. It seems that at the poem’s conception and during its creation, there had been no intent to bring the pair into the already existent Silmarillion mythology.
Exactly what Tom was in Tolkien’s mind right then is uncertain. Obviously he wasn’t human. His ability to interact and communicate with both animals and unnatural beings, coupled with a potent power of command, put him in an entirely different category to mortals. If I were to take a stab, I think a reasonable guess is that Tom was imagined as a fairy-creature – meaning one from the land of Faerie. And if I were to further speculate, it is possible Tolkien cleverly justified such an attribution by realizing that as outfitted – the combination of blue and yellow made green3.
For in his own words:
“… green was a fairy colour …”.
– Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon., 1925. pg. 86 line 151
And it is this pronouncement which is of greatest significance. Though green is also the color of nature, to Tolkien who was wrapped up in the subjects of fairy-stories and mythology – it was more. Indeed much, much more. Leaving us obligated to look at matters, that might seem trite, from a bold new perspective.
So what is to come will focus heavily on looking at the enigmatic pair from an angle of ‘color’ not explored before. And re-assuredly more evidence on the matter of color-mixing will duly follow, though first I must briefly turn back to a 1934 Goldberry.
Our yellow-tressed lady though predominantly clad in fairy-hued green, also had one garment tinged with beaded streaks of silver. Nonetheless, as I will emphasize later, silver was also ‘a fairy color’. Then as a compatible couple with compatible dress, there is every reason to believe Goldberry and Tom initially came from the same bucket. In other words, the probability is high that the merry couple were intentionally created as otherworldly fays. Once again, as far as we can tell – this was done independent to the legendarium mythology.
So to summarize, though it is not readily apparent: Tom is virtually in a splintered state. His entire attire when looked at in reverse through the lens of a painter’s prism – is ‘fairy-green’. Goldberry of course – in plain sight – is mainly dressed in ‘fairy-green’!
1 The 2014 revised and expanded re-release of The Adventure’s of Tom Bombadil by Hammond & Scull provides no further significant information about Tom himself.
2 The doll is known to have survived being thrown into a toilet by John – Michael’s elder brother.
3 In ‘artistry’ – not in ‘light’.