Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo! Ring a dong! hop along! fal lal the willow! Tom Bom, jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo!
-Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
For the past few months I have immersed myself in the History of Middle-Earth series of books; specifically, having finished the first five books, I am now into the History of the Lord of the Rings (truly fascinating books which show the literary development of the story by comparing J.R.R. Tolkien’s extensive manuscripts). One of the most puzzling yet enjoyable characters in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth mythos is Tom Bombadil.
If you’ve never read the Lord of the Rings, but have only seen the (excellent) movie trilogy that ushered in the new millennium, you may be asking yourself, “Tom who?” Unfortunately, the character of Tom Bombadil often finds himself left out in adaptations of LotR because of the nature of his character.
A brief overview: Tom Bombadil lives in the Old Forest with his wife Goldberry, the “River-Daughter”. He is first encountered when Old Man Willow snares the Hobbits in his trunk. Tom, who just happens to be passing by, commands Old Man Willow through song to release the Hobbits, whom he brings to his house by the Withywindle river. After two nights of rest, Tom sends them on their way, but promises to come to their aid if they fall into trouble while still in his domain (which they do, and he does).
In the mythology of Middle-Earth, Tom is an enigma. First, the One Ring has absolutely no effect on Tom. He can see those who wear it, make it disappear and reappear, and he himself does not disappear when he puts it on. Regarding his age, Tom says that he was in the world before the Elves passed by on their Great Journey to the West (six ages before LotR, and before the construction of the Moon and Sun). He is known as “Eldest”, and even predated the arrival of the Ainur (the spirits who rule the world). When asked about him, Goldberry simply says, “He is.” However, he seems to care nothing for what happens outside his borders, and Gandalf later advises against giving him the One Ring for safekeeping since he would probably forget about it and lose it.
“And even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are.” -J.R.R. Tolkien
Many attempts have been made to explain the nature of Tom Bombadil, none of them satisfactory. Tolkien himself refused to elaborate on Tom’s character, for he was inserted into the story precisely because he doesn’t fit. Tom is a mystery, and needs to remain as such.
That is all well and good, you might be saying, but why are you writing about it? I’m glad you asked (even if you didn’t).
People come to church for many reasons. Sometimes it is because they are looking for all the answers. When someone comes to me looking for all the answers I am tempted to tell them “42”, but they probably wouldn’t get it (and if you don’t get it either, read more Douglas Adams). Still, there is a feeling among church shoppers that if they could just find a church that has all the answers, everything would be okay.
The Bible is, much to the disappointment of yours truly, treated in the same way. The assumption is that in the great Cracker-Jack box that is the universe, God cleverly provided a magic decoder ring called the Bible to unlock all of life’s secrets. If we could just figure out how to read it (literally, of course), then we would discover the solution to all of our problems.
It is no surprise to me (but quite a shock to these people) that neither of these assumptions is true. The church does not have all the answers; neither does the Bible. And that’s okay.
Some Many Most Nearly all things are known only to God, who is a lot better at remembering that sort of stuff than we are.
As Christians, we should be okay with not knowing (we Lutherans especially). Life is too big, too grand, and too marvelous to think that we as human beings, no matter how cool we are or how technologically savvy we are, could possibly “know it all”. I don’t have all the answers. Neither does the church. Nor the Bible. All of the literal fundamentalism in the universe can’t change that.
So let Tom Bombadil remain a mystery. Be okay with and embrace the enigmas of life. Take them for what they are–welcome distractions from a world obsessed with figuring it all out at all costs.
Relax. Don’t panic. And don’t forget to stop and pick some water lilies for Goldberry.