The Gospel in the House of Tom Bombadil

Reading Time: 3 mins

Tolkien's hero Tom Bombadil functions to showcase the Gospel

When it comes to good stories, everyone has their favorite character or characters. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is no exception. There is a long list of endearing and inspiring characters: the unlikely duo of Gimli the dwarf and Legolas the elf; the clear Christ-figures of Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn, resembling Christ’s offices of prophet, priest, and king; the faithful friendship of the hobbits, Frodo, Merry, Pippin, and my personal favorite, Samwise.

You know who rarely makes the list though? Tom Bombadil. If you have ever journeyed with Frodo and his friends outside of the Shire, it does not take long before you encounter the odd, enigmatic, and eccentric character known as Tom Bombadil. He may not crack anyone’s top ten list of favorite characters, but he is sure to draw an opinion ranging from the laughable to the ludicrous. And yet, the more I read The Lord of the Rings, the more my appreciation for this mysterious character grows. Tom Bombadil is a reminder that even in minor, curious characters, there is good news in Middle-earth, and there is more than one glimpse of the Gospel in the house of Tom Bombadil.

Tom Bombadil is one of the many characters that was pulled into the orbit of Tolkien’s larger mythology. The original Tom Bombadil entered his imagination long before the four hobbits - Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin - met him on their journey to Rivendell. In 1934, Tolkien published a series of poems titled The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. He created the character from a Dutch doll that his children played with; a doll with a blue coat, yellow boots, and a feather in his cap. Eventually, these details found their way into Middle-earth. When we meet Tom in The Lord of the Rings we are greeted by laughter, joy, and loud-singing, “Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow; Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow.[1]”

There is more than one glimpse of the Gospel in the house of Tom Bombadil

Unlike many of the central figures in his story, Tolkien does not reveal a great amount of detail about the nature, character, and purpose of Tom Bombadil. In one letter he hints that Tom is “The spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside” who could be a hero in an unwritten story[2]. Bombadil, like the biblical Adam before the fall, has a deep connection with creation. In another letter, Tolkien admits, “That even in a mythical age, there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).[3]”

Not surprisingly, as with any mysterious character, such as Melchizadek in the Old Testament, theories about Tom Bombadil abound. Tolkien, however, warns against any over-philosophizing of this character; neither should we take him so seriously as to be a symbol or allegory of God.

What then are we to make of this perplexing character? Tom Bombadil reminds me a lot about that old camp song about the bear hunt. If you are reading The Lord of the Rings you can’t go around him, or under him, or over him, you must go through him with the hobbits on their journey. When the hobbits first meet Tom Bombadil, he comes to their rescue from Old Man Willow, a tree that had nearly swallowed Merry and Pippin in the Old Forest. As the hobbits enter Bombadil's house they are greeted by light and life, a comforting contrast to their escape from the constant fear of being caught by the black riders, the Ringwraiths. The hobbits find respite within the house of Tom Bombadil, a welcomed calm before the storm that awaits them on the road ahead. They enjoy rest, fellowship, and a feast. Goldberry, the river-spirit companion of Tom Bombadil, assists in preparing a table for the hobbits in the midst of their enemies. And for a time, they are free from fear.

  1. They learn from Tom that he is the Eldest, and that he “was here before the rivers and trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn. He made paths before the Big People, and saw the little People arriving. He was here before kings and the graves of the Barrow-wights. When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent. He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless - before the Dark Lord came from Outside.[4]”

He is fearless. He is not affected by the Ring of Power, not even tempted. He puts the One Ring on and gives little notion to its danger. Later when Frodo wanders into the den of an evil spirit, the Barrow-wight, Bombadil comes to the rescue when he cries for help. When we meet Tom Bombadil in Tolkien’s story, we meet a character who is intentionally mysterious and yet embodies several Christian themes. He brings hospitality, humor, respite and rescue.

Tom Bombadil is a good reminder that even in a minor, mysterious character, there is good news in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. What we see in Tom Bombadil in part, we see in Christ in whole. While there is great mystery in the Christian faith, as Tolkien taught his friend C.S. Lewis, here in the Christian story, myth has become fact; the mysterious God became incarnate. The unknown, known. The untouchable took on human flesh, eyes, ears, feet, and hands. God became man, not in never-never land, not in a galaxy far, far away, but he was born in the days of Caesar Augustus. He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate. And in Christ, we receive eternal respite, gracious rescue from sin and death, and a holy hospitality in his house where word and sacrament are spread before us in abundance.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1994, p. 122

[2] Humphrey Carpenter, ed. Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.  p. 26. 

[3] Humphrey Carpenter, ed. Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. p. 174.

[4] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1994, p. 129.