Tom Bombadil is a supporting character in J. R. R. Tolkien's legendarium. He appears in Tolkien's fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings, published in 1954 and 1955. In the first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo Baggins and company meet Bombadil in the Old Forest. He also appears in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, a book of verse first published in 1962, purported to contain a selection of Hobbit poems, two of which were about him.
Tolkien invented Tom Bombadil in honour of his children's Dutch doll, and wrote light-hearted children's poems about him, imagining him as a nature-spirit evocative of the English countryside, which in Tolkien's time had begun to disappear.
Tolkien's 1934 poem "The Adventures of Tom Bombadil" depicts Bombadil as a "merry fellow" living in a dingle close to the Withywindle river, where he wanders, exploring nature at his leisure. Several of the dingle's mysterious residents, including the River-spirit Goldberry (also known as the "River-woman's daughter"), the malevolent tree-spirit Old Man Willow, the Badger-folk and a Barrow-wight all attempt to capture Bombadil for their own ends, but quail at the power of Tom's voice, which defeats their enchantments and commands them to return to their natural existence. At the end of the poem, Bombadil captures Goldberry, and the two are married. Throughout the poem, Bombadil is unconcerned by the attempts to capture him and brushes them off with an inherent power in his words.
The later poem "Bombadil Goes Boating" anchors Bombadil in Middle-earth, featuring a journey down the Withywindle to the Brandywine river, where Hobbits ("Little Folk I know there") live at Hays-End. Bombadil is challenged by various river-residents on his journey, including birds, otters and hobbits, but cows them all with his voice, ending his journey at the farm of Farmer Maggot, where he drinks ale and dances with the family. At the end of the poem, the cowed birds and otters work together to bring Bombadil's boat home. The poem includes a reference to the Norse lay of Ótr, when Bombadil threatens to give the hide of a disrespectful otter to the Barrow-wights, who he says will cover it with gold apart from a single whisker. The poem mentions a number of Middle-earth locations, including Hays-End, Bree and the Tower Hills, and hints at the events of the end of the Third Age, speaking of "Tall Watchers by the Ford, Shadows on the Marches".
The poems were published in the collections The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and later in Tales from the Perilous Realm.
Tom first appears within the story after Merry and Pippin are trapped by Old Man Willow and Frodo cries for help. Tom commands Old Man Willow to release them, singing him to sleep, and shelters the hobbits in his house for a couple of nights. Here it is revealed that the One Ring has no power over Bombadil. He can see Frodo even when the hobbit wears the Ring, and Tom (an immortal) does not turn invisible when he wears the Ring himself. He even tosses the Ring in the air and makes it disappear, but then produces it from his other hand and returns it to Frodo. While this demonstrates he has unique and mysterious power over the Ring, the idea of giving him the Ring for safekeeping is rejected within Book Two's second chapter, "The Council of Elrond." Gandalf says, rather, that "the Ring has no power over him", and believes that Tom would simply not find the Ring to be very important and so might simply misplace it.
Frodo spends two nights in Tom Bombadil's house, each night dreaming a different dream. The first night he dreams of fearful things. The second night he dreams of a grey rain-curtain turning all to silver glass and rolling back, and white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise. Before sending the hobbits on their way, Tom teaches them a rhyme to summon him if they fall into danger inside his borders again. This proves fortunate, as the four encounter Barrow-wights during "Fog on the Barrow-downs," the eighth chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring. After saving them from the Barrow-wights, Tom gives each hobbit a long dagger taken from the treasure in the barrows. As the hobbits leave the Old Forest, he refuses to pass the borders of his own land, but before he goes he directs them to The Prancing Pony Inn at Bree.
Towards the end of The Return of the King, when Frodo and Gandalf take their leave, Gandalf mentions that he wants to have a long talk with Bombadil, calling him a "moss-gatherer." Gandalf also says, in response to Frodo's query of how well Bombadil is getting along, that Bombadil is "as well as ever" and "quite untroubled". Gandalf also states that Bombadil is "not much interested in anything that we have done and seen", save their visits to the Ents. At the very end of The Lord of the Rings, as Frodo sails off on the High Sea and passes on into the West and leaves Middle-earth, he has what seems to him the very experience that appeared to him in the house of Bombadil in the second night of his dream.
Tom Bombadil is a spry fellow, with a quick, playful wit. He speaks in a rhyming whimsical way: "Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo!/ Ring a dong! hop along! fal lal the willow! Tom Bom, jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo!" He has a jolly, carefree attitude, and very little seems to concern him. He certainly does not seem to share the same concerns as everybody else about the One Ring, even though he seems to know at least as much as the hobbits about its connections and possible consequences. Indeed, this aspect of his personality seems quite perplexing: the discussions of those at the council of Elrond at Rivendell, and especially those of Gandalf, seem to indicate that Bombadil would not be immune to the actions of a rejuvenated Sauron; however, he seems to be wholly unconcerned with this fact and immune to the power of the Ring. In fact, the closest thing to an adversary Bombadil has, in the loosest sense of that word, is possibly Old Man Willow, who occupies and holds dominion over the trees in miles of Tom's "country"; although Bombadil does seem to demonstrate at least some control over him.
Tom Bombadil's origins in the cosmology of Middle-earth were left vague by Tolkien. He calls himself the "Eldest" and the "Master". He claims to remember "the first raindrop and the first acorn", and "knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless — before the Dark Lord came from Outside." He does not neatly fit into the categories of beings Tolkien created. Speculative ideas about his true nature range from one of the Ainur, angelic beings (as the only beings on the earth before "the Dark Lord came in from Outside" were the Ainur, who shaped the earth), or God, who is called Eru Ilúvatar and "the One" in Tolkien's legendarium (the latter in The Lord of the Rings). This is reinforced when Frodo asks Goldberry just who Tom Bombadil is, and she responds by simply saying "He is." Tolkien himself did not elaborate much further, but when a reader confronted him with the theory that Bombadil was "the One", Tolkien said that he was not.
At the Council of Elrond, Tom Bombadil is referred to by Galdor as being unable to deal with a siege by Sauron "unless such power is in the earth itself", implying that the character is a manifestation of Middle-earth's inherent properties. This connection explains Bombadil's seeming obliviousness to the transient concerns of mortals, as evidenced in Gandalf's concern that Tom would not understand the importance of the ring, and hence lose it, if it were entrusted to him. The idea that Tom's songs are always "stronger", as he proclaims in his rhyme, as well as his title of Master, further suggest Bombadil is the warden of nearly invincible aspects of the planet itself.
In reference to Bombadil, Tolkien himself said that some things should remain mysterious in any narrative, hidden even to its inventor. Tom Bombadil is not the only being whose nature is unexplained, however. While passing the Caradhras in Book II of The Fellowship of the Ring Gandalf mentions beings more ancient even than Sauron. In Book III of The Two Towers, when describing his fall in the pits of Moria, he also mentions dark creatures who gnaw the world. In addition, Tolkien placed the fate of the Entwives in this enigmatic category, as well as the Cats of Queen Berúthiel.
A parallel to the conception of Bombadil may be found in C. S. Lewis's book The Discarded Image, in which he observes that, while in most respects the medieval conception of the universe is rigidly stratified, with angels, planets, humans and animals all occupying their proper ranks, the fairy beings of folklore appeared to flit through irresponsibly and not have any allotted place, and there was no agreed theory on their origin. In the same way, Bombadil does not fit anywhere into the scheme of the universe set out in the Silmarillion.
Gandalf calls Tom Bombadil the eldest being in existence; this is also evidenced by his Sindarin name Iarwain Ben-adar (Eldest and Fatherless). Dwarves called him Forn (Scandinavian, meaning "Ancient" or "Belonging to the distant past"), Men Orald (compare to German: uralt, very old). All these names apparently mean "Eldest." Inconsistently, however, Treebeard also calls himself the eldest living being of Middle-earth and says that he was there before anyone else. However, Tolkien remarked: "Treebeard is a character in my story, not me; and though he has a great memory and some earthy wisdom, he is not one of the Wise, and there is quite a lot he does not know or understand."
As with Roverandom Tolkien's initial inspiration came from an incident with his children playing with toys. Tolkien invented Tom Bombadil in honour of a Dutch doll who had been flushed down a lavatory. These original poems far predate the writing of The Lord of the Rings into which Tolkien introduced Tom Bombadil from the earliest drafts.
In response to a letter Tolkien received from one of his readers, he described Tom's role in The Lord of the Rings:
"Tom Bombadil is not an important person — to the narrative. I suppose he has some importance as a 'comment.' I mean, I do not really write like that: he is just an invention (who first appeared in The Oxford Magazine about 1933), and he represents something that I feel important, though I would not be prepared to analyse the feeling precisely. I would not, however, have left him in, if he did not have some kind of function."
Tolkien did go on to analyse the character's role further:
"I might put it this way. The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power, and so on; but both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of control. But if you have, as it were, taken 'a vow of poverty', renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the questions of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless...
"It is a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war... the view of Rivendell seems to be that it is an excellent thing to have represented, but that there are in fact things with which it cannot cope; and upon which its existence nonetheless depends. Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left for him in the world of Sauron.
Tolkien even seems to justify Tom Bombadil's presence:
"And even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).
Another clue to Bombadil's origins can be found in the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic containing myths and oral traditions from Karelia. Tolkien stumbled upon the Finnish language and myths while a student at Oxford. He fell in love with the unique tongue and his early attempts at inventing what would eventually become Elvish were heavily influenced by Finnish grammar, vocabulary, and vowel harmony. The tales of the Kalevala also influenced Tolkien, and the story of Túrin Turambar in particular is largely based on the Kullervo legend. Another central character in the Kalevala is Väinämöinen, a bard and shaman who was present at the world's birth. Väinämöinen is often cited as a model for Gandalf, but he shares much in common with Bombadil. Like Tom, Väinämöinen's power is in his voice and his communion with nature, and he uses words and song to master his environment and defeat his enemies. He also pursues a personified nature spirit, a beautiful maiden he wants to marry; although unlike Tom, he loses his love in the end. Tolkien was enamored of the Kalevala myths, and Tom Bombadil--the 'eldest,' the singer, and the 'Master'--owes much to the Finnish bard.
During the Fan Credits' Audio Commentary on the extended edition DVD of The Fellowship of the Ring, Elijah Wood (Frodo) pays a small homage to Tom Bombadil, by giving a "shout out" to him. Wood then also takes note of his absence.
Although Tom Bombadil was not portrayed in Peter Jackson's film trilogy of The Lord of the Rings, The Lord of the Rings Trading Card Game, by Decipher, Inc. (part of the trilogy's merchandise, making full use of Weta Workshop props and costumes), does contain a Tom Bombadil card. The model portraying Bombadil on this card is Harry Wellerchew.
Although the character does not actually appear in the musical adaptation, towards the end of the show Gandalf explains to Frodo that on his journey back to the Shire he will spend some time in Bombadil's company.
Of note, Tom Bombadil makes an appearance in EA Games' The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II as a summonable hero for the forces of light (excepting the dwarves).
Tom is also a usable model in the 'Lord of the Rings' fantasy miniature wargame produced by Games Workshop. In this, he is invincible but can only be played in the Old Forest, as in keeping with his story.