The extraordinary Mr Bombadil

The other day in Brighton we had a decadent Sunday, lying in our B&B watching the first part of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings. It seemed the perfect thing to do on a grey and slightly bleary afternoon.

Somewhat wedded to the book (which I read many times as a nerdy teenager) and the BBC Radio 4 version, I was a slow convert to the films. I've grown to like them in a grumbling, curmudgeonly sort of a way, though the preference for VFX over acting (Wormtongue's hold over Theoden, for example), the interminable, manufactured cliff-hangers (literally in the case of Frodo at Mount Doom), and Legolas' skateboard stunt at Helm's Deep were all unforgiveable in my book.

I find books and radio so much more satisfying than film or TV because they leave you free to do the imagining. But while the star-studded Radio version kept the music, poetry and songs that pepper the book and make it so alive, even it ditched poor old Tom Bombadil in the interests of brevity. I'm sure he never stood a chance in Hollywood. Too camp. Too odd. (The following fine picture is by Alessandra Cimatoribus).

Jim Penny recently reminded me of a crucial fact about Tom Bombadil, one that I'd totally forgotten: when Bombadil tries on the ring it has no effect on him at all. In fact, he makes it disappear, just for a moment, using sleight of hand. Nor can Frodo hide - Bombadil easily spots the otherwise invisible hobbit trying to escape.

Here's a thing. The forces of evil have no effect on this ancient, nature-worshipping, queer-punning, rhyming clown. The holy fool stands outside of it all, untouchable. The last laugh is his (and probably the first too).

Isn't this the key scene in the whole epic saga?

Strange that it's always the first to end up on the cutting room floor.


  1. What a clever observation! I had never thought of this. So true.

  2. Absolutely. In the literature, it adds loads to our understanding of the ring to see it tested against an even older power. We're amazed that Bombadil is unaffected by it, and can even play tricks with it. And then we're wistful when we realise what powers we've lost as the world has become modern.

    I like most of what the movies do. I have a high cheese tolerance, and I know by now that Holywood has a pathological aversion to depth and meaning. They can't shift merchandise with philosophy and character development - or so they believe from their risk-averse creative prisons. But, in spite of being largely lobotomised, I think they still pulled off a bit of exposition of Tolkein's ideas. Some of the cliff-hangers *almost* worked, from the perspective of bringing the tensions of the books into a dramatic moment. "Almost" being the operative word there.

    I'd always hoped they'd include Bombadil. I was hoping they'd have got Tom Baker to play the part. Still the movies' failings don't touch the books, which still sparkle with their own life. And Tom Baker can be Tom Bombadil in my head :)

  3. Tom Baker would have been perfect!

  4. There was a petition at the time that the films ( which are otherwise utterly superb - masterpieces of cinema and better storytelling than the books at times) were being made to get Bombadil included - I know because I signed it, along with tens of thousands of others. Sadly, it cut no ice. Really, the Bombadil episode is not necessary to the telling of the tale, but it adds such great "seasoning" to the tale that it's a spur to want to find out more about Middle Earth. I'm now looking forward to seeing Part One of The Hobbit, currently under production for a release at Christmas ... next year.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Great post. For me, the answer to the riddle (of why he never makes the final cut), is, as ever, in the question, and i quote: "The holy fool stands outside of it all, untouchable. The last laugh is his (and probably the first too)."
    Apologies for abandoning you all last evening (to the loft of love was i lured) but all that 'drumming' got the better of me! x

  7. I had a long conversation with someone about the omission of Tom Bombadil, and also the change in Faramir's response to the Ring. My friend opined that the point of the story (or at least, Peter Jackson's interpretation of it) is that the Ring represents absolute power that corrupts absolutely, and Tolkien stresses several times that it cannot be used as a weapon for good, because it is wholly evil. in this interpretation, it makes no sense for it to have no effect on Tom Bombadil, and for Faramir to be able to resist the temptation.

    I don't agree with this view. I think that the situation is more complex, as you have all suggested. Tom Bombadil is a spirit of nature (elsewhere, Tolkien described him as the spirit of the Oxfordshire countryside). Faramir was the character in the book with whom Tolkien most identified. It makes sense that Bombadil could resist the Ring, because he is an older power that pre-exists the polarisation into good and evil (rather like Merlin in CS Lewis' That hideous strength). Faramir, bookish, Nature-loving, and a sort of Robin Hood figure, can also resist the lure of the Ring, perhaps because he is so close to Nature.

    I love the idea of Tom Baker playing Tom Bombadil.

    If Bombadil had been in the films, I would prefer them to have dropped the annoying rhyming couplets that he talks in, though!

    Also, the omission of Bombadil forces the omission of the episode on the Barrow Downs, when Merry finds the short sword of Arnorian make with which he eventually kills the Witch-King of Angmar / lord of the Nazgul. And when he regrets that it has melted away, Gandalf says, "Glad would he be who made that sword to know its end" and I really like the way the connection is made - both back to the events on the Barrow Downs, but also back to the kingdom of Arnor and its long struggle with Angmar.



Featured post

Shroom: ten years on

I find it hard to believe but it's exactly ten years since my book Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom was published. Thou...

Popular Posts

Twitter Updates