Warning: If you find Tom Bombadil annoying, pointless, or otherwise bizarre, keep reading. Your suspicions will either be further confirmed or washed away completely.
When the Black Riders expansion was announced, I got excited. We were starting our way into the actual adventures as carried out by Frodo and his conspiracy of friends. But the question loomed, as ever: would Tom Bombadil make an appearance? That anomalous or, depending on who you talk to, enigmatic figure has caused, perhaps, the largest stir of controversy amongst fans since the films came out. Him, or Durin’s Bane who does not, in fact, have wings. As we now know, Tom did not make the cut for this saga expansion. Being ultimately tangential to the overall story, despite the later import of the barrow-blades, and having only a limited pool of cards and quests to pack into an expansion that’s meant to cover the first 1/6 of the book, old Tom is left to leap on the hill-tops and walk in the forest on his own. But Tom was first. Not just internally, which is a confusing claim at best, but also externally; for Tolkien told us about Tom’s adventures before The Lord of the Rings, in a poem he wrote for his children:
It has been left, then, to us fans to create our own version of what Tom would be like were he a part of our beloved card game. Beorn, over at his Hall, recently unveiled his custom version of Bombadil and so begins my first article to cover a card outside of “canon”. But who is Tom? Is he Master? The Witch-king? Eru himself? Is he a fancy of an author who just had to throw a private joke into his masterpiece? Or is he just there to annoy us postmodern readers?
EXPLORE THE LEGEND
Tom Bombadil existed long before the first draft of The Lord of the Rings was put to paper and even before The Hobbit was published in the form we know and love. He began his life here in the primary world as a doll belonging to one of the Tolkien children. As an aside, there are many connexions to Tolkien’s work and his children. Like The Hobbit, Tom existed on his own outside of the mythology of Arda and was later added in as part of the legendarium. As you can tell by the poem (which was eventually re-released as part of a book of “hobbit poetry” by the selfsame name), Tom has been an odd duck from the start, getting into mischief with forest creatures and otherwise stepping into Pythonesque levels of silliness.
When we meet him again in the Old Forest, during the events of Fellowship, he is just as absurd and it is this silliness that has made him such a divisive character among fans. He arrives when the hobbits are experiencing their first great peril: Merry and Pippin have been swallowed up by Old Man Willow. Sam and Frodo are trying their best to free them, but the angry old tree is set to squash their dearest friends, and up comes a man “stumping along with great yellow boots on his thick legs, and charging through grass and rushes like a cow doing down to drink”, singing “like a starling“. He seems more concerned for his lilies than for the imperiled hobbits. Even in the midst of great danger, he is ridiculous. He does not stop singing his nonsense songs. But then something happens: this horrible old willow tree, old as old and wrathful, obeys Tom’s voice (after a good whack with a branch). There is power in those silly songs. As our time with Tom goes on we see other wondrous things: Barrow-wights fear and flee him; his wife is as strange and powerful and mystical as he is; he can commune with animals and has a great love and deep understanding for the natural world; and the Ring has no effect on him. Who is this person?
Often, Tom is just dismissed as a fancy of the Professor, something thrown in as a personal sidenote. Other people have delved rather far into study on this very question. But the ultimate authority, if there must be one, is Professor Tolkien himself. Luckily, he was an avid letter writer (to the detriment of his own productivity) and he had this to say in one such letter:
“As a story, I think it is good that there should be a lot of things unexplained (especially if an explanation actually exists); And even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).” – Letter 144
Of course, this simply is not enough of an explanation for most people. A wonderfully thorough essay by Gene Hargove (from which I am regurgitating many ideas) explores what Tolkien meant by his “enigma”, or if he really meant that Tom is an “anomaly”. He does this by analyzing Tolkien’s methodology and by examining the properties Tom displays in the text. One of those is his apparent connexion to nature, specifically the Old Forest. Tolkien had something to say on this score as well, that Tom represents…
“Botany and Zoology (as sciences) and Poetry as opposed to Cattle-breeding and Agriculture and practicality.” – Letter 153
One of the many themes to Rings is that of the abuse of nature and what that means to a Power. Elves have an almost symbiotic relationship with nature, as do Ents (perhaps moreso). Men tend to abuse nature unwittingly, and that goes for hobbits as well; for as much as we place the hobbits within their natural home, the Shire, their work, even the innocent work of farmers, is often to dominate the land. Tom, as Tolkien says, appreciates nature for what it is, wholly as an “Other”, and not as something to be taken advantage of. This point was driven home for me finally in a roundabout way. In fact it was through a reading that wasn’t about Tom at all! In his exquisite book Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’ (which, I must say, is a great introduction to Tolkien studies), Dr. Corey Olsen — better known as the Tolkien Professor — analyzes the song the Elves sing when Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin, & Co. arrive at Rivendell in a chapter entitled, appropriately, “The Ridiculous and the Sublime”:
“The elves digress into a pure and free-floating enjoyment of the world around them. They are delighted by everything…The elves’ continual singing, like their frequent laughter, is an expression of this delight, and it is the lack of restraint in the pleasure that they take in the things around them that makes them seem absurd.”
I see this very thing, this natural delight with the everyday things of the world, in Tom, only amplified. It’s something we’ve mostly lost here in the primary world and it is beautiful to behold and is, I think, why Tom is to be appreciated. With this in mind, many have speculated that Tom must be some kind of nature-spirit. Internally, this means that Tom would have to be one of the Ainur. As Hargrove says,
“Instead, of placing Tom in an anomalous category of one, or associating him with the undead, [the inconsistencies] may simply be a hint that Tom has extraterrestrial status as a Vala or Maia.”
This is my belief as well! If Tom was “here before the river and the trees”, then he must have been there when the music was sung and the Earth was created. It is easy to imagine a rogue Maia spirit breaking away from the pack and entering the mortal world of Arda at the wondrous sight of trees and growing things, there to be delighted in for as long as the world lasts.
It is important to note, however, that none of this is essentially relevant. It is actually okay for Tom to simply be defined as himself. Tolkien actually said, in the same letter as the “botany” quote, that Tom is not improved by any philosophizing. As Goldberry says of him, “He is”. Of course, one of the joys of reading Tolkien is that most of his invented world has some kind of answer and seeking them out is very fun indeed. But, sadly, he is not the Witch-king.
SHOWCASE THE ARTWORK
Here, Beorn chose to go with a Bombadil as portrayed by the Brothers Hildebrandt (specifically Tim). They are interesting pair, about whom I know very little save what I’ve learnt from Wikipedia: they are American twins who produced fantasy and sci-fi art together for many years until the untimely death of Tim back in 2006. They have done a lot of work for Rings as well as The Hobbit, and for many other beloved properties like Magic, Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Sword of Shannara, and stuff for both Marvel and D.C. comics. Their Tolkien calendars from the ’70s remain a cherished bit of Tolkien art and were republished (probably to coincide with the films) starting in 2002. This picture of Tom is from the 1976 calendar.
Their work is unmistakable, as it bears a lot of similarities to other fantasy art of the last 50 years or so, but the realist imagery is given a more ethereal quality with strong lighting and bold color choices. This particular piece shows Tom as we know him, picking up water lilies for Goldberry. This is how he is often depicted, but the internet is full of great images of Tom, in all styles, living his silly life:
DISCUSS THE CARDS
Beorn made some good choices with this card, strategically and thematically. As this is a custom card, and as I stole it as an excuse to write an article about old Tom, I’ll just make a few comments rather than discuss potential deck usages for it, should you decide to put it into your card pool (hint, he would pair nicely with Hobbits and Sneak Attack or Timely Aid).
Tom Bombadil is a 4 cost neutral ally with no willpower, attack, or defense values, and 5 hit points. While he is in play, he spares players from engagement checks and has the added bonus of effectively disarming any optionally engaged enemy by lowering their attack value by 3 until the end of the round. Not unlike Gandalf, Tom flies away at the end of round.
First, this is a spot-on thematic fit. Tom has his own agenda and does not leave his realm, which consists strictly of the Old Forest and the Barrow-downs, and even though he helps Frodo and company at their need, it’s hard to imagine him really contributing to any kind of quest set upon by the heroes of Middle-earth. This is discussed in the “Council of Elrond” chapter, that Tom just doesn’t understand mortal concerns. So, his 0 willpower value is correct.
Tom also has no need for combat; the only damage he does is by his songs and that is not “battle” as we like to think of it. Five hit points means he can take one on the chin from archery or a shadow effect and not die (that would be awkward). We have to imagine that if the barrow-wights flee at the presence of Tom, then any old orc or troll would be positively stunned in the gleaming presence of Tom and would, unless it were very strong, be unable to mount any kind of attack against his friends. Finally, I really love the fact that his ability goes in tandem with the hobbits’ bonus against enemies with a higher engagement cost than the player’s threat. And like that, Tom is gone.
Now what’s to be done about Goldberry?