Born Before the World: The Various Births of Tom Bombadil

The eccentricity of JRR Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil has puzzled and entertained millions of readers since the publication of The Lord of the Rings. Responding to inquiries from intrigued readers, Tolkien adopted a mysterious air about the origin of Tom Bombadil, writing in a 1954 letter that “even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas” and “Bombadil is one (intentionally)” (The Letters of JRR Tolkien, #144, April 25, 1954, p. 174).

In Tolkien in Pawneeland (p. 57-64), I argue that Tolkien drew on three Skidi Pawnee fantasy tales to create the incidents that appear in a poem he called “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.” I argue that Tolkien consciously studied these Pawnee traditions and consciously used them to colorize his Bombadil poem. In this essay I further argue that Tolkien returned to the same source-material for help in constructing an incident associated with Tom Bombadil’s initial appearance in The Fellowship of the Ring.

Tolkien’s tales involving Bombadil first arose during the late 1920s in storytelling sessions with his children – the adventures of a Dutch doll the family once owned (The JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader’s Guide, p. 23). The earliest known written text is a short poem that Tolkien transcribed late in life with the note “Date unknown – germ of Tom Bombadil so evidently in mid 1930s” (The Return of the Shadow, p. 115-116).

If this is the oldest incarnation of Tom, the poem must have been written sometime around 1930. We know this because Tolkien followed with “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil,” a version of which appears in a manuscript dated circa 1931 (The JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader’s Guide, p. 23). This second poem was subsequently published in February 1934. To understand the authorship of this poem and the making of Tom Bombadil, it is useful to scroll back to Tolkien’s early writings to the text of a Middle-earth creation story.

In “The Music of the Ainur,” composed in 1919-1920, after the making of Middle-earth, “many of the most beautiful and wisest of the Ainur, craved leave of Ilúvatar to dwell within the world” (The Book of Lost Tales, Part One, p. 57). These “great ones” entered the world and became gods known as the Valar, but they came accompanied by lesser spirits described as “sprites of trees and woods, of dale and forest and mountain-side” (p. 66): “These are the Nermir and the Tavari, Nandini and Orossi, brownies, fays, pixies, leprawns, and what else are they not called, for their number is very great: yet they must not be confused with the Eldar, for they were born before the world and are older than its oldest, and are not of it, but laugh at it much, for had they not somewhat to do with its making, so that it is for the most part a play for them[.]”

Tolkien had these sprites, brownies, fays, pixies, and leprawns entering Middle-earth in company with the gods. Their exact natures were not set forth in the creation story, but they are not gods themselves, nor are they Elves. Tolkien associated these merry creatures with two Valar, Aulë and Palúrien. Deploying so many names for them, he perhaps envisioned some kind of diversity among them and intended to devise more exact classifications and characteristics in later tales. He included the class of “fays” on an early chart of seven categories of creatures (The JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader’s Guide, p. 191).

In writings that soon followed, Tolkien began inserting these creatures into his tales. In “The Chaining of Melko” he introduced Tinfang Warble or Timpinen, noting “this quaint spirit is neither wholly of the Valar nor of the Eldar, but is half a fay of the woods and dells, one of the great companies of the children of Palúrien, and half a Gnome or a Shoreland Piper” (The Book of Lost Tales, Part One, p. 94 – in this passage the terms Eldar, Gnome, and Shoreland Piper all refer to Elves). This character originated in a 1914 poem, where he is described as a “leprawn,” and in an early glossary of terms he is a “fay” (The Book of Lost Tales, Part One, p. 108).

In this same tale appeared a second such creature (p, 106): “…the lonely twilight spirit (Tindriel) Wendelin dancing in a glade of beeches.” This “spirit” is known in The Book of Lost Tales under many names (Wendelin, Gwendelin, Gwendeling, Gwedheling, Gwenethlin, Gwenniel), but Tolkien eventually settled on the name Melian. She was also variously described as “a sprite come long ago from the quiet gardens of Lórien” and also as “the fay Wendelin” (The Book of Lost Tales, Part One, p. 115, 120). In “The Tale of Tinúviel” Queen Wendelin “was a sprite that escaped from Lórien’s gardens” (The Book of Lost Tales, Part Two, p. 8), and later on the same page she is Gwendeling, “for indeed Gwendeling was not elf or woman but of the children of the gods…” And a few pages later (p. 10) she is again “a fay, a daughter of the Gods…”

Tolkien seemed to use these terms interchangeably in The Book of Lost Tales with no clear demarcations of definition, other than to distinguish these creatures as a group apart from the Valar and from the Eldar. They are notable for their ability to exert forms of magic in Middle-earth. Tolkien mentioned “…the magics of Gwendeling the fay, and she wove spells about the paths…” and “that fay Gwedheling the queen [wove] much magic and mystery and such power of spells as can come only from Valinor” (The Book of Lost Tales, Part Two, p. 8, 76).

It is also interesting that in these early writings Tolkien associated the quality of fearlessness with Melian’s two children: “Even at night when the moon shone pale still would they play and dance, and they were not afraid as I should be, for the rule of Tinwelint and of Gwendeling held evil from the woods and Melko troubled them not as yet, and Men were hemmed beyond the hills” (The Book of Lost Tales, Part Two, p. 10).

In summary, Tolkien applied a spectrum of terms to set forth a special class of creatures: spirits, sprites, fays, leprawns, brownies, pixies, and children of the gods. These beings were divinities of some kind, but they were not gods, nor were they Elves. It might also be inferred that these creatures could take on Elvish forms, and they had qualities of playful laughter, fearlessness, and magical abilities. They came to Middle-earth in company with the Valar and were particularly associated with a Vala called Palúrien, also known as Yavanna, and her associate Lórien.

Through the early to mid-1920s Tolkien turned his tales of Middle-earth into long poems, but in 1926 he returned to prose with his “Sketch of the Mythology” (The Shaping of Middle-earth). There he briefly mentions Melian, referring to her as a queen “of divine race” (p. 21) who wields “divine magic” (p. 23). Then in the Quenta, a more comprehensive manuscript written in 1930, Tolkien prepared a compendium based on The Book of Lost Tales. In this text he revisited the special class of divinities he had created in 1919-1920 (The Shaping of Middle-earth, p. 78): “Many spirits [this becomes Many lesser spirits] they brought in their train, both great and small, and some of these Men have confused with the Eldar or Elves: but wrongly, for they were before the world, but Elves and Men awoke first in the world after the coming of the Valar.”

He has here reduced the group from a seeming diversity of spirits to a single group termed “lesser spirits,” though a little later he again referred to Melian as a fay (p. 85). This was echoed in “The Earliest Annals of Valinor,” written circa 1930-1931, where he added this: “With them [the Valar] came many lesser spirits, their children, or beings of their own kind but of less might; these are the Valarindi” (The Shaping of Middle-earth, p. 78).

This is where matters stood in Tolkien’s Middle-earth legendarium when he turned to the invention of Tom Bombadil. Envisioning distinguishable classes of sentient beings for Middle-earth, Tolkien set forth a ranked gradation of creatures, with the Valar, who are gods; followed by divine “spirits,” who go by many names at first; and then the Eldar, and finally humankind.

In the first Bombadil poem we find Tom rowing a boat upon a river with a friend, seeking other friends (The Return of the Shadow, in The History of The Lord of the Rings, Part One, p. 115-116). There are willows and reeds and wind and ripples, and this short poem displayed a cheerful tone, ending with “let laughter run a-ringing!” It is difficult to see this poem as fitting into Middle-earth in any way. It must reflect most strongly the kind of storytelling that Tolkien devised for his sons, referring to a doll rowing upon a river.

One aspect is clear. Tolkien had by this time invented a name for the doll. But where did this name arise? This is a mystery that Tolkien chose not to clarify. In refusing to shed light on the naming of Bombadil, Tolkien was not being coy. As a linguist Tolkien had learned a special pleasure of philology, piecing together vague linguistic puzzles. He surely knew the pleasure of seeing strange little shapes click into meaningful configurations, and for lost scenes to materialize from oblivion. Inventing a persona for the Dutch doll, Tolkien drew from this sensibility to make a name.

Linguist Mark T. Hooker made an interesting discovery one day. He learned that a bell in the Tom Tower of Christ Church at Oxford University is known as the “Great Tom” bell (The Hobbitonian Anthology, p. 64). It had originally featured an odd inscription in Latin: “In Thomae laude resono Bim Bom sine fraude,” meaning “In praise of Thomas I ring out Ding Dong truly.” This dedication to St. Thomas of Canterbury was erased in 1680 when the bell was recast, but record of it endured.

In 1926 Tolkien had taken up a professorship at Oxford University, and Hooker suggests that Tolkien found here the enigmatic inspiration for Tom Bombadil. As fellow “dictionary diver” Jason Fisher remarks, Hooker’s argument has “a genuine ring of truth” (The Hobbitonian Anthology, p. ix). Tolkien surely did not forget this origin. In the early 1960s, rewriting the poem to add mention of the Withywindle, he produced another supporting piece of the puzzle in the geography of both Middle-earth and England.

Studying maps of the English countryside northeast of Oxford, Hooker discovered that west of the River Avon, between Buckland and Bredon Hill (we are invited to read here: “Bree Hill”), is a locale called “The Dingle” (A Tolkienian Mathomium, p. 11-13). In this revision of “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil,” Tolkien situated Tom’s realm “where the Withywindle / ran from a grassy well down into the dingle.” And introducing this poem, Tolkien used “the Dingle” as the name for “the wooded valley of the Withywindle[.]” “Dingle” has a double meaning. It is both a deep shady hollow and the ringing of a bell. It is apparent that Tolkien intended for his invented countryside to echo familiar landscapes – the campus of Oxford University and its bell in Tom Tower.

It is believed that Tolkien wrote the original version of “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil” – his second Bombadil poem – about 1931 (The JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader’s Guide, p. 23). This poem features adventures involving a “River-woman’s daughter” named Goldberry, a “Willow-man,” a “Badger-brock,” and a “Barrow-wight.” None of these characters were drawn from any known earlier text associated with Middle-earth.

In preparing “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil,” Tolkien relied on what he later termed his “Cauldron of Story” – the raw materials that he drew from to write his own stories. One obvious inspiration for Tolkien was Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908), with its river setting, its Wild Wood, its Badger, and the willows in the title. Devising adventures for Tom Bombadil in his storytelling, Tolkien knew his children would be drawn to echoes of The Wind in the Willows.

By 1930 Tolkien’s Cauldron of Story also included a substantial body of his own writings, and these surely played a role of some kind, as they did for The Hobbit. I would suggest that this may be most evident in the character of Goldberry, and that she fits best with Tolkien’s evolving class of “lesser spirits,” who had by then become the Valarindi, with the term “fay” lingering where the other labels had vanished. If Tolkien found himself connecting The Hobbit to Middle-earth, surely it would have been just as easy for him to fall into this same path in creating Goldberry, modeling her on his extant “lesser spirits” and “fays.”

As for Tom himself, it is not clear at this point that Tolkien drew from his “lesser spirits” or from his Valar to invent Tom, and there is no other obvious or arguable association of Bombadil with Middle-earth. Only very minor hints in these early texts suggest that he might be something more than a human, a “merry fellow.” But these hints are so slight that if the two early poems had been his only materialization in Tolkien’s writings, no one would see Tom as anything other than a clever human who had managed to capture the heart of a “fay” wife.

By 1931 Tolkien was well into the writing of The Hobbit. It isn’t clear exactly how far he had progressed in this project when he sat down to write “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.” What is clear, however, is that sometime between 1929 and 1931 Tolkien consulted a book titled Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee and he drew inspiration and details of coloration for The Hobbit (Echo-Hawk, Tolkien in Pawneeland, p. 65-114). Textual comparisons indicate that he drew from several Skidi stories in that collection to help invent the character of Bladorthin / Gandalf and to create the stone-giants of the Misty Mountains. And during the period dating from 1931 to 1932 he also drew inspiration from the Skidi stories to tell the story of Beorn and to finalize the death of Smaug.

We must guess at how Tolkien proceeded in this usage of Pawnee material. But I believe that the extent to which Pawnee details entered The Hobbit tend to support the proposal that Tolkien sat down during this period on at least two different occasions and consulted the Skidi stories in question. He did not necessarily have to study the stories closely, but he did read them, and he did give thought to what he read. And this was not a new procedure for Tolkien. I also argue that he drew from the same volume of Skidi narratives to help write his creation story in 1919, to invent Ungoliont the spider, and to color aspects of his dragon-making – all done in the course of writing The Book of Lost Tales (Echo-Hawk, Tolkien in Pawneeland, p. 15-56).

I argue that Tolkien drew from a 1904 book called Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee to help invent aspects of his poem, “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil” (Tolkien in Pawneeland, p. 57-64). This 1904 book features a collection of what editor George Dorsey terms “Animal Tales.” Most of these tales are more commonly termed “Coyote stories” – a form of Pawnee fantasy storytelling that represents an ancient North American fantasy literary heritage.

The first three Coyote stories in Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee contain incidents that served as the sources of the four adventures that Tom Bombadil experiences in the poem. The first of the tales, “The Story of Coyote” (p. 239-253), accounts for Tom’s encounter with Goldberry, getting dunked in the course of his courtship. The same Skidi tradition inspired the entrapment of Tom in the crack of a tree, Old Willow-man. The second Skidi Coyote story accounts for Tom’s badger adventure. And the third Skidi Coyote story inspired Tom’s adventure with a deadly barrow-wight.

Coyote Bombadil artwork by Roger Echo-Hawk

Coyote Bombadil
artwork by Roger Echo-Hawk

My argument is that in 1930 Tolkien read all three Skidi Coyote stories and extracted elements that he then mixed into his Bombadil poem. The four incidents in the Bombadil poem and the four incidents in the Pawnee stories exist in precise alignment. This indicates that Tolkien studied the stories in sequence and extracted elements of interest and worked them into the Bombadil poem in exact sequence. It is not possible that this process could have been independently enacted by JRR Tolkien with no awareness of the Skidi stories. It is not possible that Tolkien could have accidentally reproduced such faithful corresponding elements on his own with no knowledge of the Skidi stories. My argument is that Tolkien was a mythologist. He had an interest in world mythological traditions, and he was aware of Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee, and he made use of it in authoring his own legendarium.

With the publication in September 1937 of The Hobbit, a new factor suddenly entered Tolkien’s world. His literary aspirations took on a new dimension when his publisher began writing to him with requests that he prepare a sequel to The Hobbit. Tolkien’s initial response was that he felt “a little perturbed” because he couldn’t “think of anything more to say about hobbits” (The Letters of JRR Tolkien, # 17, October 15, 1937, p. 24).

But over the next few months Tolkien gave this matter much thought. His initial idea was to send his Silmarillion mythology to the publisher, but this plan met with rejection. He had to come up with another idea. He wrote a very interesting letter to Stanley Unwin (The Letters of JRR Tolkien, #19, December 16, 1937, p. 25-27): “Do you think Tom Bombadil, the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside, could be made into the hero of a story? Or is he, as I suspect, fully enshrined in the enclosed verses? Still I could enlarge the portrait.”

In this letter Tolkien defined Tom Bombadil as a “spirit.” In so doing, he made use here of terminology drawn from his evolving Silmarillion legends. But rather than place Tom in a Middle-earth context, Tolkien instead situated him in the “Oxford and Berkshire countryside.” Up to this moment Tolkien was still hesitant to waft Bombadil into Middle-earth. But he had tentatively decided that Tom could easily become something more than a man, “a merry fellow.” Perhaps he could be drawn into Goldberry’s world. He could become a “lesser spirit.” A fay.

So Tolkien launched into writing The Lord of the Rings. Tom would soon enough enter Middle-earth as a fay. As mentioned in The Book of Lost Tales, fays “were born before the world and are older than its oldest, and are not of it, but laugh at it much[.]” In Middle-earth Tom Bombadil would become Eldest and he would laugh much. And he would also become fearless in The Lord of the Rings, just as we find the children of the fay Melian: “Even at night when the moon shone pale still would they play and dance, and they were not afraid as I should be” (The Book of Lost Tales, Part Two, p. 10). And Tom would wield magic, just as Melian the fay wielded magic.

Two brief notes written in early 1938 marked the earliest entry of Bombadil into Tolkien’s planning for The Fellowship of the Ring, indicating his decision to put Tom Bombadil into this new story (The Return of the Shadow, p. 42-43). This set of notes referenced the Old Forest, Willowman, Barrow-wights, and “T. Bombadil.” Months passed, and it is not clear that Tolkien yet had any specific notions about what Willowman and Barrow-wights and T. Bombadil would do in his story. But referencing two of the four adventures that are drawn from Pawnee tradition, it would have been logical for Tolkien to think of the role played by Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee in shaping the 1930 poem, “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil,” and The Hobbit.

In late 1938 it is evident that Tolkien once again opened the pages of Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee, and he consulted one of the Skidi Coyote stories. He wrote a letter on August 31, 1938 describing an intense period of writing “in the last two or three days” in the course of an illness which required a “sanctioned neglect of duty” – meaning a pardon from his normal academic responsibilities (The Letters of JRR Tolkien, #33, August 31, 1938, p. 25-27). According to the chronology of Tolkien’s life prepared by Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond (The JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology, p. 220), Tolkien resumed his labors on The Fellowship of the Ring at this point. As Scull and Hammond put it: “new ideas come to Tolkien in the process.”

During this period of intense writing, Tolkien began setting down the material that eventually became “The Old Forest.” After launching into a short beginning, he paused to prepare a set of notes that listed “Willowman,” “Meeting with Tombombadil” and “Barrow-wights” (The Return of the Shadow, p. 111). More detailed notes soon ensued (p. 112). Here Tolkien envisioned two hobbits who “sit down with their backs to a great willow” and “Willowman traps Bingo and Odo.” And “Suddenly a singing is heard in the distance.” This is Tom Bombadil’s premiere as a singer of songs of power – we soon witness the very first mention by Tolkien of Tom’s singing magic.

I believe that by this point Tolkien had consulted Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee. He reviewed in particular one of the Skidi traditions that gave rise to his original Bombadil poem, and this gave rise to some “new ideas.” In “The Story of Coyote” (p. 249-252) there is mention of singing and a mishap involving a tree. Coyote meets a magician who has a Coyote Bundle. This bundle talks about singing and dancing and teaches the song and dance to Coyote. Coyote kills the magician and soon gets into trouble, escaping with the help of two buzzards, but these birds intentionally drop Coyote “so that he fell into a hollow log, and down he went, screaming and yelling.” This tree “was cracked at the base, so Coyote took his knife out and made a hole in it.” To escape, Coyote must trick some women into cutting down the tree.

With the inspiration of this story in hand, in late August 1938 Tolkien wrote the first draft of the material that would eventually become “The Old Forest” and “In the House of Tom Bombadil.” It is important to note that Tolkien did not cut and paste the Pawnee material, dropping it intact into Middle-earth. He drew details and he drew inspiration from the Skidi stories, but he carefully wove these elements into his own magical world. The result is a powerful articulation of tradition and creativity. The landscape feels ancient because it draws from ancient textual source material. And Middle-earth feels enchanted because Tolkien was a wonderfully poetic writer.

But Tolkien never revealed his use of Pawnee material. Situating Bombadil in a little realm in Middle-earth, Tolkien secretly sent Frodo and the Fellowship into Pawneeland. Bombadil arose in part from the adventures of Coyote, but in 1938 he became fully transformed into a Middle-earth fay. In Tolkien’s later retrospective observations of the 1950s, it is not an accident that he declared his intention to keep Bombadil’s origins secret, writing that “in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas” and “Bombadil is one (intentionally)” (The Letters of JRR Tolkien, #144, April 25, 1954, p. 174). This was an authorial strategy that he deployed often to obscure his use of Pawnee source material (Echo-Hawk, Tolkien in Pawneeland, p. 153-157).

Others have set forth the continuing evolution of Tom Bombadil as a character in The Lord of the Rings. Some have found compelling Gene Hargrove’s contention that Tolkien configured Bombadil and Goldberry as incarnations of two Valar (The JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader’s Guide, p. 25; Hargrove, “Tom Bombadil,” in Drout, JRR Tolkien Encyclopedia, p. 670-671). This is an interesting interpretation, but if Bombadil indeed evolved from his roots as a fay to ultimately receive a promotion to Valarship, this would represent a final iteration of Bombadil, not Tolkien’s original vision.

Bombadil did not spring fully formed out of Tolkien’s mind. Instead, Bombadil arose slowly out of a complex Cauldron of Story. When we peer into this cauldron we find many ingredients, and Tolkien used them to fashion his own unique literary creations. In this story, tracing the various origins of Tom Bombadil, we glimpse many strange and fascinating worlds within Middle-earth – we set forth upon a mysterious hidden path that takes us deep into the secret traditions of Pawneeland.

Sources Cited

Humphrey Carpenter, The Letters of JRR Tolkien, with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin, 2000 edition [original publication 1981].

George A. Dorsey [and James R. Murie], Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee, Houghton Mifflin, 1904.

Michael Drout, editor, JRR Tolkien: Scholarship and Critical Assessment, Routledge, 2007.

Roger Echo-Hawk, Tolkien in Pawneeland, CreateSpace, December 2013.

Mark T. Hooker, A Tolkienian Mathomium, Llyfrawr, 2006.

Mark T. Hooker, The Hobbitonian Anthology, Llyfrawr, 2009.

Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond, The JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader’s Guide, Houghton Mifflin, 2006.

JRR Tolkien, The Book of Lost Tales, Part One, in The History of Middle-earth, Volume I, Christopher Tolkien, editor, Houghton Mifflin, 1983.

JRR Tolkien, The Book of Lost Tales, Part Two, in The History of Middle-earth, Volume II, Christopher Tolkien, editor, Houghton Mifflin, 1984.

JRR Tolkien, The Return of the Shadow, in The History of The Lord of the Rings, Part One, Houghton Mifflin, 1988.


3 thoughts on “Born Before the World: The Various Births of Tom Bombadil

  1. James says:

    check out these thoughts on Tom from within the LotR world:

    • James: Thank you for sharing the link to your multi-part essay on Bombadil. I read the entire essay and found it fascinating! I’m sure that visitors to this blog post will appreciate the opportunity to visit your site for more on Bombadil.

  2. […] “Born Before the World: The Various Births of Tom Bombadil” […]

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