The Centrality of the Tom Bombadil Episode in The Fellowship of the Ring: Lessons in Friendship, Community, and Grace
In this presentation I discuss Tolkien’s use of the traditional quest narrative to create an anti-quest bildungsroman in which Frodo gains personal growth through ironic loss. Instead of obtaining power, independence, and prestige, Frodo secures the honor of the hobbits by learning to acknowledge weakness, depend upon others, and embrace humility. This process of spiritual refining requires proper community and friendship, and Tom Bombadil plays a central and necessary role in Frodo’s fellowship of faith.
The quest to destroy the ring teaches Frodo the deeper spiritual significance of communion, faith, hope, and trust. Frodo’s encounter with the enigmatic Tom Bombadil, a figure many readers wrongly dismiss as a superfluous distraction, establishes the spiritual foundation upon which these larger lessons are gradually built. Tolkien felt strongly that Bombadil should be in the story, and as he wrote and revised the text numerous times, he never cut him out, clearly indicating that Bombadil has a crucial function in the text, whether critics and readers understand this function or not. Tolkien noted that as a character, Bombadil is not as important as Gandalf, Frodo, or Aragorn, but Tolkien also stressed that Bombadil is necessary to the novel’s overall spiritual message and intellectual content. Yet in his letters regarding Bombadil, Tolkien remained a bit coy about specifying this message and content.
When we reexamine Bombadil from the perspective that Tolkien meant for him to be in the narrative and that he serves an important thematic function, we can see quite clearly that Bombadil plays a key part in Frodo’s bildung and that he provides both material aid and spiritual strength to the other hobbits. Without their encountering Bombadil, it is quite unlikely that the hobbits would have made it to Bree, nor would they have had the necessary spiritual gifts to engage and complete the varied tasks this quest asks of them. Bombadil also functions as a supernatural savior who providentially appears to save the hobbits from certain doom and whose magical voice can dispel any evil in his realm. Moreover, Bombadil reminds the hobbits of their contingent nature: individually they are inadequate and must rely on the aid, communion, and wisdom of others more powerful and capable than themselves. This lesson in humility prepares them to accept the help, comfort, healing, council, and fellowship they will encounter upon reaching Rivendell.
Indeed, the Tom Bombadil episode is problematic for many readers, and some critics even suggest the quest narrative would flow better if it were cut out. But, as Tolkien tells us quite clearly in his letters, Bombadil and this portion of the tale have significance that is crucial to the larger theme of the novel, and much would be lost if it were deleted. In this seemingly distracting episode, the hobbits realize just how unprepared and inadequate they are for this task. The Bombadil narrative provides a harsh lesson in humility. Yet, the hobbits also learn the power of grace. They realize they have been called to engage a challenging and potentially deadly quest, and they are not totally alone in it. They will find aid in many other people later on, and their meeting with Bombadil has prepared them to embrace this unmerited grace.