"Eldest, that’s what I am. Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn. He made paths before the Big People, and saw the little People arriving. He was here before the Kings and the graves and the Barrow-wights. When the elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent."

There has been a great amount of debate amongst Tolkien fans concerning what kind of being Tom Bombadil is meant to be. The character does not seem to easily fit into the various orders of beings that Tolkien established. Tolkien himself stated "even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one".

However, this has not prevented fans from speculating. Here are some possible explanations:

The Green Man on Dore Abbey
Public DomainThe Green Man on Dore Abbey - Credit: Simon Garbutt/Wikimedia Commons
Tom Bombadil is one of the Valar or Maiar, the spirits who inhabit Varda and watch over Middle-earth. This would explain his powers, and his claims to have existed before the world was created, but not why he refers to himself as ‘Eldest’ or ‘Master.’

Tom Bombadil is Ilúvatar (God). This is reinforced by Goldberry’s statement: ‘He is’, calling to mind the response of God when Moses asked his name: ‘I Am that I Am.’ (Exodus 3:14) However, comments made at the Council of Elrond and elsewhere seem to suggest that Bombadil is not as powerful as Sauron, and Tom himself says that his powers do not stretch east of his land. In his letters, Tolkien wrote that “The One [Ilúvatar] does not physically inhabit any part of Ea [the created universe].”

Tom Bombadil is a nature spirit. This would explain his love for his land, and his matrimony with Goldberry, who appears to be some form of water spirit (see bookmark for page 141). He does not seem to be tied to any particular natural feature, so might be taken as a spirit of the land itself – of Middle-earth, or even Arda. This would fit with the titles ‘Eldest’, ‘Master’ and ‘Last’. The ‘Bombadil as nature spirit’ theory is backed up by Galdor at the Council of Elrond: “Power to defy our Enemy is not in him, unless such power is in the earth itself.”

What is Tom Bombadil? - a discussion of Tom Bombadil, and a persuasive argument for him being a nature spirit of Arda.

Robin Goodfellow/Puck, 1639
Public DomainRobin Goodfellow/Puck, 1639 - Credit: wikimedia commons
If a nature spirit, Tom Bombadil may have been influenced by nature deities, spirits and sprites such as Silvanus the Roman god of woodlands, the rustic Greek god Pan, the Wild Man, Robin Goodfellow/Puck, and the Green Man. Common features of such beings are their love of song, music and dance, a tricky or playful nature, association with trees and the land, powers over nature, and a sense of mystery or enigma surrounding them.

One more hint as to the true nature of Tom Bombadil was revealed in an early letter from Tolkien to his publisher: “Do you think Tom Bombadil, the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside, could be made into the hero of a story?” Tolkien was extremely disturbed by the increasing industrialisation, spreading cities and vanishing countryside of England, a theme that will be picked up later in Lord of the Rings.