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Bombadil's songs sound whimsical and goofy on the surface but obviously carry great power and authority. His song saves the Hobbits from being killed by a mean old Willow tree and forces some nasty Barrow-wights to let them go. His song even banishes those Wights, removes their evil from the barrows and heals the Hobbits. If he can do this with just a quick little ditty that he throws together, how powerful is his song?

To further develop this question I will add the following:

Eru is the supreme being and transcendent, and completely outside of and beyond the world, though he has openly intervened from time to time. He first created a group of angelic beings, called the Ainur, and these holy spirits were co-actors in the creation of the universe through a holy music and chanting called the "Music of the Ainur".

Their 'song' had power because Eru made it manifest. Tom also has 'a song'. Is it powerful because he personally is powerful, or does it shape and command because he 'has Eru's ear'?

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How powerful Tom's songs are depends very much on who and what Tom is.

We don't have a definitive answer on what Tom Bombadil is. We know that he is not Eru himself. There is very powerful textual evidence that he is neither a Valar nor a Maiar. We also know that he is not an Ent, dwarf, elf, man, hobbit, orc, dragon, or any other creature we know of. So we can only resort to conjecture on just how powerful Tom's songs are.

Let us start off by assuming that Tom is indeed none of these things. Where did he come from, then?

By Tom's own words, he was in Middle-Earth "before the river and the trees." He "remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn." He "knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless - before the Dark Lord came from the Outside." (In The House of Tom Bombadil) So here have have evidence that Tom was in Middle Earth before the Ainur ever entered the world to shape it, especially since by some accounts Melkor was the first of the Ainur to enter the world.

There is one interesting point in the Silmarillion. Eru uses the Flame Imperishable to create independent life. Melkor is unable to get his hands on the Flame because ultimately "Iluvatar gave to their vision Being, and set it amid the Void, and the Secret Fire was sent to burn at the heart of the World; and it was called Ea." So before the Ainur entered the world, Eru set this life-giving fire at the heart of the world.

There is some discussion of Tom at the Council of Elrond. We learn that Tom has not always kept to the Old Frest; Gandalf says "now he is withdrawn to a little land, within the bounds that he has set, though none can see them, waiting perhaps for a change of days, and he will not step beyond them." So here, whatever Tom is and whatever his power is, he is not bound to the Old Forest, but we might assume he chose it for a reason. (Most likely to some degree because of Goldberry, we learn in poems.)

More interesting is what Glorfindel (who has special dispensation from the Valar to be there) says of what would happen if they gave Tom the Ring: "Could [Sauron's] power be defied by Bombadil alone? I think not. I think that in the end, if all else is conquered, Bombadil will fall, Last as he was First; and then Night will come." Galdor adds to that and says "such power is not in him, unless such power is in the earth itself. And yet we see that Sauron can torture and destroy the very hills."

So let's take a step back. Whatever Bombadil is, even people "in the know" seem to agree he was First. They also credit enormous power to Tom: he will not fall until all is conquered - he will be the Last, as he was the First, and after his fall, Night will come. The power to resist Sauron is not in him unless it is in the earth itself, but Sauron can torture the hills themselves.

One reasonable interpretation many people have taken is that Tom is an incarnation of the World itself, given life by the Imperishable Flame when Eru placed it in the World. This seems to be supported by the comments at the Council of Elrond. This explanation also has the benefit of possibly explaining the existence of other characters: Goldberry, for example, may very well be literally the daughter of the river, which might explain why Tom must gather lillies apparently to sustain her. We also know that Tolkien had in mind the spirit of the English countryside when he wrote Bombadil.

Well, then. We come to the question of what exactly such a spirit might be able to accomplish. Unfortunately, we don't really know. Tom's power seems absolute. Goldberry says of Tom that the land does not belong to him; everything belongs to itself, but "Tom is the Master of wood, water, and hill [...] nobody has ever caught old Tom [...] He has no fear. Tom Bombadil is master." An enterprising reader might notice that, though he is master of wood, water, and hill, he still exhibits power of things he is not explicitly master of: the Hobbits, the Wight, etc.

Here's what we've seen him do, from the text of the Lord of the Rings and the poems about Bombadil:

  1. He can command various creatures, including trees, as when he puts the Old Man Willow to sleep.
  2. He can travel supernaturally fast when he wishes (even he if was nearby when Frodo called, he arrived extremely quickly.)
  3. He knows when you sing his song. A normal person couldn't possibly have heard him.
  4. The Ring has no power over him - but neither has he power of the Ring's effect on others.
  5. He can clearly see people in the spirit world, as when Frodo put on the Ring.
  6. He can expel undead spirits (probably of men, but perhaps elves) to the Void. ("Lost and forgotten be, darker than the darkness, where gates stand for ever shut, till the world is mended.")

The real limitations of Tom's songs are left to our imagination - I don't think he could be said to have "power" anymore than nature itself has "power." More importantly, though, is what Tom wouldn't do - and that's most anything. :)

  • Now that was an excellent answer and the best synopsis of Tom Bombadil I have ever seen. – Morgan Apr 22 '14 at 17:26
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It's not Tom's songs, it's Tom himself. In his own country Tom is the Master; as Goldberry says:

Frodo looked at her questioningly. 'He is, as you have seen him,' she said in answer to his look. 'He is the Master of wood, water, and hill.'

This says that Tom has authority within the bounds that have been set for him (or that he has set for himself) and effectively is a supreme power there. He's the Master.

Outside of his country however he has no power, and even inside his country he has certain limits:

Tom is not master of Riders from the Black Land far beyond his country.

...and...

Tom's country ends here: he will not pass the borders.
Tom has his house to mind, and Goldberry is waiting!

The concept of authority, delegated authority, and bounds to that, is a very common one in Tolkien. We see it with the Valar and with the Istari, for example. Tom is just another example: he has authority over his own little patch of the world, but beyond that he has none, and his power doesn't come from songs; they're just a manifestation of that authority.

  • The Council of Elrond suggested that Tom Bombadil was restricted to the Old Forest by choice, and that he had once roamed much farther. Tom's power over the wight was also substantial: he appears to have actually booted it out into the Void (but he was not the wight's master). If Tom is indeed something akin to the spirit of Middle Earth, I am not sure the concept of authority applies. – Shamshiel Apr 17 '14 at 1:45
  • The wight was still in "Tom's country" - the "Tom's country end's here" verse was after that incident and nearer to Bree. – user8719 Apr 17 '14 at 12:54
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    This, to me, is further evidence of the minimal interference directive that the ultra-powerful good guys adhere to. Gandalf is another example of this. He is far more powerful than he lets on but he either masks it or refuses to use it. The world is being turned over to 'men' and 'men' are being groomed to handle it. Only the most minimalist aid is being offered. The superpowers are leaving Middle Earth so it's up to men to run things. They are being coached and helped, but it's up to them. That's the song. – Morgan Apr 17 '14 at 16:20
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    @Morgan - exactly. Unfortunately further elaboration of this amounts to "read the Silmarillion", but that is a major theme (perhaps the major theme). – user8719 Apr 17 '14 at 17:17
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    @JimmyShelter: Yes, but it was part of the Old Forest. The Void is certainly not part of "Tom's country", though, and the Council suggests that Tom's "country" has nothing to do with where he could go and act if he wanted to...only recently did he confine himself to his "little lands" that he now won't step beyond. – Shamshiel Apr 19 '14 at 16:33
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I think the assumption is that Tom's songs are an expression of something more complicated than power.

Tolkien has this to say on Tom in letter 144:

Tom Bombadil is not an important person – to the narrative. I suppose he has some importance as a ‘comment’. I mean, I do not really write like that: he is just an invention, and he represents something that I feel important, though I would not be prepared to analyze the feeling precisely. I would not, however, have left him in, if he did not have some kind of function. I might put it this way. The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power, and so on; but both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of control. But if you have, as it were taken ‘a vow of poverty’, renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless. It is a natural pacifist view, which arises in the mind when there is a war.

As an embodiment of a pacifist position, he can't be said to have "power" at all, and neither can his songs.

Political power, martial power, magical power, the power of the rings, are all inherently "corrupt" in that their aim is to alter the tide of affairs, to change the world as Eru made it, in order to serve the aims of those who wield power (even if they intend to do something good with it). The ring, as the physical manifestation of the will to power, represents this inherent corruption.

Tom's songs, like those of Eru, are linked to the creation of the world, to the perfect condition of things before they are corrupted by greed, or pride, or the other failings of beings. Tom's "power" if he has it, is to be of a world untouched by these failings and not to want to exercise power at all, but rather to be imbued with what remains of a world untouched by it. Tom is so untouched by power, so immune to its influence, that even the ring has no effect on him. His essential essence is effective in Middle Earth (against corrupt wights and tree spirits, etc.) because it is part of the perfect state of the world close to its creation, something that is, in itself, effective. This state is something shared by his land, and his songs are essentially conservative - they reassert the original condition of the world by repeating the process by which Eru created it.

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