I wrote this piece some months ago as an exercise for myself. The real Tom died recently, and I feel compelled to speak to the loss in my own fashion.
Tom Bombadil is dying. His beard thins and his eyes dim. He can barely lift his yellow-booted feet from the floor. His booming singing voice has shrunk to a barely audible whisper. He can’t even be bothered to replace the feather in his wide-brimmed, high-crowned felt hat.
When I first met Tom, outside the coffee shop downtown, I did not know that he was Bombadil. He did not exactly fit Professor Tolkien’s description, having traded his blue coat and yellow boots for a tie-dyed t-shirt and worn pair of Birkenstocks. In place of Goldberry, the river daughter, he kept company with musicians and day laborers and hipster house-painters. In place of the fat ponies, he was surrounded by massive, gentle German shepherds that wandered off-leash but responded quickly to his commands.
My own dog, a shy greyhound, did not appreciate Tom’s loud and energetic greetings. “Hey! Come merry dol! derry dol! My darling! I know I that I should give her space, but I would pet her noggin!” My dog retreated behind my legs – her usual strategy – and I rolled my eyes. “Just let her be,” I said. “If you shake my hand and talk with me for awhile, she’ll warm to you.” “Hi ho derry doll, ring a ding a dillo,” said Tom, planting his large hand onto my dog’s small head as she trembled beneath it.
My dog and I got to know Tom better over the next year. Ours is a U.S. navy town, and Tom bears the marks of his environment. He is a submarine veteran, a machinist, a handyman, an old hippie, a Buddhist, and a practical radical. He does business in cash to avoid supporting the banks: “they get enough from the government already.” He scavenges and repairs old cell phones and laptops to give to the city’s many homeless: “it’s an easy fix and it costs me just a little.” He gardens at home and tends an incredible variety of plants all around the city’s gardens, parks, and businesses.
It was the plants that first clued me in to his true identity. I was at the coffee shop writing my dissertation. Tom walked up and looked over my head at a tall, gnarled, potted plant in the window behind me. “This one’s about ready to drop its seeds,” he said, and he walked off. Seconds later, I heard a *pop* and was showered with seeds and botanical dust. I glanced up at Tom across the room, and I took in his full white beard, red nose, and wide-brimmed, high-crowned felt hat with a jaunty feather sticking out of it. “Tom Bombadil,” I breathed.
Tom tells a story about the time a young tree on his block got out of line and started beating its wife, right in the street, in full view of the whole neighborhood. Tom went and got his shovel, stood behind the tree, told it he would drive the shovel straight into its taproot if it didn’t stop. When the cops arrived and found Tom brandishing his shovel, they took his statement and let him go. They carted the young tree off for processing. In years past, Tom might have sung to the tree and coaxed it gently from violence. Now, in the disenchanted world, he uses tools.
Tom won’t admit that he’s Bombadil. He claims not to know who that is. I ask him, “it’s said that you were ‘eldest,’ but Treebeard makes a similar claim. Are you one of the Ainur, the elder spirits? Or are you an embodiment of Middle-Earth itself, the spirit of Ea? Or might you be a representation of Tolkien, the author himself, strolling through the world he has created?” Tom has no idea what I’m talking about. He is a warrior, not a creator, he tells me. He is currently at war with his cancer (that’s a stereotype I avoid, but Tom has adopted the warrior ethic in every aspect of his life, and did so before the cancer).
Over the last year, since I first met him, Tom’s poetic proclamations have reduced in scope to updates on the course of his treatment. “Hi-ho merry doll, Prednizone’s a doozy. Makes Tom a grumpy man, sends him off his rocker.” When I saw him this week, he could barely manage a poetic cadence. He plopped down next to me at the coffee bar and rasped, “Ding Dong doctor, care to hear about my hemoglobin?” He spoke an octave higher than usual. He laughed high in his chest, and short.
It is clear to me now that of all Middle-Earth’s denizens, Tom Bombadil never took the ship into the West. He stayed here, became a submariner, and made his way through a world of metal and wheels and treasonous, poisonous designs. When Tom dies, the earth’s enclosure – its conversion from flat and boundless to round and self-referential – will come that much closer to completion.