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Stan Lee as Tom Bombadil in Lord of the Rings Image: Matt Patches/Polygon | Source images: Warner Bros. Pictures, Marvel Studios

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Tom Bombadil is the Stan Lee of Lord of the Rings

The much-debated character is not that mysterious if you know Tolkien

There are two kinds of Lord of the Rings book fans. The ones who despise Tom Bombadil, hands down the weirdest character in The Lord of the Rings, and the ones who have memorized every word of his silly rhyming songs.

2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies' 20th anniversary, and we couldn't imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we'll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon's Year of the Ring.

Then there are Lord of the Rings movie fans, who may know nothing of the character, as Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Fran Walsh couldn’t find room for him in their three-picture adaptation — even in the Extended Editions. Anyone who hasn’t read the books has likely encountered Bombadil Discourse, but may never fully understand how one character can inspire such strong emotions.

I have an answer for movie fans. An answer that might even turn some Bombadil skeptics into Bombadil boosters.

Tom Bombadil is the Stan Lee Cameo of The Lord of the Rings.

Who is Tom Bombadil, really

Multimedia LOTR buffs know Tom Bombadil as one of the most famous omissions that the movie trilogy makes from J.R.R. Tolkien’s books. He’s also a particular favorite of famous Tolkien nerd Stephen Colbert.

But to elaborate for the viewer’s sake, Tom Bombadil marks a strange three-chapter digression early in the pages of The Fellowship of the Ring. Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin take a shortcut through the Old Forest on the border of the Shire, only to be mesmerized and nearly drowned by an intelligent and malicious tree known as Old Man Willow. They are rescued by a cheerful, bearded man “too large and heavy for a hobbit, if not quite tall enough for one of the Big People,” wearing a blue coat, yellow boots, and a hat with a feather in it. He constantly spouts almost nonsensical rhyming couplets.

There was a sudden deep silence, in which Frodo could hear his heart beating. After a long slow moment he heard plain, but far away, as if it was coming down through the ground or through thick walls, an answering voice singing:

Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow,
Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow,
None has ever caught him yet, for Tom, he is the master:
His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster.

This is Tom Bombadil, “Tom Bom, jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo!,” who whisks them off to his wholesome home to meet his beautiful wife, Goldberry, the “River-woman’s daughter.” And in addition to not being a Man or a hobbit or a dwarf or a wizard, Tom has weird powers. A chapter later, he rescues the hobbits from a terrifying undead creature, the Barrow-wight, simply by commanding it. He can speak to plants and animals (his pony’s name is Fatty Lumpkin). Weirdest of all, he can put on the Ring of Power without turning invisible or being tempted by it.

Readers have attempted for decades to puzzle out a place for Tom Bombadil in the larger Middle-earth myth, suggesting that he is secretly one of Middle-earth’s gods, or demigods. One (humorous) essay theorizes that he is the Witch-King of Angmar on vacation. Even readers who like Tom Bombadil must admit that the he raises the question: Where the hell did this guy come from?

Here’s where Tom Bombadil came from

For most of his life, Tolkien picked away at what he saw as his ultimate creative work, The Silmarillion. When finished, he wanted the book to be an intricate collection of serious heroic myth intended to evoke wonder and emotion in adults. But in the meantime, he was in the habit of making up stories for his children, the most famous of which became The Hobbit itself.

Tom Bombadil sits by a river on the cover of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. Image: HarperCollins Publishers

But there were more than just The Hobbit. Around 1925, Tolkien wrote a full length story, Roverandom, to console one of his sons who had lost his toy dog on a family vacation. Tom Bombadil began life as another story inspired by a household toy. After one of his sons’ dolls — kitted out with a feathered hat — was rescued from a severe toilet dunking at the hands of its owner’s brother, Tolkien wrote a poem “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil” that laid out in detail how Tom met Goldberry, daughter of the river, escaped Old Man Willow, and encountered a Barrow-wight.

After the success of The Hobbit, Tolkien’s publisher was very interested in another book about Hobbits for children, and the author mused on this for about a week before he wrote his first attempt at the first chapter of the sequel, about Bilbo Baggins having a big birthday party just before leaving on a new adventure.

The Hobbit is a very episodic tale, likely due to its origins as a bedtime story conceived by a hard working father. Bilbo encounters trolls, goblins, wargs, elf kings, and even Beorn the skin-changer and passes them by within a chapter or two. There’s no real attempt to weave them into detailed system of world building. And you can see the remnants of Tolkien trying to replicate that format in the opening chapters of The Lord of the Rings, as he peppers the story with strange and relatively unconnected adventures.

A Black Rider appeared to menace Bilbo’s nephew, Bingo Baggins — who Tolkien had quickly decided would be the new hero of the story — and his cousins Odo and Frodo, but they were rescued by a friendly farmer. Then they met some elves, and it was only at this point that Tolkien seized on the idea that the ring had been made by the “Necromancer,” a villain vaguely alluded to in the pages of The Hobbit but who never actually became involved in the plot. The Black Riders were looking for the ring, and Bingo’s job was to take it to Mordor and destroy it.

Frodo’s name was still Bingo when Tolkien inserted Old Man Willow, Tom Bombadil, and the Barrow-wight into the narrative. He had not yet even conceived of characters like Aragorn and Faramir, or even why the Necromancer wanted the ring so badly. It was only as he got Bingo and his cousins to Rivendell that Tolkien came up with the origins of the Ring Quest, upgraded the Necromancer to Sauron, and realized this book was a vehicle for his dreams of writing a grand and heroic romantic epic. The Hobbit, the popular children’s story he’d penned, could be set after the principle events of The Silmarillion.

To understand Tom Bombadil is to understand that Tolkien wrote the first seven or eight chapters of what would become The Fellowship of the Ring as if it were The Hobbit 2, a cheerful, simple sequel of adventure, suspense, and gentle asides to its intended audience: children.

Which brings me to Stan Lee

stan lee and the watchers at the end of Guardians 2 Image: Marvel Studios

Stan Lee is a real comics creator and fictional character who has appeared in nearly two dozen Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. In the films, he appears seemingly without any regard for the continuity of time, space, or the average human lifetime. In playful attempts to make his appearances fit with the rest of Marvel mythology, fans have suggested that he is an immortal, has supernatural powers, or might even be one of the fabled Watchers.

The biggest complaint that Bombadil Detractors have about him is that he does not feel coherent with the rest of Tolkien’s mythology. Tolkien connects almost all of the elements of the early Fellowship chapters to his larger mythology with later additions — the Barrow-wight encounter is even instrumental to Eowyn’s slaying of the Witch-King.

But there is nothing else in the Lord of the Rings like Tom Bombadil. He has weird powers without explanation, and he is completely, as he and Gandalf both aver, unconcerned and unconnected with the fate of the Ring. But that all makes sense if you think of Tom Bombadil as a cameo.

The modern audience understands that Stan Lee is a real person whose accomplishments make him worthy of inclusion in every movie or TV show based on a Marvel property (and some that are not). He is a reference that everyone is familiar with. And to Tolkien’s children, the intended audience for The Hobbit, Tom Bombadil is a reference that everyone is familiar with.

In another way, Tom Bombadil actually makes The Lord of the Rings more like a real world mythological system than not. Our understanding of ancient mythology is replete with strange additions, like Athena springing fully formed from the head of Zeus, that many academics believe is due to those stories being adopted from other mythologies — a deific cameo. Tolkien’s favorite mythological system of all, Norse sagas, are also full of references that we may never know the origins of, due to the incomplete and in some cases biased textual record of living oral traditions.

And this is why it’s entirely reasonable that Boyens, Jackson, and Walsh declined to include Tom Bombadil in their movies. The cameo didn’t make sense anymore because the reference had become the kind of thing you have to read a whole biography of J.R.R. Tolkien to tease out.

So who is right? The Bombadil haters or the Bombadil lovers? It all might come down to how you feel about Stan Lee cameos.