In my experience, there are generally two responses to Tom Bombadil. Some people point to his absence in Peter Jackson’s masterpiece adaptation as its greatest and most unforgivable failing, while others do not see the purpose of him in the original stories at all.
If you don’t mind, I’d like to take some time to analyze this latter view, the accusation that he is useless for the plot.
I’ve got two points to make about this idea. First, it is quite untrue that he doesn’t move the plot forward. I can think of five ways that he is involved in plot development.
- He houses and supplies the Hobbits on their way from the Shire to Bree.
- He saves them twice; once from Old Man Willow and once from the Barrow-wights.
- He gifts them their weapons, stolen from the Barrow Downs.
- After the War is won and the King returns to Gondor, the last thing Gandalf does before sailing to the Undying Lands is have a “long talk with Bombadil.” Tom is merriment, and now that Gandalf’s work is completed, he is free to be fully merry. This may not be part of Frodo’s plot, but Frodo’s plot is not the whole of the history.
- Finally, Frodo has a vision while sleeping at Tom’s house of a song that “seemed to come like a pale light behind a grey rain-curtain, and growing stronger to turn the veil all to glass and silver, until at last it was rolled back, and a far green country opened before him under a swift sunrise.” This is fulfilled at the Grey Havens.
Now, of course, if you remove the Barrow Downs, shift some dialogue and gift-giving around, and never mention Gandalf’s merry making or Frodo’s vision, then yes, I admit that he is pointless for the plot. If you remove him from the plot, he does not move forward the plot.
But let’s just say for the sake of argument that he doesn’t move forward the plot. What then? This brings us to the second, and more important point: just because a character does not move forward the plot does not in any way mean that the character is pointless or boring or worthy of being skipped.
Tell me, how many of the tales of Robin Hood move forward the plot? Do all the poems of the Lord of the Rings move forward the plot? How about Shakespeare’s fools? Are they all necessary for the story to unfold?
Tom is merriment and mirth in a raw, unbothered, tremendously spiritual and powerful way. Reading about him and Goldberry is just fun. That is all the reason he needs to exist. He is decidedly not a utilitarian, and neither are the Elves, and neither is Tolkien, and neither should you be. Some things are meant to be enjoyed in and of themselves, without need to extract benefit (or plot movement) from them. Bombadil is certainly one of those things.