In one of his interviews George R.R. Martin admitted that when he’s been reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time, ‘the part with Tom Bombadil almost put him off the series for good’. One could think that for this reason there won’t be any references to a character George disliked so much in A Song of Ice and Fire. But what if I told you that such reference does indeed exist, in the person of the mysterious ranger clad in the black of the Night’s Watch, the one whom Samwell Tarly names Coldhands?
I imagine that some of you are wondering: ‘And who the heck is this Tom-Whatever?’ Who he is – well, that’s a good question, one probably no one can answer. Tom Bombadil is introduced to the reader in The Fellowship of the Ring, commonly known as ‘the first book in the LOTR trilogy’ (Tolkien considered LOTR to be one book, but the publisher recommended splitting it into three volumes). Tom was cut from the (it seems) more popular movie adaptation by Peter Jackson, and for this reason I’ll summarise the chapters in which Bombadil appears. I really encourage those who have the time and the books to re-read them, or at least browse.
Chapter VI, The Old Forest.
Frodo, Sam, Pippin and Merry leave Crickhollow. (The hobbits’ plan is to leave The Shire in secret and travel to Bree, according to the ‘official’ version Frodo has sold Bag End and moved to Crickhollow, far away from Hobbiton). They decide to walk through the Old Forest, instead of following the road. ‘The Fellowship’ bids Fatty Bolger farewell – he’s supposed to stay in Frodo’s newly-bought house and pretend that Baggins still lives there.
After riding for about an hour, slowly and without talking, they saw the Hedge looming suddenly ahead. It was tall and netted over with silver cobwebs.
The Hedge (The High Hay) was planted by the Hobbits of Buckland, who live close to the Old Forest, to protect their settlements from the trees from the wood, which (all tales agree) ale very vicious and don’t like strangers.
In fact long ago they attacked the Hedge: they came and planted themselves right by it, and leaned over it. But the hobbits came and cut down hundreds of trees, and made a great bonfire in the Forest, and burned all the ground in a long strip east of the Hedge. After that the trees gave up the attack, but they became very unfriendly. There is still a wide bare space not far inside where the bonfire was made.
Hobbits wander in the wood for some time, and it gets more thick with every moment – and soon they get lost. After deciding to rest, Frodo and Sam lay down on the grass, while Merry and Pippin fall asleep against old willow. When Frodo wakes in the evening, it turns out that two hobbits were trapped inside the tree. Sam lights a fire, intending to set the willow-trunk on fire, but ‘Old Man Willow’ threatens to crush Merry. They begin to lose hope, but suddenly, a voice can be heard in the distance:
He turned round and listened, and soon there could be no doubt: someone was singing a song; a deep glad voice was singing carelessly and happily, but it was singing nonsense:
Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo!
Ring a dong! hop along! fal lal the willow!
Tom Bom, jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo!
A stranger emerges from the deep wood:
Frodo and Sam stood as if enchanted. The wind puffed out. The leaves hung silently again on stiff branches. There was another burst of song, and then suddenly, hopping and dancing along the path, there appeared above the reeds an old battered hat with a tall crown and a long blue feather stuck in the band. With another hop and a bound there came into view a man, or so it seemed. At any rate he was too large and heavy for a hobbit, if not quite tall enough for one of the Big People, though he made noise enough for one, slumping along with great yellow boots on his thick legs, and charging through grass and rushes like a cow going down to drink. He had a blue coat and a long brown beard; his eyes were blue and bright, and his face was red as a ripe apple, but creased into a hundred wrinkles of laughter. In his hands he carried on a large leaf as on a tray a small pile of white water-lilies.
Frodo explains what happened to this friends, and Tom begins his rescue operation – still laughing and singing.
‘Old Man Willow? Naught worse than that, eh? That can soon be mended. I know the tune for him. Old grey Willow-man! I’ll freeze his marrow cold, if he don’t behave himself. I’ll sing his roots off. I’ll sing a wind up and blow leaf and branch away. Old Man Willow!’ Setting down his lilies carefully on the grass, he ran to the tree. There he saw Merry’s feet still sticking out – the rest had already been drawn further inside. Tom put his mouth to the crack and began singing into it in a low voice. They could not catch the words, but evidently Merry was aroused. His legs began to kick. Tom sprang away, and breaking off a hanging branch smote the side of the willow with it. ‘You let them out again, Old Man Willow!’ he said. ‘What be you a-thinking of? You should not be waking. Eat earth! Dig deep! Drink water! Go to sleep! Bombadil is talking!’ He then seized Merry’s feet and drew him out of the suddenly widening crack.
As you can see, the tree listens to Tom’s commands (it seems that his songs have a great power over the nature, at least inside his woods). The hobbits are freed, and Tom invites them to his house.
Chapter VII, In the House of Tom Bombadil.
… in which hobbits are intruduced to Tom’s wife, Goldberry, who calls herself ‘The River’s Daughter’.
In a chair, at the far side of the room facing the outer door, sat a woman. Her long yellow hair rippled down her shoulders; her gown was green, green as young reeds, shot with silver like beads of dew; and her belt was of gold, shaped like a chain of flag-lilies set with the pale-blue eyes of forget-me-nots. About her feel in wide vessels of green and brown earthenware, white water-lilies were floating, so that she seemed to be enthroned in the midst of a pool.
‘Enter, good guests!’ she said, and as she spoke they knew that it was her clear voice they had heard singing.
O slender as a willow-wand! O clearer than clear water!
O reed by the living pool! Fair River-daughter!
O spring-time and summer-time, and spring again after!
O wind on the waterfall, and the leaves’ laughter!’
Note that in Tom’s realm there’s no place for spring or winter.
That night Frodo is troubled by nightmares about The Black Riders. The next day it’s raining, so hobbits pass time listening to their host’s tales. From them it can be deduced that Tom remembers very ancient times, when the entire Middle-Earth was one great wood, and the first Elves woke on the shores of Lake Cuiviénen. Frodo realises that Tom isn’t just some old crazy weirdo living in the wild – and asks: ‘Who are you, Master?’.
Eh, what?’ said Tom sitting up, and his eyes glinting in the gloom. ‘Don’t you know my name yet? That’s the only answer. Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless? But you are young and I am old. 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. He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless – before the Dark Lord came from Outside.’
It seems that by ‘The Dark Lord’ Tom means Morgoth, not Sauron, as all events he describes took place when Sauron was merely a lieutenant of Morgoth, the First Dark Lord.
Later, Frodo tells Bombadil about The Black Riders. Suddenly, Tom asks: ‘Show me the precious Ring!’. Frodo immediately takes The Ring out his pocket and gives to Tom… Bombadil starts to laugh, toys with it, puts it on… and doesn’t vanish. Now hobbit is quite sure that his host is someone extraordinary.
‘The Fellowship’ prepares to set off, and travel through the Barrow-downs. Tom teaches them a song with which they may summon him, should they fall in some trouble.
Ho! Tom Bombadil, Tom Bombadillo!
By water, wood and hill, by the reed and willow,
By fire, sun and moon, harken now and hear us!
Come, Tom Bombadil, for our need is near us!
Chapter VIII, Fog on the Barrow-downs.
* On the Barrow-downs many cairns, mounds and megaliths were built, by the forefathers of the Dunedain, in the First Age. When surviving Numenoreans returned to Middle-Earth, they revered this ancient necropolis, and began to bury their own dead in this very place. After Kingdom of Angmar was fragmented, The Barrow-downs became the capital of Cardolan. After this realm has fallen, the barrows were profaned by The Witch-King of Angmar, Lord of the Nazgûl (Ringwraiths). A curse he laid upon the downs, and with dark sorcery, sent the Barrow-wights to haunt them.
It seems that when creating the Barrow-wights, Tolken used draugr, the undead from Scandnavian culture, as source of inspiration.
The Barrowlands from ASOIAF might be a reference to this place.
Hobbits get lost on the Barrow-downs and Barrow-wight captures them. It appears that wights wants to sacrifice them in some dark rite: Merry, Pippin and Sam are clad in white, and ornamented with gold and jewels, swords and shields are given to them as well. Across their necks lay one naked longsword.
A chant ends the silence of this dark crypt:
Cold be hand and heart and bone,
and cold be sleep under stone:
never more to wake on stony bed,
never, till the Sun fails and the Moon is dead.
In the black wind the stars shall die,
and still on gold here let them lie,
till the dark lord lifts his hand
over dead sea and withered land.
Note that the first verse begins withy ‘Cold [be] hand’… the origins of Coldhands’ name?
Frodo remembers the rhyme which Tom shared with him, and begins to sing… and a rumble can be heard, sunrays flare up in the tomb, and Bombadil comes inside. After yet another song, the Barrow-wight is chased away, and another rhyme wakes up the sleeping hobbits. Tom accompanies them to the end of Barrow-downs, close to the gates of Bree. But when they ask him to join them at the inn, Bombadil refuses:
Tom’s country ends here: he will not pass the borders.
Tom has his house to mind, and Goldberry is waiting!
Iarwain Ben-adar, Orald, Forn
The issue of Tom’s identity complicates further at The Counil of Elrond. Elrond, the Lore-master, Half-Elf who remembers the events which took place millenia ago, remembers Bombadil – and says that even back then he was considered to be older than all living beings. ‘Tom’ is but one of his many names – The Elves called him Iarwain Ben-adar, The Oldest and Fatherless. Among the Dwarves, he was known as Forn, The One Belonging to the Elder Days, and The Northmen as Orald, ‘Very Ancient’…
Elrond begins to wonder if they should invite Tom to the council, but Gandalf says that he won’t some anyway. One of the Elves insists, because someone who possesses pover over The Ring would be very helpful. But The Wizard responds that saying ‘The Ring has no power ober Tom’ would be more accurate. When someone proposes to send The Ring to Tom for safekeeping, Gandalf explains that Tom’d probably simply loose it, or throw away, as he confined himself to his little realm, the borders of which he created, and doesn’t care anything outside of his wood.
Who is Tom?
No one can say for sure – Tolkien wanted to leave him a mystery.
Of course, this didn’t stop fans from creating numerous theories. I see no point in presenting them heree, but I’ll quickly mention one I consider to be quite likely: Tom is a spirit, a protector of nature, one of The Ainur (angels) created by Eru Ilúvatar (The God), before the world was made. Ainur beyond count remain in the Timeless Halls, Beyond the Universe, but many loved Arda, and came down upon it – some too visible shapes, in the likeness of bodies, but others are without such ‘veils’. The most powerful of those Ainur are called The Valar, The Powers of the World. Humans often called them ‘gods’. The mightiest of them was Melkor, but he has fallen and became The Dark Lord, Morgoth. His brother is Manwë, the husband of Varda, and Eru’s Regent. The Maiar, lesser Ainur, help The Valar – among them are: Melian, Olorin (Gandalf), Aiwendil (Radagast), Mairon (who became Sauron), Curumo (Saruman) and many others. Mayhaps ‘Tom’ is one of them – but as I said, nothing is certain.
In the Letter 144 Tolkien wrote:
And even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).
Therefore, we are unable to determine who is Tom Bombadil, within the Secondary World… but we can speculate from which literary and mythological traditions Tolkien drew his inspiration for the elements of Tom’s look and character.
In the Letter 19, Tom is called:
…spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside…
Therefore, Tom is rooted in the ancient tradition of spirits and gods who protect the nature, such as Bacchus, Dionysus, Adonis, Baldur, Herne the Hunter, The Green Man and many others…
George R.R. Martin’s response
As I’ve mentioned, I believe that in some way, Coldhands is GRRM’s response to the character of Tom Bombadil… of course, appropriately martin-esque… while Tom is merry and jovial, Coldhand is grim, in place of laughter, only rattle comes from his mouth, and his throat is covered by a scarf (was he sacrificed?), he wears no bright colours, but black… and the similarities don’t end here.
I say ‘similarities’, but I guess that ‘opposites’ and ‘inversions’ would be more accurate. What do I mean? For example, while Tom is a spirit protecting nature, connected with spring, summer and autumn (the seasons when the woods are ‘alive’ and green), Coldhands guards the forozen Haunted Forest, Beyond the Wall. As LML has shown, many aspects of Coldhands are based on Herne the Hunter, a ghost from the Windsor folklore.
(According to the legend, Herne was the King’s Huntsman. After his death – during the hunt for a stag – a sorcerer brought him back to life, by attaching antlers to Herne’s head. Herne went mad and hung himself on an oak-tree. In some folktales, Herne haunts his woods eternally, still wearing antlers, galloping on horse, his chains chimming. He appears close to the midnight, in winter, especially close to The Midwinter. Sometimes, Herne is described as a member of the Wild Hunt. According to some scholars, Herne’s origins lay in the Celtic Mythology (Cerrunos), or Greek (Pan). Other theories claim that Herne comes from a deity of woods and hunt from the religion of proto-European peoples).
- Both play the role of the guardian of the woods, the difference is that Coldhands in winter.
- Both saved a person named Sam from wights (Samwise Gamgee, Samwell Tarly).
- Both know chants/rhymes in ancient tongue, unknown to their companions.
- Both are very ancient (Leaf, one of the Children of the Forest, mentions that Coldhands was killed ‘long ago’).
- Both don’t want to or can’t leave their realms – Tom is unwilling to leave the Old Forest, Coldhands can’t pass to the other side of The Wall.
- Both live ‘Beyond the Wall’ – Tom ‘beyond The Hedge’ (Green Wall) and Coldhands Beyond the Wall.
- Both are a mystery.
It’s worth to mention that Tom is quite similar to Patchface as well – both sing rhymes which seem to be nonsense, but might hold a deeper meaning.
To conclude, I believe that Coldhands is George R.R. Martin’s response to Tom Bombadil, a character he disliked as a reader. In Westeros, there is no place for merry, jovial and funny Tom – but creepy and equally mysterious Coldhands exists. While the first one protects the green forest full of life, the second is patroling the dead, frozen woods. Will Codlhands remain forever a mystery, just like Tom? Maybe before he his death and resurrection, Coldhands was like Tom? A Green Man?
* Maybe, Tom Bombadil is like the Ghost of Christmas Present, from Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, a ‘jolly giant’, wearing green robes, holding a cornucopia, with a holly wreath on his head, while Coldhands is similar to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, robed in dark, his face concealed behind black garment….
‘The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. When it came, Scrooge bent down upon his knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.
It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand. But for this it would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night, and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded’
** This description reminds me of King Robert, who is called ‘a veritable giant’ by Ned Stark, and of course, of Garth the Green.