Foreward: In a Lord of the Rings read-along about a year ago, Stephanie at Chasm of Posts questioned the importance of Tom Bombadil. And so I decided to write an essay on it, even though I never finished my re-read of The Fellowship in order to review it.
There is much debate on the need for/purpose of Tom Bombadil. It is my personal belief that not only is he crucial for the hobbits’ navigation through the Old Forest, but he is also structurally necessary to the story. Setting-wise, I should say.
So you have an Old Forest. It is positively teeming with evil creatures. And you have your innocent heroes, with no means of defending themselves. They are helpless. What do you do? Do you somehow gift your heroes with the sudden capability to overcome these challenges, when it might go against their nature? No. You offer them a guide.
It is not uncommon in literature. Because it’s such a natural thing to have. Chances are, if it’s such an OLD Forest, SOMEONE’s bound to have found a way to tame it, or at least live in it peacefully enough. Frodo asked Goldberry if he owned the land. She said no; he is the master, so he has MASTERED it, but he does not own it. He simply knows it. And from his actions as host, he has probably done this sort of thing often- found travelers gone astray in the Forest and helped them along their way. That too is typical of guides. The heroes that are the main characters of the story you are reading are not always the ONLY ones that have been helped by the guide. Frequently the guide speaks of others before them- something along the lines of ‘I once helped ____ through this forest many years ago.’
So instead of leaving Frodo and the rest to die in that forest, or instead of bestowing them with un-hobbit-like characteristics that may have enabled them to defeat the Old Man Willow (which is similar enough to the Whomping Willow of Harry Potter), Tolkien took the more common route (common for long epics like this one) and offered them a guide who fit in naturally with the setting and was easy to integrate into the story. He may be a bit of an odd savior (with all his nonsense poems) but who wouldn’t have gone a bit odd after living in a queer forest for so long? It is not a question of his purpose to the story, but rather, his motivation.
He also serves as shelter for the hobbits, and a comfortable passage of time and source of food (like farmer Maggot, and many others on these long epic journeys). And also quite importantly, someone to tell long stories. There are always many tales being exchanged in epics like these. Always the imparting of knowledge.
Given his connections to previous characters like Farmer Maggot and even the elves, like Gildor, he also serves as a useful confidant and therefore an ally in Frodo’s quest.
There is also the matter of his actions concerning the Ring, that are quite disturbing indeed. The fact that the Ring does not affect him like it does Frodo and Bilbo suggests that he may be more important/mysterious than originally thought.
However, if ANYONE’s importance may be doubted here, it is Goldberry’s.