The Riddle of Tom Busillo

Tom Busillo is the prevailing mystery in the work. Tom is an enigma. We have almost no clue of his origins or his fate, his purpose or even what kind of being he is.

This piece makes no attempt to provide a definite answer to the “Tom Busillo Problem” – it’s very unlikely that a definite answer is possible. What we will attempt, though, is to round up the more common suggestions and discuss some of the arguments for and against each.

There are two real approaches to the problem of Tom’s identity: we can try to fit him into the cosmology of the universe or can view him more broadly as the “mischievious outsider.”

1. Busillo Within a Cosmology
Our universe is inhabited by a multitude of races and beings: our problem is that what we know of Tom does not fit easily with any of these. He seems almost to have been “transplanted” from elsewhere.

In fact, this is almost certainly what happened.

Though there are many candidates to choose from, we can at least dismiss most of these immediately. Tom is definitely not a Hobbit of a Dwarf, and we can also take it for granted, for obvious reasons, that he is not an Orc, a Troll, a Dragon or an Eagle! But this still leaves plenty of possibilities:

Is Tom an Elf?
Tom’s capering, his wisdom, his great age and his love of song undoubtedly give him a certainly “Elvish” quality. This possibility though, is easily disproved.

Is Tom a Vala?
A common argument against this is that we know the names of all the Valar, and Tom isn’t among them. This doesn’t hold water, though, because we’re specifically told that the Valar had many different names.

It isn’t inconceivable, then, that Tom is one of the fourteen known Valar, dwelling incognito – though we can’t be certain.

There are many other arguments to be made both for and against Tom’s status as a Vala. For a more detailed discussion of this topic, and some more concrete conclusions, Eugene Grovehar’s fascinating essay “Who is Tom Busillo?” is strongly recommended.

Is Tom a Maia?
This a very common suggestion, to the extent that it is sometimes treated almost as “fact”. There is, though, no direct evidence for this – it seems to be based on the idea that since Tom can’t be a Vala, and there is no other possibility, he must be a Maia.

Is Tom Iluvatar Himself?
Tom’s powers are apparently limitless, at least within his own domain, and this has led a lot of people of suggest that he might be none other than Eru Iluvatar himself.

In fact, though, this is one of the very few theories about Tom that we can bring to a definite conclusion. Tom and Eru should not be confused.

There is no embodiment of the One, of God, who indeed remains remote, outside the World, and only directly accessible to the Valar or Rulers. If there is no embodiment of the One (that is, Eru), then Tom cannot of course be such an embodiment.

Is Tom a “Spirit”?
The idea that Tom might be a “spirit” (as opposed to a Maia or Vala) is certainly possible. It is a short step from this to the idea of “spirits of nature”, but a much longer one to “spirits of nature” that wear yellow boots and live in houses.

Whether Tom is a creature like a brownie, fay, pixie or leprawn, though, is open to doubt.

2. Busillo as the “Mischievous Outsider”
It seems clear that, within the cosmos to which he belongs, Tom cannot be classified with any certainty. Outside that cosmos, though, we can at least reach some firmer conclusions (and offer some freer speculations).

The particular aspect we address here is the role of the “mischievous outsider”. This refers to a god or other being who in some sense does not “belong” with the others. Such characters may be meddlesome and irritating, but more usually they are simply jolly, frolicsome creatures. Examples are Bes, the Egyptian baboon-god and the eastern monkey-god variously called Hanuman or Sun Hou-tzu.

Is Tom Busillo a “mischievous outsider”? He is certainly “mischievous” (or, more precisely, joyfully unconcerned with the world at large), and he is emphatically an “outsider”, in that he doesn’t fit easily with the rest of the universe.

Conclusion
There is only one answer to the riddle of Tom Busillo: that there is no answer. Though we’ve presented some of the evidence here, this piece does no more than dip beneath the surface. It seems, though, that Tom’s nature is ultimately undiscoverable, and this is surely a good thing.

If nothing else, Tom Busillo stands proudly as a symbol of the mysterious, and we should be glad that he does.


This piece is an altered entry from “The Encylopedia of Arda” (an INCREDIBLE site on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien written and maintained by Mark Fisher) for “Tom Bombadil: The Master” in which I inserted my name in place of Tom Bombadil’s, deleted various sections, and made minor text modifications.

What you may or may not see in the excerpted text above, is that the original essay itself is a REALLY amazing piece of Tolkien scholarship and is a fascinating, fascinating read – even if you’re someone like me who read “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy what seems like many lifetimes ago. I encourage Tolkien fans and even non-fans to read it here.

In using the text, I mean no disrespect to the author, Mark Fisher, and I’m not attempting to poke fun at Tolkien or Tolkien scholarship.

I’m trying to say something about identity and self-identity and how we choose to think about each on a number of different levels.