Rounded Globe

We now have a brand new website for Rounded Globe.

Have a look: feed your mind! All our ebooks can be read online, downloaded (Kindle, tablet) for free, and legally shared with others. And all our ebooks embody scholarly excellence.

The original site went up just over a year ago and for some months contained only two ebooks – my essay on Tolkien and Donald Winch’s Carlyle lectures on the history of political economy.  Over last summer we began to receive more essays and proposals. Today we have seven ebooks for (free) download and another seven forthcoming over the next few months. As the content of our library grew it became clear that we needed a better way of organizing and displaying its contents. I’m very pleased with the result, which embodies the aesthetic and design philosophy of my co-founder Andrew Holgate.

Over the last year I’ve occasionally asked myself why I’m putting so much time and effort into a venture that can make no money. Sometimes my answers are negative. For example, the intense irritation I feel every time a paywall prevents me from accessing some scholarly article I need for my own research.

Other answers are of a mixed nature. Five years of teaching at a university convinced me that such an environment is corrosive to learning and scholarship. A genuine thirst for knowledge is corrupted by obsession with grades (students) and publication numbers and career promotion (professors). My life today is an attempt to engage with what I love on my own terms, without the bullshit and without the egos. Rounded Globe arises naturally out of this choice.

And this, I have come to think, leads to the bottom line: Rounded Globe is worth doing because it is a good thing.

  • It is a good thing to make high quality scholarly essays accessible – filtering out all the jargon and overblown theoretical nonsense, and offering them online to anyone who wants to read them.

It is as simple as that. After a lot of previous turbulence my life has become relatively stable. I now have a permanent home and my editing work brings in sufficient income to pay the bills. So with the time that I have left to me I’d like to do some good things.


Faërie as Nature

We have got too hung up on the idea of Tolkien’s fantasy as an escape into a world of make believe. Tolkien believed that humans, as mortal souls, are part strangers here on earth. From this perspective Faërie, rather than some ‘other world’, is simply the natural world as experienced by those who truly belong to it.

We can begin to understand this thought by turning to the first adventure into which the hobbits fall in The Lord of the Rings.


‘Three is Company’

Leaving Bag End in Hobbiton, Frodo, Sam, and Pippin walk much of the night. Still in land that Sam knows well, they sleep curled up against the roots of a great fir tree. A fox, ‘passing through the wood on business of his own’, pauses in wonderment:

‘Hobbits!’ he thought. ‘Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Three of them! There’s something mighty queer about this.’

The next night, following two near encounters with a black rider and having passed the limits of Sam’s geographical knowledge, the hobbits meet a company of Elves, who echo out loud the silent thoughts of the fox:

‘This is indeed wonderful!’ they said. ‘Three hobbits in a wood at night! We have not seen such a thing since Bilbo went away. What is the meaning of it?’

Our hobbits join the Elves, who walk without sound or footfall, following an almost unseen path through the trees. They come out upon a space of grass upon a hill, looking down over the village of Woodhall. At first the Elves sit and speak only softly. But when the twinkling lights from the village go out, and the stars come out above them, a fire springs up, a song bursts out, and the Elves declare it time for speech and merriment. His mind filled with light and Elvish voices, Pippin feels he is in a waking dream.



In this very first adventure Tolkien takes us into nature and shows us what may be happening in the woods just beyond our homes. Beginning in one village, Hobbiton, our travellers end with a view of another, the lights of which they see twinkling in the valley below. The hobbits of Woodhall are preparing for bed, and only when they extinguish their lights does the Elf fire blaze and the woodland merriment begin.

In this journey from hobbit hole to Faërie the thinking fox marks a transitional point. A natural creature, with business of his own, it is strange for us to read his thoughts. Yet from the perspective of the fox what is queer is that domestic creatures like us are asleep beneath the stars. When we encounter Elves, who give voice to the same thought, we know that the transition from snug home to sylvan magic is complete.

Mortal participation in such a woodland scene is a rare occurrence, as the words of one of the Elves to Frodo makes clear:

‘The Elves have their own labours and their own sorrows, and they are little concerned with the ways of hobbits, or of any other creature upon earth. Our paths cross theirs seldom, by chance or purpose.’

A statement that echoes Tolkien’s observation in his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’:

Elves are not primarily concerned with us, nor we with them. Our fates are sundered, and our paths seldom meet. Even upon the borders of Faërie we encounter them only at some chance crossing of the ways. (OFS 32)

Yet such an encounter is no meeting with aliens. Like the fox of the previous night, the Elves met in the woods of the Shire are denizens of the natural world. In contrast to Man, Tolkien notes in ‘On Fairy Stories’, Elves “are natural, far more natural than he is” (OFS 28). Tolkien’s story is thus no exercise in science fiction, no account of an imaginary meeting with creatures from another planet. Rather, we are taken into the heart of the natural world that surrounds our scattered human settlements.

Of course, the Elves appear more magical than the fox, for they can not only talk but also enchant us. This is why nature, when fully entered into, is called Faërie. And nature, so conceived, is a perilous place. Black riders hunt in it (although they may ride up to our very doorstep), and beyond the Brandywine our hobbits will soon be caught by the song of Old Man Willow and fall under the evil spell of a wight who haunts a now desolate landscape. Pippin’s waking dream in the Shire will soon give way to waking nightmare in the less gentle countryside beyond it.

Faërie is perilous for humans. Yet the perils it contains arise, perhaps, because we do not fully belong in nature. Elves are more natural than humans because their souls, like their bodies, remain always within this world. Human bodies are part of this world, but our souls – at least for the Christian Tolkien – are not. Man is “but a guest here in Arda and not here at home” (Morgoth 317). Part strangers in this world, we can only imagine what it would be like to fully belong to nature. When we do so imagine we conjure up the creatures of Faërie. Such fully natural creatures cannot but appear strange to us, their enchantment perilous.

Cf. Hillman December 6, 2014.

References and credit

OFS: Tolkien On Fairy-stories, edited by Verlyn Flieger & Douglas Anderson, HarperCollins, 2008.

Morgoth: Morgoth’s Ring: The Later Silmarillion. Part One, edited by Christopher Tolkien, London: HarperCollins, 1993.

Image credit: ‘Deep in the Golden Forest’, Tommy Clark. Creative Commons license.


War of the Ghosts

The following post was written as a guest post for Tom Hillman’s blog, Alas, not me.

At the March 1920 meeting of the Folk-Lore Society, all three papers were delivered by Cambridge men. A.C. Haddon gave the presidential address, W.H.R. Rivers discussed the conception of ‘soul-substance’ in New Guinea and Melanesia, and F.C. Bartlett reported on ‘Some Experiments in the Reproduction of Folk-Stories’.

Does this have anything to do with Tolkien?

It depends how you look at things; which is really what I want to talk about in this post. Tolkien studies are full of ‘influences’ – as highlighted in the recent flurry of discussion over the state of Tolkien scholarship. Personally, I don’t get ‘influence’, a seemingly occultist notion of action at a distance. No doubt the confusion is subjective.

Another perspective draws upon notions like context and conversation. These are my preferred terms of art, reflecting my training as an intellectual historian. I’ll illustrate how they work by first discussing Bartlett and his 1920 paper, and then pointing to its possible significance for how we think about Tolkien.

Anthropology at Cambridge was established in the wake of a university expedition to Torres Straits in 1898. Returning from the expedition, Haddon and Rivers joined forces with more traditional scholars, notably the classical archaeologist William Ridgeway and the Anglo-Saxonist H.M. Chadwick, to establish a new faculty of anthropology. Ridgeway and Chadwick were working on a novel approach to early European history, which combined archaeology with the study of old literature, such as the Iliad and Beowulf. Haddon and Rivers introduced to this approach the folktales of contemporary ‘primitives’. Bartlett’s 1920 paper was a contribution to an emerging account of the relationship between story and society in history.

Bartlett was a psychologist. His paper on the reproduction of Folk Stories discussed an experiment in which members of his university read a Chinook folk tale, ‘The War of the Ghosts’, and, after varying intervals of time, reproduced it. Reproduction, Bartlett showed, was actually reconstruction: over successive retellings familiar elements were substituted for unfamiliar and the plot structure changed to remove (seemingly) inexplicable connections. As such, Bartlett’s paper contributed to the study of cultural diffusion by way of a psychological experiment on memory.

So what does this tell us? If we approach Bartlett’s paper in terms of influence, pretty much nothing. Tolkien may possibly have read the paper, but probably did not; and even if he did, any direct connection we might establish would probably sit all too easily between the trivial and the vacuous.

Approaching Bartlett’s paper in terms of context is another matter. To begin with, we see immediately that disciplinary divisions were not then what they are now. Under the broad umbrella of ‘anthropology’ we find a sustained interaction between students of Classical and Old English literature, archaeologists, experimental psychologists, and practitioners of a new participant-observer method of ethnological fieldwork. This was not an exercise in what today is called ‘inter-disciplinary studies’; rather, it reflects the fact that before the 1930s the borders between scholarly disciplines had not yet ossified.

Subsequent closing of the borders between academic disciplines has fostered a distorted image of the recent intellectual past. If you search for Bartlett’s ‘War of the Ghosts’ on the internet you will find many accounts by modern psychologists of a celebrated chapter in the history of their discipline. Unless you open up the original report of the experiment in Folk-Lore, however, you would never guess that this psychological experiment was designed to illuminate the processes of cultural diffusion.

Something similar has happened to Tolkien, whose intellectual context is very largely missing from modern Tolkien studies. Verlyn Flieger is better than most, and has correctly identified the discussions of the Folk-Lore Society as important background to Tolkien’s 1939 lecture on ‘Fairy Stories’. Yet even Flieger presents these discussions as focused simply on explaining the unpalatable elements of ancient stories. This is to project the concerns of a modern discipline (English) onto a past in which such narrow and restricted focus would have seemed an inexplicable voluntary myopia. The Folk-Lore Society brought to the table a wide range of interconnected contemporary debates, ranging over issues of comparative religion, racial ethnology, social history, and much else besides.

The context of intellectual debate was different back then. Disciplinary divisions counted for less, and the scholarly mind roamed over a much larger intellectual terrain. Scholars from a wide variety of specialized fields were engaged in the same or similar conversations.

Reading Bartlett can tell us something about the nature of these conversations, which form a vital (yet passed over) context of Tolkien’s thought. Of course, Tolkien was not part of this Cambridge project, nor were his methods, interests, or conclusions aligned with theirs. Yet his were responses to similar questions, and it is easy to locate ground shared by Cambridge psychologist and Oxford philologist.

Consider the ‘Origins’ section in ‘On Fairy Stories’, where Tolkien introduces his notion of individual sub-creation, alludes to the debate over diffusion, and then introduces his metaphor of the Cauldron of Story. The Cauldron presents an image of diffusion at work, with invented elements of fantasy blending with elements of stories significant parts of which have been forgotten. It is the fact that we forget elements of the old stories that allows invented elements of fantasy to be blended into them to make fairy stories.

Whether or not Tolkien was ‘influenced’ by Bartlett is largely irrelevant. The point is that the two men were both participants in a wide-ranging and ongoing conversation. Their work, or at least parts of it, emerged from a shared intellectual context. Bartlett was particularly arrested by the distortions introduced by memory, Tolkien was concerned especially with forgetting. But reading their texts together reveals a wider scholarly community grappling with the relationship of memory and story in history.

One could go further (much further), had we but world enough and time. Suffice it here to point out that while Bartlett’s most famous book was entitled Remembering (1932), Tolkien’s Elves, with their immortal memories and seemingly perfect recall, can be viewed (in addition to many other things) as an intensive and prolonged thought-experiment on what human memory might aspire to, yet palpably is not.

Again, I suggest no influence of Bartlett’s psychology of memory upon Tolkien’s Elves. What I do suggest is that reading Tolkien in context reveals much about the kind of questions that stand behind his writing, just as Tolkien’s highly idiosyncratic answers illuminate the intellectual and cultural concerns of the twentieth century far more than is usually suspected.

Whatever the present state of Tolkien studies might be, it leaves much to be desired from the point of view of the intellectual historian. I submit that, alongside established methods, the cultivation of a contextualist reading of the history of ideas has the potential to transform our understanding of what Tolkien was about.


Some bibliographical references

On the recent ‘state of Tolkien studies’ debates, my favourite contribution, which contains links to others, is ‘Tolkien Criticism Unbound’.

Bartlett’s 1920 paper (as also those of Haddon and Rivers) can be accessed here, via the (wonderful) (make sure to turn to the second half of the volume).

Flieger has written about the Folk-Lore Society in several places. See for example the first chapter of her Interrupted Music (Kent State University Press, 2005).

You can no doubt access Tolkien’s ‘On Fairy Stories’ without need of biographical reference from me.

Those who wish to read more on Bartlett and Cambridge anthropology in the first decades of the twentieth century can soon turn to two papers available on my page : ‘The Tragedy of Cambridge Anthropology’, forthcoming in History of European Ideas, and (with Tiziana Foresti) ‘War of the Ghosts: Marshall, Veblen, and Bartlett’, forthcoming in History of Political Economy.

Photo credit: ‘Photomarathon 18: Memories’, Joyce Kaes. Creative commons license.


Tolkien’s magic

What is Tolkien’s magic?

We find magical items in Middle-earth, and also magical creatures, but at first sight magical spells appear rather scarce. Yet once we take Tolkien at his word we find magic interspersed throughout his stories, which themselves weave a spell of extraordinary potency.

A spell, Tolkien explained in his St Andrews lecture on fairy stories, “means both a story told, and a formula of power over living men” (OFS 47).

Here is a philologist talking. Yet the meaning of spell as story is not so arcane as you might think. Children still learn their letters, that is, are taught to spell. Spelling is associated with words as well as magic, or if you want, with word magic.

The older meaning of spell as story is preserved in our gospel, a word that is indirectly invoked in The Lord of the Rings when, in the hall of Théoden, Gríma Wormtongue names Gandalf Láthspell. Gospel is from the Old English good spell, or good story; Láthspell, its opposite, means evil story or ill news.

Tolkien does not state outright that the two meanings of spell are the same; he does not say that a story told is a formula of power. Yet I would argue that he plays on the difference while holding that at root the two may be the same.

Consider this description of the faithless Unfriend in ‘Sellic Spell’ – Tolkien’s telling of the fairy story he discerned within Beowulf:

He had a keen wit, and the King set great store by his counsels, though some said that he used secret spells, and that his counsels roused strife more often than they made peace. (Beowulf 365-6)

On the surface a distinction is clearly drawn here between the counsel Unfriend offers the king and his secret spells. Yet it is not the narrator who separates spells and counsel, but some others in the story. A suspicion hangs in the air that these are people who do not quite grasp the full potency of words in themselves.

Now, Gríma Wormtongue, the counsellor of King Théoden, was drawn by Tolkien out of the character Unfriend (Unferth in Beowulf). I want to compare the cinematic treatment of Gandalf’s encounter with Wormtongue with the scene as told in Tolkien’s own story because, I think, it will allow us to weigh better the significance of this suspicion.

In this scene from the movie a magical dual takes place between Gandalf and Saruman, who has possessed the mind and body of King Théoden. Wormtongue is early stomped upon by Gimli the Dwarf, and is incidental to the battle between the two wizards, which concludes with Saruman’s exorcism and the physical transformation of Théoden from decrepit wreck to comely if middle-aged king.

Turning to the book, I suggest that the real confrontation begins already when the travellers – Gandalf, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas – arrive at the gates of the hill fort of Edoras and men in bright mail spring up to bar their way, crying in the tongue of the Riddermark:

Stay, strangers here unknown!

Gandalf replies in their language, but observes that it is a tongue that few strangers understand. If you wish to be answered, he asks the guards, why not speak in the Common Tongue? The guards reply that it is the will of Théoden that none enter who do not speak the language of Rohan. Yet a moment later it is suggested that Wormtongue – and this is the first time we hear his name – has been instrumental in establishing this gate policy:

It is but two nights ago that Wormtongue came to us and said that by the will of Théoden no stranger should pass these gates.

Here is no sorcery. Yet Wormtongue is implicated from the first in an attempt to use words to isolate the Rohirrim and their king. And Gandalf, the wizard, overcomes this obstacle by mastery of their language.

The travellers now enter Edoras and climb up to Meduseld, the golden hall of Théoden. At the far end of the hall sits the King on a great gilded chair, while at his feet upon the steps sits Gríma Wormtongue, “a wizened figure of a man, with a pale wise face and heavy-lidded eyes”.

There was a silence.

At length Gandalf speaks. Théoden replies briefly, and not with words of welcome. Then Gríma speaks, naming Gandalf Láthspell, ill-news. An exchange of words unfolds between Gandalf and Wormtongue, who accuses the wizard of being in league with the Lady Galadriel, “the Sorceress of the Golden Wood”, where “webs of deceit were ever woven”. Gandalf has had enough. He sings a song about Galadriel, commands Wormtongue to silence, and then raises his staff and performs the only bit of theatrical magic in the whole scene:

There was a roll of thunder. The sunlight was blotted out from the eastern windows; the whole hall became suddenly dark as night. The fire faded to sullen embers.

And still Wormtongue speaks: “Did I not counsel you, lord, to forbid his staff?”

There was a flash as if lightening had cloven the roof. Then all was silent.

Thunder and lightning, and a wizard’s staff. A moment of drama that achieves one end: the silencing of Wormtongue. And this is the real magic performed by Gandalf. Not the exorcism of Saruman, but the breaking of Gríma’s web of deceit by the silencing of his spells.

And the rest is easy.

‘Now Théoden son of Thengel, will you hearken to me?’ said Gandalf… ‘No counsel have I to give to those that despair. Yet counsel I could give, and words I could speak to you. Will you hear them?’

Gandalf leads Théoden out of his hall.

Quickly now Gandalf spoke. His voice was low and secret, and none save the king heard what he said. But ever as he spoke the light shone brighter in Théoden’s eye…

On the silver screen Peter Jackson treated us to a struggle between wizards. Tolkien, however, tells a story of a battle between two counsellors. Gandalf does not break the incantations of Saruman but silences the twisted words of Wormtongue. He does not lead Théoden back to the light by exorcising Saruman, but by talking to him, speaking to him words of good counsel.

None of this is meant especially as criticism of the movie scene. Peter Jackson correctly discerned that this is a scene of magic, in which spells are spoken and a part of Gandalf’s true nature is revealed. But the real magic in Tolkien’s story, the dramatic thunder and lightning notwithstanding, is word magic.

And this does perhaps point to an intrinsic limitation of the movie adaptations of Tolkien’s stories. For how can a visual drama capture and convey Tolkien’s foundational idea that words are the real magic, that stories sung or spoken aloud are the real spells?

Those who know Tolkien’s writings only through their cinematic adaptations are like those who held that Unfriend relied upon “secret spells” – ignorant of the power of Tolkien’s words they conflate the real magic of Middle-earth with computer aided special effects.

But again, neither Peter Jackson nor those who suspected Unfriend of using secret spells are altogether off the mark. Tolkien was not demystifying sorcery by collapsing magical spells into story and counsel. He was reminding us of the magic incarnate in cunningly crafted words. A battle between two counsellors is a struggle of opposing magical forces.

We can appreciate the real magic invoked by Tolkien in this part of his story by noting three key moments in the coming of the travellers to Rohan.

First, walking between the burial mounds of the kings of Rohan before their arrival at Edoras itself, Aragorn sings – first in the original tongue, then in the Common Speech – the song of “a forgotten poet long ago in Rohan”.

Second, outside the doors of Meduseld, Háma, the door warden, hearing of the lineage of Aragorn’s sword, declares:

It seems that you are come on the wings of song out of the forgotten days…

And third, recall how Gandalf’s ‘thunder and lightning’ moment of magic is directly preceded by his soft singing of a song of Lórien and Galadriel.

Here, in these two songs and the intimation of songs from a long forgotten past, is an indication of the profound magical power brought by these travellers to Rohan: a magic that can hardly fail to break the cunning webs of deceit woven by Gríma Wormtongue.


Tolkien’s magic II; or, what hobbits have that elves don’t

In my recent post on Tolkien’s Magic I argued that words constituted the real magic of Middle-earth, and illustrated this point by an exegesis of Gandalf’s confrontation with Gríma Wormtongue as a battle between two counsellors.

But in my closing words I identified the various songs that precede the silencing of Wormtongue as the ‘real magic’ behind this battle. This was a bit of a fudge.

Counsel and song – both are instances of word magic, but they are not the same. Throughout The Lord of the Rings we find allusions to councils of great power. Think, for example, of the White Council, which drives Sauron from Mirkwood. Or the Council of Elrond, of which it was said in the dreams of Faramir and Boromir:

There shall be counsels taken
Stronger than Morgul-spells

And we have also many a moment of enchantment when our hobbits fall under the spell of a story or song told by one or other inhabitant of Faërie. Think, for example, of the hobbits listening to the stories of Tom Bombadil:

The hobbits sat still before him, enchanted: and it seemed as if, under the spell of his words, the wind had gone, and the clouds had dried up, and the day had been withdrawn, and darkness had come from East and West, and all the sky was filled with the light of white stars.

Or Frodo listening to the elvish minstrels in the Hall of Fire at Rivendell:

… the melodies and of the interwoven words in elven-tongues … held him in a spell… Almost it seemed that the words took shape, and visions of far lands and bright things that he had never yet imagined opened out before him … Then the enchantment became more and more dreamlike, until he felt that an endless river of swelling gold and silver was flowing over him…

So there are two kinds of word magic in Middle-earth: counsel, on the one hand, and story and song on the other. But what is their relationship? An initial answer is easy, although it opens a door onto a profoundly tangled web.

Story and counsel can be distinguished in relation to their temporal orientation and (which is related) their end or aim.

In The Lord of the Rings stories and songs seem always to tell of the past. In the mouths of humans, these are instance of what today would be called oral history; when told or sung by the inhabitants of Faërie they are often recollections from personal memory. The Elves who the hobbits meet in the woods of the Shire “still remember” Elbereth Githoniel, of whom they sing. Bombadil in effect treats the hobbits to a lesson in local history, extending back to the days before days and drawn from his own memories.

Counsel also looks to the past, but does so in order to act in the present and so influence the future.

Tolkien’s insistence upon the relevance of the past to counsel is quite striking. By far the main part of the Council of Elrond is taken up with long and extensive histories, told first of all by Elrond, who draws on memories extending deep into past ages of Middle-earth, but including even Bilbo’s adventure, from which account not even a single riddle is omitted.

Note that there is no hint that any of these tales of the past enchant the members of the Council.

The key difference seems to be the aim of the words. Songs and stories are works of art, crafted with no other end than existing in their own right. Counsel draws on memory, but does so with a functional end in mind, namely, to guide present action in order to better shape the future.

We can enrich this analysis by turning to two notes by Tolkien published in Unfinished Tales (512-3). Both notes pertain to Gandalf’s High-elven name, Olórin, which Tolkien relates to the words olo-s and olor.

olo-s: vision, ‘phantasy’: Common Elvish name for ‘construction of the mind’ not actually (pre) existing in Eä apart from the construction, but by the Eldar capable of being by Art (Karme) made visible and sensible.

Olor is similar. It means “clear vision, in the mind, of things not physically present at the body’s situation”. The word is usually translated as ‘dream’, Tolkien tells us, referring not to mortal but to Elvish dreams, which are comprised of “the vivid contents of their memory, as of their imagination”.

Christopher Tolkien connects these notes to the passages in The Silmarillion (20-4) where it is said of Gandalf that , when he was Olórin and still dwelt in Valinor, that he was “counsellor of Irmo”, that he awakened among the elves thoughts “of fair things that had not yet been but might yet be made for the enrichment of Arda,” and that in later days all “who listened to him awoke from despair and put away the imaginations of darkness.”

These notes accord with our idea that counsel, as opposed to (fairy) story, draws upon memory (history), but does so in order to picture that which has yet to come to pass. Elvish ‘imagination’ is clearly that which transforms historical reflection into a vision of what might come to be.

Yet the clarification contained in these notes also threatens to send us off into a spin. The reason for this is that the idea of counsel contained in them, and associated with the High-elven name for Gandalf, seems to accord with the definition of story, or at least fairy story, set out in Tolkien’s famous essay ‘On Fairy Stories’.

‘On Fairy Stories’ introduces the notion of fantasy, which is said to be a human art of story-telling that aspires to the elvish craft of enchantment. Fantasy begins when humans utilize the fantastic device of language to imagine worlds that are not. Such creation, however, draws in elements derived from history, which have been dropped into the ‘Cauldron of Story’, by which Tolkien means that they have become detached from their original historical context and attached to other elements. Out of the Cauldron are ladled fairy stories.

So we have a seeming mismatch of categories.

From a mortal perspective: imagination + history = (human) fantasy = fairy story.

For the elves: imagination + history = (elvish) fantasy = counsel.

And what is more, human fantasy (history + imagination) aspires to the elvish craft of enchantment (history only).

Behind this apparent mismatch stands, I think, two related differences between humans and elves, pertaining to the respective limitations of each.

Elves are immortal, humans are not. This has substantial implications for their respective memories of the past. Elves remember their history, and it seems their memories are reliable. Humans die, and the deeds of the dead are forgotten, or remembered differently in different traditions, or are embellished and transformed into myth (they go into the ‘Cauldron’).

What this means is that imagination is at work in the forming of collective human memory, which comes to include tales of many things that never actually came to pass (the border between human history and human fairy story is not always easy to discern). The confused morass of collective human memory stands in marked contrast to the elvish stories and songs in The Lord of the Rings, which simply tell of things as they once were, often by those who witnessed them. As Tolkien put it in a letter of 1956: “There is hardly any reference in The Lord of the Rings to things that do not actually exist” (letter 180).

A second difference, surely related, is that the imagination (and by extension also the dreams, and the products of fantasy) of the elves seems rather limited. Both humans and elves exercise their imagination in order to form visions of different possible futures (a substantial chapter in the modern science of economics is dedicated to formulating how humans do this). But human imagination extends also to the description of impossible states of the world.

It is just this ‘impossible’ imagination that Tolkien singles out as the vital beginning of human fairy stories:

The human mind… sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things… but sees that it is green as well as being grass… The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into swift water.

Elves just do not seem to engage in this art of fantasy – they are, it could be said, rather literal minded.

I suspect that our two differences are but different faces of the same coin. Elves are immortal and their memories far-reaching and keen. Humans are mortal, and their memories fade and become lost or confused; but they make up for this in having a far more powerful imagination – which not only embellishes their memories of the past but actively constructs impossible ‘other worlds’.

We have opened a door onto a tangled web, and much more needs to be said before we arrive at anything like a clear view. In a future post I hope to discuss the moral dimension of Tolkien’s thinking, which I think explains why he places counsel above enchanted story, and also what it means that Saruman confuses the two (that is, enchants under the guise of offering counsel). It would also be interesting to consider the respective natures of Rivendell, which seems mainly associated with counsel, and Lothlórien, which embodies elvish enchantment.

But I conclude for now with a brief reflection on those moments of mortal enchantment mentioned above, when all or one of our hobbits fall under a spell in the house of Tom Bombadil or in the Hall of Fire at Rivendell, and are carried away into dream-like states of consciousness.

In ‘On Fairy Stories’ Tolkien analyses such experiences in terms of a mortal who attends a ‘Faërian Drama’:

If you are present at a Faërian drama you yourself are, or think that you are, bodily inside its Secondary World. The experience may be very similar to Dreaming and has (it would seem) sometimes (by men) been confounded with it.

But Tolkien warns that knowledge of the “alarming fact” that you are under a spell may slip from your grasp:

You are deluded – whether that is the intention of the elves (always or at any time) is another question. They at any rate are not themselves deluded. This is for them a form of Art…

This puts all the emphasis upon the magical art of the elves and the perils of Faërie that await the unwary mortal traveller. But the same point could be made from another perspective.

For sure the Faërian drama boggles the imagination of the innocent human observer, who more than likely had never even conceived of what he now hears and sees. Yet he does now gain access to this other world, and does so through precisely that faculty of imagination that puts him at risk.

By the same token, the Faërian drama does not delude the elves because they are capable only of witnessing a ‘realist drama’ drawn from their own histories – their imaginations, to be blunt, are simply too limited to comprehend an imaginary world.

So our hobbits fall under the spell of Bombadil and the minstrels of Rivendell, not because their mental faculties are inferior to those denizens of Faërie who perform before them and weave a spell around them, but because, at least in certain respects, they are superior.

Image: William Blake, ‘Beatrice Addressing Dante’. Wiki Commons.


Who is Gandalf?

Gandalf is the story maker within the story, the artist of fantasy within the fantasy. His staff is Tolkien’s pen as it appears within Middle-earth.


One morning, long ago in the quiet of the world, when Bilbo Baggins was enjoying a pipe out of doors after breakfast, Gandalf came by. Our unsuspecting hobbit saw only an old man with a staff, a tall pointed blue hat, and a long white beard. But we who are told Bilbo’s story are warned to “be prepared for any sort of remarkable tale”.

Tales and adventures sprouted up all over the place wherever he went, in the most extraordinary fashion.

Gandalf will send Bilbo off on an adventure, thereby leading all of us into a fairy-tale land inhabited by dwarves, and elves, and goblins, a bear-man, and a dragon. Gandalf leads us into Faërie.

Gandalf knits together the diverse parts of Middle-earth, which in the Third Age is already a world in which the elves have dwindled and diminished and the realms of Faërie have shrunk back to small pockets within a much wider world, such as the Golden Wood, the realm of Tom Bombadil, or Rivendell. The Faërian and mortal inhabitants of Middle-earth are increasingly isolated from one another – as is quite natural, as Tolkien explains in his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’:

…elves are not primarily concerned with us, nor we with them. Our fates are sundered, and our paths seldom meet. Even upon the borders of Faërie we encounter them only at some chance crossing of the ways.

So in The Green Dragon at Bywater Ted Sandyman can dismiss tales of elves and dragons and ents as moonshine – “fireside-tales and children’s stories’, while Éomer, on hearing that Aragorn and his friends have passed through Lothlórien, can exclaim: “Then there is a Lady of the Golden Wood, as old tales tell!” Yet Gandalf is known to all, dwarves, elves, men, and hobbits, and in his company we too may pass through all the realms of Middle-earth.

Gandalf is the artist within the story. In the long struggle against Sauron, wrote Tolkien in a late note, Gandalf “proved to be the director and coordinator both of attack and defence” (Unfinished Tales). Gandalf directs the action and organizes the actors; he writes the story from within.

Gandalf is Tolkien within his stories. Not Tolkien the man, but Tolkien the artist, the teller of fantastic stories.

Gandalf is Tolkien’s fantasy.

This is why Gandalf’s High-elven name, Olórin, is related to the elvish term for fantasy, olo-s. Yet, as I explained in my last post, fantasy means different things within and without Arda (Tolkien’s name for his imagined world as a whole). To move from one meaning to the other is, as it were, to step through the looking glass and enter the realm of Faërie, or to step out of it back into our own world.

The fantasy that Tolkien practices involves the cooking up of stories from the past by means of the fires of the creative imagination. Such mortal fantasy is the making of the history of an imaginary world.

Gandalf engages in fantasy within this imaginary world. He moves and has his being in such fantastic imagination; he does not use his imagination to make up ‘other worlds’.

Gandalf’s fantasy generates wise counsel by light of deliberation on the history of his imaginary world. Within his world Gandalf does not tell stories, but directs them. His counsel directs the plot of Tolkien’s stories.

Fantasy outside Faërie creates it; fantasy within Faërie moves and makes it.

Gandalf and Tolkien, story-maker and story-teller, meet on the border between Faërie and our own realm; they meet, and are one. But as we move back into our world, or forward into Middle-earth, we see their roles draw apart, revealing an author on one side of the divide, an actor and director on the other.

Gandalf meets us on the border of the realm of Faërie, leads us deep within it, and then leaves us – only to return at the turning of the tide.

Eric_Gross_Rubjerg Knude Lighthouse_Jutland

Tolkien’s English Mythology (revisited)

It is now two years since I first formulated the idea that Tolkien’s stories of Middle-earth were conceived as the stories of a lost English mythology. Since then the publication of Tolkien’s Beowulf commentary has amply corroborated this thesis, and my own research has established more clearly its range and, also, its limitations. The time feels ripe for a brief review.

First, three core facts.

Firstly, Tolkien’s undergraduate career at Oxford followed closely in the wake of the big event in Edwardian Anglo-Saxon studies – the publication of H.M. Chadwick’s The Origin of the English Nation. Chadwick broke new ground in tracing the history of the English before they ever came to Britain, and – crucially – he did so by reconstructing the mythology of the ancient English tribes.

Secondly, Tolkien’s mature scholarship demonstrates that he accepted Chadwick’s idea that the spiritual center of pre-migration English life had been a sanctuary on the (now Danish) island of Zealand.

Thirdly, Tolkien’s mature scholarship demonstrates that he believed the English migration to Britain to have been caused by a period of ruthless Danish military expansion, which saw the Danes conquer Zealand, take over the ancient cult, and – again, crucially – make the ancient mythology of the English their own, in so doing distorting and it remaking it in their own more warlike image.

From these three facts two implications are obvious and straightforward.

Firstly, when Tolkien talked of an ancient English mythology he had in mind, not the ancient stories told in and about Britain (as nearly all Tolkien scholars seem to believe) but the ancient stories told by the English in their original homeland between the Baltic and the North Sea.

Secondly, the parallel between Tolkien’s stories and various Norse myths is not to be taken at face value (it nearly always is). Tolkien certainly took the Norse stories as a starting-point, but what he wanted was to get back to the original ancient English stories that he believed lay behind them.

All of the above seems to me undeniable. What comes next is invariably speculative, and this for the reason that Tolkien himself, faced with reconstructing the ancient English stories, had no choice but to make imaginative leaps into the dark. The best we can do is hold up points in the ancient extant stories that evidently exercised Tolkien’s imagination, read his scholarly musings on these points, and take note of the fairly obvious parallels found in his own fairy stories. Here are three such points, but for the close textual readings and arguments necessary to support them you will have to look at my published and forthcoming work.

Firstly, there is the Norse story of King Froda, a king who ruled in a time of peace and security when a gold ring could be left on the highway without anyone taking it. In his Beowulf commentary Tolkien declares that behind this Norse myth was an older legend, bound up with the ancient cult of the English on Zealand. We can read The Lord of the Rings as providing a story of the original Froda (Frodo), who was not a king, but was closely connected with one (Aragorn) and also with the dawning of a great golden age of peace. And we can note Faramir’s twice repeated statement about the Ring, that not if he found it on a highway would he take it (Two Towers).

Secondly, Beowulf begins with the story of Scyld Scefing, who arrived as a baby from over the sea and on his death departed back over the ocean. Perhaps no other lines in this Old English poem so exercised the imagination of Tolkien. With this in mind we can look with Frodo into the Mirror of Galadriel and see a great ship born out of the West on wings of storm, and another with fairy lights departing into the West. And again we see how Tolkien came to think of later ages confusing the stories of Aragorn and Frodo – for the ship that comes out of the West bears Elendil, the first King and forefather of Aragorn, whereas the ship that departs into the West bears Frodo, the Ring-bearer.

And thirdly we can note the story told in Old Icelandic of the love of the god Frey with Gerdr, daughter of the giant Gymir. In his 1939 lecture on ‘Fairy Stories’ Tolkien connected this story with the love story of Ingeld and Freawaru, found in Beowulf. The god called Frey by the Norsemen is the same that the ancient English called Ing, who was at the center of the ancient English cult on Zealand. Tolkien points out that both Ingeld and Freawaru bear names associated with this cult, and that their story clearly contains a mythological dimension. Nevertheless, he suggests that these two lovers were historical, yet playing out in real life a very ancient story (much more ancient than that of Frey and Gerdr), bound up with the cult, and telling of the love between the members of two very different houses. Careful inspection of his argument (which I do not reproduce here) suggests that here we have some of the seeds that within a few years would sprout, in Tolkien’s own imagination, into the  story of the love of Aragorn, King Elessar, who weds an Elven bride, Arwen Undómiel.

And a parting observation on the reception of these ideas. By January 1st, 2014 I had a first working scholarly paper on these themes, which I submitted to the academic journal Tolkien Studies. The paper was accepted but as of today volume 12 of Tolkien Studies, in which it will appear, has still not been published! Meanwhile, in the summer of 2014 I developed the argument of this paper into a small ebook, which I published under the title Tolkien’s Lost English Mythology, which was released in October 2014.

Last summer I wrote a second academic paper, which has also been accepted by Tolkien Studies, and which examines Tolkien’s scholarly writings of the 1930s in order to chart the development of his search for the ancient English mythology that could be detected on the outer edges of Beowulf. But when this second scholarly paper will appear in print not even Gandalf could tell you!

So this coming January I plan to take a month out of my normal work in order to, once again, write up the fruits of my research – which includes some sustained reflections on Tolkien’s idea of fantasy – in a new ebook, tentatively titled On the Shores of the Shoreless Sea: essays on Tolkien’s Faërie .

Image: Eric Gross, ‘Rubjerg Knude Lighthouse – Northern Jutland, Denmark‘, (cc) license.


Fantasy Incarnate

The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval.

J.R.R Tolkien, ‘On Fairy Stories’, lecture delivered in 1939


On the surface, the meaning of the above quotation appears straightforward: humans have always used language to tell stories to one another. But why, in the expression of this idea, do we find the noun ‘mind’ modified by the unexpected adjective ‘incarnate’? My attempt to answer this question generated the following reflections on the foundations of Middle-earth.

First, the adjective itself. The Oxford English Dictionary gives two definitions of incarnate: (1) a god or a spirit in human form, and (2) a quality in physical form. The OED also provides general and particular definitions of the corresponding noun: the lower case incarnation: the living embodiment of a god, spirit, or quality; and the upper case Incarnation: the Christian belief that God the Son was embodied in human flesh as Jesus.

As a devout Catholic, the Incarnation (upper case) was for Tolkien an article of faith, a profound historical fact of the primary world. This provides an initial answer: Tolkien’s reference to the human mind as ‘incarnate’ invokes the idea that humans, as embodied souls, are made in the image of the Incarnate Divinity. As such, Tolkien can be seen pointing to the bold conclusion arrived at by the end of the passage in which our quotation appears, namely, that in making-up fairy stories humans imitate the creative activity of God:

But how powerful… was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faërie is more potent… When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power… in such ‘fantasy’, as it is called, new form is made; Faërie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.

Such imitation, it is important to note, occurs in means as well as ends: language is the instrument of both (divine) creation and (human) sub-creation.

And God said: ‘Let there be light’. And there was light… And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day. (Genesis 3, 5).

Yet the role of language in sub-creation as explained by Tolkien does not exactly mirror the linguistic dimension of God’s creative work as described in Genesis. In creating first light and then time, God employs no adjectives. In emphasizing the adjective as the key to sub-creation, Tolkien’s ‘On Fairy Stories’ reveals what we might call an ‘incarnationalist theory of language’.

The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalisation and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things… but sees that it is green as well as being grass… The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into swift water.

For sure, abstracting and remixing adjectival qualities is not an exercise in incarnation. The projecting of a novel quality (say, blue) onto a noun (say, the moon) to form an image (of a blue moon) occurs on a purely mental and linguistic level – a “new form is made”, as Tolkien puts it, not a new thing, let alone the embodiment of spirit in living flesh.

Nevertheless, the making of imaginary form is structurally similar to the Divine act of incarnation. This is because the objects given to us by language possess the same dual nature as the incarnate spirit: a concrete object (noun) possesses abstract qualities (adjectives). The speakers of human language engage in fantasy by putting novel qualities into different linguistic objects. Put another way, the ‘incarnate mind’ is an actual instance in the world of the same dual form – the fusion of concrete and abstract – that is given to us generally in language. Indeed, it is tempting to see the incarnate mind as the anchor in reality of our linguistic practice.

We can now answer our original question. Invoking the ‘incarnate mind’ at the start of his explanation of fantasy, Tolkien points not only to the maker but also the very nature of fantasy: a linguistic process whereby an embodied soul creates a secondary world by embodying unexpected qualities in imaginary objects.

* * *

A careful reading of the quotations from this single passage in ‘On Fairy Stories’ suggests a further, complementary train of reflection. Our initial sentence identified stories and language as coeval. But Tolkien goes on to speak of the invention of the adjective, suggesting that such modifiers were a later discovery of the human mind. Could it be that this invention was of more than linguistic significance? Did the discovery of the dual nature of linguistic objects also provide illumination into the mysterious nature of reality?

In his famous letter to Milton Waldman (circa 1951), Tolkien wrote:

I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth,’ and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear (Letters, letter 131).

The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation has no place in Arda. Nevertheless, the general idea of the embodiment of spiritual power in material objects is a recurring theme in Tolkien’s mythology.

In the very first pages of The Silmarillion we are told how the world was first made by music, then appeared as a vision, and then came into being with the speaking of a word. Yet this created world only “came alive” when some of the Ainur descend into it: “so that they are its life and it is theirs. And therefore they are named the Valar, the Powers of the World”.

This ‘incarnation’ of the Valar in the world is not some incidental detail of Tolkien’s creation story. It is the reason why Arda – in contrast to the mechanistic world envisaged by Newtonian science – is alive, enchanting, and purposeful.

Incidentally, I suspect that we here discern the reason why Saruman’s ambitions are bound to fail. Of this treacherous wizard, Treebeard tells Merry and Pippin:

He is plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels…

In our modern world, machines are purely physical means of generating and utilizing power. But a true Power in Middle-earth draws on a spiritual force that Saruman loses even as he builds in Isengard the superficial appearance of industrial and military power.

Further acts of incarnation – or, at least, the embodiment of the spiritual within a material object – provide the defining moments of Tolkien’s mythology. Fëanor embodies the spiritual light of the Valar in physical form – the Silmarils. And long ages later, Galadriel places the light from one of these Silmarils in a phial that she gives to Frodo, who, together with Sam, carries it all the way to Mordor.

Again, Sauron puts much of his own power into the Ring – a seemingly inanimate object with a will of its own. Here is a useful reminder that not all incarnations in Arda are good. Morgoth was one of the Valar incarnated in the world, which is why more than one power strives to shape the fate of Middle-earth.

There was more than one power at work, Frodo. The Ring was trying to get back to its master… I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker…

* * *

Our reflections upon Tolkien’s reference to the ‘incarnate mind’ in his 1939 lecture on ‘Fairy Stories’ have led us to the following tentative conclusions concerning the foundations of Middle-earth.

The central fact of Tolkien’s worldview was, undoubtedly, the Incarnation: the Christian doctrine that the Word was made flesh. This fact has no direct bearing on either the form or the content of Tolkien’s mythology, which concerns a world that has not received the Gospels.

Indirectly, however, it is of cardinal importance.

Arda is a mythological world that does not know the Incarnation, but which is largely made of the discovered ‘truth’ of incarnation.

* * *

‘Fantasy Incarnate’ is a footnote in a broader collaborative project on the magic of Middle-earth. I am grateful to my co-authors – Jeremiah Burns, Tom Hillman, Richard Rohlin, and Oliver Stegen – for permission to publish this note here.

Image: ‘Hagia Sophia ceiling’, (c) Timothy Neesam (creative commons license).

Levitation Machine


The big local news here in Luzit concerns the new levitation technology that we have just purchased and installed in the garden.

The purchase was made possible by a generous donation from the grandparents to the BDY FUND, a small private charity that specializes in providing relief to overtired parents who live in our house.

We made the purchase yesterday and I spent most of the afternoon grappling with the operating instructions and setting up the new machinery. The technology consists of a black circular lift-off pad, upon which an over-bouncy child is placed.


Here is Albert (an overly bouncy child if ever there was one) preparing for take off.



As is so often the case the instructions were not easy to make sense of. But it seems that to achieve lift-off it is necessary for the child to run around in circles energetically flapping the arms as if they were wings, as in the picture.




And bingo!  Albert begins to levitate. (Note his mother on the left, wistfully wondering whether and when he will return to earth).





Actually, the technology contains a magnetic-gravitational device that electronically flips on when the child levitates above a certain maximum recommended height (I think about a meter) and pulls the child back down toward the earth.





I am working on removing it…