Bilbo’s Property

The Hobbit was published September 1937 and in the week leading to the following Christmas Tolkien bowed to polite yet firm requests from his publisher and began a sequel. He sat down and wrote five manuscript pages to which a title was added ‘A long-expected party.’ I have said before that The Lord of the Rings may be read as a commentary on The Hobbit and the early drafts especially. This first draft chapter provides a nice distillation and mirror of the original story.

Bilbo Baggins is celebrating his twentieth birthday. It is two decades since he returned from his adventure. At a magnificent birthday party, in which the Shire (still lower case) begins to come into being, he announces he is leaving again and also that he is going to get married. In the flummaxation that follows Bilbo disappears (the ring is in his hand as he gives his after-dinner speech). The story then switches to Bag-end and an absent host. Bilbo’s property has been arranged and labelled as gifts to various friends and relations and the Sackville-Bagginses finally get their hands on Bilbo’s luxrurious hobbit hole.

So, observe the various correspondences. The Hobbit was a story of there and back again. This first chapter – which announces that the new story will be about Bilbo’s heir but does not name him – is all about Bilbo: here and gone again. An unexpected party had flummoxed Bilbo, but now he organizes a party to flummox all the other hobbits. Bilbo’s earlier adventure is referred to by the other hobbits as his “mysterious vanishment,” and the new adventure begins with his second and final vanishment (a more effective vanishment as he now owns a magic ring of vanishment). After he has vanished a second time the ending of the original story is mirrored, but instead of an auction of his property Bilbo now directs its passage to new owners. Finally, note how the idea of a birthday party points to some as yet unrealised idea about transfer of the magic ring to an heir: the magic ring began as Gollum’s birthday present, and the idea of its passage to another is associated with Bilbo’s birthday.

Because an heir is not named – indeed, at this point Bilbo has only just announced marriage and so a descendant is not yet even a twinkle in his eye – so there is no suggestion that the magic ring is to be included in the transfer of Bilbo’s property to others. Nevertheless, I believe that sufficient factors point to an idea already in the author’s mind that the magic ring will be central to the new story, and so must pass to a new hero. This first draft chapter is setting up the conditions for a transfer of ownership. As seen, the chapter clearly mirrors the bookends of the original story – opening party and auction of property at the end – and the central theme of a birthday party points to some (just what is hard to say) idea of a subsequent chapter that mirrors the riddle game in some way and sees a Baggins family heirloom passed on.

The mirror of the riddle game was never written because, just after he had got to Bilbo’s second vanishing in a second draft of the chapter, Tolkien wrote some notes on the story that was brewing in which the Necromancer is named as the origin of the magic ring. This changed the nature of the inheritance, with the magic ring suddenly a burden and a threat and not something you would wish to leave to your heirs.

Subsequent posts will explore the new property of the magic ring. But I want to highlight here how this first draft chapter of the sequel helps us better read the original. My last post gave one item of the index of the original hobbit story:

Bilbo Baggins.

property, acquired: magic ring

property, inherited: Bag-End; generic hobbit vanishing magic; Baggins luck; queer Took quality

Visibility. Of body: see magic ring. Of properties: see wizard’s eye, magic ring, dwarves

In my reading of the 1937 story of Bilbo Baggins, property is a key word. The draft chapter of the sequel confirms its importance and reminds me that the entry above takes no account of the auction and needs to be supplemented:

Bilbo Baggins.

property, acquired: magic ring, some treasure (much spent in regaining auctioned property)

property, auctioned: most inherited property left in Bag-End

property, inherited: Bag-End; generic hobbit vanishing magic; Baggins luck; queer Took quality

Visibility. Of body: see magic ring. Of properties: see wizard’s eye, magic ring, dwarves

The additions are worth making if only because they bring to light Tolkien’s vision of the original story as all about Bilbo’s properties: in going there and coming back again Bilbo acquires a magic ring that reveals his inner properties, the name of a legendary burglar, some wealth, and comes home to find his original property passing into the hands of others.

The Hobbit (1937)

My philological index of The Lord of the Rings identifies a hidden index within a conventional index of names of Middle-earth. This ghost index is the index of the original story of The Hobbit. Key elements of the ghost index are given here. This post explains a small part of the ghost index.

Bilbo Baggins.

property, acquired: magic ring

property, inherited: Bag-End; generic hobbit vanishing magic; Baggins luck; queer Took quality

Visibility. Of body: see magic ring. Of properties: see wizard’s eye, magic ring, dwarves

The ‘magic’ of the original story involves a word play on property and a magic ring that takes its meaning from a linguistic theory of naming.

From the start of the story we are introduced to the idea of visible and invisible properties. We see Bag-End – a property Bilbo inherited from his parents, and we are told that Bilbo’s visible properties (character, qualities) were inherited from his father. But we are also told that he likely inherited from his mother ‘a queer Took quality’ – something initially invisible yet ‘in him’ (Gandalf) waiting for a chance ‘to come out’ (narrator).

When Gandalf first talks with Bilbo he sees the hobbit with his wizard’s eye, discerns his invisible property, and therefore selects him as the burglar on the adventure. The dwarves on first seeing Bilbo doubt the wizard’s word. But when Bilbo emerges from the goblin tunnels with a magic ring hidden in his pocket the dwarves immediately recognize him as ‘a first-class burglar’ – really, they now see that he has ‘in him’ what it takes to play the role of burglar assigned him in the story.

The magic ring is an acquired property (won from Gollum in the riddle game). The magic ring has two properties:

  1. The magic ring is named (and shown) in the story as a ring that renders the body invisible.
  2. The magic ring is unnamed but revealed by the story as a ring that renders invisible properties (inner qualities) visible – allowing the dwarves to see Bilbo with a wizard’s eye.

The ghost index thus points at the source of all the queerness that came out when Tolkien began to compose a sequel to The Hobbit. 

I suggest that the primary property of the magic ring is that which is unnamed and only shown in the story – a ring of visibility, revealing hidden qualities. The named magic ring of invisibility is merely a surface inversion of its real properties.

But this real property of the magic ring is not a standard fairy element (as Tolkien will later dub the magic ring). Rather, it is the imagination within a story of an instrument of philology, a picture of the key to naming as established within a linguistic theory of the index name. For the magic ring is simply an instrument that makes visible the hidden properties of a thing or person on which a name may be hung.

Looking ahead to what I have called the extended ghost index – the sequel in its first year of composition – we see immediately how the real property of the magic ring was to make a new story by way of the new idea (hit upon very soon after commencing composition) that the magic ring was made by the Necromancer:

The magic ring’s invisible property of making visible the hidden properties of a person is a first step to stealing their soul.

Indexes of Middle-earth

This post arises as I clarify the ideas of my index on the page naming the nameless.

A key idea advanced on that page is that Tolkien sees a story as generating its own index, which is the world of that story. A principle of Tolkien’s art, adopted by conventional indexes of Middle-earth (such as the Tolkien Gateway), is that there is only one world of both hobbit stories and so only one index for both. Yet the magic ring of the first edition of The Hobbit is a different thing than in later editions or in the sequel, and the same goes for Gollum and even Bilbo, and even the idea of hobbits themselves.

This raises the question of how many stories, worlds of story, and so indexes we have on our hands and a concern that once we turn to the early drafts of the sequel, the hero of which is named Bingo Bolger-Baggins, we add another story, world, and index. Let’s begin with a rough and ready chronology of the composition of the two hobbit stories:

1930-1933: The Hobbit composed and told (a compositional break after death of Smaug)

1936: ‘The Fall of Númenor’ (with much study of Beowulf behind it and some in front)

Christmas 1937: composition of ‘A long-expected party’: Tolkien’s most distilled commentary on The Hobbit

Winter 1938: Necromancer named as maker of magic ring and (as natural consequence) Ringwraiths encountered in woods of Shire

Late Summer 1938: digression through the Old Forest, house of Tom Bombadil, and Barrow-downs: Tolkien’s most intense commentary on The Hobbit and another picture of wraiths

Autumn 1938: Weathertop: everything changes. Bilbo’s heir starts to become a wraith and the first signs of a transformation into Frodo are glimpsed. And both hobbit stories, which since ‘The Fall of Númenor’ had introduced a distinction between the days of myth and the days of history had been firmly placed in myth, now entered history. ‘The Fall of Númenor’ begins to become the ancient history of the new hobbit story.

March 1939: Tolkien delivers a lecture on fairy-stories at St. Andrews: his story and his essay henceforth run parallel, working the transformation of magic ring into One Ring, generating the philosophy of art on which The Lord of the Rings is founded, and giving us also the elvish vision of Lothlórien and the Palantíri.

Summer 1940: the wild hobbit named Trotter becomes the man Aragorn, the heir of Elendil whose legend was sketched at the close of ‘The Fall of Númenor.’ For the next eight years, Tolkien imagines the history of Númenor in exile from the days of Elendil down to Aragorn by way of positioning various towers in Middle-earth.

Inspection of these stages suggests that we distinguish between revision within an index and transformation of the whole index into a new one.

My reading of Return of the Shadow, the early drafts of the first part of The Lord of the Rings, reveals that the moment that the magic ring was imagined as made by the Necromancer Tolkien began to to reimagine Gollum as an ancient hobbit and to reinterpret the original riddle game – in which Bilbo won the magic ring – as a competition Gollum had intended to lose.

Nevertheless, until Weathertop the new hobbit story was simply a sequel to the original, set in the same world and basically extending its index. In fact, in these early drafts we find the most exquisite commentary on The Hobbit that will ever be penned, a commentary that reveals much of the hidden meaning of the original. For example, Tom Bombadil reframes the underlying riddle around which The Hobbit was crafted. Gollum’s ‘transformation’ from stupid monster to ancient and ruined hobbit, while changing his character (the original monster is not malicious and no cheat) is not really a transformation but rather a making overt a hidden element of the original story, namely that Bilbo and Gollum are both aborigines.

Weathertop marks the moment when the original index comes to an end, and from this moment of composition through to the first drafts composed in the wake of the delivery of the lecture on fairy stories in 1939 we are, in terms of an index, in a sort of no-man’s land. From autumn 1939 onwards for nearly a decade we see a new story world under construction and hence a new index, and once the riddle game had been revised in the second edition of The Hobbit in 1951 the original story rewrote its own index and entered the same world as its sequel.

A question we wish answered is why did Tolkien rewrite the index to his hobbit stories? But in this post I focus only on the how, which has a simple answer.

The original index was rewritten once  ‘The Fall of Númenor’ entered the story as ancient history. This final myth of the elves composed between one hobbit story and the other posited a fundamental division between days of myth (before Númenor was destroyed) and days of history (after Númenor). Inspection leaves no doubt that both the original hobbit story and the early drafts of the sequel up to Weathertop are set in the days of myth. Weathertop established that the new story – and by implication also the original hobbit story – were situated in history long after the destruction of Númenor.

So, a philological reading of The Lord of the Rings reveals three indexes.

  1. The original index of The Hobbit, extended – with minimal revision – in the early story of the new hobbit story. (Index I)
  2. The 1936 index generated by ‘The Fall of Númenor.’ (Index 2)
  3. The final index: found in shorter form at the end of Return of the King and today found in longer form in various online wikis like Tolkien Gateway. (Index 3)

Index I is a ghost that haunts Index 3. Index 2 would seem simply to have been incorporated into Index 3, providing its basis and subsequently expanded as Tolkien drew the history of the exiles of Númenor from Elendil (who appears in the 1936 story) to Aragorn, thereby establishing the ancient historical background to his new story.

The crucial entry in Index 2 concerns time (sub-entries: myth and history) and the rewriting of the original involved reimagining a story set in myth as a fairy story in history.

The why is another question, but clearly relates to the fact that on Weathertop the implication of making the Necromancer the maker of the magic ring became clear. Having a wraith who had already passed through a similar magic ring appear in the Shire was an obvious consequence of this early decision, but a path was already being followed that saw Bingo stabbed on Weathertop by “the sword of the Necromancer” and start to become a wraith. This was to take a hobbit to a place that no other hobbit (not even Bilbo or Gollum) had been and involved all sorts of delicate questions about eternal hobbit souls and the inner being of a Ringwraith. These questions were resolved only through Tolkien’s lecture and subsequent essay On Fairy-stories, but – for reasons still to be determined – produced an immediate shifting of the world of the story out of myth and into history.

Magic ring and tower: first foundation

In the first months of the writing of a sequel to The Hobbit, in an untitled chapter that became ‘The Shadow of the Past,’ Tolkien pictured an opening scene in Bag-End. Gandalf is speaking about the magic rings made by the Necromancer and distributed to various folk of Middle-earth:

The dwarves it is said had seven, but nothing could make them invisible. In them it only kindled to flames the fire of greed, and the foundation of each of the seven hoards of the Dwarves was a golden ring. (Shadow 78).

At this early point of composition the magic ring was imagined as made by the Necromancer but had not yet become the One Ring. Once it did so, the association of magic rings and dwarf treasure was transformed into the following idea, voiced by Elrond as he tells the history of Sauron and the Rings of Power at the great Council of Rivendell:

His Ring was lost but not unmade. The Dark Tower was broken, but its foundations were not removed; for they were made with the power of the Ring, and while it remains they will endure.

Unlike the usual sequence from draft to published story, in this case the final version of the idea reveals its origin and so illuminates the meaning of the abandoned draft conception.

The idea is given different shapes by different drawings of the role of the magic ring in the story of Bilbo Baggins (1930-1933) in relation to the symbol of the tower that appears in ‘The Fall of Númenor’ (1936).

As detailed in various entries, The Hobbit tells a story of how a hobbit is named a burglar, thereby revealing a latent meaning of the ancient English phrase þéof náthwylces found in Beowulf. As such, the story helps Tolkien read the riddle of an expression that is now mythical because it belongs to stories once told but lost in the historical fall that saw the English migrate to the British Isles.

The Hobbit is in just this sense a tower of the kind erected by the exiles of Númenor – the view from the story reveals the meaning of prelapsarian words. Hence, the same logic that allowed Tolkien to name Beowulf a tower in his British Academy lecture also allows The Hobbit to be given this metaphorical or story title.

However, The Hobbit generates its own metaphor or symbol of philological speculation in the form of a magic ring. Where the tower pictures the end of philological inquiry the magic ring pictures its method: when the magic ring becomes Bilbo’s property his essential properties (luck and vanishing) are revealed by story-vision, thereby explaining how the story sticks the name burglar on him.

The magic ring is a metaphorical picture of the method of investigation. The method is the imagination of a story that reveals the hidden connection between the words of the expression; and the magic ring is the vision of such story-making.

On the foundation of this story-vision, a story is constructed, the view from which reveals the lost meaning of the archaic expression. The magic ring provides the foundation of a tower looking over the sea.

Yet this overt connection between magic ring and tower had not been made by Tolkien in winter 1938 when he penned Gandalf’s statement that each dwarf treasure was founded on a magic ring. What we see here, then, is Tolkien attempting to remake the 1936 metaphor of the tower from within The Hobbit.

Making a magic ring the foundation of the treasure of Thror is interesting because studded with ambivelance. The meaning of the treasure of Thror changes in the last part of The Hobbit. By the end of the story (and as pictured with a heavy hand in the movies), the treasure works an enchantment on dwarves and elves who almost go to war over it – an enchantment of the same baleful kind as the Silmarils, which lead the elves to slay their kin in early days of myth. Yet the treasure of the dwarves is also at the heart of their music, which wakes up Bilbo’s Tookish side at the start of the story in Bag-End.

Reflection on this passing relationship between ring and dwarf treasure highlights an intermediate step in the transformation of magic ring into One Ring. As soon as the magic ring was imagined as made by the Necromancer, which is almost the second thought Tolkien had once he began a sequel, it became evil. Nevertheless, for several months of composition the magic ring remained but one of many made by the Necromancer long ago, and for the same period Bilbo’s heir was a madcap prankster named Bingo Bolger-Baggins and Tolkien believed that his jokes would keep the evil of the Necromancer in check. This first phase of the imagination of the sequel hit reality on Weathertop, and this aborted projection of the tower into the treasure of Thror reflects a pre-Weathertop idea of the sequel.

The precise passage of ideas remains unclear to me, but it was on the way to Weathertop that a passing historical observation about Elendil introduced ‘The Fall of Númenor’ into the new hobbit story. Everything changed on Weathertop, but in the first instance this was because Bingo was stabbed by “the sword of the Necromancer” and began to become a wraith – and it became all too clear that the Necromancer was not to be escaped by japes and high spirits. Yet from this point ideas of Númenor began to enter the story. And very soon after this, the magic ring became the One Ring. (Hence, the legend of Elendil found in the myth of Númenor now generated a son, Isildur, who served to get the One Ring from Sauron’s hand to Gollum’s.)

From this point in the composition on it was perhaps only a question of time when the One Ring would be named the foundation of the Dark Tower of the Necromancer.

This, of course, was to invert the original if latent connection, such that a magic ring founds a tower looking over the sea. Barad-dûr provides a platform from which the Eye of Sauron looks out, not over the sea, but over Middle-earth. But this inversion was straightforward given the presence of a white tower by the sea to the west of the Shire, an identification (in the essay On Fairy-stories) of the Magician or Necromancer as the moral opposite of the teller of elvish stories, and the implicit thought that The Lord of the Rings was composed by means of an enchanted ring (the relationship of which to the original magic ring that reveals a hobbit being just what this index wishes to reveal).


‘The Fall of Númenor’ posits the world of the ancient north as the time between the fall of Númenor and the migration of the English tribes to Britain as the Danes smashed the older northern world.

This historical period glimpsed in the oldest northern writings is semi-mythical, where myth is understood to take its meaning from the biblical story of the Fall. Tolkien’s guiding idea is that the original Fall provides a model of how meaning is lost.

Adam names the animals in the Garden of Eden, and the tower of Babel story told later in the Book of Genesis suggests that the linguistic power of fallen humanity retained much of its original potency.

Now, comparative philology began with the recongition of linguistic changes working over many centuries. But the story of the Fall reveals that the world may change in a cataclysm – and on the other side, the survivors discover that a good part of the original reference of their words and stories has vanished. Myths are the stories told before the cataclysm, which we now discern only as fragments.

Myth, as so conceived, invokes realms now lost and almost entirely forgotten, from the Garden of Eden to the ancient homeland lost to the English who had settled in the British Isles. A principle of philological inquiry is thus raised into a theologically stained myth of the relationship between language and the world in time.

In history, which in Middle-earth is that which comes after Númenor, discovering the meaning of old words means imagining the lost myths in which these words were once embedded. In other posts we see Tolkien pulling out older and more substantial stories from those he finds in Beowulf. Many such stories may today be glimpsed only in the dark metaphors dimly discernible in the evident and surmised usages of unbearably old words.

‘The Fall of Númenor’ generates its own symbol of this philological practice: In Middle-earth, a few of the survivors of Númenor build high towers to better glimpse the vanished realm of myth over the sea.

The views from these towers arises when the meaning of old words is seen, revealing in vanished stories a homeland that is lost and days of enchantment that have forever passed.

Several months after penning ‘The Fall of Númenor,’ Tolkien gave his celebrated British Academy lecture on Beowulf (November, 1936), which he introduced by way of a metaphor of the Old English poem as a tower giving a view over the sea. The metaphor (endlessly quoted, always misread) pictures Beowulf as an artistic remembrance of lost ancient English traditions.

Yet the tower also illuminates the original art of The Hobbit – a solution to the riddle of the meaning of the ancient English phrase þéof náthwylces found by the telling of a fairy story.

The tower looking over the sea is ultimately a symbol of the clear sight of lost meaning achieved through a story that allows us to read prelapsarian words.


Tolkien studies (a perspective)

From the perspective of my own shortcut to mushrooms, the history of Tolkien studies is a curious one involving two distinct phases.

Within a decade of Tolkien’s death in 1973 two books had appeared that still today define the state of the emerging field known as ‘Tolkien studies’:

Tom A. Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth. Allen & Unwin: London. 1982.

Verlyn Flieger, Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World. Kent State University Press: Ohio. 1983.

Shippey’s book established the proposition that Tolkien’s professional life as an Oxford philologist has much to do with how and why he imagined Middle-earth. Flieger’s book identified Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction (1928) as second only to Beowulf in its influence on Tolkien.

Now, in the natural course of things these two studies would together have opened up a road that should have been taken long ago. Shippey says Tolkien was a philologist, but does not tell us of what kind (and the history of comparative philology reveals many kinds). Flieger identifies the importance of Poetic Diction, which was evidently intended as a contribution to the kind of study that in Oxford might have been called philological. Hence, the natural line of research waiting to be taken since 1984 is to use Barfield to establish what kind of a linguist Tolkien was and thereby take Shippey’s thesis to a new level.

The main reason why this road has never been taken, I think, is that these two great works were born just as the world changed. In 1983, the same year in which Flieger’s Splintered Light appeared, Christopher Tolkien published his edition of his father’s Book of Lost Tales, the first of what became twelve volumes collectively bearing the title The History of Middle-earth (Home). Nor did Christopher Tolkien stop there, with subsequent publications including an important 2014 volume containing his father’s translation of and commentary on Beowulf. Only in 2017 did he announce an end to half a lifetime of editorial work.

The immediate effect of this wealth of new primary material was to make clear that the book that appeared in 1977 as The Silmarillion was a distillation by Christopher Tolkien of a set of stories that his father crafted and recrafted over most of his life and of which many versions exist. As a Victorian taste for origins still haunts us, and as Christopher began the Home series with his father’s earliest writings, the main focus of most writing on Tolkien for some while now has been with the origin of the ‘Silmarillion’ stories (of which the classic account is now: John Garth, Tolkien and the Great War: On the Threshold of Middle-earth. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Boston, New York. 2003).

In the meanwhile, the two works of Shippey and Flieger have become classics in the sense that they are both constantly referenced yet rarely engaged with. Indeed, the extent to which the Home series has reshaped the whole field without anyone quite noticing is revealed by the way that Dimitra Fimi, in her Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: from Fairies to Hobbits (Palgrave Macmillan: London. 2008), politely places Shippey’s book on a pedestal while completely passing over Tolkien’s professional work (so we get elves in relation to Peter Pan but not to Beowulf).

Yet this silent dropping of Shippey’s basic premise has at least left him with less scars than Flieger. Her basic claim that The Silmarillion was inspired by Poetic Diction has been given a hard knock by the new evidence that Tolkien began his ‘Silmarillion’ stories over a decade before Barfield’s book was published. John Rateliff seems to be correct when, in his History of the Hobbit, he points out that there is no obvious change in the stories that may be correlated with the publication of Poetic Diction. Hence, while ritual homage to Splintered Light has become a commonplace of Tolkien studies, the inquiry into the significance of Owen Barfield’s ideas for Tolkien seems long ago to have been quietly shelved.

Like other people drawn into Tolkien studies only this side of the millenium, I began by reading whatever I could get my hands on. But my own interest has always been in the two hobbit stories rather than the earlier stories of the elves, and I soon discovered that the relevant Home volumes – which begin with The Lost Road (1987) – have so far attracted little attention. Returning to the two classic studies of the field after long submersion in these volumes has lead me to frame the above history.

And, of course, I do so because I wish to present this shortcut to mushrooms as a road that has been waiting to be taken since 1984.

My basic conclusions, as detailed in other entries, are:

  1. Shippey imposed an overly restrictive definition on philology that reflected that inquiries into poetic meaning once part of the world of thought of the Oxford philologist have subsequently been annexed by literary theory.
  2. Barfield’s Poetic Diction may indeed be discerned in the queer part of Tolkien’s linguistic thought, which is to say that both Oxford philologists share an idea of myth as containing original poetic meanings.
  3. Flieger had astonishing insight but made a mistake of interpretation. Tolkien engaged with Barfield’s Poetic Diction only in the mid-1930s, his influence is most clearly discerned in ‘The Fall of Númenor’ (in The Lost Road) and is a better guide to The Lord of the Rings than to The Silmarillion.

On this last point: when Flieger tries to relate Barfield to The Silmarillion what she is seeing is a combination of:  (a) various original elements compatible with Barfield’s ideas, and (b) an identification retrospectively imposed by Tolkien after composition of ‘The Fall of Númenor.’

Flieger also pushed a too simple identifiation of the thought of Barfield and Tolkien. We are looking at adaptation not simple adoption. Specifically, Tolkien recognized that Barfield was still hung up with a scholarly search for origins characteristic of Victorian philology at Oxford.

Where Barfield says that the first humans in history perceived – and so spoke of – the world mythically, Tolkien says that what the first humans perceived and said is beyond the reach of scientific inquiry and is properly treated by an artist inventing myths. Myths, for Tolkien, come before history. History is a series of falls, each of which leaves the survivors of the cataclysm with a handful of fragments of myths, which now become ‘fairy elements’ in fairy stories. These fairy elements, however, have a distinct affinity with the ‘original semantic unities’ at the heart of Barfield’s Poetic Diction.



The story of Adam and Even told in the Book of Genesis provides for Tolkien the ultimate myth. It tells of the Fall, giving to myth the meaning of a name for a story from before a fall.

Tolkien made use of the category of myth to define his own art, or at least some of it (the ‘Silmarillion’ stories are myths but the two hobbit stories became histories – technically: fairy stories). Yet the word also took its meaning from his reflections on the reach of philological science. Tolkien called myth, and thereby assigned to the category of art, a great swathe of the scholarly past of his discipline of comparative philology,  a nineteenth-century science with an inbuilt obsession with origins.

In the nineteenth century, the three main language families identified in the world were associated with the three sons of Noah: Japheth (Indo-European), Shem (Semitic), Ham (‘Other’). Nevertheless, Oxford’s first Professor of Comparative Philology, Friedrich Max Müller, approached the first grouping (which he named ‘Aryan’) as constructed from scratch. He pictured a people who had only a few very basic names of things and then imagined how they made language.

Müller’s mid-Victorian ideas lost credibility in the decades after 1859, when human antiquity was confirmed from stone implements unearthed in the fields of the Somme. For it now began to become clear that people had lived for many thousands of years before the three main languages families of the modern world ever began to form.

In the accepted narrative of the secularization of the sciences, the discovery of human prehistory is another nail in the coffin in the credibility of the Bible. Yet Tolkien saw that the bottom falling out of history allowed for a better fit between the Book of Genesis and linguistic philosophy.

History is conventionally defined as the past as revealed by written records. Beyond history, the archaeologist investigates prehistory. The earliest written texts obviously echo words spoken in at least the last days of prehistory. So the philologist may peer into prehistory. Yet at a certain point the vision of the philologist reaches a limit (as when Tolkien peered at the native population of the British Isles). What is beyond this limit Tolkien defines as myth.

Myths, as defined, are not stories untrue but stories of a time before our own records begin. Identifying the story of the Fall as the original myth, and carefully reading the Book of Genesis, Tolkien sees that Adam named the animals before humans ever knew a Fall. This is why, when we discern a theory of naming in the late 1920s – his etymology of the name Nodens – and the early 1930s –  The Hobbit – what we find is a theory of how already named things lost and found new names.

For Tolkien, the original naming of the nameless takes place in myth and the philologist or linguist who tries to imagine the origin of language is making a myth and calling it a science.

‘The Fall of Númenor’ (1936) gave Tolkien a definition of northern myth. This was retrospectively applied to the ‘Silmarillion’ stories he had been writing for two decades. From a wider perspective, northern myth comes into view as a series of stories punctuated by catastrophic falls.

From the perspective of the Beowulf poet, writing (believed Tolkien) in England in the time of Bede, the legendary past disclosed in stories still told of a lost homeland already had a mythical feel.

But behind each fall is another, until the Fall. The fall that began English history is the story of the terrible events that saw them load their possessions in boats and sail to a new British shore – a story of how a rising nation of warrior Danes took the lands of the ancient temple, made the old gods their own, and destroyed the tribe of the ancient priest-king.

Behind the stories of the ancient English is the much earlier, more terrible, and purely mythical tale of the fall of Númenor. In the most ancient northern legend recorded in history, the story of Scef glimpsed in the exordium to Beowulf, Tolkien heard the distant echo of Elendil who escaped from Númenor.

Eternity and Immortality

The ‘Fall of Númenor’ is a retelling of the ancient story of Atlantis, the only ancient source for which are two dialogues of Plato, the Timaeus and the (unfinished) Critias.

The two dialogues continue the discussion of the Republic. Socrates asks to see the ideal state brought into the world and into history. Timaeus tells how a divine craftsman fashioned the world, but before he speaks Critias tells a story supposedly heard from Egyptian priests, who keep long records, of how nine thousand years ago, amidst ” violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune”  the island of Atlantis “disappeared in the depths of the sea” (Timaeus).

Timaeus reveals what Plato was doing with this myth. He draws a distinction between knowledge, which has as its object eternal forms that do not change, and the historical world that is in constant movement and so cannot be an object of knowledge. The point of both his story and that of Critias is to reveal the eternal pattern discernible in history, showing by means of a myth how the eternal shapes intransigent matter in time.

Tolkien reframes the underlying relationship so that the story of Númenor reveals by means of a myth the relationship between history and immortality.

Some scholarly background. Edwardian scholars had made much of perceived similarities between ancient Greek and later Norse mythologies. Jane Harrison, for example, discerns a “forecast” of “the atmosphere of the Eddas” in Homer’s Olympus (1905, 31). A reaction against this trend, however, is found in R.W. Chamber’s ‘Beowulf and the Heroic Age’ (1925), which Tolkien told his Oxford students “should be read by all whatever else” (B&C 40).

Chambers pointed out that while the Cyclops encountered by Odysseus is “god-begotten and under divine protection,” the “gigantic foes whom Beowulf has to meet are identified with the foes of God” (Chambers 1939, 66). Over the next decade, Tolkien developed this observation into a key to Beowulf.

Tolkien came to see that ancient Greek and northern gods are situated differently in time. The Greek gods are timeless and do not fear death” (M&C 25), while the northern gods are “in their very being the enlarged shadows of great men and warriors upon the walls of the world,” and they are allies of mankind in a war against the monsters that “within Time the monsters would win” (M&C 25).

This allowed Tolkien to make sense of the fusion of Christianity and paganism he discerned in Beowulf. A Christian poet removed any reference to the old gods but maintained the old monsters. But given that the monsters would eventually win even with the aid of the gods, removing the latter from the picture did not change the fundamental insight into the human condition provided by the ancient pagan traditions.

This insight was bound up with a knowledge that the road to immortality is denied to mankind – in time each and every one of us will die. This insight of the ancient north was quite compatible with the new Christian teaching that after death the fate of the soul is eternity beyond the walls of the world.

Tolkien developed these ideas in his 1936 British Academy lecture. Here he explains that while the northern myths had, as it were, looked death in the face and so spoke to the very root of the (postlapsarian) human condition, the southern mythology had shirked the problem and so “could not stop where it was. It must go forward to philosophy or relapse into anarchy” (M&C 25). Its advance was shaped by the mythological conception of the gods as “timeless,” which fostered a conception of eternal, ideal forms that stand outside of time.Plato’s philosophical myth of Atlantis had its roots in an earlier mythological imagination.

To retell the story of Atlantis in terms of a relationship between an immortal and a mortal realm was to translate a southern myth into the mythological language of the North.


Through R.G. Collingwood, his colleague at Pembroke College, Oxford between 1925 and 1936, we catch a glimpse of Tolkien pondering what the lost story of Nodens might include.

Collingwood’s Archaeology of Roman Britain contains a chapter on Inscriptions that names “Nodens the god of Lyndey” together with “Sul the goddess of Bath” two of  “the very numerous non-Roman divinities whom the religious life of the Empire welcomed with its characteristic tolerance” (1930 p.166).

Rounding off long years of archaeological study, Collingwood six years later published Roman Britain. In a footnote in a chapter on Religion, he explains that Tolkien has told him that “the Celtic nominative” of the goddess of Bath “can only be Sulis” (1937, p. 264). He then offers a speculation on the meaning of the name, which he intimates is from Tolkien:

The Celtic sulis may mean ‘the eye’, and this again may mean the Sun.

Lydney Park and Bath are less than thirty miles away across the River Severn: Nodens and Sullis dwelled on opposite sides of the border made between England and Wales by the Avon valley. I think we catch a glimpse here of Tolkien wondering how their stories became entangled when Nodens the hunter caught the eye of Sullis the sun-goddess.

The Garden of Eden

Tolkien was a slow reader. He certainly read Beowulf, yet we shall see in later posts his mind was always drawn back to the first story of this Old English poem. We may be certain he also read all of the Latin Bible, and no doubt looked on occasion at the Hebrew and Greek originals. Yet, again, he never quite got beyond the first story.

The story at the heart of Tolkien’s imagination throughout his life is that of the first family, the man who first named the animals and dwelled together with a woman drawn from him in the Garden of Eden. The first family, who broke the prohibition by eating of the forbidden fruit, knew themselves sexually, and so received the doom of death and were exiled from paradise so they could no longer eat of the tree of life. Tolkien’s imaginative life can be delineated in relation to distinct phases of his reflection on this biblical myth and its sequels.

In 1916 a young soldier sick with trench fever began writing a cycle of stories of the elves in the ancient north. At the heart of these stories is an idea of elves as humans who never broke the prohibition and so hardly knew themselves as sexual beings and never received the doom of death. These ‘Silmarillion,’ which Tolkien dedicated his life to, were from the beginning bound up in an imagination of the story not told in Genesis, the story of humans who did not eat the forbidden fruit and continued to eat of the tree of life – the human ‘others’ who did not take the mortal road out of paradise.

Yet Tolkien’s youthful history of the elves in the ancient north had soon discovered an immortal fall, the consequence of a jealous love bound up, not with sexual relations, but in precious stones magically wrought by cunning hands.

In 1936, a forty-four-year-old Oxford Professor reconceived his stories of the elves in the ancient North. This was achieved through an unfinished novel about time travel, entitled ‘The Lost Road,’ which Tolkien began in early 1936 having agreed with C.S. Lewis that each would compose a story that touched on myth.

Tolkien’s novel begins with a father and son pair of early twentieth-century academics who travel back through various legends of the old north until they reach a mythological beginning of history in the story’s concluding chapter, entitled ‘The Fall of Númenor.’

Now the elves told a story of a second mortal fall, a northern sequel to the story of the Garden of Eden, in which mortals doomed to die try to take the immortality they have lost. The story cemented Tolkien’s imagination of the culture of the ancient north as complementing that of the ancient Hebrews by telling stories bound up in the fruit of the other tree, the tree of life.

Sauron the Necromancer, tempted a righteous mortal people into once again rebelling against the will of God. A story from neither the Old nor the New but an imagined Northern Testament.