Welcome to ye machine. The website takes its name from a paper, composed around 1871, about a mechanical mind – described in a book I once wrote on Victorian political economy. After finishing this book I decided to apply the method of intellectual history to an author who explored a different side of reality and, more importantly, one who I actually enjoyed reading: hence began the last decade of research into J.R.R. Tolkien – a subject who has consistently blown my mind and taught me to see the world differently.
Initially, by developing some earlier work on late-Victorian historical studies I showed how Tolkien’s mythology was rooted in a reconstruction of the stories told by the English before they came to the British Isles (see the ebooks on the right). For several years now, however, I’ve been caught up in the two hobbit stories – returning to the site of childhood obsessions.
As a child I was (more than) happy to open these books and step into a world of fantasy. But what fascinates me today is the understanding of reality at their basis. Just as unique insight into ancient English history stands behind his vision of the three ages of Middle-earth, so rare understanding of the limits of language – and an astonishing art of metaphor that explores what is beyond them – is the warp and the weft of Tolkien’s fantasy.
Below is a chronological march through this material. As the research is worked up into an essay, book, or YouTube series I’ll outline each section in greater detail in a main page on the website.
When Tolkien fans write about The Hobbit they generally resort to negatives: it is ‘only’ a children’s story, they say, and was only retrospectively integrated into Middle-earth. But when a father makes something for his children he puts the best of himself into it and if the original adventure of Bilbo Baggins was not intended as part of his ‘legendarium’ then the question arises what it was intended to be?
By way of making a video series on The Hobbit with my own children I have got to the bottom of what Tolkien was doing in the late 1920s and early 1930s when he imagined and wrote his story. The answer, in a nutshell, is playing with the mystery of names.
At the bottom of The Hobbit we found the story of ‘Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves,’ which became a hot topic in Victorian discussion of proper names after J.S. Mill (bizarrely) claimed that the mark the robbers make on Ali Baba’s door is analogous to a proper name. Tolkien took the two doors of this story in the Arabian Nights, swapped round their order (so the marked door opens the story and the hidden door leading to stolen treasure marks the destination), and then drew the magic ring out of Mill’s idea of a sign of a proper name. You can follow the trains of thought that arrived at this conclusion on our YouTube channel, Tolkien TV.
Tolkien’s most famous lecture, ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’ (1936), begins with a short story about a man who built a tower from which he could see the sea. I argue that the view from the tower is a symbol of the art of the North, an art that looks death in the face with courage.
I’ve written more on this (already published) research on a main page on this website. Suffice it here to say that a large part of what I do is show that ‘The Fall of Númenor’ arose as a continuation of Tolkien’s Beowulf studies and that the result was a new understanding of the relationship between myth and metaphor and the derivation of such key elements of The Lord of the Rings as the towers of Middle-earth, the Palantíri, and the Mirror of Galadriel.
This is the name I give to the sequel of The Hobbit that Tolkien composed between Christmas 1937 and autumn 1939, after which the story transformed into The Lord of the Rings. These early drafts can today be read in Return of the Shadow, edited by Christopher Tolkien, and the ‘ghost sequel’ we find is comprised of two distinct strands.
On the one hand we have a story that begins at Bag-end and a long-expected party and runs from Bree, through Weathertop, to Rivendell. This journey was written and re-written myriad times as the magic ring slowly became the One Ring. In the beginning, Bilbo’s heir was named Bingo Bolger-Baggins and was imagined together with Gollum – now given a proper name and story. Where Gollum was a hobbit who used the magic ring to spy and sneak, Bingo was a practical joker who used the magic ring for pranks. But Bingo’s sense of humour proved no help on Weathertop, when the ‘sword of the Necromancer’ pierced his body and he began to transform into a wraith.
On the other hand we find in Return of the Shadow one draft of a journey through the Old Forest and the Barrow-downs by way of the house of Tom Bombadil that is remarkably close to the published story. This supplies the clue as to why Tom Bombadil is an enigma within Middle-earth: he gives us the true sequel to The Hobbit, which is to say that in the realm of Tom Bombadil we find another side of the mystery of names first disclosed in (the original story of) The Hobbit.
A pivotal lecture of 1939, written up in 1943, On Fairy-stories (1947) is the theoretical bridge between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Widely quoted but never understood.
Tower, Ring, and Mirror
This is where I began several years ago: a monograph on the magic of The Lord of the Rings put on hold when a search for foundations generated the projects above. Once the above are polished I will return to this monograph: an account of the war of the Ring as sequel to two stories: The Hobbit and ‘The Fall of Númenor,’ passing through the linguistic workshop of ‘On Fairy-stories,’ and bursting out of the ‘ghost sequel’ in Autumn 1939, just as Britain declared war on Germany.
Simon J. Cook