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  • Bilbo Baggins was presumed dead when he returned home. What turns up on his doorstep of Bag-end in the sequel is undead.

Our video series on The Hobbit arrives at the conclusion that the magic ring is a fairy element imagined as of dual functionality: a thing that makes the wearer invisible and a sign that signifies the story-meaning of its bearer (Bilbo Baggins, and once also of Gollum). We use the term story-meaning to refer to a theory, imputed to Tolkien by our reading of his story, that a name has meaning according to some story or stories (which may well be forgotten).

What this theory became in Tolkien’s hands as he wrote the sequel to the adventure of Bilbo Baggins may be traced by way of another path through the literature (primary and secondary).

March 1939. St Andrews, in the far north of the British Isles. Tolkien is speaking to a learned audience about fairy tales. What appear to be his lecture notes include the following observation: “Mythology is language and language is mythology” (OFS 181).

Verlyn Flieger was the first to see the way here, discerning that the relationship Tolkien posits involves metaphors in time in something like the manner set out in Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction (1928). Oddly, while preparing (with Douglas A. Anderson) the modern edition of On Fairy-stories Flieger passed by the opportunity to point out that the central discussion of the invention of fairy elements by combining nouns and adjectives is illuminated by the same source as also a sketch of a method of potential restoration of lost mythical meanings. 

Barfield built his own theory out of a recent, radical retelling of the long linguistic record. Otto Jespersen, an enfant terrible of Danish comparative philology, whose Progress of Language (1899) made analysis both engine and end of his scientific account of language. Victorian philologists saw modern European languages as degenerating from ancient, classical synthetic languages (Latin, Greek, Sanskrit). Jespersen argued that less synthesis and more analysis was better – giving more meaning for less sounds. One residual shadow cast by this vision of efficient communication was a conjectural starting-point, an ‘original’ language before analysis organized sound-meanings into any order, a primordial stutter of congealed sound and meaning at ground zero of utterance.

Barfield built Poetic Diction by accepting root and branch Jespersen’s historical arguments and then insisting that the Dane was devoid of poetic sensibility – in reality, said Barfield, the sublime language of the ancients reflects the primordial or original semantic unity still fathomable in, say, Homer. While Tolkien surely drew a much larger gulf between ancient Greek and an imaginary origin point of pure poetic utterance, he is nevertheless adopting the Jespersen-Barfield model when he suggests in his essay On Fairy-stories (1947) that, in history, the storytellers invent new fairy elements for their stories by novel combinations of noun and adjective; for here Tolkien has in mind that invention may also be restoration. Tolkien takes Barfield’s formulation further, his fairy elements are Barfield’s ‘ancient semtantic unities’, i.e. modern metaphors, but Tolkien observes that in this imagined origin such congealed lumps of meaning are but elements in a serving of soup – a portion of story. Whether human beings ever spoke such a story-language is moot, and Tolkien draws it for us a the tongue of the shepherd’s of the trees. Old Entish names are stories, as explained by Treebeard:

my name is growing all the time… my name is like a story. Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to in my language, in the Old Entish as you might say. It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it… (TT 606)

So, Jespersen’s original soup of word-sounds and congolmerated meanings becomes, first Barfield’s ‘ancient semantic unities’, in which modern poetic metaphors restore an ‘original’ language of pure description, and second what Tolkien calls a story, in which unexpected nouns and adjectives are congealed in various fairy-elements that are at once an artist’s invention and a possible original element in the Cauldron of Story (an image in the Mirror of Galadriel, the cool water of which has been simmering since the Lady sailed into the West).

While this derivation through Barfield to Jespersen appears to deliver Tolkien’s theory and practice of fantasy, it is not therefore without scientific or scholarly significance. The fantasy elements of the resulting invention (a story, by J.R.R. Tolkien) reconstructs an almost entirely imaginary ‘original’ etymology of some one or other name (e.g. stone), the overt fantasy delineates the speculative shape of a real original meaning. No doubt, this story not only never happened and, more to the point, was never told; yet some such story or set of interlocking stories were told and, in being told, set out this original speech community’s store or database of meanings. But the point, the whole point, is that while we are inclined to read this database analytically (TolkienGateway), the meaning of any element found within (e.g. a stone) demands not only restoration of a lost adjective (e.g. seeing) but also the framing of this fairy-element within the (lost) storyThe Lord of the Rings gives us a model for how to think about original – and hence (by definition) mythical – meaning = as story-meaning.

To return to the magic-ring. This ring was the twin fairy-element of The Hobbit, the link between this hobbit met in the first sentence and the story that gave meaning to this first fairy element. The magic ring is one fairy element among many, but – like the Mirror of Galadriel, the view in the Palantiri, and the view from the tower looking on the sea if one simply turns around – it is an image of the story itself.

And so the One Ring is, of course, also an image of story-meaning. Yet different… It is the idea of story-meaning seized by a necromancer, who rather than choosing to cast a net into the vanishing past and almost see forgotten stories of the glorious dead (as Tolkien learned to do from the Beowulf-poet) tricks the present with a dead reading of the past in a bid to author the future.

The watcher in the water. The Ring on Frodo’s breast. The riddle of the Second Age on the western door of Moria.