Author Archives: simon

a wilderness of dragons

John Rateliff is the editor of the early drafts of The Hobbit and so has passed beyond the realm of legend. He organized this volume in honour of Verlyn Flieger. His choice of title for this collective of essays is perfect. I am not sure that anyone else in the world knows as much about Tolkien’s thinking as these two scholars.

Tom Bombadil: Peeling the Onion

Once upon a time, way back around 2005, the place to discover the meanings of Middle-earth was an internet forum named The Lord of the Rings fanatics plaza. I only enterted the plaza around a decade later, when it was already moribund. Indeed, my wanderings reminded me of the time-travellor in H.G. Wells’s story who discovers an ancient museum, covered in dust but still full of marvels. And at the heart of this great, sprawling, delapidated yet homely museum was a thread of extraordinary length in which, like the gnome inside the famous chess automata of Wolfgang von Kempelen, the late halfir peeled the onion that is Tom Bombadil.

I’ve been looking at halfir’s thread ‘Tom Bombadil: Peeling the Onion,’ which was saved in word document from the ‘Fall of the Plaza’ (a story I do not know) and made available to me by the kindness of Troels Forchhammer and Sue Bridgewater. The word document -180 pages! – is fascinating: brilliant, flawed, and itself a time capsule.

Halfir reminds us of a world now gone, in which the natural reference was Malorn or Amon Hen rather than Tolkien Studies and JTR, when the printed authorities were Scull and Hammond (icons of accurate quotation), Shippey, and Flieger but the world of engagement was the whole world of Tolkien discussion that the internet had now expanded and brought together. For halfir is not engaged in an academic dispute with the scholars, but in a general crusade against all the wrong-headed idiocies spouted about Tolkien and Middle-earth by other Tolkien fanatics – not those of the plaza, who are part of the machinery that will arrive at collective wisdom – but in the wider world beyond.

I really like halfir as I find him in these posts because I recognize the same, not entirely rational rage on finding people spouting nonsense about Middle-earth. And it is, of course, testimony to his genius that he singled out for his painstaking and patient analysis the mother of all nonsense: Tom Bombadil.

As an argument, or a series of analyses, ‘Peeling the Onion’ reveals both the strength of this medium and this era of Tolkien-discussion and, at least from my own perspective, their limitations.

Halfir begins by assembling all the evidence. In doing so he is helped by the legendary geordie, plaza ‘librarian’ and guardian of textual accuracy who has to hand all the printed versions (we must appreciate how much labour the recent scholarly editions save). I cannot praise this first third of the thread highly enough. Thanks to halfir (and geordie) I can (and you could, if this thead is ever re-published) walk step by step through Tolkien’s developing expressions of his imagination of Tom Bombadil.

But it is the minute analysis of the evidence that is so impressive. The 1934 poem (which is by no means the origin of Tom Bombadil let alone the ‘germ’) has no woods or forest, for example, and Bombadil escapes capture by Old Man Willow and others by speaking rather than singing. These observations are priceless in any attempt to understand what Tom Bombadil was for Tolkien.

And yet… Halfir warns that we must not judge earlier imaginations teleologically, seeing them as steps towards the Bombadil we know, but must strive to understand each imagination for itself. This leads him to the clear and definitive conclusion that Tom Bombadil was invented outside the legendarium of Middle-earth and assimilated into it. While taking this great step, however, halfir’s analysis is still rooted in a teleology in which The Lord of the Rings (as we know it) eclipses everything else.

I give one illustration, by way of this important letter by Tolkien to his publisher in December 1937.

And what more can hobbits do? They can be comic, but their comedy is suburban unless set against things more elemental. But the real fun about orcs and dragons (to my mind) was before their time. Perhaps a new (if similar) line? Do you think Tom Bombadil, the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside, could be made into the hero of a story?

Halfir makes much of this letter. He observes, for example, that this is the first mention of ‘the spirit’ of the countryside (and he acutely contrasts this spirit with the idea in the 1938 drafts of the story that Bombadil and Farmer Maggot are kin, noting that spirit won out over body in the idea of Tom Bombadil). But he does not step back sufficiently from The Lord of the Rings to note that Tolkien writes this letter only a few days before he sits down and begins a sequel to The Hobbit, the first notes of which forsee an adventure in the Old Forest with Tom Bombadil and Barrow-wights.

Now, as halfir could have seen if he had spent more time pondering Return of the Shadow rather than reading it as merely a passage into The Lord of the Rings, in 1938 the sequel was envisaged as about the same size as the original. This means that the adventure in Tom’s land was imagined as a main part of the new story, which in turn suggests that Tom Bombadil has a peculiar relationship to the magic ring that, from the start, was placed at the center of the sequel. Tolkien’s imagination of Bombadil as a ‘similar line’ to Bilbo Baggins is waiting to be reconstructed…

This is not the only point where I would fault the analysis, but it is major and indicative. Here is a key moment of imagination, in 1938 when the story of Tom’s realm as we know it was composed, which halfir walks past. From this point, I would say, his ongoing labour to understand Tom Bombadil, however much light it may throw on this or that point, is doomed.

Halfir could have seen this but did not. I think this partly reflects the time it takes people collectively to digest a new text (Return of the Shadow). But I wonder if an online forum like that in which Halfir was thinking out loud hinders such digestation because of a conservative pull from those around?

Jumping to halfir’s analysis of the powers of Tom Bomadil (his nature), I am not impressed. To explain my disapointment take note of how his thread begins:

I will start it by simply listing some of the many views as to who or what Tom is. It is not intended to be comprehensive. Some of them might surprise you!

The Many Headed Hydra- Interpretations of Tom

Tom is:

Adam (and Goldberry is Eve- both are in their unfallen state)
Aule(And Goldberry is Yavanna)
A being thrown-up at the beginning of time
The Brown Man
The Chieftain of Birds
One of the oldest inhabitants of King Bonehig’s kingdom
The Christian concept of stewardship
Christ (almost)
A daimonic being who lived before history
A Dutch Doll
The spirit of Ea itself
Earth’s Gaia
Eru’s representative in ME
An Enigma
The FIsher KIng
The Green Man
The Jungian concept of the ’Original Man’
The last Moorish King of Granada
A Maia ’gone native’
A Maia of Yavanna
The last Maia to enter Ea
A Merlin type figure
The spirit of ME
A nature spirit
A nature sprite
The embodiment of nature’s moral neutrality or ambiguity
Embodies Nature’s pattern
The Spirit of Nature
A spirit of the vanishing Oxford and Berkshire Countryside
A pre-existing spiritual being who became embodied as the spirit of nature
The One
The Reader
The opposite of Shelob but amoral
A spontaneous generation from the land
JRR Tolkien
Uncle Tim’s nephew in The Root of the Boot in The Advenures of Tom Bombadil
Based on Vainamoinen from the Kalevala
Wayland Young

The list goes on!

N.B. I am indebted to Charles Noad’s compilation of  the various interpretations of Tom in Leaves from the Tree for much of this list.

The implicit promise is that, by way of meticulous textual analysis, we will escape this collective insanity. But when we get to the grounds of things it seems that really the point of the exercise is to make a choice from this list (halfir’s Tom Bombadil is, basically, Adam).

Halfir’s problem is that, having interrogated all the evidence he still finds a gap between what Tolkien wrote and what he evidently imagined and (naturally) looks to other authorities for help. But either the authorities are flawed or what halfir makes of them is, for the result is as implausible as any of the theories he lambasts.

Halfir quotes this passage from Tom Shippey’s Road to Middle-earth (halfir’s insertion is in bold):

Tom names something (as he does with the hobbit’s ponies) the name sticks- the animals respond to nothing more for the rest of their lives. There is an ancient myth in this feature, that of the ‘true language’ , the tongue in which there is a thing for each word and a word for each thing, and in which signifier then naturally has power over signified – {cf. the Ancient Egyptian and Platonic beliefs referred to above, and Barfield’s concept of ‘semantic unity’} language ‘is omomorphic with reality’ once again. It is this which seems to give Tom his power.  [Note to self: check halfir’s quote in Road]

I cannot but blame Shippey here. He might walk free from a court of law by pointing to his lack of explicit endorsement (‘It is this which seems to give Tom his power’) – but so might a Venus flytrap defend itself against charges of false advertising. In any case, Shippey holds out a poisoned chalice and halfir grasps it firmly with both hands.

The idea is that Bombadil is a kind of Adam (Eldest) who enjoys what in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea is the power of magery: by singing the true names of all in his realm he is Master.

What to make of halfir’s editorial insertion? Earlier, Shippey had commented that Bombadil’s language “tends to be strongly assertive or onomastic, mere lists of names and qualities.” Halfir comments:

It is significant that Shippey chooses to use the term ‘onomastic’. At its simplest level an onomasticon is an alphabetic list of proper names, especially of persons. The Ancient Egyptians produced Onomsaticons – one of the most important being that of Onomasticon of Amenemipet.

All right and proper. But then comes this nonesense:

The Ancient Egyptians believed that a word contained all the properties of the thing, a belief we also find in Plato’s Cratylus in his exposition on the nature of language. Plato concludes that words are not arbitrary labels, and that they can only be given by a name –maker who is ‘of all artisans the rarest among men.’

Hold on? After blasting anyone who dares make a hypothesis about Tom Bombadil without evidence we are suddenly swimming in a sea of unsubtantiated (and erroneous) declarations. There is a jump here from the fact that the ancient Egyptians wrote such strange lists to the idea that such lists are magic formulae – on what grounds are we to believe they believed a word gave power over a thing? And we do not find the belief that a word contains all the properties of a thing in Plato’s Cratylus. Naturally, halfir also dips the bones of Owen Barfield into an already dubious soup (bold in original):

Owen Barfield- a neo-Platonist and fellow Inkling, influenced both Tolkien and Lewis tremendously with this concept of semantic unity – a linguistic philosophy which essentially meant that signifier and signified had a commonality– which he called ‘semantic unity’. Tom Bombadil is a name-maker….  And Tom- like the language he speaks- or sings- is of that early age – before the semantic unity was shattered and the light became splintered.

But Barfield is concerned with the relationships between words we know as metaphor and does not say anything about a commonality of signified and signifier. What is more, Barfield’s ‘original semantic unities’ refer to very long words, irregular conglomerations of sounds, quite different to the simple lists of names and qualities of either Tom Bombadil or an Egyptian Onomasticon.

We have stepped into babble. Shippey gives a lead and halfir takes it. The lead is wrong and halfir takes it further into nonsense with this piffle about the ancient Egyptians, Plato, and Barfield. His conclusions are as bonkers as anything else out there about Tom Bombadil in the big wide internet:

And so Tom is linked – by his very being- with the Ancient Egyptian Onomasticons where the word contained all the properties of the thing, to Plato’s Cratylus, to Barfield’s ‘semantic unity’ and Shippey’s ‘true language’.

I don’t know what to say, really. The beginning was so bright, the responsibility surely rests with Shippey no less than halfir, but I am left with this feeling that all this early 21st-century technology, by which halfir built an online machine to peel the onion that is Tom Bombadil, acted as another time machine and took halfir and all who sailed with him back to 1975.

Word magic

‘Peeling the Onion’ arrives at the idea that Tom Bombadil is a name-maker because he speaks the original Adamic language in which a name is a word of power over that which bears the name. My review of this legendary lost thread dismissed such an idea out of hand; but, of course, halfir truly saw one of Tom Bombadil’s faces. Really, he is to be faulted, not for arriving at this idea but for not then pressing on to its other side.

This baseless pyramid is from The Meaning of Meaning (1928), by C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards, two Cambridge men. At the base of the pyramid we find words (symbol) and things (referent) and no direct connection between them.

The idea of a direct connection between symbol and referent, which is precisely the idea by which halfir explains the power of Tom Bombadil, Ogden and Richards name the myth of ‘word magic.’ Like halfir they attribute this idea to the ancient Egyptians, and like Shippey they identify it as a primitive myth of language, but they further insist that this myth is prevalent in our own times.

Ogden and Richards propose the problem of meaning as the antidote to the myth of word magic. Meaning is what is found ‘inside’ the speaker, the one who employs a symbol. Meaning is the apex of the triangle. The idea of the relationship between symbol and referent, word and thing, is transformed from magical myth to science by the introduction of a notion of ‘meaning’ between words and things.

As I pointed out in my review of halfir’s thread, Tom Bombadil was imagined by his author just a week or so before beginning his sequel to The Hobbit as “a new (if similar) line” to Bilbo Baggins.

“Good Morning!” said Bilbo, and he meant it. The sun was shining, and the grass was very green. But Gandalf looked at him from under long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat.

“What do you mean?” he said.

The long and the short of it…

The short. Halfir (and Shippey) forget that Tolkien was a professional linguist, and while surely not bowled over by The Meaning of Meaning could not have ignored it. The triangle of reference is not new; as James McElvenny points out in his wonderful study of Ogden, Language and Meaning in the Age of Modernism (2018), the basic idea that the word signifies through the medium of concepts would have been recognised by a medieval schoolman. Nevertheless, Ogden and Richards dropped the problem of meaning into the Pot of all those in Britain of the 1930s who dealt professionally in language.

That Tolkien simply adopted Ogden and Richards’ idea of ‘word magic’ and drew Tom Bombadil might be a credible hypothesis if we were dealing with almost any other interwar author; but it is incredible to imagine that Tolkien did not acknowledge their problem of meaning and pose his own solution.

The long of it is that to understand Tom Bombadil we must begin with the problem of meaning as it is set up in The Hobbit, and only arrive at the Master of wood, river, and barrow by way of the magic ring, which served as a fulcrum between Tolkien’s first story-riddle of meaning and Tom Bombadil, the second version of the same riddle.


Riddles of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings

The online meme is, or was, ‘why did Gandalf not get the eagles to fly them direct to Mount Doom?’

This is a question posed by orcs who see jet planes and think of engines and magic. It is a completely genuine question, but asked from a Dark Tower. The question as found in the mirror, which is not asked by twitter users but was posed by Tolkien late in composition, as he wrote The Taming of Smeagol:

Tom could have got rid of the Ring all along {? without further}…if asked

Pencil note, HOME 8, The War of the Ring.

Falling off a table at the Prancing Pony

On the odd occasion I leave the comforts of The Green Dragon to poke my head in the door of The Prancing Pony, I usually enjoy myself. But when last I tried to visit I found myself knee deep in that midge-plagued marsh on which a phantom tower of Tolkien studies has been raised.

The podcast deals with Tolkien’s 1936 Beowulf lecture. Listen to a little, from around 29 minutes in. We are told that Tolkien’s essential point was that criticism has suffered at the hands of research; scholars who dig and quarry Beowulf fail to see that they have before them a work of art; the tower is to be enjoyed as a tower.

What on earth can it mean (34.15) that we should appreciate the tower as a tower? Tolkien makes a metaphor by naming Beowulf a tower and tells a story that reveals that the tower gives a view on the sea. The poem has value, not for its own sake, but because it allows keener sight of something worth seeing. (The same is true of the lecture.)

I contend that Tolkien is not saying that the scholars, by doing scholarship, are missing the point and the poem is getting lost in the research (as Shawn Marchese or Alan Sisto says in the podcast). Tolkien is saying that the scholars have failed to get their scholarly perspectives right and so have failed to see the poem. Between these two interpretations is a discipline of history, the heart of Tolkien’s art yet avoided like an infectious disease by both Tolkien fandom and the massed students of modern literature.

Tolkien’s first point is that unless you get the history right you cannot see the poet and so cannot hope to understand what his poem is. His second is that the poet was engaged in an historical act (reading ancient stories the meanings of which had already faded in his day). His third is that the poet was writing ‘historical fiction’ – setting his story around the lands in which his people had lived prior to their migration to the British Isles. His fourth… well, its historical all the way down to the very center (one of two points in the lecture in which we reach the limit of history and glimpse the nature of the myth ‘on the other side’).

First and foremost, Tolkien invites us to imagine the moment in the distant past when the Anglo-Saxon poet came to the idea of what making his poem meant. Such historical imagination Tolkien takes as a necessary prelude to any critical engagement with the poem. Unless you – the reader of the essay that was once a lecture – take this imaginative journey into the past yourself, to the minimal degree that you fashion a picture in your mind’s eye of a man at work with pen and parchment more than a thousand years ago, you are simply not reading the lecture.

What Tolkien is telling the foolish scholars to see is the man who made the poem. He is absent in their scholarship (be it of a historical or a literary bent) – just as he is missing in this podcast.

Given that Tolkien delighted in the curious passage of time that hides as well as preserves meanings, I take it he would smile to see how the development of English studies since his day has ensured that his own meaning in his lecture has become utterly invisible to those who nowadays comment on it. Be that as it may, those who have lost their vision may begin to restore it by reading the opening paragraph of C.S. Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost (OUP 1942):

The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is – what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used…. The first thing is to understand the object before you: as long as you think the corkscrew was meant for opening tins or the cathedral for entertaining tourists you can say nothing to the purpose about them. The first thing the reader needs to know about Paradise Lost is what Milton meant it to be.

Many years ago, in England, lived a man. He was learned, and had some native art. He studied the old stories of the ancient homeland, trying to get a view of them all; he was well versed, too, in the new stories read aloud from a Book in Latin. In his day, his native artistic tradition was already fading. But before it became quite invisible he used some of the old and ancient stories to remake tradition with a story of his own, in which he intended to show the truth in the old stories as it touched the truth of the new.

Once we see what the poet was trying to do we are in a position to reflect upon the meaning of such an enterprise, and the success the poet achieved given his own intentions. But this is all just to set the scene. Now we observe Tolkien teasing out the content and the meaning of the ancient mythology as he infers it was known and understood by a man who lived on our side of English history, to be sure, yet close enough to the great divide that he could still see that ancient learning that history was about to utterly forget – save a few fragments of later confused memories and, a perhaps more likely road, what could be seen by deep literary reflection on the mind of the Anglo-Saxon poet. And so the lecture advances…

The enchanted stream that ends in the marsh on which Tolkien is now studied has its source in the advance of literary criticism since the days of Lewis and Tolkien. Whatever criticism means today (and I find the usages I hear hard to figure out) one thing the professors of literature are quite clear on is that it is a fallacy to judge a work by way of the intentions of its author.  Whatever the validity of this revision, the result is that the very idea of criticism has for modern readers a different meaning than it did for Tolkien.

Criticism as I find it in Tolkien studies, and in this podcast, seems to involve a stab at saying how the numinous elements of Tolkien’s stories ‘speak to us.’ (I’d be happy to be corrected, no doubt this formulation could be better, and certainly I am missing something; but whatever exactly the modern notion of criticism,) when projected on to  Tolkien in this lecture (as also OFS) we invariably end up with this misreading: our ability to discern the art in a work of art is crowded out by the babel of scholarly voices; we need to tune in and turn on to the art and drop out of scholarship. This creed is all very well if this is your thing, but it is diametrically opposed to anything that Tolkien intends.

Reading Tolkien’s talk of criticism through a modern lens calls up a quite extraordinary enchantment that propels readers straight back into the destructive orgy that the allegory of the tower is supposed to help them escape! The builder who put the words together (poem or lecture) is no longer seen as the subject of inquiry; with the builder’s design rendered invisible the words (of poem or lecture) are all that is seen, the tower made by the builder is knocked over as critics eagerly seize individual stones that glitter in their hands, and a string of quotations that do not quite fit together leads us on a will-o’-the-wisp path to a creed of ‘art for art’s sake’ that has banished the ghost of the dead poet who gave meaning to Tolkien’s lecture. The best one can say about this conventional reading is that it reveals magic at work before our eyes: shapes woven in the mist by those acting under a spell that has rendered an author invisible to them.

For Lewis and Tolkien, the need to uncover authorial intention prompts a journey into history. To  give but one example: to call Beowulf an ‘epic’ is to be unhistorical – it is to fail to appreciate that an Anglo-Saxon poet was not trying to ape Classical literature but to give voice to his own native tradition. His intentions are bound up with this tradition, and Tolkien is bound to reconstruct both. Only by way of historical insight into the relationship between the poet’s choices and the lost tradition of northern art can genuine criticism of the poem be attempted.

Far from being a rejection of history, Tolkien’s lecture opens up the historical dimension of Beowulf. His underlying question, throughout his lecture, is essentially: what was the tradition of northern art performed by those long dead poets whose words were carried over the sea by my more recent ancestors? Specifically, he asks: what did the Anglo-Saxon poet make of his already fading native tradition that prompted him, a Christian, to hallow the words of the old poets by continuing their tradition?

And (a cardinal point) Tolkien’s answer begins from the observation that the art of the North looks death in the face. The art of the North is a historical art – because to study history is to look death in the face (the man you pictured making the poem when you began reading this lecture, is dead). If you begin with the idea that history is antithetical to understanding the poem you will walk through the whole lecture with your eyes tight shut and, what is more, mistake Tolkien’s idea of myth for an exercise in “pure fantasy.”

From where I stand, this Prancing Pony podcast echoes contemporary Tolkien criticism by following a quotation from the lecture just to the point where it ends, and no further. Blindness to Tolkien’s intentions precludes perception of how one quotation complements and reinforces another, and the essay appears as a maze.

Once you understand that Tolkien’s very idea of criticism is historical then, with patient reading of the lecture, its connections emerge into view and the essay opens up a path that leads directly into the very center of Middle-earth. And once you understand that Tolkien’s historical criticism constitutes an attempt to learn from – and thereby in some strange way communicate with – the dead, you understand that you are holding in your hand instructions for use of the Seeing Stones that were long ago returned back into the West.

Tolkien’s lecture may seem designed to confuse if you do not grasp the historical attempt to see another person at the heart of it. Yet much of what at first confuses proves to be carefully crafted help. The primary aid the author provides is the short story by which he introduces his main arguments. Tolkien tells of a man who found some old stone and built a tower that looks on the sea…

Apprenticeship, my ebook, reads only the allegory of the tower that introduces the lecture. But the root cause of misreading lecture and allegory are the same – otherwise, one would surely have corrected the other. 

Index of the Beowulf lecture

Last post was a pub rant on podcast 092 from The Prancing PonyUsually, Shawn Marchese and Alan Sisto, the Pony podcasters, read Tolkien’s mythological world with keen eyes. In this episode the allegory of the tower is read aloud, Tolkien’s dislike of allegory is noted, and the pair proceed to fall into our author’s trap. In my post, I pointed out what they had missed in the lecture and then fell into the same trap.

My initial motivation for writing the post was an irritation with Shawn and Alan’s easy criticism of the scholars – the friends and descendants of the builder, who push over and fail to value his tower. Getting carried away unveiling the hidden center of the lecture my prose tripped, without my quite noticing, into the same easy criticism of those who knock over a tower.

Tripping up on a spell.

As Giovanni Carmine Costabile has well said, we all knock over a tower or two on the journey of our lives. If we walk the road of art trying not to touch anything lest we break it we are not going to learn so much.

Pick up the Stone, Pippin!

It seems to be very hard to talk about the allegory of the tower without getting self-righteous about the vandalism of other people. I suggest this empirical observation about discussion (online and print) of the allegory is a sign of Tolkien’s workmanship. He is not tricking us; not exactly; but he is encouraging our distraction, helping us down the garden path to the barren wilderness of a critical pose.

The short story of the tower is a subversion of allegory, which makes use of this literary form to disguise another. The allegorical story makes a smoke screen by directing our gaze upon the mortal sins of others, inviting us to ponder whether they are born of blindness (friends) or murderous hate (the Enemy). Fixated by the mischief of others, we do not quite register the riddle that is posed to us at the end of the story.

But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.

Like all good riddles, this one hides its meaning. Distracted by destruction, our eyes read the words but our imaginations do not follow the storyteller up the stairs and stand by his side looking on the sea.

I am unaware of any commentary on the allegory of the tower that has recognized this last line for what it is. All my complaints about this one Prancing Pony podcast apply mutatis mutandis to all the great secondary literature of the last half-century that I have read.

With the imagination fixated with the moral scandal of the destruction of the tower by the builder’s friends, the view from the tower is never examined. Rather, it is labelled, and so dismissed from further attention, as an ‘unanalyzable’ symbol of the value of art, or some such. Tom Shippey, for example, calls the view from the tower a “private” symbol of Tolkien’s own, with which word he closes down discussion. Verlyn Flieger does the same by declaring the view devoid of “allegorical correlative” and so also of definite meaning. (I am not sure if Shawn Marchese and Alan Sisto get over the violence of the scholars and climb the stairs to consider the view, I have to check.)

This is where I find it very hard to keep from blowing my top, which is irrational – why should I care what others say? But I do, and it is here that I use words like blindness in reference to all who have contributed to building the tower of Tolkien studies – which has indeed been built on a marsh.

Because it is about not looking. The problem has arisen because nobody climbs the stairs and looks.

And there is an irony of interpretation here. Those members of the British Academy leture who gathered to hear the Oxford professor’s lecture may have looked out from the tower as their speaker invited them, and may perhaps have seen a glimpse of mythical significance. But they cannot have seen the view that Tolkien had in mind, which modern readers of the lecture can hope to know, and some indeed know very well indeed. Yet a sense that we are in a different kind of writing than the fairy or hobbit stories seems to prevent those who know from looking.

Tolkien tells an allegory about a man who lived a thousand years ago because, for all that great span of time, the builder of Beowulf lived in the modern age of English history. When Tolkien uses the term myth in this lecture he has in mind, among other things, aspects of stories that were told in another homeland in an earlier age – stories that have come to us from out of the sea.

Just because this short story of the tower appears in an allegory in an academic lecture does not mean it does not relate to the world of Tolkien’s mythology.

When a keen eye looks out from the top of the tower, one who knows that deep under the dark and cold waters on the horizon lie the ruins of Atlantis may see the riddle of myth posed to us by a teller of northern story.


The Apprenticeship of J.R.R. Tolkien (Ye Machine, 2018) was published on August 29. But this is the first announcement. There is simply no point competing with The Fall of Gondolin (August 30). This shade has proved welcome, though, because I’ve found myself unable to break the loop of patching. In fact, with this second ebook, I appreciate  that electronic release of an essay is not like release of a printed edition and is like a beta online program release. Having set my 29.08.18 release date in stone I now find myself seeing room for improvement everywhere I look.

The main patch – for which I apologize to the three or so people who have purchased the book – has been the section titled Biblical Myth in Part Two of the essay. But I am not sure I can do more than add patch upon patch (though every time I look I see the phrasing should be improved!)

My problem is that I have only just begun to appreciate how seriously Tolkien read the Book of Genesis. Until I can place my feet on the ground in the relations between his ‘Silmarillion’ stories, his reading of fragments of ancient northern stories, and his reading of the generations between Adam and Abraham, I can do no more than patch. Here is a paragraph recently inserted that is simply a temporary patch:

There is an *idea* of myth to be discovered in Tolkien’s literary sequels to the story of the Fall, but we will fail to reach it unless we recognize the textual basis of his meditations. The focus on ideas that is the chosen path of this essay falls easily into Protestant presuppositions, in which we approach the Bible as a book translated into our own language and assume that each individual alone may interpret the words on the page – a reformed manner of reading that has become a basis of modern literary criticism. But Tolkien knew the words of the Bible in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew as well as English, and he was evidently aware also of some at least of the many and varied traditions of commentary on each of the verses of a book that – it cannot be doubted – he believed was true. We are walking here at the very center of things, the crucible where everything emerges, and all that limits the view are the limitations of your guide, who can read only his native language and knows little of the great commentaries on the Book of Genesis by which both Tolkien and the old poet before him were fixing their imaginations.

When I talk of Protestant presuppositions I have in mind myself, in virtue of paternal inheritance and a higher education at one of England’s ancient universities, and also a friend who champions personal reflections on The Lord of the Rings and thinks of what he does in terms provided by modern literary theory. As a general rule of the kind of conversations I find myself having, however private, such presuppositions are widespread, inevtitably brought to the table, legitimate, in no way necessarily associated with the Necromancer (as I now apologize for having suggested), and ultimately inseperable from our free will and our relationship to the words that we speak to one another. My point is only that this enthusiastic Protestant tradition of reading is in certain respects quite at odds with Tolkien’s, who naturallly consults what past authorities have to say about a verse of Scripture and sets out his own reading in conversation with the living and the dead.

I have a sense that there is a whole conversation between two halves of North America in which science is pitted against Creationism and religious identity turns on a criteria of literal truth applied to the Book of Genesis. This is a conversation that completely passes Tolkien by, which is not to say that he might not find himself in uncomfortable arguments about the literal truth of, say, the Flood (or the drowning of Atlantis). But he really did not spend much time on asking himself about the truth of the biblical stories; that was not for him an interesting question – they were true, whatever that might mean. Where he began was a puzzling out of strange stories that seem to hide their meanings.

What I call Protestant presuppositions, and recognize in myself as well as many others who I converse with, embraces a fine individualism that runs the risk of not noticing, let alone coming to appreciate, our own inherited and native traditions. Tolkien’s meanings seem to me wrapped deeply in the learning of the learned of more than two millenia. While we may be happy to wonder alone in Middle-earth, and while the richness of our individual experiences as readers of The Lord of the Rings cannot be denied, I think we are missing the point if we do not admit from the get go that what is so wonderful about this reading experience is a recognition that we are not alone (and just what that means, as my friend well knows, is the more helpful question to ask).

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).