Author Archives: simon

The Riddle of The Hobbit

Well, we have done our usual mistake, passing off a video as finished when the last part is still one shuffle short of a card trick. In previous videos this has not mattered because the last part has proved the springboard to the next video, but this video should tie it all together. We are now revising the last part of the video and will upload again in about a week. In the meanwhile, I will begin to frame the video in this post.

Edit: by way of the page discussing these videos I’ve come to think all the other videos are also flawed and it would be better to drop all six into an archive dump and remix 4 videos from them.

The video, like the series, is a step in a long struggle to escape The Lord of the Rings. When I was about 7 years old I was captivated when read The Hobbit. For many years I liked to say I wanted to have children so I could read the story to them. When that event came the experience was frustrating – I could not find the voice to read the story. When a facsimile of the first edition came out a few years ago, and I discovered the differences in tone throughout and experienced reading the original riddle-game in the context of the story, I began to suspect that my problem of voice was connected to the fact that Tolkien had revised the story as he was writing its sequel.

Hence began a long struggle to escape the One Ring and rescue the original story of Bilbo Baggins.

The problem is not that the One Ring was superimposed on the encounter with Gollum (the ring does not figure as the One Ring elsewhere in the story), but that this superimposition obliterated the living heart of the original story: with the riddle-game revised the original meaning of the magic ring disappears from sight, yet that meaning – as this video shows – was the heart of the whole endeavor.

In a nutshell, in this video we begin by taking seriously Tolkien’s own origin myth: that his story began with a spontaneous sentence the meaning of which he did not understand. Our argument is that the magic ring was, in the first instance, a sign imagined as the answer to the riddle of what this hobbit – who lived in a hole in the ground – was, and the pattern of the story then woven by, first, putting this sign to work (a hidden sign of what the wizard sees when he first looks at Bilbo Baggins) and, second, dropping it into the story in the form of a gold ring.

The upshot is that the magic ring was first conceived as an answer to what the hobbit was, alone, himself, and nameless. This answer is, of course, given by Tom Bombadil in the early pages of the sequel (which makes sense, because Bombadil is an imagination of a sequel to The Hobbit before that sequel grew into something else and ate its parent – so the adventure from the Old Forest to the Barrow-downs is the best place to turn for commentary on the original Hobbit).

This is also an answer that makes sense from the perspective of history. The magic ring was not originally the One Ring that steals the self. So what was it originally? The answer: a sign of the nameless self. And this answer provides a fairly obvious starting-point for the development of the One Ring – the step was taken by assigning agency so that this sign of the nameless self now steals that which it signifies (giving new meaning to thief in the shadows).

But now begins a strange confrontation with the world. As I’ve started to see in responses to earlier videos, those who feel compelled to write about Tolkien’s work online are, typically, not going to recognize the story we are unveiling. This is as it should be because, as I have indicated, the meaning of the story was ruined and the original story has been lost. The Hobbit people know and love is not The Hobbit that we address. But it is no easy thing to show people what has long been under their noses and they will insist that they know The Hobbit.

Tolkien’s boys stories

This is an unfinished post that will be drawn on in the seventh video in our YouTube series ‘Rescuing The Hobbit.’

I recently came upon Dawn Felagund’s analysis of the gender inequalities of Tolkien’s Valar (angelic sub-creators who dwell in the world, now separated from our Middle-earth by a lost ocean of time). Dawn’s work is exemplary: rigorous analysis acutely directed, the sub-creative gender division she exposes precisely matches the idea of women Tolkien draws in a letter to his son, Michael.

How quickly an intelligent woman can be taught, grasp [a male teacher’s] ideas, see his point – and how (with rare exceptions) they can go no further, when they leave his hand.

Letter 43

I suppose Iris Murdoch and Mary Renault were rare exceptions… Unpalatable words, today. Dawn would like to forgive her author and points out how foolish any of us would be to call a kettle black. As the child of a 1970’s divorce who is now the father of four children my own bias moves me to declare actions of more consequence than prejudices, at least within an individual life. Tolkien’s Victorian idea of women was surely at the heart of his marriage with Mrs J.R.R. Tolkien (the recent biopic cops out by showing the young romance but not the drudge reality of bringing up children). But it was in the 1930s that British academics began to moralize (i.e. justify) marital affairs and divorce. Whatever the gender divisions within the two Tolkien households of Northmore Road, Oxford, the man who married Edith Bratt was still married to her on the day she died.

I have different interests vis-a-vis Tolkein than Dawn. For one thing, I much prefer his two hobbit stories to his sub-creative mythology (I’d rather read ‘On Fairy-stories’). So my inclination to apologize for Tolkien’s reactionary sexism leads me to ponder his basic equation of a hobbit adventure with a walking tour for bachelors. In this case, I’d like to argue that there is more to the old-fashioned gender ideas at play than first meets the eye.

Both hobbit stories tell an adventure that begins in a bachelor’s hole in the ground and steps into a male-dominated world. Bar the spiders of Mirkwood no women appear in The Hobbit (many of the travesties of the dire Hobbit movie trilogy begin from the fact that Hollywood simply cannot tell a story without women). The sequel reveals a river-woman, a fairy-queen, a shield-maiden, a nursemaid, and a giant spider, while multiplying the bachelors whose stories are told.

And the inside fits the outside. Inside the home, stories are told of adventures in the world beyond. The Hobbit was written to be read to the author’s two oldest boys; the sequel was written – in a less direct way – for his third son, Christopher. (And what is Priscilla’s story?) What an adventure is, what the story does, is take you – who hear it – out of the house, and so out of the domestic realm of women and children. The alternative (unused, obviously) ending to The Lord of the Rings has Samwise Gamgee at home reading to his children from the Red Book

But note the plots. The Hobbit is the story of a bachelor recruited as a burglar who is gifted a gold ring that (helpfully) makes him invisible, and the sequel is a story imagined by a discovery that this magic ring is the Ruling Ring forged by the Necromancer and must be destroyed. Both stories have a magic ring at the center; the first, a hidden magic of luck, the second an overt evil magic.

For reasons both obvious and less so, the central role of a magic ring in both stories precludes any hint of a wedding-ring in either (at least before the ring is destroyed). All who walk with such magic rings are bachelors – unmarried males. This certainly reflects Tolkien’s comfortable gender fantasy of who goes on adventures and who stays at home, but these wanderers must be unmarried because even the thought of a wedding ring disturbs the visual symbolism of magic ring and One Ring.

You may reply: but in this universe with these fairy-races, maybe it was not their custom to wear wedding rings? Tolkien was not a man to lightly put aside the symbolism of his wedding ring. Below from late writings on the Elves (Morgoth’s Ring – credit: reddit user Wiles).

In due time the betrothal was announced at a meeting of the two houses concerned, and the betrothed gave silver rings one to another. According to the laws of the Eldar this betrothal was bound then to stand for one year at least, and it often stood for longer. During this time it could be revoked by a public return of the rings, the rings then being molten and not again used for a betrothal. Such was the law; but the right of revoking was seldom used, for the Eldar do not err lightly in such choice.

[And after the betrothal] … The betrothed then received back one from the other their silver rings (and treasured them); but they gave in exchange slender rings of gold, which were worn upon the index of the right hand.

And yet we find nothing on hobbit wedding rings, and precious little on their weddings. We can find much about hobbit birthday presents (realms, in one unsent letter). The Lord of the Rings (sort of) concludes with a wedding when Rosie Cotton becomes Mrs. Samwise Gamgee, yet who can say what role a ring played in this ceremony?

The only anthropological exploration of hobbit weddings was abandoned even as the ink dried on the page and is found in (what looks like) the very beginning of a sequel. In the first (and startlingly recognizable) draft of ‘A Long-expected Party’, Bilbo’s after-dinner announcement concludes:

Goodbye! I am going away after dinner. Also I am going to get married. (Shadow 14)

This road to planned retirement of Bilbo by way of a son and heir via a wedding did not even last the draft – two pages later and the narrator is already explaining that any marriage still lay in the distant future. Having taken a seemingly obvious step, Tolkien sees it is impossible for Bilbo Baggins to be anything other than a bachelor. Inventing anthropological excuses for backtracking from the original announcement, he frames Bilbo’s announcement of marriage as an explanation the hobbit offered the neighborhood for his second and final vanishment from their society:

Hobbits had a curious habit in their weddings. They kept it (always officially and very often actually) a dead secret for years who they were going to marry, even when they knew. Then they suddenly went and got married and went off without an address for a week or two (or even longer). When Bilbo had disappeared [after his party] this is what at first his neighbours thought. ‘He has gone and got married. Now who can it be? – no one else has disappeared as far as we know.’ (Shadow 17)

So  the old hobbit was really preparing his audience for his disappearance. Tolkien never wrote anything like this again. Disappearance by marriage? Vanishment by wedding ring? What does it mean?

It was as if he had gotten married but never reappeared! He actually vanished from his own birthday party.

Composed in the week before Christmas 1937, this tale of an extraordinary hobbit feast rolls birthday and Christmas parties together with wedding feast and funeral wake. And the magic ring that vanishes you is named (in Bilbo’s hand ?) in the immediate account of the aftermath. Bilbo has shocked everyone by vanishing a second and final time – literary death, retirement, election to heaven, marriage, call it what you will.

A story intended to introduce an heir (who received the magic ring on Bilbo’s birthday?) proves unable to bed and then kill of the old hobbit – he will eventually retire (with the Elves). Tolkien was always soft: and marriage and magic ring join adventures and the sea as tokens of death; the Necromancer is already in the wings. Vanishment by magic ring is about to get sinister.

O

Let’s return to the beginning. The Hobbit, a story without women, introduces Bilbo Baggins with a genealogy that paints the hobbit a replica of his stolid father, Bungo, with a hidden Took quality waiting to come out.

With Poor Belladonna we reach the root of the issue.

One of three remarkable daughters of the Old Took, she chose to marry the respectable (and wealthy) Bungo Baggins from over the Water, and he built (partly with her money) the luxurious hole in the ground where our story begins. She also gave us Bilbo Baggins, of course, and she lost and gained a name: Bilbo’s mother had the proper name of Mrs. Bungo Baggins.

Belladonna’s maiden name is rendered invisible by Victorian-era hobbit conventions concerning marriage and names: Bilbo is a Baggins, the Baggins of Bag-end. It takes the eye of a very old wizard, who looks long and hard at the hobbit, to see his mother’s quality within him.

It is in her name that Gandalf sends her son on an adventure.

And so Belladonna’s name is implicated by the wizard in the marking on her front door (newly painted) a sign that thirteen dwarves read burglar but by the end of the story perhaps also elf-friend by some and for others of the neighborhood of The Hill, simply Took.

This is where I am presently stuck. What I am thinking is that old-fashioned gender relations are reflected in the mirror of a magic ring. What the magic ring does for the son is mirror his mother’s invisibility while revealing her hidden contribution to what he is… 

O

I’m not saying The Hobbit was intended as a critique of late-Victorian gender relations. J.R.R. Tolkien was an old-fashioned man, and like it or loathe it, his values likely account for more about what we like of his world than we care to admit (which I take it to be Dawn’s point of departure). What I am saying is that Tolkien knew what he was about and, while we are still trying to work it out, played literary havoc with it.

Of the turn that made the world of The Hobbit like this and not otherwise I’d propose Priscilla Tolkien, born summer 1929, a year before Tolkien sat down to write the story (and a year or so after absentmindedly writing the first sentence – ‘In a hole…’) I’d say the birth of a first daughter directs a man’s mind to think afresh on the place of women in the world.  In concrete terms, an Oxford philologist began to muse on the significance of the already old-fashioned practice of a wife taking the proper name of her husband – which has  peculiar implications for the hidden and visible meanings of the sign that is a person’s proper name.

 

Appendix (or notes to be integrated above)

The first draft ‘Long-expected Party’ is valuable evidence of Tolkien’s reflections on The Hobbit before its sequel grew into The Lord of the Rings (and in doing so subverted the idea of the magic ring in the original story).

Tolkien found himself drawing marriage as another road to vanishment. If I read the anthropological observations of this first draft correctly, Tolkien is generalizing the female side of hobbit marriage as initially explored via Belladonna. He is picturing three realms of hobbit life:

  1. The Shire (not yet named in this first draft): the social world where families meet, bachelors roam, and unmarried hobbit lasses may also appear.
  2. The Hole: the home in which the married woman and her children reside and where stories of adventures are told.
  3. The wide world beyond, where dark things lurk and adventures happen.

From a general hobbit perspective, ‘vanishment’ and ‘disappearance’ apply to any leaving of the social realm of the Shire (1) – either by getting married and so disappearing into the hole (2) or by going on an adventure (3). The new notion of vanishment articulated in (2) applies to all hobbit lads and lasses who get married and so disappear from the social realm, but is grounded (I think) in a male perspective that reflects a bachelor’s sense that his friends disappear when they get married. This bachelor vanishment-by-marriage complements the more severe disappearance on the other side of the gender divide, in which a hobbit lass loses her maiden name on her wedding day.

 

On video 5: Gollum’s end

This episode unveils what is, in effect, a lost story by J.R.R. Tolkien.

In 1944, as he was writing of Sam and Frodo’s meeting with Gollum on the road to Mordor, Tolkien rewrote ‘Riddles in the Dark,’ the chapter in The Hobbit in which Bilbo encounters Gollum. The revised version appeared in the second edition of The Hobbit (1952) and today is the only story that anyone can imagine.

Our 5th episode retells and analyzes the original story.

In making this episode we faced the challenge of showing people a story that has become invisible. It is testimony to the power and iconic status of the revised version that still today, when a cheap facsimile of the first edition is readily available, even the most careful and sensitive of readers appear unable to understand what they are reading. Invariably, however many changes in the narrative are noted and analyzed, readers prove unable to see behind the Gollum they know.

Making the video, we began by highlighting the key structural difference in the original story, now told in our second act: in the original the magic ring is Gollum’s stake in the riddle game (which gives a completely unexpected meaning to his last question of what is in his pocket – which is in fact the riddle of the situation). But we soon saw that we would never get people to see that the original story is something in itself (rather than simply the ‘not the later version’ it is now taken as) unless we could illuminate its emotional force.

One way to approach this emotional force is by way of the sequel. As my friend Tom Hillman is artfully investigating in a monograph in preparation, at the heart of The Lord of the Rings is the theme of Bilbo’s pity. You know: –  in an early conversation at Bag-end, Frodo declares it a pity that Bilbo did not kill Gollum when he had the chance, to which Gandalf declares that it was pity that stayed his hand…

Now, when you read the original story there is no hint of pity on Bilbo’s part. The hobbit is (justifiably) scared of being eaten, and having won the riddle game cheats by getting Gollum to show him the way out – and very relieved to say goodbye to the creature he is too.

But Tolkien’s way of developing his story here is, as so often, by a mirror. The pity that he planted in Bilbo’s heart in the revised story is indeed present in the original – it is there in buckets, the defining characteristic of the story of Gollum’s end, only to see it you have to step out of the hobbit’s point of view (and in this scene the narrator adopts the point-of-view of the hobbit to a greater extent than elsewhere). If you can wrench your perspective away from the hobbit’s and picture the situation that unfolds from neutral ground things look somewhat different.

Put rather crudley, Gollum is minding his own business in his own home (a nasty, wet hole in the ground) when an intruder appears who (unknown to both) has Gollum’s property in his pocket and carries a sword – an armed burglar! As a host, Gollum, who is unarmed, is certainly not very nice (he wishes to eat his visitor), but – as we show in the video – the terms of the riddle game that he proposes are fair – Bilbo’s life for Gollum’s last token of his original identity. But Gollum never has a chance: he is an ultimate victim of fate. He has already lost his birthday present when the hobbit arrives in his hole, and he now loses it a second time in the game of riddles. But he is a stoical victim: on losing he means to pay up, and when he cannot find his present he shows the hobbit the way out instead.

The original story is the story of Gollum’s end. It is almost impossible to understand it today because everyone knows that Gollum subsequently left his hole in the ground to search for the ring – and ultimately meets his end in the fires of Mount Doom. But in the original story this leaving of his hole in the ground is inconceivable. Gollum becomes scared and shaky as he travels the goblin tunnels showing Bilbo the way out. He will never leave; he will continue to live in his dark, uncomfortable hole without the magic ring that was his last connection with the person he once was. Gollum is now doomed to utterly forget any remaining memories of the life he once lived before he ended up in a hole deep under the ground. And Bilbo Baggins is the unwitting agent of this terrible fate of a living death.

To see Gollum’s end is to look at your own future in a fairy-tale mirror of pity.

There is much, much more to be said about the original Gollum. In this video we explain how the idea of life after losing one’s name arose as a fusion of northern ideal with the Jewish idea of a Gollum (normally spelled Golem). In a later video in this series we will explore the imagination of Gollum as a sort of vanishing point of Tolkien’s original sentence – in a hole in a ground there lived a hobbit; but what does it mean to live? And in later videos, when we step from The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings, we will show how the fading engendered by the One Ring and the idea of a Ringwraith was born out of this originally ‘natural’ image of the human condition: an image of how our own name and our own story will inevitably and naturally fade and vanish – albeit in our case, let us hope, only after our death.

In the meanwhile, watch the video and discover how our family passed the endless summer holidays from school!

On our 4th video: Ali Baba

In making these videos the ultimate challenge is to express visually the idea of signs and their meanings out of which Tolkien drew The Hobbit. But it is a slow process learning the art of video and we are still a way from such integration of theory and practice.

In our fourth video the theory is removed from view and the focus is purely on comparison of literary practice. The video investigates the shared structure of two doors – one hidden, the other marked – in the stories of Ali Baba and The Hobbit. 

The final discussion concerns Tolkien’s reversal of the narrative order of the two doors: a door is marked by a robber in the second part of the story in the Arabian Nights but marked by a wizard in the opening pages of The Hobbit. Reversing the order transformed a miserable mark made by a robber, the story-point of which is that it fails, into a magical mark that begins the spell of a story.

The theory for now removed from view is found in the first pages of a classic textbook of Victorian philosophy, the Logic of J.S. Mill (1843).

By the late 1920s, when Tolkien imagined his story, the Ali Baba story was already a philosophical cliche. When the robber chalks a mark on the house of Ali Baba, wrote Mill, his intention is analogous to when we impose a proper name (e.g. name a child). Until around 1900, philosophers addressing proper names engaged with Mill’s literary analogy as well as his theory (Husserl is one of the last to discuss Ali Baba’s door). But after Frege obliterated Mill’s idea of a proper name there was little philosophical interest in the analogy. By the 1920s reading this passage of Mill must have been like attending a Gilbert and Sullivan opera in Tolkien’s day or watching an episode of West Wing in the age of Donald Trump.

But Tolkien would not have allowed philosophy to distract him from a story, and I am convinced that he read this passage in the Logic and raised his eyebrows at Mill’s peculiarly half-baked reading of the Arabian Nights.

The key claim in the video that the robbers who mark the door of Ali Baba should have marked the house on a map is presented as my own insight. Actually, it is what I take to be Tolkien’s verdict on Mill’s reading of the Arabian Nights.

What Tolkien taught me in reading this passage of J.S. Mill is that, contrary to readings that insist that the robber’s mark is actually a cypher meaning something like ‘here is the house of the man who burgled us,’ Mill is completely correct that the robbers of the story make something like a meaningless mark.

However, Mill completely fails to see that if the mark made by the robbers is meaningless it is because it is a mark made by illiterates, which is to say, a mark made by people who do not know how to make a mark.

Mill’s choice of analogy raises the question whether his theory of names is founded on an illiterate conception of marks and signs.

An Assyrian Riddle

More often than not the things that turn up in my research on Tolkien remain unused because, while I intuit a connection, there is no way it can be proved. The above ancient Assyrian riddle is a case in point. It is found in A.H. Sayce’s Assyria: Its Princes, Priests, and People (1893). Together with John Rhys (Professor of Celtic), Sayce was one of Max Müller’s Oxford lieutenants, and his work was most certainly known by Tolkien.

I’ve drawn a dividing line separating the two parts of the riddle. It seems to me that the first part is another way of saying ‘hole’ – as in the structure, either above ground (Beorn, you and me), underground (hobbits, goblins, elves) or on the water (men of Lake-town) in which we live, while the second part is another version of Gollum’s riddle:

Voiceless it cries,
Wingless flutters,
Toothless bites,
Mouthless mutters.

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
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
Orome
Pan
Puck
The Reader
The opposite of Shelob but amoral
A spontaneous generation from the land
JRR Tolkien
Tulkas
Ulmo
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.