Author Archives: simon

Apprenticeship: official launch of a new ebook

Having released my new ebook on August 29, and spent much of the last month patching and tweaking, I’m now happy with it – so consider this an official launch.

The book is available on Amazon as an ebook: here. Amazon gives me the opportunity to offer a print version, which I am considering. Many people do not read ebooks; but I worry about the quality of a self-published print book.

Here is a snapshot of my books on my Amazon author page. 

The last, of which I am a co-author, is a terrible book full of academic essays that should never have seen the light of day. But my two books on J.R.R. Tolkien contain scholarship of a higher quality even than my old Cambridge University Press book on the economist Alfred Marshall. Compare prices and you will see the benefits of turning from traditional publishers to self-published ebooks!

The prices for the two Tolkien books are now out of date because when I took this screenshot I was in the process of revising the units – the numbers stay the same, but I switched the unit from the Yankee Dollar to my native Great British Pound.

Of the cover price I am supposed to receive 70%. That is a large cut to Amazon for simply hosting, and yet such terms are massively more generous than anything found in the world of traditional publishing. In theory, writing these ebooks could fund my research, serving in place of a Patreon or other social media fund-raising campaign. However, this would require sales greater than the current average of 1 sale (of either ebook) every few weeks.

You may consider this post an official marketing campaign. But if it is not clear already, I’ll spell out that my experience launching the earlier ebook convinced me not to waste any time with marketing campaigns. By now I have worked out (see previous ‘index’ posts on this blog) that my scholarly approach to Tolkien rubs against the illusion fostered by Tolkien’s fantasy, and as such offers insights that most people who like Tolkien’s stories do not wish to receive.

Still, some people share my interests and obsessions. Like this blog, the ebooks are available, and if they are your cup of tea and you purchase one – well, beyond surprise, all I can express is a hope that reading it will blow your mind.

Shield of Sulis

Sulis-Minerva. A goddess here depicted with a moustache and snake hair, on a stone shield: the Gorgon’s head shield found in the classical temple the Romans built to the native goddess of Bath, a flourishing cosmopolitan spa town in the west country.

When the Romans asked about the local deity in Bath, they were told about Sul. From what they heard, the Romans recognized a divinity and set out to give proper cultic veneration to one they now called Sul-Minerva. The Romans knew Minerva as the Greek Athene, goddess of Athens and wisdom, she of the late-flying owl who gave Perseus the shield by which he slew Medusa, the snake-haired monster with petrifying gaze.

The shield is deceptive. On the one hand it is a naturalistic representation of the face of Sulis (with moustache as well as snakes). On the other hand it is rather a symbol of the power of the goddess. As a symbol of the power of Sulis, the stone shield speaks of the magical protection her hot springs offer (a mirror by which to avert the evil eye), and also spells a warning to one who approaches her beneficience not to look her too hastily in the eye, which may blind with its brightness.

When we look at the face in the shield can we see the Eye that came to fill the Mirror of Galadriel?

The Gorgon’s head of Sul at Bath much occupied R.G. Collingwood, Tolkien’s colleague at Pembroke between 1926 and 1935. Collingwood evidently consulted Tolkien on the local Celtic goddess given such honour in this western pocket of what is now England: a footnote in his Roman Britain reports that Tolkien has told him that the  Celtic nominative is Sulis, and that this “may mean ‘the eye’, and this again may mean the Sun” (p. 264).

Nowhere in print did Collingwood follow up on the semantic implications of the native name of the goddess of Bath, the Lady of the Hot Springs. Nor did Tolkien in any explicit fashion, although we may wonder at Bilbo’s riddle about daisies. Yet the two must have talked further as to what light the respective philological and archaeological shone on one another.

The archaeological evidence, in Collingwood’s hands, tells a history of artistic and religious fusion, revealed before our eyes in the depiction of the goddess through one of her mighty gifts to mortal man – her shield, which her hero Perseus used as a mirror to cut off the head of Medusa without meeting her eye. To this, Tolkien remarks that the name of the Celtic goddess may mean ‘the eye,’ and perhaps also ‘the Sun.’



Collingwood and Tolkien share a vision of cultural encounter as rarely succesful yet, when ideally achieved, issuing in great art. What the Gorgon’s head is for Collingwood, Beowulf is for Tolkien. Tolkien told us what Beowulf is in his 1936 lecture.

Collingwood by 1935 had much to say about the Gorgon’s head as the anomaly of the history of art in Roman Britain – everything else, seemingly without exception, he deemed mass produced, a naturalistic betrayal of the native artistic tradition, and devoid of artistic merit. But he never returned to reckon with this footnote before he died in 1943.

We therefore lack a definitive reconstruction of the Gorgon’s head, a complete fusion in the spheres of both art and religion that is a one of its kind in Roman Britain.

Collingwood has much to say about the Gorgon’s head, as you will see if you consult his writings on Roman Britain, but he does not move beyond (an inspired) reading of the sculpture as native symbolism masquerading as Roman naturalism. Despite beginning a book on fairy stories in 1936, Collingwood never arrived at the reconstruction of the native story that might explain the symbolic motive revealed in the sculpture of the temple of the Lady of the Hot Springs, the Day’s Eye of Bath Spa.

This was just Tolkien’s cup of tea, but if he ever gave such a reconstruction he did so surreptitiously, in Lothlórien. To enact such a reconstruction would require prizing an ancient natve story out of the Roman telling of the Greek story of Medusa by reflecting upon the work of an artist in stone who was not only a master of both symbolic and naturalistic techniques, but also understood (as we do not) the relationship between the ancient native traditions of Sulis and the Mediterranean tradition of the shield as a mirror.

What the unknown Anglo-Saxon author of Beowulf achieved was a fusion between his native northern poetic tradition and the new stories read out of a big book of Latin letters. The fusion that is Beowulf is made of a discovery of native necromancy in the biblical genealogy of Cain – a recognition of a shared understanding of evil as misbegotten of ourselves. (A Tolkienian insight developed in the 2007 movie adaptation of Beowulf).

What did either Oxford don say, to the other, or later to himself, about the fusion of Celtic and Mediterranean cultures that issued in the Gorgon’s head of Sulis-Minerva in Bath? Now we need a Palantír.

Even now my heart desires… to look across the wide seas of water and time to Tirion the Fair, and perceive the unimaginable hand and mind of Fëanor at their work.

If either man wrote down any further thoughts about Sulis, they have not that I know come down to us. But they must have talked. In the late 1920s, Collingwood roped his new colleague at Pembroke into agreeing to contribute a philological appendix to what became the 1932 report on the archaeological dig at Lydney Park in the Forest of Dean, less than thirty miles from Bath but the other side of the water. The report was authored by the Wheelers, an archaeological couple happy to give a public face to academic industry in the dawning age of television.

Tolkien’s appendix was a philological meditation on the name, Nodens, found in three inscriptions at the site of the ancient templte built at Lydney Park, one of which asked Nodens to curse a thief who had stolen a ring.

Tolkien’s appendix suggested that the name of this god of the Forest of Dean was originally a Germanic adjective, a title that in Britain had become the proper name, Nodens. He suggested also that when Nodens passed on west into Ireland as Nuada he received a new title reminscent of the meaning of the apparent ancient Germanic title: of the silver hand. There was something slippery in the magical hand of Nodens, which kept reappearing over a great ocean of time and sapce. Tolkien concludes his philological appendix:

Whether the god was called the ‘snarer’ or the ‘catcher’ or the ‘hunter’ in some sinister sense… mere etymology can hardly say. It is suggestive, however, in this connexion that the most remarkable thing about Nuada was his hand, and that without his hand his power was lost. (2007, 182)

What was said by two who once talked by the waters of Sulis, in the long ago, before ever the Romans came to Britain? Did they talk of a darkness that had come before their eyes, of one who now dwelled on the ancient hill fort in the forest that could be seen from Bath on the other side of the great river that ran to the sea. The two talked in the pre-Roman temple of Sulis, the daisy of the magical spring, but they talked of the one whose name was not said, known in his own foreign tongue as the hunter. 

He lifted his eyes across the river and all the light went out… Beyond the river the land appeared flat and empty, formless and vague, until far away it rose again like a wall, dark and drear…. ‘There lies the fastness of Southern Mirkwood,’ said Haldir. ‘It is clad in a forest of dark fir, where the trees strive one against another and their branches rot and wither. In the midst upon a stony height stands Dol Guldur, where long the hidden Enemy had his dwelling.’

Does the Gorgon’s head reflect a story once told in Bath, of a victory of Sulis over the intruding Germanic Nodens?  A very ancient story of the west country, which when the civilized Roman intruders began to understand they saw had some affinity with the story of the shield by which the hero of Athene slew the Gorgon, Medusa. The only two clues Tolkien gives us boil down to the remark that Nodens is the ensnarer, while the name of Sulis suggests a daisy.

Had Nodens of the silver hand intruded into Bath before he was thrown out, over of the water and into the hills? If Sulis had chased him out, her victory must have been told as a story that turned on a trick of the eye, a use of a mirror that allowed the defeat of those followers of the foreign godling, Nodens of the hand, after they had perhaps shown their hand by placing it on the sacred treasures of the goddess. Nodens had shown his quality, and been chased over the water, but he still lurks on his Welsh hilltop. Can we read the snake hair of the Gorgon on the sculpted shield as depicting the still potent hands of Nodens? Do we see in the male face within the snake hair around this shield in Bath a face of an imprisoned Nodens?

Again, I ask but can provide no definitive answer: When we look at the Gorgon’s head at Bath are we looking at something like what Frodo saw in the Mirror of Galadriel?

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.

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. 


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).



But just as Bilbo was beginning to hope that the wretch would not be able to answer, Gollum brought up memories of ages and ages and ages before, when he lived with his grandmother in a hole in a bank by a river…


The Apprenticeship of J.R.R. Tolkien

Here is a first part of my study of the making of The Lord of the Rings. I had originally envisaged one single book but I have found the way that Tolkien connected and interwove his ideas so subtle and intricate that a couple of months ago I came to the conclusion that I needed to break the whole into three parts. Roughly:

  1. The Hobbit through the Shire to Bree to Weathertop (1938)
  2. What happens on Weathertop
  3. From Weathertop to the end of the story

Weathertop was a turning-point in Tolkien’s composition. When Bilbo’s heir (originally Bingo) is pierced by the weapon of the Ringwraiths he begins to become a wraith, and I have come to the conclusion that Tolkien surprised himself with this turn of events and that his essay On Fairy-stories was the result, providing new ideas about art and magic that resolved to his satisfaction the meaning of Sauron’s forging of the One Ring and the opposition between such dark magic and Elvish enchantment. All this is to be told in the third part.

But just as the hobbits (for Aragorn was then a hobbit named Trotter) approach Weathertop a mention of Elendil building a fort upon this hill in the ancient past shifted the time frame of the story. Where the story was originally set in days of myth, it was suddenly catapulted into the days of history after the destruction of Númenor. To appreciate what is going on here it is necessary to understand the significance of Númenor in Tolkien’s thought, which is the task of the second part of the study, which I have now set out in a short ebook that is available for pre-order on Amazon and will be released on August 29, 2018.

This new ebook is a study of Tolkien’s famous allegory of Beowulf as a tower looking over the sea. It shows how Tolkien’s last myth of the Elves, ‘The Fall of Númenor,’ was originally composed to aid his reflections on the Old English poem and shows the intimate connections between his scholarship and his fairy stories. The final section of the book shows how the view from the tower of his 1936 British Academy lecture became a major theme within The Lord of the Rings.

Odin & Ing (the Lord)

Tolkien declared his story of the Ring no allegory, and it has never been my intention to offer a political reading of his tale. From the first, however, I have insisted that (as Tolkien says) the stories of Middle-earth are not set in some other world, but in our own world in a distant and imaginary past – a world of ancient and largely lost northern story. My current reading of the early drafts of the story is leading me to think that this underlying historical ground of Tolkien’s sub-created world took a new and substantial turn with the onset of World War II.

It is hard to be certain of such matters, but a textual echo seems suggestive. In his commentary on Beowulf, Tolkien contrasts the old Vanir gods of the ancient English and other northern tribes with the cult of the southern European Odin, just then entering the North thanks to the travels of the Goths. At the heart of the Vanir traditions is the god known to the English as Ing, Frey ‘the Lord’ to the Norse men, and Tolkien invokes an Old Testament vision of the cult of the priest-king and the farmer and the shepherd – a religion centered on the fertility of the land with a deep tradition of a past time of a Great Peace (when a gold ring would be left untouched on the highway). Soon after the English set sail from their old homelands and sailed to the British Isles, remarks Tolkien, the cult of Odin took over the religious life of the Danes (remembered in Norse mythology as the war of the Aesir and Vanir gods). So the ancient paganism of the English became the cult of blood and death of the Viking era, a later period but a relapse into heathenism.

The textual echo is found in the essay On Fairy-stories, first published in 1947 and so postading the Beowulf commentary, in which a key phrase of contrast of Frey and Odin is borrowed but also worked up, so that Tolkien now contrasts the traditions of golden Frey, of whom a love story may well be told, and Odin, lord of the slain and glutter of crows, the Necromancer. (I’ll add references later).

Before thinking out what this identification of Odin and the Necromancer might mean for a story named after Sauron the Necromancer, we need to fill out Tolkien’s historical discovery of necromancy in the days when Beowulf was composed. So, back to the commentary on the Old English poem, the most striking feature of which, in my opinion, is that it reveals the definite if quite idiosyncratic historical frame that Tolkien discovered through the poem and used to think about it.

Specifically, Tolkien held the Danes interlopers, a new military force that over the lives of two ferocious Danish kings completely overturned the ancient order in the North, destroying forever the Heathobards, the priestly tribe whose king is named from the ancient traditions of Ing and Froda. Heorot, the legendary meadhall of the younger king, Hrothgar, Tolkien suspects was erected on the very site of the ancient temple attended by the priest-king. So in Beowulf we find a story in which Grendel, an ogre, haunts the meadhall that is the great symbol of the new Danish supremacy in the North, seal on the fall of the English tribes, who know in their hearts their old homelands – and their ancient traditions – are forever lost to them. And Tolkien notes and comments on the line in the Old English poem in which Grendel the monster is named a helrun, one who knows the secrets of the land of the dead, a necromancer.

All of this takes on a startling significance when we put it together with the historical take-over of northern paganism by the (southern european) cult of Odin, which was in full swing in the age of Bede, when Tolkien believed a poet of the East-Midlands was writing down the poem known to us as Beowulf.

Tolkien insists in his commentary that the story of the ogre haunting Heorot was not told for the first time by ‘our poet’. Indeed, what he is concerned to show is the ways in which this deeply heathen story was rendered fit for Christian consumption. He is here pointing at much darker tales of Grendel and Heorot, pre-Christian English tales, ultimately curses.

Put all this together and the truly weird thing about the historical events that Tolkien perceives is that these curses in some way were driven home. That the English (and no doubt other ancient tribes of the North) sent a necromancer into Heorot in their stories, and that the Danes meanwhile embraced the cult of Odin, lost the Vanir religion they had stolen, and collapsed into a heathenism of murder and despair.


Now, to return to The Lord of the Rings how this plays out I now approach, not from the side of the Necromancer (discussed in several recent posts) but from that of Aragorn, or Ing. As noted in the last post, two periods of writing, late 1939 and then late 1940, open a sequel intended around the same size as The Hobbit into the great tale we know as its sequel. In the first period, that is, the later months of 1939, coinciding with the first months of war with Germany, Tolkien got clear (enough) what it meant for the Necromancer to make the One Ring, and only on return to writing in late summer 1940 and taking the Company (minus Gandalf) out of Moria, did the elf, dwarf, and – crucially – heir of Elendil, step into the story.

Oddly (to you and I), Trotter, originally a hobbit (and in late 1939, Peregrin Boffin) remained Trotter through the entire composition of the story. (Strider is never introduced before the ‘late typescripts’ edited by Christopher Tolkien.) When Trotter first becomes a man, the heir of Elendil, I think the name Aragorn also appears. But as soon as he is leading the Company into Lothlorien, this Ranger is renamed Ingold son of Ingrim – the Ing-element, as Tolkien obliquely puts it in a note to himself, ‘to represent the West’. I’ve argued at length (link to my Rounded Globe ebook) that Aragorn is born of Tolkien’s ruminations on the ancient story told of Scyld Scefing in the exordium to Beowulf, showing how the Middle-earth ancient legend of the sea-kings who came out of the West echoes the story in Beowulf of the baby sent alone on a boat from the further shore. I’ll return to it in later posts. What I begin to see now is the significance of this connection.

For the two-phase process by which the original sequel to The Hobbit (‘the mirror ghost index’) became The Lord of the Rings can be boiled down to this two-step engagement with the ancient stories and the history of the North:

  • Late-summer to end of 1939: delineation of the face of the Necromancer, the Lord of the Rings.
  • Late summer to end of 1940: conception of the historical tale of Numenor, the lost ancient story that makes sense of the traditions bound up with Ing (Frey), Froda, and the Golden Peace, the inaffable gift sent out of the west.

This is not to detect any allegory whatsoever. Rather, The Lord of the Rings comes into view as an attempt to, first, glimpse the face of the evil glimpsed in the ancient North, and secondly to imagine a tradition of good of that same North, a glimpse of that which is true where the Necromaner can only be counterfeit.

But it seems to me that this first glimpse, the glimpse of evil as it was seen in the North, is imagined by our author as a picture of the source of the evil not only of Viking killers who delighted in the name of Odin and trusted only themselves, but also of that which had exploded out of Germany and declared war on the world in the days in which Tolkien was first writing his story.

In which case, Tolkien’s subsequent imagination a tradition of Ing, a lost Vanir story, in which love as well as peace and prosperity had their place, the imagination, that is, of the long history of the exiles of Numenor, culminating with the return of the king and fragmented memories of babies in boats coming out of the west, is evidence of his resolve to discover a true tradition of the North, that is, stories that rested on the truths known in the North that the Necromancer denied.


In some of Tolkien’s earliest writings, now recorded in The Book of Lost Tales, the traditions of the English concerning the fairies are clearly competing with better established Welsh and Irish traditions. But as he grew older, Tolkien seems to have become more intent on distinguishing the ancient English ideology from its monstrous deviations in the hands of, first the Viking Danes, and in his own day the German military machine and the political ideology of power that had unleashed it.

Premonitions of WWII

*   Composition of ‘The Breaking of the Fellowship’ can be dated by some marginalia on the manuscripts in which Tolkien outlined the death of Boromir. On the back of this sheet our author has absently written: ‘Chinese bombers,’ ‘North Sea convoy,’ ‘Muar River,’ ‘Japanese attack in Malaya,’ and other such. Christopher Tolkien notes the Japanese invaded Thailand and N.E. Malaya on 7-8 December 1941 and the Muar River was crossed on January 16 1942, and so dates this part of The Lord of the Rings to winter 1941-2 (Treason of Isengard 379, 387).

While Tolkien famously denied any allegory between his tale and the Second World War, it is certainly possible to discern the imprint of the global context of composition on the story itself.

Britain and France declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939. On this day, Tolkien was perhaps three weeks into his third phase of writing, and would continue through the end of the year leaving the Company in Moria at Balin’s tomb. By this point the story had almost become that which we know – but it was only when he resumed writing in late summer 1940 that Trotter the hobbit finally became Aragorn the heir of Elendil, and only at this point that the original plan to the story’s length – with a short passage on the other side of the mountains to the end at the fiery mountain began to give way to a whole new world of story opening up in Lothlórien, Rohan and Isengard, as well as Gondor.

When Tolkien paused in Moria in late 1939 the Company consisted only of hobbits in addition to Gandalf and Boromir, a man of Ond (Gondor), a city imagined as under siege on the other side of the mountains. And Tolkien believed his story around 2/3 complete (Letters). The story as the story we know was not yet imagined; yet the role in it of the sea kings of old aside, the great ideas of the story we know were now in play. Crucially, since picking up his pen again in August 1939, eighteen months and two prior phases of composition in to his new hobbit story (not to mention a lecture on fairy stories delivered that March), Tolkien established the idea of the One Ring and framed his story in terms of a great conflict between a white elf tower looking over the sea to the west of the Shire and a dark tower in Mordor out of which looks an Eye.

This great unveiling of ideas (in outlines as well as chapter drafts) largely established the story between Bag-End and Rivendell, which after events first turned upside-down on Weathertop in late summer 1938, Tolkien rewrote two further times and was still working out in the third phase of writing in the second half of 1939. In other words, this third phase is a watershed, and the first of a two phase revolution that lead our author to compose the story we know.

In terms of the wider history of the world going to war, Tolkien provides a curious retrospective reading through Tom Bombadil. In letter 144, composed in 1954:

The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power, and so on; but both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of control, but if you have, as it were, taken ‘a vow of poverty,’ renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless. It is a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war. (Letters 178-9).

It’s worth adding before commenting a passage from the later letter 153:

[Tom Bombadil] merely knows and understands such things as concern him in his natural little realm. He hardly even judges, and as far as can be seen makes no effort to reform or remove even the Willow… he is then… a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science: the spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature, because they are ‘other’ and wholly independent of the enquiring mind, a spirit coeval with the rational mind, and entrely unconcerned with ‘doing’ anything with the knowledge: Zoology and Botany not Cattle-breeding or Agriculture. (Letters 192).

In this later letter, Tolkien goes on to insist that Tom Bombadil here is in a category different even from the elves, “they are primarily artists” (ibid). And he goes on to add a third take on Tom Bombadil:

Also T.B. exhibits another point in his attitude to the Ring, and its failure to affect him. You must concentrate on some part, probably relatively small, of the World (Universe), whether to tell a tale, however long, or to learn anything fundamental – and therefore much will from that ‘point of view’ be left out, distorted on the circumference, or seem a discordant oddity. The power of the Ring over all concerned, even the Wizards or Emissaries, is not a delusion – but it is not the whole picture, even of the then state and content of that part of the Universe.

Both of these letters are composed well over a decade after Britain declared war on Germany and The Lord of the Rings grown into the story that it did. But as noted in the previous post, in the much smaller story imagined before 1940, with most adventures happening before Rivendell, Tom Bombadil is a major figure and we must therefore read the above passages of commentary as reflecting a major change in Tolkien’s thinking about the story he was writing.

I suggest the last quoted passage hides the germs of our author’s original vision of a sequel to The Hobbit, the story-world I have called the mirror of the ghost index.

1937-1938: The Mirror Ghost Index

Bilbo’s magic ring is one of many made long ago by the Necromancer to ensnare others. The rings allow invisibility, but occasional vanishing is now revealed as a first step to a permanent fading, becoming a wraith – one of the undead under the command of the Dark Magician.

The story is to show a combination of forces in the world that are stronger than the dark power of the Necromancer: Gollum would use the ring for sneaking and end up monstrous, but his hobbit bones prevented any undead fading; Bingo-Bolger Baggins, heir of Bilbo, is to use the evil ring only for jest; Tom Bombadil is older even than the Necromancer, and the Barrow-wights obey his voice; the elves and Gandalf will rescue Bingo at the ford at Rivendell…

And one of the things we now begin to see is how this picture of a world of a story did not survive the turn of our world to a second great European war.

After 3 September,1939

When Tolkien finally has all the pieces in play in late summer 1940, now Trotter is the heir of the sea kings of old, he must lead the Company now Gandalf has fallen into the abyss with the Balrog, and as they emerge on the other side of the mountains Aragorn leads the Company into Lothlórien. In the Golden Wood, Tolkien now redrafted the story of Tom Bombadil around an elvish queen and her mirror.

The Lady Galadriel is many things in Tolkien’s mind, but she steps out of a reimagination of the relationship of enchantment that perhaps introduces the idea of elves as artists so that where Tom Bombadil simply is, even Galadriel is choosing and so a doer. Galadriel’s whole shtick is that she is not a counsellor, that not in saying yes and no but simply holding up a mirror may she aid the quest. Yet Tolkien reimagines the encounter of Frodo and Tom Bombadil (“Who are you, master?”) as more equal and hence dramatic: Galadriel’s heart desires the Ring; she is a face of Faërie confronted with a power it cannot laugh off. (The comments on Tom Bombadil in letters written over a decade later view him to a disadvantage through the person of Galadriel, yet the magic ring that first came to the house of Tom Bombadil was but one of many such in the world.)

On the Marish and in Bree, Tolkien drew the landscape of his new story, inventing the Shire by way of Buckland, the Old Forest, the Barrow-wights, Farmer Maggot and Tom Bombadil (possible kin). The journey to Rivendell went by way of various houses, from Bag-End to Crickhollow, to the houses of the farmer and the aboriginal nature spirit, and the inn at Bree. The house of Tom Bombadil here occupies the main way station between Bag-end and Rivendell, the source of all the new queerness. And as soon as the party of hobbits arrived at the house of Tom Bomadil they were to wake up to a rainy second day in that house, in which their host talked of the lore of the lands beyond the borders of their own. In this conversation Bingo was to lose track of time.

Lothlórien is at heart a return to the lands of Tom Bombadil and to the idea of enchantment, the idea of which is already central in the mirror ghost index in the person (or house) of Tom Bombadil, which word is becoming central to gathering literary reflections on fairy stories, and which idea blossoms a second time around in the person of Galadriel, queen of Faërie. But where the king of Faërie had held the golden ring to his eye and laughed, the queen of Faërie is offered by the hobbit what her heart desires.

When Tolkien wrote a sequel before the war began he saw clearly an evil in the world, but he thought it might be judged in the mirror of reality and found wanting and so set out a tale that discovered enchantment in Tom Bombadil’s house the wholesome and greater opposite of the dark magic of the Necromancer. After the war broke out, even the monarchs of Faërie must choose, and what (only) now appears as the pacificism of Tom Bomadil is redrawn as the face of an ancient parent who can now only watch as a young generation goes out to battle.

But this contrast of Bombadil and Galadriel in how their eye falls on the One Ring is to some degree false, for each originally encountered different rings. Or rather, Tom first takes a magic ring from the hand of Bingo, he has no reason to suppose the fate of the world is now in his hand – that idea is imposed on him later, when a magic ring becomes the One Ring that Galadriel was offered by Frodo Baggins from the first. Tom Bombadil’s pacificism is our author’s queer reading of his own earlier story idea, a reading that would not perhaps have been possible if European and global history had not taken the dark turn that it did, yet an author watching the world while writing a story in 1938 surely had premonitions of what was happening.


* Post inspired by reflection on my collaboration with +Oliver Stegen, +Jeremiah Burns, +Richard Rohlin, +Tom Hillman – a contribution to a Wilderness of Dragons.