Author Archives: simon

blindfolded guides

but when the robber gave him another piece of gold he began to think he might remember the turnings if blindfolded as before. This means succeeded; the robber partly led him, and was partly guided by him, right in front of Cassim’s house, the door of which the robber marked with a piece of chalk.

I love this image. A robber partly leading, partly guided by one who has been to this house before but then as now, blindfolded. Tom Hillman has reminded me of Bilbo’s ‘finding’ the Ring in his pocket in his conversation with Gandalf at Bag-end. The event has transpired –  it is marked with chalk – but how it transpires is by sleepwalking.

Le Guin named Tolkien’s two hobbit stories ‘walking stories,’ in which we travel step by step from Bag-end to a (different) distant solitary mountain.  A story, Tolkien thereby indicates, passes over no passage of significance. As such, a story contrasts with our normal ways of being in the world and understanding it, in which, like Bilbo with the Ring in his pocket, we often fail to see what happens before our eyes.

A glimpse of an unseen passage resonates with what Tolkien saw as the limits of analysis – a mode of mental travel in which we move from A to B with little sense of how or what is in between. Analysis disguises its passage, and Tolkien has a way of turning our gaze to passages we habitually make without remark.

Tolkien had a knack for finding such passages by himself, arriving thereby before a ‘house,’ which he then draws with some craftsmanship. So did his mind mysteriously lead Bilbo into Gollum’s cave, and a hobbit into myriad other queer situatons, all of which marked places then became the scene for a conversation, an encounter, an interview with an occupant.

The present series of posts began with an entire thread penned by the late halfir, who mined his own distinctive seam in the Moria of the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. Something of what it has felt like to travel on halfir’s path is captured by the image of the robber lead by the blindfolded cobbler.

And I would like to invoke these lines from the Arabian Nights to bring praise to John Rateliff, and through his efforts, Verlyn Flieger, and to honour my fellow contributors (Jeremiah Burns, Tom Hillman, Richard Rohlin, and Oliver Stegen) to (only) one of the many essays in this new volume (which may one day reach me in Israel, whereupon I may discover what the other essays in the volume have to say).

I’m composing this post after reading three masterful yet still draft chapters on the One Ring composed by one of the above, in the midst of intensely interesting discussions with Patrick Curry on Tolkien’s enchantment, and with many fond memories of talking with other Tolkien fanatics, of whom I give a special place to Sue Bridgewater. With all of these named people, and many others, I have had similar experiences of walking as one of this pair, in conversations alternating roles, at one time the robber and at another moment the blindfolded cobbler.

Such communication that I enjoy between diverse people, not the best of us still living, is always an instance of walking hand in hand with another, taking it in turns to guide one who has been there before but is sleepwalking and to guide by walking as in a dream oneself, together searching out another of Tolkien’s chalk marks.


Ali Baba pause

Just a notice of a pause.

I’m resolved to reply to halfir’s ‘Tom Bombadil: Peeling the Onion‘ by showing the path that leads from the (original) Bilbo Baggins to Tom Bombadil by way of the (original) magic ring.

But in tracing this path I bumped against the Ali Baba story and its curious relationship to The Hobbit. I do not think my posts have got to the bottom of this relationship and so, before proceeding, I wish to think harder about it…

The Magic of a Proper Name

Arguing with the logicians who declare that proper names have no meaning, Jespersen (Philosopy of Grammar, 1924) challenges them to explain what happens when a proper name becomes a common name, that is, in their view: “a sequence of sounds with no meaning at all suddenly from non-connotative becomes connotative, and that this new full meaning is at once accepted by the whole speaking community.”

For example, we might refer to someone as Judas, Midas, or Gollum.

What has happened, says Jespersen, “is simply this: out of the complex of qualities characteristic of the bearer of the name concerned (connoted by the name) one quality is selected as the best known, and used to characterize some other being of thing possessed of the same quality.” (67)

Jespersen’s point is that (contra J.S. Mill) a proper name is connotative, that is, has meaning. I take it that Tolkien accepted his point but queried his exposition.

The “whole speaking community” includes non-Christians, who may not know the story of Judas, many who do not know the story of Midas, and even a few (who live under stones or are imprisoned in factory-machines) who do not know Gollum. The idea of a new linguistic usage of a proper name “at once accepted by the whole speaking community” is preposterous.


The Hobbit analyses disagreement over meaning, but in the case of an adjective rather than a proper name. Gloin speaking:

In fact, if it bad not been for the sign on the door, I should have been sure we had come to the wrong house. As soon as I clapped eyes on the little fellow bobbing and puffing on the mat, I had my doubts. He looks more like a grocer-than a burglar!”

Taking the queer mark on the door left by Gandalf to mean burglar, the dwarf denies that the hobbit is a credible burglar.

Overhearing the dwarf, Bilbo puts on his dignity, signs up for the adventure, but never reads the sign (already knocked off) his door. Bilbo has elected to be who Gandalf says he is (which for the job at hand does indeed mean burglar, although this might not be precisely what the wizard meant when he made his sign). But neither he nor those who hear the story (for the first time) know what a hobbit burglar means, and the dwarves – who have an idea – declare the suggestion incredible.

And they are right. By the end of his story Bilbo declares that he has never felt like a burglar; and the Elfking, fully aware of the hobbit’s burglarious activities in his own halls, names Bilbo Baggins an Elf-friend – no doubt coming close to naming the ‘queer quality’ that Gandalf discerned when, at the beginning of the story, he looked long at Bilbo with his wizard’s eye.

By telling a story, Tolkien reveals the subtleties and ever-changing nature of language as she is spoken in reality (be it Mirkwood or our own halls), which Jespersen indeed points to yet constantly overrides with his analysis (and such clumsy ideas as an immediate and universal acceptance of a linguistic innovation).

The Hobbit may be read as an account of how Bilbo Baggins became a hobbit burglar; but it does not pin the name burglar on Bilbo Baggins as an innate attribute. Bilbo steps into the role and claims the title when need arises (from Gollum’s cave through the Elfking’s dungeons to meeting Smaug and bartering the Arkenstone), but the attribute is not his identity, it does not precisely capture who he is.

Jespersen is right to suggest that stringing adjectival names of the attributes of a person together can never be exhaustive,that however many qualities we name we will be left with a gap, an inexpressable x, the quality of a person which must always elude us.

Only his name, Bilbo Baggins, means the hobbit whose proper name is Bilbo Baggins. As Gandalf says:

I am Gandalf, and Gandalf means me!

Jespersen perhaps obfuscates the social side of what happens when a proper name becomes a common name because he does not wish to analyse the magic in the ideal of connotation he has imagined a proper name to be. For there is a magic in these proper names, just as there is a magic in your own name, and mine.

J.R.R. Tolkien shows us that this true word magic does not concern hidden names of a prelapsarian Adamic language but the names that we give to one another. He further shows how this magic is made by – and so may be found in – the stories we speak and hear.

Theories of the mark

You are in a thread that began with a review of halfir’s legendary ‘Tom Bombadil: Peeling the Onion‘ and is now investigating J.R.R. Tolkien’s theory of meaning. Recent posts have established that the chalk mark made on the door of Ali Baba in 1001 Nights and the queer sign scratched by Gandalf on the door of Bilbo Baggins are equivalent symbols.

I now offer four hypotheses about the linguistic symbol that is the mark on the door:

  1. It is the true name of the owner.
  2. It is merely an identifying mark, devoid of meaning.
  3. It is a professional title, advertising a selected quality of the owner (he is a burglar).
  4. It points to an indefinable x that is the ‘kernel’ of the character of the owner.

Hypothesis 1 invokes the word magic that halfir discovers in Tom Bombadil (and Le Guin discovered through Ged). In place of Bombadil we have Gandalf, who names Bilbo by his true name with the ‘queer sign’ he scratches on his door. But this hypothesis does not fit the robber marking the door of Ali Baba.

One might perhaps argue the point. Perhaps Morgiana defeated the robber’s scheme because his word magic was weak? Could Bilbo have frustrated Gandalf’s plan if he had seen the mark and made similar marks on the front doors of his neighbours? But in this post I will proceed on the assumption that halfir’s idea of word magic is not applicable in the case of Gandalf’s ‘queer sign.’

Hypothesis 2 is J.S. Mill’s reading of the mark on the door of Ali Baba. As we shall see, he argues that this mark is analogous to a proper name.

Hypothesis 3 is Gloin’s reading of the mark on the door, and as such a reading proposed by the author of The Hobbit.

Hypothesis 4 leads us in a round-about way back to something that looks a little like the word magic of hypothesis 1.

Now, the theories behind both hypotheses 3 and 4 may be found in Otto Jespersen’s Philosophy of Grammar (1924), where they are advanced by way of a criticism of Mill’s theory of proper names (and so, implicitly, Mill’s reading of Ali Baba). In this post I therefore begin with Mill, proceed to Jespersen, and conclude that The Hobbit indeed suggests hypothesis 4 as well as hypothesis 3. We therefore begin to close in on an idea of ‘word magic’ that Tolkien really did play with (in contrast to hypothesis 1).


J.S. Mill says that what the robber intends when he marks the house of Ali Baba with chalk is “in some degree analogous” to the operation we perform when “we impose a proper name.” The analogy is not complete because when we impose a name we do not change the appearance of an object or person but only place a mark, “if I may so speak, upon the idea of the object.” Hence:

A  proper name is but an unmeaning mark which we connect in ours minds with the idea of the object, in order that whenever the mark meets our eyes or occurs to our thoughts, we may think of that individual object.

This is Mill abolishing what eight decades later Ogden and Richards will call ‘word magic.’ Far from capturing someone’s inherent meaning or being (Sparrowhawk-style), the proper name of a person (or thing) is but an arbitrary x – an equivalent of the robber’s chalk mark.


Jespersen (Philosophy of Grammar, 1924)  contests Mill’s claim that proper names denote but do not connote:

In Mill’s terminology, but in absolute contrast to his view, I should venture to say that proper names (as actually used) “connote” the greatest number of attributes.

Jespersen does not contest the validity of Mill’s logical reasoning, only the suggestion that we use proper names in conversation as “unmeaning marks.” Thinking about the use of words in a situation of Speaker and a Hearer, Jespersen begins from the fact that the language of the Speaker cannot capture all the ever-changing complexities of the world and so “moves in abstract words,” the results of selections of qualities that convey “certain more or less fixed points, certain averages.”

In free expression, and when a proper name for a peson or thing is not to hand, the Speaker pieces together substantives (nouns, or common names) and adjectives to convey significant information to the Hearer. Jespersen distinguishes between substantives and adjectives as follows:

substantives are broadly distinguished as having a more special signification, and adjectives as having a more general signification, because the former connote the possession of a complexity of qualities, and the latter the possession of one single quality. (81)

As substantives, hobbit and burglar signify a broad class of things that have many attributes. Used as adjectives, the two words signify just one attribute: respectively, the qualities of hobbitiness and burglariousness. A hobbit-burglar has two distinct significations, depending on which term is taken as the substantive and which as the adjective.

The underlying model is that substantives are bundles of attributes, which is to say of things in the world: substantives are bundles of qualities.

In rare cases, says Jespersen, it may be possible to “arrive at a complete definiton of the notion evoked by the naming of a substantive” by “heaping adjective upon adjective.” But in general “there will always… remain an indefinable x, a kernel which may be thought of as ‘bearer’of the qualities which we may have specified” (79-80).

Jespersen’s idea of a proper name – as we actually use proper names when we speak – is that it is an ideal substantive. The difference between proper names and common names, he says, is “of degree rather than kind” (71). Ultimately, a proper name is a stab at capturing all the qualities (attributes) of a person (or thing) – including the  indefinable x.


Does Jespersen’s Philosophy of Grammar allow word magic in by the back door? Or rather, does he formulate a modern, analytical, theory of word magic? Jespersen certainly does not say so, and his engineering approach to inventing languages (Ido and Novial) lead Tolkien to brand him a ‘food nutritionist’ rather than an artistic ‘cook’ (see A Secret Vice). Nevertheless, just as Barfield fitted a notion of ‘semantic unities’ into Jespersen’s analytical Progress in Language (1891), so I submit Tolkien simply spelled out the magical theory of meaning of a proper name contained in Jespersen’s Philosophy of Grammar.

On proper names, Jespersen writes:

The first time you hear of a person or read his name in a newspaper, he is “a mere name” to you, but the more you hear and see of him the more will the name mean to you. Observe also the way in which your familiarity with a person in a novel grows the farther you read… The meaning or connotation grows along with the growth of your knowledge. (66)

The Hobbit wonderfully illustrates Jespersen’s point. When Gandalf comes along he already knows the name of Bilbo Baggins and, after looking long at him with his wizard’s eye (cf. the Captain and the house in Ali Baba), he sees what Bilbo ‘is about’ and that he will do nicely for the adventure. A first-time reader, however, has to begin with only what the narrator has told us…

… which is quite a lot. Bilbo Baggins is a respectable hobbit, aged 50; the Bagginses are known for their conformity to convention, but his mother’s people, the Tooks, are unconventional (and richer) and Bilbo likely inherited a “queer quality” that was waiting to be outed – cue: Gandalf…

… Yet Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit, and the helpful account of hobbits notwithstanding it would take a wizard as a reader to know that the hobbit who soon answers the door to thirteen dwarves is the same hobbit who later burgles a sleeping dragon and then goes back again to hold a conversation with him.

But by the time we have finished his story we do feel we know what Bilbo Baggins means.

And when we speak of The Hobbit with others who have also fallen under its spell we talk of Bilbo Baggins, and when we do we signify more attributes than we possibly could with any string of  titles – heaping up nameless thief on hobbit burglar and all the riddling-names like barrel-rider by which Bilbo names himself to Smaug.

Indeed, we who have read The Hobbit surely feel that in speaking of Bilbo Baggins we mean (as Bilbo himself might have said) all of his attributes at once, including the invitation to a pipe of tobacco out of doors that follows saying so; and including – mysteriously – an “indefinable x,” the kernel which may be thought of as ‘bearer’ of all Bilbo’s many and marvellous qualities.

But though we know the indefinable x, the queer quality never named in the book (and the suggested referent of the queer sign scratched by a wizard on his front door), can we say what it means?

Gandalf’s mark

And I assure you there is a mark on this door-the usual one in the trade, or used to be. Burglar wants a good job, plenty of Excitement and reasonable Reward, that’s how it is usually read. You san say Expert Treasure-hunter instead of Burglar if you like. Some of them do. It’s all the same to us.

This is Gloin speaking about the mark the wizard had scratched on (but has already knocked off) Bilbo’s door. Can we transpose this ‘queer sign’ onto the door of Ali Baba? Dramatically, can we picture these words in the mouth of one of the thieves who has come to do murder, replying to Ali Baba’s protestations that he is not the burglar they are looking for?

Yes. The wizard’s “queer sign” can read ‘Expert Treasure-hunter,’ a meaning that nicely identifies one who has discovered the magic password Open sesame! and stolen some ill-gotten treasure. And from the perspective of the robbers, who have been burgled, the person behind the mark on the door is indeed a burglar.

Of course, there is this difference: the queer sign scratched by Gandalf is taken by the Dwarves as the sign of a burglar seeking employment. (Does anyone stop to think how preposterous is the idea of a burglar advertising his employment by placing a sign on his own door? I suppose this is a mark known only to those in the trade…) But it takes no stretch of imagination to picture two robbers employing just such a mark to identify the house of someone who has burgled them and to which they intend to return with their colleagues.

I will proceed on the assumption that the queer sign (on Bilbo Baggins’s door) and the chalk mark (on Ali Baba’s door) may, to all extents and purposes, be taken as equivalent symbols (or, at most, they would receive equivalent translations in Persian-Dwarvish-English dictionaries).

Now, here is a curious divergence that must be explored in the next post. Readers of The Hobbit know the mark Gandalf scratches on Bilbo’s door to read burglar, or as Gandalf puts it, the burglar. But J. S. Mill says that the robber making a mark on the door in the story of Ali Baba is “in some degree analogous” to “the operation” we perform when we “impose a proper name.” A name and a title may be – and have been – confused, but they are distinct kinds of words. So, is the mark on the door a name or a title?

J. S. Mill’s mark

*Notare, to mark; connotare, to mark along with: to mark one thing with or in addition to another.

A footnote found in John Stuart Mill’s System of Logic: Ratiocinative and Inductive (1843): Book I, Chapter II, Of Names. Having languished since the Middle Ages, Mill reintroduced logic into Victorian public discourse. Here he resurrects a term of the medieval schoolmen: connotate. He argues that meaning consists of connotation and declares some linguistic terms “unmeaning marks.”

Mill’s analysis of names leads him to argue that the mark the robbers place on the door of Ali Baba does not connote, that is, does not convey information about any attributes of the house.  (Note, in conformity to modern analytical style I break up what in the original is one paragraph into three parts).

If, like the robber in the Arabian Nights, we make a mark with chalk upon a house to enable us to know it again, the mark has a purpose, but it has not properly any meaning. The chalk does not declare anything about the house; it does not mean, This is such a person’s house, or This is a house which contains booty.

The object of making the mark is merely distinction. I say to myself. All these houses are so nearly alike, that if I lose sight of them I shall not again be able to distinguish that which I am now looking at from any of the others; I must therefore contrive to make the appearance of one house unlike that of the others, that I may hereafter know, when I see the mark – not indeed any attribute of the house – but simply that it is the same house which I am now looking at.

Morgiana chalked all the other houses in a similar manner, and defeated the scheme: how? simply by obliterating the difference of appearance between that house and the others. The chalk was still there, but it no longer served the purpose of a distinctive mark.

Mill sees that the mark is an alteration of the thing that denotes but argues that as an element of language it is merely an “unmeaning mark.”

If Mill is correct then the ‘queer sign’ that Gandalf scratches on Bilbo’s door but the dwarves read burglar is different in kind from the chalk marks of the robbers. Mill would say that the wizard’s mark and the robbers’ chalked mark are different kind of names.

I submit that the only significant difference we are made aware of between the two story-marks-on-doors is that in the modern English story the meaning of the mark is subsequently read aloud (by Gloin, as: burglar). In neither story are we given any description of the mark, and the fact that the mark on Bilbo’s door connotes (as Mill would put it) opens the possibility that so does that placed by the robbers: are they using a felonious medieval Iranian version of hobo signs? We are not told and have no right to assume one way or another.

The opening chapter of The Hobbit thus calls into question Mill’s reading of the tale of Ali Baba.

‘An Unexpected Party’ is perhaps more faithful to the Arabian folktale than Mill’s exegesis. For a start, Tolkien retains the detail that the mark is made on the door (Mill just says house). More substantially, Mill talks of one robber who marks a house to know it again, and explains the marking in the first person:

I say to myself. All these houses are so nearly alike, that if I lose sight of them I shall not again be able to distinguish that which I am now looking at from any of the others…

Mill has lost the plot, and all but one actor. Can we understand the story of the mark made by the robber without recounting first that of the blinfolded cobbler who repeats his first passage to the door? And is it correct to say that the robber makes the mark so that he will recognize the house and not so that the band of robbers he accompanies will know it?

Tolkien replaces the blinfolded cobbler with a magician who looks long at Bilbo Baggins with a wizard’s eye (as the Captain does the house) and then draws out the potential of a mark that others may also recongize.

But first and foremost, Tolkien returns us to where we are: a story. If I am walking with you down a suburban street and you stop and make a mark on the door of a house I will assume  you act with reason – there is a story behind your action. The idea of a person who simply marks a house at random so he may recongize it again is so odd it demands a story (Chesterton?). The robbers see the mark on Ali Baba’s door and it is for them more than a mere mark of identification – it says, Here is the house of the burglar we are looking for.

Mill’s logical analysis of an identifying mark may be correct but he is surely wrong when he says that the mark made on Ali Baba’s door does not connote: more than merely identifying a house it means something to the band of robbers, and to Morgiana.

Morgiana’s mark

You are in a series of posts that began with a review of halfir’s legendary thread ‘Tom Bombadil: Peeling the Onion.’ Having indicated a path to Tom Bombadil by way of the original Bilbo Baggins (and his magic ring) and declared that we are here entering into J.R.R. Tolkien’s theory of meaning, we now take a digression into Arabian folklore.

In a town in Persia there dwelt two brothers, one named Cassim, the other Ali Baba. Cassim was married to a rich wife and lived in plenty, while Ali Baba had to maintain his wife and children by cutting wood in a neighboring forest and selling it in the town.

Here is a late passage from Andrew Lang’s telling of

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves

The robber was overjoyed at his good fortune, and, giving him a piece of gold, desired to be shown the house where he stitched up the dead body. At first Mustapha refused, saying that he had been blindfolded; but when the robber gave him another piece of gold he began to think he might remember the turnings if blindfolded as before. This means succeeded; the robber partly led him, and was partly guided by him, right in front of Cassim’s house, the door of which the robber marked with a piece of chalk.

By and by Morgiana, going out, saw the mark the robber had made, quickly guessed that some mischief was brewing, and fetching a piece of chalk marked two or three doors on each side, without saying anything to her master or mistress.

The robbers turn up and cannot identify the house; the robber who made the mark “was at once beheaded for having failed.”

Another robber was dispatched, and, having won over Baba Mustapha, marked the house in red chalk; but Morgiana being again too clever for them, the second messenger was put to death also.

The Captain goes himself: “wiser than the others, he did not mark the house, but looked at it so closely that he could not fail to remember it.”

The Captain sends his men to “buy nineteen mules, and thirty-eight leather jars, all empty except one, which was full of oil.” He puts one of his men, fully armed, into each, travels to Ali Baba’s house at dusk and requests permission to store the jars in his house overnight. But later in the evening Morgiana goes to take some oil. “When she came to the first jar the robber inside said softly, ‘Is it time?'”

Any other slave but Morgiana, on finding a man in the jar instead of the oil she wanted, would have screamed and made a noise; but she… answered quietly, “Not yet, but presently.”

She went to all the jars, giving the same answer, till she came to the jar of oil. … She filled her oil pot, went back to the kitchen, and… filled a large kettle full of oil. When it boiled she went and poured enough oil into every jar to stifle and kill the robber inside. When this brave deed was done she went back to the kitchen, put out the fire and the lamp, and waited to see what would happen.

This passage from 1001 Nights finds odd reflections in The Hobbit: a cave that may be entered only on saying the magical words of opening and a hidden door into the Lonely Mountain  opened by those with a map with moon runes and a key; the chalk marks made by two robbers on the door of Ali Baba’s house and the ‘queer sign’ that means burglar made by Gandalf on Bilbo’s newly painted round front door; the thieves in the jars of oil and the dwarves in the barrels of apples and wine. More. An unlikely fairy-tale heroine and hero, both brave and quick on their feet.

The mark on the door is what interests me here. My next post will try to disentangle what it means.

Bilbo’s ‘Good morning!’

The opening conversation in The Hobbit between Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf the wizard includes the following exchanges:

“Good morning!” said Bilbo, and he meant it.

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?” be said. “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is morning to be good on?”


“I beg your pardon, I haven’t asked for anything!”

“Yes, you have! Twice now. My pardon. I give it you.

The first chapter of Jespersen’s Philosophy of Grammar makes a distinction between formulas and free expressions that illuminates these exchanges.

Free expressions “have to be created in each case anew by the speaker, who inserts the words that fit the situation,” building up an expression by following a grammatical pattern or type (19).

Formulas cannot be changed. Jespersen gives as examples: ‘Good morning!’, ‘Thank you,’ and ‘Beg your pardon’ (18). Of such formulaic expressions he says:

One may indeed analyze such a formula and show that it consists of several words, but it is felt and handled as a unit, which may often mean something quite different from the meaning of the component words taken separately… (18-19)

So, from Jespersen’s perspective, the hobbit uses two formulaic expressions that Gandalf insists on hearing as free expressions, subverting Bilbo’s meaning by analysing the unanalysable.


Jespersen explains that free expressions follow regular grammatical patterns while irregular forms are always formulas (21). Once the formula coalesces, however, it may be assimilated into regular expression, e.g. by back-formation. To give one of Jespersen’s examples:

he breakfastsbreakfasted (formerly breaks fastbroke fast). (24)

Given that Gandalf proceeds to scratch a “queer sign” on Bilbo’s newly painted round front door that means ‘burglar,’ it is worth noting that the OED gives their first use of back-formation as the definition of to burgle (1889): “Late 19th century: originally a humorous and colloquial back-formation from burglar.” But while Bilbo is to become the burglar who will ultimately burgle Smaug, the narrator resists any back-formation with breakfast:

He had only just had breakfast

Gandalf, however, is more than happy to engage in back-formation, thereby demonstrating his understanding of the formulaic ‘Good morning!’:

To think that I should have lived to be good-morninged by Belladonna Took’s son, as if I was selling buttons at the door!

Otto Jespersen

To read the linguistic philosophy in Tolkien’s stories we need a guide to linguistic philosophy as it was when he wrote. While I am not sure how far he can take us, we can certainly take our first steps with the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen (1860-1943).

In this post I introduce Jespersen; in the sequel I will show what the first chapter of his Philosophy of Grammar (1924) brings to a reading of the dialogue between Gandalf and Bilbo Baggins in the first chapter of The Hobbit.

Jespersen spearheaded some fundamental changes in the early twentieth-century study of language. His Progress in Language (1891) overturned the nineteenth-century historical evaluation of the Classical inflexional languages Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit as the pinnacle of linguistic development – from which their modern European descendants have ‘degenerated.’ Formulating the basic perspective that language is a human activity requiring energy and attention, he argued that the development of language is always towards more efficient forms of expression. His new vision of the history of language provides the starting-point of Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction (1928):

Mr. Jespersen, in his Progress in Language, builds argument upon argument to prove that the historical development of language is indeed ‘progressive’ and not a kind of falling away from grace, as his predecessors held. These arguments are absolutely convincing and require no comment, as long as we remember that, to the author, ‘progress’ in the history of consciousness does not merely include, but is synonymous with an increasing ability to think abstract thoughts. This fact grows more and more apparent as one reads on, until at last one realizes that, where Coleridge failed, Mr. Jespersen has succeeded in ‘taming down his mind to think poetry a sport or an occupation for idle hours’. (100-101)

Poetic Diction is essentially an attempt to fit a theory of metaphorical meaning into Jespersen’s progressive vision of the evolution of language from ultimate synthetic expressions (‘semantic unities’) to modern analytical language (in which, says Barfield, metaphors capture something of the original words).

Much later, our inquiry will join up with Barfield’s supplement to Jespersen’s first book. For the moment, however, we are concerned with Jespersen’s later Philosophy of Grammar, which outlines the basic grounds of his evolutionary perspective by treating grammar from the two points of view of a conversation: speaker and hearer. His first chapter begins:

The essence of language is human activity – activity on the part of one individual to make himself understood by another, and activity on the part of that other to understand what was in the mind of the first. (17)

Here is laid out one version of the turn from historical comparison and reconstruction to acts of communication that was taken by linguistic science in the early twentieth century. Tolkien speaks of this turn in his essay On Fairy-stories:

…with regard to language it seems to me that the essential quality and aptitudes of a given language in a given moment is both more important to seize and far more difficult to make explicit than its linear history. (OFS 39)

At the basis of any history of language, from conjectured or mythical origins, through the oldest surviving records of written language and down to our own day, we are to imagine a communication between speaker and hearer. Barfield never took this step – Poetic Diction draws the history of language in terms of the perceptions and conceptions of mind in the abstract. But some of Tolkien’s finest craftsmanship follows this modus operandi: Gandalf and Bilbo, Gollum and Bilbo, Galadriel and Frodo…

The Meaning of Meaning, published the same year as Poetic Diction, begins with communication. But where Jespersen sees linguistic communication as an activity, Ogden and Richards see language as an instrument of communication.

But language, though often spoken of as a medium of communication, is best regarded as an instrument; and all instruments are extensions, or refinements, of our sense-organs. The telescope, the telephone, the microscope, the microphone, and the galvanometer are, like the monocle or the eye itself, capable of distorting, that is, of introducing new relevant members into the contexts of our signs. … But in photography it is not uncommon for effects due to the processes of manipulation to be mistaken by amateurs for features of the objects depicted. Some of these effects have been exploited by experts so as greatly to exercise the late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his friends. (98)

Ogden and Richards refer to the notorious case of the Cottingely Fairies photographs, which in 1920 the author of Sherlock Holmes published as evidence of fairies. Their analogy suggests that language throws up symbolic fictions that (caught in the myth of word magic in which words are taken as evidence of things) we believe real. More generally, their whole approach to communication is that of the practical engineer. Their method of definition, designed to secure symbols by a referent, amounts to a user manual to aid effective and efficient usage of the machinery of language.

Jespersen gives us not only a more philologically subtle analysis but also a humane perspective on language as a human activity involving a movement between habit and creative expression. In their Preface, Ogden and Richards complain that even “so well-informed an authority as [Otto] Jespersen” hardly touches “the central problem of meaning, or the relations of thought and language” (vi). They appear not to have opened The Philosophy of Grammar, which is conceived around the fundamental idea that the act of communication must be viewed from two sides:

…any linguistic phenomenon may be regarded either from without or from within, either from the outward form or from the inner meaning. (33)

This translates into a dual view on language: considered on the one side as a movement from meaning to symbol, accomplished by a Speaker, and on the other as a relationship between expression and its meaning, as understood by a Hearer.

I am certainly not saying that Tolkien’s linguistic philosophy can be reduced to that of Jespersen. Tolkien was certainly sympathetic to Barfield’s complaint that the Dane had overlooked poetic meaning and his 1932 letter to the British Esperantist dismisses Jespersen’s invented language Novial as a factory-made language of spare parts.

What I am saying is that Tolkien’s approach to meaning also begins with the idea of a conversation between Speaker and Hearer and that Jespersen’s Philosophy of Grammar provides a working theory by which we may approach The Hobbit – and with good sense and a lot of luck, pass through the ‘word magic’ of The Meaning of Meaning and eventually emerge in the House of Tom Bombadil.

In my next post we will see what Jespersen may teach us about Bilbo Baggins’s initial turns of phrase and what Gandalf does with them.

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.