Author Archives: simon

Pictures of Names

Picture 1: Adam names the animals.


Picture 2: Morgiana copies the robber’s mark that ‘named’ Ali Baba.


Picture 3: Captain Wingemund names himself. Detail from a larger drawing made on a tree in Ohio around 1762.


Analogy of a computer game?

My friend uo ou says [0:16-0:26] a computer game is a theremin for visuals (rather than sound). (By the by, if you are reading this uo ou, Nixon…). When I heard him say this I had no idea what a theremin was. Naturally, his picture of a woman playing a theramin (sic) confuses matters further.

Here is ‘theremin definition’ googled:

  1. an electronic musical instrument in which the tone is generated by two high-frequency oscillators and the pitch controlled by the movement of the performer’s hand toward and away from the circuit.

The best I can add is that it sounds like the original instrument on which the Dr Who opening music was composed. The Theremin was patented by Leon Theremin in 1928.

And a more computer-game-melody on the theremin (watch the cars turn).

So how exactly are these guys doing with sound what uo ou is doing with images on his computer screen when he plays the game Monster Train in the first video above? I’m not sure his analogy is happy. The marvellous Malevich squares that dance with the rhythms of Hans Richter in the flash intro sequence uo ou has for his own videos shows just the kind of output I would expect from a visual theremin.

The flow of images of a game speak of something else. I direct anyone interested in missing links to akaNemskom on twitch, although I don’t know how often she streams her games. To my low level chess eye her animations look like musical scores that are beyond my skill in reading, but this is just because I cannot follow the movements. For those who wish to read at their own pace here are screenshots of seven moves of a 5 minute game I played on while writing this post. Black is a piece and a pawn down and initiates a suicide run.

These seven moves were played by two people, both moving their hands in some way like the player of the theremin – albeit more splenetically and with little care for precision. The hand movements are aimed to move one piece or pawn to another position and, given this target area nothing is gained by extra precision of hand movement. Perhaps in the game of chess – unlike Monster Train – a piano would be a more appropriate instrument on which to found an analogy? In any case, however, the musical instrument analogy with game does not seem well founded, at least not when we look at a game of chess. Following a chess game is to witness the weaving of a pattern it is true, but this pattern is the dry husk of a living kernel that is not a performance with an instrument but a competition with an opponent.

The moves in a chess game could be played by any combination of person and computer. I submit that when uo ou plays Monster Train he is engaging in one or other such combination. Hand movements in a simulation of war, not a musical performance; a game is a virtual dance of death.

The deployment of the image of a visual theremin as a depiction of someone playing a game is a wonderful first step in building an analogy of a game because it draws the hands of a person with the visual sequence that is the game as it is played. But the sequence of images that result when uo ou plays Monster Train are like a musician playing jazz on an instrument only to the extent that a martial art is indeed an art; the visual sequence above can be appreciated as (low level) art but is not made as art; the visual sequence is the byproduct of a fight for supremacy on a board of sixty-four black and white squares, victory and defeat resolved between two players (person or machine).

Different games may require different kind of hand control, and some may approximate the theremin very closely. But any such hand-eye-screen co-ordination is directed to winning the game not making art.

the picture name

The time has come to talk of the picture-name of the Delaware chief, Wingymund, who drew it on a tree according to his companion at the siege of Fort Pitt, Chief White Eyes. A report of this tree reached England in 1880 thanks to Nicholas Creswell, an Englishman in the colonies who drew the tree-drawing of Wingymund and copied down a (somewhat garbled) account of its reading by White Eyes.

Wingymund’s tree-drawing as we see it today has been shot through with confusions and distractions; it is a challenge to even arrive at Nicholas’ original copy of the drawing, while the original is now lost (even its location is unclear). Nevertheless, long pondering of the various versions of the drawing and different explanations, alongside research into the Indian wars associated with Pontiac, establish certain facts about the tree-drawing, and one of those pretty certain conclusions is that this strange symbol is more or less a fair reproduction of Wingymund’s own mark.

I wish to understand whether this sign is an equivalent of the alphabetic letters that spell the sound of the name, a half-way house to a word made of letters, or something other than prototype writing. 

Unfortunately, or fortunately for the digression, we can only approach the whole problem by way of the accidental debris of history that has piled up around Nicholas’ original copy. Partly for this reason I approach Wingymund’s own sign by way of the singularly interesting take on his tree-drawing by the great, late-Victorian comparative philologist, Isaac Taylor. Of the five or six takes on this picture we have pulled out of the learned journals, Taylor’s reading is head and shoulders above any other, including (and especially the nincompoop) Nicholas Creswell. Most curious for our inquiry, however, Taylor explains all the other details of the tree-drawing but inexplicably fails to mention the queer sign that means Wingymund.

What did Taylor dislike about this sign that caused him to walk carefully through Wingymund’s drawing yet pass over in silence just this pictorial proper name?

Part of the answer, I think, is that he simply wanted to bypass any likely dispute with the philosophers. Does a picture that is a proper name follow the same rules of meaning as spoken proper names and proper names written with letters? According to the English philosophers J.S. Mill this would give the picture-name the status of a ‘meaningless mark’, while (his godson) Bertrand Russell would have us read the picture-name as one or more definite propositions (many but not all of which we would read from the rest of the picture).

This picture-name is a detail on a bigger picture, which we know from the reproduction in print of a sketch drawn in a notepad of a drawing on a tree in Ohio. Here is the first printed reproduction (which, we now know, is by no means an exact reproduction of the original sketch).

For me, looking at this late 18th century printed account of Wingymund’s drawing is shocking because I have discovered it to be half-forgery. Some 16 decades after its composition Nicholas’ journal was published, and Yotam and I found within it a reproduction in print of the drawing made in the journal in Ohio. Nicholas’ original drawing is different in certain details from the one above, as even more so is the key provided to the various picture elements. 

A word, then, on transmission. When looking at the various print versions of the picture while trying to imagine the original drawing on the tree we are from the first confronted with what seems to be a genuine drawing (made i think in front of the tree) and a confused explanation written up later in the day when Nicholas had come down with a fever. But I think this root problem began in the morning when Nicholas stopped paying attention to the explanation of Captain White Eyes.

Nicholas Creswell – a young man out of sympathy with revolutionary colonial sentiment and enamored with the native fairy-story he enters down river of Fort Pitt – evidently lost attention by the time Chief White Eyes arrived at the sun – from this point his explanation is garbled and then at the end lucid but lacking key details. External evidence (published testimonies of others) establish that White Eyes was with Wingymund at the siege of Fort Pitt and while Nicholas knows that the picture at the center is an English fort attacked by the Indians he does not know it to be Fort Pitt).

A nastier turn than Nicholas’ daydream soon enters in London. William Bray, an older associate of Creswell with ambition for scholarly reputation, persuaded Nicholas to draw the picture for him, pressed him to make up the bits he had not been listening to, and published as a letter to a learned journal the note on ‘Indian picture-writing’ the first page of which is seen above.

But these distractions and distortions and straight bullshit, which unleash a curious story of 19th-century reception, only enter the drawing with the third sign, the sun. The meaning of the first two signs – the tortoise and the queer sign that is a proper name – were clearly seen by Nicholas.


ExordiumI came upon this personal mark unexpectedly, while reading the opening chapters of The Alphabet (2 vols. 1883) by the great Anglican comparative philologist of the 19th century, Isaac Taylor.

Isaac Taylor is the subject of this exordium. It begins, though, with Archibald Sayce, the Welsh student of Max Müller at Oxford who built a library on an Egyptian faluca and wrote books about ancient Babylon, Egypt, and the archaeology of the Old Testament while sailing up and down the Nile. The Rev. Sayce is a stepping stone to the Cambridge educated and future Canon of York Cathedral, the (scandalously) liberal churchman, Isaac Taylor.

And here, if you will excuse me, I swivel for a moment to the great beast that lurks deep in the mine that is Tolkien Studies, which I call here National Socialism. Tom Shippey long ago pointed out that what Tolkien was was a great Germanic philologist, and then put the cat back in the bag by framing the significance of this discipline in terms of some ivory tower squabbles between academic students of ‘literature’ and ‘language.’ And everyone ever since has been content to let the cat stay in this drab bag because letting out this cat compels you to use the word Aryan.

If you want to speak about Tolkien as a scholar you must know how to handle this word, which state of the art term was the great contribution to western culture of the discipline of 19th-century comparative philology. And if you wish to use this word fittingly I suggest that you must master the story that Isaac Taylor tells in his The Origin of the Aryans (1890). If you read his book on what we today would call ‘the aryan paradigm shift’ you will even read differently JRRT’s lecture English and Welsh.

Why does Taylor introduce Wingymund’s tree-drawing into his earlier book on The Alphabet?

Taylor was a liberal Anglican and enamored with a vision of ‘evolution’ as revealed by the comparative method.  The history of the alphabet as he tells it is a story of myriad beginnings in all human communities, a full step to an alphabet taken already in ancient Egypt but the revolutionary discarding all the old cumbersome picture writing and reliance upon only an alphabet was a step taken once in history, by ‘an ancient Semitic people’ (who, Taylor does not stop to say, made the revolution manifest with what Christians call the Old Testament) and – as his two volumes spell out in great and subtle detail, all known alphabets (he published in 1883) descend from this ancient Semitic alphabet (which contains some relationship to the older Egyptian letters).

A fascinating story that does not seem to explain why Taylor reproduces Wingymund’s picture from the great 6 volume history of the native American tribes of Henry Schoolcraft. He does so because he wants to see in the drawing a first evolutionary step, namely from rude pictures of objects (or animals, as he takes the recently discovered cave paintings of France to reveal) to a concept. The concept that Taylor finds in one detail is not the proper name of the artist and chief actor (he singularly does not mention this element) but rather the tortoise, the first element of the diagram given, it seems from Nicholas’ report, by Chief White Eyes —

— who is the only person in this picture who knew what the tree-drawing signified (Nicholas was with Mr Anderson, a white Indian trader, and Nancy, an Indian woman who had become attached to Nicholas at a campfire a few nights back. It may well be that Nicholas was thinking about Nancy when White Eyes was talking about the sun, but my sense is that both Nancy and Mr. Anderson would have been more lucid reporters of what White Eyes explained than Nicholas Creswell.

Still, Nicholas in his journal recorded the tortoise as the clan to which Wingemund and his war party belonged and as such the tortoise entered print in Archeologia in 1880 and so it was recorded by Schoolcraft around 1856, whose very reproduction of the drawing gave it a credibility its more lucid readers found unfathomable. Taylor was quite right to regard everything Schoolcraft reported about the drawing as dubious, but as a matter of fact what he said about the tortoise was surely correct.

Taylor says it means ‘safety’ or ‘home again’; the last chapter of The Hobbit, and that this queer sign is in fact an IDEOGRAM – the first step of a universal tendency of cultural evolution that will eventually, if astonishingly rarely, culminate in the almost magical invention of an alphabet.

All the 19th-century commentators took the drawing – and key – from Schoolcraft. He gave a seal of north American authority to an English fraud. In the 1880s there is a reaction of sorts. One anthropologist declares the whole drawing a fraud (a too sweeping rejection, I am certain). Another, Schoolcraft’s Boston editor, reproduced the drawing in a book for young folks but doctored the picture in light of Schoolcraft’s own doctoring of the key.

Meanwhile in England, Taylor has the singular merit of seeing that: (i) the picture itself was (more or less) genuine; and (ii) the  key given by Schoolcraft was largely bunk. Given what we can now read in Nicholas’ journal we know that Taylor still threw out one baby in the bathwater, but the speculations that he sets out as authoritative reading concerning those parts of the picture in which Nicholas was not paying attention are insightful and ingenious and perhaps as near to the truth as we are likely to get.

This is not the time to enter into Taylor’s reading of the rest of the picture. What concerns us now is the baby he threw out and the picture-name he passes over, which actions are I suspect related.

But first a confession. What arrested me when I first read Taylor’s chapter was his identification of the tortoise (or turtle) as an ideogram, and as such, in his scheme, evidence of the first step from pictures of things (as complex as a day, drawn by passages of the sun) to signs the appearance of which bears an apparently arbitrary relationship to their meaning.

The tortoise, declares Taylor, means ‘home again’ or ‘safety’ and is apparently similar to others found in the pages of Schoolcraft. When I read this my mind wandered long in dreams of writing the story of The Hobbit on a tree, with this tortoise connoting the end of the story – the hobbit back in his hobbit-hole.

I never managed to draw the story on a tree and, in any case, soon discovered that Taylor had simply made this up. Everyone else agrees, from Nicholas Creswell on, that the tortoise is the sign or totem of one of the three main Delaware clans.

At which point my sense of what a comparative philologist writing a book on the evolution of The Alphabet was doing was pulled from under my feet. After a long trawl, the better part taken in the company of my son, Yotam, in which we discovered Nicholas’ journal had been published, my feet are steady again. With this picture what Taylor was doing was quite reasonable given that the key passed down in these English publications was half bullshit. In fact, kudos to Taylor for spotting the bullshit without the aid of Creswell’s journal, which was only published 4 decades later.

But I still don’t get all of it. The (correct) key to the tortoise picture is given by Schoolcraft, it means a clan of the people. Schoolcraft also gives the (correct) key to the abstract squiggle that means the chief, Wingymund. Taylor appears to accept this second key because he mentions the Delaware chief Wingemund in his text, but his own explanation of the tree-drawing passes over this (and only this) sign. Taylor says nothing about Wingymund’s sign.

It seems that names are not sufficient for Taylor to hail an evolutionary step. He dismissed the common name (Tortoise Clan) offered by Schoolcraft and passes over any discussion of the proper name of the warrior-artist. An ideogram as Taylor has it, means something more than a name, it is more like a proposition, a sentence, a statement. His idea of the alphabet is that writing began with pictures and an evolutionary magic pulled letters out of pictures by way of hieroglyphs and syllable-signs. The process begins with a queer picture of a proposition, which generates the first sign that looks like a picture but is not, a mark that does not mean what it appears to show. I find this quite mind-blowing but also suspect that the picture-name upsets this vision of the evolution of picture-writing. The sign that means someone is surely primitive and remains so today (ideas change but names are names).

i think Taylor did not like the first two signs that Captain White Eyes read to Nicholas Creswell, reading from left to right: Tortoise and Queer Sign of the actor and artist. He  did not like them because pictures that meant nouns (common or private) did not fit his vision of the evolution of a picture of a scene into a written sentence.


Before continuing to Ali Baba’s house another word on Wingymund is in order because his is a proper name as highly charged as any in North American history.

He appears as a wise old Indian in the writings of a colonel the revolutionary army sent to talk peace with the Ohio tribes in the early years of the Revolution, and as such and more he appears in a novel written a century ago. But when the forts of Detroit and Pitt became, respectively, British and American outposts, the Ohio lands between them had of necessity take sides. White Eyes again took up against the British, but Wingymund now took up cause with the British against the Americans. This border strife among the Delaware is the context of a massacre of the Moravian Indians, which some months later spelled the horrific execution of Colonel Crawfurd, a lurid account of which was soon published into which crept the name of Wingemund. What North American culture appears unable to swallow is the testimony of the Moravian missionary among the Delaware, Heckewelder, who used a chapter on ‘friendship’ in his book on the Delaware to underline the nobleness of Wingemund’s role in the death of his one time friend, Crawfurd.

As with Nicholas’ unfortunate daydream and Bray’s underhand pressure to fabricate, this side of Wingemund’s story is only indirectly relevant to an inquiry into the proper name that is a drawing. The patriotism of Heckewelder has no bearing on the second sign that Chief White Eyes appears to have explained to Nicholas.

The whole Crawford business has a bearing, I suspect, only in that it does much to explain why even today Schoolcraft’s (or later versions of) version of the drawing still circulate together with the – fairly obvious – smudges he passed on in the textual key and nobody in the academic world has (yet) taken the golden opportunity of telling a tale of scholarly dastardliness and subsequent daydreaming and false scepticism and fantasy.


Stout, a philosophical psychologist of Edwardian Cambridge,says the mark on Ali Baba’s door has the same kind of significance as the shape of the knight on the chess board. The mark on Ali Baba’s door is said by J.S. Mill to be analogous to a proper name. Does this mean that Wingymund’s mark has meaning in similar fashion to the shape of the knight?

Macbeth doth murder sleep

This post is an old post the waters of which i have just muddied. i originally included the opening scene with the witches from Polanski’s Macbeth, which my English class at school saw at the Odeon in Muswell Hill, and then recalled Polanski’s name is now mud, and has made this movie version of the play itself a strange instance fair and foul. Passing over that instance leads us to Star Trek… and I lose sight of the old insight…

Macbeth has no echo in The Hobbit; the image of Necromancy cast by its three witches gives the spell of the sequel.

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;

A woman, unsexed? Of course, sex is at the heart of The Lord of the Rings, but drawn through a very dark mirror, so one elvish Lady is the reflection of four women of the Scottish play. JRR Tolkien is trying, in his literary way, to reconstruct an image of fairy-others who are friends not monsters that he detected on the edge of Beowulf (those who send the infant king to his people). The Lady Galadriel is creative power held back, as it were, unsexed as in relinquishing – tempted by power no less than Lady Macbeth. (Not a dagger but a Ring one sees before one, pointing the way to heaven, or to hell.)

Galadriel is an elvish opposite of an ancient English idea of Necromancy indubitably bound up with sex – a union of mortal man or woman with monsters in the shadow lands, a realm of exile from the human community and the voice of God, here began the second sin of Cain. Saruman and Sauron breed Orcs, and JRRT leaves his readers with ambiguous opinions as to the origins of Orcs because that ambiguity is found in the oldest records and, indeed, seem to be what the ancient idea of Necromancy is born from.

Macbeth opens with the weird sisters, shows us the state of Scotland at the end of a rebellion (a political history comparable to an Anglo-Saxon poet’s portrait of Heorot), and in scene 3 we meet Macbeth and Banquo, victorious generals of the king, returning a great battle with the Norwegians. Interested  in echoes of days when Norsemen played with the crown of Scotland, what arrested Tolkien’s interest was this meeting of mortal travelers with denizens of Fairy – a meeting on the shadow lands, the blasted heath.

Macbeth speaks for the first time: act 1, scene 3: “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.” The three witches have already closed scene 1:

Fair is foul, and foul is fair.

Hover through the fog and filthy air.

Frodo in Bree says: a servant of the Enemy would seem fairer and feel fouler. Fair and foul is what the One Ring is (this precious Ring is absent in The Hobbit). Fair and foul play out on the faces of Boromir, his father, and his brother. The difference is what Aragorn and the Third Marshall of the Mark discuss on the plains of Rohan, and is seen in Meduseld – Wormtongue gives a face to the foul Unfriend. Lady Macbeth is the monster within the walls, as is her husband, while the Lady Galadriel paints the spell of Necromancy JRRT read in this Scottish story as rendered in a mirror through an elvish stone.

One way of pointing to the echoes is to draw the conclusion about fantasy that Tolkien reads in Shakespeare but will not permit himself to quite say himself, namely that it provides a fine way to understand the ‘real world’. Macbeth and his lady, spurred only by naked ambition, cross a border they cannot handle – Macbeth takes the crown by murder and both fall.

Tom Shippey somewhere insists – and his insistence is something to be grateful for – that Tolkien believed a key line of Lady Macbeth’s a corruption: and if we fail? asks her irresolute husband:

We fail! But Screw your courage to the sticking-place, and we’ll not fail.

Here was a printers error, or something, said Tolkien. The line once began: We fall!

Shippey draws for us a scribal intervention by the man who wrote a great story of the fall of the house of the kings. His kings of Atlantis also talked with the Necromancer, to their doom – they heard the foul word and saw it fair, as do Macbeth and his Lady. Shakespeare’s Macbeth reminds us that, while it arises present to our sober sense on the border of Fairy (the blasted heath, the Forest), the urgency of avoiding foul while passing fair is a deep part too of our ordinary waking lives.

Macbeth is another of Shakespeare’s historical plays about kings of old, only this is the Scottish play. As with other historical matters, Shakespeare drew the story of Macbeth he found in Hollinshed’s ‘Chronicles’ (1577). Hollinshed tells of the three witches, whom he describes as:

feiries, indued with knowledge of prophesie by their necromanticall science.

Tolkien’s essay On Fairy-stories (1947) does not quote  this line and yet reads as a meditation upon it. Tolkien tells us that Hollinshed has lost the wit of Gower who, some two centuries earlier, knew feirie was a title, a definite description given as a second or in place of the proper name, a mark, moreoever, which turns on a queer quality of appearance. Within what passes for Fairy, necromanticall science is indeed one part, but so too is the enchantment of the Lady of the elves.

As Tolkien reads modern English history, Hollinshed’s confusions became ever more characteristic of conventional loss of memory as the centuries wore down, until the wise clerks of Oxenford define Fantasy as an impossible elvish art, Tolkien’s ex-Pembroke colleague, R. Collingwood, sees English magic as withered – Church hymns and washing our hands before eating cannot remotely prepare us for the evil magic unleashed by and in Communism, Fascism, and Nazism, and Sam Gamgee had asked to see some ‘real elvish magic.’

Magic is foul while enchantment is of the feiries, and a traveler had better guess right the root of this enchantment. The Anglo-Saxon man who wrote Beowulf knew this full well, and Shakespeare and Gower and others still saw this, but after the English abandoned necromancy  they also came to forget its living opposite, the elvish art.

This creature is a fairy. The OED quotes Gower as an early usage of Fairy, points out JRRT in his essay; but he is included as a result of ‘a double error’ – Gower says of the appearance of a young man that he seems to be of Fairy

This creature seems of Fairy. All this can mean is that we should be on our guard because what we have before us is, shall we say, uncanny. Conspiracy theories are fairy-stories; and it is through looking at a fairy story that we can glimpse the truth that inhabits conspiracy theories, which includes an appreciation that all is not quite what it seems. The only thing to expect is the unexpected – the fairy – at least as it appeared in the minds of that generation that went to war in or soon after 1914 – was the genie in the bottle of the modern world; fairy is as credible a response as one could wish for to Chapter 12 of the General Theory of Money, Interest, and Employment by J.M. Keynes. There Keynes points out that expectations cannot be rational because the future is unknown; Keynes was but articulating a now old idea of Fairy another way.

But just as the concept, the very idea, of Fairy became significant for understanding the ‘real’ world so the English forgot completely the old stories of their old homeland, the oral inheritance of a people who did clearly understand the idea of Fairy, or at least so thought a young John Ronald Ruel Tolkien.

But Shakespeare saw the issue, and Tolkien, holding his nose a little as he handles this play of this Protestant bard, saw that Macbeth presents necromancy for what it is in the body politic. Let us be clear about Tolkien’s religious faith: it is not merely a historical fact that the man who wrote Beowulf was a Catholic, his biblical reading of the old and ancient pagan stories is a correct reading, or at least as good a step toward truth as a man is likely to make in his life. Necromancy for Tolkien, is not bound up with the early stories of the Bible by accident: where there is necromancy there is a story awaiting about the Fall.

Shakespeare introduces necromancy as words put in the mind of one who has already daydreamed of power, but perhaps not yet even spoken the path of murder to his self. What is already in the mind of Macbeth concerning his subsequent shenanigans is an image of murder, but likely not yet the silently spoken word murder.

Tolkien makes the One Ring and, holding it between his fingers and peering through it, sees the spell of a word as metaphorical jewel holding a communion of two and more minds, and pinpoints like a search light the historical impact of a keen will to power…

… the drop of necromancy that will unleash the whirlwind of human affairs.

Macbeth meets the three weird sisters twice. Two of the prophecies he receives on his second meeting appear in revised form in LOTR:  (i) Birnam wood coming to Dunsinane became the Ents marching on Isengard; (ii) no man of woman born shall harm Macbeth became the dispatch of the chief Ringwraith by a woman and a hobbit.

My concern is with the first meeting. Here, when they hail Banquo as the father of kings to be, there is a reference to James I of England, who was James VI of Scotland, the father of the line that would be exiled. Ripples of this definite description of Banquo, the lost line of Catholic kings of the united kingdom of England and Scotland, play out in vision of the Numenorean kings-in-exile culminating in Aragorn, seen by the hobbits as they listen to Tom Bombadil on the Barrow-downs.

The heirs of Banquo are the kind afterthought of the three witches (which seal Banquo’s doom), and follow their strange greeting of Macbeth.

When the witches so touch with words Macbeth here is Necromancy. Hail king hereafter. The man awakes with a guilty start. Just as does Boromir after his silent communication with the Lady Galadriel? (But while Boromir sees for the first time what he wants, Macbeth hears words he had glimpsed before but dared not speak even to himself. The spell that is cast, however, is in both cases the same – the story of an overleaping fall.)

Fair is foul and foul is fair.

A man finds in the the realm of the Lady of the elves only what evil he brings into her land. She is pure fair, yet a man may look upon her face and see the unspoken desire of his own heart.

Tolkien in his commentary on Beowulf invokes the waste land, the blasted heath, in his picture of ancient northern necromancers – begat on  a border of a union with monsters; a meeting in an uncanny mirror.

The ancient Goths told that the dread race of the Huns was begat from the union of witches expelled from their own camp and the evil spirits of the waste. Chambers teases out the two landscapes that Grendel haunts – the fens as well as the wooded hills. The Beowulf-poet intimates that in such shadow lands Cain cavorted with the daughters of giants and begat all the monsters: necromancers are human and demonic – they are the union of the two, monsters.

Tolkien remixed fair and foul: the (precious) Ring and Boromir, for example. But (as Aragorn reminds Eomer) what we find in Fairy and on its borders is no less true in our own house: all selves are hidden and all bodies dissemble and fair and foul are discovered in the meetings of incarnate minds.

The first meeting: the three sisters greet Macbeth by his present title, as the Thane of Cawdor, and as the man who will be ‘king hereafter’. The theme of interiority – as I learned at school – is struck at once by Banquo who, turning to Macbeth, asks:

Good sir, why do you start; and seem to fear things that do sound so fair?

Banquo reads in the face of his comrade in arms that an untoward ambition has played as an image before his mind. –> Macbeth soon says, aside: “why do I yield to that suggestion whose horrid image doth unfix my hair?” Macbeth has already stepped a path of evil fantasy, if only in his day dreams.

Yet the king, Duncan, told in scene II of the execution of the treacherous Thane of Cawdor, a man in whom he had placed absolute trust, bewails:

There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.

Duncan, a woeful judge of character: he now bestows the title- Thane of Cawdor – on the man who will murder him in his sleep.

Here, I put to you, JRRT drew the Palantír. A Seeing Stone – an artifact of high elvish art, sub-creative art, maybe wrought by the hand of the greatest elvish craftsmen: an art that allows you or I, and Peregrin Took, to read a mind’s construction in a face.

Pippin looks into the Stone of Orthanc and sees the face of Sauron, whose eyes gaze back into his; Sauron silently questions Pippin, reading his unspoken thoughts in his face. The ‘magic’ here is not that of Sauron but of the elvish art that made such stones as allow each to speak aloud the thoughts in the other’s mind by reading them in his face (but it does seem that a magic of the Stone is used by Sauron to control the other mind – by looking in the Stone the mind is opened to the other…

Duncan, declares the art non-existent, which it evidently is for him, but Lady Macbeth is of different metal, and before the murder reads both the situation and the face of her husband all too well. To her husband she warns:

Your face, my thane, is as a book where men may read strange matters.

Really, a Palantír is born as a simile of a simile (really, a metaphor of a metaphor). A face is as a book, says Lady Macbeth, and JRRT says a book is as a crystal ball.

Bear welcome in your eye, your hand, your tongue: look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t.

The dark art of dissembling complicates any reading of a face. We all learn to put on a face to meet the faces that we meet and so know all faces as made up (a lesson well understood in the eighteenth century thanks to Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees.) We wish to appear virtuous. Fairy stories and real political dramas offer us naked truth, but even here only buried within fantasy of one kind or another. Tolkien says of Ingeld and Freawaru – the doomed lovers of the last legend of the ancient homeland – that they themselves were likely under the spell of an ancient tradition concerning the king and his fairy bride; their story turned out a political drama with the old songs shown up as fantasies.

The Mirror of Galadriel plays disenchantment the other way and draws the good spell of ordinary communication in a fantasy of ideal communication between mortal and elf-lady. The temptation of the Ring replays the temptation of Eve; but this immortal woman passes this test.

Even Sauron appeared virtuous when he could. So Tolkien imagined he had fooled the Men of Atlantis and the Elvish smiths of Eregion. The lie of friend, immortalized in the riddle on the Western Door of Moria, and echoed in and on the border of Rohan, is played out in the new hobbit story in lessor necromancers – Saruman and Wormtongue.

Tolkien erected much of The Two Towers on the twin themes of interiority and dissembling. Saruman’s voice is an enchantment, a face of Melkor and Sauron when they cloaked their Foul intentions under a Fair face. And before we meet Wormtongue, who like his master cloaks craven counsel in words of peace and friendship.

In Middle-earth in the Third Age is drawn JRRT’s most concentrated picture of the meeting of fair and foul –  not on the borderland where the monsters walk but within the heart of a myth made by the Lady of the Golden Wood. The Lady “read many hearts and desires” when the Company were in Lorien. She does not read hears and minds in the face, for she looks directly, mind to mind. Her Mirror is something quite different from a Seeing Stone that reads the mind’s construction in the face; silent communication with the Lady does not involve transformation of thought by linguistic form – no words are even said to oneself.

Her Mirror shows us something of what this queen of Fairy sees when she looks at us. (Frodo then shows her what is before us in this person of the Lady – he has his gentle revenge after their first meeting of mind-looking.)

What did Boromir see that Galadriel saw when she looked into his heart?  A wish that Boromir had not even spoken silently to himself? And did she seal his fate any less than did the three witches when they hailed Macbeth as one who would be king?

Galadriel simply looked, and showed what she saw to the one in whose heart and mind she looked; no language was used and Boromir had still to speak to himself the name of that now pictured in his mind: the One Ring.

It took the Seeing Stones for Tolkien to establish this distinction between communications in Fairy, and by the time he had placed them within their towers his attention had moved beyond Macbeth and back to Beowulf (and its author, the man who built a tower). So in the Seeing Stones we see Macbeth only, as it were, in a rear window: in the visions of black-sailed ships that send Denethor into despair, for example. But the confrontations of the story are all with Sauron: Saruman, Pippin, Denethor, and Aragorn all communicate with the Necromancer and this direct confrontation with evil unmasked puts the themes of dissembling completely into the shade: the relationship is as Saruman to Sauron, the broken staff, lost Stone and surrendered key to the Eye in the Dark Tower.

Biography & Canon

Research into the thought of J.R.R. Tolkien now benefits from an enormous wealth of posthumous writings, largely (not solely) the legacy of the editorial work of the late Christopher Tolkien. We may call this collected body of writings the canon. At the same time, such work as well as other studies (e.g. John Garth on Tolkien and the Great War) reveals more of Tolkien’s biography. Putting two and two together here is my biographical reading of the situation of The Lord of the Rings in this canon.

A mid-life crisis of sorts is discernible in the unfinished Lost Road novel of 1936, with its fantasy of a drab and impoverished series of father-son scholars, by turns philologists and historians, who travel back in time to discover the end of myth and the dawn of history in the drowning of Atlantis.

The lasting legacy of the Lost Road was precisely this reworking of Plato’s myth of Atlantis as the story of how and why the world was made round and Númenor drowned beneath the waves. The legacy consists in the fact that Elendil escaped the deluge and arrived on the shores of our Middle-earth (as dimly recalled in modern times in stories of a king, Sheaf, who was sent to his people as a babe in a boat over the ocean), thereby providing the ancestry of Strider, who is Aragorn, heir Elendil and his son Isildur. But the enormous importance of this story for the imagination of The Lord of the Rings obscures, however, its significance to Tolkien at the time of its composition (which I have investigated in depth here). What we fail to register is that this story is intended as a conclusion to the Silmarillion stories – ‘here ends the history of the ancient world as told by the Elves’, as the 1936 myth concludes. In 1936 J.R.R. Tolkien was in some sense putting away his youthful fairy stories by way of making an end in the story of Númenor.

And then The Hobbit was published and they asked for a sequel and at first Tolkien tried to make it into the sequel to a 1934 poem, ‘The Adventures of Tom Bombadil,’ but in the autumn of 1939 began to think that it might make a continuation of the story of the exiles of Númenor, told in the last pages of the 1936 myth and, as such, an alternative ending to the Silmarillion stories.

An idea that emerges in the wake of a radio announcement on September 3, 1939: Britain has declared war on Germany, and a vision of the tale of the Great War of the Ring begins to unveil itself in JRRT’s mind.

And that, really, was that, as poor Edith must have seen all too clearly. With a world shattering turn to war, Tolkien grasped at that creative imagination vital to his inner survival and found in writing a story, and glimpsed that his new hobbit story might make a fitting (protracted) ending to the Silmarillion stories: a tale of how Three Elvish Rings connected Myth and History in the Third Age of Middle-earth and the hole in reality inadvertently opened out of which Sauron made a back door by incarnating himself in a tiny gold ring. A suitably grand finale. But one has to sympathize with his colleagues, who still hoped the great philologist would produce a definitive tome, not to mention his wife, who must have been hoping her husband would soon spend more time with her in the garden.

On the good side, of course, Tolkien’s fairy-story-making addiction (if one may so put it) gave us The Lord of the Rings.

Seeing The Lord of the Rings as a more elaborate version of the 1936 closure invites especially meditation on the legendary appendage to the myth, which tells of a king of the mortal exiles in history, Elendil, whose people built high coastal towers and who made a last alliance with the Elf-king and confronted Sauron outside his hold in Mordor, and vanquished him but died. And it brings into view, too, the story of a tower built by the sea told also in 1936 by a man who did not yet know that thanks to Bilbo Baggins he would build a tower to rival the Beowulf.

RK Challenge, week 2

  • Return of the King: Back-to-home-schooling. Week 2.

Well done for surviving into week 2 of the Return of the King back to home schooling challenge. Let’s jump to the bonus question:

Why did this live NASA feed stop working about 7 days ago?

And as we enter our second week challenge (note, challenge numbers begin only one month into the crisis for reasons of morale) the questions are already piling up as two are carried on from last week. I’ll use the opportunity of carrying questions over to tweak their form and, following Lewis Carroll, use this sign [ to identify any old questions still unanswered. Below the ongoing challenges I’ll list answers provided to date, identifying them with these two signs [*.

  1. Give the precise spatial and temporal relationship between these two compositions: the first sentence of The Hobbit and the thought experiment we know as Schrödinger’s cat.
  2. Can you imagine how those who had fought in the great war felt and thought in the late winter of 1939?*
  3. Are my nearest and dearest loved ones a little more insane than usual at the moment, or is it just me?

* I’ve changed this second question twice (previous subjects: Oliver’s letter, Nodens). This is now the correct question (witness the link). (April 18, Sat. 2020.)

— Carried over [

4. How was Mrs T. fooling me when she said there was no such thing as society?

5. How was the 2nd Age of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth imagined through the western door of Moria?

— Answers [*

6. Begin around 5.00 am GMT but don’t hang around if you detect clouds (bonus question).

7. Lewis Carroll’s letter-register.

And that is about that from the many-named internet broadcast we carry on from time to time from our wooden house just left at the end of the world. Stay safe everyone.

Back to home school. 3 challenges

  • Return of the King: Back-to-home-schooling. Week 1.
  1. Delineate the relationship between three ages of Middle-earth invoked by the western gate to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mines of Moria.
  2. Ask your children to explain how, 33 years after Margaret Thatcher stated that society does not exist, Boris Johnson learned that she was wrong.
  3. Tell your parents (any age) to give the key to these four pages (make sure they read them carefully).

You can alternate which generation receives which challenge. Reading time for the third is around 13 minutes.

Challenge 3, 4 x scans

Bonus question: tell me if you ever manage to see the northern lights on the live cam linked at the top.

  • And here is the answer to question 3 (with some additional blurb):



I need to be able to fade in and out different elements in the crystal ball. For example, while the green elongated circle is eclipsed by Weathertop and then marginalized and protected, by way of the touch of a tree in Lothlórien the spirit of Old Man Willow is found in the forest that devours the orcs outside Helm’s Deep (not yet drawn).

At any rate, the above diagrams a fair amount of The Lord of the Rings (it does not yet have Fangorn or Rohan). It is the story as seen in a Palantír, or in Galadriel’s Mirror, depending on whether you wish to look from above (into the water) or from the side (into the crystal ball). The yellow circle at the center is Galadriel’s Mirror. The circumference of the outer circle is deceptive – this is the shore of Middle-earth but not the frame of the picture; the blank space all around is the shoreless sea. The story concludes, at least as Master Samwise Gamgee told it, with Bilbo and Frodo passing with the elves and the Stone of Elendil from the white tower that is the large circle on the western edge of Middle-earth, out of the picture to the other side of the western ocean.


On the origins of the Palantír two stories are told. From one perspective the Mirror of Galadriel is the magic ring of The Hobbit. It is the sign that contains the rest of the story within it. This is seen more readily in the fairy element of the sequel, in which the three ships that Frodo sees in the water frame the history of the Third Age. The framing of the story by the magic ring is seen only from inside the story and as such is almost invisible. It is felt rather than seen in the queer magic worked in the passage from the mountains over the river to the house of Beorn, after which Bilbo Baggins steps from domestic to heroic hole-dweller as he returns to interview a live dragon.

Mirror and Seeing Stone revisit the original magic object that is a sign that turns the story inside out – viz. the magic ring that was Gollum’s birthday present. All three are very finely crafted, but ultimately the magic ring was not only the first but, with a subtle yet almost invisible significance, wins the crown. The Mirror shows how all things might once have been good, while the Stones, which in the story always involve mystical communion with Sauron, show how good becomes evil. Yet both are essentially commentaries on the original magic ring that Bilbo Baggins finds and then wins from Gollum in a game of riddles in the dark.


From a second perspective, what is now a Palantír began – and remains – a rock garden.

Tolkien made an enigmatic metaphor of Beowulf: a tower with a sea view. Before that he had given a more illuminating picture. The old and ancient stones found in an unused lot were made, not into a tower but a rock garden. This poet is a modern gardener, one of us. If we start talking of The Lord of the Rings as a tower we are going to get lost in his art, but the rock garden is a term of his art not complicated by becoming a story-element in The Lord of the Rings.

Below is a drawing of the first three stones set down to make the rock garden of the very first phase of writing in the new year of 1938. Two phases of writing bring the story by the close of this year to Rivendell, twice. This drawing shows Tolkien’s idea toward the end of March. He has set down 3 stones. As with Beowulf, the monster is at the metaphorical center (this is not yet a map of Middle-earth). The three stones:

  1. The Hobbit (queer sign green with gold ring)
  2. Sauron the Necromancer as recently delineated in ‘The Fall of Numenor’ (black center)
  3. ‘The Adventures of Tom Bombadil,’ 1934 poem, (green elongated disc between Bag-end and the Necromancer)

New Hobbit Story

What now follows is not so much an addition of elements to the sequel as a drawing out relationships between the three stones.

The day after a party of four hobbits sets out from Bag-end, the story takes what Tolkien in a letter of March 1938 called an “unpremeditated turn”: they encounter a black rider (black diamond) in the woods of the Shire. Here is one who has passed through another magic ring, but the evil spell vanishes with the sound of elvish laughter and song (blue triangle) and a night spent in the trees above Woodhall.

Servant of Necromancer on your doorsep

The next day, as the emerge in the Marish after cutting across country to avoid the black riders,  on the way to the farmhouse of Maggot, Bingo Bolger-Baggins tells of an elftower to the west of the Shire that shone white in the moonlight when he saw it, and from the top of which, it was said, one could see the sea.

Two Towers

With this white elftower we also have Middle-earth as we know it, for just as the Shire has the flat Marish so Middle-earth has the tower of 1936 myth and essay, looking over the sea, with the meanings discovered in each understood only by way of the other.

A tower of northern art, built by elves, and the Dark Tower of the Necromancer, who wants his magic ring back.

Tolkien has not yet brought his hobbits to the house at Crickhollow, where they will have hot baths and resolve to try the Old Forest the next morning (which adventures Tolkien rapidly told when he picked up his pen again in late summer). We are in March 1938, as the very first phase of writing. Tolkien does not yet know that the appearance of the Ringwraith would upset his initial vision of a sequel to the stories of both Tom Bombadil and Bilbo Baggins. Here we have a primordial vision of Fairie written in full flower and hardly changed even after the story moved on to a different track, a story never finished now serving as an introductory excursion. With the story of Tom Bombadil we are seeing The Hobbit with the frame of Numenor not yet dominating our vision.


Autumn 1938. On Weathertop (blue cross) the Ringwraiths upset the meaning of Tom Bombadil and change the vision of the story.


The story on Weathertop was set down basically in the form we know it around autumn 1938, but only crowned in a late typescript when Aragorn names the ruins of a tower that once housed a Stone on the top of this flat conical hill. When Bingo Bolger-Baggins is pierced by the Sword of the Necromancer the story steps into a mutual gaze with terror. The song of Tom Bombadil dispelled the Barrow-wight but was protected by closed borders with this magic of the eye.

After Weathertop the depth of the story began to be sounded, found eventually by Gandalf at the bottom of the Mine, after which he wandered out of thought and time and came back a different wizard. Gandalf did not survive Weathertop, let alone Bingo Bolger-Baggins, the heir who vanished as first Sam and then Frodo stepped into place. What was revealed was a mutual gaze into the abyss of murderous hate, which was met in the Eye and some more in the Mirror of the Lady in Lórien.

Orthanc & Mirror of Galadriel

I think the Seeing Stone of Orthanc that appears in the story at the close of writing 1942, when Tolkien began a break of writing of over a year, is Tolkien’s picture of how he imagined his story.

This imagination reflects his ideal model in Beowulf and his wish to distinguish his own contribution from that of his master – both artists began with a mass of unused stones (most of which Tolkien found only because the Anglo-Saxon poet had claimed them) and made a metaphorical rock garden. But in 1936 Tolkien had discovered by way of his myth of Númenor that the Anglo-Saxon poet’s rock garden was better seen as a tower made of the stones. Tolkien takes a different step by discovering his rock garden in a clear basin of water and again in a dark crystal ball.

As in the Mirror, in the Stone we find the vision of Sauron: the eyes of the necromancer and the Eye of Sauron.

The Eye

He put the two back together at the end of all things, or at least the story, in a footnote to an appendix that told how the elftower housed the Stone of Elendil that looked only over the sea, and told in the Prologue and another appendix how the story we are reading derives mainly from the Red Book, long housed in the new hobbit colony of Undertowers to the west of the Shire.

The Lord of the Rings


The second edition of The Lord of the Rings (1965) carried a new author’s Foreword, which challenged anyone to say how World War II impacted on the story of the Great War of the Ring. The only way to meet this challenge is to detail the writing of the story in the shadow of the real war.

the paradox of use

Here is a first map, for the year 1939. With reference to the declaration of war and the scene then told of an elf-tower (red box on the left), I title this map Lightening follows thunder.

Lightening follows thunder

The dream of the siege of the white tower (red box on left) appears perhaps October 1939, and gives dramatic expression to a turn of the tide only now glimpsed in the imagination of this world,

‘What is the use of telling a fairy story in a time of war? The answer is found from this map and appears on a later map.