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St Andrews

St Andrews. Tolkien delivers his lecture on fairy stories, the text of which appears to have survived with first and last pages missing (and can be read in the Flieger & Anderson edition). He stays with Malcolm Knox (1900–1980), pupil of Collingwood and later Principal of St Andrews University.

In this post I put aside the later dramatic turn, the fieldwork conducted in Galadriel’s mirror, which turns fantasy from a function of fairy-story into a Humpty-Dumpty definition of art. What I want to get my hands on is what Tolkien had in mind when he delivered his talk in a room in St Andrews one early evening back in March, 1939. I’m going to approach the thesis of the lecture by way of the complaints that Tom Shippey has voiced about the essay.

In their introduction, the editors of On Fairy-stories (Flieger & Anderson) concede Shippey’s charge that the essay contains no “philological core.” All three commentators are oddly mistaken. The first pages of the lecture being missing, the first full paragraph in fact begins with just this core: the OED‘s first usage of ‘fairy’ is from the the 14th-century poet John Gower, who (says the OED) describes a young man as a fairy; but this is not so, says Tolkien, for what Gower says is that the young man is of fairy. The philological core of both lecture and essay concerns a degeneration of understanding reflected in modern linguistic usage such that ‘fairy’ has become merely a noun while philological inquiry reveals an earlier adjectival usage: ‘Fairy’ was once a title designating origin added to a proper name: Sir Boten of Fairy.

This philological claim is elaborated in the first part of both lecture and essay through discussion of how the elves of the Silmarillion became ‘fairies’ – little, delicate creatures with wings who sit in buttercups, which Tolkien associates with the circumnavigation of the world, which then appeared too small to hold both elves and men. It is surely these first pages that Shippey has in mind when he complains, in an interview with Patrick Curry (2015) that On Fairy-stories is scrappy, unfocused, and largely negative. Well, if you see that Tolkien is pointing out errors but fail to register the philological vision behind this criticism that is indeed how the essay is likely to appear.

The philological claim is easily missed by a professional philologist, like Shippey (and the OED writers), because their working method is to trace meaning and usage in time by way of literary references. In English literature, the references prior to the discovery of the New World are few, while Tolkien’s philological vision extends all the way through Numenor to a day when (to paraphrase John Locke) all the world was Fairy, and bulk of the philological evidence he has to hand has been invented by him and, as such, is not advanced for discussion in this essay.

Put another way, the philological core of the essay is easily missed because it draws on without mentioning Tolkien’s own fairy stories and because the essay is so obviously a ‘scholarly essay’ the friendly scholars who read it cannot bring themselves to accept the obvious – that Tolkien is assuming the truth of his own fairy stories.

Here we hit the root of the matter. The vision of the lecture, no less than the essay, joins the historical world studied by Tolkien the scholar with the imaginary world invented by Tolkien the artist. But because Tolkien is addressing a scholarly audience, the imaginary world of myth and legend of Tolkien’s own fairy stories appears only between the lines. Once the Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings are restored the argument appears neither scrappy and unfocused nor largely negative. What is more, for those of us familiar with these fairy stories the thesis Tolkien proclaims is at once amply illustrated in The Lord of the Rings while On Fairy-stories assumes its rightful place as the emperor of all guides to The Lord of the Rings.

Spotting the thesis of On Fairy-stories is more difficult in the essay than the lecture because the essay has the great magic trick of Galadriel’s Mirror written into it, which is liable to distract us. The original lecture consists of three parts: (i) philological thesis that runs over the whole of recorded (historical) English usage and inquires into origins; (ii) the modern association of fairy stories with children; (iii) the function of a fairy story in the modern world. Together, the three parts enact a reorientation whereby the discussion of children, which includes much autobiographical recollection, inserts the imagination of Tolkien into the picture, and so draws out what was only implicit in the first section, namely that what is really at the center of things is Tolkien’s own vision of Fairy – but that he is prepared to challenge all comers, both literary and scholarly, in defense of this vision.

And what is this vision? ‘The Fall of Numenor’ told of the great disenchantment when the world was made round and myth sundered from history. Composing a new hobbit story, Tolkien discovered that after the world was made round there was a long age in which islands of myth endured within history and it was possible for a mortal to stand even in history and look into the face of myth. Fairy-stories originate in the stories of Middle-earth in the Third Age, and even the ruins that have come down to us, as we find some of them in, say, Andrew Lang’s Blue Book, contain elements once seen in the Mirror of Galadriel.

1965 Foreword

Your copy of The Lord of the Rings likely has at the beginning a ‘Foreword to the Second Edition.’ This short text of 5 pages was added in 1965, and serves, primarily, to deny  any stated connection between the legendary story of the Great War of the Ring and the real war.

“This tale grew in the telling until it became a history of the Great War of the Ring.” So begins the Foreword. The shadow of World War II, Tolkien recalls, fell on much of the telling. The journey of Frodo to Mordor was composed as a serial and sent to his son Christopher, in South Africa with the RAF. Tolkien says that one must personally come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression, but the war that he fully felt, he points out with pain, was the Great War of 1914.

John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War took this autobiographical cue and with some craft reconstructed the relationship between felt oppression and its expression in early fairy story. Garth’s study gives us pause for thought when Tolkien grumbles that definitions of the relationship between lived experience and written story are “at best guesses from evidence that is inadequate and ambiguous.” Garth does not perform a miracle,identifying a point of contact he tells a story in history:  the early biographical chapter in which real war visibly exploded before his subject’s eyes, inevitably impacting upon the meaning of Tolkien’s story expressions.

Tolkien also lived though World War II, a father at home in the home guard. Touched personally by the adaptation of old and ancient stories in the cause of National Socialism, perhaps tainting the tradition of the North forever. Later things look different, as they always do. In the late 1950s, Hiroshima and Auschwitz gave face to the War, and talk of the war and the story of the One Ring in the early 1960s no doubt sounded hollow to Tolkien. Hence the tone of the Foreword.

I want to do for World War II something like what Garth has done for the Great War. My path follows composition of On Fairy-stories over a long swathe of the real war (1940-1942) and a story from Moria to Isengard by way of the Golden Wood, Rohan, and Fangorn. My project looks very different from Garth’s because we are not walking with the body of Tolkien on the explosions of the Somme but in the mind of a body looking out on the world from a room in North Oxford: my story is told in the imagination and intention of the author – it is the story of the Lady Galadriel and the wizard reborn, two kings of Rohan, some hobbits and some trees, as made up in the darkest years of World War II.

Telling the story of World War II in The Lord of the Rings must respect the challenge as laid down in the 1965 Foreword. We are to trace the relationship between the “real war” and “the legendary war” while taking seriously its claims: the sources of the story were “things long before in mind,” the real war modified “little or nothing” in the story of the legendary war, and had the disaster of war been averted the story would have developed  “along essentially the same lines.”

However, these claims are read together with Tolkien’s firm recollection that the sequel to The Hobbit was begun before the original was published in 1937, which Christopher’s drafts show to be incorrect (unless Tolkien had in mind the 1936 ‘The Fall of Numenor’ as the true start of the sequel, before the first draft of ‘A long-expected party’ in Christmas 1937). Just about everything that Tolkien said about his story after it was published require some pinches of salt. We have some latitude for interpretation; but we must respect the point of felt certainty about priority expressed in the Foreword. Looking back on a story begun nearly 3 decades earlier, Tolkien is certain the inner magic of the story was autonomous of and discovered prior to September 3, 1939.

I think this felt certainty has a source in a biographical fact: in March 1939 Tolkien was in St Andrews University in Scotland, where he delivered a lecture on fairy stories. This lecture contains the seed of the reconciliation of Tom Bombadil and the wraith-encounter on Weathertop, out of which the mythological framework of The Lord of the Rings blossomed. This seed was just in the process of being planted in the new hobbit story when, on September 3, war was declared. The real war had an immense impact upon the story, but the vision of the Mirror and the Eye predates World War II.

On Fairy-stories (1947) is a post-war document, composed in 1943, with the story resting after Saruman’s staff is broken, harvested from a seed put down in March 1939, a lecture delivered half a year before the real war began, in which Tolkien reflected on some wide-reading of fairy-stories so-called by an author looking enchantment and the wraith in the face. On Fairy-stories develops a thesis forged just before World War II began, a composition born out of four years of story-writing, a war outside his window, and a middle aged man with his own doubts. These doubts, I think, become the real frame of the essay, as called forth by the third and final of the three questions that frame the essay: 

What is the use of a fairy story?

The upshot is that a fairy story aids reflection on history, revealing its meaning. Galadriel is no prophet, she does not know what others will be; her Mirror shows you what you bring to it, a heuristic use, a consolation of northern art. Activity is self-defeating in the vision of this owl of Minerva. Boromir sees clearly what he wants, as Sam puts it after; and then falls when he tries to take it. Aragorn will succeed in mastering the Stone of Orthanc, and determine history by contending with the will of Sauron. He is the heir of Elendil. Denethor, great lord of Gondor, falls into folly, use the Stone of Minas Anor, lose his courage and burn like a heathen king. The Mirror is dangerous because it pertains to the future, and those who are leaders must especially beware, but the Mirror speaks also of the past, and here it is less perilous for us to look. Galadriel’s Mirror shows the Eye, but by the time Gandalf was in Rohan the story had given a proper name to the unfriend who gives the lie on our own doorstep. As throughout Rohan, the strangers counter the lie with the name of the Lady.

The story between Moria and Orthanc gives expression to the great themes of On Fairy-stories, laid down at St Andrews University in March 1939. What is a fairy story? Frodo is blindfolded on his entrance into one and we see with him his recovered vision, looking out from the tops of a tree on the light and the dark that holds the world in sway. What is the origin of a fairy story? A mortal in history speaking the name of a fairy element. Tolkien prays on paper as he writes his essay, and he speaks the name of the Lady who enters his story: this is how we should read the section of his essay he later labelled Origins. The Cauldron of Story is just Galadriel’s Mirror once the Lady has sailed away on the last fairy-ship, taking also the Stone of Elendil, Gandalf, Three Rings and two Bagginses.

Where the Foreword suggests the plot of The Lord of the Rings was set before the real war became actual its author must be resisted. Christopher’s editions show that the story turned over the space of a long pause at Balin’s tomb between December 1940 and August 1940: the story that went into Moria was not yet recognized as a war story, in summer 1940 Tolkien resumed writing what he now knew a war story.

After the new hobbit story becomes the tale of the Great War of the Ring, Tolkien speaks the name of the Lady. The world outside is very dark indeed.

Tolkien was not a prophet. Neither his lecture nor his story predicted the war, although after the event it might be asked whether both had and their author had not noticed. It simply cannot be otherwise: September 3, 1939, was a watershed: both story and lecture drafts must have appeared strangers to their author. It is fitting to Tolkien that he saw the value in his earlier drafts, and rather than revise them, placed Tom Bombadil in preserving borders and told a darker story outside of them. Bombadil’s new borders preserved his native pacificism and protected him from the stain of Appeasement.

Tolkien used the recipe of Fairie written up for St Andrews as a mirror, a crystal ball in which he discovered the real meanings of war. But what he saw was not the future but the past: his Mirror allowed him to retell the same story anew, leaving the old in place but now discovering what he had not seen in 1938. In August 1943, Tolkien in his own story had given the proper name Wormtongue to the lie on his own doorstep. And he had called upon the fairy element that was the magic of prayer in story, and she had come.

The story from the Mirror to the lightening after thunder that silences the lie in the court of the king of Rohan give the shape of war to the question asked by On Fairy-stories: what is the use of a fairy story.

War

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.

The Riddle of The Hobbit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tolkien’s boys stories

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

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

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

Letter 43

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

O

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

With Poor Belladonna we reach the root of the issue.

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

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

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

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

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

O

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

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

 

Appendix (or notes to be integrated above)

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

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

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

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

 

On video 5: Gollum’s end

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

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

Our 5th episode retells and analyzes the original story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On our 4th video: Ali Baba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Assyrian Riddle

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

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

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

Tom Bombadil: Peeling the Onion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Many Headed Hydra- Interpretations of Tom

Tom is:

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

The list goes on!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All right and proper. But then comes this nonesense:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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