Author Archives: simon

Tolkien’s boys stories

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.

Tolkien TV

So, after a long break in which we all learned something about making movies, we are back on the videos. We renamed our YouTube channel Tolkien TV and have mapped out all but one of the remaining hobbit videos. We have also started preparations for a second series showing how Tolkien’s study of Beowulf gave birth to his story of ‘The Fall of Númenor,’ which became the second story to which The Lord of the Rings became the sequel.

And we made a Tolkien TV symbol by using an image from Dziga Vertov’s classic Man with a Movie Camera – released in 1929, as Tolkien was deep in planning out his story of a hobbit’s adventure.

Ultimately, the aim is to tell the whole story of the making of The Lord of the Rings, showing how The Hobbit was remade in its image as Tolkien looked to his religious faith as the foundation of his theory of meaning in the dark years of World War II. But even if we manage to put out one video a month it will still take us a couple of years to arrive at this goal. And, of course, making these short videos is time consuming and constantly interrupted by the ordinary business of making a living – or, as in the case of my co-workers, going to school and doing homework.

Anyway, the long promised Hobbit & Ali Baba video should (really) be released quite soon…

Tolkien Movie Review

I’ve learned so much about video editing over the last couple of months making a series of videos on The Hobbit that I thought I’d try my hand at a video review of the new movie about the young Tolkien.

But I still have much to learn, not least about fair use and copyright law. This is the third version I’ve uploaded – the first two attempts were blocked by YouTube for copyright infringement, that is, because I used too many clips from the movie. I don’t understand how this works because I see other YouTube movie reviews that consist entirely of clips from the movie under review.

Anyway… This third version suffers a bit because by this third attempt I got fed up and so careless on the editing. And for all I know it will also be blocked. If so, then here is a simple text version of the review:

This is a boring movie.

a wilderness of dragons


John Rateliff is the editor of the early drafts of The Hobbit and so has passed beyond the realm of legend. He organized this volume in honour of Verlyn Flieger. His choice of title for this collective of essays is perfect. I am not sure that anyone else in the world knows as much about Tolkien’s thinking as these two scholars.

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.