Author Archives: simon

Patches

The Apprenticeship of J.R.R. Tolkien (Ye Machine, 2018) was published on August 29. But this is the first announcement. There is simply no point competing with The Fall of Gondolin (August 30). This shade has proved welcome, though, because I’ve found myself unable to break the loop of patching. In fact, with this second ebook, I appreciate  that electronic release of an essay is not like release of a printed edition and is like a beta online program release. Having set my 29.08.18 release date in stone I now find myself seeing room for improvement everywhere I look.

The main patch – for which I apologize to the three or so people who have purchased the book – has been the section titled Biblical Myth in Part Two of the essay. But I am not sure I can do more than add patch upon patch (though every time I look I see the phrasing should be improved!)

My problem is that I have only just begun to appreciate how seriously Tolkien read the Book of Genesis. Until I can place my feet on the ground in the relations between his ‘Silmarillion’ stories, his reading of fragments of ancient northern stories, and his reading of the generations between Adam and Abraham, I can do no more than patch. Here is a paragraph recently inserted that is simply a temporary patch:

There is an *idea* of myth to be discovered in Tolkien’s literary sequels to the story of the Fall, but we will fail to reach it unless we recognize the textual basis of his meditations. The focus on ideas that is the chosen path of this essay falls easily into Protestant presuppositions, in which we approach the Bible as a book translated into our own language and assume that each individual alone may interpret the words on the page – a reformed manner of reading that has become a basis of modern literary criticism. But Tolkien knew the words of the Bible in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew as well as English, and he was evidently aware also of some at least of the many and varied traditions of commentary on each of the verses of a book that – it cannot be doubted – he believed was true. We are walking here at the very center of things, the crucible where everything emerges, and all that limits the view are the limitations of your guide, who can read only his native language and knows little of the great commentaries on the Book of Genesis by which both Tolkien and the old poet before him were fixing their imaginations.

When I talk of Protestant presuppositions I have in mind myself, in virtue of paternal inheritance and a higher education at one of England’s ancient universities, and also a friend who champions personal reflections on The Lord of the Rings and thinks of what he does in terms provided by modern literary theory. As a general rule of the kind of conversations I find myself having, however private, such presuppositions are widespread, inevtitably brought to the table, legitimate, in no way necessarily associated with the Necromancer (as I now apologize for having suggested), and ultimately inseperable from our free will and our relationship to the words that we speak to one another. My point is only that this enthusiastic Protestant tradition of reading is in certain respects quite at odds with Tolkien’s, who naturallly consults what past authorities have to say about a verse of Scripture and sets out his own reading in conversation with the living and the dead.

I have a sense that there is a whole conversation between two halves of North America in which science is pitted against Creationism and religious identity turns on a criteria of literal truth applied to the Book of Genesis. This is a conversation that completely passes Tolkien by, which is not to say that he might not find himself in uncomfortable arguments about the literal truth of, say, the Flood (or the drowning of Atlantis). But he really did not spend much time on asking himself about the truth of the biblical stories; that was not for him an interesting question – they were true, whatever that might mean. Where he began was a puzzling out of strange stories that seem to hide their meanings.

What I call Protestant presuppositions, and recognize in myself as well as many others who I converse with, embraces a fine individualism that runs the risk of not noticing, let alone coming to appreciate, our own inherited and native traditions. Tolkien’s meanings seem to me wrapped deeply in the learning of the learned of more than two millenia. While we may be happy to wonder alone in Middle-earth, and while the richness of our individual experiences as readers of The Lord of the Rings cannot be denied, I think we are missing the point if we do not admit from the get go that what is so wonderful about this reading experience is a recognition that we are not alone (and just what that means, as my friend well knows, is the more helpful question to ask).

Magic ring and tower: first foundation

In the first months of the writing of a sequel to The Hobbit, in an untitled chapter that became ‘The Shadow of the Past,’ Tolkien pictured an opening scene in Bag-End. Gandalf is speaking about the magic rings made by the Necromancer and distributed to various folk of Middle-earth:

The dwarves it is said had seven, but nothing could make them invisible. In them it only kindled to flames the fire of greed, and the foundation of each of the seven hoards of the Dwarves was a golden ring. (Shadow 78).

At this early point of composition the magic ring was imagined as made by the Necromancer but had not yet become the One Ring. Once it did so, the association of magic rings and dwarf treasure was transformed into the following idea, voiced by Elrond as he tells the history of Sauron and the Rings of Power at the great Council of Rivendell:

His Ring was lost but not unmade. The Dark Tower was broken, but its foundations were not removed; for they were made with the power of the Ring, and while it remains they will endure.

Unlike the usual sequence from draft to published story, in this case the final version of the idea reveals its origin and so illuminates the meaning of the abandoned draft conception.

The idea is given different shapes by different drawings of the role of the magic ring in the story of Bilbo Baggins (1930-1933) in relation to the symbol of the tower that appears in ‘The Fall of Númenor’ (1936).

As detailed in various entries, The Hobbit tells a story of how a hobbit is named a burglar, thereby revealing a latent meaning of the ancient English phrase þéof náthwylces found in Beowulf. As such, the story helps Tolkien read the riddle of an expression that is now mythical because it belongs to stories once told but lost in the historical fall that saw the English migrate to the British Isles.

The Hobbit is in just this sense a tower of the kind erected by the exiles of Númenor – the view from the story reveals the meaning of prelapsarian words. Hence, the same logic that allowed Tolkien to name Beowulf a tower in his British Academy lecture also allows The Hobbit to be given this metaphorical or story title.

However, The Hobbit generates its own metaphor or symbol of philological speculation in the form of a magic ring. Where the tower pictures the end of philological inquiry the magic ring pictures its method: when the magic ring becomes Bilbo’s property his essential properties (luck and vanishing) are revealed by story-vision, thereby explaining how the story sticks the name burglar on him.

The magic ring is a metaphorical picture of the method of investigation. The method is the imagination of a story that reveals the hidden connection between the words of the expression; and the magic ring is the vision of such story-making.

On the foundation of this story-vision, a story is constructed, the view from which reveals the lost meaning of the archaic expression. The magic ring provides the foundation of a tower looking over the sea.

Yet this overt connection between magic ring and tower had not been made by Tolkien in winter 1938 when he penned Gandalf’s statement that each dwarf treasure was founded on a magic ring. What we see here, then, is Tolkien attempting to remake the 1936 metaphor of the tower from within The Hobbit.

Making a magic ring the foundation of the treasure of Thror is interesting because studded with ambivelance. The meaning of the treasure of Thror changes in the last part of The Hobbit. By the end of the story (and as pictured with a heavy hand in the movies), the treasure works an enchantment on dwarves and elves who almost go to war over it – an enchantment of the same baleful kind as the Silmarils, which lead the elves to slay their kin in early days of myth. Yet the treasure of the dwarves is also at the heart of their music, which wakes up Bilbo’s Tookish side at the start of the story in Bag-End.

Reflection on this passing relationship between ring and dwarf treasure highlights an intermediate step in the transformation of magic ring into One Ring. As soon as the magic ring was imagined as made by the Necromancer, which is almost the second thought Tolkien had once he began a sequel, it became evil. Nevertheless, for several months of composition the magic ring remained but one of many made by the Necromancer long ago, and for the same period Bilbo’s heir was a madcap prankster named Bingo Bolger-Baggins and Tolkien believed that his jokes would keep the evil of the Necromancer in check. This first phase of the imagination of the sequel hit reality on Weathertop, and this aborted projection of the tower into the treasure of Thror reflects a pre-Weathertop idea of the sequel.

The precise passage of ideas remains unclear to me, but it was on the way to Weathertop that a passing historical observation about Elendil introduced ‘The Fall of Númenor’ into the new hobbit story. Everything changed on Weathertop, but in the first instance this was because Bingo was stabbed by “the sword of the Necromancer” and began to become a wraith – and it became all too clear that the Necromancer was not to be escaped by japes and high spirits. Yet from this point ideas of Númenor began to enter the story. And very soon after this, the magic ring became the One Ring. (Hence, the legend of Elendil found in the myth of Númenor now generated a son, Isildur, who served to get the One Ring from Sauron’s hand to Gollum’s.)

From this point in the composition on it was perhaps only a question of time when the One Ring would be named the foundation of the Dark Tower of the Necromancer.

This, of course, was to invert the original if latent connection, such that a magic ring founds a tower looking over the sea. Barad-dûr provides a platform from which the Eye of Sauron looks out, not over the sea, but over Middle-earth. But this inversion was straightforward given the presence of a white tower by the sea to the west of the Shire, an identification (in the essay On Fairy-stories) of the Magician or Necromancer as the moral opposite of the teller of elvish stories, and the implicit thought that The Lord of the Rings was composed by means of an enchanted ring (the relationship of which to the original magic ring that reveals a hobbit being just what this index wishes to reveal).

the week before christmas – the story of the Ring begins

79 years ago to this day – it is the evening of the 19th of December, 2016 that i write this – the lord of the rings had begun as a story (though the story did not yet bear this title). we know that on the 16th of December, Tolkien had yet to begin a sequel to The Hobbit, which had been published with much success earlier in September of the year, but that three days later – on the 19th of December, 1937- he wrote in a letter: ‘I have written the first chapter of a new story about Hobbits – “A long expected party.”‘

I’d read this before – the narrative of first composition is set out in Christopher Tolkien’s introduction to Return of the Shadow, which volume itself presents many of the drafts of the book that emerged over the next decade and beyond; and which indeed begins with the original 5 page manuscript composition that had been composed in the days before or of the 19th of December, 1937.

But it was only recalling the date last night that i realised that Tolkien began his new story in the week before Christmas.

This timing, I feel sure, played a vital role in the imagination of the great party of special magnificance: the party thrown by Bilbo Baggins on the occasion of his final vanishing from Hobbiton, some several decades after his unlooked for return from adventure in forgien parts. For that is what Tolkien bascially wrote 79 years ago today, or yesterday (the manuscript is short enough that it was surely written in one sitting, or two at the most – say, over Dec. 18th and 19th): an account of how Bilbo gave a banquet to remember, made an announcement, and then disappeared – in order to allow a new story to begin that would be told of Bilbo’s (as yet unamed) heir (for the end of The Hobbit suggested that Bilbo himself had had no more adventures). So what Tolkien basically wrote – his ‘first chapter of a new story’ – was essentially a curtain-call on Bilbo, his final disappearing act, which, fittingly, was to come as the culmination of a great feast.

And as Tolkien described Bilbo’s party – many lines from this first version are familiar to readers of the published book – what he conjured up was a birthday party and a christmas party rolled into one – with everyone receiving presents and eating until they are fit to burst (it only really rains and snows food and drink at christmas).

In this first version Bilbo is only 70 on the day of the party – the 22nd of the ‘pleasant’ month of September, but it is indeed his birthday that is being celebrated. Birthday party, indeed! This was a feast imagined in days when academic routine had ground to a halt, the house was full of children’s voices, a tree had been erected inside the house and preparations were already afoot for a day of winter feasting soon to come.