Author Archives: simon

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 Fall of Númenor’ posits the world of the ancient north as the time between the fall of Númenor and the migration of the English tribes to Britain as the Danes smashed the older northern world.

This historical period glimpsed in the oldest northern writings is semi-mythical, where myth is understood to take its meaning from the biblical story of the Fall. Tolkien’s guiding idea is that the original Fall provides a model of how meaning is lost.

Adam names the animals in the Garden of Eden, and the tower of Babel story told later in the Book of Genesis suggests that the linguistic power of fallen humanity retained much of its original potency.

Now, comparative philology began with the recongition of linguistic changes working over many centuries. But the story of the Fall reveals that the world may change in a cataclysm – and on the other side, the survivors discover that a good part of the original reference of their words and stories has vanished. Myths are the stories told before the cataclysm, which we now discern only as fragments.

Myth, as so conceived, invokes realms now lost and almost entirely forgotten, from the Garden of Eden to the ancient homeland lost to the English who had settled in the British Isles. A principle of philological inquiry is thus raised into a theologically stained myth of the relationship between language and the world in time.

In history, which in Middle-earth is that which comes after Númenor, discovering the meaning of old words means imagining the lost myths in which these words were once embedded. In other posts we see Tolkien pulling out older and more substantial stories from those he finds in Beowulf. Many such stories may today be glimpsed only in the dark metaphors dimly discernible in the evident and surmised usages of unbearably old words.

‘The Fall of Númenor’ generates its own symbol of this philological practice: In Middle-earth, a few of the survivors of Númenor build high towers to better glimpse the vanished realm of myth over the sea.

The views from these towers arises when the meaning of old words is seen, revealing in vanished stories a homeland that is lost and days of enchantment that have forever passed.

Several months after penning ‘The Fall of Númenor,’ Tolkien gave his celebrated British Academy lecture on Beowulf (November, 1936), which he introduced by way of a metaphor of the Old English poem as a tower giving a view over the sea. The metaphor (endlessly quoted, always misread) pictures Beowulf as an artistic remembrance of lost ancient English traditions.

Yet the tower also illuminates the original art of The Hobbit – a solution to the riddle of the meaning of the ancient English phrase þéof náthwylces found by the telling of a fairy story.

The tower looking over the sea is ultimately a symbol of the clear sight of lost meaning achieved through a story that allows us to read prelapsarian words.


Tolkien studies (a perspective)

From the perspective of my own shortcut to mushrooms, the history of Tolkien studies is a curious one involving two distinct phases.

Within a decade of Tolkien’s death in 1973 two books had appeared that still today define the state of the emerging field known as ‘Tolkien studies’:

Tom A. Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth. Allen & Unwin: London. 1982.

Verlyn Flieger, Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World. Kent State University Press: Ohio. 1983.

Shippey’s book established the proposition that Tolkien’s professional life as an Oxford philologist has much to do with how and why he imagined Middle-earth. Flieger’s book identified Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction (1928) as second only to Beowulf in its influence on Tolkien.

Now, in the natural course of things these two studies would together have opened up a road that should have been taken long ago. Shippey says Tolkien was a philologist, but does not tell us of what kind (and the history of comparative philology reveals many kinds). Flieger identifies the importance of Poetic Diction, which was evidently intended as a contribution to the kind of study that in Oxford might have been called philological. Hence, the natural line of research waiting to be taken since 1984 is to use Barfield to establish what kind of a linguist Tolkien was and thereby take Shippey’s thesis to a new level.

The main reason why this road has never been taken, I think, is that these two great works were born just as the world changed. In 1983, the same year in which Flieger’s Splintered Light appeared, Christopher Tolkien published his edition of his father’s Book of Lost Tales, the first of what became twelve volumes collectively bearing the title The History of Middle-earth (Home). Nor did Christopher Tolkien stop there, with subsequent publications including an important 2014 volume containing his father’s translation of and commentary on Beowulf. Only in 2017 did he announce an end to half a lifetime of editorial work.

The immediate effect of this wealth of new primary material was to make clear that the book that appeared in 1977 as The Silmarillion was a distillation by Christopher Tolkien of a set of stories that his father crafted and recrafted over most of his life and of which many versions exist. As a Victorian taste for origins still haunts us, and as Christopher began the Home series with his father’s earliest writings, the main focus of most writing on Tolkien for some while now has been with the origin of the ‘Silmarillion’ stories (of which the classic account is now: John Garth, Tolkien and the Great War: On the Threshold of Middle-earth. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Boston, New York. 2003).

In the meanwhile, the two works of Shippey and Flieger have become classics in the sense that they are both constantly referenced yet rarely engaged with. Indeed, the extent to which the Home series has reshaped the whole field without anyone quite noticing is revealed by the way that Dimitra Fimi, in her Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: from Fairies to Hobbits (Palgrave Macmillan: London. 2008), politely places Shippey’s book on a pedestal while completely passing over Tolkien’s professional work (so we get elves in relation to Peter Pan but not to Beowulf).

Yet this silent dropping of Shippey’s basic premise has at least left him with less scars than Flieger. Her basic claim that The Silmarillion was inspired by Poetic Diction has been given a hard knock by the new evidence that Tolkien began his ‘Silmarillion’ stories over a decade before Barfield’s book was published. John Rateliff seems to be correct when, in his History of the Hobbit, he points out that there is no obvious change in the stories that may be correlated with the publication of Poetic Diction. Hence, while ritual homage to Splintered Light has become a commonplace of Tolkien studies, the inquiry into the significance of Owen Barfield’s ideas for Tolkien seems long ago to have been quietly shelved.

Like other people drawn into Tolkien studies only this side of the millenium, I began by reading whatever I could get my hands on. But my own interest has always been in the two hobbit stories rather than the earlier stories of the elves, and I soon discovered that the relevant Home volumes – which begin with The Lost Road (1987) – have so far attracted little attention. Returning to the two classic studies of the field after long submersion in these volumes has lead me to frame the above history.

And, of course, I do so because I wish to present this shortcut to mushrooms as a road that has been waiting to be taken since 1984.

My basic conclusions, as detailed in other entries, are:

  1. Shippey imposed an overly restrictive definition on philology that reflected that inquiries into poetic meaning once part of the world of thought of the Oxford philologist have subsequently been annexed by literary theory.
  2. Barfield’s Poetic Diction may indeed be discerned in the queer part of Tolkien’s linguistic thought, which is to say that both Oxford philologists share an idea of myth as containing original poetic meanings.
  3. Flieger had astonishing insight but made a mistake of interpretation. Tolkien engaged with Barfield’s Poetic Diction only in the mid-1930s, his influence is most clearly discerned in ‘The Fall of Númenor’ (in The Lost Road) and is a better guide to The Lord of the Rings than to The Silmarillion.

On this last point: when Flieger tries to relate Barfield to The Silmarillion what she is seeing is a combination of:  (a) various original elements compatible with Barfield’s ideas, and (b) an identification retrospectively imposed by Tolkien after composition of ‘The Fall of Númenor.’

Flieger also pushed a too simple identifiation of the thought of Barfield and Tolkien. We are looking at adaptation not simple adoption. Specifically, Tolkien recognized that Barfield was still hung up with a scholarly search for origins characteristic of Victorian philology at Oxford.

Where Barfield says that the first humans in history perceived – and so spoke of – the world mythically, Tolkien says that what the first humans perceived and said is beyond the reach of scientific inquiry and is properly treated by an artist inventing myths. Myths, for Tolkien, come before history. History is a series of falls, each of which leaves the survivors of the cataclysm with a handful of fragments of myths, which now become ‘fairy elements’ in fairy stories. These fairy elements, however, have a distinct affinity with the ‘original semantic unities’ at the heart of Barfield’s Poetic Diction.



The story of Adam and Even told in the Book of Genesis provides for Tolkien the ultimate myth. It tells of the Fall, giving to myth the meaning of a name for a story from before a fall.

Tolkien made use of the category of myth to define his own art, or at least some of it (the ‘Silmarillion’ stories are myths but the two hobbit stories became histories – technically: fairy stories). Yet the word also took its meaning from his reflections on the reach of philological science. Tolkien called myth, and thereby assigned to the category of art, a great swathe of the scholarly past of his discipline of comparative philology,  a nineteenth-century science with an inbuilt obsession with origins.

In the nineteenth century, the three main language families identified in the world were associated with the three sons of Noah: Japheth (Indo-European), Shem (Semitic), Ham (‘Other’). Nevertheless, Oxford’s first Professor of Comparative Philology, Friedrich Max Müller, approached the first grouping (which he named ‘Aryan’) as constructed from scratch. He pictured a people who had only a few very basic names of things and then imagined how they made language.

Müller’s mid-Victorian ideas lost credibility in the decades after 1859, when human antiquity was confirmed from stone implements unearthed in the fields of the Somme. For it now began to become clear that people had lived for many thousands of years before the three main languages families of the modern world ever began to form.

In the accepted narrative of the secularization of the sciences, the discovery of human prehistory is another nail in the coffin in the credibility of the Bible. Yet Tolkien saw that the bottom falling out of history allowed for a better fit between the Book of Genesis and linguistic philosophy.

History is conventionally defined as the past as revealed by written records. Beyond history, the archaeologist investigates prehistory. The earliest written texts obviously echo words spoken in at least the last days of prehistory. So the philologist may peer into prehistory. Yet at a certain point the vision of the philologist reaches a limit (as when Tolkien peered at the native population of the British Isles). What is beyond this limit Tolkien defines as myth.

Myths, as defined, are not stories untrue but stories of a time before our own records begin. Identifying the story of the Fall as the original myth, and carefully reading the Book of Genesis, Tolkien sees that Adam named the animals before humans ever knew a Fall. This is why, when we discern a theory of naming in the late 1920s – his etymology of the name Nodens – and the early 1930s –  The Hobbit – what we find is a theory of how already named things lost and found new names.

For Tolkien, the original naming of the nameless takes place in myth and the philologist or linguist who tries to imagine the origin of language is making a myth and calling it a science.

‘The Fall of Númenor’ (1936) gave Tolkien a definition of northern myth. This was retrospectively applied to the ‘Silmarillion’ stories he had been writing for two decades. From a wider perspective, northern myth comes into view as a series of stories punctuated by catastrophic falls.

From the perspective of the Beowulf poet, writing (believed Tolkien) in England in the time of Bede, the legendary past disclosed in stories still told of a lost homeland already had a mythical feel.

But behind each fall is another, until the Fall. The fall that began English history is the story of the terrible events that saw them load their possessions in boats and sail to a new British shore – a story of how a rising nation of warrior Danes took the lands of the ancient temple, made the old gods their own, and destroyed the tribe of the ancient priest-king.

Behind the stories of the ancient English is the much earlier, more terrible, and purely mythical tale of the fall of Númenor. In the most ancient northern legend recorded in history, the story of Scef glimpsed in the exordium to Beowulf, Tolkien heard the distant echo of Elendil who escaped from Númenor.

Eternity and Immortality

The ‘Fall of Númenor’ is a retelling of the ancient story of Atlantis, the only ancient source for which are two dialogues of Plato, the Timaeus and the (unfinished) Critias.

The two dialogues continue the discussion of the Republic. Socrates asks to see the ideal state brought into the world and into history. Timaeus tells how a divine craftsman fashioned the world, but before he speaks Critias tells a story supposedly heard from Egyptian priests, who keep long records, of how nine thousand years ago, amidst ” violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune”  the island of Atlantis “disappeared in the depths of the sea” (Timaeus).

Timaeus reveals what Plato was doing with this myth. He draws a distinction between knowledge, which has as its object eternal forms that do not change, and the historical world that is in constant movement and so cannot be an object of knowledge. The point of both his story and that of Critias is to reveal the eternal pattern discernible in history, showing by means of a myth how the eternal shapes intransigent matter in time.

Tolkien reframes the underlying relationship so that the story of Númenor reveals by means of a myth the relationship between history and immortality.

Some scholarly background. Edwardian scholars had made much of perceived similarities between ancient Greek and later Norse mythologies. Jane Harrison, for example, discerns a “forecast” of “the atmosphere of the Eddas” in Homer’s Olympus (1905, 31). A reaction against this trend, however, is found in R.W. Chamber’s ‘Beowulf and the Heroic Age’ (1925), which Tolkien told his Oxford students “should be read by all whatever else” (B&C 40).

Chambers pointed out that while the Cyclops encountered by Odysseus is “god-begotten and under divine protection,” the “gigantic foes whom Beowulf has to meet are identified with the foes of God” (Chambers 1939, 66). Over the next decade, Tolkien developed this observation into a key to Beowulf.

Tolkien came to see that ancient Greek and northern gods are situated differently in time. The Greek gods are timeless and do not fear death” (M&C 25), while the northern gods are “in their very being the enlarged shadows of great men and warriors upon the walls of the world,” and they are allies of mankind in a war against the monsters that “within Time the monsters would win” (M&C 25).

This allowed Tolkien to make sense of the fusion of Christianity and paganism he discerned in Beowulf. A Christian poet removed any reference to the old gods but maintained the old monsters. But given that the monsters would eventually win even with the aid of the gods, removing the latter from the picture did not change the fundamental insight into the human condition provided by the ancient pagan traditions.

This insight was bound up with a knowledge that the road to immortality is denied to mankind – in time each and every one of us will die. This insight of the ancient north was quite compatible with the new Christian teaching that after death the fate of the soul is eternity beyond the walls of the world.

Tolkien developed these ideas in his 1936 British Academy lecture. Here he explains that while the northern myths had, as it were, looked death in the face and so spoke to the very root of the (postlapsarian) human condition, the southern mythology had shirked the problem and so “could not stop where it was. It must go forward to philosophy or relapse into anarchy” (M&C 25). Its advance was shaped by the mythological conception of the gods as “timeless,” which fostered a conception of eternal, ideal forms that stand outside of time.Plato’s philosophical myth of Atlantis had its roots in an earlier mythological imagination.

To retell the story of Atlantis in terms of a relationship between an immortal and a mortal realm was to translate a southern myth into the mythological language of the North.


Through R.G. Collingwood, his colleague at Pembroke College, Oxford between 1925 and 1936, we catch a glimpse of Tolkien pondering what the lost story of Nodens might include.

Collingwood’s Archaeology of Roman Britain contains a chapter on Inscriptions that names “Nodens the god of Lyndey” together with “Sul the goddess of Bath” two of  “the very numerous non-Roman divinities whom the religious life of the Empire welcomed with its characteristic tolerance” (1930 p.166).

Rounding off long years of archaeological study, Collingwood six years later published Roman Britain. In a footnote in a chapter on Religion, he explains that Tolkien has told him that “the Celtic nominative” of the goddess of Bath “can only be Sulis” (1937, p. 264). He then offers a speculation on the meaning of the name, which he intimates is from Tolkien:

The Celtic sulis may mean ‘the eye’, and this again may mean the Sun.

Lydney Park and Bath are less than thirty miles away across the River Severn: Nodens and Sullis dwelled on opposite sides of the border made between England and Wales by the Avon valley. I think we catch a glimpse here of Tolkien wondering how their stories became entangled when Nodens the hunter caught the eye of Sullis the sun-goddess.

The Garden of Eden

Tolkien was a slow reader. He certainly read Beowulf, yet we shall see in later posts his mind was always drawn back to the first story of this Old English poem. We may be certain he also read all of the Latin Bible, and no doubt looked on occasion at the Hebrew and Greek originals. Yet, again, he never quite got beyond the first story.

The story at the heart of Tolkien’s imagination throughout his life is that of the first family, the man who first named the animals and dwelled together with a woman drawn from him in the Garden of Eden. The first family, who broke the prohibition by eating of the forbidden fruit, knew themselves sexually, and so received the doom of death and were exiled from paradise so they could no longer eat of the tree of life. Tolkien’s imaginative life can be delineated in relation to distinct phases of his reflection on this biblical myth and its sequels.

In 1916 a young soldier sick with trench fever began writing a cycle of stories of the elves in the ancient north. At the heart of these stories is an idea of elves as humans who never broke the prohibition and so hardly knew themselves as sexual beings and never received the doom of death. These ‘Silmarillion,’ which Tolkien dedicated his life to, were from the beginning bound up in an imagination of the story not told in Genesis, the story of humans who did not eat the forbidden fruit and continued to eat of the tree of life – the human ‘others’ who did not take the mortal road out of paradise.

Yet Tolkien’s youthful history of the elves in the ancient north had soon discovered an immortal fall, the consequence of a jealous love bound up, not with sexual relations, but in precious stones magically wrought by cunning hands.

In 1936, a forty-four-year-old Oxford Professor reconceived his stories of the elves in the ancient North. This was achieved through an unfinished novel about time travel, entitled ‘The Lost Road,’ which Tolkien began in early 1936 having agreed with C.S. Lewis that each would compose a story that touched on myth.

Tolkien’s novel begins with a father and son pair of early twentieth-century academics who travel back through various legends of the old north until they reach a mythological beginning of history in the story’s concluding chapter, entitled ‘The Fall of Númenor.’

Now the elves told a story of a second mortal fall, a northern sequel to the story of the Garden of Eden, in which mortals doomed to die try to take the immortality they have lost. The story cemented Tolkien’s imagination of the culture of the ancient north as complementing that of the ancient Hebrews by telling stories bound up in the fruit of the other tree, the tree of life.

Sauron the Necromancer, tempted a righteous mortal people into once again rebelling against the will of God. A story from neither the Old nor the New but an imagined Northern Testament.

Magic ring

Consider this apparent paradox in the story of Bilbo Baggins. In the first chapter, a wizard scratches a “queer sign” on his front door that the next day tells thirteen dwarves this is the home of the burglar they are looking for. On seeing Bilbo, the dwarves are skeptical, and it takes Gandalf’s authority to convince them to take his word on the matter. After he has vanished in the goblin tunnels and then reappeared, however, the dwarves see that the wizard had spoken true, for they now recognize Bilbo as “a first-class burglar” (Hobbit 99).

Now, between entering inadvertently and exiting the goblin tunnels Bilbo found (and in the original story, won) a magic ring of invisibility. Such a ring is a distinctive tool of the trade of a fairy-story burglar, and as such a material equivalent of the queer sign scratched on Bilbo’s front door (Hobbit 16).

Yet the magic ring remains a secret in Bilbo’s pocket until Mirkwood. So, the dwarves do not change their attitude to Gandalf’s naming of Bilbo a burglar because they are now shown a golden thing that backs up his queer sign, but simply because they now see in this hobbit what a wizard’s eye had discerned from the first.

In the original story (for the riddle game was revised in the second edition and the spirit of Sauron entered where it never was before) this paradox is underscored by the strange way the magic ring becomes Bilbo the hobbit’s (essential) property. When he encounters Gollum, the monster’s lost ring is in the pocket of the hobbit. But Gollum proposes a riddle competition and names his stake his “present,” by which he means the “birthday present” he does not know he has already lost. When Bilbo asks what is in his pocket, and Gollum fails to guess, Bilbo therefore wins the magic ring (although he does not know it).  Hence, burglary is one thing Bilbo does not do before the dwarves recognize him as a burglar.

The paradox points to the dual functions of the magic ring in the story. On the one hand, its named attribute: (bodily) invisibility; on the other, an attribute never named only shown: the magic ring makes a hobbit more recognizably himself.

The magic ring’s unnamed property turns on a special relationship between ring and hobbit. To begin with, the invisibility it bestows simply amplifies the ordinary vanishing magic that, in the first pages of the story, the narrator had told us is possessed by all hobbits (Hobbit 12). But as soon as it is in his pocket, Bilbo comes into a peculiar kind of luck such that he unintentionally finds the right words – not only asking the question that wins the riddle game but also by chance hitting on the answers to two of Gollum’s dark and difficult riddles. The luck Bilbo picks up with the ring is of that valuable kind that allows you to be yourself and get away with it.

Note that the magic ring does not itself give a hobbit the name of a burglar. Both his essential qualities – vanishing and luck – are no doubt prerequisites of a successful burglar, but they do not make Bilbo a burglar. What the dwarves recognize is not an essential burglarious quality in the hobbit, but rather that he has it in him to play the role of burglar that Gandalf at the start of the story assigns to him.

We see here in full the theory of names in relation to titles and stories latent in the 1932 etymological note on Nodens. The theory answers the question: What is the name of the nameless?

The answer: a story-title hung on a hidden quality revealed by the story.

Recall that Gandalf has a hat, the dwarves hoods, but Bilbo runs out of Bag-End bareheaded. We may say that the magic ring reveals an invisible peg discovered in Bilbo’s character on which the dwarves hang the hat that Gandalf gave them. The magic ring is a sort of fairy-story microscope, the function of which is to provide what we might title story-vision, revealing to us the essential quality of the nameless on which any attribution of a title must rest. The magic ring, in other words, shows in an instant what it would take those of us who are not wizards most of a story to see.

This theory was turned inside out when Tolkien began on a sequel some five years after completing it – a strange revolution of a name.

Bilbo’s titles

Having gone down the secret passagway and found Smaug asleep, Bilbo Baggins goes back again, and this time has a conversation with the dragon.

Asked his name and origin by Smaug, Bilbo avoids a direct answer and gives rather a string of titles culled from the adventure we have read: “Barrel-rider,” “Ringwinner,” and “Luckwearer,” for example, and: “I come out of a bag, but no bag went over me”  (Bag-End and the trolls).

The theory of names, titles, and stories extracted from The Name ‘Nodens‘ suggest that anyone of these titles might serve as a story-name for this hobbit. Indeed, in the sequel, and after the story of the riddle game had changed, Bilbo becomes the Ring-finder. A story may generate many potential titles compatible with a revealed inner quality, but it takes a new story to hang a new title.

The title hung on the hobbit in this story is burglar. The name is scratched on Bilbo’s front door as a “queer sign” at the beginning of the story by Gandalf the wizard. The next day, at his unexpected party, Gloin speaks this queer sign aloud: burglar.

But in this opening of the story, Bilbo never sees the wizard’s queer sign and the dwarves, on seeing Bilbo, doubt Gandalf’s word.

Bilbo’s first adventure sees him trying to live up to the wizard’s expectations and picking the pocket of a troll. The purse is the mischief and squeaks: Ere, ‘oo are you? When the question is repeated by the purse’s owner, now holding Bilbo by his feet, he replies: a burrahobbit. At this point in his story, Bilbo is an incoherent and by no means credible burglar.

After his escape alone from the goblin tunnels, the dwarves immediately recognize Bilbo as “a first-class burglar.” The riddle at the center of the story is: what has happened to allow the dwarves to now see Bilbo as a wizard did on first meeting him? This riddle is solved in the next post on the magic ring. The question answered in the remainder of this post is why, of all the range of titles that Bilbo’s story has generated, is burglar the one that matters?

Step back to the day after his unexpected party when Bilbo, at the wizard’s urging, signs the contract left for him by the dwarves.  Bilbo takes it on the chin when, many moons and adventures later, and standing on the doorstep of the Lonely Mountain, the ludicrous terms of this contract come into view. For the contract is what all the dwarves have in mind when Thorin puts out his hand to thank Bilbo for going down a secret passageway alone. A reward awaits of one fourteenth share of the immense treasure at the other end. But the treasure is guarded by a terrible thief, Smaug the dragon.

Now, if hobbit burglary means stealing treasure from under the nose of a live dragon, the sum of Bilbo’s efforts amounts to one cup. This one cup, however, is ancient English gold. Old English words, written over a thousand years ago, tell of a dragon dwelling in a steep stone-barrow on the high heath, watching over his hoard. At the foot of the barrow is a secret passageway. In the restored text of a badly damaged page of Beowulf, we read what happens next in The Hobbit:

                                  Þaér on innan gíong
Nið[ð]a náthwylc,   (forþ né)h gefe(al)g
haéðnum horde,    hond (wǽge nam),
(síd,) since fáh;    né hé þæt syððan (bemáð),
Þ(éah) ð(e hé) slaépende    besyre(d wur)de
þéofes cræfte.

Beowulf, lines 2214-2219 (Klaeber 83). Tolkien’s translation (Beowulf T&C 77):

Therein went some
nameless man, creeping in nigh
to the pagan treasure; his hand seized
a goblet deep, bright with gems. This the dragon did not after in silence bear,
albeit he had been cheated in his sleep
by thief’s cunning.

Both the Anglo-Saxon and the twentieth-century author proceed to draw the wrath and rage of a dragon burgled by a þéof náthwylces, a nameless thief.

The Old English dragon is Beowulf’s bane, a monster who is slain by but also kills the good old king. Tolkien’s story, however, is rather an exercise in northern fantasy than northern realism: the dragon is slain by a hero who lives, and the dwarves reclaim their ancient treasure.

We now understand better the trick of imagining Bilbo Baggins as a British aborigine. The hobbit’s native identity matters not a whit to the story, but allows Tolkien to make a crafty identification from the start. Hobbits are a nameless people, and so the expression hobbit burglar provides a modern translation of the Old English þéof náthwylces.

Just as the stories of Nodens passed from ancient Germanic stories to Roman Britain, so Tolkien imagines an even more ancient story of a hobbit thief passing over the seas in the other direction, eventually brought back to the British Isles and made use of by the author of Beowulf.


In the house of Tom Bomadil, Frodo the hobbit asks his host: Who are you, master? In the first draft of the story, penned in the autumn of 1938, the reply is: I am an Aborigine (Shadow 117, 121).

A principle behind all these pages: I read story ideas found in The Lord of the Rings as a commentary on The Hobbit; the earlier the passage in the sequel the more direct the engagement with the original. Such readings bring into view two sides of the same riddle and point at underlying ideas.

Tom Bombadil was an aborigine because Tolkien wished to clarify what this term meant once he had decided that hobbits, as a matter of fact, were not aborigines. In the original hobbit story they are, as also is Gollum, although this quality is rather hinted at than named.

The hobbits’ native identity is discovered by reading the first page or so of The Hobbit together with a lecture of 1900 by Oxford’s first professor of Celtic, John Rhys. The first pages describe Bilbo’s home in the side of a hill and hobbits as a people who were once prosperous but are now rare and tend to magically disappear in the face of intruding big folk. In his lecture, Rhys extracted  a historical kernel from Welsh folk traditions of the “little people.”

Behind these fairy stories, Rhys argued, were memories of encounters by early Celtic speakers with the aboriginal inhabitants of Britain. These people must once have been spread over much of Britain, but the series of prehistorical and historical intrusions from the east had driven them into the wild hills on the peripheries of the mainland. These natives, Rhys told his audience, had been a non-Indo-European, matriarchal folk, “a small swarthy population of mound-dwellers, of an unwarlike disposition, much given to magic and wizardry, and living underground.” In Scotland, he reported, could still be seen some of their “underground — or partially underground — habitations.” Rhys seems to have in mind Skara Brae, never visited but read about and envisaged by this Oxford professor much as a later one pictured a hobbit hole. These original habitations, he explained, “appear from the outside like hillocks covered with grass, so as presumably not to attract attention.”

But one of the most remarkable things about them is the fact that the cells or apartments into which they are divided are frequently so small that their inmates must have been of very short stature, like our Welsh fairies. (Rhys 1900, 896, 887-8)

Also, hobbits. And also Gollum, who is painted in the original version of the riddle game as an aborigine who has survived the intrusion of goblins but lost all contact with friends and relatives and now lives in the permanent darkness of his hole in the ground.

Now, Rhys and Tolkien were both philologists (and Tolkien probably attended Rhys’ lectures as an undergraduate). But their philological conclusions about Britain’s aboriginal population were different. Rhys wanted to picture this population in relation to the first Celtic speakers to arrive because he thought the aboriginal language might explain the distinct linguistic development of that branch of Celtic. Consequently, he dedicated significant labour to identifying traces of this aboriginal tongue old Celtic formulas.

Tolkien talks of the aborigines in his 1955 lecture ‘English and Welsh.’ He suggests that the subsequent waves of intruders interbred with these natives and that their blood flows strongly in the modern population of the British Isles. But he insists that  their language has entirely disappeared, leaving no traces we can detect in place or any other names (M&C 170-71).

(Tolkien had by then made significant use of one word that was claimed as aboriginal – ond for ‘stone.’ Ond is the original name of Gondor, city of stone. But this was to draw on the idea of an aboriginal tongue, not to accept that the word really was of that vanished language.)

So, why did a philologist who believed that philology could not reach the aboriginal peoples of the British Isles tell a magical story about one of these people, who in another hole in the ground met a monsterous version of himself?

Because a philologist is interested in the general phenomenon of naming, and must therefore confront the problem of the nameless.

The nameless appears to us a lawless realm, strangely illicit, even threatening. The nameless is profoundly challenging, for our apparently innate reaction to discerning a nameless presence is to attempt to negate it by naming it. People give names to thing and people who already have names, but somewhere down the etymological line the nameless awaits. A philologist interested in naming must face a nameless beginning.

The Hobbit begins with a nice trick. The story will illustrate the theory of naming already set out in The Name ‘Nodens.’ Bilbo Baggins will play a role like Nodens, albeit in his own story. Bilbo Baggins has a proper name. But his essential quality is that he is a hobbit – he is one of a now nameless people. Rather than march into a state of virgin namelessness, as might a modern atomic physicist, the nameless realm we enter was not always so but has been reclaimed by the nameless through our forgetting. This is to tame the nameless at the start.

An aborigine means, for Tolkien, someone who gave names to things, including himself, but whose own name is beyond our reach.

We are still a long way from Tom Bombadil’s aboriginal identity. To arrive at this holy grail we must pass through the story of how Bilbo Baggins earned the name of the burglar and the revolution of the magic ring as it became the One Ring…