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A Copernican Revolution in story-vision

The post Genesis of the One Ring identified two seminal decisions made in the first week or weeks of composition of The Lord of the Rings:

(1) to place the magic ring at the center of the new story; which idea was soon followed by the idea that:

(2) the magic ring was made by the Necromancer. Two subsequent posts (here and here) outlined the significance of this second decision.

Knowing that it paved the way to introducing the Necromancer as the titular character of the new hobbit story, it is now time to look the first decision in the face.

Our starting point is the magic ring of The Hobbit (1937), revealed in previous posts (e.g. here) as a story-element with visible property (invisibility of body) and invisible property (visibility of character). It is the second property that is vital in understanding what happened when Tolkien made his first decision: a fairy-mirror was moved from side machinery to center stage and therefore its nature must be seen. Yet how to show what lay beneath its golden surface?

One cannot slip a magic ring into the pocket of a magic ring to reveal its hidden quality. The original magic ring has significance only when it is drawn together with a person it reflects. To reveal the hidden quality of the magic ring Tolkien therefore imagines a mirror image of the original relationship, which is to say that he enacts a ‘Copernican revolution’ in a philological inquiry into language by switching the subject and the object of story-vision. That which hitherto served to reveal fairy elements is now to be revealed as a thing in itself.

Immanuel Kant observed that Nicolaus Copernicus, astronomer of Krakow, had declared an end to attempts to calculate the heavenly motions by placing the earth at the center of the world system and announced that he would put the sun at the center and imagine that the earth moved around it. Kant proclaimed his Critique of Pure Reason a Copernican revolution in philosophy, by which he meant that, previous philosophers having circled the world of being and becoming and failed to grasp it, he would now circle the knowing subject and outline the conditions of our knowledge of being and becoming. This turn from the object to the subject of knowledge is the starting point of Kant’s ‘critical philosophy’ and the basis of the modern idea of ‘criticism’ (as in, e.g. ‘literary criticism’).

Max Müller, Oxford’s first Professor of Comparative Philology, was an ardent disciple of Kant (he translated the Critique of Pure Reason into English). Later Victorian comparative philology at Oxford was conducted in a philosophical language of self-consciousness derived from Kant. However, late Victorian Kantianism tended towards historicism, that is, the Oxford linguists set their philological research against some idea of the development of self-consciousness. This kind of historicism took its cue from Müller’s idea of mythology as a disease of language (an early moment when language bewitched the nascent human mind and the progress of self-consciousness went awry), was developed further by Archibald Sayce, Müller’s successor, and given a revised spin by Owen Barfield.

Tolkien is wholly free from this historicist form of Kantianism. The human mind (or soul), he is convinced, is in its broad nature always the same – there never was a time or place in which humans were mindless (Barfield) or confused frogs and princesses (Müller). But Tolkien was obviously aware of this side of the Oxford linguistic tradition, and it would be a mistake to assume that his thought is free of any strain of Kantian ideas. Rather, we can see in the very moment of genesis of The Lord of the Rings a Copernican revolution in storytelling and the inquiry into language that informed Tolkien’s art of storytelling.

What does this mean in practice? Firstly, there is the simple fact that a thing rather than a person is at the center of the story. This is a peculiarity of The Lord of the Rings as we know it, and we should recognise that Tolkien has engineered our uneasy sense throughout the story that the Ring has personhood and yet is an inanimate material object.

Secondly, the nature of the magic ring is to be revealed by way of the characters, or rather the character developments, of those who are drawn against it. The magic ring is still a fairy mirror, but we are to observe its character as it were in a mirror, that is, we may see it only indirectly by observing the people around it. This would ultimately lead to the fine character portraits of both Galadriel and Boromir (and several others), but in the first instance gave birth simultaneously (or so I believe) to the new Gollum and to Bingo Bolger-Baggins, the heir of Bilbo.

As soon as Tolkien had decided that the magic ring came from the Necromancer he appears to have begun imagining Bingo and reimagining Gollum as two opposing mirrors on the magic ring. Gollum is now declared an ancient hobbit, and a story soon told of how he found the magic ring (the birthday present story is a lie) and used it for sneaking and spying. By this point Bingo has already been introduced and his distinguishing characteristic is his taste for jokes and pranks – he uses the magic ring only in jest. The story that Tolkien imagined prior to Weathertop – what I have called the extended ghost index – thus reveals the nature of the magic ring by drawing two hobbits using it, with one path leading to a monstrous (but not wraith) existence and the other escaping the evil snare. (A key question for a later post is how this attempt to draw the hidden nature of the magic ring by looking simultaneously in two mirrors discovered that one of these mirrors – Bingo – did not quite add up.)

Thirdly, Tolkien imagined a new person who reflected the magic ring in a different way than did Bingo and Gollum: he who had made the magic ring, the Necromancer.

It is this imagination of the Necromancer as maker that marks the Copernican revolution in the story. Drawing the magic ring only through the mirrors of Bingo and Gollum simply continues the storytelling art of The Hobbit, in which the magic ring is drawn indirectly through the mirror of Bilbo. But the relationship of Necromancer to the magic ring is the same as that of magic ring to Bilbo – drop the magic ring in the pocket of Bilbo Baggins and we see who he is; slip the magic ring on to the finger of the Necromancer and we see what it is.

The Necromancer steps into the story the moment that Tolkien understands how a magic ring might be slipped into the pocket of the magic ring: a fairy mirror that reveals the hidden qualities of someone finds its own fairy mirror in the one who has made the mirror.

So much is contained in this move, and Tolkien by no means saw all of it at once. To look ahead, we see here the germs of the idea (first written in autumn 1939) that Sauron made the One Ring by placing his own spirit within it. We see also the germ of the idea of the Mirror of Galadriel, in which Tolkien imagines a fairy mirror that is not made by the Necromancer but is rather an instance of elvish art. We also see how this new mirror does not really reveal anything we did not know: the nature of the magic ring will be revealed when Sauron slips it on a remaining finger, at which point a second darkness covers all the world and the conditions of possibility of the story we are reading disappear. Ultimately, Sauron simply projects the nameless quality of the magic ring into a nameless threat of the end of all things – but the threat provides the premise and plot of the new story.

But before he became clear on any of this Tolkien had to think through the new story idea that the magic ring won by Bilbo from Gollum was made by a sorcerer who used the secrets of the hidden land of the dead to draw living people into and over the ill-defined border between humans and monsters…

The Necromancer 1936: a northern serpent

In 1936 Tolkien had pulled off a stunning ‘final story of the elves,’ a northern myth of a second mortal fall based on Plato’s myth of Atlantis derived from meditation on the story of Scyld Scefing in Beowulf. ‘The Fall of Númenor’ is a statement of Tolkien’s fundamental ideas of no less importance than his essay On Fairy-stories. Just take stock for a moment how Tolkien worked into a concluding ‘Silmarillion’ story core themes of three great ancient cultures: ancient Hebrew (the Fall), ancient Greek (Plato’s Atlantis myth), and northern (the ancient myth of Scyld Scefing discerned in Beowulf).

All that matters here, however, is that the northern serpent who directed this second mortal fall was Sauron the Necromancer.

As he first approached the scene of the encounter with the Ringwraiths on Weathertop, Tolkien decided that the events of the new (and therefore also the original) hobbit story were happening after the destruction of Númenor. This decision changed everything, giving rise to the ‘Third Age of Middle-earth’ – the first age of history when myth still endured – and ultimately made The Lord of the Rings a sequel to two stories, ‘The Fall of Númenor’ as well as The Hobbit.

But in these first months of composition the story was imagined as set in the days of myth with the destruction of Númenor still in a distant future. (This is established by Rateliff’s reading of the original manuscripts of The Hobbit (Rateliff 73, 83-4, 123) and by the simple fact that elves soon appear in the woods of the Shire in the new story, with no hint that this needs to be explained given that all the elves are said to have faded from Middle-earth soon after Númenor).

Thus we are to picture Tolkien’s initial idea of the making of the magic rings as an episode in the history of the Necromancer prior to his great act of directing a northern sequel to the biblical story of the Fall. (This is another point in which those who enter this philological index must discard the index of Tolkien’s art that they know and love or fail to understand the genesis of the story.)

Observe the continuity of theme in Tolkien’s mind. The biblical stories are bound up with sexual generation of one kind or another: Adam and Eve eat of the forbidden fruit, know death, and hence know themselves sexually (for mortal humans must now procreate if the species is to endure); wandering in the shadow lands of biblical exile, Cain is understood by the Anglo-Saxon poet to have had carnal knowledge of the giantesses, hence fathering the race of monsters who are the enemies of mankind and God.

But when Tolkien told the story of Númenor in 1936 he envisaged a sequel to the biblical Fall bound up with the tree of life, not the tree of knowledge, and now imagining the magic ring an instrument of necromancy he makes it an instrument that generates monsters not by sex but by drawing a living person into the realm of the undead.

Ideas of sex are intimately bound up with both the story of the Fall and the making of monsters, but Tolkien consistently sets his imagination to work on the other side of the coin: looking at death rather than birth and desire to escape death rather than carnal lust. Nevertheless, it is a mistake (if a very common one) to see themes of sex as completely absent from Tolkien’s stories. In both the Book of Genesis and the ancient English idea of necromancy sex and death are closely related ideas and sexual elements are never far below the surface of the story of the One Ring (think of Saruman’s lust for it, or the chaste but naked communication of Galadriel and Frodo, in which a ring is offered but declined and the fate of Middle-earth determined).

The Necromancer: sex & the magic ring

In the last days of 1937, or the first of 1938, Tolkien decided the magic ring won from Gollum had been made by the Necromancer. The name was loaded with significance. In the first instance, the Necromancer stepped out of a passing reference in The Hobbit. On the edge of Mirkwood, Bilbo asks if another path might be taken. Gandalf replies that the road south leads:

into the land of the Necromancer; and even you, Bilbo, won’t need me to tell you tales of that black sorcerer. I don’t advise you to go anywhere near the places overlooked by his dark tower! (Hobbit 145)

John Rateliff (81-4) observes that when Tolkien composed Bilbo’s adventure he was still working on ‘The Lay of Leithian,’ which features Thû, aka Sauron:

[A] necromancer [who] held his hosts of phantoms and of wandering ghosts, of misbegotten or spell-wronged monsters… working his bidding dark and vile. (Lays 273)

This poetic picture of Sauron the Necromancer as lord of misbegotten monsters was itself derived from Tolkien’s reconstruction of ancient English mythology through his reading of Beowulf. The Old English word for a necromancer is helrúnwhich appears in plural form in these lines referring to the ogre Grendel:

deorc déaþscua,      duguþe ond geogoþe,
seomade ond syrede;      sinnihte héold
mistige móras;       men ne cunnon,
hwyder helrúnan      hwyrftum scríþað. (Beowulf lines 160-3; Klaeber 7)

…a dark shadow of death, lurking, lying in wait, in long night keeping the misty moors: men know not whither sorcerers of hell in their wanderings roam. (Tolkien’s translation, Beowulf T&C 17)

The Old English helrún, explains Tolkien, is a compound of two elements:

hell: an ancient Germanic word, “ultimately related to helan ‘conceal’” (Beowulf T&C 167), meaning “the ‘hidden land’ of all the dead” (Beowulf T&C 298).

rún: secret. 

A necromancer is one who knows the secrets of the realm of the dead. Such knowledge includes the ways taken by the sorcerers of hell who in the long nights roam out of bounds and out of knowledge of the human community. Such sorcerers include Grendel, who has a touch of magic and a mother who is also a monster, but also humans who practice black magic and in doing so leave the human community, or are expelled from it. Between the demonic monsters and the human-born magicians there was in the ancient English mythology, says Tolkien, “an ill-defined border” (Beowulf T&C 168). The secrets of hell that are the foundation of necromancy concern the various ways in which this border may be traversed.

Evidently, the ancient English believed that sexual coupling between humans and monsters was possible, profoundly wrong, and capable of generating both monstrous and human offspring. After noting an old Gothic story about witches expelled from the camp who consort with evil spirits in the waste land and so conceive the monstrous race of the Huns, Tolkien suggests:

[It is] more than likely that dark ancient legends, concerning the origin of imagined evil beings, and of actual outlaw-folk and hated enemies of alien race, were associated in pagan Old English with the ancient word helrún (Beowulf T&C 168-9).

Just this thought informs Tolkien’s reading of the claim in Beowulf that all the northern monsters are descended from Cain, the biblical fracticide cast out by God from the human community:

þanon untýdras      ealle onwócon,
eotenas ond ylfe      ond orcnéäs,
swylce gígantas,      þá wið Gode wunnon (Beowulf lines 111-13; Klaeber 5)

Of him [Cain] all evil broods were born, ogres and goblins and haunting shapes of hell, and the giants too, that long time warred with God. (Tolkien’s translation, Beowulf T&C 16)

Tolkien sees that when the Anglo-Saxon poet heard the Latin story of the Book of Genesis he understood that Cain, like the witches, had sexual intercourse with monsters – in his case the daughters of the giants mentioned in the Book of Genesis.

So, human-monster sex may generate (loathsome) humans or monsters, and the poet at least thought an ultimate human paternity of all monsters quite credible. Thus, the border between human and monster is “ill-defined” because humans may become monsters, because monsters are by birth partly human, and because in dark nights on the blasted heaths of no-man’s land human outcasts and monsters engage in carnal coupling. The helrún may be monster or human or both, but whatever the face of such a necromancer, he or she is a denizen of an ill-defined border zone in which generation is monstrous.

Yet monstrous sex is only one part of the secret lore of the helrúnan. Recall two of Tolkien’s translations: the helrúnan are sorcerers of hell, but (in the list of Cain’s progeny) orcnéäs are haunting shapes of hell. Of orcnéäs, Tolkien says:

Necromancy will suggest something of the horrible associations of this word. I think that what is here meant is that terrible northern imagination to which I have ventured to give the name ‘barrow-wights.’ The ‘undead.’ Those dreadful creatures that inhabit tombs and mounds. (Beowulf T&C 163)

Thus, the magician of the land of the dead commands the haunting shapes of that land: helrún = a sorcerer of hell = a necromancer, commands an orcnéäs = a haunting shape of hell = a barrow-wight.

Now, the same early page of notes that introduces the Necromancer as the maker of the magic ring also alludes to adventures to come in the Old Forest, with Tom Bombadil, and with barrow-wights. Furthermore, Tolkien initially made no distinction between wights and wraiths, taking the Ringwraiths to be barrow-wights. In other words, when Tolkien first names the Necromancer in his first page of notes for his new hobbit story he evidently has in mind the idea that the magic ring may turn a living hobbit into a haunting shape of hell under the control of a helrún, a sorcerer of the hidden realm of the dead, the Necromancer.

What becomes clear from all this is that: (a) the idea of the Necromancer commanding a host of misbegotten and spell-wronged monsters was already present in Tolkien’s mind in the late 1920s as he composed ‘The Lay of Leithian,’ and (b) the moment the magic ring was imagined as made by the Necromancer Tolkien resolved that his sequel to The Hobbit would chart the process of such undead (as opposed to sexual) generation of monsters. The magic ring now became an instrument of necromancy, designed to take a living person as raw materials and make of him an undead monstrous slave by drawing him into and over the other side of the ill-defined border between humans and monsters.

With the benefit of hindsight we can say that Tolkien was biting off more than he realized at the time. In his 1936 British Academy lecture he had identified the genesis of the monsters from Cain as a point of fusion between the new religion of the book and the ancient native oral traditions. But further inquiry into the meaning of the ancient English idea of necromancy by way of composition of the new story would bring Tolkien face to face with theological questions about the nature of the eternal soul and its relationship to northern ideas of immortality that demanded a different sort of fusion. On Fairy-stories is in fact a statement of a fusion of Christianity and northern mythology of a different kind to that found in Beowulf and as such marks the paths by which The Lord of the Rings became a different kind of fairy story than Beowulf.

And this is simply to unpack the significance of the Necromancer as this name emerged out of the stories of the late 1920s and lectures on Beowulf of the 1930s. In the next post I turn to the role assigned to Sauron the Necromancer in the 1936 story ‘The Fall of Númenor’ and the relationship of this final tale of the elves to the first phase of composition of the new hobbit story.

Genesis of the One Ring

Summary of last post:

A long-expected party mirrors The Hobbit and was conceived as the prelude to a story about a descendant of Bilbo Baggins who inherits his magic ring.

Half-way through a second draft of A long-expected party Tolkien breaks off, sets out some notes that establish that the magic ring was made by the Necromancer.

Which is to be read against a reading of the magic ring of The Hobbit (1937), summarized in an earlier post as possessed of a dual function:

On the one hand, a named attribute: (bodily) invisibility; on the other hand, an attribute never named only shown: the magic ring makes a hobbit more recognizably himself.

Now, we can follow the (by no means simple) development of the story in Tolkien’s imagination in three HOME volumes, which reveal that it took our author well over a year to feel his way into his story and see clearly what it was he was writing. It is for this reason that I have described the new hobbit story in this period as simply extending the ghost index of The Hobbit. Nevertheless, the ideas brought to light by the two decisions made in the first week or weeks of writing are so powerful that I wonder if almost all the ideas it took Tolkien another decade to work through are not contained within them.

We stand at the edge of a precipice. Let me reiterate the two basic ideas brought into play at the very beginning of 1938.

A magic ring that reveals people’s essential nature is moved from stage-machinery to center stage.

The magic ring is imagined as made by the Necromancer.

The first idea is highly abstract. An instrument of story-vision, a mirror that reveals but is itself unseen, becomes the subject of the story. Here is a strange revolution of vision, a revolution of subject and object, with peculiar consequences.

The second idea is steeped in far-reaching significance, for the Necromancer had acquired many meanings in Tolkien’s thought and writings by early 1938. If no means simple, this maker is at least quite concrete. 

As the concrete is easier to outline, the next two post (here and here) deal with Tolkien’s second idea and only once the ground that Tolkien stepped onto becomes clear will I turn to the revolution in story vision that is found at the very beginning of the sequel (here and here).

Bilbo’s Property

The Hobbit was published September 1937 and in the week leading to the following Christmas Tolkien bowed to polite yet firm requests from his publisher and began a sequel. He sat down and wrote five manuscript pages to which a title was added ‘A long-expected party.’ I have said before that The Lord of the Rings may be read as a commentary on The Hobbit and the early drafts especially. This first draft chapter provides a nice distillation and mirror of the original story.

Bilbo Baggins is celebrating his seventieth birthday. It is two decades since he returned from his adventure. At a magnificent birthday party, in which the shire (still lower case) begins to come into being, he announces he is leaving again and also that he is going to get married. In the flummaxation that follows Bilbo disappears (the ring is in his hand as he gives his after-dinner speech). The story then switches to Bag-end and an absent host. Bilbo’s property has been arranged and labelled as gifts to various friends and relations and the Sackville-Bagginses finally get their hands on Bilbo’s luxrurious hobbit hole.

So, observe the various correspondences. The Hobbit was a story of there and back again. This first chapter – which announces that the new story will be about Bilbo’s heir but does not name him – is all about Bilbo: here and gone again. An unexpected party had flummoxed Bilbo, but now he organizes a party to flummox all the other hobbits. Bilbo’s earlier adventure is referred to by the other hobbits as his “mysterious vanishment,” and the new adventure begins with his second and final vanishment (a more effective vanishment as he now owns a magic ring of vanishment). After he has vanished a second time the ending of the original story is mirrored, but instead of an auction of his property Bilbo now directs its passage to new owners. Finally, note how the idea of a birthday party points to some as yet unrealised idea about transfer of the magic ring to an heir: the magic ring began as Gollum’s birthday present, and the idea of its passage to another is associated with Bilbo’s birthday.

Because an heir is not named – indeed, at this point Bilbo has only just announced marriage and so a descendant is not yet even a twinkle in his eye – so there is no suggestion that the magic ring is to be included in the transfer of Bilbo’s property to others. Nevertheless, I believe that sufficient factors point to an idea already in the author’s mind that the magic ring will be central to the new story, and so must pass to a new hero. This first draft chapter is setting up the conditions for a transfer of ownership. As seen, the chapter clearly mirrors the bookends of the original story – opening party and auction of property at the end – and the central theme of a birthday party points to some (just what is hard to say) idea of a subsequent chapter that mirrors the riddle game in some way and sees a Baggins family heirloom passed on.

The mirror of the riddle game was never written because, just after he had got to Bilbo’s second vanishing in a second draft of the chapter, Tolkien wrote some notes on the story that was brewing in which the Necromancer is named as the origin of the magic ring. This changed the nature of the inheritance, with the magic ring suddenly a burden and a threat and not something you would wish to leave to your heirs.

Subsequent posts will explore the new property of the magic ring. But I want to highlight here how this first draft chapter of the sequel helps us better read the original. My last post gave one item of the index of the original hobbit story:

Bilbo Baggins.

property, acquired: magic ring

property, inherited: Bag-End; generic hobbit vanishing magic; Baggins luck; queer Took quality

Visibility. Of body: see magic ring. Of properties: see wizard’s eye, magic ring, dwarves

In my reading of the 1937 story of Bilbo Baggins, property is a key word. The draft chapter of the sequel confirms its importance and reminds me that the entry above takes no account of the auction and needs to be supplemented:

Bilbo Baggins.

property, acquired: magic ring, some treasure (much spent in regaining auctioned property)

property, auctioned: most inherited property left in Bag-End

property, inherited: Bag-End; generic hobbit vanishing magic; Baggins luck; queer Took quality

Visibility. Of body: see magic ring. Of properties: see wizard’s eye, magic ring, dwarves

The additions are worth making if only because they bring to light Tolkien’s vision of the original story as all about Bilbo’s properties: in going there and coming back again Bilbo acquires a magic ring that reveals his inner properties, the name of a legendary burglar, some wealth, and comes home to find his original property passing into the hands of others.

The Hobbit (1937)

My philological index of The Lord of the Rings identifies a hidden index within a conventional index of names of Middle-earth. This ghost index is the index of the original story of The Hobbit. Key elements of the ghost index are given here. This post explains a small part of the ghost index.

Bilbo Baggins.

property, acquired: magic ring

property, inherited: Bag-End; generic hobbit vanishing magic; Baggins luck; queer Took quality

Visibility. Of body: see magic ring. Of properties: see wizard’s eye, magic ring, dwarves

The ‘magic’ of the original story involves a word play on property and a magic ring that takes its meaning from a linguistic theory of naming.

From the start of the story we are introduced to the idea of visible and invisible properties. We see Bag-End – a property Bilbo inherited from his parents, and we are told that Bilbo’s visible properties (character, qualities) were inherited from his father. But we are also told that he likely inherited from his mother ‘a queer Took quality’ – something initially invisible yet ‘in him’ (Gandalf) waiting for a chance ‘to come out’ (narrator).

When Gandalf first talks with Bilbo he sees the hobbit with his wizard’s eye, discerns his invisible property, and therefore selects him as the burglar on the adventure. The dwarves on first seeing Bilbo doubt the wizard’s word. But when Bilbo emerges from the goblin tunnels with a magic ring hidden in his pocket the dwarves immediately recognize him as ‘a first-class burglar’ – really, they now see that he has ‘in him’ what it takes to play the role of burglar assigned him in the story.

The magic ring is an acquired property (won from Gollum in the riddle game). The magic ring has two properties:

  1. The magic ring is named (and shown) in the story as a ring that renders the body invisible.
  2. The magic ring is unnamed but revealed by the story as a ring that renders invisible properties (inner qualities) visible – allowing the dwarves to see Bilbo with a wizard’s eye.

The ghost index thus points at the source of all the queerness that came out when Tolkien began to compose a sequel to The Hobbit. 

I suggest that the primary property of the magic ring is that which is unnamed and only shown in the story – a ring of visibility, revealing hidden qualities. The named magic ring of invisibility is merely a surface inversion of its real properties.

But this real property of the magic ring is not a standard fairy element (as Tolkien will later dub the magic ring). Rather, it is the imagination within a story of an instrument of philology, a picture of the key to naming as established within a linguistic theory of the index name. For the magic ring is simply an instrument that makes visible the hidden properties of a thing or person on which a name may be hung.

Looking ahead to what I have called the extended ghost index – the sequel in its first year of composition – we see immediately how the real property of the magic ring was to make a new story by way of the new idea (hit upon very soon after commencing composition) that the magic ring was made by the Necromancer:

The magic ring’s invisible property of making visible the hidden properties of a person is a first step to stealing their soul.

Here is an extended version of the ghost index:

Hidden items are in red.

Bilbo Baggins.

index name (titles of);

native identity;

property, acquired: magic ring (suspected mushroom); some treasure (much spent in regaining auctioned property)

property, auctioned: most inherited property left in Bag-End

property, inherited: Bag-End; Hobbit vanishing magic; Baggins luck; queer Took quality

story titles, see index name

Visibility. Of body: see magic ring. Of properties: see wizard’s eye, magic ring, dwarves

Beowulf. þéof náthwylces: translation of hobbit burglar

Aborigines (now nameless)

Dragon. Master critic of Bilbo’s story-titles. See: Beowulf 

Dwarves (thirteen). See: Bilbo Baggins, visibility of properties

Gollum. See: British aborigine; birthday present; imagination (lack of).

Hobbits. See: British aborigines (now nameless)

Nodens, name of. Earlier version of theory of names and titles.

Riddle. Form of Bilbo’s story: Saga hwæt ic hatte; ‘Say what I am called’

Wizard’s eye.

Indexes of Middle-earth

This post arises as I clarify the ideas of my index on the page naming the nameless.

A key idea advanced on that page is that Tolkien sees a story as generating its own index, which is the world of that story. A principle of Tolkien’s art, adopted by conventional indexes of Middle-earth (such as the Tolkien Gateway), is that there is only one world of both hobbit stories and so only one index for both. Yet the magic ring of the first edition of The Hobbit is a different thing than in later editions or in the sequel, and the same goes for Gollum and even Bilbo, and even the idea of hobbits themselves.

This raises the question of how many stories, worlds of story, and so indexes we have on our hands and a concern that once we turn to the early drafts of the sequel, the hero of which is named Bingo Bolger-Baggins, we add another story, world, and index. Let’s begin with a rough and ready chronology of the composition of the two hobbit stories:

1930-1933: The Hobbit composed and told (a compositional break after death of Smaug)

1936: ‘The Fall of Númenor’ (with much study of Beowulf behind it and some in front)

Christmas 1937: composition of ‘A long-expected party’: Tolkien’s most distilled commentary on The Hobbit

Winter 1938: Necromancer named as maker of magic ring and (as natural consequence) Ringwraiths encountered in woods of Shire

Late Summer 1938: digression through the Old Forest, house of Tom Bombadil, and Barrow-downs: Tolkien’s most intense commentary on The Hobbit and another picture of wraiths

Autumn 1938: Weathertop: everything changes. Bilbo’s heir starts to become a wraith and the first signs of a transformation into Frodo are glimpsed. And both hobbit stories, which since ‘The Fall of Númenor’ had introduced a distinction between the days of myth and the days of history had been firmly placed in myth, now entered history. ‘The Fall of Númenor’ begins to become the ancient history of the new hobbit story.

March 1939: Tolkien delivers a lecture on fairy-stories at St. Andrews: his story and his essay henceforth run parallel, working the transformation of magic ring into One Ring, generating the philosophy of art on which The Lord of the Rings is founded, and giving us also the elvish vision of Lothlórien and the Palantíri.

Summer 1940: the wild hobbit named Trotter becomes the man Aragorn, the heir of Elendil whose legend was sketched at the close of ‘The Fall of Númenor.’ For the next eight years, Tolkien imagines the history of Númenor in exile from the days of Elendil down to Aragorn by way of positioning various towers in Middle-earth.

Inspection of these stages suggests that we distinguish between revision within an index and transformation of the whole index into a new one.

My reading of Return of the Shadow, the early drafts of the first part of The Lord of the Rings, reveals that the moment that the magic ring was imagined as made by the Necromancer Tolkien began to to reimagine Gollum as an ancient hobbit and to reinterpret the original riddle game – in which Bilbo won the magic ring – as a competition Gollum had intended to lose.

Nevertheless, until Weathertop the new hobbit story was simply a sequel to the original, set in the same world and basically extending its index. In fact, in these early drafts we find the most exquisite commentary on The Hobbit that will ever be penned, a commentary that reveals much of the hidden meaning of the original. For example, Tom Bombadil reframes the underlying riddle around which The Hobbit was crafted. Gollum’s ‘transformation’ from stupid monster to ancient and ruined hobbit, while changing his character (the original monster is not malicious and no cheat) is not really a transformation but rather a making overt a hidden element of the original story, namely that Bilbo and Gollum are both aborigines.

Weathertop marks the moment when the original index comes to an end, and from this moment of composition through to the first drafts composed in the wake of the delivery of the lecture on fairy stories in 1939 we are, in terms of an index, in a sort of no-man’s land. From autumn 1939 onwards for nearly a decade we see a new story world under construction and hence a new index, and once the riddle game had been revised in the second edition of The Hobbit in 1951 the original story rewrote its own index and entered the same world as its sequel.

A question we wish answered is why did Tolkien rewrite the index to his hobbit stories? But in this post I focus only on the how, which has a simple answer.

The original index was rewritten once  ‘The Fall of Númenor’ entered the story as ancient history. This final myth of the elves composed between one hobbit story and the other posited a fundamental division between days of myth (before Númenor was destroyed) and days of history (after Númenor). Inspection leaves no doubt that both the original hobbit story and the early drafts of the sequel up to Weathertop are set in the days of myth. Weathertop established that the new story – and by implication also the original hobbit story – were situated in history long after the destruction of Númenor.

So, a philological reading of The Lord of the Rings reveals three indexes.

  1. The original index of The Hobbit, extended – with minimal revision – in the early story of the new hobbit story. (Index I)
  2. The 1936 index generated by ‘The Fall of Númenor.’ (Index 2)
  3. The final index: found in shorter form at the end of Return of the King and today found in longer form in various online wikis like Tolkien Gateway. (Index 3)

Index I is a ghost that haunts Index 3. Index 2 would seem simply to have been incorporated into Index 3, providing its basis and subsequently expanded as Tolkien drew the history of the exiles of Númenor from Elendil (who appears in the 1936 story) to Aragorn, thereby establishing the ancient historical background to his new story.

The crucial entry in Index 2 concerns time (sub-entries: myth and history) and the rewriting of the original involved reimagining a story set in myth as a fairy story in history.

The why is another question, but clearly relates to the fact that on Weathertop the implication of making the Necromancer the maker of the magic ring became clear. Having a wraith who had already passed through a similar magic ring appear in the Shire was an obvious consequence of this early decision, but a path was already being followed that saw Bingo stabbed on Weathertop by “the sword of the Necromancer” and start to become a wraith. This was to take a hobbit to a place that no other hobbit (not even Bilbo or Gollum) had been and involved all sorts of delicate questions about eternal hobbit souls and the inner being of a Ringwraith. These questions were resolved only through Tolkien’s lecture and subsequent essay On Fairy-stories, but – for reasons still to be determined – produced an immediate shifting of the world of the story out of myth and into history.

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.