Category Archives: Anthropology

Tolkien’s boys stories

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

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

Letter 43

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

O

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

With Poor Belladonna we reach the root of the issue.

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

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

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

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

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

O

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

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

 

Appendix (or notes to be integrated above)

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

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

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

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