Category Archives: Apprenticeship

the picture name

The time has come to talk of the picture-name of the Delaware chief, Wingymund, who drew it on a tree according to his companion at the siege of Fort Pitt, Chief White Eyes. A report of this tree reached England in 1880 thanks to Nicholas Creswell, an Englishman in the colonies who drew the tree-drawing of Wingymund and copied down a (somewhat garbled) account of its reading by White Eyes.

Wingymund’s tree-drawing as we see it today has been shot through with confusions and distractions; it is a challenge to even arrive at Nicholas’ original copy of the drawing, while the original is now lost (even its location is unclear). Nevertheless, long pondering of the various versions of the drawing and different explanations, alongside research into the Indian wars associated with Pontiac, establish certain facts about the tree-drawing, and one of those pretty certain conclusions is that this strange symbol is more or less a fair reproduction of Wingymund’s own mark.

I wish to understand whether this sign is an equivalent of the alphabetic letters that spell the sound of the name, a half-way house to a word made of letters, or something other than prototype writing. 

Unfortunately, or fortunately for the digression, we can only approach the whole problem by way of the accidental debris of history that has piled up around Nicholas’ original copy. Partly for this reason I approach Wingymund’s own sign by way of the singularly interesting take on his tree-drawing by the great, late-Victorian comparative philologist, Isaac Taylor. Of the five or six takes on this picture we have pulled out of the learned journals, Taylor’s reading is head and shoulders above any other, including (and especially the nincompoop) Nicholas Creswell. Most curious for our inquiry, however, Taylor explains all the other details of the tree-drawing but inexplicably fails to mention the queer sign that means Wingymund.

What did Taylor dislike about this sign that caused him to walk carefully through Wingymund’s drawing yet pass over in silence just this pictorial proper name?

Part of the answer, I think, is that he simply wanted to bypass any likely dispute with the philosophers. Does a picture that is a proper name follow the same rules of meaning as spoken proper names and proper names written with letters? According to the English philosophers J.S. Mill this would give the picture-name the status of a ‘meaningless mark’, while (his godson) Bertrand Russell would have us read the picture-name as one or more definite propositions (many but not all of which we would read from the rest of the picture).

This picture-name is a detail on a bigger picture, which we know from the reproduction in print of a sketch drawn in a notepad of a drawing on a tree in Ohio. Here is the first printed reproduction (which, we now know, is by no means an exact reproduction of the original sketch).

For me, looking at this late 18th century printed account of Wingymund’s drawing is shocking because I have discovered it to be half-forgery. Some 16 decades after its composition Nicholas’ journal was published, and Yotam and I found within it a reproduction in print of the drawing made in the journal in Ohio. Nicholas’ original drawing is different in certain details from the one above, as even more so is the key provided to the various picture elements. 

A word, then, on transmission. When looking at the various print versions of the picture while trying to imagine the original drawing on the tree we are from the first confronted with what seems to be a genuine drawing (made i think in front of the tree) and a confused explanation written up later in the day when Nicholas had come down with a fever. But I think this root problem began in the morning when Nicholas stopped paying attention to the explanation of Captain White Eyes.

Nicholas Creswell – a young man out of sympathy with revolutionary colonial sentiment and enamored with the native fairy-story he enters down river of Fort Pitt – evidently lost attention by the time Chief White Eyes arrived at the sun – from this point his explanation is garbled and then at the end lucid but lacking key details. External evidence (published testimonies of others) establish that White Eyes was with Wingymund at the siege of Fort Pitt and while Nicholas knows that the picture at the center is an English fort attacked by the Indians he does not know it to be Fort Pitt).

A nastier turn than Nicholas’ daydream soon enters in London. William Bray, an older associate of Creswell with ambition for scholarly reputation, persuaded Nicholas to draw the picture for him, pressed him to make up the bits he had not been listening to, and published as a letter to a learned journal the note on ‘Indian picture-writing’ the first page of which is seen above.

But these distractions and distortions and straight bullshit, which unleash a curious story of 19th-century reception, only enter the drawing with the third sign, the sun. The meaning of the first two signs – the tortoise and the queer sign that is a proper name – were clearly seen by Nicholas.

*

ExordiumI came upon this personal mark unexpectedly, while reading the opening chapters of The Alphabet (2 vols. 1883) by the great Anglican comparative philologist of the 19th century, Isaac Taylor.

Isaac Taylor is the subject of this exordium. It begins, though, with Archibald Sayce, the Welsh student of Max Müller at Oxford who built a library on an Egyptian faluca and wrote books about ancient Babylon, Egypt, and the archaeology of the Old Testament while sailing up and down the Nile. The Rev. Sayce is a stepping stone to the Cambridge educated and future Canon of York Cathedral, the (scandalously) liberal churchman, Isaac Taylor.

And here, if you will excuse me, I swivel for a moment to the great beast that lurks deep in the mine that is Tolkien Studies, which I call here National Socialism. Tom Shippey long ago pointed out that what Tolkien was was a great Germanic philologist, and then put the cat back in the bag by framing the significance of this discipline in terms of some ivory tower squabbles between academic students of ‘literature’ and ‘language.’ And everyone ever since has been content to let the cat stay in this drab bag because letting out this cat compels you to use the word Aryan.

If you want to speak about Tolkien as a scholar you must know how to handle this word, which state of the art term was the great contribution to western culture of the discipline of 19th-century comparative philology. And if you wish to use this word fittingly I suggest that you must master the story that Isaac Taylor tells in his The Origin of the Aryans (1890). If you read his book on what we today would call ‘the aryan paradigm shift’ you will even read differently JRRT’s lecture English and Welsh.

Why does Taylor introduce Wingymund’s tree-drawing into his earlier book on The Alphabet?

Taylor was a liberal Anglican and enamored with a vision of ‘evolution’ as revealed by the comparative method.  The history of the alphabet as he tells it is a story of myriad beginnings in all human communities, a full step to an alphabet taken already in ancient Egypt but the revolutionary discarding all the old cumbersome picture writing and reliance upon only an alphabet was a step taken once in history, by ‘an ancient Semitic people’ (who, Taylor does not stop to say, made the revolution manifest with what Christians call the Old Testament) and – as his two volumes spell out in great and subtle detail, all known alphabets (he published in 1883) descend from this ancient Semitic alphabet (which contains some relationship to the older Egyptian letters).

A fascinating story that does not seem to explain why Taylor reproduces Wingymund’s picture from the great 6 volume history of the native American tribes of Henry Schoolcraft. He does so because he wants to see in the drawing a first evolutionary step, namely from rude pictures of objects (or animals, as he takes the recently discovered cave paintings of France to reveal) to a concept. The concept that Taylor finds in one detail is not the proper name of the artist and chief actor (he singularly does not mention this element) but rather the tortoise, the first element of the diagram given, it seems from Nicholas’ report, by Chief White Eyes —

— who is the only person in this picture who knew what the tree-drawing signified (Nicholas was with Mr Anderson, a white Indian trader, and Nancy, an Indian woman who had become attached to Nicholas at a campfire a few nights back. It may well be that Nicholas was thinking about Nancy when White Eyes was talking about the sun, but my sense is that both Nancy and Mr. Anderson would have been more lucid reporters of what White Eyes explained than Nicholas Creswell.

Still, Nicholas in his journal recorded the tortoise as the clan to which Wingemund and his war party belonged and as such the tortoise entered print in Archeologia in 1880 and so it was recorded by Schoolcraft around 1856, whose very reproduction of the drawing gave it a credibility its more lucid readers found unfathomable. Taylor was quite right to regard everything Schoolcraft reported about the drawing as dubious, but as a matter of fact what he said about the tortoise was surely correct.

Taylor says it means ‘safety’ or ‘home again’; the last chapter of The Hobbit, and that this queer sign is in fact an IDEOGRAM – the first step of a universal tendency of cultural evolution that will eventually, if astonishingly rarely, culminate in the almost magical invention of an alphabet.

All the 19th-century commentators took the drawing – and key – from Schoolcraft. He gave a seal of north American authority to an English fraud. In the 1880s there is a reaction of sorts. One anthropologist declares the whole drawing a fraud (a too sweeping rejection, I am certain). Another, Schoolcraft’s Boston editor, reproduced the drawing in a book for young folks but doctored the picture in light of Schoolcraft’s own doctoring of the key.

Meanwhile in England, Taylor has the singular merit of seeing that: (i) the picture itself was (more or less) genuine; and (ii) the  key given by Schoolcraft was largely bunk. Given what we can now read in Nicholas’ journal we know that Taylor still threw out one baby in the bathwater, but the speculations that he sets out as authoritative reading concerning those parts of the picture in which Nicholas was not paying attention are insightful and ingenious and perhaps as near to the truth as we are likely to get.

This is not the time to enter into Taylor’s reading of the rest of the picture. What concerns us now is the baby he threw out and the picture-name he passes over, which actions are I suspect related.

But first a confession. What arrested me when I first read Taylor’s chapter was his identification of the tortoise (or turtle) as an ideogram, and as such, in his scheme, evidence of the first step from pictures of things (as complex as a day, drawn by passages of the sun) to signs the appearance of which bears an apparently arbitrary relationship to their meaning.

The tortoise, declares Taylor, means ‘home again’ or ‘safety’ and is apparently similar to others found in the pages of Schoolcraft. When I read this my mind wandered long in dreams of writing the story of The Hobbit on a tree, with this tortoise connoting the end of the story – the hobbit back in his hobbit-hole.

I never managed to draw the story on a tree and, in any case, soon discovered that Taylor had simply made this up. Everyone else agrees, from Nicholas Creswell on, that the tortoise is the sign or totem of one of the three main Delaware clans.

At which point my sense of what a comparative philologist writing a book on the evolution of The Alphabet was doing was pulled from under my feet. After a long trawl, the better part taken in the company of my son, Yotam, in which we discovered Nicholas’ journal had been published, my feet are steady again. With this picture what Taylor was doing was quite reasonable given that the key passed down in these English publications was half bullshit. In fact, kudos to Taylor for spotting the bullshit without the aid of Creswell’s journal, which was only published 4 decades later.

But I still don’t get all of it. The (correct) key to the tortoise picture is given by Schoolcraft, it means a clan of the people. Schoolcraft also gives the (correct) key to the abstract squiggle that means the chief, Wingymund. Taylor appears to accept this second key because he mentions the Delaware chief Wingemund in his text, but his own explanation of the tree-drawing passes over this (and only this) sign. Taylor says nothing about Wingymund’s sign.

It seems that names are not sufficient for Taylor to hail an evolutionary step. He dismissed the common name (Tortoise Clan) offered by Schoolcraft and passes over any discussion of the proper name of the warrior-artist. An ideogram as Taylor has it, means something more than a name, it is more like a proposition, a sentence, a statement. His idea of the alphabet is that writing began with pictures and an evolutionary magic pulled letters out of pictures by way of hieroglyphs and syllable-signs. The process begins with a queer picture of a proposition, which generates the first sign that looks like a picture but is not, a mark that does not mean what it appears to show. I find this quite mind-blowing but also suspect that the picture-name upsets this vision of the evolution of picture-writing. The sign that means someone is surely primitive and remains so today (ideas change but names are names).

i think Taylor did not like the first two signs that Captain White Eyes read to Nicholas Creswell, reading from left to right: Tortoise and Queer Sign of the actor and artist. He  did not like them because pictures that meant nouns (common or private) did not fit his vision of the evolution of a picture of a scene into a written sentence.

*

Before continuing to Ali Baba’s house another word on Wingymund is in order because his is a proper name as highly charged as any in North American history.

He appears as a wise old Indian in the writings of a colonel the revolutionary army sent to talk peace with the Ohio tribes in the early years of the Revolution, and as such and more he appears in a novel written a century ago. But when the forts of Detroit and Pitt became, respectively, British and American outposts, the Ohio lands between them had of necessity take sides. White Eyes again took up against the British, but Wingymund now took up cause with the British against the Americans. This border strife among the Delaware is the context of a massacre of the Moravian Indians, which some months later spelled the horrific execution of Colonel Crawfurd, a lurid account of which was soon published into which crept the name of Wingemund. What North American culture appears unable to swallow is the testimony of the Moravian missionary among the Delaware, Heckewelder, who used a chapter on ‘friendship’ in his book on the Delaware to underline the nobleness of Wingemund’s role in the death of his one time friend, Crawfurd.

As with Nicholas’ unfortunate daydream and Bray’s underhand pressure to fabricate, this side of Wingemund’s story is only indirectly relevant to an inquiry into the proper name that is a drawing. The patriotism of Heckewelder has no bearing on the second sign that Chief White Eyes appears to have explained to Nicholas.

The whole Crawford business has a bearing, I suspect, only in that it does much to explain why even today Schoolcraft’s (or later versions of) version of the drawing still circulate together with the – fairly obvious – smudges he passed on in the textual key and nobody in the academic world has (yet) taken the golden opportunity of telling a tale of scholarly dastardliness and subsequent daydreaming and false scepticism and fantasy.

*

Stout, a philosophical psychologist of Edwardian Cambridge,says the mark on Ali Baba’s door has the same kind of significance as the shape of the knight on the chess board. The mark on Ali Baba’s door is said by J.S. Mill to be analogous to a proper name. Does this mean that Wingymund’s mark has meaning in similar fashion to the shape of the knight?

Palantir

Palantír

I need to be able to fade in and out different elements in the crystal ball. For example, while the green elongated circle is eclipsed by Weathertop and then marginalized and protected, by way of the touch of a tree in Lothlórien the spirit of Old Man Willow is found in the forest that devours the orcs outside Helm’s Deep (not yet drawn).

At any rate, the above diagrams a fair amount of The Lord of the Rings (it does not yet have Fangorn or Rohan). It is the story as seen in a Palantír, or in Galadriel’s Mirror, depending on whether you wish to look from above (into the water) or from the side (into the crystal ball). The yellow circle at the center is Galadriel’s Mirror. The circumference of the outer circle is deceptive – this is the shore of Middle-earth but not the frame of the picture; the blank space all around is the shoreless sea. The story concludes, at least as Master Samwise Gamgee told it, with Bilbo and Frodo passing with the elves and the Stone of Elendil from the white tower that is the large circle on the western edge of Middle-earth, out of the picture to the other side of the western ocean.

*

On the origins of the Palantír two stories are told. From one perspective the Mirror of Galadriel is the magic ring of The Hobbit. It is the sign that contains the rest of the story within it. This is seen more readily in the fairy element of the sequel, in which the three ships that Frodo sees in the water frame the history of the Third Age. The framing of the story by the magic ring is seen only from inside the story and as such is almost invisible. It is felt rather than seen in the queer magic worked in the passage from the mountains over the river to the house of Beorn, after which Bilbo Baggins steps from domestic to heroic hole-dweller as he returns to interview a live dragon.

Mirror and Seeing Stone revisit the original magic object that is a sign that turns the story inside out – viz. the magic ring that was Gollum’s birthday present. All three are very finely crafted, but ultimately the magic ring was not only the first but, with a subtle yet almost invisible significance, wins the crown. The Mirror shows how all things might once have been good, while the Stones, which in the story always involve mystical communion with Sauron, show how good becomes evil. Yet both are essentially commentaries on the original magic ring that Bilbo Baggins finds and then wins from Gollum in a game of riddles in the dark.

*

From a second perspective, what is now a Palantír began – and remains – a rock garden.

Tolkien made an enigmatic metaphor of Beowulf: a tower with a sea view. Before that he had given a more illuminating picture. The old and ancient stones found in an unused lot were made, not into a tower but a rock garden. This poet is a modern gardener, one of us. If we start talking of The Lord of the Rings as a tower we are going to get lost in his art, but the rock garden is a term of his art not complicated by becoming a story-element in The Lord of the Rings.

Below is a drawing of the first three stones set down to make the rock garden of the very first phase of writing in the new year of 1938. Two phases of writing bring the story by the close of this year to Rivendell, twice. This drawing shows Tolkien’s idea toward the end of March. He has set down 3 stones. As with Beowulf, the monster is at the metaphorical center (this is not yet a map of Middle-earth). The three stones:

  1. The Hobbit (queer sign green with gold ring)
  2. Sauron the Necromancer as recently delineated in ‘The Fall of Numenor’ (black center)
  3. ‘The Adventures of Tom Bombadil,’ 1934 poem, (green elongated disc between Bag-end and the Necromancer)

New Hobbit Story

What now follows is not so much an addition of elements to the sequel as a drawing out relationships between the three stones.

The day after a party of four hobbits sets out from Bag-end, the story takes what Tolkien in a letter of March 1938 called an “unpremeditated turn”: they encounter a black rider (black diamond) in the woods of the Shire. Here is one who has passed through another magic ring, but the evil spell vanishes with the sound of elvish laughter and song (blue triangle) and a night spent in the trees above Woodhall.

Servant of Necromancer on your doorsep

The next day, as the emerge in the Marish after cutting across country to avoid the black riders,  on the way to the farmhouse of Maggot, Bingo Bolger-Baggins tells of an elftower to the west of the Shire that shone white in the moonlight when he saw it, and from the top of which, it was said, one could see the sea.

Two Towers

With this white elftower we also have Middle-earth as we know it, for just as the Shire has the flat Marish so Middle-earth has the tower of 1936 myth and essay, looking over the sea, with the meanings discovered in each understood only by way of the other.

A tower of northern art, built by elves, and the Dark Tower of the Necromancer, who wants his magic ring back.

Tolkien has not yet brought his hobbits to the house at Crickhollow, where they will have hot baths and resolve to try the Old Forest the next morning (which adventures Tolkien rapidly told when he picked up his pen again in late summer). We are in March 1938, as the very first phase of writing. Tolkien does not yet know that the appearance of the Ringwraith would upset his initial vision of a sequel to the stories of both Tom Bombadil and Bilbo Baggins. Here we have a primordial vision of Fairie written in full flower and hardly changed even after the story moved on to a different track, a story never finished now serving as an introductory excursion. With the story of Tom Bombadil we are seeing The Hobbit with the frame of Numenor not yet dominating our vision.

*

Autumn 1938. On Weathertop (blue cross) the Ringwraiths upset the meaning of Tom Bombadil and change the vision of the story.

Weathertop

The story on Weathertop was set down basically in the form we know it around autumn 1938, but only crowned in a late typescript when Aragorn names the ruins of a tower that once housed a Stone on the top of this flat conical hill. When Bingo Bolger-Baggins is pierced by the Sword of the Necromancer the story steps into a mutual gaze with terror. The song of Tom Bombadil dispelled the Barrow-wight but was protected by closed borders with this magic of the eye.

After Weathertop the depth of the story began to be sounded, found eventually by Gandalf at the bottom of the Mine, after which he wandered out of thought and time and came back a different wizard. Gandalf did not survive Weathertop, let alone Bingo Bolger-Baggins, the heir who vanished as first Sam and then Frodo stepped into place. What was revealed was a mutual gaze into the abyss of murderous hate, which was met in the Eye and some more in the Mirror of the Lady in Lórien.

Orthanc & Mirror of Galadriel

I think the Seeing Stone of Orthanc that appears in the story at the close of writing 1942, when Tolkien began a break of writing of over a year, is Tolkien’s picture of how he imagined his story.

This imagination reflects his ideal model in Beowulf and his wish to distinguish his own contribution from that of his master – both artists began with a mass of unused stones (most of which Tolkien found only because the Anglo-Saxon poet had claimed them) and made a metaphorical rock garden. But in 1936 Tolkien had discovered by way of his myth of Númenor that the Anglo-Saxon poet’s rock garden was better seen as a tower made of the stones. Tolkien takes a different step by discovering his rock garden in a clear basin of water and again in a dark crystal ball.

As in the Mirror, in the Stone we find the vision of Sauron: the eyes of the necromancer and the Eye of Sauron.

The Eye

He put the two back together at the end of all things, or at least the story, in a footnote to an appendix that told how the elftower housed the Stone of Elendil that looked only over the sea, and told in the Prologue and another appendix how the story we are reading derives mainly from the Red Book, long housed in the new hobbit colony of Undertowers to the west of the Shire.

The Lord of the Rings

Falling off a table at the Prancing Pony

On the odd occasion I leave the comforts of The Green Dragon to poke my head in the door of The Prancing Pony, I usually enjoy myself. But when last I tried to visit I found myself knee deep in that midge-plagued marsh on which a phantom tower of Tolkien studies has been raised.

The podcast deals with Tolkien’s 1936 Beowulf lecture. Listen to a little, from around 29 minutes in. We are told that Tolkien’s essential point was that criticism has suffered at the hands of research; scholars who dig and quarry Beowulf fail to see that they have before them a work of art; the tower is to be enjoyed as a tower.

What on earth can it mean (34.15) that we should appreciate the tower as a tower? Tolkien makes a metaphor by naming Beowulf a tower and tells a story that reveals that the tower gives a view on the sea. The poem has value, not for its own sake, but because it allows keener sight of something worth seeing. (The same is true of the lecture.)

I contend that Tolkien is not saying that the scholars, by doing scholarship, are missing the point and the poem is getting lost in the research (as Shawn Marchese or Alan Sisto says in the podcast). Tolkien is saying that the scholars have failed to get their scholarly perspectives right and so have failed to see the poem. Between these two interpretations is a discipline of history, the heart of Tolkien’s art yet avoided like an infectious disease by both Tolkien fandom and the massed students of modern literature.

Tolkien’s first point is that unless you get the history right you cannot see the poet and so cannot hope to understand what his poem is. His second is that the poet was engaged in an historical act (reading ancient stories the meanings of which had already faded in his day). His third is that the poet was writing ‘historical fiction’ – setting his story around the lands in which his people had lived prior to their migration to the British Isles. His fourth… well, its historical all the way down to the very center (one of two points in the lecture in which we reach the limit of history and glimpse the nature of the myth ‘on the other side’).

First and foremost, Tolkien invites us to imagine the moment in the distant past when the Anglo-Saxon poet came to the idea of what making his poem meant. Such historical imagination Tolkien takes as a necessary prelude to any critical engagement with the poem. Unless you – the reader of the essay that was once a lecture – take this imaginative journey into the past yourself, to the minimal degree that you fashion a picture in your mind’s eye of a man at work with pen and parchment more than a thousand years ago, you are simply not reading the lecture.

What Tolkien is telling the foolish scholars to see is the man who made the poem. He is absent in their scholarship (be it of a historical or a literary bent) – just as he is missing in this podcast.

Given that Tolkien delighted in the curious passage of time that hides as well as preserves meanings, I take it he would smile to see how the development of English studies since his day has ensured that his own meaning in his lecture has become utterly invisible to those who nowadays comment on it. Be that as it may, those who have lost their vision may begin to restore it by reading the opening paragraph of C.S. Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost (OUP 1942):

The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is – what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used…. The first thing is to understand the object before you: as long as you think the corkscrew was meant for opening tins or the cathedral for entertaining tourists you can say nothing to the purpose about them. The first thing the reader needs to know about Paradise Lost is what Milton meant it to be.

Many years ago, in England, lived a man. He was learned, and had some native art. He studied the old stories of the ancient homeland, trying to get a view of them all; he was well versed, too, in the new stories read aloud from a Book in Latin. In his day, his native artistic tradition was already fading. But before it became quite invisible he used some of the old and ancient stories to remake tradition with a story of his own, in which he intended to show the truth in the old stories as it touched the truth of the new.

Once we see what the poet was trying to do we are in a position to reflect upon the meaning of such an enterprise, and the success the poet achieved given his own intentions. But this is all just to set the scene. Now we observe Tolkien teasing out the content and the meaning of the ancient mythology as he infers it was known and understood by a man who lived on our side of English history, to be sure, yet close enough to the great divide that he could still see that ancient learning that history was about to utterly forget – save a few fragments of later confused memories and, a perhaps more likely road, what could be seen by deep literary reflection on the mind of the Anglo-Saxon poet. And so the lecture advances…

The enchanted stream that ends in the marsh on which Tolkien is now studied has its source in the advance of literary criticism since the days of Lewis and Tolkien. Whatever criticism means today (and I find the usages I hear hard to figure out) one thing the professors of literature are quite clear on is that it is a fallacy to judge a work by way of the intentions of its author.  Whatever the validity of this revision, the result is that the very idea of criticism has for modern readers a different meaning than it did for Tolkien.

Criticism as I find it in Tolkien studies, and in this podcast, seems to involve a stab at saying how the numinous elements of Tolkien’s stories ‘speak to us.’ (I’d be happy to be corrected, no doubt this formulation could be better, and certainly I am missing something; but whatever exactly the modern notion of criticism,) when projected on to  Tolkien in this lecture (as also OFS) we invariably end up with this misreading: our ability to discern the art in a work of art is crowded out by the babel of scholarly voices; we need to tune in and turn on to the art and drop out of scholarship. This creed is all very well if this is your thing, but it is diametrically opposed to anything that Tolkien intends.

Reading Tolkien’s talk of criticism through a modern lens calls up a quite extraordinary enchantment that propels readers straight back into the destructive orgy that the allegory of the tower is supposed to help them escape! The builder who put the words together (poem or lecture) is no longer seen as the subject of inquiry; with the builder’s design rendered invisible the words (of poem or lecture) are all that is seen, the tower made by the builder is knocked over as critics eagerly seize individual stones that glitter in their hands, and a string of quotations that do not quite fit together leads us on a will-o’-the-wisp path to a creed of ‘art for art’s sake’ that has banished the ghost of the dead poet who gave meaning to Tolkien’s lecture. The best one can say about this conventional reading is that it reveals magic at work before our eyes: shapes woven in the mist by those acting under a spell that has rendered an author invisible to them.

For Lewis and Tolkien, the need to uncover authorial intention prompts a journey into history. To  give but one example: to call Beowulf an ‘epic’ is to be unhistorical – it is to fail to appreciate that an Anglo-Saxon poet was not trying to ape Classical literature but to give voice to his own native tradition. His intentions are bound up with this tradition, and Tolkien is bound to reconstruct both. Only by way of historical insight into the relationship between the poet’s choices and the lost tradition of northern art can genuine criticism of the poem be attempted.

Far from being a rejection of history, Tolkien’s lecture opens up the historical dimension of Beowulf. His underlying question, throughout his lecture, is essentially: what was the tradition of northern art performed by those long dead poets whose words were carried over the sea by my more recent ancestors? Specifically, he asks: what did the Anglo-Saxon poet make of his already fading native tradition that prompted him, a Christian, to hallow the words of the old poets by continuing their tradition?

And (a cardinal point) Tolkien’s answer begins from the observation that the art of the North looks death in the face. The art of the North is a historical art – because to study history is to look death in the face (the man you pictured making the poem when you began reading this lecture, is dead). If you begin with the idea that history is antithetical to understanding the poem you will walk through the whole lecture with your eyes tight shut and, what is more, mistake Tolkien’s idea of myth for an exercise in “pure fantasy.”

From where I stand, this Prancing Pony podcast echoes contemporary Tolkien criticism by following a quotation from the lecture just to the point where it ends, and no further. Blindness to Tolkien’s intentions precludes perception of how one quotation complements and reinforces another, and the essay appears as a maze.

Once you understand that Tolkien’s very idea of criticism is historical then, with patient reading of the lecture, its connections emerge into view and the essay opens up a path that leads directly into the very center of Middle-earth. And once you understand that Tolkien’s historical criticism constitutes an attempt to learn from – and thereby in some strange way communicate with – the dead, you understand that you are holding in your hand instructions for use of the Seeing Stones that were long ago returned back into the West.

Tolkien’s lecture may seem designed to confuse if you do not grasp the historical attempt to see another person at the heart of it. Yet much of what at first confuses proves to be carefully crafted help. The primary aid the author provides is the short story by which he introduces his main arguments. Tolkien tells of a man who found some old stone and built a tower that looks on the sea…

Apprenticeship, my ebook, reads only the allegory of the tower that introduces the lecture. But the root cause of misreading lecture and allegory are the same – otherwise, one would surely have corrected the other.