Category Archives: Connections

Odin & Ing (the Lord)

Tolkien declared his story of the Ring no allegory, and it has never been my intention to offer a political reading of his tale. From the first, however, I have insisted that (as Tolkien says) the stories of Middle-earth are not set in some other world, but in our own world in a distant and imaginary past – a world of ancient and largely lost northern story. My current reading of the early drafts of the story is leading me to think that this underlying historical ground of Tolkien’s sub-created world took a new and substantial turn with the onset of World War II.

It is hard to be certain of such matters, but a textual echo seems suggestive. In his commentary on Beowulf, Tolkien contrasts the old Vanir gods of the ancient English and other northern tribes with the cult of the southern European Odin, just then entering the North thanks to the travels of the Goths. At the heart of the Vanir traditions is the god known to the English as Ing, Frey ‘the Lord’ to the Norse men, and Tolkien invokes an Old Testament vision of the cult of the priest-king and the farmer and the shepherd – a religion centered on the fertility of the land with a deep tradition of a past time of a Great Peace (when a gold ring would be left untouched on the highway). Soon after the English set sail from their old homelands and sailed to the British Isles, remarks Tolkien, the cult of Odin took over the religious life of the Danes (remembered in Norse mythology as the war of the Aesir and Vanir gods). So the ancient paganism of the English became the cult of blood and death of the Viking era, a later period but a relapse into heathenism.

The textual echo is found in the essay On Fairy-stories, first published in 1947 and so postading the Beowulf commentary, in which a key phrase of contrast of Frey and Odin is borrowed but also worked up, so that Tolkien now contrasts the traditions of golden Frey, of whom a love story may well be told, and Odin, lord of the slain and glutter of crows, the Necromancer. (I’ll add references later).

Before thinking out what this identification of Odin and the Necromancer might mean for a story named after Sauron the Necromancer, we need to fill out Tolkien’s historical discovery of necromancy in the days when Beowulf was composed. So, back to the commentary on the Old English poem, the most striking feature of which, in my opinion, is that it reveals the definite if quite idiosyncratic historical frame that Tolkien discovered through the poem and used to think about it.

Specifically, Tolkien held the Danes interlopers, a new military force that over the lives of two ferocious Danish kings completely overturned the ancient order in the North, destroying forever the Heathobards, the priestly tribe whose king is named from the ancient traditions of Ing and Froda. Heorot, the legendary meadhall of the younger king, Hrothgar, Tolkien suspects was erected on the very site of the ancient temple attended by the priest-king. So in Beowulf we find a story in which Grendel, an ogre, haunts the meadhall that is the great symbol of the new Danish supremacy in the North, seal on the fall of the English tribes, who know in their hearts their old homelands – and their ancient traditions – are forever lost to them. And Tolkien notes and comments on the line in the Old English poem in which Grendel the monster is named a helrun, one who knows the secrets of the land of the dead, a necromancer.

All of this takes on a startling significance when we put it together with the historical take-over of northern paganism by the (southern european) cult of Odin, which was in full swing in the age of Bede, when Tolkien believed a poet of the East-Midlands was writing down the poem known to us as Beowulf.

Tolkien insists in his commentary that the story of the ogre haunting Heorot was not told for the first time by ‘our poet’. Indeed, what he is concerned to show is the ways in which this deeply heathen story was rendered fit for Christian consumption. He is here pointing at much darker tales of Grendel and Heorot, pre-Christian English tales, ultimately curses.

Put all this together and the truly weird thing about the historical events that Tolkien perceives is that these curses in some way were driven home. That the English (and no doubt other ancient tribes of the North) sent a necromancer into Heorot in their stories, and that the Danes meanwhile embraced the cult of Odin, lost the Vanir religion they had stolen, and collapsed into a heathenism of murder and despair.

*

Now, to return to The Lord of the Rings how this plays out I now approach, not from the side of the Necromancer (discussed in several recent posts) but from that of Aragorn, or Ing. As noted in the last post, two periods of writing, late 1939 and then late 1940, open a sequel intended around the same size as The Hobbit into the great tale we know as its sequel. In the first period, that is, the later months of 1939, coinciding with the first months of war with Germany, Tolkien got clear (enough) what it meant for the Necromancer to make the One Ring, and only on return to writing in late summer 1940 and taking the Company (minus Gandalf) out of Moria, did the elf, dwarf, and – crucially – heir of Elendil, step into the story.

Oddly (to you and I), Trotter, originally a hobbit (and in late 1939, Peregrin Boffin) remained Trotter through the entire composition of the story. (Strider is never introduced before the ‘late typescripts’ edited by Christopher Tolkien.) When Trotter first becomes a man, the heir of Elendil, I think the name Aragorn also appears. But as soon as he is leading the Company into Lothlorien, this Ranger is renamed Ingold son of Ingrim – the Ing-element, as Tolkien obliquely puts it in a note to himself, ‘to represent the West’. I’ve argued at length (link to my Rounded Globe ebook) that Aragorn is born of Tolkien’s ruminations on the ancient story told of Scyld Scefing in the exordium to Beowulf, showing how the Middle-earth ancient legend of the sea-kings who came out of the West echoes the story in Beowulf of the baby sent alone on a boat from the further shore. I’ll return to it in later posts. What I begin to see now is the significance of this connection.

For the two-phase process by which the original sequel to The Hobbit (‘the mirror ghost index’) became The Lord of the Rings can be boiled down to this two-step engagement with the ancient stories and the history of the North:

  • Late-summer to end of 1939: delineation of the face of the Necromancer, the Lord of the Rings.
  • Late summer to end of 1940: conception of the historical tale of Numenor, the lost ancient story that makes sense of the traditions bound up with Ing (Frey), Froda, and the Golden Peace, the inaffable gift sent out of the west.

This is not to detect any allegory whatsoever. Rather, The Lord of the Rings comes into view as an attempt to, first, glimpse the face of the evil glimpsed in the ancient North, and secondly to imagine a tradition of good of that same North, a glimpse of that which is true where the Necromaner can only be counterfeit.

But it seems to me that this first glimpse, the glimpse of evil as it was seen in the North, is imagined by our author as a picture of the source of the evil not only of Viking killers who delighted in the name of Odin and trusted only themselves, but also of that which had exploded out of Germany and declared war on the world in the days in which Tolkien was first writing his story.

In which case, Tolkien’s subsequent imagination a tradition of Ing, a lost Vanir story, in which love as well as peace and prosperity had their place, the imagination, that is, of the long history of the exiles of Numenor, culminating with the return of the king and fragmented memories of babies in boats coming out of the west, is evidence of his resolve to discover a true tradition of the North, that is, stories that rested on the truths known in the North that the Necromancer denied.

*

In some of Tolkien’s earliest writings, now recorded in The Book of Lost Tales, the traditions of the English concerning the fairies are clearly competing with better established Welsh and Irish traditions. But as he grew older, Tolkien seems to have become more intent on distinguishing the ancient English ideology from its monstrous deviations in the hands of, first the Viking Danes, and in his own day the German military machine and the political ideology of power that had unleashed it.

Revolution of the index

Anyone coming to these posts for the first time will find little sense in the following post, but someone who has followed previous posts will understand that three key ideas are in the process of coming together: namelessness, the index, and a Copernican revolution in a theory of naming.


Namelessness

Our starting point is the observation that the magic ring in The Hobbit has an unnamed property of showing who a hobbit is. As such it negates the namelessness of Bilbo’s hidden qualities, hence allowing a name to be given to him (burglar); but this property itself remains nameless in the story (and hence has no entry in its index).

In Tolkien’s theory of naming, namelessness is not usually envisaged as an unalterable condition. To call something nameless simply means that it has not yet been given a name. Tolkien’s underlying thought is that a story brings to light hidden qualities of people and things, thereby allowing those people and things to be named. The magic in The Hobbit is that Gandalf, because he is a wizard, and later the dwarves, because the ring is in Bilbo’s pocket, see Bilbo with story-vision before his story is told.

We may name the hidden property of the magic ring by saying that it shows its owner to others through story-vision.


Index I

The Hobbit never names this property of the magic ring, it only shows it. Hence, this property is a hidden entry in the index of the story – a mushroom revealed only in a philological index of The Hobbit.


Copernican revolution

Starting a sequel to The Hobbit, Tolkien placed the magic ring at the center of the new story. This  posed the challenge of telling a story that not only revealed but also named the hidden properties of the magic ring.

What I have called story-vision was to be the subject of the new story.

It is in this way that The Lord of the Rings provides a philological comment on The Hobbit: it shows and tries to name the mushroom in the original.

Our reading of the sequel as a commentary on the original is of course complicated by the fact that Tolkien’s second step was to imagine the magic ring as made by the Necromancer, which name had deep meaning already in Tolkien’s stories and scholarship – indeed, with this step the world of The Hobbit entered the world of the ‘Silmarillion’ by way of its last story, ‘The Fall of Númenor,’ and we cannot follow Tolkien’s story ideas without wandering in the index of this final tale of the elves in which the secret of necromancy (and its opposite) had been established. This wandering has already begun (e.g. here, here, and here) but this post does not step into the index of ‘The Fall of Númenor.’ Yet we already see that the Necromancer who made magic rings to steal people’s hidden souls is from the start an imagination of the author as evil and magical – he has made a magic ring of the kind imagined by Tolkien for linguistical and story purposes, and his doing so reveals a dark side of naming and authorship.

All that we are concerned with here is the idea of a maker. This idea is Tolkien’s Copernican revolution in story-vision. With this idea the unnamed property of the magic ring, a thing, becomes a property of a named person.

A footstep revealing this Copernican revolution is seen when we compare the entry riddle in the ghost and final index, i.e. the entry in the index to The Hobbit with the same entry in The Lord of the Rings.

Ghost index Riddle. Form of Bilbo’s story: Saga hwæt ic hatte; ‘Say what I am called’; or: ‘name the nameless.’

Index of Middle-earth Riddle.

i. Question asked of Frodo by Tom Bombadil: ‘Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless?‘; or, ‘Say my original name’; or, ‘name the nameless.’

ii. Situation or text to be read (e.g. Aragorn tracking the two hobbits accross Rohan, Gandalf reading the inscription above the western gate of Moria)

The second entry follows Old English usage in which our modern word read was applied to counsel and formal riddles and difficult situations before ever anyone wrote down letters in a text. But its prevalence in the middle parts of the story reflects the profound movement of thought enacted in its beginning as reflected in the making of the riddle of The Hobbit the very landscape and content of its sequel – a world with a nameless quality.

The Lord of the Rings arises out of an initial confrontation with the very idea of the nameless. For sure, the nameless quality of the magic ring can be show – it already was in The Hobbit, and on observing it I gave it the name of showing story-vision. And no less certainly, the placing of story-vision at the center of the story is seen overtly in Lothlórien, most profoundly in the Mirror of Galadriel, as also more covertly it is seen in each of the great towers of Middle-earth. But the decision to place the magic ring at the center of the new story dictated not only vision but words – and while the hidden property of the original magic ring could be shown, an element of its namelessness could not be said.

Just this conceptual origin of the new hobbit story stands behind Tolkien’s statement in the essay that he composed while writing the story:

Faërie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible. (OFS 32)

But the same origin also stands behind the renaming of the aboriginal in the story. While both Bilbo and Gollum have a shadowy aboriginal side in the original story, this hidden quality is taken away from in the new story and projected first on to Tom Bombadil and then on to Treebeard. This is because the idea of the aboriginal is one of Tolkien’s shortcuts to mushrooms – it is a trick he employs to give the (ultimately) mythical idea of an original name that we do not (and likely cannot) know some concrete content. By associating Bilbo and Gollum with Edwardian ideas of a little aboriginal people in the British Isles of whose language there are no discernible traces, Tolkien in his first hobbit story had injected a nameless quality into his chief character (and also Gollum). This was helpful in a story in which Bilbo played the role of the nameless who receives a name (in the form of a title: Bilbo the burglar), but hobbits as British aborigines served no purpose in a new story in which the nameless was found in the magic ring. Hobbits now became ‘English’ rather than ‘British’ (later connected to the Old English Rohirrim), while the idea of aboriginal persons in Middle-earth was redrawn as a mythical being titled eldest (Tom Bombadil and Treebeard).


 

Revolution of the index

As stated, the naming of the Necromancer brought the index of ‘The Fall of Númenor’ into play from almost the very first moment of composition of the sequel. As noted in an earlier post, around autumn 1938, as Tolkien reached Weathertop, the new (and hence the old) hobbit story was catapaulted from one side of time to another (‘The Fall of Númenor’ had introduced a cardinal distinction between a time of myth before the fall and a time of history after it, and prior to Weathertop the stories about hobbits were imagined as taking place in the days of myth). When Tolkien decided the fall of Númenor lay in the past of the story everything changed and the Third Age came into being. We may tentatively speak here of a revolution in the index of ‘The Fall of Númenor.’

But before this reimagination of the story of Númenor, in the very first days and weeks of beginning the sequel, there occurs what may safely be called a revolution in the index of The Hobbit. The original index starts to become the ghost index of the new story when the original mushroom, the nameless, is imagined as something that has an author.

Tolkien began not with a new riddle but with its solution. Behind the hidden qualities of a thing is a person because a person is what is hidden in a name.

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).

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.