Category Archives: Connections

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.