Category Archives: LOTR

Premonitions of WWII

*   Composition of ‘The Breaking of the Fellowship’ can be dated by some marginalia on the manuscripts in which Tolkien outlined the death of Boromir. On the back of this sheet our author has absently written: ‘Chinese bombers,’ ‘North Sea convoy,’ ‘Muar River,’ ‘Japanese attack in Malaya,’ and other such. Christopher Tolkien notes the Japanese invaded Thailand and N.E. Malaya on 7-8 December 1941 and the Muar River was crossed on January 16 1942, and so dates this part of The Lord of the Rings to winter 1941-2 (Treason of Isengard 379, 387).

While Tolkien famously denied any allegory between his tale and the Second World War, it is certainly possible to discern the imprint of the global context of composition on the story itself.

Britain and France declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939. On this day, Tolkien was perhaps three weeks into his third phase of writing, and would continue through the end of the year leaving the Company in Moria at Balin’s tomb. By this point the story had almost become that which we know – but it was only when he resumed writing in late summer 1940 that Trotter the hobbit finally became Aragorn the heir of Elendil, and only at this point that the original plan to the story’s length – with a short passage on the other side of the mountains to the end at the fiery mountain began to give way to a whole new world of story opening up in Lothlórien, Rohan and Isengard, as well as Gondor.

When Tolkien paused in Moria in late 1939 the Company consisted only of hobbits in addition to Gandalf and Boromir, a man of Ond (Gondor), a city imagined as under siege on the other side of the mountains. And Tolkien believed his story around 2/3 complete (Letters). The story as the story we know was not yet imagined; yet the role in it of the sea kings of old aside, the great ideas of the story we know were now in play. Crucially, since picking up his pen again in August 1939, eighteen months and two prior phases of composition in to his new hobbit story (not to mention a lecture on fairy stories delivered that March), Tolkien established the idea of the One Ring and framed his story in terms of a great conflict between a white elf tower looking over the sea to the west of the Shire and a dark tower in Mordor out of which looks an Eye.

This great unveiling of ideas (in outlines as well as chapter drafts) largely established the story between Bag-End and Rivendell, which after events first turned upside-down on Weathertop in late summer 1938, Tolkien rewrote two further times and was still working out in the third phase of writing in the second half of 1939. In other words, this third phase is a watershed, and the first of a two phase revolution that lead our author to compose the story we know.

In terms of the wider history of the world going to war, Tolkien provides a curious retrospective reading through Tom Bombadil. In letter 144, composed in 1954:

The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power, and so on; but both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of control, but if you have, as it were, taken ‘a vow of poverty,’ renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless. It is a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war. (Letters 178-9).

It’s worth adding before commenting a passage from the later letter 153:

[Tom Bombadil] merely knows and understands such things as concern him in his natural little realm. He hardly even judges, and as far as can be seen makes no effort to reform or remove even the Willow… he is then… a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science: the spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature, because they are ‘other’ and wholly independent of the enquiring mind, a spirit coeval with the rational mind, and entrely unconcerned with ‘doing’ anything with the knowledge: Zoology and Botany not Cattle-breeding or Agriculture. (Letters 192).

In this later letter, Tolkien goes on to insist that Tom Bombadil here is in a category different even from the elves, “they are primarily artists” (ibid). And he goes on to add a third take on Tom Bombadil:

Also T.B. exhibits another point in his attitude to the Ring, and its failure to affect him. You must concentrate on some part, probably relatively small, of the World (Universe), whether to tell a tale, however long, or to learn anything fundamental – and therefore much will from that ‘point of view’ be left out, distorted on the circumference, or seem a discordant oddity. The power of the Ring over all concerned, even the Wizards or Emissaries, is not a delusion – but it is not the whole picture, even of the then state and content of that part of the Universe.

Both of these letters are composed well over a decade after Britain declared war on Germany and The Lord of the Rings grown into the story that it did. But as noted in the previous post, in the much smaller story imagined before 1940, with most adventures happening before Rivendell, Tom Bombadil is a major figure and we must therefore read the above passages of commentary as reflecting a major change in Tolkien’s thinking about the story he was writing.

I suggest the last quoted passage hides the germs of our author’s original vision of a sequel to The Hobbit, the story-world I have called the mirror of the ghost index.

1937-1938: The Mirror Ghost Index

Bilbo’s magic ring is one of many made long ago by the Necromancer to ensnare others. The rings allow invisibility, but occasional vanishing is now revealed as a first step to a permanent fading, becoming a wraith – one of the undead under the command of the Dark Magician.

The story is to show a combination of forces in the world that are stronger than the dark power of the Necromancer: Gollum would use the ring for sneaking and end up monstrous, but his hobbit bones prevented any undead fading; Bingo-Bolger Baggins, heir of Bilbo, is to use the evil ring only for jest; Tom Bombadil is older even than the Necromancer, and the Barrow-wights obey his voice; the elves and Gandalf will rescue Bingo at the ford at Rivendell…

And one of the things we now begin to see is how this picture of a world of a story did not survive the turn of our world to a second great European war.

After 3 September,1939

When Tolkien finally has all the pieces in play in late summer 1940, now Trotter is the heir of the sea kings of old, he must lead the Company now Gandalf has fallen into the abyss with the Balrog, and as they emerge on the other side of the mountains Aragorn leads the Company into Lothlórien. In the Golden Wood, Tolkien now redrafted the story of Tom Bombadil around an elvish queen and her mirror.

The Lady Galadriel is many things in Tolkien’s mind, but she steps out of a reimagination of the relationship of enchantment that perhaps introduces the idea of elves as artists so that where Tom Bombadil simply is, even Galadriel is choosing and so a doer. Galadriel’s whole shtick is that she is not a counsellor, that not in saying yes and no but simply holding up a mirror may she aid the quest. Yet Tolkien reimagines the encounter of Frodo and Tom Bombadil (“Who are you, master?”) as more equal and hence dramatic: Galadriel’s heart desires the Ring; she is a face of Faërie confronted with a power it cannot laugh off. (The comments on Tom Bombadil in letters written over a decade later view him to a disadvantage through the person of Galadriel, yet the magic ring that first came to the house of Tom Bombadil was but one of many such in the world.)

On the Marish and in Bree, Tolkien drew the landscape of his new story, inventing the Shire by way of Buckland, the Old Forest, the Barrow-wights, Farmer Maggot and Tom Bombadil (possible kin). The journey to Rivendell went by way of various houses, from Bag-End to Crickhollow, to the houses of the farmer and the aboriginal nature spirit, and the inn at Bree. The house of Tom Bombadil here occupies the main way station between Bag-end and Rivendell, the source of all the new queerness. And as soon as the party of hobbits arrived at the house of Tom Bomadil they were to wake up to a rainy second day in that house, in which their host talked of the lore of the lands beyond the borders of their own. In this conversation Bingo was to lose track of time.

Lothlórien is at heart a return to the lands of Tom Bombadil and to the idea of enchantment, the idea of which is already central in the mirror ghost index in the person (or house) of Tom Bombadil, which word is becoming central to gathering literary reflections on fairy stories, and which idea blossoms a second time around in the person of Galadriel, queen of Faërie. But where the king of Faërie had held the golden ring to his eye and laughed, the queen of Faërie is offered by the hobbit what her heart desires.

When Tolkien wrote a sequel before the war began he saw clearly an evil in the world, but he thought it might be judged in the mirror of reality and found wanting and so set out a tale that discovered enchantment in Tom Bombadil’s house the wholesome and greater opposite of the dark magic of the Necromancer. After the war broke out, even the monarchs of Faërie must choose, and what (only) now appears as the pacificism of Tom Bomadil is redrawn as the face of an ancient parent who can now only watch as a young generation goes out to battle.

But this contrast of Bombadil and Galadriel in how their eye falls on the One Ring is to some degree false, for each originally encountered different rings. Or rather, Tom first takes a magic ring from the hand of Bingo, he has no reason to suppose the fate of the world is now in his hand – that idea is imposed on him later, when a magic ring becomes the One Ring that Galadriel was offered by Frodo Baggins from the first. Tom Bombadil’s pacificism is our author’s queer reading of his own earlier story idea, a reading that would not perhaps have been possible if European and global history had not taken the dark turn that it did, yet an author watching the world while writing a story in 1938 surely had premonitions of what was happening.


* Post inspired by reflection on my collaboration with +Oliver Stegen, +Jeremiah Burns, +Richard Rohlin, +Tom Hillman – a contribution to a Wilderness of Dragons.

First Mirror

He caught her, held her fast! Water-rats were scuttering
reeds hissed, herons cried, and her heart was fluttering…
You shall come under Hill! Never mind your mother
in her deep weedy pool: there you’ll find no lover!

The Adventure of Tom Bombadil (1934)

From its beginnings in very late 1937 through to the end of 1939, Tolkien envisaged a new story of around the same length (number of pages) as The Hobbit. The sequel was to tell a similar sort of journey – to Rivendell, then over the mountains to a final destination, the fiery mountain (as opposed to the Lonely Mountain). By late 1939 Tolkien had composed an early version of the Council of Elrond and introduced Boromir of the land of Ond, and so imagined a siege of the City of Ond on the other side of the mountains; but as yet this was the only adventure envisaged for the other side beyond the fiery mountain itself. In contrast to the original story of Bilbo Baggins, the sequel was to weight its adventures to this side of Rivendell.

But to imagine the original story, which I identify with the mirror of the ghost index, we also have to cut out Weathertop. When Tolkien first reached the house of Tom Bombadil, around the very end of August 1938, he envisaged before Rivendell only a passage through Bree followed by a final confrontation with the Black Riders at the ford, in which Gandalf and the Elves rescued Bingo.

We thus see an initial imagination of the sequel in which the magic ring was made by the Necromancer yet necromancy is held at bay. The adventure with the Barrow-wights was to provide as vivid a picture of the evil fruit of necromancy as Tolkien ever penned. But while one of the hobbits awakes from his trance state within the barrow with a memory of being dead, the story as yet has no thought that a hobbit would begin to become one of the undead (as happens after Weathertop).

When the early drafts are viewed within their intended frame we see that what we regard as the first part of the first book of The Fellowship of the Ring – through the woods of the Shire, the Marish, to Buckland, and then in the Old Forest, and Barrow-downs, and in the house of Tom Bombadil – was initially imagined as making up the lion’s share of a new story. The Necromancer and one of his magic rings is indeed at the center but both ring and undead servants could be escaped and overcome by hobbit high spirits (Bingo as the mirror of Gollum) and the rhymes of a mythical aboriginal spirit (Tom Bombadil as the mirror of the Necromancer).

Tom Bombadil is at the very heart of this imagination of a new hobbit story. Consider also:

(a) Tom Bombadil first appeared in print in an Oxford periodical in 1934, in a poem in which he is caught by and then commands his release from Goldberry, Old Man Willow, and a Barrow-wight (and also a badger).

(b) In the early drafts of late summer 1938, Tolkien considers that Farmer Maggot is not really a hobbit but kin of Tom Bombadil, who declares himself an ‘aborigine‘ and older than the Necromancer. Furthermore, Tolkien considers Black Riders simply Barrow-wights on horseback.

In other words, Tom Bombadil enters the story bringing with him Old Man Willow and the adventure in the Withywindle Valley, also Goldberry, and also the Barrow-wights, who are to provide a closer encounter with the Ringwraiths already met in the Shire. And Tolkien is even considering that he belongs to a greater aboriginal race that includes Farmer Maggot in the Shire.

When Tolkien started writing again in late summer 1938 he rapidly penned – largely in the published form – the adventures that led from Crickhollow to Bree. He began by taking a party of hobbits under the hedge, into the Old Forest, and so into a landscape made queer by Tom Bombadil’s 1934 adventure.

Where Tom Bombadil had been pulled into the water by Goldberry and then trapped within the willow tree, Old Man Willow now engineers both a plunge in the river and imprisonment in his tree. Bombadil rescues the hobbits from  the willow tree, and also from the Barrow-wight he had escaped from in his earlier adventure.

In the first draft the hobbits stay only one night at the house of Tom Bombadil. But rapidly the idea was added of a rainy day spent in the house with the hobbits’ host telling them the lore of the willow and the Old Forest:

… how that grey thirsty earth-bound spirit had become imprisoned in the greatest Willow of the Forest. The tree did not die,though its heart went rotten, while the malice of the Old Man drew power out of earth and water, and spread like a net, like fine root-threads in the ground, and invisible twig-fingers in the air, till it had infected or subjugated nearly all the trees on both sides of the valley. (Shadow 120-1)

In this sequel, Tolkien alludes to but never tells the 1934 tale of the courtship of Goldberry and Tom Bombadil, but as soon as we recall it we see what happened to the hobbits was not simply a repeat of Tom Bombadil’s escapades with Old Man Willow.

As they first make their way into the Old Forest one hobbit names the Withywindle Valley “the source of all the queerness.” Queer is a key word in The Hobbit: in the first pages the narrator tells us Bilbo Baggins likely inherited a queer Took quality from his mother and Gandalf scratches a queer sign on his round door. The naming of the hobbit turns on the coming out of Bilbo’s queer quality in a way that makes sense of Gandalf’s sign (burglar). Now we are in a sequel in which the hobbits find themselves drawn to the source of all the queerness in an ancient forest.

The source of all the queerness turns out to be a story involving four people. Long, long ago, Goldberry caught Tom Bombadil’s attention and Tom Bombadil then captured Goldberry, taking her from the weedy river pools of her mother, the river-woman, to his own house. Evidently, this has disturbed the Withywindle Valley, Goldberry’s original home. We are never told the relationship of the river-woman and Old Man Willow, and we can only wonder whether the willow is the father of Goldberry or merely a jealous admirer. In any case, Goldberry’s mother is peeved and has allowed rotten Old Man Willow to run riot, casting his spell in a net of root and twig over nearly all the Old Forest, bearing hostility to all who walk on two legs.

The party of hobbits thus enter a different sequel – the sequel to Tom Bombadil’s earlier story. First they visit the scene of the two encounters of the two lovers, and then they meet the two lovers in the house in which they now dwell together. The source of all the queerness in a place turns out to be an ancient love story, which left two spirits of a place quietly seething over all the long ages to come.

The incorporation of this mini-sequel within the hobbit sequel allows Tolkien to hold a mirror to the theory of naming of The Hobbit. In the original hobbit story the person (Bilbo) is clear before us and the story is about the queer business of attaching a new name to the person. In the new story the names are already present and what the story is about is the queerness of the person behind the name.

At this point in the imagination of his story, Tolkien envisages two sets of relationship. On the one hand, Bingo (heir of Bilbo) and the young Gollum are to provide two mirror character sketches that together serve to reveal the hidden qualities of the magic ring. Both are hobbits, and so neither fade like the Ringwraiths, and both leave the human community, following in the steps of the ancient English helrúnBut where Gollum used the magic ring for sneaking and was cast out by his family, Bingo uses the magic ring only for joyous pranks and jests and takes voluntary exile upon himself to save his people from the servants of the Necromancer. Between this pair of opposite hobbits Tolkien is drawing a picture of the magic ring, which is not yet the One Ring and which, in this mirror ghost index, is still something that can be used wisely and without harm.

On the other hand, Tolkien imagines that the magic ring has a mythical maker and imagines also a mythical being, Tom Bombadil, who cannot be caught by the servants of the Necromancer. What the Necromancer is to the Ringwraiths who enter the woods of the Shire Tom Bomadil is to the Old Forest – an ancient (aboriginal) person who stands behind the queerness happening around the hobbits of the story.

Tom Bombadil allowed Tolkien to work out an initial idea of what it meant to find a person as the source of a queer thing (or, in his case, place) without having to delve into the unspeakable business of necromancy.

After Weathertop, when the process by which necromancy made an undead servant of the necromancer out of a living person had begun in the story, Tolkien found that he had to delve much deeper into the magic of the ring, and he now avoided the unspeakable by imagining the true relationship of words and persons in relation to the elves. Galadriel would come to fulfil the role that Tom Bombadil played in this original imagination of the sequel. Yet this mirror ghost index remains in the final index of The Lord of the Rings, an earlier strata of the story that contains within it the underlying themes of the story as first imagined; themes that would remain but be superseded once the magic ring had become the One Ring and Bingo Bolger-Baggins, the hobbit prankster, had become two hobbits with very different characters, namely Sam Gamgee and Frodo Baggins.

A Copernican Revolution in story-vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Necromancer 1936: a northern serpent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Necromancer: sex & the magic ring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rún: secret. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genesis of the One Ring

Summary of last post:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The magic ring is imagined as made by the Necromancer.

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

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

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