Category Archives: Tolkien TV

The Riddle of The Hobbit

Well, we have done our usual mistake, passing off a video as finished when the last part is still one shuffle short of a card trick. In previous videos this has not mattered because the last part has proved the springboard to the next video, but this video should tie it all together. We are now revising the last part of the video and will upload again in about a week. In the meanwhile, I will begin to frame the video in this post.

Edit: by way of the page discussing these videos I’ve come to think all the other videos are also flawed and it would be better to drop all six into an archive dump and remix 4 videos from them.

The video, like the series, is a step in a long struggle to escape The Lord of the Rings. When I was about 7 years old I was captivated when read The Hobbit. For many years I liked to say I wanted to have children so I could read the story to them. When that event came the experience was frustrating – I could not find the voice to read the story. When a facsimile of the first edition came out a few years ago, and I discovered the differences in tone throughout and experienced reading the original riddle-game in the context of the story, I began to suspect that my problem of voice was connected to the fact that Tolkien had revised the story as he was writing its sequel.

Hence began a long struggle to escape the One Ring and rescue the original story of Bilbo Baggins.

The problem is not that the One Ring was superimposed on the encounter with Gollum (the ring does not figure as the One Ring elsewhere in the story), but that this superimposition obliterated the living heart of the original story: with the riddle-game revised the original meaning of the magic ring disappears from sight, yet that meaning – as this video shows – was the heart of the whole endeavor.

In a nutshell, in this video we begin by taking seriously Tolkien’s own origin myth: that his story began with a spontaneous sentence the meaning of which he did not understand. Our argument is that the magic ring was, in the first instance, a sign imagined as the answer to the riddle of what this hobbit – who lived in a hole in the ground – was, and the pattern of the story then woven by, first, putting this sign to work (a hidden sign of what the wizard sees when he first looks at Bilbo Baggins) and, second, dropping it into the story in the form of a gold ring.

The upshot is that the magic ring was first conceived as an answer to what the hobbit was, alone, himself, and nameless. This answer is, of course, given by Tom Bombadil in the early pages of the sequel (which makes sense, because Bombadil is an imagination of a sequel to The Hobbit before that sequel grew into something else and ate its parent – so the adventure from the Old Forest to the Barrow-downs is the best place to turn for commentary on the original Hobbit).

This is also an answer that makes sense from the perspective of history. The magic ring was not originally the One Ring that steals the self. So what was it originally? The answer: a sign of the nameless self. And this answer provides a fairly obvious starting-point for the development of the One Ring – the step was taken by assigning agency so that this sign of the nameless self now steals that which it signifies (giving new meaning to thief in the shadows).

But now begins a strange confrontation with the world. As I’ve started to see in responses to earlier videos, those who feel compelled to write about Tolkien’s work online are, typically, not going to recognize the story we are unveiling. This is as it should be because, as I have indicated, the meaning of the story was ruined and the original story has been lost. The Hobbit people know and love is not The Hobbit that we address. But it is no easy thing to show people what has long been under their noses and they will insist that they know The Hobbit.

On video 5: Gollum’s end

This episode unveils what is, in effect, a lost story by J.R.R. Tolkien.

In 1944, as he was writing of Sam and Frodo’s meeting with Gollum on the road to Mordor, Tolkien rewrote ‘Riddles in the Dark,’ the chapter in The Hobbit in which Bilbo encounters Gollum. The revised version appeared in the second edition of The Hobbit (1952) and today is the only story that anyone can imagine.

Our 5th episode retells and analyzes the original story.

In making this episode we faced the challenge of showing people a story that has become invisible. It is testimony to the power and iconic status of the revised version that still today, when a cheap facsimile of the first edition is readily available, even the most careful and sensitive of readers appear unable to understand what they are reading. Invariably, however many changes in the narrative are noted and analyzed, readers prove unable to see behind the Gollum they know.

Making the video, we began by highlighting the key structural difference in the original story, now told in our second act: in the original the magic ring is Gollum’s stake in the riddle game (which gives a completely unexpected meaning to his last question of what is in his pocket – which is in fact the riddle of the situation). But we soon saw that we would never get people to see that the original story is something in itself (rather than simply the ‘not the later version’ it is now taken as) unless we could illuminate its emotional force.

One way to approach this emotional force is by way of the sequel. As my friend Tom Hillman is artfully investigating in a monograph in preparation, at the heart of The Lord of the Rings is the theme of Bilbo’s pity. You know: –  in an early conversation at Bag-end, Frodo declares it a pity that Bilbo did not kill Gollum when he had the chance, to which Gandalf declares that it was pity that stayed his hand…

Now, when you read the original story there is no hint of pity on Bilbo’s part. The hobbit is (justifiably) scared of being eaten, and having won the riddle game cheats by getting Gollum to show him the way out – and very relieved to say goodbye to the creature he is too.

But Tolkien’s way of developing his story here is, as so often, by a mirror. The pity that he planted in Bilbo’s heart in the revised story is indeed present in the original – it is there in buckets, the defining characteristic of the story of Gollum’s end, only to see it you have to step out of the hobbit’s point of view (and in this scene the narrator adopts the point-of-view of the hobbit to a greater extent than elsewhere). If you can wrench your perspective away from the hobbit’s and picture the situation that unfolds from neutral ground things look somewhat different.

Put rather crudley, Gollum is minding his own business in his own home (a nasty, wet hole in the ground) when an intruder appears who (unknown to both) has Gollum’s property in his pocket and carries a sword – an armed burglar! As a host, Gollum, who is unarmed, is certainly not very nice (he wishes to eat his visitor), but – as we show in the video – the terms of the riddle game that he proposes are fair – Bilbo’s life for Gollum’s last token of his original identity. But Gollum never has a chance: he is an ultimate victim of fate. He has already lost his birthday present when the hobbit arrives in his hole, and he now loses it a second time in the game of riddles. But he is a stoical victim: on losing he means to pay up, and when he cannot find his present he shows the hobbit the way out instead.

The original story is the story of Gollum’s end. It is almost impossible to understand it today because everyone knows that Gollum subsequently left his hole in the ground to search for the ring – and ultimately meets his end in the fires of Mount Doom. But in the original story this leaving of his hole in the ground is inconceivable. Gollum becomes scared and shaky as he travels the goblin tunnels showing Bilbo the way out. He will never leave; he will continue to live in his dark, uncomfortable hole without the magic ring that was his last connection with the person he once was. Gollum is now doomed to utterly forget any remaining memories of the life he once lived before he ended up in a hole deep under the ground. And Bilbo Baggins is the unwitting agent of this terrible fate of a living death.

To see Gollum’s end is to look at your own future in a fairy-tale mirror of pity.

There is much, much more to be said about the original Gollum. In this video we explain how the idea of life after losing one’s name arose as a fusion of northern ideal with the Jewish idea of a Gollum (normally spelled Golem). In a later video in this series we will explore the imagination of Gollum as a sort of vanishing point of Tolkien’s original sentence – in a hole in a ground there lived a hobbit; but what does it mean to live? And in later videos, when we step from The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings, we will show how the fading engendered by the One Ring and the idea of a Ringwraith was born out of this originally ‘natural’ image of the human condition: an image of how our own name and our own story will inevitably and naturally fade and vanish – albeit in our case, let us hope, only after our death.

In the meanwhile, watch the video and discover how our family passed the endless summer holidays from school!

On our 4th video: Ali Baba

In making these videos the ultimate challenge is to express visually the idea of signs and their meanings out of which Tolkien drew The Hobbit. But it is a slow process learning the art of video and we are still a way from such integration of theory and practice.

In our fourth video the theory is removed from view and the focus is purely on comparison of literary practice. The video investigates the shared structure of two doors – one hidden, the other marked – in the stories of Ali Baba and The Hobbit. 

The final discussion concerns Tolkien’s reversal of the narrative order of the two doors: a door is marked by a robber in the second part of the story in the Arabian Nights but marked by a wizard in the opening pages of The Hobbit. Reversing the order transformed a miserable mark made by a robber, the story-point of which is that it fails, into a magical mark that begins the spell of a story.

The theory for now removed from view is found in the first pages of a classic textbook of Victorian philosophy, the Logic of J.S. Mill (1843).

By the late 1920s, when Tolkien imagined his story, the Ali Baba story was already a philosophical cliche. When the robber chalks a mark on the house of Ali Baba, wrote Mill, his intention is analogous to when we impose a proper name (e.g. name a child). Until around 1900, philosophers addressing proper names engaged with Mill’s literary analogy as well as his theory (Husserl is one of the last to discuss Ali Baba’s door). But after Frege obliterated Mill’s idea of a proper name there was little philosophical interest in the analogy. By the 1920s reading this passage of Mill must have been like attending a Gilbert and Sullivan opera in Tolkien’s day or watching an episode of West Wing in the age of Donald Trump.

But Tolkien would not have allowed philosophy to distract him from a story, and I am convinced that he read this passage in the Logic and raised his eyebrows at Mill’s peculiarly half-baked reading of the Arabian Nights.

The key claim in the video that the robbers who mark the door of Ali Baba should have marked the house on a map is presented as my own insight. Actually, it is what I take to be Tolkien’s verdict on Mill’s reading of the Arabian Nights.

What Tolkien taught me in reading this passage of J.S. Mill is that, contrary to readings that insist that the robber’s mark is actually a cypher meaning something like ‘here is the house of the man who burgled us,’ Mill is completely correct that the robbers of the story make something like a meaningless mark.

However, Mill completely fails to see that if the mark made by the robbers is meaningless it is because it is a mark made by illiterates, which is to say, a mark made by people who do not know how to make a mark.

Mill’s choice of analogy raises the question whether his theory of names is founded on an illiterate conception of marks and signs.