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Riddles of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings

The online meme is, or was, ‘why did Gandalf not get the eagles to fly them direct to Mount Doom?’

This is a question posed by orcs who see jet planes and think of engines and magic. It is a completely genuine question, but asked from a Dark Tower. The question as found in the mirror, which is not asked by twitter users but was posed by Tolkien late in composition, as he wrote The Taming of Smeagol:

Tom could have got rid of the Ring all along {? without further}…if asked

Pencil note, HOME 8, The War of the Ring.

Tom Bombadil

So anyway, I promised a while back to say who Tom Bombadil is.

He is a mirror of Bilbo Baggins, the original and singular Hobbit, brought into focus after the hobbits became English rather than aborigines.

Only the mirror is made by the magic ring, which hides bodies but reveals hidden people in the world all around.


The Apprenticeship of J.R.R. Tolkien (Ye Machine, 2018) was published on August 29. But this is the first announcement. There is simply no point competing with The Fall of Gondolin (August 30). This shade has proved welcome, though, because I’ve found myself unable to break the loop of patching. In fact, with this second ebook, I appreciate  that electronic release of an essay is not like release of a printed edition and is like a beta online program release. Having set my 29.08.18 release date in stone I now find myself seeing room for improvement everywhere I look.

The main patch – for which I apologize to the three or so people who have purchased the book – has been the section titled Biblical Myth in Part Two of the essay. But I am not sure I can do more than add patch upon patch (though every time I look I see the phrasing should be improved!)

My problem is that I have only just begun to appreciate how seriously Tolkien read the Book of Genesis. Until I can place my feet on the ground in the relations between his ‘Silmarillion’ stories, his reading of fragments of ancient northern stories, and his reading of the generations between Adam and Abraham, I can do no more than patch. Here is a paragraph recently inserted that is simply a temporary patch:

There is an *idea* of myth to be discovered in Tolkien’s literary sequels to the story of the Fall, but we will fail to reach it unless we recognize the textual basis of his meditations. The focus on ideas that is the chosen path of this essay falls easily into Protestant presuppositions, in which we approach the Bible as a book translated into our own language and assume that each individual alone may interpret the words on the page – a reformed manner of reading that has become a basis of modern literary criticism. But Tolkien knew the words of the Bible in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew as well as English, and he was evidently aware also of some at least of the many and varied traditions of commentary on each of the verses of a book that – it cannot be doubted – he believed was true. We are walking here at the very center of things, the crucible where everything emerges, and all that limits the view are the limitations of your guide, who can read only his native language and knows little of the great commentaries on the Book of Genesis by which both Tolkien and the old poet before him were fixing their imaginations.

When I talk of Protestant presuppositions I have in mind myself, in virtue of paternal inheritance and a higher education at one of England’s ancient universities, and also a friend who champions personal reflections on The Lord of the Rings and thinks of what he does in terms provided by modern literary theory. As a general rule of the kind of conversations I find myself having, however private, such presuppositions are widespread, inevtitably brought to the table, legitimate, in no way necessarily associated with the Necromancer (as I now apologize for having suggested), and ultimately inseperable from our free will and our relationship to the words that we speak to one another. My point is only that this enthusiastic Protestant tradition of reading is in certain respects quite at odds with Tolkien’s, who naturallly consults what past authorities have to say about a verse of Scripture and sets out his own reading in conversation with the living and the dead.

I have a sense that there is a whole conversation between two halves of North America in which science is pitted against Creationism and religious identity turns on a criteria of literal truth applied to the Book of Genesis. This is a conversation that completely passes Tolkien by, which is not to say that he might not find himself in uncomfortable arguments about the literal truth of, say, the Flood (or the drowning of Atlantis). But he really did not spend much time on asking himself about the truth of the biblical stories; that was not for him an interesting question – they were true, whatever that might mean. Where he began was a puzzling out of strange stories that seem to hide their meanings.

What I call Protestant presuppositions, and recognize in myself as well as many others who I converse with, embraces a fine individualism that runs the risk of not noticing, let alone coming to appreciate, our own inherited and native traditions. Tolkien’s meanings seem to me wrapped deeply in the learning of the learned of more than two millenia. While we may be happy to wonder alone in Middle-earth, and while the richness of our individual experiences as readers of The Lord of the Rings cannot be denied, I think we are missing the point if we do not admit from the get go that what is so wonderful about this reading experience is a recognition that we are not alone (and just what that means, as my friend well knows, is the more helpful question to ask).

The Apprenticeship of J.R.R. Tolkien

Here is a first part of my study of the making of The Lord of the Rings. I had originally envisaged one single book but I have found the way that Tolkien connected and interwove his ideas so subtle and intricate that a couple of months ago I came to the conclusion that I needed to break the whole into three parts. Roughly:

  1. The Hobbit through the Shire to Bree to Weathertop (1938)
  2. What happens on Weathertop
  3. From Weathertop to the end of the story

Weathertop was a turning-point in Tolkien’s composition. When Bilbo’s heir (originally Bingo) is pierced by the weapon of the Ringwraiths he begins to become a wraith, and I have come to the conclusion that Tolkien surprised himself with this turn of events and that his essay On Fairy-stories was the result, providing new ideas about art and magic that resolved to his satisfaction the meaning of Sauron’s forging of the One Ring and the opposition between such dark magic and Elvish enchantment. All this is to be told in the third part.

But just as the hobbits (for Aragorn was then a hobbit named Trotter) approach Weathertop a mention of Elendil building a fort upon this hill in the ancient past shifted the time frame of the story. Where the story was originally set in days of myth, it was suddenly catapulted into the days of history after the destruction of Númenor. To appreciate what is going on here it is necessary to understand the significance of Númenor in Tolkien’s thought, which is the task of the second part of the study, which I have now set out in a short ebook that is available for pre-order on Amazon and will be released on August 29, 2018.

This new ebook is a study of Tolkien’s famous allegory of Beowulf as a tower looking over the sea. It shows how Tolkien’s last myth of the Elves, ‘The Fall of Númenor,’ was originally composed to aid his reflections on the Old English poem and shows the intimate connections between his scholarship and his fairy stories. The final section of the book shows how the view from the tower of his 1936 British Academy lecture became a major theme within The Lord of the Rings.