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Imagining The Lord of the Rings

Return of the Shadow is an edition of the early drafts of The Lord of the Rings, written between December 1937 and late 1939 and almost entirely devoted to the journey from Bag End to Rivendell (the last chapters take us on to Moria).

I’ve been studying this volume since last Christmas and have never faced a more challenging read. Tolkien did not sit down with a story ready-in-mind and begin writing it; he wrote a story and worked out what it was as he went along. By the end of Return of the Shadow he has imagined a story that, if recognizable to us, is still a very long way from the story that we know (to illustrate: Aragorn is not still not Strider but a hobbit known as Trotter who will become Bilbo’s lost nephew Peregrin Boffin before he becomes the heir of Elendil – the myth of Numenor has entered the new hobbit story, but its full repercussions are yet to be felt). To understand the story as it was imagined (in its entirety) at the end of 1939 is therefore to imagine a story that is not that which we know. But the same point applies to many earlier stages of composition: what we are looking at may be the gradual development of a familiar framework, but that development occurs by way of the imagining of a whole series of related yet distinct stories. Reading Return of the Shadow is to conduct an archaeology: it is an excavation of a series of ever more deeply buried stories.

With that caveat, I now set down some tenative conclusions intended to provide stable perspectives about what we find in the first  year of writing a story that took over a decade to complete. Before doing so, however, a framework of the phases of writing over the course of this year is useful:

1. December 1937: Long-expected party.

2. New Year – early summer 1938: Bingo (Bilbo’s heir) walks with hobbit friends all the way to Rivendell.

3. Summer 1938: Bingo starts again from Bag End, this time in the company of Sam Gamgee; they reach the Old Forest.

4. Autumn 1938: Tolkien again starts from Bag End, and now Bingo has become Frodo Baggins. By the end of the year Tolkien reaches the same conversation between Bingo/Frodo and Gloin he had reached in the early summer.

These returns to Bag End are indicative of Tolkien’s changing ideas about various key elements of his story. Nevertheless, and despite my above warnings of a teleological reading of Return of the Shadow, my sense is that at the heart of the story told by the successive drafts of his father’s story edited by Christopher Tolkien is the decision to introduce the Necromancer taken immediately after step 1 above: much of the subsequent writing, and then rewriting, reveals Tolkien gradually discovering the full significance of this early decision.


(1) Bilbo’s birthday party vanishing act

What we know as the first chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring was the first thing Tolkien wrote when he sat down to write a sequel to The Hobbit in the week before Christmas, 1937 (the original story having been published in September of that year). The first draft of this first chapter reveals the following:

(i) Bilbo’s final vanishment from hobbit society carefully mirrors the old – it is not only that the long-expected party (hosted by Bilbo) reflects the unexpected party (arranged by Gandalf) but the distribution of property after the vanishing reflects Bilbo’s return home to find his hobbit hole the scene of an auction.

(ii) Tolkien is clear in mind that this second vanishing will get Bilbo out of the way and prepare the way for a story about one of his “descendants.” To this end he has Bilbo announce at his party not only that he is going away but also he is about to get married. By the end of these first five manuscript pages, however, it is clear Tolkien is not happy with this prospect.

(iii) The magic ring is very deliberately circled – it is said to be in Bilbo’s hand when he makes his announcement; yet it is not clear that Tolkien from the start has in mind that the ring will be passed on to Bilbo’s heir and be at the center of the new story.

(2) A first page of notes: the Necromancer at the center

Christopher Tolkien shows how his father began an expanded version of the first chapter but stopped half way when he had the idea that the party and vanishing were not of Bilbo but of his heir, Bingo (initially his son). A page of notes reveals the appearance of this idea. This page of notes also points to adventures to come in the Old Forest, with Tom Bombadil, and with barrow-wights.

The pivotal element in these notes, however, is the idea that the origin of the magic ring is The Necromancer and – an idea that immediately follows given the nature of this dark sorcerer – that if an owner does not manage to lose the ring he will end up losing himself to the ring.

— We now hit a further and fundamental difficulty of reading Return of the Shadow, namely the introduction of an element into the story that has already been shaped elsewhere. In fact, this is the single most fundamental instance of such an introduction in the whole 11 years of composition: By the mid-1930s the Necromancer had become central to Tolkien’s thinking and by January 1938 had already entered into both his mythological and scholarly writings. Let me briefly survey what is already behind the idea of the Necromancer.

1. John Rateliff in his edition of the early manuscripts of The Hobbit notes the reference (dating to around 1931) in this story (made by Gandalf on the edge of Mirkwood) to the Necromancer’s dark tower. Rateliff shows how the Necromancer, aka Thu, aka Sauron, had already appeared in the Lay of Leithian (the story of Beren and Luthien) that Tolkien was still working on at that time, and aptly quotes from the Lay a description of the Necromancer as commanding a host of misbegotten phantoms and spell-wronged monsters.

2. Between composing The Hobbit and starting its sequel Tolkien had composed (in 1936) ‘The Fall of Numenor’ – a translation into the northern imagination of Plato’s myth of Atlantis, in which Sauron was responsible for corrupting the hearts of the Numenoreans and so causing the destruction of their island home. In other words, simply to name the Necromancer as the maker of Bilbo’s magic ring was to invite a relationship with the story of Numenor.

3. The idea of the Necromancer in the Lay and other stories is given shape by Tolkien’s commentary and lectures on Beowulf, which was Tolkien’s primary scholarly interest in the first part of the 1930s. In Beowulf we find a necromancer named as a helrun, a term applied to the ogre Grendel, apparently suggesting that this flesh and blood monster can summon the aid of other monsters. More illumination comes from the Anglo-Saxon poet’s identification of the Biblical Cain as the father of all monsters. The poet – Tolkien sees (but does not quite like to say) – inferred that Cain, roaming in the shadow lands of his biblical exile, had sexual intercourse with the giantesses. Such coupling with monsters is unatural, and hence has dark magical associations, and leads ultimately to the idea of a Necromancer as a flesh and blood sorcerer who begets an army of monsters purely by black magic. But because he makes these monsters alone he requires raw materials, which leads us back to the helrun – literally, one who knows the secrets of the land of the dead (hell): the monsters made by the Necromancer are associated with death, yet are not dead, nor are they living, they are undead.

This idea of the Necromancer as a flesh and blood master of undead servants is already present on this first page of notes – signalled by the naming of barrow-wights (who appear in Tolkien’s Beowulf commentary precisely as undead and bound up with Necromancy).

(3) First Story

With the magic ring now made by the Necromancer and Bilbo’s heir named as Bingo, Tolkien’s next step was to recraft his first chapter: Bilbo is said to have disappeared some years back and to have left both Bag End and the ring to Bingo (first his son, then his adopted second cousin or ‘nephew’). Bingo now hosts the birthday party, and vanishes from it.

Almost the first thing that Tolkien wrote when he finally moved beyond the party involved Bingo and his friends walking through the woods of the Shire and encountering a Ringwraith.

In a letter of early March, Tolkien describes this new development as “unpremeditated.” The draft reveals this: at first Tolkien describes a mystery rider on a white horse who turns out to be Gandalf and then he begins again and describes a black rider on a black horse…

But if the idea of the Ringwraiths pursuing Bingo and the ring of their master in the woods of the Shire popped into Tolkien’s head as the hobbits walked through those woods, it is really a very obvious development out of the ideas already contained in the page of notes, namely that the Necromancer made the ring, that the Necromancer turns people into undead servants, and that the ring is a trap made by the Necromancer intended to perform just such a transformation of its owner.

All that happens in the woods of the Shire is that Tolkien gives form to ideas already latent in his note by having one who has already passed through the ring confront Bingo, who is brought face to face with the fate that awaits him if his adventure turns out badly.

(4) Further Developments out of the Necromancer

The introduction of the idea (behind the scenes) that the magic ring was made by the Necromancer and is a trap generated the very first adventure of the story – with a Ringwraith (or two). This, in turn, generated explanations within the story that moved the Necromancer into the scene through hearsay. Bingo and friends are rescued from the second black rider by a party of Elves, whose leader explains (for the first time in the new story) the history of the rings made by the Necromancer and suggests that the black rider is a Ringwraith sent by the master – “the Lord of the Rings” – who evidently wants his ring back.

Tolkien now decides that all of this should really have been said by Gandalf before Bingo left Bag End, rather than by some Elf met by chance at a passing of the ways. Now he reorganizes his story: the first chapter is a conversation between Gandalf and Bingo in Bag End in which the wizard explains that the ring Bilbo had brought back from his adventure, and left with Bingo, is actually a very terrible thing. The second chapter is now to be Bingo’s party disappearance, the third the meeting with the black riders and then the Elves.

A point to note is that Tolkien has already began the job of providing background information – which will henceforth happen chiefly at Bag End and at Rivendell.

But the really fundamental point is that nothing so far has been added to the story after the Necromancer (the Ringwraiths being but his ‘natural’ shadows), and what we are seeing is the reorganization and reimagination of a story in light of the placing of the Necromancer at its center.

This reorganization appears to achieve a stable form around this point: Tolkien takes the hobbits all the way to the other end of the Shire (Crickhollow), pauses from writing for a few months, and then in the early summer simply picks up and continues the journey all the way to Rivendell. But…

But… Weathertop happened. Notes for the story-to-come again reveal Tolkien with no preconceived ideas of what will happen on Weathertop even as the hobbits leave Bree (now in the company of the Ranger hobbit, Trotter). What happened on Weathertop was that the Ringwraiths turned up in numbers, Bingo put on the ring – and stepped into their world: he can see their faces, they can see him – and is then stabbed by the wraith-king (Bingo can see his crown) with “the sword of the Necromancer.” This wound, as the next pages of the story make clear, will turn Bingo into a wraith.

Again, there is nothing here that is not already foreshadowed in the introduction of the Necromancer into that first page of notes, at least not when we look to Tolkien’s earlier writings of the 1930s and establish that the Necromancer is a flesh and blood sorcerer who turns living people into undead wraiths.

And again, what we find in the drafts of Return of the Shadow is Tolkien only discovering through writing his story the full meaning of his ideas.

We could put it like this:

0. Idea of Necromancer (one who makes wraiths out of living people).

1. Bilbo has an heir named Bingo who must flee with the ring of the Necromancer.

2. Bingo comes face to face with his own possible future in the form of a Ringwraith.

3. Bingo begins to become a wraith.

— Where 2 and 3 are already contained in 0 and 1.

On a conceptual level, Bingo’s steps into wraithhood open up a whole mythological dimension that will take Tolkien his lecture and essays on fairy stories (1939 and 1943, respectively) to see his way through: for what he has opened up here is a mortal vision of a world that mortals are not meant to see – and that unseen world (as very soon made clear in the story with Bingo’s vision of the Elf Glorfindel as a shining white figure at the ford) also includes a good as well as an evil side: the gateway to Lothlorien begins to be framed the moment Bingo is stabbed on Weathertop. But these developments are for another post.

On a purely narrative level it is hard to avoid feeling that Bingo did not survive the wound he received on Weathertop. That the hobbit who awoke in a hospital bed in Rivendell, while in the early summer of 1938 still called Bingo, was already Frodo Baggins – or put another way, Frodo Baggins was born to survive the blade of the Necromancer.

One can certainly frame subsequent developments in the story from the perspective of Tolkien realizing that Bingo as imagined is not up to the job and seeking some new heirs of Bilbo. Soon after arriving in Rivendell, Tolkien begins again. Bingo is still Bingo, but the story is now to begin as first intended – with a long-expected party hosted by Bilbo. And when in the second chapter Gandalf explains things to Bingo, Sam Gamgee is already listening outside the window. Now Bingo leaves Bag End under the protective custody of Sam; but he only got as far as the Old Forest: and when Tolkien began again it was Sam Gamgee and Frodo Baggins who set out together on an adventure. It is not, on this reading, exactly that Bingo becomes Frodo; rather, Bingo Bolger-Baggins became two hobbits: Sam and Frodo, both very different to Bingo, Sam having more of the young Bilbo in him than ‘his master,’ Frodo already quiet and withdrawn, Sam devoted to Frodo and the two together equipped to withstand the most deadly assaults of the servants of the Necromancer.

And again, all that is going on here on one level is that the new hobbit hero, the heir of Bilbo, is being lined up against the unseen center of the story – the Necromancer.

5. Bilbo’s Party (again)

Bilbo’s return as host is an appropriate point to stop – although Tolkien now carried on writing to the end of the year (he took a break from writing his story in the first half of 1939). It is appropriate because we can discern in this return Tolkien completing, as it were, a first cycle of his imagination.

He had begun with an impromptu account of Bilbo’s second and final vanishing from the Shire (a name that comes into being with the imagination of Buckland on “the other side” in the second or third draft of the party), but had as yet no destination for a new story. After displacing Bilbo as host, and seeing the long-expected party moved to the second chapter, the original beginning is now reinstated – only now it is set into its place of beginning with a good idea of the story to come.

So when, perhaps shortly after midsummer 1938, Tolkien refashioned the shape of his story he now deemed Bilbo’s vanishing from his birthday party a suitable beginning to a tale that saw his heir start to become a wraith. How did he see this?

The best that I can offer here is that the story of Bilbo’s vanishing now works in relation to the story as so far imagined in a roughly similar way as does the exordium to Beowulf to the story of Beowulf.

The opening of the story of Beowulf tells the genealogy of the Danish royal house, concluding with Hrothgar who has built the mead hall that is haunted by Grendel who will be slain by Beowulf, but beginning with Scyld Scefing. Scyld Scefing is the great-grandfather of Hrothgar. He is said in the poem to have been sent to our shore from the other side of the western ocean by unknown hands, and to have returned over the ocean to an unknown shore at the end of his story.

The relationship of both beginnings to the main story they introduce is somewhat mysterious. But roughly speaking, both serve to point us in precisely the opposite direction to the main action that will follow and yet – in some elliptical and obscure way  – frame that action.

In the case of Bilbo’s vanishing (which is all I shall discuss here) the key seems to be this: from the very first draft, the story of the vanishing was intended to fix the name and reputation of Bilbo Baggins within hobbit legend. Now, that legend was given a global significance: the vanishing was not simply a hobbit social spectacle but also constituted a defeat of the spell of the Necromancer. Bilbo’s vanishing is now also his escape from the magic ring that vanishes you.

Before the first summer of composition was passsed, Bilbo’s party-disappearance, initially conceived as a sort of mirror to the opening of The Hobbit (with reference of course to old Gollum’s ring), has become the story of how an eccentric hobbit, a legendary burglar but at heart a good soul, proved to be made of sterner stuff than the Necromancer could possibly have imagined.

Bilbo’s vanishing has become the gold that does not glitter but sets the gold-standard for the actions of all those who will subsequently fall into the orbit of the Ring.

That is almost an overview of the story as conceived in the first year – the suggestion being that all that was vital in this first year was established by the end of the summer.

What is missing from this account, but which will be left for now due to my fingers growing tired and my children demanding food, is the absolutely vital transformation of Gollum that seems to have begun in Tolkien’s mind from just about the first moment that the Necromancer was named the “origin” of the magic ring.

If the introduction of the Necromancer gave the shape to the story, the reimagination of Gollum was the creative force that drew out that shape.


About ten days ago, while on my morning walk in the large expanse of scrub/parkland that borders my house, two puppies appeared out of nowhere and followed me home. As I write they are sitting on the porch outside. Having never had a dog before I have been blown away by the encounter with two little creatures that instinctively know how to fit into a human family. When they arrived I was just finishing publication of a Rounded Globe book on autism in the Stone Age, and I’m not sure if the book or the dogs have given me more insight into life in the paleolithic.

My new neighbour, who owns the house on the next street that is last in his road, has put up a small padock in which, on occasion, there is a horse. Newly aware of the whole world of dogs that I had previously been innocent of I sense that close encounters with a horse would take this kind of thing to a whole other level.

My wife has gone to Brussels for three days, leaving me with the three children. Before she left she ordered the shopping, which is delivered to our door. Within the shopping was a very large, whole, black fish, with dead eyes and a gaping mouth. I have no idea why it came and have never encountered the like before in our kitchen. It has now taken out a whole shelf in the freezer, sitting on top of lots of other frozen food access to which now lies through the great dead fish, which I am unwilling to lay hands on again.


Under the mill? c. 1912

Your hands, my dear, adorable,
Your lips of tenderness
—Oh, I’ve loved you faithfully and well,
Three years, or a bit less.
It wasn’t a success.

Thank God, that’s done! and I’ll take the road,
Quit of my youth and you,
The Roman road to Wendover
By Tring and Lilley Hoo,
As a free man may do.

For youth goes over, the joys that fly,
The tears that follow fast;
And the dirtiest things we do must lie
Forgotten at the last;
Even Love goes past.

I shall desire and I shall find
The best of my desires;
The autumn road, the mellow wind
That soothes the darkening shires.
And laughter, and inn-fires.

White mist about the black hedgerows,
The slumbering Midland plain,
The silence where the clover grows,
And the dead leaves in the lane,
Certainly, these remain.

But the years, that take the best away,
Give something in the end;
And a better friend than love have they,
For none to mar or mend,
That have themselves to friend.


Rupert Brooke


Tolkien’s magic II; or, what hobbits have that elves don’t

In my recent post on Tolkien’s Magic I argued that words constituted the real magic of Middle-earth, and illustrated this point by an exegesis of Gandalf’s confrontation with Gríma Wormtongue as a battle between two counsellors.

But in my closing words I identified the various songs that precede the silencing of Wormtongue as the ‘real magic’ behind this battle. This was a bit of a fudge.

Counsel and song – both are instances of word magic, but they are not the same. Throughout The Lord of the Rings we find allusions to councils of great power. Think, for example, of the White Council, which drives Sauron from Mirkwood. Or the Council of Elrond, of which it was said in the dreams of Faramir and Boromir:

There shall be counsels taken
Stronger than Morgul-spells

And we have also many a moment of enchantment when our hobbits fall under the spell of a story or song told by one or other inhabitant of Faërie. Think, for example, of the hobbits listening to the stories of Tom Bombadil:

The hobbits sat still before him, enchanted: and it seemed as if, under the spell of his words, the wind had gone, and the clouds had dried up, and the day had been withdrawn, and darkness had come from East and West, and all the sky was filled with the light of white stars.

Or Frodo listening to the elvish minstrels in the Hall of Fire at Rivendell:

… the melodies and of the interwoven words in elven-tongues … held him in a spell… Almost it seemed that the words took shape, and visions of far lands and bright things that he had never yet imagined opened out before him … Then the enchantment became more and more dreamlike, until he felt that an endless river of swelling gold and silver was flowing over him…

So there are two kinds of word magic in Middle-earth: counsel, on the one hand, and story and song on the other. But what is their relationship? An initial answer is easy, although it opens a door onto a profoundly tangled web.

Story and counsel can be distinguished in relation to their temporal orientation and (which is related) their end or aim.

In The Lord of the Rings stories and songs seem always to tell of the past. In the mouths of humans, these are instance of what today would be called oral history; when told or sung by the inhabitants of Faërie they are often recollections from personal memory. The Elves who the hobbits meet in the woods of the Shire “still remember” Elbereth Githoniel, of whom they sing. Bombadil in effect treats the hobbits to a lesson in local history, extending back to the days before days and drawn from his own memories.

Counsel also looks to the past, but does so in order to act in the present and so influence the future.

Tolkien’s insistence upon the relevance of the past to counsel is quite striking. By far the main part of the Council of Elrond is taken up with long and extensive histories, told first of all by Elrond, who draws on memories extending deep into past ages of Middle-earth, but including even Bilbo’s adventure, from which account not even a single riddle is omitted.

Note that there is no hint that any of these tales of the past enchant the members of the Council.

The key difference seems to be the aim of the words. Songs and stories are works of art, crafted with no other end than existing in their own right. Counsel draws on memory, but does so with a functional end in mind, namely, to guide present action in order to better shape the future.

We can enrich this analysis by turning to two notes by Tolkien published in Unfinished Tales (512-3). Both notes pertain to Gandalf’s High-elven name, Olórin, which Tolkien relates to the words olo-s and olor.

olo-s: vision, ‘phantasy’: Common Elvish name for ‘construction of the mind’ not actually (pre) existing in Eä apart from the construction, but by the Eldar capable of being by Art (Karme) made visible and sensible.

Olor is similar. It means “clear vision, in the mind, of things not physically present at the body’s situation”. The word is usually translated as ‘dream’, Tolkien tells us, referring not to mortal but to Elvish dreams, which are comprised of “the vivid contents of their memory, as of their imagination”.

Christopher Tolkien connects these notes to the passages in The Silmarillion (20-4) where it is said of Gandalf that , when he was Olórin and still dwelt in Valinor, that he was “counsellor of Irmo”, that he awakened among the elves thoughts “of fair things that had not yet been but might yet be made for the enrichment of Arda,” and that in later days all “who listened to him awoke from despair and put away the imaginations of darkness.”

These notes accord with our idea that counsel, as opposed to (fairy) story, draws upon memory (history), but does so in order to picture that which has yet to come to pass. Elvish ‘imagination’ is clearly that which transforms historical reflection into a vision of what might come to be.

Yet the clarification contained in these notes also threatens to send us off into a spin. The reason for this is that the idea of counsel contained in them, and associated with the High-elven name for Gandalf, seems to accord with the definition of story, or at least fairy story, set out in Tolkien’s famous essay ‘On Fairy Stories’.

‘On Fairy Stories’ introduces the notion of fantasy, which is said to be a human art of story-telling that aspires to the elvish craft of enchantment. Fantasy begins when humans utilize the fantastic device of language to imagine worlds that are not. Such creation, however, draws in elements derived from history, which have been dropped into the ‘Cauldron of Story’, by which Tolkien means that they have become detached from their original historical context and attached to other elements. Out of the Cauldron are ladled fairy stories.

So we have a seeming mismatch of categories.

From a mortal perspective: imagination + history = (human) fantasy = fairy story.

For the elves: imagination + history = (elvish) fantasy = counsel.

And what is more, human fantasy (history + imagination) aspires to the elvish craft of enchantment (history only).

Behind this apparent mismatch stands, I think, two related differences between humans and elves, pertaining to the respective limitations of each.

Elves are immortal, humans are not. This has substantial implications for their respective memories of the past. Elves remember their history, and it seems their memories are reliable. Humans die, and the deeds of the dead are forgotten, or remembered differently in different traditions, or are embellished and transformed into myth (they go into the ‘Cauldron’).

What this means is that imagination is at work in the forming of collective human memory, which comes to include tales of many things that never actually came to pass (the border between human history and human fairy story is not always easy to discern). The confused morass of collective human memory stands in marked contrast to the elvish stories and songs in The Lord of the Rings, which simply tell of things as they once were, often by those who witnessed them. As Tolkien put it in a letter of 1956: “There is hardly any reference in The Lord of the Rings to things that do not actually exist” (letter 180).

A second difference, surely related, is that the imagination (and by extension also the dreams, and the products of fantasy) of the elves seems rather limited. Both humans and elves exercise their imagination in order to form visions of different possible futures (a substantial chapter in the modern science of economics is dedicated to formulating how humans do this). But human imagination extends also to the description of impossible states of the world.

It is just this ‘impossible’ imagination that Tolkien singles out as the vital beginning of human fairy stories:

The human mind… sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things… but sees that it is green as well as being grass… The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into swift water.

Elves just do not seem to engage in this art of fantasy – they are, it could be said, rather literal minded.

I suspect that our two differences are but different faces of the same coin. Elves are immortal and their memories far-reaching and keen. Humans are mortal, and their memories fade and become lost or confused; but they make up for this in having a far more powerful imagination – which not only embellishes their memories of the past but actively constructs impossible ‘other worlds’.

We have opened a door onto a tangled web, and much more needs to be said before we arrive at anything like a clear view. In a future post I hope to discuss the moral dimension of Tolkien’s thinking, which I think explains why he places counsel above enchanted story, and also what it means that Saruman confuses the two (that is, enchants under the guise of offering counsel). It would also be interesting to consider the respective natures of Rivendell, which seems mainly associated with counsel, and Lothlórien, which embodies elvish enchantment.

But I conclude for now with a brief reflection on those moments of mortal enchantment mentioned above, when all or one of our hobbits fall under a spell in the house of Tom Bombadil or in the Hall of Fire at Rivendell, and are carried away into dream-like states of consciousness.

In ‘On Fairy Stories’ Tolkien analyses such experiences in terms of a mortal who attends a ‘Faërian Drama’:

If you are present at a Faërian drama you yourself are, or think that you are, bodily inside its Secondary World. The experience may be very similar to Dreaming and has (it would seem) sometimes (by men) been confounded with it.

But Tolkien warns that knowledge of the “alarming fact” that you are under a spell may slip from your grasp:

You are deluded – whether that is the intention of the elves (always or at any time) is another question. They at any rate are not themselves deluded. This is for them a form of Art…

This puts all the emphasis upon the magical art of the elves and the perils of Faërie that await the unwary mortal traveller. But the same point could be made from another perspective.

For sure the Faërian drama boggles the imagination of the innocent human observer, who more than likely had never even conceived of what he now hears and sees. Yet he does now gain access to this other world, and does so through precisely that faculty of imagination that puts him at risk.

By the same token, the Faërian drama does not delude the elves because they are capable only of witnessing a ‘realist drama’ drawn from their own histories – their imaginations, to be blunt, are simply too limited to comprehend an imaginary world.

So our hobbits fall under the spell of Bombadil and the minstrels of Rivendell, not because their mental faculties are inferior to those denizens of Faërie who perform before them and weave a spell around them, but because, at least in certain respects, they are superior.

Image: William Blake, ‘Beatrice Addressing Dante’. Wiki Commons.

Changing faces of Britain’s natives

Late-Victorian histories of the English began in the woods of Schleswig, before the migration to the British Isles. But around 1900 historians decided that English history proper should begin with the foundation of the modern state in the fourteenth century. What came before was deemed not only barbarous but insufficiently documented. The story of ancient Britain, and of the peoples who settled it, was left to a motley crew of archaeologists, folklorists, philologists and, increasingly, writers of fiction.

Our Island Story

From: Our Island Story. A History of England for Boys and Girls, by H.E. Marshall, illustration by A.S. Forrester (London, 1905).

Elsewhere I’ve investigated the early twentieth-century search for the ancient English; in this post I track the changing face of Britain’s natives. The picture above depicts a sort of ancient ‘close encounters’ moment: native Britons watch the arrival of the Roman fleet of Julius Caesar. This captures the conventional Victorian image of the Romans bringing civilization to a savage island.

Compare the primitive Britons above, barefoot and attired in rude animal skins, with the blond giants below. Although this second picture was published earlier, it embodies a newer historical thinking. These iron-age warriors are still Britons, but they are no longer natives.

later Celts

From: Beric the Briton. A Story of the Roman Invasion, by G.A. Henty, illustrator unknown (London, 1893).

For much of the nineteenth century it was assumed that Britain had been settled for only a few generations before the coming of the Romans. But this view became untenable after 1877 and the publication of Canon William Greenwell’s British Barrows. From his meticulous and extensive archaeological excavations, Greenwell drew the conclusion that prehistoric long barrows were not only older than round barrows, but had been built by a different people.


From: British Barrows. A record of the examination of the sepulchral mounds in various parts of England, by W. Greenwell (Oxford, 1877).

After Greenwell it was generally accepted that the Celtic-speaking Britons, the supposed makers of the round barrows, had intruded upon an earlier population. The result was the rehabilitation of the Britons: no longer the passive victims of history, conquered and pushed aside by more vigorous peoples, the Britons became invading immigrants in their own right – ancient barbarians, maybe, yet virtuous and worthy ancestors for the modern British. In the caption of the second picture above the leading Briton declares: ‘Tell Suetonius that we scorn his mercy and will die as we have lived, free men.’

Who, then, were the newly discovered natives? With precious little archaeological or philological evidence to work with, scholars turned to fairy tales.

In 1900 John Rhys, the first Oxford Professor of Celtic, delivered the presidential address to the Anthropology section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. His chosen theme was the value of folk tales for the study of the ancient past, and he argued that behind the ‘rabble of divinities and demons’ who disport themselves in Celtic folklore it is possible to discern the succession of peoples who have inhabited the British Isles. Welsh fairy stories, according to Rhys, contained dim memories of the native population encountered by the first Celtic-speaking intruders. The real ‘little people’, he inferred, had been ‘a small swarthy population of mound-dwellers, of an unwarlike disposition… and living underground’.


From: John Buchan’s The Watcher by the Threshold (London, 1902).

Rhys’ ideas seem to have sparked the imagination of a couple of young minds. John Buchan went up to Oxford in 1895. His short story ‘No-Man’s-Land’, which appeared in print seven years later, tells the dreadful story of an Oxford scholar of Northern Antiquities (like Rhys perhaps, or one of his students), who holidays in the remote Highlands of Scotland, where he encounters – and is  taken captive by – ‘the Hidden People’:

‘Then suddenly in the hollow trough of mist before me… there appeared a figure. It was little and squat and dark; naked, apparently, but so rough with hair that it wore the appearance of a skin-covering… in its face and eyes there seemed to lurk an elder world of mystery and barbarism, a troll-like life which was too horrible for words.’

While captive in their ‘hill refuge’ the Oxford scholar hears harsh words directed at the British invader, bitter curses for the Saxon stranger; and he glimpses ‘a morbid hideous existence’ preserved for centuries by these relics of a nameless past.

Buchan’s natives are the complete antithesis of the modern British subject; a sort of primitive Hyde to the modern Dr. Jekyll. One can perhaps discern a post-WWII twist to this fable in The Inheritors, the 1955 novel by William Golding (who incidentally attended the same Oxford college as Buchan). In Golding’s story the original dwellers of the land have become Neanderthals – a separate species to modern humans. But in contrast to Buchan, Golding represents these natives as a peaceful if queer-thinking folk; it is the human intruders who are violent and frightening.

Buchan’s portrayal of Britain’s ancient folk as radically different to the modern population of the British Isles made for a good story; but it did not reflect an Edwardian scholarly consensus that all newcomers to Britain had interbred with those already settled on the land. Far from being a separate species, scholars believed that much native blood flows through the veins of the inhabitants of modern Britain (the same kind of idea is now put in terms of DNA). An Englishman, a Scotsman, or a Welshmen who meets one of the forgotten little people is quite possibly discovering but a smaller version of himself. And if such encounters have today become rather rare in the fields and hedgerows of Britain, this is a familiar enough experience to many readers of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic children’s story of 1937, The Hobbit.

Hobbits are a homely depiction of Britain’s natives. Tolkien tells us that they are a ‘little people’, who today ‘have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us’. But once upon a time, ‘long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green’, hobbits were ‘numerous and prosperous’.

Going up to Oxford in 1911, Tolkien as an undergraduate probably attended Rhys’ lectures; later, in a short essay of 1932, we find him engaging carefully with his scholarship. And it seems that Tolkien had read the Professor of Celtic’s 1900 presidential address. At one point in this lecture Rhys discusses certain ‘underground – or partially underground – habitations’ that, he believed, had been home to Britain’s natives. These abodes, he explains:

‘appear from the outside like hillocks covered with grass, so as presumably not to attract attention… But one of the most remarkable things about them is the fact that the cells or apartments into which they are divided are frequently so small that their inmates must have been of very short stature’.

Bag End entrance

‘Bag End entrance’. Photo: Sebastian Stöcker.

But if Tolkien first stumbled upon a hobbit hole whilst reading Rhys’ lecture, it seems likely that his imagination drew also upon Buchan’s depiction of Britain’s natives as subhuman trolls. Certainly, John Buchan was one of Tolkien’s favourite authors. Of course, Bilbo’s hole under the hill is snug and comfortable; the encounter with a ‘hideous existence’ within a ‘hill refuge’ described by Buchan finds its counterpart, not at Bag End, but in that cave deep within the Misty Mountains into which had wormed his way, long ages ago, ‘a small slimy creature’ called Gollum.

Originally published as a guest post on the English Historical Fiction Authors website. My thanks to the broad minded authors of fiction for inviting a post by a writer of non-fiction prose.