Revolution of the index

Anyone coming to these posts for the first time will find little sense in the following post, but someone who has followed previous posts will understand that three key ideas are in the process of coming together: namelessness, the index, and a Copernican revolution in a theory of naming.


Our starting point is the observation that the magic ring in The Hobbit has an unnamed property of showing who a hobbit is. As such it negates the namelessness of Bilbo’s hidden qualities, hence allowing a name to be given to him (burglar); but this property itself remains nameless in the story (and hence has no entry in its index).

In Tolkien’s theory of naming, namelessness is not usually envisaged as an unalterable condition. To call something nameless simply means that it has not yet been given a name. Tolkien’s underlying thought is that a story brings to light hidden qualities of people and things, thereby allowing those people and things to be named. The magic in The Hobbit is that Gandalf, because he is a wizard, and later the dwarves, because the ring is in Bilbo’s pocket, see Bilbo with story-vision before his story is told.

We may name the hidden property of the magic ring by saying that it shows its owner to others through story-vision.

Index I

The Hobbit never names this property of the magic ring, it only shows it. Hence, this property is a hidden entry in the index of the story – a mushroom revealed only in a philological index of The Hobbit.

Copernican revolution

Starting a sequel to The Hobbit, Tolkien placed the magic ring at the center of the new story. This  posed the challenge of telling a story that not only revealed but also named the hidden properties of the magic ring.

What I have called story-vision was to be the subject of the new story.

It is in this way that The Lord of the Rings provides a philological comment on The Hobbit: it shows and tries to name the mushroom in the original.

Our reading of the sequel as a commentary on the original is of course complicated by the fact that Tolkien’s second step was to imagine the magic ring as made by the Necromancer, which name had deep meaning already in Tolkien’s stories and scholarship – indeed, with this step the world of The Hobbit entered the world of the ‘Silmarillion’ by way of its last story, ‘The Fall of Númenor,’ and we cannot follow Tolkien’s story ideas without wandering in the index of this final tale of the elves in which the secret of necromancy (and its opposite) had been established. This wandering has already begun (e.g. here, here, and here) but this post does not step into the index of ‘The Fall of Númenor.’ Yet we already see that the Necromancer who made magic rings to steal people’s hidden souls is from the start an imagination of the author as evil and magical – he has made a magic ring of the kind imagined by Tolkien for linguistical and story purposes, and his doing so reveals a dark side of naming and authorship.

All that we are concerned with here is the idea of a maker. This idea is Tolkien’s Copernican revolution in story-vision. With this idea the unnamed property of the magic ring, a thing, becomes a property of a named person.

A footstep revealing this Copernican revolution is seen when we compare the entry riddle in the ghost and final index, i.e. the entry in the index to The Hobbit with the same entry in The Lord of the Rings.

Ghost index Riddle. Form of Bilbo’s story: Saga hwæt ic hatte; ‘Say what I am called’; or: ‘name the nameless.’

Index of Middle-earth Riddle.

i. Question asked of Frodo by Tom Bombadil: ‘Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless?‘; or, ‘Say my original name’; or, ‘name the nameless.’

ii. Situation or text to be read (e.g. Aragorn tracking the two hobbits accross Rohan, Gandalf reading the inscription above the western gate of Moria)

The second entry follows Old English usage in which our modern word read was applied to counsel and formal riddles and difficult situations before ever anyone wrote down letters in a text. But its prevalence in the middle parts of the story reflects the profound movement of thought enacted in its beginning as reflected in the making of the riddle of The Hobbit the very landscape and content of its sequel – a world with a nameless quality.

The Lord of the Rings arises out of an initial confrontation with the very idea of the nameless. For sure, the nameless quality of the magic ring can be show – it already was in The Hobbit, and on observing it I gave it the name of showing story-vision. And no less certainly, the placing of story-vision at the center of the story is seen overtly in Lothlórien, most profoundly in the Mirror of Galadriel, as also more covertly it is seen in each of the great towers of Middle-earth. But the decision to place the magic ring at the center of the new story dictated not only vision but words – and while the hidden property of the original magic ring could be shown, an element of its namelessness could not be said.

Just this conceptual origin of the new hobbit story stands behind Tolkien’s statement in the essay that he composed while writing the story:

Faërie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible. (OFS 32)

But the same origin also stands behind the renaming of the aboriginal in the story. While both Bilbo and Gollum have a shadowy aboriginal side in the original story, this hidden quality is taken away from in the new story and projected first on to Tom Bombadil and then on to Treebeard. This is because the idea of the aboriginal is one of Tolkien’s shortcuts to mushrooms – it is a trick he employs to give the (ultimately) mythical idea of an original name that we do not (and likely cannot) know some concrete content. By associating Bilbo and Gollum with Edwardian ideas of a little aboriginal people in the British Isles of whose language there are no discernible traces, Tolkien in his first hobbit story had injected a nameless quality into his chief character (and also Gollum). This was helpful in a story in which Bilbo played the role of the nameless who receives a name (in the form of a title: Bilbo the burglar), but hobbits as British aborigines served no purpose in a new story in which the nameless was found in the magic ring. Hobbits now became ‘English’ rather than ‘British’ (later connected to the Old English Rohirrim), while the idea of aboriginal persons in Middle-earth was redrawn as a mythical being titled eldest (Tom Bombadil and Treebeard).


Revolution of the index

As stated, the naming of the Necromancer brought the index of ‘The Fall of Númenor’ into play from almost the very first moment of composition of the sequel. As noted in an earlier post, around autumn 1938, as Tolkien reached Weathertop, the new (and hence the old) hobbit story was catapaulted from one side of time to another (‘The Fall of Númenor’ had introduced a cardinal distinction between a time of myth before the fall and a time of history after it, and prior to Weathertop the stories about hobbits were imagined as taking place in the days of myth). When Tolkien decided the fall of Númenor lay in the past of the story everything changed and the Third Age came into being. We may tentatively speak here of a revolution in the index of ‘The Fall of Númenor.’

But before this reimagination of the story of Númenor, in the very first days and weeks of beginning the sequel, there occurs what may safely be called a revolution in the index of The Hobbit. The original index starts to become the ghost index of the new story when the original mushroom, the nameless, is imagined as something that has an author.

Tolkien began not with a new riddle but with its solution. Behind the hidden qualities of a thing is a person because a person is what is hidden in a name.