Happily, I’m back to thinking again.
A few days ago I reported my discovery of the linguistic origin of the magic ring as the culmination of a research path that allows me to trace Tolkien’s reworking of his own ideas as he composed a sequel. And I reported, too, the monstrous lethargy that has accompanied the completion of a two-year line of research intended to frame the magic ring out of which the One Ring emerged.
Conducting this research has tired me out, prompting me to think hard about passages in books I would not normally open, such as J.S. Mill’s Logic (1843) and Otto Jespersen’s Philosophy of Grammar (1924). And this tiredness is one excuse for an inevitable failure of imagination. As always, I arrive looking backwards and so completely miss that I am now in a new place and might find it agreeable to look around. When I do, I once again bump into a dazed recognition of how much wiser and learned and cleverer Tolkien was than me.
I need to think on things more, but to give a couple of indications of the new view I should now ponder…
Because I now see The Hobbit as originally a storytelling exercise in applied linguistics I see that there are two stories to be told about Tolkien’s composure of a sequel. First, the development of ideas teased out of the writing and rewriting of the stories (Rateliff, Home volumes). This story includes the expansion of the sequel so it became also the sequel of ‘The Fall of Númenor’ and the slow discovery of the meaning of the One Ring.
Second, the linguistic ideas implicit in The Hobbit (1930-3) were rendered explicit (but also recast) in the (1939 lecture and then essay) On Fairy-stories.
Beginning to tell this second story requires bringing into focus certain elements of The Hobbit that I’ve put aside to draw the original magic ring. The magic ring is a material thing that is also a sign; a queer sign that makes the body of the hobbit invisible while showing others who he really is (what he – metaphorically – has inside him). This I have clear. But now I see that I cannot define what a sign is in the context of The Hobbit.
Part of how Tolkien plays us (readers of The Hobbit) is by asking us to say what a sign is. Runes look queer but are just letters, and moon letters are just queer runes, but a rune on an ancient sword is more than a mere letter, as I suspect is a rune that marks a secret entrance on a map. And the story begins with a queer sign that means burglar. So what part of the magic of the ring is in this queer magic of signs? I have to think on this…