Magic ring

Consider this apparent paradox in the story of Bilbo Baggins. In the first chapter, a wizard scratches a “queer sign” on his front door that the next day tells thirteen dwarves this is the home of the burglar they are looking for. On seeing Bilbo, the dwarves are skeptical, and it takes Gandalf’s authority to convince them to take his word on the matter. After he has vanished in the goblin tunnels and then reappeared, however, the dwarves see that the wizard had spoken true, for they now recognize Bilbo as “a first-class burglar” (Hobbit 99).

Now, between entering inadvertently and exiting the goblin tunnels Bilbo found (and in the original story, won) a magic ring of invisibility. Such a ring is a distinctive tool of the trade of a fairy-story burglar, and as such a material equivalent of the queer sign scratched on Bilbo’s front door (Hobbit 16).

Yet the magic ring remains a secret in Bilbo’s pocket until Mirkwood. So, the dwarves do not change their attitude to Gandalf’s naming of Bilbo a burglar because they are now shown a golden thing that backs up his queer sign, but simply because they now see in this hobbit what a wizard’s eye had discerned from the first.

In the original story (for the riddle game was revised in the second edition and the spirit of Sauron entered where it never was before) this paradox is underscored by the strange way the magic ring becomes Bilbo the hobbit’s (essential) property. When he encounters Gollum, the monster’s lost ring is in the pocket of the hobbit. But Gollum proposes a riddle competition and names his stake his “present,” by which he means the “birthday present” he does not know he has already lost. When Bilbo asks what is in his pocket, and Gollum fails to guess, Bilbo therefore wins the magic ring (although he does not know it).  Hence, burglary is one thing Bilbo does not do before the dwarves recognize him as a burglar.

The paradox points to the dual functions of the magic ring in the story. On the one hand, its named attribute: (bodily) invisibility; on the other, an attribute never named only shown: the magic ring makes a hobbit more recognizably himself.

The magic ring’s unnamed property turns on a special relationship between ring and hobbit. To begin with, the invisibility it bestows simply amplifies the ordinary vanishing magic that, in the first pages of the story, the narrator had told us is possessed by all hobbits (Hobbit 12). But as soon as it is in his pocket, Bilbo comes into a peculiar kind of luck such that he unintentionally finds the right words – not only asking the question that wins the riddle game but also by chance hitting on the answers to two of Gollum’s dark and difficult riddles. The luck Bilbo picks up with the ring is of that valuable kind that allows you to be yourself and get away with it.

Note that the magic ring does not itself give a hobbit the name of a burglar. Both his essential qualities – vanishing and luck – are no doubt prerequisites of a successful burglar, but they do not make Bilbo a burglar. What the dwarves recognize is not an essential burglarious quality in the hobbit, but rather that he has it in him to play the role of burglar that Gandalf at the start of the story assigns to him.

We see here in full the theory of names in relation to titles and stories latent in the 1932 etymological note on Nodens. The theory answers the question: What is the name of the nameless?

The answer: a story-title hung on a hidden quality revealed by the story.

Recall that Gandalf has a hat, the dwarves hoods, but Bilbo runs out of Bag-End bareheaded. We may say that the magic ring reveals an invisible peg discovered in Bilbo’s character on which the dwarves hang the hat that Gandalf gave them. The magic ring is a sort of fairy-story microscope, the function of which is to provide what we might title story-vision, revealing to us the essential quality of the nameless on which any attribution of a title must rest. The magic ring, in other words, shows in an instant what it would take those of us who are not wizards most of a story to see.

This theory was turned inside out when Tolkien began on a sequel some five years after completing it – a strange revolution of a name.