The other door

The pictures of names and naming are all I really understand of this business. The philosophers have made queer remarks about language and it takes a philologist to see what they have been saying.

While logical analysis can be had on a kindle I do not see the philosophical discussion touch the philological. The biblical and literary images appropriated by the philosophers is discussed only in terms of their analytical discipline, philological erudition is hardly seen at the table. When you try to think of J.R.R. Tolkien thinking about the ideas of a proper name as set out by J.S. Mill and, quite differently by his godson B. Russell we suddenly glimpse a queer angle on what Tolkien was turning upside down and inside out with his story of first the hobbit and then some hobbits.

Bilbo Baggins began as an individual specimen of a genus, hobbits, hole-dwellers in the original sentence. Bilbo is the hobbit, the definite article. The sequel is intended as a story about some more hobbits, which simple ambition turned out to be a tall order requiring a lengthy story of many strands. In his story of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins shows us all sorts of meanings of names we likely never considered but his proper name is simply what it is.

To start at the point of contact, in his etymological note on the proper name (of an ancient Welsh godling) Nodens J.R.R. Tolkien tells a story that illustrates the veracity of Mill’s insight that a proper name is a ‘meaningless mark.’ Nodens was once a title, an adjectival sound whose meaning is discernible in surviving cognates as hunter or ensnarer but this meaning was lost in the Celtic tongue of the Forest of Dean, the proper name of this godling in the very ancient days was forgotten, and he became known by – his proper name became – Nodens.


‘You saw my unborn self‘ – Galmi, my gollem. (Psalms, A hymn of David to the Maker of Music)

The first names were spoken by God. After Adam named the animals God brought woman from out of this first human being (making him ‘man’?), and Adam named her Eve (Hava, life). Not long before Adam named the animals he was not Adam but unborn and himself unnamed, earth without the breath of life, a gollem.

The Hebrew gollem connects us in the womb with Adam, the first human being who is both man and woman. Tolkien’s Gollum is on the other side of life, an after life as even a proper name is lost. Gollum losing his birthday present – twice, once he dropped it and then he staked it on a game of riddles- is pictured by a philologist in the key chapter of The Hobbit, ‘Riddles in the Dark.’

At the bottom of J.R.R. Tolkien’s picture of naming is Gollum, who is the Hebrew gollem in a mirror – he is alone, himself, and nameless; not because he is yet to receive his first birthday present (the gollem before life) but because he has lost his friends, his family, and his birthday present. The Gollum is the gollem after life.

Bilbo Baggins finds and then wins the birthday present of this Gollum, a magic ring that makes you invisible. A burglar needs to vanish himself as well as the property he is taking. Why is it necessary to this story that the hobbit is a burglar? Answer: so he can step into a variation of a very old story about a dragon. But in the story of the Gollum, the losing of the magic ring is a philologist’s picture of an individual becoming extinct.

When the hobbit is recruited as the burglar in the first chapter in Bag-end it is evident the author means him to play the role of the nameless thief in a detail of the Old English BeowulfThe turning point in the story that allows Bilbo Baggins to become the nameless burglar of a dragon’s horde is the game of riddles played under the mountain with Gollum in the dark. A riddle consists of definite descriptions, metaphorical and literal mixed together, and concludes with the challenge: Say what I am called? 

All in mail, never clinking: fish.

So analyzed, the riddle captures Tolkien’s vision of the relationship in language between descriptive titles and proper names.

The answer that wins the riddle competition is the magic ring (in the first edition, at least). Gollum’s birthday present passes on and becomes the property of Bilbo Baggins; but while ownership (‘my ring’) became indeterminate when Bilbo’s question to himself aloud was taken as a riddle by Gollum (whose stake is the ring), other definite descriptions (like: a gold ring) would have answered the question.



Wittgenstein does not seem to have cared about the original meaning of the detail of Genesis so much as the limitation imposed on our understanding by a picture of naming what is immediately present – it is not false, he now observes, but occludes all sorts of other acts of naming that are in no way obscure to our ordinary lives.

Our video series on The Hobbit attempted an internal explanation of the linguistic magic of the story, which because self-referential are really only visible to readers when set apart. I now begin the laborious business of working a language of inquiry out of a literature. I need to place the vision within an external references for it to become clear. Unfortunately, what presents itself is the origin of analytical philosophy. For those prepared to chew such an abstract cud, here are my two working hypotheses:

(i) a key to The Hobbit is found in the logical English tradition from J.S. Mill to Bertrand Russell, and (ii) Ludwig Wittgenstein’s mature reappraisal of Russell’s analysis is a key to On Fairy-stories.

I assume , Tolkien in Oxford conversations heard talk of the peculiar logical analysis of language that went on in Cambridge (Collingwood gave the name ‘analytical philosopher’). He then discerned the shape of Cambridge logical analysis from Otto Jespersen’s Philosophy of Grammar (1924).

suggest Tolkien understood from Jespersen sufficiently to see the word magic achieved in Russell’s logical analysis of a proper name, as his godfather’s before him. This is an extensive claim and must be demonstrated with painstaking care, and this page will bear many revisions before its work is done. I begin by framing two pictures of naming found in ‘literature’ by two English philosophers that I will then compare with the various pictures of naming of The Hobbit.

Edit: I’m putting this aside after a first write-up. Extensive pruning is required but the argument of the page can now be put like this: my comparison works to read the first picture of naming in The Hobbitthe queer sign on the door of Bag-end, in light of both doors in the story of Ali Baba.

Picture 1: Morgiana of 1001 Nights

The chalk-mark on Ali Baba’s door was invoked by the Victorian liberal moralist, J.S. Mill (who, in an introductory chapter on names in his Logic of 1843, characteristically and consistently describes it as a mark on a house).

Mill says all names are marks and distinguishes proper from common names. Where common names (nouns) denote a class of objects and connote a property, proper names merely denote one object (or person).

Mill says that, like a proper name, the robber’s mark only denotes – both are meaningless marks and we do something analogous to the robber chalking the mark when we ‘impose a proper name.’*

The metaphor as Mill sees is not obvious as it is fashioned of his peculiar views about reality. In his mind, the detail of a story provides a metaphor because the house itself is marked, while in real acts of naming what is marked is rather the idea of the house – naming, says Mill, is the making of a purely mental mark.

Mill naturally mentions Morgiana defeating the mark by chalking it also on the neighboring houses (as shown in the picture), and I think her inference of mischief and remedy a key to Mill’s fascination with this detail of 1001 Nights. But he has his eye also on the characterization of Body and Mind he will turn to in a few pages and, I suggest, already has in mind a quite distinct metaphor, in which a house is said to be the soul of the body. But if this is all clear in his mind Mill’s exposition is lacking and his basic mirror of naming – the robber marking the house – is muddied. Just to begin with, a reader is readily confused as to whether the object names is the house (as Mill says) or its occupant (which he is happy to suggest).

Without the explanation of the meaning of the sign given the following day it would be unclear to us if the mark that Gandalf scratches on the door of Bag-end meant something about the door, the hobbit-hole behind it, or the hobbit who lives in it. If we read the story of the robber’s mark as an act of naming we may be forgiven for assuming that the proper name in question is that of Ali Baba, but actually Mill is explicit that what the robber names is the house; it is as if he means Bag-end rather than Bilbo Baggins.

I think what appealed to Mill about this metaphor from the tale of Ali Baba was not only its ready redeployment in the city he walked through twice a day on his way to and from work at the East India Office (on which walks he is said to have thought through the arguments of his Logic). What captured his imagination was the suggestion conveyed with peculiar force in this part of the story of inference – we almost unconsciously associate the house with its occupant, and Mill was obliquely pointing this out. But he never spelled this point out and the subsequent commentary on this passage is a babel until Mill’s godson, Bertrand Russell, changed the picture.


There is no mystery as to why Russell clarifies Mill’s account of proper names but never mentions Mill’s picture of the mark on the door. Russell was intervening within a new discipline of professional philosophy (semi-autonomous of ‘moral science’), a major embryonic concern of which in the late 19th century had been the reality of fictional characters, things, and worlds. Russell was keen to eject all fictions from the science of logic and so would have rejected Mill’s fairy-story analogy outright.

Yet here is something peculiar. Russell in his early logical phase insists that Hamlet exists as fact only in our minds, and in his later more popular writings he professes a radical irreligion in the spirit of his godfather. And so we would assume no fairy-tale elements, least of all a biblical picture, will be found in Russell’s writings. And yet…

Ludwig Wittgenstein: studied with Russell between 1912 and 1914. Already in 1912 Russell looked to the young Austrian as his heir apparent, and names him in the first paragraph of Lectures on Logical Atomism (1918) as the source of his new analytical philosophy (of whom he has neither seen nor heard in four years). Fighting on the Eastern front, a prisoner of war in Italy, living alone by a fjord in Norway, by 1919 Wittgenstein had put together his own, hauntingly austere logical philosophy, the Tractatus Logicus-Philosophicus. Having solved the problems of philosophy, Wittgenstein went his own way for a while, but was induced to return to Cambridge in 1926(?) once he recognized a hole in the Tractatus.

In his later writings, Wittgenstein declared of his younger self and his teacher Russell: a picture held us captive. The picture he has in mind is disclosed in the following key passage of Russell’s 1918 lectures on logical atomism:

The names that we commonly use, like ‘Socrates’, are really abbreviations for descriptions; not only that, but what they describe are not particulars but complicated systems of classes or series. A name, in the narrow logical sense of a word whose meaning is a particular, can only be applied to a particular with which the speaker is acquainted, because you cannot name anything you are not acquainted with. You remember, when Adam named the beasts, they came before him one by one, and he became acquainted with them and named them. We are not acquainted with Socrates, and therefore cannot name him. (p. 29; emphasis added)

We are obliged to Wittgenstein for highlighting the picture that has replaced the house of Ali Baba as Russell’s model of naming. The first paragraph of Philosophical Investigations, the first posthumous volume of Wittgenstein’s later writings, quotes from Saint Augustine, who draws a related picture as he tells how his elders taught him to speak by gesturing to an object and speaking its name. Wittgenstein says (in translation) that, in those halcyon days before the war, he and Russell were bewitched by this picture of naming.

Picture 2: Adam names the animals presented to him by God.

According to this biblical picture of naming, in which Augustine says he learned names of the kind that Adam (more miraculously) conjured, we can – as Russell spells it out – only name what we are acquainted with. But as it makes dubious sense to be acquainted with the person inside the house, so to speak, this entails that the only proper names, properly used, are this and perhaps that.

The result is a paradox, which is what Russell thought the logician should be chasing. When we say a proper name we actually mean something else.


There is a twist between Mill and Russell. Russell clarifies what Mill is talking about, showing the sense of his idea of names that have no meaning but showing also that what are ordinarily called proper names are not logically so but rather are words (or marks) meant in the mind as abbreviated descriptions. So when you say John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, or Bilbo Baggins you in each case have in mind some one or other definite description of the person concerned. The acceptance of a ‘meaningless mark’ remains, as also the idea that this is a proper name, but Russell concludes that what we call ‘proper names’ are not.

Russell lacks Tolkien’s philological sense of how proper names are born of definite descriptions and simply juxtaposes proper names and titles as logical opposites. In this he follows his godfather’s opposition between purely denotative proper names and common names that denote and connote a quality or property of the noted object. Tolkien sees that titles and proper names belong together, that a person, in the old stories at least, often receives both together as a name, and that common names may become proper names by one process or another.

Curiously, when one reads the stories that Mill and then Russell invoke as a philologist, as Tolkien would have read them, their philosophical insights come to life. What Tolkien might hail as a title Russell calls a definite description, his idea of which is curiously illustrated in the picture he invokes.

Edit: I think my reading of the meaning of the Hebrew is a bit askew, as in it seems that the common name (a descriptive title) man is derived from the proper name that God imposed upon the first human being, and furthermore, the usual common name that means ‘human being’ is bnei-adam, son of Adam. I do not at present understand this.

 וַיָּבֵא֙ אֶל־הָ֣אָדָ֔ם לִרְא֖וֹת מַה־יִּקְרָא־ל֑וֹ וְכֹל֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִקְרָא־ל֧וֹ הָֽאָדָ֛ם נֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּ֖ה ה֥וּא שְׁמֽוֹ׃

and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.

Adam is an English translation, an action that has rendered a definite description in the Hebrew an English proper name (and so even today is given to newborn boys). The Hebrew word (the third, starting from the right, immediately following the hyphen) is pronounced ha-adam, where ha is the definite article, adam is ‘man,’ and the composite word means ‘the man’ (you could replace ‘man’ with ‘human’ as Eve has yet to appear, but ‘the man’ and ‘a man’ echo Tolkien’s allegory of Beowulf).

Russell’s logical juxtaposition proves an etymological key. The philologist employs the conceptual contrast between (meaningless) proper name and (meaningful) title and watches ‘the man’ become the proper name Adam (as elsewhere he saw ‘the hunter’ become Nodens, albeit by linguistic decay rather than translation*). The original proper name of Genesis was a definite description (not an abbreviated description but the original – and so complete – definite description). And just as Mill would have it, once the descriptive meaning was lost in translation, ha-adam became a proper name, the English Adam.

(Russell’s logical analysis opens the possibility that the names he gave the beasts were also definite descriptions, the meaning of which has also been lost.)

The two English philosophers, Mill and Russell, apparently saw none of this philology yet arrived at distinctions in language that opened a door on great historical insight into what language actually is and does in the world.

Traditional commentary on this line of Genesis acknowledges that something strange is going on and suggests that the man did not so much assign an arbitrary name to each beast as discern the correct, ‘true’ name that already belonged to it. The contrast of invention with discovery is mirrored in Wittgenstein’s late realization that, while he and Russell had believed they were discovering the shape of reality, in reality they had been inventing another language (a quite peculiar language, imagined as spoken by beings with no imagined context, namely, Cambridge logicians).

Russell confused his names with those of Adam, thought his own perfect language might touch reality, and so confused his invention for a discovery. Wittgenstein came to consider this confusion a case of bewitchment, with language itself – somehow – suggesting the picture in Genesis. I think Tolkien might have agreed with this, but On Fairy-stories is the manifesto of one who holds such fantasies of value.

Wittgenstein spent the rest of his life struggling against the bewitchment of language, while Tolkien first put Russell’s analytical method into a story and then dedicated a decade or two to working out what it really meant.


So, what is the story of Bilbo Baggins to the two pictures of the two English philosophers: the marking of Ali Baba’s door and Adam naming the animals?

Well, it is a story and not a picture. The two logicians no doubt selected a detail from profound consideration of the story as a whole. But subsequent professional discussion invariably lost sight of the story, generating a strangely emasculated or contextless reading of each picture, increasingly divorced from the most basic philological reading of the same detail.

Tolkien supplies an entirely original story to make his point. His story is strung out of a series of pictures, snapshots of naming, if you will, and because it is a story it is not beholden to the analytical logic of Cambridge philosophy but to the limits of our credulity, our ability to see when the wool is being pulled over our eyes (sometimes). Tolkien gives context to a fiercely abstract analysis of naming, and with such genius that we have no trouble following what is going on…

Tolkien liked to tell how the first sentence of The Hobbit was spontaneously written some years before he wrote the first chapter, which latter event John Rateliff dates to summer 1930. Here JRRT sets out a plot that will combine a detail of Beowulf and the two doors of Ali Baba’s tale but begins with an act of naming reminiscent of Adam in the Garden of Eden – only what is imposed, by way of a scratch on the door after the wizard looks uncomfortably long and hard at the hobbit, is a title, or rather, a trade sign of a burglar for hire.

This opening scene, which culminates with the wizard marking the door of the hobbit-hole, at first sight meets Russell’s criteria of acquaintance; Gandalf is surely in a position to assign a name to this hobbit. He not only looks long and hard at Bilbo with his wizard’s eye (which surely acquaints him sufficiently with what he needs to know), but is introduced to us as an old friend of Bilbo’s grandfather, the Old Took across the water, and declares himself in conversation with the Old Took’s grandson a friend of Belladonna Took, whose proper name became Mrs. Bungo Baggins.

But Gandalf does not mean the proper name of this hobbit when he marks his door. This opening picture of naming – a wizard marking a door – shows a use of written signs of a completely different order than the robber marking of the door of Ali Baba. It is more  like the picture that held Russell captive, encompassing the Rabbinical suggestion that Adam was recalling or discovering names that already belonged to these animals.

Actually, while Gloin the dwarf explains that, to those in the trade, the mark means ‘Burglar for hire’, there is no reason to suppose that this is the definitive reading of the wizard’s mark on the Bag-end front door. Indeed, given Tolkien’s penchant for correcting the OED it is not hard to imagine him introducing Gloin’s dictionary definition as another piece of mischief…

As with any discussion of the two doors of Ali Baba’s story as they are remade in ‘An Unexpected-party’, the act of naming by which the wizard Gandalf begins the story is not to be understood outside the context of the whole story, and as such all other elements – so here, we may perhaps say, while Gandalf may appear to imitate Adam in naming what is before his eyes, what his mark on the door does is what this particular word was meant to do, namely open a door (in this case the door of a hobbit hole, as opposed to the door of Beorn or the other hidden door, not to the Lonely Mountain but to the cave where the robbers of the Arabian Nights guard their stolen treasure). Wittgenstein tells us in his later writings to look at how language is used and so escape the pictures that language imposes on us and bewitch our minds; Tolkien with his story presents us what Wittgenstein might call a language game. But this language game is made in the mirror of the bewitching picture.


It would no doubt be easier to convince died-in-the-wool Tolkien fanatics to lend an ear to these ruminations than a professional philosopher. Perhaps it was Russell who introduced their habit of naming dead Greeks rather than hobbits and elves in their discussions, but the professional logicians seem always to steer clear of overt fantasy. For an avid traveler in Middle-earth, by contrast, it is understood that elves had a lot of time on their hands and if the greatest of craftsman made alphabetical letters it perhaps stands to reason that others, lesser than he perhaps, analyzed the expression of their language with the aid of invented symbolic notations and drew conclusions akin to those of Russell.

And with this association between elves and Cambridge philosophers in mind we may open the first pages of The Hobbit

The following is more of a taste. The next step is to sit down again with the first chapter and read…

‘Yes, yes, my dear Sir!’ Gandalf informs Bilbo Baggins that he does know his name but has forgotten that he belongs to it:  Gandalf means me!”  The wizard could make a case before Bertrand Russell that he means by ‘Gandalf’ a proper name. The hobbit could not, and naturally responds with a string of definite descriptions that tell us what ‘Gandalf’ means to him: “the wandering wizard that gave Old Took a pair of magic diamond studs… the fellow who used to tell such wonderful tales at parties… the man that used to make such particularly excellent fireworks!” (15).

And then the wizard scratches the sign on the door that the dwarf reads the next day as (abbreviated) ‘burglar for hire.’ This act of naming fuses the two pictures of the two philosophers: the wizard acts with the power of Adam when, by marking a door, he bestows a name. But recalling Russell’s picture of Adam naming the kinds of animals, this mark does not mean the hobbit. Nor, recalling Mill’s picture, does it mean Bag-end nor (although one might demur) Bilbo Baggins.

So what does this act of naming that commences a story do? An in-story meaning (a Middle-earth dictionary definition) is given by Gloin: (just as the mark on Ali Baba’s door may quite credibly be read, it means burglar – it is ‘the thief’s mark’ (UT). But as already noted, the helpful provision of a dictionary definition by a dwarf should perhaps be considered in the light of Greeks bearing gifts – another prop in Tolkien’s ever so cunning crafting of a context for Russell’s contextless analysis. What the later Wittgenstein might have said is: forget the dictionary and look at what this instance of written language does.

Their chief in low, but distinct voice uttered the two words "open sesame".
The other door

And the answer is that it recalls the other door of the story of Ali Baba; the hidden door to treasure that opens to a spoken command. This is a written version of the same kind of word,  a password that opens the story, a word but not employed according to its dictionary definition (the queer sign has the same meaning as your internet password and open sesame!  – the sign on the door is analogous to the articulated story of their adventure that Gandalf tells Beorn to open his door to thirteen dwarves plus a wizard and a hobbit). In contrast to the philosophers who discussed Ali Baba’s marked door after Mill without proper reference to the story of Ali Baba Tolkien shows how the meaning of this mark on one door of the story opens up the meaning of the other.

The author of The Hobbit supplies his own pictures of the meaning of a sign, most notably in the key that comes with a map that (by hidden letters) provides operating instructions – how to use the key to open the door. Gandalf has his own operating instructions and does not need a map to gain entry into Bag-end, but his mark helps introduce the dwarves as visitors into the hole of Bilbo Baggins. His title, as many other of his story elements, presents a name without operating instructions, demonstrating its meaning in the actual story of a hobbit – and this analysis divorced from context makes the word magic of the story.


* Tolkien’s etymology of Nodens gives an historical instantiation of Mill’s claim that a proper name has no meaning (it denotes but does not connote). Nodens was once a title, says Tolkien, but as this particular word became archaic and ultimately disappeared from the Celtic spoken in the Forest of Dean so the original (or previous) proper name of this godling was lost and the old title became – a now meaningless – proper name (it denoted the godling but said nothing of his character or qualities.

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