A Copernican Revolution in story-vision

The post Genesis of the One Ring identified two seminal decisions made in the first week or weeks of composition of The Lord of the Rings:

(1) to place the magic ring at the center of the new story; which idea was soon followed by the idea that:

(2) the magic ring was made by the Necromancer. Two subsequent posts (here and here) outlined the significance of this second decision.

Knowing that it paved the way to introducing the Necromancer as the titular character of the new hobbit story, it is now time to look the first decision in the face.

Our starting point is the magic ring of The Hobbit (1937), revealed in previous posts (e.g. here) as a story-element with visible property (invisibility of body) and invisible property (visibility of character). It is the second property that is vital in understanding what happened when Tolkien made his first decision: a fairy-mirror was moved from side machinery to center stage and therefore its nature must be seen. Yet how to show what lay beneath its golden surface?

One cannot slip a magic ring into the pocket of a magic ring to reveal its hidden quality. The original magic ring has significance only when it is drawn together with a person it reflects. To reveal the hidden quality of the magic ring Tolkien therefore imagines a mirror image of the original relationship, which is to say that he enacts a ‘Copernican revolution’ in a philological inquiry into language by switching the subject and the object of story-vision. That which hitherto served to reveal fairy elements is now to be revealed as a thing in itself.

Immanuel Kant observed that Nicolaus Copernicus, astronomer of Krakow, had declared an end to attempts to calculate the heavenly motions by placing the earth at the center of the world system and announced that he would put the sun at the center and imagine that the earth moved around it. Kant proclaimed his Critique of Pure Reason a Copernican revolution in philosophy, by which he meant that, previous philosophers having circled the world of being and becoming and failed to grasp it, he would now circle the knowing subject and outline the conditions of our knowledge of being and becoming. This turn from the object to the subject of knowledge is the starting point of Kant’s ‘critical philosophy’ and the basis of the modern idea of ‘criticism’ (as in, e.g. ‘literary criticism’).

Max Müller, Oxford’s first Professor of Comparative Philology, was an ardent disciple of Kant (he translated the Critique of Pure Reason into English). Later Victorian comparative philology at Oxford was conducted in a philosophical language of self-consciousness derived from Kant. However, late Victorian Kantianism tended towards historicism, that is, the Oxford linguists set their philological research against some idea of the development of self-consciousness. This kind of historicism took its cue from Müller’s idea of mythology as a disease of language (an early moment when language bewitched the nascent human mind and the progress of self-consciousness went awry), was developed further by Archibald Sayce, Müller’s successor, and given a revised spin by Owen Barfield.

Tolkien is wholly free from this historicist form of Kantianism. The human mind (or soul), he is convinced, is in its broad nature always the same – there never was a time or place in which humans were mindless (Barfield) or confused frogs and princesses (Müller). But Tolkien was obviously aware of this side of the Oxford linguistic tradition, and it would be a mistake to assume that his thought is free of any strain of Kantian ideas. Rather, we can see in the very moment of genesis of The Lord of the Rings a Copernican revolution in storytelling and the inquiry into language that informed Tolkien’s art of storytelling.

What does this mean in practice? Firstly, there is the simple fact that a thing rather than a person is at the center of the story. This is a peculiarity of The Lord of the Rings as we know it, and we should recognise that Tolkien has engineered our uneasy sense throughout the story that the Ring has personhood and yet is an inanimate material object.

Secondly, the nature of the magic ring is to be revealed by way of the characters, or rather the character developments, of those who are drawn against it. The magic ring is still a fairy mirror, but we are to observe its character as it were in a mirror, that is, we may see it only indirectly by observing the people around it. This would ultimately lead to the fine character portraits of both Galadriel and Boromir (and several others), but in the first instance gave birth simultaneously (or so I believe) to the new Gollum and to Bingo Bolger-Baggins, the heir of Bilbo.

As soon as Tolkien had decided that the magic ring came from the Necromancer he appears to have begun imagining Bingo and reimagining Gollum as two opposing mirrors on the magic ring. Gollum is now declared an ancient hobbit, and a story soon told of how he found the magic ring (the birthday present story is a lie) and used it for sneaking and spying. By this point Bingo has already been introduced and his distinguishing characteristic is his taste for jokes and pranks – he uses the magic ring only in jest. The story that Tolkien imagined prior to Weathertop – what I have called the extended ghost index – thus reveals the nature of the magic ring by drawing two hobbits using it, with one path leading to a monstrous (but not wraith) existence and the other escaping the evil snare. (A key question for a later post is how this attempt to draw the hidden nature of the magic ring by looking simultaneously in two mirrors discovered that one of these mirrors – Bingo – did not quite add up.)

Thirdly, Tolkien imagined a new person who reflected the magic ring in a different way than did Bingo and Gollum: he who had made the magic ring, the Necromancer.

It is this imagination of the Necromancer as maker that marks the Copernican revolution in the story. Drawing the magic ring only through the mirrors of Bingo and Gollum simply continues the storytelling art of The Hobbit, in which the magic ring is drawn indirectly through the mirror of Bilbo. But the relationship of Necromancer to the magic ring is the same as that of magic ring to Bilbo – drop the magic ring in the pocket of Bilbo Baggins and we see who he is; slip the magic ring on to the finger of the Necromancer and we see what it is.

The Necromancer steps into the story the moment that Tolkien understands how a magic ring might be slipped into the pocket of the magic ring: a fairy mirror that reveals the hidden qualities of someone finds its own fairy mirror in the one who has made the mirror.

So much is contained in this move, and Tolkien by no means saw all of it at once. To look ahead, we see here the germs of the idea (first written in autumn 1939) that Sauron made the One Ring by placing his own spirit within it. We see also the germ of the idea of the Mirror of Galadriel, in which Tolkien imagines a fairy mirror that is not made by the Necromancer but is rather an instance of elvish art. We also see how this new mirror does not really reveal anything we did not know: the nature of the magic ring will be revealed when Sauron slips it on a remaining finger, at which point a second darkness covers all the world and the conditions of possibility of the story we are reading disappear. Ultimately, Sauron simply projects the nameless quality of the magic ring into a nameless threat of the end of all things – but the threat provides the premise and plot of the new story.

But before he became clear on any of this Tolkien had to think through the new story idea that the magic ring won by Bilbo from Gollum was made by a sorcerer who used the secrets of the hidden land of the dead to draw living people into and over the ill-defined border between humans and monsters…