The Necromancer: sex & the magic ring

In the last days of 1937, or the first of 1938, Tolkien decided the magic ring won from Gollum had been made by the Necromancer. The name was loaded with significance. In the first instance, the Necromancer stepped out of a passing reference in The Hobbit. On the edge of Mirkwood, Bilbo asks if another path might be taken. Gandalf replies that the road south leads:

into the land of the Necromancer; and even you, Bilbo, won’t need me to tell you tales of that black sorcerer. I don’t advise you to go anywhere near the places overlooked by his dark tower! (Hobbit 145)

John Rateliff (81-4) observes that when Tolkien composed Bilbo’s adventure he was still working on ‘The Lay of Leithian,’ which features Thû, aka Sauron:

[A] necromancer [who] held his hosts of phantoms and of wandering ghosts, of misbegotten or spell-wronged monsters… working his bidding dark and vile. (Lays 273)

This poetic picture of Sauron the Necromancer as lord of misbegotten monsters was itself derived from Tolkien’s reconstruction of ancient English mythology through his reading of Beowulf. The Old English word for a necromancer is helrúnwhich appears in plural form in these lines referring to the ogre Grendel:

deorc déaþscua,      duguþe ond geogoþe,
seomade ond syrede;      sinnihte héold
mistige móras;       men ne cunnon,
hwyder helrúnan      hwyrftum scríþað. (Beowulf lines 160-3; Klaeber 7)

…a dark shadow of death, lurking, lying in wait, in long night keeping the misty moors: men know not whither sorcerers of hell in their wanderings roam. (Tolkien’s translation, Beowulf T&C 17)

The Old English helrún, explains Tolkien, is a compound of two elements:

hell: an ancient Germanic word, “ultimately related to helan ‘conceal’” (Beowulf T&C 167), meaning “the ‘hidden land’ of all the dead” (Beowulf T&C 298).

rún: secret. 

A necromancer is one who knows the secrets of the realm of the dead. Such knowledge includes the ways taken by the sorcerers of hell who in the long nights roam out of bounds and out of knowledge of the human community. Such sorcerers include Grendel, who has a touch of magic and a mother who is also a monster, but also humans who practice black magic and in doing so leave the human community, or are expelled from it. Between the demonic monsters and the human-born magicians there was in the ancient English mythology, says Tolkien, “an ill-defined border” (Beowulf T&C 168). The secrets of hell that are the foundation of necromancy concern the various ways in which this border may be traversed.

Evidently, the ancient English believed that sexual coupling between humans and monsters was possible, profoundly wrong, and capable of generating both monstrous and human offspring. After noting an old Gothic story about witches expelled from the camp who consort with evil spirits in the waste land and so conceive the monstrous race of the Huns, Tolkien suggests:

[It is] more than likely that dark ancient legends, concerning the origin of imagined evil beings, and of actual outlaw-folk and hated enemies of alien race, were associated in pagan Old English with the ancient word helrún (Beowulf T&C 168-9).

Just this thought informs Tolkien’s reading of the claim in Beowulf that all the northern monsters are descended from Cain, the biblical fracticide cast out by God from the human community:

þanon untýdras      ealle onwócon,
eotenas ond ylfe      ond orcnéäs,
swylce gígantas,      þá wið Gode wunnon (Beowulf lines 111-13; Klaeber 5)

Of him [Cain] all evil broods were born, ogres and goblins and haunting shapes of hell, and the giants too, that long time warred with God. (Tolkien’s translation, Beowulf T&C 16)

Tolkien sees that when the Anglo-Saxon poet heard the Latin story of the Book of Genesis he understood that Cain, like the witches, had sexual intercourse with monsters – in his case the daughters of the giants mentioned in the Book of Genesis.

So, human-monster sex may generate (loathsome) humans or monsters, and the poet at least thought an ultimate human paternity of all monsters quite credible. Thus, the border between human and monster is “ill-defined” because humans may become monsters, because monsters are by birth partly human, and because in dark nights on the blasted heaths of no-man’s land human outcasts and monsters engage in carnal coupling. The helrún may be monster or human or both, but whatever the face of such a necromancer, he or she is a denizen of an ill-defined border zone in which generation is monstrous.

Yet monstrous sex is only one part of the secret lore of the helrúnan. Recall two of Tolkien’s translations: the helrúnan are sorcerers of hell, but (in the list of Cain’s progeny) orcnéäs are haunting shapes of hell. Of orcnéäs, Tolkien says:

Necromancy will suggest something of the horrible associations of this word. I think that what is here meant is that terrible northern imagination to which I have ventured to give the name ‘barrow-wights.’ The ‘undead.’ Those dreadful creatures that inhabit tombs and mounds. (Beowulf T&C 163)

Thus, the magician of the land of the dead commands the haunting shapes of that land: helrún = a sorcerer of hell = a necromancer, commands an orcnéäs = a haunting shape of hell = a barrow-wight.

Now, the same early page of notes that introduces the Necromancer as the maker of the magic ring also alludes to adventures to come in the Old Forest, with Tom Bombadil, and with barrow-wights. Furthermore, Tolkien initially made no distinction between wights and wraiths, taking the Ringwraiths to be barrow-wights. In other words, when Tolkien first names the Necromancer in his first page of notes for his new hobbit story he evidently has in mind the idea that the magic ring may turn a living hobbit into a haunting shape of hell under the control of a helrún, a sorcerer of the hidden realm of the dead, the Necromancer.

What becomes clear from all this is that: (a) the idea of the Necromancer commanding a host of misbegotten and spell-wronged monsters was already present in Tolkien’s mind in the late 1920s as he composed ‘The Lay of Leithian,’ and (b) the moment the magic ring was imagined as made by the Necromancer Tolkien resolved that his sequel to The Hobbit would chart the process of such undead (as opposed to sexual) generation of monsters. The magic ring now became an instrument of necromancy, designed to take a living person as raw materials and make of him an undead monstrous slave by drawing him into and over the other side of the ill-defined border between humans and monsters.

With the benefit of hindsight we can say that Tolkien was biting off more than he realized at the time. In his 1936 British Academy lecture he had identified the genesis of the monsters from Cain as a point of fusion between the new religion of the book and the ancient native oral traditions. But further inquiry into the meaning of the ancient English idea of necromancy by way of composition of the new story would bring Tolkien face to face with theological questions about the nature of the eternal soul and its relationship to northern ideas of immortality that demanded a different sort of fusion. On Fairy-stories is in fact a statement of a fusion of Christianity and northern mythology of a different kind to that found in Beowulf and as such marks the paths by which The Lord of the Rings became a different kind of fairy story than Beowulf.

And this is simply to unpack the significance of the Necromancer as this name emerged out of the stories of the late 1920s and lectures on Beowulf of the 1930s. In the next post I turn to the role assigned to Sauron the Necromancer in the 1936 story ‘The Fall of Númenor’ and the relationship of this final tale of the elves to the first phase of composition of the new hobbit story.