Magic Ring

‘Magic ring’ is a remix of our original ‘Rescuing The Hobbit’ series, boiled down into 4 ten-minute episodes:

  1. Blindfolded cobbler
  2. Beorn’s house
  3. an aboriginal riddle
  4. magic ring

These four episodes follow three threads and one stitch that drew a magic ring out of the first sentence of The Hobbit

* * *

  1. Blindfolded cobbler

Abstract: a hobbit in a hole is discovered in a sentence and then named in a story. Teasing out the maps reveals the queer plot of a story of naming drawn out of a magic ring.

This episode introduces the ‘code’ of The Hobbit. Google ‘map of Hobbit’ and maps of LOTR turn up because there is no one map in the original story, which is conceived around a weird discontinuity either side of the mountains, illuminated by Tolkien’s contrast of ‘The Hill’, his illustrated map of Bag-end under the hill, and the annotated ‘Map of Thror’ unfurled by Gandalf to turn the unexpected party to his preposterous plan of a literary burglary. The ‘hidden code’ of The Hobbit is an operation that turns Bilbo Baggins inside out within his own story – a sign of this operation appears when it happens: a magic ring never clearly seen and doubly hidden after the riddle game was revised in the later editions.

Remix built around juxtapositions of these visual elements:

(i) blindfolded cobbler outside the door (Gandalf has looked long and hard at the hobbit and pointed, but a mark is not yet drawn: what should the robber do?).

(ii) eggs and Alice verticals and horizontals: generate both the Hill and the tunnel out of the Alice-flatland ground and drop into hole; but also identify the fulcrum of the first and second hobbit stories: the vertical drop to the root of the mountain: Gollum and Balrog.

(iii) kino-eye map, the storyteller of Ali Baba winks to his audience: map of Thror and the map of the Hill.

(iv) First door of Ali Baba. Drawing 1: hole -> door -> sign (on, off); this door that is marked with a patterer sign, banged off the next day. This imagination is fixed by Tolkien in his drawing, ‘The Hill’.

(v) Second door of Ali Baba. The Hill morphs into Drawing 2: ‘Map of Thror’: D-rune –> door –> hole.

(vi) Queer sign <>; patterer mark: Bone, bene? Marked by wizard (no cobbler nor robber)  on the visible outer signs of the hobbit: Bag-end front-door. The hidden door is visible when it opens (wink). The queer sign on the hobbit-hole door connects the two doors by announcing a preposterous non-plan of a literary burglary. <> makes the story of a journey into the queer land on a map.

(vi) magic ring as fulcrum between The Hill and Map of Thror: Bilbo’s and our point of entry inside the map.

(vii)  Holdor. Digression exploiting G.R.R. Martin’s fine reading of two hobbit stories as revealed in a couple of his narrative arcs (the other: a dark room containing two swords, a nameless girl, and Arya Stark: Gollum wins the riddle game and keeps his birthday present). Holdor is a flight to Sam in Mordor and then Gandalf’s end in Moria.



Drawing begins: Wearing no shoes, this hobbit is nevertheless respectable. His hole is hidden, the entrance closed by a round, green door.

The action of the story begins on a Tuesday morning, when the hobbit outside his hole talks with a wizard who, after the hobbit has scuttled inside, scratches a queer sign <>, on his door (a sign visible for a little over a day – when he calls on the Wednesday the wizard knocks the sign off the door, leaving a dent).

<> is read in relation to two other signs. On the Wednesday, a dwarf reads the sign burglar, or expert treasure-hunter seeks work, and the wizard unfurls a map of the Lonely Mountain on which a secret door is marked by an Anglo-Saxon D-rune. The three signs form a proposition for the hobbit: Bilbo Baggins is invited to join the company and cross the wild to burgle the hole marked by the hidden door marked by the rune.

The signs of the story are making meaning in conjunction. Together, <> on door and D-rune on map point to a peculiar border of visibility at the edge of the wild. At Rivendell, a house in the ground, invisible signs – moon letters – are discovered on the map. D-rune and moon letters together provide what invisibility takes away: location and dimension of the hidden sign (a door) of a hole. Smaug’s hole is imagined as the hobbit-hole on the other side of visibility, a world found only in signs.

Cf. Alice through a looking-glass. The Hobbit is a story turned inside-out around the point at which visibility is only by sign: a riddle in the dark. But in contrast to Lewis Carroll, Tolkien keeps quiet about his journey to ‘another side’; the magical art of The Hobbit is brought to its finest expression in the enchantment woven in the two nights following the riddle game: a dream of his own house when a guest of the eagles, and awake listening to the nightly noises at the house of Beorn (a sequence astonishingly worked up, but with heavier touch in the dream sequence of Crickhollow (elves) and the house of Bombadil).

Alice steps through a looking glass but Bilbo Baggins steps into a queer folktale of Beowulf, which is the backdrop to the second part of his own story once he finds a magic ring. Now he can become invisible at will, so fitting with the signs and the doors and the holes on ‘map-land’  on the other side of the wild. This turning-point in the story of Bilbo’s professional career receives its own sign – the sign of the story, a magic ring, also imagined out of the mark on Ali Baba’s door.

So reading this sign in three different ways, and then once again, generates this hobbit’s story, an act of naming to meet dictionary standards.

(i) Drawing a sentencehole, door, sign. A sentence about a hobbit who lived in a hole in the ground appeared to Tolkien. He first drew the hole, then put a door on the hole, then made a mark on the door.

The mark on the door appears in two forms in the first chapter: <> and D-rune; the wizard’s sign literally marks the hobbit’s door, the map shows how a sign can travel far from what it signifies. Bilbo Baggins steps through the map when he pockets the magic ring – he can now become invisible at will and will watch the hidden door open.

O. the magic ring is the sign of a doorless hole in a map, through which Bilbo Baggins steps out of his hobbit-hole and into the hall of Beorn on his way to the hidden door marked by the D rune. This sign mediates the two marked doors on either side of the Wild, allowing Bilbo Baggins to step inside his own story, and become invisible within it.


(ii) DigressionHoldor (Moria).

(iii) Maps. From Ali Baba’s mark, a staple of the Victorian philosophy of proper names, Tolkien named elements of his story:

D. Tolkien said he drew the map of Thror between composing the first and second sentences of the story. This map of the hidden door accompanies the map that is also an illustration of The Hill. Both maps, I argue, were inspired by the hint of his own map dropped by the storyteller of ‘Ali Baba’, who tells of robbers who identify with an (almost) unmediated mark (on the property, if not the person of Ali Baba) – and so give their game away. The dwarves show the robbers how to mark a door: the map of Thror marks a hidden door with a rune: D.

But this D rune on a map is read the day after the wizard has echoed the robbers and scratched an actual sign on the hobbit’s door: <>

b. <> is a patterer mark, of the kind revealed by Henry Mayhew and embellished by J.S. Hotton. Tolkien seems to have taken bone (Italian bene?)<> and rendered it: burglar.

c. J.S. Mill (see map), who introduced the robbers’ mark to Victorian moral philosophy, declared the mark meaningless and as such analogous to a proper name. But the robbers do not know the proper name of Ali Baba, so this mark, which fulfills the requirements of the Old English Beowulf that the thief in the barrow be nameless, is won by the hobbit from Gollum, a nameless man. O

<d> O. is also read by Tolkien as a proper name as understood in more recent philosophy of naming: an abbreviated description of all a person or thing’s attributes, along the lines of the riddling-titles Bilbo gives to Smaug on the dragon’s request for a name. As such, the magic ring is a sign of who the hobbit is, alone, himself, and namelessss – but, as such, it is a sign that can be neither read nor spoken.

With <d> we have the magic trick of a story pulled out of a sentence: the culmination of this passage reveals a hobbit inside the hole, marked by his sign on his door – a dictionary definition, achieved by sending the hobbit to meet his own sign. (Behind the mirror: a riddle has more than one answer and a word more than one meaning – to discover either draw the context – in this case, the passage of Victorian to modern ideas of proper names.)

But now we need to watch O in action, as it spells the enchantment of the story – a passage into a queer folktale version of Beowulf by way of the hall of Beorn. (What is missed entirely in old episode 3 on Beowulf is this entrance to the story once (and only once) the magic ring is in the hobbit’s pocket (Bilbo awake at night listening to his host outside the door completes a spell of enchantment begun the previous night with the dream of his hobbit-hole when a guest of the eagles, at the very heights of the Misty Mountains). Cue episode 2.


i. Hole. In the beginning is the hole.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

Accompanying visuals: eggs juxtaposed with 1904 footage of Alice falling down a hole and following a white rabbit down a tunnel to a door.

When he adds a second sentence a few years later, the immediate object of concern, for the rest of the page, is not the hobbit as such but his hole. But this second sentence is penned only when Tolkien already has a story in mind, and so only when he has already taken the magical steps that make the story: hole – door – sign. This is why we start with Ali Baba, whose door gives us 3 signs of the story.

But first we point to hole and door by anticipating episodes 2 & 3 below: This hobbit will play part of nameless man in Beowulf who creeps into a dragon-barrow (2); Geat barrow becomes Lonely Mountain and inspires a second: the hobbit becomes a British aboriginal mound-dweller of Edwardian Oxford scholarship (3).

–> The hole becomes a tunnel and the ground the Hill (visual sequence in episode 6).

ii. Door: Tolkien adds doors to all his holes bar the hole he marks with no door, Gollum’s end. A door is a sign of a hole; more, it indicates a civilized hole-dweller within. This door is round,  green, with a brass knob in the center.

Digression on GoT, opening a comparison running through series: George Martin’s Holdor, an engagement with the basic elements of two hobbit stories framed as a criticism of Tolkien’s soft heart: Sam, who holds the door and does not die, Gandalf’s fall in Moria (anticipate 2,7: Moria = end of The Hobbit). If Martin adds signs, he impresses them covertly in people: Martin gives us Aria,a many-faced god, and a faceless man, but not a sign of the nameless self. Movie clip: Gandalf’s archival research in Minas Tirith: Martin does not engage the mark on the door (Ali Baba; a Victorian echo Tolkien discerned but now vanished).

iii. Sign. When he puts doors on his two main holes, Tolkien steps through the story of Ali Baba in the Arabian Nights. The hidden door to the secret entrance into the Lonely Mountain receives the hidden door of the robbers’ cave, while the round, green door of the hobbit-hole, like the door of Ali Baba, receives a mark.

Rest of episode blends together the map contained in the illustration of the Hill (Thorin losing his way!) and the 3 readings of the mark on the door of act II, episode 6.

  1. Patterer mark: burglar
  2. Rune on map of Thror
  3. Mill’s meaningless mark: proper name – the sign of (a) a nameless man and the sign (b) of the nameless self, found in a tunnel with openings (but no doors) on right and left and won at tunnel’s end, Gollum’s cave.

Remix act II of episode 6 with the best of the old episode 4.


2. In the hall of the skin changer

GoT: A. and face-changer, a man with no name. Martin does not recognize a sign of the self. Gollum wins his riddle game.

Mix: dream of his own hobbit-hole with Beorn’s hall and compare to Crickhollow and house of Bombadil dream sequence.

Nothing was wrong with the old Beowulf video; but now it can be told in the mirror of the story. A remix begins with an observation born from John Rateliff’s editorial labour: the first phase of writing of the story petered out in Mirkwood, reworked (now with a wink to Ali Baba’s jars of oil) when Tolkien resumed writing. So, Beorn’s house marks the end of the clear imagination drawn out of the first sentence into the unexpected party (which springs Bilbo Baggins out of his hole and into Gollum’s less comfortable hole.)

Arrival. Draw Beorn’s hall and gardens. A stepping inside the wilds of northern story: from the host of an unexpected party the hobbit now sits by the side of the wizard as he makes a second party out of their story so far.

The company enter the halls as guests on the wizard’s words (which Beorn that night goes to check out for himself). The hall is (literally) drawn from a picture illustrating Heorot, but given an innocent animal-magic (ruined by the roasting spits of meat and warriors cavorting of movie Heorots). Beorn’s animal magic with its honey and cream is a queer folktale side of the bee-wolf, the man who is a bear, the skin changer (see Sellic Spell).

Grendel bursts into the hall of Heorot from without. But in Beorn’s hall BB awakes in the night to noises of his host and other bears outside the door: do not fear any nightly noises; but do not step beyond these walls.

We begin in Beorn’s hall, the night after Bilbo has dreamed of his own house, his second night with the magic ring in his pocket.

The two nights with the magic ring in his pocket weave a heavy enchantment, echoed in the dream sequence from Crickhollow to the house of Bombadil in the sequel.


Now, Bilbo Baggins is a <> heading to D, his credentials in his pocket O. Beorn is a point of entry, but the end (as the old episode 3 struggled to say) is an interview with the dragon that improves on Beowulf.

–> remix first part of old episode 3, in which a door is marked and a marked map unfurled; add moonletters and show  a door: the plan that is not a plan but a literary burglary.

This recruitment in the first pages of The Hobbit – the 3 steps from hole to door to sign – and dropping into story of 3 signs on door – on map, ring – culminate in a bee-wolf, the man who is a bear.

Belladonna Took. Bilbo’s mother changed her name. His father had a fund of wise sayings, though not from experience.

Bilbo Baggins left his hat at home and wins the sign of a nameless man; with the magic ring in his pocket he is snuggled comfortably in the hall of Beorn as he listens to the night noises of this wild world.


3. Aborigines of the North

The <> put by wizard on hobbit-hole door steps out of the Arabian Nights and sends him to D on the map: a location in Beowulf. 0 is the aboriginal sign.

O. the magic ring is given (lost) by one aborigine at the end of his time to another at his beginning.

O: a gift of meaning; tomb-robbing; no burglary, a game of riddles; encounter with the past, Tolkien’s day job. The prize of winkling out a very ancient word, used before the coming of either Celtic or English to the British Isles, a meaning from the very, very long ago (Tolkien held all derivations of aboriginal meanings by Rhys and others unlikely guesses, but still used their Ond = stone in the derivation of Gondor).

As with Beowulf episode, aboriginal element introduced in generation of Hill of hobbit-hole from Alice flatland via a barrow.

Now we revisit my second episode, in which I was so concerned to make a decent argument that I only introduced one half of the material (it was only around the Ali Baba episode that Yotam started to take control of production and direction and our videos became decent). The video shows how hobbits step into the imagination of John Rhys, Oxford’s first professor of Celtic, who around 1900 was telling everyone how an aboriginal population of the British Isles had lived in holes in the ground disguised as little hills.

What the video did not enter into was the short story published by an undergraduate John Buchan, who heard Rhys lecturing around 1899 and imagined an Oxford reader in northern antiquities stumble upon  aboriginal survivals in the remote Scottish Highlands – a horror story of troglodyte existence in hiding from accursed series of goblin invaders, Gollum’s family.

When we did Gollum, in episode 5, we went biblical and invoked a Psalm, which is a key to signs of The Hobbit.

So, we have to draw out the aboriginal Gollum of Buchan’s retelling of Rhys into Glm of the Psalm – ‘God knew my Gollum.’ And doing so we take the opportunity to correct an error of filming in old episode 5: Gollum is ‘dark as darkness’ – he is invisible to Bilbo, though he can see in the dark. Bilbo can see his eyes… This encounter is one of seeing and not seeing (again, Araya in GoT). We bottled this in episode 5.

When we mix the Psalm with the scholarship of Rhys, an Oxford philologist, the magic ring comes to view as simple meaning and we see that the hobbits as hill-dwellers mixes comedy with magic to reach Gollum – a hand-over of meaning from a lost generation to a younger self. At the heart of the riddle-game is a picture of Tolkien’s professional work: winkling lost meaning from a forgotten past.

This is what it means to him to resolve a riddle of words. He declares the sign ‘aboriginal’ in relation to the story.

This ring was given to Gollum on his birthday, but it is older than his birthday.

And so we return to the bottom of a hole talking to an invisible face in the dark. Does this conversation point to one or two selves? (GoT: Aria’s knife in the dark; Bilbo’s encounter is more terrible). Gollum’s birthday present is Bilbo Baggins’ magic ring. Are Bilbo and Gollum the same person? No, but they share the same story – uncanny. But nameless in Gollum’s hands means something different in Bilbo’s, as does invisibility (Gollum’s sign makes him even less visible than he already is; Bilbo’s makes him a hobbit-burglar, who disappears and reappears).

Belladonna Took is not Gollum’s grandmother. Gollum lived with his grandmother by the river, if he is a hobbit then his family live at the bottom of the Hill by the Mill (the hillbilly side of Hobbiton).

I think  the magic ring a sign of what a proper name means by the end of someone’s story. The promissory note of their meaning, in the end. Two people at other ends of history can have the same story, why not? Into that darkness by the grace of God go I.


4. Magic ring: story-picture of a name

Once the magic ring is in the hobbit’s pocket everything is different yet nothing is different about the hobbit – the story changes, and with it Bilbo Baggins. The idea shaping Tolkien’s composition is that the magic ring, as a sign of what Bilbo will be, helps him step into that role immediately if invisibly.

So now (where episode concludes on) follow the dream of his own house in the eyrie of the eagle with the noises the next night the hobbit hears awake in the hall of Beorn.

Cf. dreams in Fellowship: Crickhollow and House of Bombadil. The two consecutive nights in The Hobbit after exit from Gollum’s cave, weave a first version of this spell. Two night moments, a dream of his hobbit-hole and the night noises of the host and his bear-friends outside the door to his house, the hobbit and his  friends within. These two night moments carry the birthday present of Gollum from the pocket into the story of Bilbo Baggins: the author’s design is that the magic ring now turns the story inside-out.

We  are following a study in what signs do. Dropped into the story and picked up by the hobbit, the sign of Bilbo Baggins draws our attention to him in the way a sign does… The magic ring is a turning point in a professional career, and so in a story – from this point the hobbit comes into his own: he wins the riddle game by luck and now does especially well the vanishing that hobbits are magic at anyway. A subtle shift of focus, an adjustment to a microscope of story. His sign is attached to the hobbit, and that effect is achieved by bringing the story into focus around an enchanted passage of two nights: dreaming of his house and awake in the house of Beorn.

Even the author did not know what happened next. Bilbo doing the jars of oil in barrels of apples was a second writing – in the first, the wizard was to return to rescue the dwarves from the elves.

Only so can Bilbo Baggins arrive at the dragon. (The old episode 3 jumps from nameless man to the dragon – and so completely misses the role of the magic ring in the interview …)

This episode culminated with a dippy dream of his hobbit-house in the mountains with the eagles – revisiting the map of the hole of the second paragraph. This dream sequence should be redone and contrasted with the wide-awake experience in the hall of Beorn the following night.

In any case, the blender hobbit-hole from the map of paragraph 2 of the story needs one more tweak: it goes straight but should go only nearly straight into the side of the hill.