naming the nameless

An index is the only reliable shortcut to mushrooms.

Mushrooms are unnamed elements that make the magic of two hobbit stories. The purpose of the index is to reveal their names. To name the mushrooms we must begin from names already given.

Our first port of call, then, is a wiki like Tolkien Gateway (I choose of several the one I use most), which goes far to realising Tolkien’s unfinished aspirations to write a long index to The Lord of the Rings.*

*Tolkien Gateway naturally contains many entries that fall outside any sane imagination of Tolkien’s unfinished index of The Lord of the Rings. All entries culled from ‘Silmarillion’ stories were no doubt potential index entries for our author, yet surely not (e.g.) Owen Barfield. Yet an index of Middle-earth, be it an index of art or philology, cannot be constructed without this kind of scafolding. I begin by placing names like Barfield, and also Verlyn Flieger – who shows how to find Barfield’s ideas in Tolkien’s stories – in a separate category: bibliography. (This method of exclusion will run aground down the line, for Tolkien’s significant literary other – the poet who gave us Beowulf – is to us nameless.)

The idea of naming the nameless in Middle-earth by way of an index is derived from Tolkien’s linguistic philosophy, which was developed in the late 1920s (Nodens) and early 1930s (The Hobbit). The queer index theory of naming at the heart of this linguistic philosophy constitutes our second port of call. It may be expressed in three propositions:

  1. A person or thing is a bundle of many properties, represented in full only by an index (a name in entish)
  2. A name is a convention that one of those properties be taken as a title of that thing or person.
  3. A title of one property is conventionally accepted as a name because it adheres with a queer quality, something hidden in the index that alludes naming.

This index theory of naming provides Tolkien a primary tool of analysis of stories and the framework for the original story of Bilbo Baggins. When applied to the biggest thing in Tolkien’s stories, Middle-earth, this theory presents the question: what is the hidden quality of Middle-earth? The question may be answered by naming what is nameless in the index of Middle-earth.

A third port of call is to read Tolkien’s theory of fairy elements, brewed between 1939 and 1943, as a second thought of a man who had established an index theory of naming in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Fairy elements is a magical index coinage. On one side of this coin is a word combination – elvish artistmagic ringnameless thief – on the other a mushroom. The word combination has meaning – is not merely a random generation on a Dada search engine – because of the mushroom on the other side – a nameless quality.

How to name these mushrooms?

Reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s art from the perspective of his philological practice (naturally) generates a strange question asked of the nameless. How is it called? 

But this question generated from our author a few years later in his essay On Fairy-stories an idea of fairy elements. So we follow Tolkien’s idea of philological method in the face of a story, employing it in the face of his own story: what are the fairy elements hidden in the long index of Middle-earth that Tolkien wished to place at the end of The Lord of the Rings?

I borrow a coinage used by Barfield in Poetic Diction, Francis Bacon’s footsteps of nature:

It is these ‘footsteps of nature’ whose noise we hear alike in primitive language and in the finest metaphors of poets. Men do not invent those mysterious relations between separate external objects, and between objects and feelings or ideas, which it is the function of poetry to reveal. (Barfield 86)

Translated into our index: when two words from different entries in the index are found to fit together as an expressive formula then Barfield sees a metaphor and Tolkien calls a story. Either way, we find an unexpected couple and so learn something about the latent meaning of two words we know and use independently (e.g. nameless thief).

Footsteps in the index of Middle-earth may be signs of meta-fairy elements: funghi with feet walking invisible in the index!

One illustration of a first footstep leading to a shortcut to a mushroom is found in the mystery and confusion surrounding the Tolkien Gateway entry eldest (see picture 2)More generally, debates in the Tolkien community about entries in the index of Middle-earth usually point to some fire behind the smoke, and might provide many useful shortcuts to mushrooms.

My method, however, is to follow a more ghostly kind of footprint: authorial footprints that appear in several main tracks (and numerous minor ones) once we discern a hidden index within the conventional index of the names of Middle-earth. This is not the index of the nameless we are here trying to build. This ghost index is the residue of the 1937 index of The Hobbit.

At this point a new reader must look philological reality in the face. That which you know as the story of Bilbo Baggins is not the original story of The Hobbit.

Digression. Only those enamored of Tolkien’s art are likely to read my index, and most will leave in disgust once they glimpse what it does. This is only natural, for Tolkien’s art is good in itself while the application of his philological method to his art breaks the elvish illusion on which it rests.

The foundation of the illusion of elvish art is that the index (world) of the story is independent of the story. Those who plant, tend, and walk in conventional indexes of Middle-earth contribute to this illusion. Scholarship, however, begins with the recognition of the reality behind the illusion – the index is made by the story – and then traces how development of a new story transformed the old index. This reveals the nameless in Middle-earth, but at the cost of dispelling the illusion of elvish art.

Revision of the riddle game in the 1951 second edition of The Hobbit transformed the index to the story, vanishing the old Gollum, magic ring, and Bilbo Baggins almost without trace under the deep foundations of a new story of elvish vision and evil magic. And to read The Hobbit as it could only be read in 1937 is today for us almost impossible. It takes a great effort of will as well as imagination, and may begin only once one has accepted that cherished meanings must be left like a hat or hood in the hallway and unsuspected original meanings seen for what they are. Few are willing, let alone able, to follow this philological path to a view of the hidden properties of Tolkien’s art.

Turning to the Tolkien Gateway, we discover one footprint of the ghost index (the word combination itself a candidate for mushroom status) in the idea of the canon in the meta entry: naming policy (accessed April 7, 2018):

Canonicity – the article title should be a canonical name for the character. For example “Frodo Baggins” as opposed to “Bingo Baggins”.

A natural and correct methodological rule in an attempt to build an index of Middle-earth. To name Gollum as both the stupid monster of the original story and the ruined addict of the second would be to discover Schrödinger’s cat at the heart of Middle-earth. But that sort of queerness is not found in Middle-earth, or at least not in this guise. An index of names in Middle-earth must follow the principle of Tolkien’s art that later versions supersede earlier ones. To maintain the illusion of elvish art it is necessary to view successive stories as correcting earlier mistakes of naming – to accept that composition of a story rewrites the database and to embrace only the final index as the real world of Middle-earth. (Earlier misnomers already published are accounted for by fictions within fictions – the original riddle game becomes a lie told by Bilbo Baggins in which the spirit of Sauron is already glimpsed in the magic ring).

But Bingo Bolger-Baggins is a different character than Frodo Baggins, the hero of a different story (with a different index). Bingo was the heir of Bilbo in the first year of composition of a sequel to The Hobbit. At this point the new story was simply extending the index of the old, the magic ring was evil because made by the Necromancer, but it was just one of many such rings, and Tolkien believed that Bingo’s high spirits would allow him to handle it. From a philological perspective, the character named Bingo was not renamed Frodo. Rather, Frodo emerged as the heir of Bilbo as the whole story (and so the old index) was reimagined around the One Ring. Bilbo’s heir would begin to become a wraith and would see with the eye of myth as he made his slow way to Mount Doom, and what he required was not jokes and pranks but the strength to endure without hope.

We are building a philological index of Tolkien’s art, and we wish to see the original meanings hidden in the later incarnations. Hence, an early port of call is the index theory of naming that the original story of Bilbo Baggins was intended to illustrate. Only once we see what The Hobbit once was may we begin to imagine how the index of this queer story mutated into the index of its sequel, leaving the ghost of one of its parents in a house built by extending the other.

The ghost index may hide a mushroom, but to glimpse the mushroom requires tracing the steps by which a once living body of an index came to haunt the world of a story drawn out of it. The footprints we are looking for are left by an author.

We wish to see Tolkien at work redrawing his original hobbit story as something else, something drawn out of it yet different, vanishing original meaning even as it gave meaning to elvish vision and a magic of death.

That meaning of the original story of Bilbo Baggins that has been vanished gave birth to The Lord of the Rings, and what we see in this great sequel is on one reading but a commentary on the original story of The Hobbit (the same is true of On Fairy-stories). But what was vanished is not the hidden quality of Middle-earth; it is but a clearer sign of it, a step closer to naming a mushroom.