Magic ring

Consider this apparent paradox in the story of Bilbo Baggins. In the first chapter, a wizard scratches a “queer sign” on his front door that the next day tells thirteen dwarves this is the home of the burglar they are looking for. On seeing Bilbo, the dwarves are skeptical, and it takes Gandalf’s authority to convince them to take his word on the matter. After he has vanished in the goblin tunnels and then reappeared, however, the dwarves see that the wizard had spoken true, for they now recognize Bilbo as “a first-class burglar” (Hobbit 99).

Now, between entering inadvertently and exiting the goblin tunnels Bilbo found (and in the original story, won) a magic ring of invisibility. Such a ring is a distinctive tool of the trade of a fairy-story burglar, and as such a material equivalent of the queer sign scratched on Bilbo’s front door (Hobbit 16).

Yet the magic ring remains a secret in Bilbo’s pocket until Mirkwood. So, the dwarves do not change their attitude to Gandalf’s naming of Bilbo a burglar because they are now shown a golden thing that backs up his queer sign, but simply because they now see in this hobbit what a wizard’s eye had discerned from the first.

In the original story (for the riddle game was revised in the second edition and the spirit of Sauron entered where it never was before) this paradox is underscored by the strange way the magic ring becomes Bilbo the hobbit’s (essential) property. When he encounters Gollum, the monster’s lost ring is in the pocket of the hobbit. But Gollum proposes a riddle competition and names his stake his “present,” by which he means the “birthday present” he does not know he has already lost. When Bilbo asks what is in his pocket, and Gollum fails to guess, Bilbo therefore wins the magic ring (although he does not know it).  Hence, burglary is one thing Bilbo does not do before the dwarves recognize him as a burglar.

The paradox points to the dual functions of the magic ring in the story. On the one hand, its named attribute: (bodily) invisibility; on the other, an attribute never named only shown: the magic ring makes a hobbit more recognizably himself.

The magic ring’s unnamed property turns on a special relationship between ring and hobbit. To begin with, the invisibility it bestows simply amplifies the ordinary vanishing magic that, in the first pages of the story, the narrator had told us is possessed by all hobbits (Hobbit 12). But as soon as it is in his pocket, Bilbo comes into a peculiar kind of luck such that he unintentionally finds the right words – not only asking the question that wins the riddle game but also by chance hitting on the answers to two of Gollum’s dark and difficult riddles. The luck Bilbo picks up with the ring is of that valuable kind that allows you to be yourself and get away with it.

Note that the magic ring does not itself give a hobbit the name of a burglar. Both his essential qualities – vanishing and luck – are no doubt prerequisites of a successful burglar, but they do not make Bilbo a burglar. What the dwarves recognize is not an essential burglarious quality in the hobbit, but rather that he has it in him to play the role of burglar that Gandalf at the start of the story assigns to him.

We see here in full the theory of names in relation to titles and stories latent in the 1932 etymological note on Nodens. The theory answers the question: What is the name of the nameless?

The answer: a story-title hung on a hidden quality revealed by the story.

Recall that Gandalf has a hat, the dwarves hoods, but Bilbo runs out of Bag-End bareheaded. We may say that the magic ring reveals an invisible peg discovered in Bilbo’s character on which the dwarves hang the hat that Gandalf gave them. The magic ring is a sort of fairy-story microscope, the function of which is to provide what we might title story-vision, revealing to us the essential quality of the nameless on which any attribution of a title must rest. The magic ring, in other words, shows in an instant what it would take those of us who are not wizards most of a story to see.

This theory was turned inside out when Tolkien began on a sequel some five years after completing it – a strange revolution of a name.

Bilbo’s titles

Having gone down the secret passagway and found Smaug asleep, Bilbo Baggins goes back again, and this time has a conversation with the dragon.

Asked his name and origin by Smaug, Bilbo avoids a direct answer and gives rather a string of titles culled from the adventure we have read: “Barrel-rider,” “Ringwinner,” and “Luckwearer,” for example, and: “I come out of a bag, but no bag went over me”  (Bag-End and the trolls).

The theory of names, titles, and stories extracted from The Name ‘Nodens‘ suggest that anyone of these titles might serve as a story-name for this hobbit. Indeed, in the sequel, and after the story of the riddle game had changed, Bilbo becomes the Ring-finder. A story may generate many potential titles compatible with a revealed inner quality, but it takes a new story to hang a new title.

The title hung on the hobbit in this story is burglar. The name is scratched on Bilbo’s front door as a “queer sign” at the beginning of the story by Gandalf the wizard. The next day, at his unexpected party, Gloin speaks this queer sign aloud: burglar.

But in this opening of the story, Bilbo never sees the wizard’s queer sign and the dwarves, on seeing Bilbo, doubt Gandalf’s word.

Bilbo’s first adventure sees him trying to live up to the wizard’s expectations and picking the pocket of a troll. The purse is the mischief and squeaks: Ere, ‘oo are you? When the question is repeated by the purse’s owner, now holding Bilbo by his feet, he replies: a burrahobbit. At this point in his story, Bilbo is an incoherent and by no means credible burglar.

After his escape alone from the goblin tunnels, the dwarves immediately recognize Bilbo as “a first-class burglar.” The riddle at the center of the story is: what has happened to allow the dwarves to now see Bilbo as a wizard did on first meeting him? This riddle is solved in the next post on the magic ring. The question answered in the remainder of this post is why, of all the range of titles that Bilbo’s story has generated, is burglar the one that matters?

Step back to the day after his unexpected party when Bilbo, at the wizard’s urging, signs the contract left for him by the dwarves.  Bilbo takes it on the chin when, many moons and adventures later, and standing on the doorstep of the Lonely Mountain, the ludicrous terms of this contract come into view. For the contract is what all the dwarves have in mind when Thorin puts out his hand to thank Bilbo for going down a secret passageway alone. A reward awaits of one fourteenth share of the immense treasure at the other end. But the treasure is guarded by a terrible thief, Smaug the dragon.

Now, if hobbit burglary means stealing treasure from under the nose of a live dragon, the sum of Bilbo’s efforts amounts to one cup. This one cup, however, is ancient English gold. Old English words, written over a thousand years ago, tell of a dragon dwelling in a steep stone-barrow on the high heath, watching over his hoard. At the foot of the barrow is a secret passageway. In the restored text of a badly damaged page of Beowulf, we read what happens next in The Hobbit:

                                  Þaér on innan gíong
Nið[ð]a náthwylc,   (forþ né)h gefe(al)g
haéðnum horde,    hond (wǽge nam),
(síd,) since fáh;    né hé þæt syððan (bemáð),
Þ(éah) ð(e hé) slaépende    besyre(d wur)de
þéofes cræfte.

Beowulf, lines 2214-2219 (Klaeber 83). Tolkien’s translation (Beowulf T&C 77):

Therein went some
nameless man, creeping in nigh
to the pagan treasure; his hand seized
a goblet deep, bright with gems. This the dragon did not after in silence bear,
albeit he had been cheated in his sleep
by thief’s cunning.

Both the Anglo-Saxon and the twentieth-century author proceed to draw the wrath and rage of a dragon burgled by a þéof náthwylces, a nameless thief.

The Old English dragon is Beowulf’s bane, a monster who is slain by but also kills the good old king. Tolkien’s story, however, is rather an exercise in northern fantasy than northern realism: the dragon is slain by a hero who lives, and the dwarves reclaim their ancient treasure.

We now understand better the trick of imagining Bilbo Baggins as a British aborigine. The hobbit’s native identity matters not a whit to the story, but allows Tolkien to make a crafty identification from the start. Hobbits are a nameless people, and so the expression hobbit burglar provides a modern translation of the Old English þéof náthwylces.

Just as the stories of Nodens passed from ancient Germanic stories to Roman Britain, so Tolkien imagines an even more ancient story of a hobbit thief passing over the seas in the other direction, eventually brought back to the British Isles and made use of by the author of Beowulf.


In the house of Tom Bomadil, Frodo the hobbit asks his host: Who are you, master? In the first draft of the story, penned in the autumn of 1938, the reply is: I am an Aborigine (Shadow 117, 121).

A principle behind all these pages: I read story ideas found in The Lord of the Rings as a commentary on The Hobbit; the earlier the passage in the sequel the more direct the engagement with the original. Such readings bring into view two sides of the same riddle and point at underlying ideas.

Tom Bombadil was an aborigine because Tolkien wished to clarify what this term meant once he had decided that hobbits, as a matter of fact, were not aborigines. In the original hobbit story they are, as also is Gollum, although this quality is rather hinted at than named.

The hobbits’ native identity is discovered by reading the first page or so of The Hobbit together with a lecture of 1900 by Oxford’s first professor of Celtic, John Rhys. The first pages describe Bilbo’s home in the side of a hill and hobbits as a people who were once prosperous but are now rare and tend to magically disappear in the face of intruding big folk. In his lecture, Rhys extracted  a historical kernel from Welsh folk traditions of the “little people.”

Behind these fairy stories, Rhys argued, were memories of encounters by early Celtic speakers with the aboriginal inhabitants of Britain. These people must once have been spread over much of Britain, but the series of prehistorical and historical intrusions from the east had driven them into the wild hills on the peripheries of the mainland. These natives, Rhys told his audience, had been a non-Indo-European, matriarchal folk, “a small swarthy population of mound-dwellers, of an unwarlike disposition, much given to magic and wizardry, and living underground.” In Scotland, he reported, could still be seen some of their “underground — or partially underground — habitations.” Rhys seems to have in mind Skara Brae, never visited but read about and envisaged by this Oxford professor much as a later one pictured a hobbit hole. These original habitations, he explained, “appear from the outside like hillocks covered with grass, so as presumably not to attract attention.”

But one of the most remarkable things about them is the fact that the cells or apartments into which they are divided are frequently so small that their inmates must have been of very short stature, like our Welsh fairies. (Rhys 1900, 896, 887-8)

Also, hobbits. And also Gollum, who is painted in the original version of the riddle game as an aborigine who has survived the intrusion of goblins but lost all contact with friends and relatives and now lives in the permanent darkness of his hole in the ground.

Now, Rhys and Tolkien were both philologists (and Tolkien probably attended Rhys’ lectures as an undergraduate). But their philological conclusions about Britain’s aboriginal population were different. Rhys wanted to picture this population in relation to the first Celtic speakers to arrive because he thought the aboriginal language might explain the distinct linguistic development of that branch of Celtic. Consequently, he dedicated significant labour to identifying traces of this aboriginal tongue old Celtic formulas.

Tolkien talks of the aborigines in his 1955 lecture ‘English and Welsh.’ He suggests that the subsequent waves of intruders interbred with these natives and that their blood flows strongly in the modern population of the British Isles. But he insists that  their language has entirely disappeared, leaving no traces we can detect in place or any other names (M&C 170-71).

(Tolkien had by then made significant use of one word that was claimed as aboriginal – ond for ‘stone.’ Ond is the original name of Gondor, city of stone. But this was to draw on the idea of an aboriginal tongue, not to accept that the word really was of that vanished language.)

So, why did a philologist who believed that philology could not reach the aboriginal peoples of the British Isles tell a magical story about one of these people, who in another hole in the ground met a monsterous version of himself?

Because a philologist is interested in the general phenomenon of naming, and must therefore confront the problem of the nameless.

The nameless appears to us a lawless realm, strangely illicit, even threatening. The nameless is profoundly challenging, for our apparently innate reaction to discerning a nameless presence is to attempt to negate it by naming it. People give names to thing and people who already have names, but somewhere down the etymological line the nameless awaits. A philologist interested in naming must face a nameless beginning.

The Hobbit begins with a nice trick. The story will illustrate the theory of naming already set out in The Name ‘Nodens.’ Bilbo Baggins will play a role like Nodens, albeit in his own story. Bilbo Baggins has a proper name. But his essential quality is that he is a hobbit – he is one of a now nameless people. Rather than march into a state of virgin namelessness, as might a modern atomic physicist, the nameless realm we enter was not always so but has been reclaimed by the nameless through our forgetting. This is to tame the nameless at the start.

An aborigine means, for Tolkien, someone who gave names to things, including himself, but whose own name is beyond our reach.

We are still a long way from Tom Bombadil’s aboriginal identity. To arrive at this holy grail we must pass through the story of how Bilbo Baggins earned the name of the burglar and the revolution of the magic ring as it became the One Ring…


Nodens is a name.

The name Nodens is recorded on three inscriptions in Britain, one of them a curse, all found at the ruins of his ancient temple in Lydney Park, situated in the Forest of Dean on the Welsh side of the border made by the Avon Valley and the River Severn. The inscriptions use the Latin alphabet to name a local Celtic god and are recorded by R.G. Collingwood in his posthumously published Roman Inscriptions of Britain (online herehere, and here).

In the late 1920s, the Wheelers, an archaeological couple, organized a dig at Lydney Park. Tolkien was persuaded to look at the old Nodens inscriptions by his Pembroke colleague, R.G. Collingwood.  Tolkien’s The Name ‘Nodens appeared as Appendix I to the Wheelers’ Report on the Excavation of the Prehistoric, Roman, and Post-Roman Site (1932).

Tolkien tells a curious etymological story. Nodens was  “probably in origin adjectival,” deriving from an ancient Germanic verb stem meaning to catch or ensnare. In a more distant past and another language, a person with a proper name had a title: the Nodens (for example, and as Tolkien perhaps later imagined: Sauron the Ensnarer). Subsequently, in crossing northern seas and settling down in the Forest of Dean, this ensarer’s original name was lost, and his old title – the Germanic meaning of which was no longer understood – was taken as his proper name.

Later, suggests Tolkien, Nodens passed from the English border into Irish mythology and became the king of the Tuatha dé Dannan: Nuada of the Silver Hand. In this more recent migration, the original title – the name Nodens still recognisable in Nuada – has received a new title, which bears some resemblance to the ancient Germanic meaning of Nodens. Tolkien concludes his etymological note:

Whether the god was called the ‘snarer’ or the ‘catcher’ or the ‘hunter’ in some sinister sense… mere etymology can hardly say. It is suggestive, however, in this connexion that the most remarkable thing about Nuada was his hand, and that without his hand his power was lost. (Tolkien 2007, 182)

One might draw connections between Nodens and both Bilbo Baggins and Sauron the Necromancer. But our business here is to extract a theory of naming from The Name ‘Nodens.

Tolkien discerns stories of Nodens told over many centuries and crosses both seas and languages. Names and titles are lost and found and changed around. Yet some enduring meaning is discernible. For in the title of  Nuada of the silver hand, as in the earlier name Nodens, Tolkien hears an echo of the nameless person known by ancient Germanic speakers in northern waters  as the ensnarer, the catcher, the hunter.

What Tolkien does not state but implies in his etymological note is that the stories told about this ancient person with changing names and titles did not change all that much.

Here is the germ of Tolkien’s theory of language: a story supplies a title and gives a name to a person.