Aborigine

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

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.