The Riddle of The Hobbit

Well, we have done our usual mistake, passing off a video as finished when the last part is still one shuffle short of a card trick. In previous videos this has not mattered because the last part has proved the springboard to the next video, but this video should tie it all together. We are now revising the last part of the video and will upload again in about a week. In the meanwhile, I will begin to frame the video in this post.

Edit: by way of the page discussing these videos I’ve come to think all the other videos are also flawed and it would be better to drop all six into an archive dump and remix 4 videos from them.

The video, like the series, is a step in a long struggle to escape The Lord of the Rings. When I was about 7 years old I was captivated when read The Hobbit. For many years I liked to say I wanted to have children so I could read the story to them. When that event came the experience was frustrating – I could not find the voice to read the story. When a facsimile of the first edition came out a few years ago, and I discovered the differences in tone throughout and experienced reading the original riddle-game in the context of the story, I began to suspect that my problem of voice was connected to the fact that Tolkien had revised the story as he was writing its sequel.

Hence began a long struggle to escape the One Ring and rescue the original story of Bilbo Baggins.

The problem is not that the One Ring was superimposed on the encounter with Gollum (the ring does not figure as the One Ring elsewhere in the story), but that this superimposition obliterated the living heart of the original story: with the riddle-game revised the original meaning of the magic ring disappears from sight, yet that meaning – as this video shows – was the heart of the whole endeavor.

In a nutshell, in this video we begin by taking seriously Tolkien’s own origin myth: that his story began with a spontaneous sentence the meaning of which he did not understand. Our argument is that the magic ring was, in the first instance, a sign imagined as the answer to the riddle of what this hobbit – who lived in a hole in the ground – was, and the pattern of the story then woven by, first, putting this sign to work (a hidden sign of what the wizard sees when he first looks at Bilbo Baggins) and, second, dropping it into the story in the form of a gold ring.

The upshot is that the magic ring was first conceived as an answer to what the hobbit was, alone, himself, and nameless. This answer is, of course, given by Tom Bombadil in the early pages of the sequel (which makes sense, because Bombadil is an imagination of a sequel to The Hobbit before that sequel grew into something else and ate its parent – so the adventure from the Old Forest to the Barrow-downs is the best place to turn for commentary on the original Hobbit).

This is also an answer that makes sense from the perspective of history. The magic ring was not originally the One Ring that steals the self. So what was it originally? The answer: a sign of the nameless self. And this answer provides a fairly obvious starting-point for the development of the One Ring – the step was taken by assigning agency so that this sign of the nameless self now steals that which it signifies (giving new meaning to thief in the shadows).

But now begins a strange confrontation with the world. As I’ve started to see in responses to earlier videos, those who feel compelled to write about Tolkien’s work online are, typically, not going to recognize the story we are unveiling. This is as it should be because, as I have indicated, the meaning of the story was ruined and the original story has been lost. The Hobbit people know and love is not The Hobbit that we address. But it is no easy thing to show people what has long been under their noses and they will insist that they know The Hobbit.