Gandalf’s mark

And I assure you there is a mark on this door-the usual one in the trade, or used to be. Burglar wants a good job, plenty of Excitement and reasonable Reward, that’s how it is usually read. You san say Expert Treasure-hunter instead of Burglar if you like. Some of them do. It’s all the same to us.

This is Gloin speaking about the mark the wizard had scratched on (but has already knocked off) Bilbo’s door. Can we transpose this ‘queer sign’ onto the door of Ali Baba? Dramatically, can we picture these words in the mouth of one of the thieves who has come to do murder, replying to Ali Baba’s protestations that he is not the burglar they are looking for?

Yes. The wizard’s “queer sign” can read ‘Expert Treasure-hunter,’ a meaning that nicely identifies one who has discovered the magic password Open sesame! and stolen some ill-gotten treasure. And from the perspective of the robbers, who have been burgled, the person behind the mark on the door is indeed a burglar.

Of course, there is this difference: the queer sign scratched by Gandalf is taken by the Dwarves as the sign of a burglar seeking employment. (Does anyone stop to think how preposterous is the idea of a burglar advertising his employment by placing a sign on his own door? I suppose this is a mark known only to those in the trade…) But it takes no stretch of imagination to picture two robbers employing just such a mark to identify the house of someone who has burgled them and to which they intend to return with their colleagues.

I will proceed on the assumption that the queer sign (on Bilbo Baggins’s door) and the chalk mark (on Ali Baba’s door) may, to all extents and purposes, be taken as equivalent symbols (or, at most, they would receive equivalent translations in Persian-Dwarvish-English dictionaries).

Now, here is a curious divergence that must be explored in the next post. Readers of The Hobbit know the mark Gandalf scratches on Bilbo’s door to read burglar, or as Gandalf puts it, the burglar. But J. S. Mill says that the robber making a mark on the door in the story of Ali Baba is “in some degree analogous” to “the operation” we perform when we “impose a proper name.” A name and a title may be – and have been – confused, but they are distinct kinds of words. So, is the mark on the door a name or a title?