Morgiana’s mark

You are in a series of posts that began with a review of halfir’s legendary thread ‘Tom Bombadil: Peeling the Onion.’ Having indicated a path to Tom Bombadil by way of the original Bilbo Baggins (and his magic ring) and declared that we are here entering into J.R.R. Tolkien’s theory of meaning, we now take a digression into Arabian folklore.

In a town in Persia there dwelt two brothers, one named Cassim, the other Ali Baba. Cassim was married to a rich wife and lived in plenty, while Ali Baba had to maintain his wife and children by cutting wood in a neighboring forest and selling it in the town.

Here is a late passage from Andrew Lang’s telling of

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves

The robber was overjoyed at his good fortune, and, giving him a piece of gold, desired to be shown the house where he stitched up the dead body. At first Mustapha refused, saying that he had been blindfolded; but when the robber gave him another piece of gold he began to think he might remember the turnings if blindfolded as before. This means succeeded; the robber partly led him, and was partly guided by him, right in front of Cassim’s house, the door of which the robber marked with a piece of chalk.

By and by Morgiana, going out, saw the mark the robber had made, quickly guessed that some mischief was brewing, and fetching a piece of chalk marked two or three doors on each side, without saying anything to her master or mistress.

The robbers turn up and cannot identify the house; the robber who made the mark “was at once beheaded for having failed.”

Another robber was dispatched, and, having won over Baba Mustapha, marked the house in red chalk; but Morgiana being again too clever for them, the second messenger was put to death also.

The Captain goes himself: “wiser than the others, he did not mark the house, but looked at it so closely that he could not fail to remember it.”

The Captain sends his men to “buy nineteen mules, and thirty-eight leather jars, all empty except one, which was full of oil.” He puts one of his men, fully armed, into each, travels to Ali Baba’s house at dusk and requests permission to store the jars in his house overnight. But later in the evening Morgiana goes to take some oil. “When she came to the first jar the robber inside said softly, ‘Is it time?'”

Any other slave but Morgiana, on finding a man in the jar instead of the oil she wanted, would have screamed and made a noise; but she… answered quietly, “Not yet, but presently.”

She went to all the jars, giving the same answer, till she came to the jar of oil. … She filled her oil pot, went back to the kitchen, and… filled a large kettle full of oil. When it boiled she went and poured enough oil into every jar to stifle and kill the robber inside. When this brave deed was done she went back to the kitchen, put out the fire and the lamp, and waited to see what would happen.

This passage from 1001 Nights finds odd reflections in The Hobbit: a cave that may be entered only on saying the magical words of opening and a hidden door into the Lonely Mountain  opened by those with a map with moon runes and a key; the chalk marks made by two robbers on the door of Ali Baba’s house and the ‘queer sign’ that means burglar made by Gandalf on Bilbo’s newly painted round front door; the thieves in the jars of oil and the dwarves in the barrels of apples and wine. More. An unlikely fairy-tale heroine and hero, both brave and quick on their feet.

The mark on the door is what interests me here. My next post will try to disentangle what it means.