Word magic

‘Peeling the Onion’ arrives at the idea that Tom Bombadil is a name-maker because he speaks the original Adamic language in which a name is a word of power over that which bears the name. My review of this legendary lost thread dismissed such an idea out of hand; but, of course, halfir truly saw one of Tom Bombadil’s faces. Really, he is to be faulted, not for arriving at this idea but for not then pressing on to its other side.

This baseless pyramid is from The Meaning of Meaning (1928), by C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards, two Cambridge men. At the base of the pyramid we find words (symbol) and things (referent) and no direct connection between them.

The idea of a direct connection between symbol and referent, which is precisely the idea by which halfir explains the power of Tom Bombadil, Ogden and Richards name the myth of ‘word magic.’ Like halfir they attribute this idea to the ancient Egyptians, and like Shippey they identify it as a primitive myth of language, but they further insist that this myth is prevalent in our own times.

Ogden and Richards propose the problem of meaning as the antidote to the myth of word magic. Meaning is what is found ‘inside’ the speaker, the one who employs a symbol. Meaning is the apex of the triangle. The idea of the relationship between symbol and referent, word and thing, is transformed from magical myth to science by the introduction of a notion of ‘meaning’ between words and things.

As I pointed out in my review of halfir’s thread, Tom Bombadil was imagined by his author just a week or so before beginning his sequel to The Hobbit as “a new (if similar) line” to Bilbo Baggins.

“Good Morning!” said Bilbo, and he meant it. The sun was shining, and the grass was very green. But Gandalf looked at him from under long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat.

“What do you mean?” he said.

The long and the short of it…

The short. Halfir (and Shippey) forget that Tolkien was a professional linguist, and while surely not bowled over by The Meaning of Meaning could not have ignored it. The triangle of reference is not new; as James McElvenny points out in his wonderful study of Ogden, Language and Meaning in the Age of Modernism (2018), the basic idea that the word signifies through the medium of concepts would have been recognised by a medieval schoolman. Nevertheless, Ogden and Richards dropped the problem of meaning into the Pot of all those in Britain of the 1930s who dealt professionally in language.

That Tolkien simply adopted Ogden and Richards’ idea of ‘word magic’ and drew Tom Bombadil might be a credible hypothesis if we were dealing with almost any other interwar author; but it is incredible to imagine that Tolkien did not acknowledge their problem of meaning and pose his own solution.

The long of it is that to understand Tom Bombadil we must begin with the problem of meaning as it is set up in The Hobbit, and only arrive at the Master of wood, river, and barrow by way of the magic ring, which served as a fulcrum between Tolkien’s first story-riddle of meaning and Tom Bombadil, the second version of the same riddle.

 

2 thoughts on “Word magic

  1. Sue Bridgwater

    Like Tolkien, I have always wanted sound and sense to be linked, though I couldn’t say that I believe they are (Barfield confuses me). Bombadil enchants through his words, their rhythms, their musicality. Did halfir, or Tolkien, believe that ‘Tom’s country’ would vanish if Tom ceased his chanting? These are rambling thoughts but I’m trying to follow them!

    1. simon Post author

      Both Jespersen and Tolkien put great store by sound symbolism. Barfield does not talk about it (at least not in Poetic Diction).

      But I will not discuss Bombadil now, for my idea (hypothesis) is that we can only arrive at him by first reimagining the original Bilbo Baggins (as he was in the first edition of The Hobbit) and then tracing how the decision to place the magic ring at the center of the story created an idea of a strange mirror in which Bilbo becomes Bombadil (while hobbits become English).

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