A Queer Sign


This is Gandalf’s sign. It is not the queer sign he scratches on the round door of a hobbit and knocks off the next day. We never see that sign. We hear it spoken the next day, though – both Glóin and the wizard say it burglar.

To the dwarves who knock on Bilbo’s round door the queer sign marks the abode of a nameless thief. Before Bilbo answers the door they are in the same position as Smaug who speaks the sign when he awakes to a breath of air, a strange smell, and a missing cup.

What is the picture in the mind of the dwarves when first they read the sign on Bilbo’s door? As with Smaug, they picture a nameless thief. A picture in their imagination of someone who defies naming. That is what is queer about the sign – not that it is some peculiar mark, as is Gandalf’s (though it may be), but that it is an expression of an inherently allusive mental image.

Some Tolkienian relations: 

  • a person in the world and an image of that person in the mind of another: the appearance of the person in another’s imagination
  • a sign spoken – or scratched – by that other, expressing that mental image, naming the person

When Bilbo opens the door to the first dwarf (Dwalin) the first thing he says is his name. For the dwarves the riddle set by Gandalf’s sign is that Bilbo appears as anything but a burglar (he looks more like a grocer than a burglar). They do not believe Gandalf’s sign has truly named a burglar.

Bilbo does not appear at all to Smaug; nor does Bilbo give his name in a form other than a riddle. Unlike the dwarves, however, when Bilbo returns for more inside information, Smaug believes this invisible person is the burglar.


I thought a post could be written slowly, for a change. More to come…

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