About

September 24, 2023
Simon Cook

The Guide to Stairs is hosted on this website and already burdened with an inflated prologue. Seeing Stones appears monthly as part of the newsletter column A Sense of History of the Silmarillion Writers Guild. This guild is gnomic, creative, and scarier than the monster lurking under your stairs - the brightest jewel in the wider online world of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. I was lucky to get the gig.

Seeing Stones explores two towers of two stories over 12 monthly posts that together craft a time-machine. We begin one Wednesday in November 1936, with J.R.R. Tolkien telling a story in London in which a man builds a tower that commands a view on the sea. Exploring this story from mid-summer to Yule, the series turns to the western Elf-tower on the margin of The Lord of the Rings. Juxtaposition of short and long stories reveals the true center of the long story, the hidden suggestion behind the 1936 story, and a queer postscript to ‘Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics’ (1936) that explains that, as a matter of historical fact, the the magic of the enchanted Anglo-Saxon tower no longer works.

Together the two sides of this same imaginary tower reveal Tolkien’s self-imposed literary challenge, namely to begin with elegy and arrive at fairy-story.

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From 1979 down to our own days, a misreading of this 1936 allegory has prevailed. I call this error the new-Elizabethan consensus, in the hope that its reign is now over. The foundations of this consensus are two monographs by a couple of academics who appeared opposed on everything yet agreed that the man in the story who builds the tower, the Anglo-Saxon author of Beowulf, is really a depiction of Tolkien himself. An inability to recognize a picture of tradition staring one in the face has stalled all subsequent insight into what Tolkien was up to when he wrote The Lord of the Rings. Ultimately, this failure is a manifestation of the abandonment of a sense of history in western culture after World War II, of which the universities have proven the vanguard.

Having given up on ‘Tolkien scholars’, my hope is that artists who identify themselves as fan-fiction writers can recognize a fan-fiction artist’s tribute to his source. Naturally, the nature of Tolkien’s fan-fiction is different to that practiced today. Tolkien was faced with a problem distinct from yet akin to that of the Anglo-Saxon poet, namely identifying the ancient stones that provide the raw materials for the builder. Tolkien’s gift to subsequent generations of a vast mass of new ancient stone radically alters the situation of the aspiring tower-builder. Nevertheless, Tolkien’s story of the Anglo-Saxon artist supplies the basic model of his own art, and hence, I suggest, may be of some practical interest to fan-fiction authors today.

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Art credit: Rock garden image worked up with thanks from Dave World’s The Callanish Stones 4k drone , Isle of Lewis, Scotland.

How I came to be here

When I was about seven, someone read me The Hobbit. That would be around 1975, two years after my father had left. My brother and I lived with our mother and a bunch of university dropouts with long hair and motorcycles who rented rooms in our house. I remember still a Led Zeppelin poster on the wall at the top of the first flight of stairs.

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I am looking back into a past that is now a foreign country. Having stepped from The Lord of the Rings through political activism I applied to read Economics at Kings College, Cambridge, because it was the college of J.M. Keynes, who Mrs. Thatcher and her supporters identified as the Enemy. Unwittingly, I took my first step as a historian because on arrival I discovered that the celebrated Interwar economists from whom I wished to learn had almost all given up the ghost. Clueless, and perceiving no credible fonts of living wisdom, I did a doctoral dissertation on the late-Victorian origins of the (now defunct) Cambridge school of economics. Ye Machine, this website, takes its name from an essay composed around 1868 by Alfred Marshall, who went on to found this school but was then studying Psychology. ‘Ye machine’ imagines a mechanical contraption, of the kind made by Charles Babbage, and delineates the limits of its possible actions (a machine cannot know itself).

From Psychology, the young Marshall turned to a study of History. I found in his archive in the Marshall Library in Cambridge voluminous historical notes and a long essay on the history of civilization that integrated this reading with Hegel’s philosophical unfolding of world history. Putting together the Psychology, the Philosophy, and the History, I showed how Marshall’s innovations in economic theory fitted into what is now a lost world of learning, a world in which Anglican theologians still called the shots. The result was A Rounded Globe of Knowledge (CUP 2009).

By the time the dissertation became a book I was married with several children and, after five years in the wilds of North Carolina, living in Israel and earning my living as a freelance editor. I decided to delve deeper into the nature of Victorian historical thought.

Thanks to Marshall, I began with a window on the cutting edge of English historical thought in 1873. What happened afterwards? Exploring the ramifications of the mid-century discovery of prehistory, in the wake of which linguistic categories like ‘Aryan’ became racial categories and a new and profoundly disturbing vision of the Nordic race began to arise. Following these threads brought me to the origins of Archeology and Anthropology in Edwardian Cambridge – a coming together of scholars of Classical Archeology, Experimental Psychology, and Anglo-Saxon. One was H.M. Chadwick, who in 1907 published a groundbreaking study of the ancient history of the English, before their migration to the British Isles.

That was when my reading bumped into the scholarship of J.R.R. Tolkien, whose account of the historical background to a story on the edge of Beowulf in Finn and Hengest (1982) hit me between the eyes.

Basically, the historical thought of Marshall is a bit crazy, and on inspection most (not all!) of what came after is even more so. The discovery that countless generations had lived and wondered over the face of our planet by late-Victorians already losing faith in the Word of God opened an academic pandora’s box of latent fantasy and wish. One can certainly separate these strands of pre-historic speculation into more and less fantastic, and also more and less vicious. But Tolkien talks about the very ancient world with sober historical sense and acute insight. I’ve since noticed that he was talking about the ancient world with his one-time Pembroke colleage R. Collingwood, whose ideas on art and magic also intersect with vital elements of Tolkien’s thought.

The Interwar years were a highpoint of English academic life, and the historical reflections of these two Oxford Professors seem to me the greatest historical achievement of English Letters since Gibbon. With regard to historical sense, the situation was crazed before, and it became withered and emasculated after World War II. But the generation that came out of the trenches and returned to the ivory towers not only possessed a keen sense of the past but had won some insight into the relationship between thought and life, something since forgotten.

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A small library of Tolkien’s posthumous writings has by now appeared. Tolkien graduated from Oxford in 1915, and reading The Book of Lost Tales, wherein his son Christopher presents his father’s earliest stories of the Elves in the ancient world, begun in the wake of the Battle of the Somme, I discerned how Chadwick had awakened Tolkien’s interest in the exordium to Beowulf, the story of Scyld Scefing the king who comes out of the sea. Christopher’s 2014 publication of his father’s Interwar lecture notes on Beowulf confirmed my speculation and showed how radically Tolkien revised Chadwick’s vision of ancient English history and mythology. I wrote up a report in an ebook, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lost English Mythology.

To publish the research a friend and I set up Rounded Globe, an electronic publishing venture producing scholarly ebooks released on a creative commons license. The technology has now moved on, so the venture is now fossilized as a small, select, library (an image of possibility). In those days, I also had an active Tolkien social media presence, now obliterated. My blog of longstanding is lost after WordPress locked me out and requested payment to access my archive. That came after G+ shut down and my Tolkien friends migrated to Facebook (I maintain a Tolkien Fb page, but find platform and theme incompatible).

Before G+ closed, a group of five of us from a G+ Middle-earth group co-authored an essay now published in A Wilderness of Dragons, a collection of essays in honour of Verlyn Flieger. Our essay was good, primarily because 2/3 written by Tom Hillman, who has recently published a monograph on The Lord of the Rings. Prior to the actual writing, however, we read together some passages from Flieger’s A Question of Time (1997), which opened up The Lord of the Rings in ways I had never dreamed of. Flieger opened up Tolkien’s stories to me in ways wholly unexpected. With the singular exception of a goblin who works as a legal secretary in Mordor, what insights I have gleaned into Tolkien’s stories owe more to Flieger than to anyone else, followed by my co-authors. Only now did I begin a careful reading of On Fairy-stories.

I began a new research project, tracing the composition of The Lord of the Rings through the early drafts transcribed by Christopher Tolkien. This prompted me to consider what The Hobbit was before it was the preface to its famous sequel. At this time my eldest son was experimenting with video, so we recruited his two brothers and made some Hobbit YouTube videos. The step from text to visuals completely defeated me (my son has since gone on to make some very good videos, freed from the confusions of his father). But the attempt to picture the original story of Bilbo Baggins was a second transformative moment in my understanding of Tolkien’s art. It was now that I began to see what it meant that the movies had vanished the backbone of Hobbit architecture - the long horizontal passage or corridor going nearly but not quite straight into the side of the Hill.

Also, I hit upon a thought that blows my mind but I have as yet to put clearly, let alone convince anyone of. I saw that The Hobbit is a remix of the story of Hanna Diyab in The Arabian Nights about Morgiana and the 40 Thieves. Looking into the matter further I saw that Tolkien was picking up on a tradition of English fantasy ruptured around 1840, when Diyab’s stories were ejected from the new translation of 1001 Nights (W.E. Lane) because they were not medieval. Diyab’s tales ended up in Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book, but the generation that were children in the Napoleonic wars knew Morgiana of the jars of oil and Aladdin of the lamp as jewels in the crown of the incomparable Arabian Nights. We find Ali Baba in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and Morgiana in A System of Logic by J.S. Mill, both published in 1843. When read against this forgotten tradition, rather than that of its own more illustrious sequel, The Hobbit (1937) discloses most of its secrets.

My work on The Hobbit completed my alienation from the online world of Tolkien fans. While I’ve made some good friends who have taught me much, I find that nobody cares about The Hobbit. At least, nobody cares to discover the original design that was obliterated in the making of the sequel (I refer to the rewriting of the riddle-game for the second edition). People did not much like the movie trilogy, yet nor did they loathe it with the intense passion that a critical reading of the original story demands.

But my alienation was a long time in the making, and has its roots in the entrenched conviction of just about all Tolkien fans I have ever read or spoken with that his stories are situated in a world other than ours – which, unfortunately, is to assert precisely what my initial observation concerning Tolkien and Beowulf reveals to be unfounded. Over the years, I have mulled over the apparent fact that the reception of Tolkien’s stories of the Three Ages of Middle-earth in my own times has vanished the author’s acute and astonishing sense of history - which is really the key to his whole vision.

Over the last while I’ve returned to Tolkien’s Beowulf studies in an attempt to make sense of this vanishing of historical sense in the reception of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. My starting-point is the preposterous consensus on the allegory of the tower that Tolkien tells about Beowulf in ‘Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics’ (1936). The dominant reading for half a century has it that the allegory shows that scholarship destroys towers of art and that historians are monsters. This is a patently erroneous reading of the story, founded on certain confusions, and the real question that presents itself is: What are the conditions of our own age such that everyone willingly accepts this nonsense?

In other words, through a study of the utter confusion that has beset the modern reading of the 1936 allegory I try to look in the face our evaporation of a sense of our own history.

The result is an annual series of monthly posts Seeing Stones, turning at Yule. From summer to the end of the year the posts frame the 1936 allegory, and those from the new year to the return of summer reveal this tower as the central element in the design of The Lord of the Rings. Hence, this long story comes into view as a sequel to the short story of 1936, in which two Hobbits now metaphorically climb the stairs of the tower that the ‘friends’ of the 1936 story destroy, and one of the two Hobbits not only looks on the view but, at his end, steps into it.

What is revealed at the end is how the magic of the great fairy-story, The Lord of the Rings, took its author out of History. All those other Tolkien fans who have glimpsed an Other world outside of Time are right, after all. All that they overlook is the thesis at the heart of the story that this light was once glimpsed in our own world, and the machinery of time travel that Tolkien has made in the form of a story turns us around to see this lost light of a forgotten age with our own eyes.

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One way of putting this is that by revealing the inner workings of the tower of the 1936 short story, The Lord of the Rings adds a postscript to ‘Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics’. The postscript qualifies that this famous allegory, intended as a glimpse of living myth, is now but a mechanical allegory that does not work. Irony triumphs: The Tolkien scholars who misread the 1936 myth as allegory were ahead of their time!