Enough of the witless wisdom of the Tolkien scholars and the Old Loremasters of Middle-earth!
For over a decade I have endured your unfounded prattle, which still today oozes out of online forums and academic essays, though the bitter fruit of your ill-conceived orthodoxy is now written on the cinematic walls of our digital devices. Because you foolishly believed that the foundation of fantasy is fantasy, we have now lost the enchantment of the Second Age of Middle-earth. You are responsible for the corruption almost beyond redemption of the vision of J.R.R. Tolkien.
Ye Machine is engaged in a two-fold assault on the senseless folly of our times.
Seeing Stones exposes the faulty foundations of what today passes for academic Tolkien scholarship by revealing the actual relationship between the art and the scholarship of an Interwar Oxford Professor.
A Hobbit’s Guide to Stairs exposes the faulty foundations of a generation’s cinematic vision of Middle-earth by, first of all, revealing the right way to picture a Hobbit-hole, the overlooked perspective on the long passage without corners that opens the door on the proper usage of stairs in the Red Book.
I am a Hobbit. Hear me roar.
Longer version: 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.
I am looking back into a past that is for me now a foreign country. Having stepped from The Lord of the Rings to youthful political activism, I 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 in Cambridge I discovered that the celebrated Interwar economists from whom I wished to learn had almost all given up the ghost.
I spent over a decade in Cambridge. My best memories concern an uncle of my father who I’d only met a few times before and now discovered was an emeritus professor of Classical Archeology. I’d grown up with my mother in a working class home, but my grand-uncle was the son of a Lancaster vicar who had rejected the cloth and become a socialist when an undergraduate at Cambridge in the 1930s. To visit him was to step back in time to a University that once had some life in it. He would offer me a choice of Chinese or Indian tea and then pass over his Senior Service cigarettes, though he himself smoked a pipe. I used to keep him talking for hours.
Clueless, and perceiving no credible fonts of the wisdom that I was seeking in the living world, I ened up doing a doctoral dissertation on Alfred Marshall, the late-Victorian founder of economic science in Cambridge.
‘Ye Machine’, the name of this website, is the title of Marshall’s essay on the human mind, composed around 1868. From Psychology Marshall turned to History, dedicating a few years to intensive reading, leaving voluminous notes and a long essay on the history of civilization that integrated more recent historical work with the grand philosophical narrative spun out of Hegel’s Philosophy of History. Putting the psychology together with the philosophy of history I saw how Marshall made a science of economics that fitted with the world of learning of his day, a world in which Anglican theologians still called the shots. The result was A Rounded Globe of Knowledge (CUP 2009).
By then I was married with several children and, having finished a five-year teaching stint at Duke in North Carolina, living in Israel. Deeming the academics of our own day an uninspiring bunch, and historians of economics beyond the pale - historians with zero sense of history! Spawned by our modern academy of professional disciplines - I set out to earn my living as a freelance editor, leaving the economics behind and exploring the history of historical thought, which Marshall’s manuscripts had opened up before me.
I began with what happened to historical thought after 1875. I researched 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. I then explored the origins of Archeology and Anthropology in Edwardian Cambridge – a coming together of some very talented scholars from such disciplines as Classical Archeology, Experimental Psychology, and Anglo-Saxon. One of these luminaries 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 so was that of most of his contemporaries. The discovery of countless generations of lived human life by those late-Victorians who were losing their faith in 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 talked about the very ancient world with sober historical sense and acute insight. I’ve since discovered that he was talking about the ancient world with his one-time Pembroke colleage R. Collingwood, whose idea of History is well known, if possibly not widely appreciated.
In my considered opinion, the Interwar years were the highpoint of British academic life, and the historical reflections of these two Oxford Professors 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 that has since been forgotten.
A small library of Tolkien’s posthumous writings had by this time appeared. Tolkien had 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 it a friend helped me set up Rounded Globe, an electronic publishing venture that makes scholarly ebooks released on a creative commons license. By this point I had an active Tolkien social media presence, now obliterated. My blog of longstanding is lost after WordPress locked me out of my free site and demanded money to access my archive. By then I had already lost my main forum of communication when Google shut down G+ and my group of Tolkien friends migrated to Facebook (I maintain a Tolkien Fb page, but find platform and theme incompatible).
Before the G+ catastrophe, a group of five of us from a G+ Middle-earth group co-authored an essay now published in John Rateliff’s edited tribute to Verlyn Flieger, A Wilderness of Dragons. Our essay was good primarily because it was mainly written by Tom Hillman (who has gone on to pen his own monograph, on pity and the One Ring). Prior to the writing, however, we all spent many hours in online discussion of Flieger’s reading of certain passages of The Lord of the Rings in her A Question of Time. This opened up The Lord of the Rings in ways I had never dreamed of. While I disagree with Flieger profoundly on some issues, she has taught me more about Tolkien than 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 learned how 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 year I’ve returned to Tolkien’s Beowulf studies in an attempt to make sense of this vanishing of 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 a manuscript, a second book, as yet unpublished: On Seeing Stones: A Hobbit’s Guide to Stairs. Like a game of football, this book is of two halves. The first investigates the allegory of the tower in relation to Tolkien’s study of Beowulf. The second examines the reception of the allegory, with the last chapter explaining how the consensus reading arose by way of a tacit agreement among the early academic commentators of the late 1970s and 1980s not to mention the historical background to the composition of The Lord of the Rings, namely the rise of Fascism and German National Socialism and the dark years of World War Two.
The story of the reception of the allegory of the tower is complicated, however, by the fact that the first person to vanish History from Middle-earth was Tolkien, which he did by making a strange sequel to his allegory in which Hobbits metaphorically climb the stairs of the tower, which now appeared as it were in a mirror – not a coastal tower out of which looks the Eye of Art but an inland tower out of which looks the Eye of Sauron. The reason that Tolkien vanished History is at the heart of my inquiry.
The upshot is, however that the academics and the Tolkien fans are kind of right after all. They are wrong about the allegory, because the sundering with History had not yet occurred when it was composed. But they are a bit right about Middle-earth as it appeared after the invention of the Third Age.
While my manuscript argues all this cogently and with plentiful empirical evidence, I must confess that I am not sure how much I understand the picture that I have unveiled. I want to gain some more clarity on what I have discovered before returning to Morgiana and her chalk markings. So I’m returning to social media to see if I can pen some posts that set out the hidden History of our world in Tolkien’s Middle-earth in a way that other people can make sense of, and maybe even agree with.