A lot of weird stuff is going to come out of 2020. This is the prologue to mine. My conclusion from the thinking I caught time for last year is that the world is composed not of things but of holes.
A year or so ago, my family made some videos on J.R.R. Tolkien’s story of The Hobbit. We had a lot of fun. Visually, it was a mess. A lot of the ideas were good, but I never unified form and content. I got stuck because only while making the videos did I spot that The Hobbit replicates the two doors – one marked the other invisible – that frame the story of ‘Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves’ – and did not know what to make of this.
A pandemic later, and having worked through some philosophical issues here on ye machine, I’m getting more of the picture and ready to give it another shot. But as my three sons, who have been stuck at home for the last year, would rather eat spinach than do this with me right now, I’m striking out on my own!
First, though I’m going to prepare the ground by outlining what was right in the old videos.
Step 1. An account of a story should begin, if possible, with the author’s voice. I came round to this, but only by the end of the series - I should have started with Tolkien’s framing recollection (rather than some weird experimental video on the ‘queer sign’ that I am not even going to link to - but that first video I was still learning how to operate the machinery).
On several occasions, Tolkien told how the first sentence of the story was penned spontaneously, in a moment of boredom, on a blank sheet of an examination script he was marking: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ On one telling (to Auden) he added that it was a few years and the drawing of the Map of Thror before he sat down and penned the second and subsequent sentences.
What can we reconstruct of the author’s imagination in the late 1920s, leading up to the design he set in motion when, in summer 1930, he sat down pen in hand and followed the second sentence with the main part of ‘An Unexpected Party’, the first chapter of a story about the hobbit’s adventure, there and back again?
◌ In our final video, the riddle of The Hobbit, I articulated an hypothesis, still to be verified or refuted, which I’d unexpectedly arrived at by way of putting digital pen to paper to make these videos:
Tolkien (soon) came to see his sentence as a riddle to be answered. He knew that a story was the only road to an answer, but he also knew that the story should reveal something approaching a definition of what his hobbit was, alone, himself, and nameless. He pictured this answer as an abstract sign in the shape of a round hole (as seen by its border), namely a ring. This ring was to be dropped into the story and become the property of the hobbit.
This ring is the answer to the riddle. As such it is a sign, a sign given by the story but a sign that can only be read by the story - it is a sign of the story.
This is still a riddle. Unless you are a wizard, like Gandalf, who saw much of what was in the hobbit when he looked at him in their opening conversation, you will not know how to read this magic ring even when you know the story. Bilbo Baggins is a singular hobbit. But the magic ring, though it indeed becomes his sign, is also, or at least was once, the sign of another, Gollum.
Step 2. On this final video I also tried to show (too many directions!) the process of Tolkien’s early thinking on his sentence as evident from the finished product as read on the first page of the published story.
Long meditation on types of hole by a comparative method (second sentence) culminates with a view of the door and a step through the doorway for a tour of hobbit architecture: no stairs for the hobbit, yet cellars deeper underground than the windowed dining-rooms.
One key to Tolkien’s approach to his original sentence is his second sentence, which utilizes a method I have seen used by John Stuart Mill, explained by Tolkien’s Pembroke colleague R. Collingwood, and used elsewhere by Tolkien - approaching the definition of a ‘fairy-story’ in his essay on that subject. In this case, the hole in the ground of the hobbit, the method goes like this:
a hobbit-hole is not too dry and sandy nor to wet and nasty; it is comfortable.
The method arrives at a definition by apt analogy and is at the heart of the English intellectual tradition in which Tolkien, as also Collingwood and Mill, participated. It gives us the second sentence of The Hobbit and much else besides…
I suggest that some of the holes in the ground that Tolkien considered as he compared the hobbit-hole generated other holes in or even (in the case of two houses) on the ground or on the water (Lake-town), as well as their occupants. Gollum, for example, whom the narrator will introduce with the exclamation that he knows not where he came from nor who and what he is - no doubt an early imagination by our author of a creature living in a hole in the ground who was like but not like the hobbit.
Crucially, what we see on this first page is a comparison of holes, and as such, beneath the surface, a comparison of the different marks that a hole may take.
I only half appreciated this when I directed the videos. The opening comparison of holes is not a whimsical prelude to comparisons of the hobbit with other hole-dwellers. Together with his master, Hanna Diyab, the author of The Hobbit thought as deeply on the language of holes as any man in history. The ‘mythological grammar’ of The Hobbit, if you will, reflects a logic of language in which the world is understood as the totality of holes not of things.
If the magic ring is one extreme mark in the grammar of The Hobbit the key that opens the hidden door is the other - the point where we see the impossible and, as such, genuine magic.
Actually, the published story departs from the original sequence in the manuscript of the story, which I here restore. (See Rateliff History p. 97).
The map is handed over at the unexpected party in the hobbit-hole. The map shows a mountain. A rune on the map locates the hidden door; marginal runic writing gives its dimensions.
In the cave of the trolls a key is discovered - which turns out to be the key to the hidden door into the mountain (plunder of older plunders, indeed!)
In the last Homely House, Elrond reads moon-letters on the map.
Moon-letters flash the magic trick that Tolkien worked from Open, Sesame: visible signs that appear as spoken sounds - fleetingly visible and then silent once again. This is the magic of invisibility identified by Hanna Diyab on a hidden door and, in his story, naturally marked and worked by a spoken formula.
Tolkien transfers the magic of invisibility of the spoken word and the hidden door, first to the moon-letters, which are simply alphabetical letters, and second to a person by way of a sign that he puts on himself.
This remixing leaves the new story to construct a dwarvish version of Open, Sesame. By some primitive northern European calendrical architecture of barrow and henge, this is achieved with the notion of a (literal) key put into a hole that appears only on Durin’s Day - when the last light of the setting sun is seen in the sky with the last moon of autumn: then the hole appears; and appearance seems to be reality, as in: before, it seems, there really was no hole, nor is there after, but the living rock opens and closes as per the design of the cunning dwarvish makers.
Alongside this and other transformations of chalk mark and spoken magic, Tolkien’s remix of the original two-door story generates a magical sign that is found in a doorless hole and is put on a person.
Step 3. Comparison of holes not only helped our author establish the meaning of the hobbit’s hole but also suggested a story-method to discover what the hobbit was: show what is in him by taking him outside of his hole and into other holes. Some holes on the ground and on the water – houses – were envisaged along the way.
Hence was born the subtitle of the story: there and back again.
Step 4. As the idea of a story formed, the author imagined concretely, and from diverse sources, three primary holes:
Step 5. You can see how our video project veered off course through these videos, and I must own the failure of direction. When I sat down with my sons, then watching way too much Youtube, I invited them to do a hobbit video project that I pretended was all worked out - a bit like Gandalf in Bag-end explaining his ‘plan’ of burgling a live dragon. I did have the fruit of several years earlier piecemeal research, and did from the start have a vision of three main holes, which is how we have these three early videos.
From this perspective, the video on aboriginal hobbits was exciting but also a misdirection! Bag-end, this video should have been titled, and should have explored not hobbits but the inside of their holes - something I only got round to on the final video (the equipment baffled my head in those first videos - actually, I never mastered it; all the technical improvement as the series progressed was down to my son Yotam).
Still, this video set out the autonomous bit of research that a decade ago first got me wondering again about The Hobbit. I claim that The Hill where Bilbo Baggins lives, as also hobbits in general and the travel companions of this one in particular – 13 dwarves and a wizard – were conjured out of Tolkien’s spontaneous sentence to produce a mock ‘original’ to the Welsh fairy-tradition read in mangled form by the first Professor of Celtic at Oxford, John Rhys, who in a talk of 1900 described British aborigines as a little people, much given to wizardry and magic, living in holes in the ground disguised as little hills. (Gollum, by the by, steps into the story as an aboriginal survival living a long age after the coming of the goblins has cut him off from friends and family).
The video on Beowulf lacked creative tension because we were simply spelling out what was recognized in the Observer newspaper already a few months after the story was first published in 1937, namely that the hobbit’s cup-stealing mirrors the theft of a cup from a sleeping dragon - Beowulf’s bane - in the Old English poem (I think I made an error of dating on an obscure poem, as well).
The video on Gollum was conceived as the center when we began - and I was right, it is central, only I did not then have the idea of the doorless door-mark. Gollum’s cave explores the other hole in the ground, abode of a creature undetermined in the imagination of the author - or so he claims, a creature so very unlike and yet curiously like the hobbit. Gollum no doubt had a door once, and even a proper name; we meet him at his end, losing - twice over - the last identifying mark of what he once was. Gollum has been alone in the dark for a very long time. Few people liked our Hebrew etymology of glm, but I still think it correct – and am convinced the critics fail to register the original Gollum (of the first edition, who would never cheat in the riddle game). If I get beyond the story in the Arabian Nights I’ll return to this video, because another thing that I failed to do back then was connect Gollum to our second video on hobbits.
Step 6. Now, here you have the state of my thinking when I directed these family hobbit videos, which attempted to bring together the quite distinct themes and ideas at play in these three very different holes in the ground.
Step 7. And it was only in the midst of making these first videos that I spotted the blindingly obvious: two of these holes of The Hobbit, the first and the third, take doors, which replay, albeit in reverse order, the two doors of ‘Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves’.
The doors unveil the magic of both stories. They are of two kinds: visible and invisible.
Tolkien unravels the meaning of the original story but pays appropriate tribute with his introduction of a new inside dimension. The map gives the Syrian storyteller’s game away, it is what the robbers should have made with the chalk in their hands. The new trick is to see ‘inside’ a person.
Ali Baba and the other characters of his tale experience changes of fortune, and use what wits they have, but none becomes - as we would say - a different person. The Hobbit is by comparison a modern tale, charting the discovery of hidden personality. This transforms the story from a war of the two doors to a journey from one to the other that reveals the same magical language of signs along the way.
Observe some of the magic waved simply by fitting 2 doors to 3 holes.
The first door is now more visible, or at least more distinctive: distinguished by the (freshly painted) green colour and the brass knob in the middle. A hole with no door now appears rude; and the appearance of this door, though it hides the hole within, nevertheless suggests not only civilisation but even domesticity.
The doorless hole now looks rude. As before, through its doorless-opening we see inside the hole. Without a door the inside of the hole is visible. If this were a real hole we could step inside and back outside of it at will, unless someone stood guard at the opening.
The third door is queer in this usage. An invisible door put on a doorway in my house would appear as a wall. But because this is a cave, which is to say a house naturally fashioned as a hole by kindly stone, an invisible entrance hides also the house. Although, not all the time. An invisible door is visible, and as such reveals also the hidden hole, when it is ajar - which is how it appears when caught in the process of opening or closing.
Hanna Diyab contrived a fantasy camera obscura, within which the visible form of the spoken word was perceived in the opening and closing of a hidden door. The trick of Open, Sesame is not the hole but the working of hole and door. With doorbell and key, and a staff to both scratch and bang on the door, Tolkien two centures later will envisage various other methods that might initiate the opening of even an invisible door. He could do so, though, only because of the story of the young man from Aleppo, which established the most subtle of analogies by ingeniously matching the mechanics of the invisible door to the invisible magic of the spoken word, then underlining his hidden analogy by a most artful demonstration of stupidity with the chalking of a visible door on the other side of the story.
One cost of Tolkien’s transformation or remix of the original story is the impossible keyhole, the genuine dwarvish magic imagined in place of the spoken words Open, Sesame, which magic formula Tolkien remixes twice, once as keyhole and once as magic ring. This keyhole is the price paid for unifying in the gold ring the magic mark and the chalk mark of the invisible and visible doors.
I’ve been thinking on this a lot over the last year…
Dedication. On my computer the folder that houses this project is Winnie, named for my youngest daughter. Winnie is three months old and I just sang her to sleep. She sat on a baby rocking chair which I rocked with my foot as I sang, and she fell asleep from mental exhaustion after 10 minutes or so of staring with rapt attention at my mouth and, on occasion, moving her lips and mouth in imitation of what she read on my face. Winnie will never remember the intense mental power by which she learned a language by listening with her eyes. Charles Darwin said we learn most in our first three years. But none of us can remember how we learned to speak.