mark stone Mill

April 14, 2021
Simon Cook

In the title, Mill = John Stuart Mill, who published two paragraphs on the chalk mark of the robber in the story of ‘Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves’ in the Arabian Nights in 1843. The main part of this post illuminates Mill’s literary analysis of the story.

Mill’s reading of the story is important to me because I read it as a missing link between the stories of ‘Ali Baba’ and The Hobbit. So, while the main part of the post concerns Mill, I begin by establishing the relationship between the two stories and their authors by situating the more modern story in relation to its author’s biographical sequence mark - stone, which in my first post on this new site I set out as tokens of my twin research projects of the year 2021.

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The sequence denotes two research projects by the author and scholar J.R.R. Tolkien. The first, mark, generated The Hobbit, essentially completed by the end of 1932 (published 1937). The stone project begins with a short story, an allegory of the composition and reception of the Old English Beowulf, first penned in summer 1933 to frame some special Oxford lectures on the scholarly reception of Beowulf.

My terms, mark and stone, are shorthand. I adopt the first because The Hobbit is a story about marks of one kind or another, beginning with that put by a wizard on the round door of Bag-end, and because I believe The Hobbit was designed as a remix or sequel to the story of ‘Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves’, which is also about marks. The term stone derives from the basic metaphor on which Tolkien’s two allegories of Beowulf (a rock garden and a tower) are built: a stone = an old story.

Together, the two terms indicate the two primary threads from which the story of the War of the Ring was woven; but I am not here concerned to narrate that great making, only to identify the origin of the two threads in two successive research projects and to reveal the hidden connection between them.

The hidden connection is the story of ‘Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves’. As this tale and Beowulf are as chalk and cheese, and drawn from two distinct traditions - two different Cauldrons of oral story, as Tolkien might have it, this identification of a hidden connection requires justification. Before proceeding, however, please allow me a grandiose statement of my claim. Some years ago, and with The Silmarillion in mind, the Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger declared that Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction (1928) was second only to Beowulf in significance for Tolkien. With The Hobbit and its sequel in mind, I reply that, as a matter of fact, the author of ‘Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves’ was Tolkien’s significant other.

I’m basically making two claims about Tolkien’s interest in the story from the Arabian Nights: (1) he saw that it was like Beowulf in that the scholars read it as a folktale but, in fact, it was the work of a modern author; (2) he was sufficiently interested in this tale to have thought about it in the most profound way that he knew, namely by reworking it into a new story.

That The Hobbit is a reworking of ‘Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves’ might sound strange to you but is by now obvious to me. In a nutshell, both stories are framed by two doors, one marked the other hidden and behind which is a great hoard of stolen treasure, and both tell of a burglar whose own door is marked and who passes through the hidden door. Abstracting from the world of northern tradition in which The Hobbit is set, as also from Tolkien’s fantasy of hobbits, and setting the new story in Old Persia, we can generate the remix by bringing the original story to a premature and violent end:

When Ali Baba went to seek his brother, Cassim, in the hidden cave with the magic door he too was caught and brutally murdered by the 40 Thieves. But before he set out he left with Morgiana a map marking the location of the hidden door and (in invisible ink) the magic password.

This premature end now serves as prologue of the new story:

After suitable interval - which might even be a generation or two if she is magically made sufficiently ageless - Morgiana organizes a party of assorted relatives, who are to meet Wednesday tea-time at the home of Baba Baggins, who plays Ali Baba of the original story. On the Tuesday, Morgiana puts a mark on his door so that the relatives might know this is the burglar when they turn up on the doorstep, and on the next day inside his hole in the ground (with a door) he is recruited as such on an expedition to travel beyond the great forest to reach the hidden door and help drive the relatives’ curses home to the terrible Thieves. So, in this new story, it is Morgiana (or an equivalent) who puts the mark on the door and, as if by magic and with the help of a map, in this story the mark on the door works.

Why did Tolkien remix the story in the Arabian Nights? He who breaks a thing to see how it works has left the path of wisdom. Making a new story was Tolkien’s way of ensuring that his remixing of the elements did not break them but remained a living story - though at the cost of introducing a novel fairy-element - a magic ring of invisibility - between the two doors (whose order of narrative appearance, Tolkien reversed). So the telling of a new story shows Tolkien thinking very carefully about the old. But why was he thinking of a story far removed from his professorial concern with Anglo-Saxon language and literature? The answer, of course, is the greatest work in Old English, Beowulf.

As a matter of fact, The Hobbit remixes ‘Ali Baba’ with a few lines from the last part of Beowulf, and though this is not the point I want to get at here, it is as well to take note of it. Lines 2214-2219 of the Old English poem tell of a nið[ð]a náthwylc, a man whose name is not known, who steals a cup from the barrow where a dragon sleeps on his hoard of treasure, so awaking Beowulf’s bane. Tolkien spotted the 42 nameless thieves in the tale from the Arabian Nights (40 Thieves + the burgling brothers whose names only the Chief-robber discovers). Tolkien fuses Ali Baba with the nameless thief of Beowulf by way of Bilbo Baggins, who awakes the wrath of Smaug by stealing a cup after he has passed through the hidden door. In a nutshell, Tolkien draws the two stories together to fashion his own ‘nameless thief’, Bilbo Baggins the hobbit (a title that may once have been meaningless but is filled with meaning by the story).

But this does not explain why Tolkien formed the intention of remixing ‘Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves’ with the nameless thief of Beowulf. The answer, I suggest, is that Tolkien became interested in the author of the story in the Arabian Nights because he spotted that, like the author of Beowulf, he was invisible.

Specifically, both stories are (or were) read as folklore, which is to say as traditional oral stories by good chance recorded (by modern means) from some more or less talented native storyteller. But both stories are actually the work of a modern author.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not at all saying that ‘Ali Baba’ and Beowulf are forgeries. They are stories told by master storytellers, as Tolkien was also. In all cases, part of the mastery of the storyteller is exhibited by the use of folklore elements, which are taken from tradition but - a sign of an author - put to new use in a new story.

Nor am I overlooking vast oceans of difference in how Tolkien read the two older stories. In that of the Syrian, I am sure, he found none of the whistful longing for a lost age of the past, glimpsed in tales set on the other shore beyond the sea, where the ancestors of the English came from, which the Anglo-Saxon author of Beowulf gazed upon from the top of a tower of old stone that he constructed in his home in the British Isles.

What Hanna Diyab - for that is the proper name of our other author - did achieve, and which, given Tolkien’s own literary ambitions must have placed him almost on the level of the elves, was to have his stories embedded in a modern translation of a medieval collection of folktales and generally received as belonging to or with them. Not The Hobbit, to be sure, which carefully places a modern narrator between us and folklore tradition, but most of Tolkien’s other fairy stories were deliberately composed to read as conjectural origins of the fragments of ancient English story traditions that have come down to us (primarily, though far from exclusively, through Beowulf). For such ambitions, inclusion in an Old Northern version of the Arabian Nights is an unrealizable fantasy.

On this ground I conjecture that this student of Beowulf became interested in the story in the Arabian Nights sometime in the 1920s precisely because he spotted a similar collective failure of scholars to pass a literary Turing Test.

That Tolkien spotted the modern author in the 1001 Nights is pure conjecture on my part because he never published a word on this most famous of story collections - a silence that might be expected from a Professor of Anglo-Saxon but is nevertheless remarkable from the author of On Fairy-stories (the nearest he approaches is to wave before us The Blue Fairy Book, which at least contains Andrew Lang’s version of the ‘Ali Baba’ story). Nevertheless, aside from the intrinsic interest of the story as story it is the only reason I can think of for explaining why the doors and other elements of the story of Ali Baba are so central to the design of the story of Bilbo Baggins.

If I am correct in these readings then Tolkien’s stone project is illuminated because, while the material (stone) and design of the author (rock garden and then tower) of the allegory were no doubt selected by Tolkien to accord with features specific to Beowulf (I mention here only Ruskin’s Stones of Venice), the story of the ‘friends’ who do not see the author and so vandalise his work of art thinking that they are doing ‘research’ must owe something to Tolkien’s observation of the horrible mess that the folklorists and philologists made of certain stories in the Arabian Nights (I use the plural because the teller of the tale of Ali Baba was certainly the author of the most wonderful story of Aladdin and the magic lamp, as also some of the other ‘orphan stories’ of Galland’s later volumes).

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Here then is a glimpse of how the story of Ali Baba serves as a hidden connection between mark and stone. So what is the road to, or from, the mill of philosophy set out in my first two mark-posts?

My two previous posts engaged with two paragraphs in John Stuart Mill’s A System of Logic (1843). The first paragraph analyses “the chalk mark” put on the house by “the robber” (sic), declaring its purpose identification, distinction by artificial contrivance the means. The second paragraph adopts the perspective of intentions and holds up the chalk mark as analogous to a proper name as a first step to proposing a definition of a proper name (by specifying how one differs from such a chalk mark). As an account of proper names, something in Mill’s exposition seems deeply muddled.

What I wish now to record is the other side of the coin: as a literary critic, Mill seems to me a trail blazer. Indeed, I am convinced that he is a major inspiration behind Tolkien’s remixing of the story, prompting him to introduce the riddle of naming into the heart of The Hobbit. But putting aside The Hobbit for the remainder of this post, I wish to show now that, from the point of view of the kind of friends of an artist met in Tolkien’s short stories about Beowulf as a work of stone toppled and overturned by philologists and folklorists, Mill is a model friend of the author.

To make this case I first introduce a different guest at our alternative literary party (hosted by the author not of Beowulf but by Hanna Diyab). The proper name of this guest is Stanley Poole-Lane, and he appears at the party as the nephew and literary executor of the Lane estate. Stanley, as I will name him, is a wrecker.

Stanely was an Oriental scholar in his own right, but his uncle was the great Edward William Lane, who made his popular name with The Thousand and One Nights, Commonly Called, in England, The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments. A New Translation from the Arabic, with Copious Notes (3 vols. London: Charles Knight, 1839-41).

Now, E.W. Lane disappointed the Victorian public by refusing to translate what are now (since 1963) called the ‘orphan tales’ of the later volumes of Antoine Galland’s first European translation of the medieval Arabic collections known as ‘the 1001 Nights’, Les mille et une nuits, contes arabes traduits en français (12 vols. Paris, 1704-1717). From his own purist perspective, he was quite right.

When after eight volumes Antoine Galland ran out of stories from his Syrian manuscript version of the ‘1001 Nights’ he was lucky enough to meet the young Hanna Diyab at the house of a friend and fellow Orientalist in Paris. Diyab told Galland several stories, which allowed him to continue publishing his highly popular ‘translations’ of the medieval stories. ‘Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves’ appeared in volume 11 (1717), two years after Galland’s death. No medieval version of all but one of Diyab’s tales are unknown, and so Lane concluded that they are not medieval Arabic stories.

As editor of the 1909 Harvard Classics edition of his late uncle’s translations, Stanley was pushed to include the tales of Aladdin and Ali Baba, which he himself translated from the French and placed in an appendix. Reading our story here, we find a lone footnote appended to the first utterance of Open, Simsum:

This talismanic word, though it is the Arabic name of sesamè (Sesamum orientale, a plant producing oil-grain much used in the East), must have some other meaning. A German folk-tale, “Simeliberg,” beginning in something of the same way with the magical opening of a rock, has the phrase “Open Simsi,” which the Grimms explain as an German word for mountain (Hartland, Inst. Folklore Congress, 1891). There is nothing to prove that ‘Ali Baba is not a European folk-tale turned into Arabic by Galland’s Syrian munshi.

One hardly knows where to begin, and does not like to think what the best friends of the storyteller might have said on observing Stanley’s antics at the party: ‘Such uncouth behaviour, not what one would expect from a friend! “Galland’s Syrian munshi” indeed!’ Yet Stanley was by no means alone in assuming that if the tale is not Arabic folklore it must be European folklore - an opinion revealing a blinkered prejudice that fails the literary Turing Test.

The phrase Open, Simsum, to which the note is appended, is a liberty of the translator, Stanley. Galland’s original has Sesamè ouvre-toi, as does the sketch of the story he made in May 1709, when Diab first told him the tale. Stanley never explains his translation of the magic word back into Arabic, which in any case hardly sits well with his reading of the story as a European folktale!

I record all the above simply because it cannot be passed over in silence. What I really wish to highlight in this strange footnote in the Harvard Classics edition of E.W. Lane’s translations of the 1001 Nights is his nephew’s conviction that the magical formula that English-speakers know as ‘Open sesame’ “must have some other meaning.”

Why? Who is to say that the magical word in a spell of opening must have a meaning? Abracadabra does not seem to. In the 1709 sketch we see the word linked to its regular meaning - when Cassim’s wife wonders which grains Ali Baba’s wife intends to weigh and when Cassim forgets the magic word inside the cave and tries various other grain-passwords. The storyteller is telling us not to look for another meaning.

Quite possibly we read this riddle differently in a day when we routinely login to online sites with passwords that are variations of open sesame. If I make open_sesame my password (not a wise choice), I use as a key to a virtual door a word that has a dictionary meaning, but this dictionary meaning has no bearing on how the key turns the lock of the door. From the point of view of the dictionary-compiler, a password is a meaningless mark - though as a key (and this Mill appears to have quite overlooked) the specific shape of the meaningless ‘chalk mark’ matters (an identifying mark, when used in a world in which more than one thing is identified, must appear different to other distinctive marks).

The assumption that an obscure phrase must have some lost meaning is here a philological bar to straight reading of a story. I could give you an alternative etymology of Simsum from Paul Haupt in the 1926 volume of The American Journal of Philology, who reads Arabic and Hebrew variations to give us an original meaning of the phrase something like ‘Open door-stopper-stone’. The same objections could be made as to Stanley (in all likelihood, Haupt took the term Simsum from Stanley’s Harvard edition). Instead, here is my guess as to the imagination of the spoken formula Open, Sesame in the mind of the author.

We know that in the tale Diyab told Galland, Ali Baba finds not only treasure but also a feast of food in the cave, and that in this he was drawing on old Syrian folktales (he was a native of Aleppo) that told of travelers who discovered banquets in djinn-occupied holes in the ground. I surmise that the young storyteller from Aleppo envisaged a cave that was once just such a folktale cave but had changed long ago thanks to a great robber-magician, who tricked the djinn into the stone walls of the cave and forced him to work as a blind guardian of the door - blind in that he opens the door to anyone who asks and says his proper name, Sesamè.

Be that as it may, I’d now like to introduce John Stuart Mill a second time - still the author of A System of Logic, but now the young man who had such a peculiar home education and read the Arabian Nights as a young boy.

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Mill records reading the Arabian Nights in his Autobiography. He says that his father borrowed the volume, and some other light reading, to vary the otherwise stern and sober diet of classical texts that he fed to his son in his horrendous but parsimonious experiment in home education (parsimonious because having himself schooled John, his eldest, James then set John to educate Jame’s next eight children).

From the Autobiography we further glean that Mill was born in 1806, that he read the Arabian Nights before his eighth year, and that the first book of his Logic, where the analysis of the story is found, dates to 1830, composed over a decade before the volume was complete. So the door-that-is-chalked percolated in Mill’s mind for around a decade and a half before he deployed it as a step toward the definition of a proper name.

We also know, from the testimony of Mill’s friend, William Carpenter, that Mill thought out his Logic on his walks to and from work at India House in the City of London. Knowing his address, we can thus picture him with some degree of realism as he thinks about chalking a house he is looking at (another friend, Alexander Bain, gives his daily dress and hours of work, and adds that the writing up of the Logic was not done at home but during Mill’s office hours).

I suggest that in Mill we have an ideal reader of the fairy story. As a reader of ‘Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves’ he has three chief virtues: (1) he is simply a reader and not a philologist, (2) he has the wit to see the connection between the two doors of the story, and (3) he is precise in his analysis, so providing key terms of art for future literary criticism.

However, Mill’s analysis of one story-detail in one paragraph is necessarily concise to the point of elliptic. For example, he says nothing at all about the hidden door and its magical spoken mark Open, sesame. We have to tease out his wider reading of the two-door story from what he says about only one door.

Nevertheless, it seems obvious to me that Mill arrived at his interesting analysis of the door-that-is-chalked by way of the hidden-door-that-opens-to-a-spoken-word. In other words, I take it that his point of departure is the observation that, while sesame is indeed a type of grain, in the usage in the story it is a meaningless if magical word. Hence, unlike the philologists and folklore enthusiasts, Mill does not get lost comparing one door with similar doors in other folk stories but, rather, illuminates the frame of the story by revealing the queer connection between its two doors.

The reason his step from one door to the other seems obvious to me is because the insight that the chalk mark is meaningless is otherwise mysterious. This is because the chalk mark appears a meaningful sign to Morgiana who, as Mill observes in the concluding sentences of his paragraph, foils the scheme of the robber by placing chalk marks on the doors of the neighbouring houses. (In fact, because in the story the sequence is repeated, Morgiana read two chalk marks, both as signs of unspecified mischief - but Mill overlooked the repetition). In the context of the recent brutal murder of the master of the house, the chalk marks indicated to Morgiana the presence of an unseen person or persons unknown, presumed armed and dangerous.

Mill gets a bad press in the universities. This has something to do with him writing the first Logic 101 textbook, certain arguments of which have now become canonical openings in a series of positions to be demolished (in the case of proper names: Mill’s logical errors are turned upside down by Russell and/or Frege and then Kripke puts things right side up again). Actually, from my own background in the history of political economy the very fact that philosophers still teach by way of Mill is odd; after Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics (1890), Mill was simply out of date on the fundamentals of marginal analysis of the market. Unless taking a special course in the history of economics, no economics student today is going to read the Bible of mid-Victorian political economy. But whatever the scientific reputation today of this queer Victorian public moralist, his literary insight is underrated.

To be honest, I’ve only very slowly come round to the conclusion that Mill’s reading of the chalk mark bears the mark of uncanny genius - uncanny because at some level Mill seems not quite fully conscious of what he is doing. Nevertheless, I’m convinced that Tolkien learned a thing or two about fairy stories and enchantment by reading Mill’s account of proper names.

Mill does not deny that the chalk mark is a sign to Morgiana, a sign of a person unknown. What he does, however, is put us into the shoes of that person unknown, viz. the robber with a piece of chalk in his hand, looking at a house that has just been pointed out to him. By asking us to re-enact a fairy-tale act of stupidity, Mill exploits the genius of the story and conjures out of a picture of a sign an image in our own minds of a private mark - the chalk mark as seen by the robber, who is evidently unaware that such a private mark will appear to others as a public sign (of him).

Mill achieves his goal with remarkable economy because, by inviting us to partake in an imaginary act of chalking a house he encourages us to be free with our chalk and not worry about the consequences, which is to say that because we are only in our imagination we slip into re-enacting the robber’s mistake, playing the role of the man who failed to grasp the reality that he was not marking the house in his imagination.

Tolkien saw here, I think, an element of the explanation of some of the queer antics of the friends of the Beowulf poet, a similar sort of stupidity, bearing upon failure to recognise another person, explored with consummate artistry and utter respect for property, in the original story of the riddle game. But this is to anticipate a future post.

But I have the feeling that some modern philosophers who comment on Mill’s doctrine of proper names miss some of his subtleties. From my perspective, that is to say, from what I have discovered in my long research into the use made of Mill’s books and ideas in Cambridge University after 1865, what was initially understood as the far more exciting strand of his thinking than Logic was Psychology, which Mill was happy to leave in the hands of Alexander Bain, but which rather raises its head in his reading of the Arabian Nights (for example, what does it mean about his state of mind that the second robber repeats the mistake of the first? A question Mill never addresses because he most curiously fails to distinguish the two robbers and uses, ambiguously, the definite article). The psychological (in this Victorian sense) is actually Mill’s primary but unstated perspective on the chalk mark, but modern philosophers who have seen their profession long ago discard Victorian Association Psychology do not attend to Mill’s psychological understanding of the situation.

What Mill is saying about proper names is that they are pre-linguistic. He does not here inquire further as to what this means because this would take him out of Logic and into Psychology. Obviously, to understand him we must shift our ground from Logic to Psychology, which means bringing into focus the governing analogy of Association Psychology that the human mind is like a machine. The psychological notion of a ‘meaningless mark’ arises naturally once the mental phenomenon of memory is understood as akin to the question of how to achieve efficient recall in a library or other database classification system. Mill’s proper name is a meaningless mark of precisely the same kind as the odd strings of numbers and letters that librarians attach to library books.

Unfortunately, patient reading of Mill’s literary analogy and definition of a proper name never flourished and hardly survived the modern revolution in logic at the turn of the century. Witness the early twentieth-century consensus between L.S. Stebbing in London and H.W.B. Joseph in Oxford, usually at loggerheads on modern logic, but both agreed that Mill’s very idea of a meaningless mark or sign is preposterous. Hard-headed and erudite as were this logical pair, neither attended carefully to Mill’s literary analogy. Nor did his few disciples on the doctrine of proper names care much for his literary analogy: John Venn did not mention the Arabian Nights while in 1918 Bertrand Russell, who as it happens was Mill’s godson, appears to have satisfied himself that he had erased the rest of the analogy when he drew a chalk dot on a blackboard and named it ‘John’. Intriguingly, the place where we can detect a sustained rumination of Mill’s chalk mark is in his most severe Idealist critics: Bernard Bosanquet (1883), who concedes that the chalk mark is the shadow of a proper name, and Russell’s teacher, the Cambridge Psychologist G.F. Stout, who in the 1890s named the chalk mark of the story a “suggestive sign” (akin to the shape of the knight on the chessboard) and then, in another publication, recognised an element of the chalk mark in all language.

If few philosophers bothered thinking much about Mill’s analogy, the Oriental scholars of course paid no attention whatsoever. Yet Mill’s behaviour as a friend of the artist at an event like that imagined by Tolkien for Beowulf is exemplary in relation to both groups. On the whole, the comments of the philosophers reveal that they have not read (or re-read) the story - they treat is as folklore, but not as their colleagues in literature, like Stanley, who knock the story over the better to see the individual elements. Folklore to the philosophers evidently means that (presumably because the tale has no canonical version) they are at liberty to re-invent it at will to suit their philosophical arguments. Transposed into our version of Tolkien’s allegory: these philosophers do not even turn up at the party; rather, they hang out together in their own private mingle, happy to make up new variations together, so long as they are paid a stipend.

Mill not only turns up, he points to a criminal act in the story and asks us to imagine performing it ourselves; he asks us to re-enact and so discover the robber’s intentions, yet never suggests that he or we actually engage in a real defacement of property - a stupid as well as a criminal thing to do. Thus, Mill shows us a fairy element, a glimpse with a keen eye of something that can be seen but not defined, a meaningless mark. Here is the first and main part of Mill’s paragraph on the story:

If, like the robber in the Arabian Nights, we make a mark with chalk upon a house to enable us to know it again, the mark has a purpose, but it has not properly any meaning. The chalk does not declare anything about the house; it does not mean, This is such a person’s house, or This is a house which contains booty. The object of making the mark is merely distinction. I say to myself, All these houses are so nearly alike, that if I lose sight of them I shall not again be able to distinguish that which I am now looking at from any of the others; I must therefore contrive to make the appearance of this one house unlike that of the others, that I may hereafter know, when I see the mark – not indeed any attribute of the house – but simply that it is the same house which I am now looking at.

The reasoning in the middle is as preposterous as Gandalf’s ‘plan’ of turning up on the doorstep of a dragon and thinking of a plan. I say to myself, If I chalk one of these houses the woman inside, who I think I discern behind net curtains, is likely to come outside and give me an earful. If I am in my right senses, I might also ask myself, Why do I wish to recognize again a random house in a London street near the River Thames that I happen to be walking down on my way home from work? We appear to be in a G.K. Chesterton story, another addition to the Club of Queer Trades, the man who earns his living as ‘a Philosopher’ (poetic license allows us to stretch the royalties from A System of Logic and forget about Mill’s day job at India House, running the second British Empire by placing marks on pieces of paper in London). And this no doubt is as it should be, as Borges identifies Chesterton’s London as inherited from Robert Louis Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights (1882), which retells in late-Victorian dress the story of the Caliph and his faithful advisor who wander the streets in search of adventures at the heart of the Empire.

But with his unsound reasoning, Mill achieves a marvellous tour of Hanna Diyab’s fairy story, implicitly taking us from the opening door, the hidden door with the magic of the meaningless spoken mark, to a door in a street in a town that he - and we - might have walked down that very morning. An expert tour of a fairy story, revealing something visible only to a keen eye, a queer image, which alludes literal description or title: a public picture of a private, meaningless, mark, a ‘fairy element’.

To fully appreciate the wonder of Mill’s magic we must of course attend also to his second paragraph, where he attempts a definition of a proper name by specifying how it is different from the chalk mark. In brief, this second paragraph returns us to the real world, our mind and senses refreshed for having seen a mark of another’s mind through a fairy-tale mirror, and so ready to see with our own eyes, or hear with our own ears, a meaningless sign, a proper name, written or spoken.

At the heart of the two-step movement of these two paragraphs is the difference that Mill spells out between the chalk mark and a proper name, a difference that is so blindingly obvious it is hard to recognize how it makes the magic trick he is working. The difference is simply this: the proper name is really a meaningless mark put on our idea of the house while in the fairy-story re-enactment we imagined placing the mark on the house itself.

Mill’s step is sublime because only with the definition of the second paragraph do we begin to understand what actually happened in the seemingly innocent expert tour of a corner of a fairy story set in Persia: imagining chalking an actual house we were in reality putting a mark on an idea of the house (and not the house itself) and so, as Mill would have it, imposing a proper name without knowing it!

Here is Mill the magician, rarely spotted. His second paragraph returns us from enchanted tour to proper definition by placing the mark back into the mind, where it properly belongs. This mark has no proper part in visible public language, it is a public picture of a private mental image - an impossible thing to show. Nevertheless, this fairy element is the ground of a proper name, a meaningless public sign imposed on other people and by others on us, and also on some things.

Whatever the philosophical shortcomings of Mill’s passage through the Arabian Nights, he leaves a literary wake that seagulls do well to follow. He is a model reader by Tolkien’s critical lights, most careful of property and ownership, imagining fondly perhaps that he is reading folklore but actually engaging with the author as an opponent in a game of chess, which he does not always win. But in these games he discovered a peculiarly modern enchantment, albeit an enchantment rooted in folklore from the East, and - in a most unlikely publication - revealed this enchantment to the Victorian reading public.

In my opinion, Mill in his Logic reveals a cogent and careful reading of the fairy story of Hanna Diyab, a story framed by two doors each associated with different kinds of meaningless marks, one spoken, magical, blind, the other an urban market craft of visible signs. Mill exploits for his own philosophical ends the story of the robber who fails because he cannot up his game and deploy a meaningless mark as the circumstances demand (as Tolkien indicates, the robber should have used the chalk to make a map as he followed his blindfolded guide).

A tale of two doors and two meaningless marks, one folk magic of the spoken word, the other the market magic of visible signs. The story begins because the 40 robber-folk do not know when to keep their mouths shut (Ali Baba overhears the magic password). The rural bandits then come to town seeking a burglar whose name they do not know and, in the sequence 1, 1, 1, 36, 1, fall to the guardian of the other door because they lack the art of visible signs, because, again, they do not know when to remain silent, and finally because they are not even very good at disguise.

Again, this is not a story that reads like a folktale, at least not as Europeans have traditionally conceived folktales, namely oral stories of ‘the folk’, which conventionally means illiterate peasants working the land. On the other hand, the story is true to the spirit of the 1001 Nights, which were loved especially by the city merchants and traders of the medieval Arabic-speaking world, and in whose coffee houses in the days of Hanna Diyab storytellers still told marvellous tales to Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike.

In any case, with this literary insight of John Stuart Mill now framed, I will turn in my next post, Inshallah, to making use of this frame to better understand The Hobbit as a remix of the original story of ‘Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves’.

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