On a grammatical hole

June 26, 2021
Simon Cook

In this post I draw out J.R.R. Tolkien’s picture of a grammatical hole. In a subsequent post I will show how this picture is drawn by The Hobbit. I begin now with Tolkien’s classic story of real holes because it helps us to frame the very idea of a hole. The first chapter, ‘An Unexpected Party’, was composed in summer 1932, with Bilbo Baggins returned to Bag-end at the end of his adventure by early 1933 (Rateliff xi-xiii). The origins of the story must date to the late 1920s, however, because Tolkien later wrote that it began with a spontaneous sentence that he pondered for some years before taking it as the first sentence of a story that he now began to write (Letters no. 163): “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

Tolkien penned a second sentence that rounded off a first paragraph by establishing the meaning of the hobbit’s hole by way of comparison with two other holes. The comparison is made in terms of the general living conditions inside a hole, and I suggest that already in the author’s mind was a picture of Gollum’s nasty, wet, doorless hole at the end of a goblin tunnel, an image of hole-dwelling reduced to the bare minimum. But we may discern in this second sentence also a hint of the hole that the hobbit is in this first chapter recruited to burgle, the hole behind the hidden door leading to the treasure and the dragon. The definition of “comfort” anticipates some uncomfortable holes ahead for the hobbit.

The second paragraph of the story takes us inside the hobbit-hole. The paragraph begins by comparing the door of the hole to a window, and proceeds to map the architecture of the hobbit-hole: one long tunnel, a corridor, with doors opening onto rooms on right and left, on one side dining rooms and living rooms with windows, on the other dark cellars and storerooms deeper underground. Like Gollum’s cave, as also that of the trolls, but unlike the Dwarf kingdom under the Mountain, the goblin tunnels, and Rivendell, the hobbit-hole has no back door; the hole marks the end of the road.

Here is a hole in the ground, in certain ways like but in other ways quite unlike the holes in the ground currently occupied by, respectively, Gollum and Smaug. One of the characteristics of the hobbit stories, however, is that the holes on the ground, the houses, are often more magical even than the holes in the ground: the holes of Beorn and of Tom Bombadil mark highpoints of enchantment in The Hobbit and its sequel. Another characteristic is to smuggle in reiterations and exceptions: Rivendell is a hole on the ground in a valley and so also in the ground; the good folk of Lake Town dwell in holes on the water.

The Hobbit is thus a journey through holes, which are variously characterized in terms of position in relation to the elements, architecture, the doors taken (front, internal, back; hidden or visible), and what is found inside them, both creature comforts and occupants, who may be friendly or not. Where the second sentence defines the hole of the hobbit by comparison with other holes, the story attempts something similar for the hobbit by taking him out of his hole, into and out of many others, before putting him back in his hole again.

The method of The Hobbit is thus a comparison of holes, the aim is to show the quality (what is ‘inside’) of Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit. It is my thesis that the method by which the story is made is a projection into the world of the model of a hole that Tolkien was at this time fashioning as an etymological and philological instrument. Tolkien learned this linguistic model from the story of ‘Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves’, which the Victorian philosopher John Stuart Mill (23) had already shown to draw a picture of a name in relation to a hole. My previous post drew out Mill’s account of naming, which was not generally seen for what it was because in drawing the model of holes Mill tripped up on the story itself. In this post I prepare for a reading of The Hobbit as a grammatical treatise on holes by observing some of the ways in which this linguistic model of a hole may be discerned at work in Tolkien’s wider writings of the early 1930s.


I begin by deriving some more holes from The Hobbit, holes only implicitly drawn by the author in his story. Concretely, my thesis is that by 1930 Tolkien had already established his linguistic model, the essence of which is that it distinguishes different uses of a name by placing it on the outside or the inside of a hole. In the first instance, these holes are found in the mind, and I will introduce this model by drawing two holes in the mind of Bilbo Baggins.

On Wednesday tea-time, Bilbo Baggins is disturbed at his table by the sound of his doorbell. The sound causes him to remember that he had invited Gandalf to tea the day before; having failed to mark the invitation in his Engagement Tablet he had forgotten about it. Opening the door expecting to see the old man with the pointy hat and bushy eyebrows, the hobbit discovers a dwarf with a blue beard tucked into a golden belt and very bright eyes under his dark green hood. The dwarf introduces himself as Dwalin.

This scene is carefully framed with dwarf and hobbit standing either side of the doorway. Later, inside the hole, we shall learn something of what the dwarves saw and thought as the door opened (which indicates that the queer sign on the door, which the hobbit never sees, serves to nudge them over the doorway despite their misgivings). But the series of bell-rings and door-openings that culminate in a knock on the door that announces the arrival of Gandalf and Thorin (and vanishes the queer sign on the door) is told from the point of view of the host, a badly flustered hobbit.

I now draw a hole with a door into the story, that is, a hole and a door not mentioned by the story but introduced to picture what happens inside the mind of Bilbo Baggins on first opening the door. Prior to his opening the door, Bilbo has no inkling of the existence of the dwarf with green hood and blue beard whose name is Dwalin. On opening the door, however, his eyes acquaint him with the appearance of this individual, who himself supplies a name. Following the linguistic method that can be traced in Tolkien’s work, we sketch the introduction of Dwalin in the mind of the hobbit by way of a hole, a door, and a mark on that door.

The key to this model is as follows: when an individual is introduced to you, a hole appears in your mind. Since the days of Thomas Hobbes and the English Civil War, the philosophers had called such a hole an idea of an individual. It was Mill who, by way of the Arabian Nights, suggested that an idea may be drawn into language by way of a hole. The thing about a hole is that it has an inside and an outside and, as Mill saw, this allows us to distinguish two different uses of a word. Concretely, when a name is employed to convey meaning it is placed inside the hole; when a name (even the same name) is employed as a meaningless mark it is placed on the outside of the hole, by convention on the door.

On Dwalin’s introduction, the new hole in the mind of the hobbit contains marks both inside and outside the hole. These marks may take any appearance, but convention draws an indistinct chalk mark to serve for an unknown name (cf. the usual asterisk-marks of the philologists). In this new hole, however, all the marks are distinct. So, where a moment before was an empty space in the mind of Bilbo Baggins we now discover a hole with a door marked “Dwalin”; on opening, the door reveals inside the hole various marks that we read as titles or definite descriptions that distinguish the bearer of the name on the door: ‘The dwarf with the green hood and blue beard’, and ‘The dwarf who has inexplicably turned up on my doorstep’. In a nutshell, names inside the hole mean something about the individual. The name on the door of the hole is the distinguishing mark of the individual and means nothing.

The whole process is repeated with a second ring of the doorbell, which the hobbit thinks is Gandalf for sure, but turns out to announce the arrival of a second unexpected guest, Balin. Now the description in the hole means a scarlet hood and white beard, and a second unexpected dwarf on the doorstep. Observe, by the way, the difference between reading and being there: inside the hole the hobbit will surely distinguish between the two dwarves by eye; although they have hung up their hoods on pegs on stepping through the doorway, they are readily distinguished as ‘blue beard’ and ‘white beard’. We who read only black words on a white page, however, more readily distinguish Dwalin and Balin.

A twist appears with the third sound of the bell: Bilbo now opens the door to Fili and Kili, both with blue hoods, silver belts, and yellow beards, and each carrying a bag of tools and a spade. This situation may be pictured by the appearance, on the introductions, of two holes in the mind of Bilbo Baggins, with distinctive marks on the respective doors, but inside both the same ambiguous description: ‘The dwarf who looks like his brother’. There is no requirement of consistency in the titles found inside the holes, meanings may be jumbled, jarring, and confused. All this is incidental to the model, which is concerned only to place meaning inside the hole and a meaningless distinguishing mark on the door.

Now, the opening chapter hints that it is possible also to draw a common name on a hole because the queer sign means, in short, ‘burglar’. One might guess that this drawing defines a common name by framing an exemplary case within the doorway: a hobbit bobbing on the mat, who does not look like a burglar and is never caught. But this is an error, and to tread the path from proper names to common names is to set out on a perilous journey through holes diverse and unexpectedly hidden, in the hands of a master storyteller who understood very well that the grammatical model lends itself to a story of disguise. So I postpone for now a journey through the key common names of The Hobbit. My aim in this post is merely to convince someone else (anyone!) that there is a grammatical model of a hole discernable behind Tolkien’s writings from the late 1920s on.

The grammatical model of a hole is subtle and should be mastered before attempting dictionary definitions. For there is another side to this model, which reveals the proper name in use. Stepping back from Wednesday tea-time to the morning of the day before we may reconstruct the opening of the door in action. Bilbo Baggins is outside his hole, smoking his pipe, when a distinctively dressed old man with bushy eyebrows walks up the Hill to the hole at the end of the road. The hobbit gives the old man “Good morning!” and a conversation ensues, in the middle of which the old man reveals that not only does he know that his interlocuter is named Bilbo Baggins, but that Bilbo knows him, though he has forgotten that his name belongs to his face: “Gandalf means me!” The wizard re-introduces himself and the hobbit experiences the magic of Sesame. Hidden away in some dusty corner of his childhood memories, a door in Bilbo’s mind opens, revealing a veritable nursery of definite descriptions:

The wandering wizard that gave Old Took a pair of magic diamond studs that fastened themselves and never came undone till ordered.

The fellow who used to tell such wonderful tales at parties, about dragons and goblins and giants and the rescue of princesses and the unexpected luck of widows’ sons.

The man that used to make such particularly excellent fireworks.

The Gandalf who was responsible for so many quiet lads and lasses going off into the Blue for mad adventures, anything from climbing trees to stowing away aboard the ships that sail to the Other Side. (Extracted from The Hobbit, pp. 15-16).

The model of an idea of an individual as a hole now reveals language in action within the mind. The model (obviously) borrows its architecture from the story of ‘Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves’ in the collection translated into English as the Arabian Nights. The door to the house that is chalked (in turn) by two nameless thieves provides the model of an introduction, while the hidden door to the cave of the 40 Thieves gives the model of a proper name in use. What ties the two doors together into a unified model is, firstly, the assumption that these are pictures of the mind (where the laws of physics don’t work quite the same), and secondly that a hole in the mind is hidden when not in use. This second assumption draws into the model the most vital concept of Victorian psychology, attention: the mind cannot deal with all that it knows all at once, and the business of the science of psychology is in large part to map the automatic mental routines that allow a person to, say, walk down a crowded street while thinking about a mark he imagines chalking on a house he is passing (Mill, 23; Carpenter, 131). The magic of Sesame is thus the act of bringing an idea of an individual into the light of consciousness so it may be attended to. The conversation on the Tuesday morning demonstrates this magic in action: nothing in his field of vision has changed, but as the door opens the titles inside the hole distinguish the old man, who the hobbit now sees quite differently.


Obviously, as the story of holes The Hobbit provides the basic manual of Tolkien’s model of a grammatical hole. But as I have said, the art of applying this model in a story is disguise and we should not be hasty in engaging with the cornucopia of holes and doors passed through by Bilbo Baggins. Having introduced Tolkien’s model of a hole through the ‘Unexpected Party’, my next purpose is to suggest that Tolkien originally developed this special model as an etymological tool. To this end, I turn to Nodens, an ancient godling who looked long upon the west country of England from his hilltop fort in south-east Wales, before eventually turning his face north and crossing the narrow sea to Ireland.

The chief thing about Nodens, or so it seems to me, is that the etymology of his name as teased out by Tolkien conspires with the known history of Roman Britain to make it hard to imagine him as anything but filled with spite and envy. Tolkien visited the archeological dig at Lydney Park in the Forest of Dean in the late 1920s. Here Nodens had long dwelled on or near the Iron Age hilltop fort. Only in the days of Julian the Apostate, when a neo-pagan revival briefly flowered, did Nodens receive his own Roman temple. The next century external walls were added, indicating the precariousness of the times, and by the next century the temple was in ruins (Chadwick, 69). The problem for Nodens, which appears from a glance at a map of the Avon River Estuary that separates south Wales from the west country of England, was Sulis.

Sulis was the goddess of the springs who dwells over the water in the spa town of Aquae Sulis that is today named Bath. When the Romans arrived, they recognized Sulis as Minerva, the Greek Athene, goddess of wisdom who gave Perseus the shield he used against Medusa. Tolkien says that Sulis “may mean ‘the eye’, and this again may mean the Sun” (Collingwood 1937, 264). Aquae Sulis became a cosmopolitan center of Roman Britain, a town where tribal became civic identities. R. Collingwood, Tolkien’s Pembroke colleague, argued that in general Romanization introduced a mass production that spelled the end of British (Celtic) art; the sole exception being the Gorgon’s head shield of Sulis in Bath, which provided a window onto the cultural fusion of Roman and Celtic that might have been. The shield combines a naturalistic representation of the face of Sulis (with moustache and snakes) while playing with the symbolism of the eye and the shield. In a word, Sulis did well under the Romans.

And all the while Nodens looked on from his hilltop fort over the water. Whatever they were before the Romans came, it is hard not to imagine Nodens watching the Romanization of Bath without ashes in his mouth. Still, the name Nodens is known from some Latin inscriptions left to the local godling by visitors to the temple he received late in the day. The Romanization of Britain cast a stone net of Latin letters upon even his little corner of ancient Celtic religious life. Collingwood apparently roped his Pembroke colleague into a contribution to the archeological dig conducted by the Wheelers at Lydney Park. The Wheelers’ excavation report, published in 1932, carried an etymological appendix by Professor Tolkien that told how the godling got his proper name.

Tolkien sketches a picture of a very long time. Beyond the edge of the picture, beyond the known, is the origin of the godling. His proper name as we know it, Nodens, is Celtic; this is no guarantee that his proper name was always Celtic, but if he was an aboriginal godling, established in the land before the first-Celtic speakers ever arrived, we have no way of knowing. When the picture begins the godling in fact bears another proper name, a chalk mark that may have been a Celtic name or may have been older; we cannot say because this proper name is lost (hence, the chalk mark). Nevertheless, this picture begins in a land of Celtic-speakers whose language included the common name Nodens.

Concretely, the picture begins with a hole (in the minds of the local population, and, thanks to the Latin inscriptions, now in ours). On the outside door is a chalk mark, and inside the title: the Nodens. Tolkien infers (by comparison with Germanic) that Nodens as an adjectival title meant: ‘The Hunter’, ‘The Catcher’ or ‘The Ensnarer’.

Now Tolkien invokes the process whereby a word becomes obsolete. Why and when this happened and how quickly, he does not say; although we may assume that it was before the Romans ever arrived. When the meaning drained out of the sound Nodens it was ejected out of the hole and pushed onto the door, where it erased the chalk mark, the more remote proper name. Tolkien thus presupposes that language-speakers naturally ‘handle’ a meaningless word as if it were a proper name, which is to say, eject it from the hole and put it on the door.

Tolkien’s etymology looks forward as well as backward from the Latin inscriptions. In later centuries Nodens travelled north and over the narrow sea to Ireland, where his proper name was pronounced Nuada and he was given a new title through the stories that told of ‘Nuada of the Silver hand’. Tolkien concludes his etymological note:

Whether the god was called the ‘ensnaer’ or the ‘catcher’ or the ‘hunter’ in some sinister sense, or merely as being a lord of venery, mere etymology can hardly say. It is suggestive, however, in this connexion that the most remarkable thing about Nuada was his hand, and that without his hand his power was lost. Even in the dimmed memories of Welsh legend in llaw ereint we hear still an echo of the ancient fame of the magic hand of Nodens the Catcher. (Tolkien 2007, 182)

It is perhaps too much to ask a reader of Tolkien’s later fairy story of the War of the Ring not to discern in the very ancient godling once referred to as ‘The Ensnarer’ a prototype of Sauron. Indeed, there probably is a path that Tolkien trod from Nodens of the (lost) Silver Hand to Sauron of the (lost) Gold Ring. But such an idea of Sauron the Necromancer was not yet in Tolkien’s mind, and we should strive to see what he was seeing about proper names and common names in 1932, when the archeological report was published and the story of Bilbo Baggins somewhere between his hobbit hole and the Lonely Mountain.

Applying the model of a hole to Tolkien’s etymology generates some pictures, which reveal the passing of individual names and the endurance of meaning, which is caught or expressed with different names on both the inside and the outside of what is (taken to be, in Wales and Ireland) the same hole, which is to say, the idea of the same mythical person. To spell out Tolkien’s etymology we draw four holes.

Hole 1. Nodens is inside the hole and the door takes an indistinct chalk mark (an unreadable proper name).

Hole 2. An indistinct picture. Those who tend the hole become dissatisfied with a primary title of old, Nodens, which sounds odd and is no longer quite intelligible; the name is ejected from inside the hole, where it is handled as a door-mark. Perhaps there is a time when the hole takes two marks on the door, a sort of prehistoric double-barreled proper name, Chalked-mark-Nodens?

Hole 3. Nodens is on the door of the hole, a distinctive distinguishing mark. The more remote proper name is forgotten.

Hole 4. Now we jump a small sea and an ocean of time to discover that Nodens the door-mark is pronounced Nuada and that a new title has appeared inside the hole: He of the Silver hand.

The presumption is that these four pictures depict the same hole and door. What the pictures show is how the marks on the door and inside the hole change, while the meaning inside the hole endures. But this endurance is for such a long age that the psychological model framed by picturing the hobbit’s encounters on Tuesday morning and Wednesday tea-time hardly capture what these pictures are about. Thus, in Tolkien’s hands, a psychological model of a name discerned by John Stuart Mill in the Arabian Nights becomes a grammatical hole (an alternative to Otto Jespersen’s profoundly confused grammatical idea that a proper name is really a meaningful description in disguise; see Jespersen 63-4).

What is a grammatical hole? Well, that is the question answered by Verlyn Flieger’s bumper-sticker; an answer pictured from above as a great basin filled with clear water on which stories are reflected, or in which their elements mix together as the water is heated by the imaginations of those who retell the stories. A grammatical hole is the local impression that a story makes upon language.


I turn now to the colourfully dressed and bearded aborigine who appears when we follow Tolkien’s continuing reflections on the name Nodens into The Oxford Magazine of 1934, where we find a poem under the title ‘The Adventures of Tom Bombadil’.

This is the same Bombadil met in The Fellowship of the Ring and I will use what Tolkien had to say about Bombadil in the sequel, its early drafts and in his letters, to understand the 1934 poem. But the primary point to bear in mind is that queer character who hops, dances, and sings himself into the story in the Old Forest steps into his own sequel, as well as that of the heir of Bilbo Baggins. The 1934 poem provides the background necessary to fully understand the adventure of the hobbits, telling the story of how Tom Bombadil got married.

The poem begins with Bombadil living in his house. He goes to the River and Goldberry, daughter of the River-woman, pulls him by his beard into the water. Bombadil commands Goldberry to let him go. Old Man Willow catches Tom in his crack, the badger-folk try to pull Tom into their hole in the ground, and a Barrow-wight waits behind the door of Tom’s bedroom. Tom commands these queer creatures to release him. Then he goes to the River and captures Goldberry. We leave them man and wife, dwelling in his house, heeding not the nightly noises of those outside who have lost what they caught or tried to keep as their own.

I suggest this romance touches elements deep in Tolkien’s imagination. Observe how the poem is and is not a celebration of free love. Compare Goldberry, who in the sequel we meet as we step through the doorway of the house of Tom Bombadil, and Mrs. Bungo Baggins, who nudged her husband to dig her a luxurious hole at the top of the Hill and was named Belladonna Took before her marriage. Or consider Morgiana, who Ali Baba marries to his son. Assuming the first son of this union takes the name of his paternal grandfather, then by local Arabic convention she will be referred to as Um-Ali, ‘Mother of Ali’. My modern wife, however, retains her maiden name – though our children take my family name, which causes identification problems with officials. But when the party of hobbits step over the threshold into the house of Tom Bombadil they are greeted by fair Goldberry, the River-woman’s daughter. Tolkien is not picturing the free love outside marriage that his university colleagues were already discovering, but marriage unencumbered by social conventions. We may assume that all three women retain their individuality after marriage, but only the name (and perhaps the primary title) of Goldberry remains the same, and this because the house of Tom Bombadil is a hole in nature and not in society, where cultural conventions do strange things with the marks on the door of a woman.

I again venture to draw into the text something not present, in this case a comparison with Nodens. The hole that is Nodens is first drawn into the picture of Bombadil by a map. Writing to his publisher Stanley Unwin in late 1937, just before commencing a sequel to The Hobbit, Tolkien hinted at the sequel brewing in his mind, describing Bombadil as “the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside” (Letters, no. 19). This places Tom, Goldberry, Old Man Willow, and all some seventy or so miles due east of the hilltop home of Nodens over the water in Wales. In the 1932 etymology, Tolkien insists that Nodens is a Celtic name but declines to comment on the godling himself. In the 1938 draft of the sequel, however, Bombadil declares himself the aborigine of the land (Shadow, 117, 121). The description fits a house-dweller who lives with the River-woman’s daughter, but I read it also as a hint that Bombadil was settled “here” before Nodens ever turned up over “there”. Bombadil’s aboriginal status entails that his were the first names, which is perhaps a clue to the imagined source of the power of his voice. In any case, I read Tom Bombadil of the spoken word as one who Nodens of the silver hand has never caught and will never catch, though this might not stop him from trying.

The 1934 poem is a meditation on catching and being caught; but it is the story of Tom Bombadil, who cannot be caught, not of Nodens the Catcher. The catch of the story, if you will forgive the pun, is that it tells how Goldberry caught Tom Bombadil. He enacts a marriage by capture, making love to her by the River and taking her home to his house, yet only after recovering from being pulled into the water by his beard and all that then followed. Goldberry initiates the courtship, which concludes with the two having caught each other and living as man and wife in the same hole on the ground.

So, now let us draw, not as a history of centuries but as a timeless moment of the land before history, the holes that we find glancing at a corner of the map of the prehistoric British Isles. We are looking the land stretching between the Berkshire Downs to the Great River and the hills on the other side of the Water, where Nodens the Catcher long gaze back into the East. Old Man Willow, Sulis, and even a badger may soon warrant a hole of their own, but we begin with three holes bearing the respective door-marks: Nodens, Goldberry, Tom Bombadil.

Hole 1: as drawn above: the marks on the door and inside the hole change and vary, while the meaning draws an indistinct but (obviously) sinister hunter, the one who ensnares with his silver hand.

Hole 2: the chalk mark on the door is always Goldberry, while the first title distinguished as the door opens is: the River-woman’s daughter. But ‘Wife of Tom Bombadil’ may also be read from the marks inside the hole, and indeed her sense of her husband must now pervade just about all the other meanings inside this hole (just as Goldberry runs through all the meanings inside the hole that is Tom Bombadil). Some who write on Bombadil highlight Goldberry’s title: ‘The one who says that Tom Bombadil is as you see him, and that no one has ever caught Tom’. I highlight the modesty of the one who caught Tom Bombadil by his beard.

Hole 3: the chalk mark on the door is always Tom Bombadil. Inside the hole we have already noted three titles: The one Nodens cannot catch; The one who caught Goldberry; The one caught by Goldberry. Of course, we may work through the 1934 poem and the 1938 sequel and extract a chapter of definite descriptions, all of which might be mirrored in the meanings found inside the hole of his wife, as vice versa. But for the purpose of comparison with Nodens, all we need attend to are these three titles.

Comparison of the three holes suggests a meditation on the meaning of catching, the root of the original title and subsequently proper name of Nodens. Neither Bombadil nor Goldberry seek to catch any other than each other. Catching one another, the lives of Bombadil and Goldberry are enriched and enhanced. Being caught by Nodens, one suspects, puts a period on a final description of life.

The comparison brings to light an asymmetry in Tolkien fantasy drawings of a name, which will only grow in imaginative importance. The power of Bombadil is in his voice but the power of Nodens is in his hand; Bombadil never uses his power to coerce, only to escape and (once) to woo; Nodens, we are left to suspect, uses the power of his hand to open doors without permission and so capture the occupants; a power that manifests itself, we may speculate, in the forging of cunning signs that work on a door like a secret key…

As is often the way with Tolkien’s experiments in story, the meaning of the original only becomes clear through the sequel. (It is as if, satisfied with having pulled off a trick once, Tolkien is content to give half of it away as he remixes a new trick that takes the whole thing to another level.) I suggest that the party of hobbits who stumble down to the banks of the Withywindle and fall into an enchanted or dream-like state provides a reading of the 1934 poem, first by getting caught by the same malicious tree-spirit (and rescued by Bombadil’s voice), and secondly by hearing a story inscribed in nature speak to them in and out of their dreams that night. I suggest, in short, a reading of the 1938 sequel (which is almost identical to the story published in Fellowship of the Ring) as the meditation of a philologist striving to draw his grammatical holes at the utmost limits of language.

Originally, the party of four hobbits spends just one night in the house of Tom Bombadil. One sleeps through the night without stirring, one wakes from troubled dreams to hear the tap-tap of branches scratching against the window, one hears the sound of water, spreading all around the house and gurgling under the walls, and one hears in his dreams the galloping of horses’ hooves around the house (Shadow 118). Now, at this point, Tolkien thought that the Black-riders encountered in the Shire might be horsed Barrow-wights (Ibid). Thus, in their dreams and the nightly noises the hobbits hear the voices of Bombadil’s old protagonists.

By reading the original 1938 version together with the 1934 poem we can see what is going on here. We must draw some more holes: three ancient holes. Inside that marked * Withywindle* on the door are the titles River and The mother of Goldberry. Inside the hole of Willowman is a title shared also by the Barrow-wight the hobbits have yet to meet, a title alluding to a failed attempt to capture Bombadil. Save the badgers (who presumably have reappeared as hobbits), none of these queer creatures is content. The wight gnaws at his own emptiness while Willowman broods in rooted discontent as he listens to the never-ending burbling of Goldberry’s unforgiving mother.

Tolkien is content to enact his experiments in silence, leaving his readers as in the dark as the hobbits. The hobbits know the name of the River, know Goldberry as the River-woman’s daughter, learn from Tom of the Barrows they must face, and hear too some of the lore of the Willowman. But they do not think to place the noises and dreams of the night inside the three holes marked for the river, the tree, and the wight. Tolkien the scholar is reading names at the very limits of linguistic expression. He places as marks inside a hole the sound of twigs brushing against a window in the wind, the burbling of water rising and the stamp of hooves. These expressions of Tree, River, and Wight are the almost inarticulate meanings inscribed into nature in one little corner of a very ancient land, where the natural beauty of river and willow disguise the malicious spell sung by those who have neither forgotten nor forgiven the marriage of Goldberry and Tom Bombadil.

One final comment on the hole in our mind that is Tom Bombadil. Having revised “aborigine” to “Eldest” as Bombadil’s self-description, Tolkien then made the title ambiguous by giving it also to Treebeard. Fangorn allows Tolkien to draw a sort of fusion of Old Man Willow and Tom Bombadil, thereby developing a quite different fantasy of the ‘aboriginal’ language of nature. Where Tom Bombadil strings many short names together in apparently nonsense rhymes, Treebeard explains that his own name “is growing all the time” and is “like a story. Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to in my language, in the Old Entish” (Two Towers, ‘Treebeard’). Treebeard thus establishes the limit of the grammatical picture of a hole. Trees, or at least Ents, do not appear to distinguish proper and common names, but render a proper name that we would place on the door by recounting all the marks inside the hole. Bombadil and Treebeard may both be the Eldest talking beings, but an Ent-house has neither door nor roof, and the grammar of Old Entish is not captured by a picture of a hole.


As indicated, the present post is an intermediary step. Behind us is the story of Ali Baba told in Paris in 1709 by Hanna Diyab and the somewhat mangled account of the picture of a name drawn by the story provided by the Victorian philosopher John Stuart Mill in 1843. Ahead we have The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Subsequent posts will trace how the magic ring was imagined as a doorless door-mark that rolled together the magic of Close Sesame into the distinguishing chalk mark, and how this magic ring became the One Ring when it was discovered that it was a snare to open the door of the self of another. As we shall see, the imaginative turn from The Hobbit to its sequel arises simply by turning the focus of the analysis of the mental magic found in the world from the appearance and vanishing of a hidden door to the act of opening that makes it appear. The present post is thus a preparation for a reading of the Rings of Power as drawn out of Tolkien’s grammatical model of a hole. I conclude this intermediate post with a general observation concerning the relationship between a grammatical hole and a hole that appears in a story.

The grammatical model pictures the idea of an individual as a hole in the mind and (therefore) in language. In this model, a mark on a door serves as a meaningless mark, while any mark inside the hole takes meaning. The model may be used to arrive at a dictionary definition of a common name by way of comparison of various holes that contain the same mark inside. But if you try to define a common name by sticking it on the door all that will happen is that, from the point of view of the grammatical model, the common name becomes a meaningless mark. When such a hole appears in a story, however, the storyteller may use the meaning of the common name as part of the story. In other words, the mark on the door of a grammatical hole that appears in a story may be at once meaningless and meaningful.

The grammatical model lends itself to certain kinds of story. Most obviously, a model of a hole with a door lends itself to a story of burglary, and it is no accident that burglary is central to both the story in the Arabian Nights and The Hobbit, while Sauron in The Lord of the Rings becomes the ultimate thief, who wishes to steal your self. There is no mystery here, a door is to pass through, and the more enjoyable passages to hear about in a story are those that are secret and silent and dangerous because entry is made without permission. But stories that use grammatical holes lend themselves to disguised realization of metaphors, and metaphor readily bends the model to romance, as Tom Bombadil and Goldberry show. Here a union between two individuals (two grammatical holes) is metaphorically symbolized by the two individuals coming to live in the same (story) hole, with the hint that romantic love may be pictured as a exchange of the keys to two selves. When Sauron forges the One, he combines these two kinds of story – a burglar who steals the key to the grammatical hole that is you.

Simply put, when a grammatical hole may is drawn as a real hole in a story, the marks on the door of the hole may be read from two points of view. Failure to observe this simple point goes some way to explaining why the grammatical model of holes is not better known. As early as 1843, J.S. Mill explained how the holes, doors, and marks of the story in the Arabian Nights draw a proper name. But Mill made a pig’s ear of his account because he insisted that the chalk mark of the story has no meaning. As various philosophers soon pointed out, the story suggests a meaning of the chalk mark (analysis reveals: nameless burglar). Mill overlooked the simple literary trick that the grammatical model allows, whereby a meaningful mark my serve as a meaningless mark, allowing meaning to haunt passage through the door. This is the road to a reading of the queer sign on the door of Bilbo Baggins. The point itself, however, is spelled out clearly in the sequel as the wizard prepares, once again, to cross the Misty Mountains.

Where the Stones of Holin end and the Mines of Moria begin, the Dwarves of Durin and High-elves of the Second Age of Middle-earth collaborated on crafting the ultimate door, the Doors of Durin. A hidden door located in the rockface, made visible by some inarticulate magic performed by the wizard. On the door are queer signs and marks inscribed in silver on the stone. The signs distinguish the two houses of the Dwarves and the High-elves, while the marks spell out the proper names of the dwarvish maker of the door and the elvish craftsman who drew the marks, and spell out also the elvish name Friend as the password. This is the only know drawing in a story of both sides of a grammatical hole (showing both hidden and marked doors in a single doorway). As a grammatical hole, the elvish word Friend is as meaningless as Sesame when used as a door-mark; it is a password, which is to say a key to a hole, which is to say, a proper name. But placing this picture of a grammatical hole in his story, Tolkien contrives to make the marks on the Doors of Durin spell the ruin of the Second Age. Speak Friend and enter a hole now occupied by Durin’s Doom, a Balrog of Morgoth.



Nora Chadwick. The Celts. London: Penguin, 1970.

R. G. Collingwood, Roman Britain. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1994 [1922]. The Archeology of Roman Britain. London: Methuen. 1930.

 With J.N.L. Myres. Roman Britain and the English Settlements. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1937 [1936]

Humphrey Carpenter (ed.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. London, HarperCollins, 1995.

William B. Carpenter, Principles of Mental Physiology, New York: Appleton, 1875.

Verlyn Flieger, Green Suns and Faërie: Essays on Tolkien, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2012.

Otto Jespersen. Philosophy of Grammar. London: Allen & Unwin, 1935 [1924].

John Stuart Mill, A System of Logic: Ratiocinative and Inductive. New York, Harper & Brothers, 1846 [1843].

Tiziano Raffaelli, Giacomo Becattini, and Marco Dardi, The Elgar Companion to Alread Marshall. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2006.

John Rateliff, The History of the Hobbit. London: HarperCollins, 2007.

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Name ‘Nodens.’” Tolkien Studies, Volume 4, 2007 [1932], 177-183.

 ‘The Adventures of Tom Bombadil’, *The Oxford Magazine*, 1934. The original poem is reprinted in: Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull, The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion, HarperCollins, London, 2005, pp 124-7. (The version in the 1962 *The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book was revised in light of the published sequel*).

 *The Hobbit or There and Back Again*. London, Allen & Unwin, 1937; facsimile edition, HarperCollins, 2016.
 *On Fairy-stories*. Eds. Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson. London, HarperCollins, 2014 [1947].
 *The Fellowship of the Ring*. London, HarperCollins, 2004 [1954].

 *The Two Towers*. London, HarperCollins, 2004 [1954].

 *The Return of the Shadow: The History of *The Lord of the Rings*. Part One*. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. Boston and New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1988.

 *The Treason of Isengard: The History of *The Lord of the Rings*. Part Two*. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. Boston and New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1989.