Seeing Stones

February 14, 2024
Simon Cook

‘Seeing Stones’ is a series of thirteen posts about a short story told by J.R.R. Tolkien one Wednesday in 1936 and subsequently worked up into a long story about the Ring of Sauron. Following Tolkien’s Beowulf criticism, this series unveils the design of The Lord of the Rings.

  1. One Wednesday in 1936
  2. Anglo-Saxon Tower
  3. Rock Garden
  4. Fawlty Towers
  5. First Brick in the Wall
  6. Never Mind the Dwarves
  7. The Peaks of Taniquetil
  8. In the house of the Fairbairns
  9. Seeing Stones in Dark Towers
  10. Crossroads
  11. Mirror
  12. Tale of Years
  13. Fairy-tale Turn
  14. Staircase

The series is hosted on the Silmarillion Writers Guild, as part of the newsletter column A Sense of History. A new post is published each month and linked from this page.

July. One Wednesday in 1936

Tolkien’s famous British Academy lecture ‘Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics’ was delivered in November 1936. Today it is too easy to overlook the shadow then falling over Europe. This first post reads the ‘northern theory of courage’ invoked in the lecture in relation to the view from the high windows of England’s ivory towers. Comparing The General Theory of John Maynard Keynes with Tolkien’s lecture, what is revealed is a broad obsession with Time and an anxiety about the place of imagination in history.

August. Anglo-Saxon Tower

Beowulf offers an Anglo-Saxon view (from a tower, if you will) upon the heathen heroes of the old homeland, before migration to the British Isles and conversion to Christianity. The enchanted tower of the allegory allows the Anglo-Saxon audience to enter from the green grass of some little kingdom in the British Isles and ascend to a view on a world that now has vanished. The art of the poem is a struggle against forgetting, our doom in history. In the world of the poem, knowledge of heaven above was forgotten long ago, while what is beyond the western ocean is in the process of being forgotten.

September. Rock Garden

Tolkien’s original allegory of Beowulf has the merit of providing a diagram of the poem that illustrates precisely what the argument of the 1936 lecture is all about (as opposed to the canonical allegory of the tower that nobody understands). The point of contention is not the value of this over that stone, but the aesthetic value of the whole design. Tolkien argues that historical stones on the circumference and mythical stones in the center constitutes a difficult, ambitious, yet coherent design.

This was as far as I had got updating the links to this series when, on October 7, the holiday of Simchat Torah was drowned in blood. My studies have helped - our Anglo-Saxon poem was composed by someone who knew grief and mourning and had come out the other side, and I would say that the same goes for Tolkien.

October. Fawlty Towers

With this post I begin a detour that is really at the heart of my concerns, ultimately asking the question: How did we (Tolkien readers and fans) come to accept patently wrong or faulty readings of Tolkien’s art? Fundamentally, the fault is our own and reflects a collective failure to engage with they practice of criticism. Consequently, we rested content with some sloppy and even preposterous reasoning. Years ago, Tom Shippey’s Road to Middle-earth (1982) awakened my interest in Tolkien’s philological studies. For this post, this professor emeritus called me an ‘online troll’. From the mire of Shippey’s muddled reasoning, this post registers a protest against coyness in the face of evil. Shippey’s reading of ’Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics’points to some hallmarks of Nazi ideology in what he takes to be the foundations of The Lord of the Rings, but Shippey declines to unpack what he is hinting at.

Written before but published a few days after October 7, 2023, reception of this post was surreal. Receiving the news on the ground here in Israel and looking murderous antisemitism in the face, I was at the same time receiving also a stream of messages from friends abroad, genuinely concerned not for the safety of my family but rather my good name in light of the series of nasty comments accumalating under Shippey’s (since deleted) rebuttal on his page. What can I say? Footnote 4 of my January post takes apart Shippey’s analysis of the 1936 allegory. For an SWG perspective on this illustration of what ‘Tolkien scholars’ do in the dark, see here.

November. First Brick in the Wall

Jane Chance Nitzsche, or Chance, as I shall call her, was the true architect of the new-Elizabethan consensus reading of the 1936 allegory - I mean the conventional interpretation dropped on your head in online Tolkien forums since before even there was an Internet. This in itself is curious because the thesis of Chance’s psychoanalysis of Tolkien’s ‘Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics’ is totally out to lunch. Where Shippey vanishes the historical context of Tolkien’s 1936 lecture, Chance banishes the Historians from respectable Tolkien society. But unlike Shippey, who reads the 1936 tale of a tower as just allegory, Chance glimpses the power of a fantastic story. The fantasy she unveils is her own, but as fan-fiction it does touch the magic of Tolkien’s 1936 short story.

December. Never Mind the Dwarves

A failed turn (so I don’t count December in my countdown from 13). With five posts up and not a single reference to The Silmarillion, the good folk at the Silmarillion Writers Guild were growing impatient. Greviously distracted by a real war, I fobbed off the SWG moderators with a ‘short story’ of my own - unfortunately, one from the archives, and perilously out of date. Suggesting we use Tolkien’s metaphor of a rock garden to think about his making of The Lord of the Rings, my story maps the setting down of four stones: long-expected party, Necromancer (One Ring), Tom Bombadil, Weathertop. My December map omits precisely the stone that matters! The third stone should have been the Elf-tower.

January. The Peaks of Taniquetil

J.R.R. Tolkien borrowed the image of an Anglo-Saxon tower that is Beowulf from a story of time travel back to a mythical Atlantis, penned earlier in 1936 and titled ‘The Fall of Númenor’. With rock garden transformed into a tower built by exiles who have come out of the sea, the original allegory of Beowulf took rudimentary shape as the outline of a story. Saving for volume II an inquiry into these original towers, the series rather follows Tom Shippey (see footnote 4) into The Lord of the Rings, wherein on the western margin of the story we discover an allusive Elf-tower with a sea-view. Henceforth, this series will approach the Anglo-Saxon tower of the 1936 allegory by way of this Elf-tower.

February. In the House of the Fairbairns

Both Anglo-Saxon tower and Elf-tower are enigmatic, but careful reading unearths more on the Elf-tower. This post proposes a solution to a literary riddle, posed in the long ago by my friend Tom Hillman: How is the vision of Valinor beheld at his end by Frodo Baggins recorded in the Red Book of Westmarch? I seek an answer in two far-seeing visions of Frodo Baggins, which point to, respectively, the Elf-tower and the Seeing Stone or palantír within it.

March. Seeing Stones in Dark Towers

As inscribed above the western doors of the Mines of Moria, that magical illustration of Elf-Dwarf collaboration, the name of the game is treachery. From Frodo’s far-seeing dream of Orthanc in his first night in the house of Tom Bombadil, the post draws in the person of Frodo Baggins the image of the Stone by which the will of the Necromancer enters a Tower. Together, this and the previous post discover the Stone in the Elf-tower behind all three of the far-seeing visions of Frodo Baggins on the three consecutive nights that follow that which he spends with the Elves under the trees of the Shire.

April. Crossroads

The Road Goes Ever On (1967), a late work of J.R.R. Tolkien, includes annotated translations of two Elvish songs, Namárië and A Elbereth Gilthoniel. This post reads in these two commentaries the hand of Tolkien drawing aside a veil to disclose Elbereth on the mountain beyond the Sea, watching over the journey of Frodo Baggins. This image is hidden in the Red Book, but may be imagined to have been received by Gildor Inglorion and the Elves that Frodo, Sam, and Pippin meet in the Shire: the first crossroad of the narrative. The post explores this narrative crossroads of the Woody End to designate the Stone in the Elf-tower as itself but a window onto the hidden agency of the story.

May. Mirror

The design of The Lord of the Rings is revealed as a semblance of that which is hidden is discovered on an island of myth deep within Middle-earth. Way off on the margin of the story we may imagine Gildor Inglorion receiving a vision of Elbereth in the Stone in the Elf-tower; but in Lothlórien Frodo Baggins comes face to face with the Lady Galadriel. As mortal and Elf come to see eye to eye, Frodo is invited by the Lady to look into her Mirror - and it is here in the story that Frodo first sees the Sea. Then Frodo sees three ships, each bearing one or more palantír, which reveal the Third Age as that Time when Valinor had vanished yet our world still knew enchantment. Alas! Even that hidden light has now vanished, and never will return.

June. Tale of Years

An overview of the composition of The Lord of the Rings, with two prehistorical eras, three basic stages of making, and an essay ‘On Fairy-stories’. This temporal perspective cuts through the reading of the story of the last four posts, allowing us to differentiate the core design from its ornamentation. The Elf-tower with the Stone within it is identified as an ornament, albeit one that reflects the core design.

July. Fairy-tale Turn

In this post, the return of Aragorn as king of Gondor is drawn out of the exordium to Beowulf and the fairy-theory of Tolkien’s ‘On Fairy-stories’ is illuminated by the hidden theory of ‘Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics’. Attending to the ships that Frodo sees in the Mirror of Galadriel, this and the following post engage critically with Verlyn Flieger’s curious passage past the 1936 Anglo-Saxon tower in the introductory chapters of her first book, Splintered Light (1983). The aim is to disentangle Flieger’s powerful insights from the faulty reading of the 1936 allegory that Flieger derives from Chance and Shippey.

August. Staircase

Returning to the exordium to Beowulf in these last two posts, the relationship between the Anglo-Saxon and the Elf-tower is delineated. In this post the heathen heroes under heaven are joined by three Hobbits, all gazing out to Sea at the ‘funeral-ship’ of the Bagginses. Once we agree what we are looking at here, we can all descend the staircase and return back to our own houses, wiser Hobbits, if not happier.

Honestly, if we all arrive here alive it will be something.

Volume II. September. Freawaru the Hapless

The forgotten tragedy of doomed love and world-ending in the prehistory of old English literature, the tale of the Danish princess and the last priest-king of the North. Echoes of the Entwives and the air of Númenor. Finally, a glimpse into the mysterious depths of the stones of Beowulf.

Art credits: Rock garden image worked up with thanks from Dave World’s The Callanish Stones 4k drone , Isle of Lewis, Scotland, Guide to Stairs image by the inimitable Drifa.