Seeing Stones

February 14, 2024
Simon Cook

‘On Seeing Stones’ is a series 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 to restore a sense of history to Middle-earth.

  1. One Wednesday in 1936
  2. Anglo-Saxon Tower
  3. Rock Garden
  4. First Brick in the Wall
  5. Fawlty Towers
  6. The Peaks of Taniquetil
  7. In the house of the Fairbairns
  8. Seeing Stones in Dark Towers
  9. Crossroads
  10. Thálatta! Thálatta!
  11. Passing Ships

12-17. Origin; Bridge; Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age; Review; Fairy-tale Turn; Staircase

It will all be over by Christmas.

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.

1. One Wednesday in 1936

Tolkien’s famous British Academy lecture ‘Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics’ was delivered in London in November 1936. A shadow then was 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 Employment, Interest, and Money of John Maynard Keynes with Tolkien’s lecture reveals a contemporary academic fixation with Time and a careful reappraisal of the place of imagination in the making of history.

2. Anglo-Saxon Tower

The 1936 allegory of the tower is read in the context of the lecture in which it was delivered, revealing an Anglo-Saxon time machine. Beowulf is a tale of a heathen hero of the old homeland, where the Angles and other tribes lived before their migration to the British Isles and conversion to Christianity. Pictured as an enchanted tower, the winding stairs of which take an Anglo-Saxon audience from the green grass of a little kingdom in the British Isles to a view that had vanished from their own waking world. For Tolkien, the Anglo-Saxon poet won a great, if fleeting victory in our human war against forgetting, our collective doom in history. Reading Tolkien’s allegory with the exordium to the Anglo-Saxon poem, we perceive that, 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. This post marks the spot to which this series aims to return having stepped through The Lord of the Rings.

3. Rock Garden

Tolkien’s original allegory of Beowulf as a rock garden made from a pile of old stones 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. The metaphor of the rock garden provides a way to think about Tolkien’s own stories, and invites the question why such a useful image was substituted for an enigmatic tower with a view that one must read Tolkien’s stories to appreciate.

4. First Brick in the Wall

With this post I open up the question of how for half a century we (Tolkien fans) have been content with the wrong reading of the 1936 allegory of the tower. Jane Chance Nitzsche was the 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. Chance it was who first banished the Historians from respectable Tolkien society. Unlike Tom Shippey, however, who will soon establish as dogma among the Tolkien community that the 1936 tale of a tower is just allegory, Chance glimpses the power of a fantastic story. The fantasy she unveils is her own, but read as fan-fiction we feel it touch the magic of Tolkien’s 1936 short story.

5. Fawlty Towers

Some years ago, Tom Shippey’s Road to Middle-earth (1982) awakened my interest in Tolkien’s philological studies. On reading this post, the emeritus professor called me an ‘online troll’. Surveying Shippey’s accounts of Tolkien and the Beowulf-poet, this post registers a protest against coyness in the face of evil. This reading of ‘Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics’ points to some hallmarks of Nazi ideology in what is taken 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 academia.edu 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.

6. The Peaks of Taniquetil

This post completes my criticism of Tom Shippey’s reading of the 1936 allegory (see footnote 4). 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, which he had penned earlier in 1936 and titled ‘The Fall of Númenor’. As Christopher Tolkien notes, the original Númenórean towers reappear as the three Elf-towers of Emyn Beraid on the margin of The Lord of the Rings. My January post of 2024 proposes that a carefully researched road to Middle-earth will lead us to an understanding of the 1936 Anglo-Saxon tower. This series now pivots to an invesigation of the western Elf-tower, which housed a singular stone.

7. 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, in the house at Crickhollow and on his second night in the house of Tom Bombadil, which point to, respectively, the Elf-tower and the Seeing Stone or palantír within it.

8. Seeing Stones in Dark Towers

This post completes my investigation of the three far-seeing dreams or visions that follow the night that Frodo spends with the Elves in the Woody End. Between two intimations of a view of Valinor, the intermediary dream, the first in the house of Bombadil, takes us inland to Orthanc. 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. Stepping from Orthanc to two towers on the border of Mordor, I suggest that Tolkien has drawn in the person of Frodo Baggins the image of the Stone by which the will of the Necromancer enters a Tower.

9. 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 Tolkien hints that it had been received by Gildor Inglorion and the Elves that Frodo, Sam, and Pippin meet in the Shire. This first crossroads of the narrative may offer an explanation of Frodo’s three far-seeing visions. Looking back from the crossroads to the Stone in the Elf-tower, we now have a notion what the Elves saw in it.

10. Thálatta! Thálatta!

The encounter of Frodo Baggins and the Lady Galadriel, the foundation stone of The Lord of the Rings, draws a semblance of the hidden image received in the Stone in the Elf-tower. While he never climbs the stairs of this tower, in Lothlórien Frodo Baggins descends a flight of steps to look into Galadriel’s Mirror, wherein he first sees the Sea. Analysis of the two ships that Frodo sees on the sea reveals Tolkien’s conception of a Third Age of Middle-earth, a last age of our world when the light of the Valar might still be seen, though it was hidden to mortals.

11. Passing Ships

A return to the exordium to Beowulf, wherein are seen two ships sailing on the sea. In the Mirror of Galadriel Frodo sees the Sea, and then three ships. So our challenge in the remaining posts of this first volume of Seeing Stones is to step from the two ships of an Anglo-Saxon poem to the three ships of The Lord of the Rings.

12. Origin

The foundation stone, stripped of all modern art, reveals one ship that sails to our shore. This ship bears the good king, whose arrival marks the beginning of history in the North. The Anglo-Saxon poet draws the first ship into subsequent history by adding a ship-burial. Tolkien draws this first ship backwards into myth. We broach the great tale of the Fall of Númenor.

13. Bridge

How the One Ring was born in autumn 1938 on Weathertop, its nature perceived by its author by way of three other story elements: two towers, the Elf-tower and the Dark Tower of the Necromancer, and the Straight-road.

14. Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age

How the map of the Third Age was drawn by Towers and Stones. A close reading of the early drafts of The Lord of the Rings in the HoMe volumes reveals the path from the 1936 Fall of Númenor to ‘Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age’ (circa 1948). What we will now bring into focus is how this path met the long break from composition that came with the end of World War II, when Tolkien composed a ‘round world’ version of the 1936 Fall of Númenor.

15. Review

Jane Chance (1979) raised the key question about Tolkien’s art in relation to his scholarship. This question is not really about Beowulf but The Lord of the Rings, but is posed by the historicity of Tolkien’s Beowulf. As a critic, Tolkien explains how the art of the Anglo-Saxon poet depended upon various local conditions that have now vanished - this staircase is not going to work for us today. So Tolkien was prompted to ask how an audience of his own day might be taken up the stairs of a tower. Chance opened the door to this question, but Tom Shippey closed it in his 1980 review of Chance’s monograph. We approach the concluding posts of this series by opening this door once again.

16. Fairy-tale Turn

With the return of Aragorn as king of Gondor drawn out of the exordium to Beowulf the critical theory of ‘Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics’ meets up with ‘On Fairy-stories’. The two final posts of this first volume engage with Verlyn Flieger’s passage between Tolkien’s two great essays. My aim is to strip away the blending of two false readings (Chance and Shippey) that Flieger unfortunately bequeathed to posterity, replace it with a true reading of the 1936 allegory, and thereby unlock the potency of the original insights by which Flieger reads the relationship between these two essays.

17. Staircase

Returning once again to the exordium to Beowulf, the relationship between the Anglo-Saxon and the Elf-tower is delineated. In this post the heathen heroes under heaven who appear in line 52 of Beowulf 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.

Volume II. 1. Freawaru the Hapless

Volume II returns to 1936 and reads concurrently ‘The Fall of Númenor’ and Tolkien’s wider commentaries on the mysterious depths of the stones of Beowulf. We begin with 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.

Art credits: Rock garden image worked up with thanks from Dave World’s The Callanish Stones 4k drone, Isle of Lewis, Scotland.