Seeing Stones

February 14, 2024
Simon Cook

‘Seeing Stones’ is a series of twelve 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.

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
  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. Fairy-tale Turn
  13. Staircase

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.

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

Years ago, Tom Shippey’s Road to Middle-earth awakened my interest in Tolkien’s philological studies. For this post, this professor emeritus called me an ‘online troll’. The post registers a protest against coyness in the face of evil. Shippey points to some hallmarks of Nazi ideology in what he takes to be the foundations of The Lord of the Rings, but 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.

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 in the 1936 allegory only 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 12). With five posts up and not a single reference to The Silmarillion, the publishing house was breathing down my neck. 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. Rather than investigate the Númenórean towers that appear in the tail-end of this Elvish myth of Atlantis, however, the second half of this series ‘Seeing Stones’ turns rather to a second incarnation of this Númenórean tower, namely the western Elf-tower on the margins of The Lord of the Rings. This is to follow the lead of Tom Shippey (see footnote 4).

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 Stone 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.

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 the eyes of Elbereth on the mountain beyond the Sea, watching over the journey of Frodo Baggins.

May. Mirror

Once we discern the hidden eyes of Elbereth beyond the Sea as counterpoise to the Eye in the Dark Tower, the Elf-tower at the margin of the story becomes the tower at the center of the map of the Third Age - an age in which Valinor is hidden, yet one thread of visual connection remains. Because this thread is invisible to mortals, a Hobbit-story that desires to discover myth must turn inland. This post enters the realm of the Lady Galadriel, and Frodo Baggins first sees the Sea.

June. Fairy-tale Turn

In this penultimate post, the return of the king 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 two of the ships that Frodo sees in the Mirror of Galadriel, these last two posts engage obliquely with Verlyn Flieger’s discussion of the tower of the 1936 allegory in the introductory material of Splintered Light (1983).

July. Staircase

Returning to the exordium to Beowulf for 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.

August. Freawaru the Hapless

The forgotten historical tragedy 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.