Our Own Dear John Ronald: Reconstructing

Here’s a more scholarly way of expressing how (and why) Tolkien saw himself as a discoverer of legends rather than an inventor of stories.

But Tolkien also thought – and this takes us back to the roots of his inventions – that philology could take you back even beyond the ancient texts it studied.  He believed that it was possible sometimes to feel one’s way back from words as they survived in later periods to concepts which had long since vanished, but which had surely existed, or else the word would not exist.  (…) However fanciful Tolkien’s creation of Middle-Earth was, he did not think he was ENTIRELY making it up.  He was ‘reconstructing’, he was harmonizing contradictions in his source-texts, sometimes he was supplying entirely new concepts (like hobbits), but he was also reaching back to an imaginative world which he believed had once really existed, at least in a collective imagination: and for this he had  very great deal of admittedly scattered evidence.

~ Tom Shippey: J.R.R. Tolkien.  Author of the Century.

IMG_2294 - Edited

Our Own Dear John Ronald: Tuor

Tuor happens to be my favorite among Tolkien’s characters. He was born in the wake of battle, both in Middle-Earth and in France.

Rían, wife of Huor, dwelt with the people of the house of Hador; but when rumor came to Dor-Lómin of the Nirnaeth Arnoediad [the Battle of Unnumbered Tears], and yet she could hear no news of her lord, she became distraught and wandered forth into the wild alone.  There she would have perished but the Grey-elves came to her aid.  For there was a dwelling of this people in the mountains westward of Lake Mithrim; and thither they led her, and she was there delivered of a son before the end of the Year of Lamentation.

And Rían said to the Elves: ‘Let him be called TUOR, for that name his father chose, ere war came between us.  And I beg of you to foster him, and keep him hidden in your care; for I forebode that great good, for Elves and Men, shall come from him.  But I must go in search for Huor, my Lord.’

Tuor and Ulmo
Alan Lee: The Meeting of Tuor and Ulmo. “In this manner the Dweller of the Deep, whom the Noldor name Ulmo, Lord of Waters, showed himself to Tuor son of Huor of the House of Hador beneath Vinyamar.”

My father said more than once that ‘The Fall of Gondolin’ was the first of the tales of the First Age to be composed, and there is no evidence to set against his recollection.  In a letter of 1964 he declared that he wrote it ‘ “out of my head” during sick-leave from the army in 1917’ (…).  In a letter written to me in 1944 he said: ‘I first began to write [THE SILMARILLION] in army huts, crowded, filled with the noise of gramophones’; and indeed some lines of verse in which appear the Seven Names of Gondolin are scribbled on the back of a piece of paper setting out ‘the chain of responsibility in a battalion’.  The earliest manuscript is still in existence, filling two small school exercise books; it was rapidly written in pencil (…).  In the spring of 1920 he was invited to read a paper to the Essay Club of his college (Exeter) ; and he read ‘The Fall of Gondolin’.  (…) By way of introduction (…) he apologized for not having been able to produce a critical paper, and went on: ‘Therefore I have fallen back on this Tale.  It has of course never seen the light before….  A complete cycle of events in an Elfinesse of my own imagining has for some time past grown up (rather, has been constructed) in my mind.  Some of the episodes have been scribbled down….”

Ulmo Appears before Tuor, by Ted Nasmith
Ted Nasmith’s version of the meeting of Ulmo and Tuor.

And Tuor grew up among them [the Grey-elves]; and he was fair of face, and golden-haired after the manner of his father’s kin, and he became strong and tall and valiant, and being fostered by the Elves he had lore and skill no less than the princes of the Edain, ere ruin came upon the North.

All quotes taken from: J.R.R. Tolkien: Unfinished Tales. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. 2006.  The featured image is cropped; the original was painted by Ted Nasmith.

Our Own Dear John Ronald: Dvergatal

In the original Old Norse, the Dvergatal contains rather more than sixty names, mostly strung together as a simple rhythmic list.

Tolkien found the dwarf-names in the poem ‘Völuspá’, ‘The Sybil’s Vision’, one section of which is called the ‘Dvergatal’, ‘the Tally of the Dwarves’.  (…)  Tolkien did not just copy ‘the Tally of the Dwarves”, or quarry it for names.  He must rather have looked at it, refused to see it, as most scholars do, as a meaningless or no longer comprehensible rigmarole, and instead asked himself a string of questions about it.  What, for instance, is ‘Gandálfr’ doing in the list, when the second element is quite clearly ‘álfr’, elf, a creature in all tradition quite distinguished from a dwarf? (…)


In early drafts of ‘The Hobbit’ Gandalf was the name given to the chief dwarf, while in the first edition what Bilbo sees that first morning is just ‘a little old man’.  Even in the first edition, the little old man’s staff soon comes into the story, while by the third edition (…) Gandalf has become ‘an old man with a staff‘ (…).  This seems highly suitable.  Even now the ‘magic wand’ is the common property of the stage-magician, while in all popular and learned literary tradition, from Shakespeare’s Prospero to Milton’s Comus or Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, the staff is the distinguishing mark of the wizard.  It looks as if Tolkien sooner or later interpreted the first element of ‘Gandálfr’, quite plausibly, as ‘wand’ or ‘staff’, while the second element, as said above, obviously means ‘elf’.  Now Gandalf in Tolkien is definitely not an elf, but then it turns out that he is not just an ‘old man’ either; one can see that to those who knew no better (people like Éomer in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ much later on) he might well seem distinctly ‘elvish’.  Tolkien seems to have concluded at some point that ‘Gandálfr’ means ‘staff-elf’, and that this must be a name for a wizard.  And yet the name is there in the ‘Dvergatal’, so that the wizard must in some way have been mixed up with dwarves.  Could it be that the reason the ‘Dvergatal’ had been preserved was that it was the last fading record of something that once had happened, some great event in a non-human mythology, an ‘Odyssey’ of the dwarves?  This is, anyway, what Tolkien makes of it.  ‘The Hobbit’, one might say, is the story that lies behind and makes sense of the ‘Dvergatal’, and much more indirectly gives a kind of context even to ‘Snow White’ and the half-ruined fairy-tales of the brothers Grimm.

~ Tom Shippey:  J.R.R. Tolkien. Author of the Century.

entering Mirkwood

Poesie: Frost’s Fire and Ice

The truth is that Frost was the first American who could be honestly reckoned as a master-poet by world standards. – Robert Graves

This is a well-known poem indeed, and for good reason.

Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

~ Robert Frost


Our Own Dear John Ronald: Power Corrupts

‘True-hearted Men, they will not be corrupted.’ (…) ‘I am too strong for you, halfling’.

‘Alas, no,’ said Elrond.  ‘We cannot use the Ruling Ring.  That we now know too well.  It belongs to Sauron and was made by him alone, and is altogether evil.  Its strength, Boromir, is too great for anyone to wield at will, save only those who have already a great power of their own.  But for them it holds an even deadlier peril.  The very desire of it corrupts the heart.  Consider Saruman.  If any of the Wise should with this Ring overthrow the Lord of Mordor, using his own arts, he would then set himself on Sauron’s throne and yet another Dark Lord would appear.  And that is another reason why the Ring should be destroyed: as long as it is in the world it will be a danger even to the Wise.  For nothing is evil in the beginning.  Even Sauron was not so.  I fear to take the Ring to hide it.  I will not take the Ring to wield it.’

‘Nor I,’ said Gandalf.  (…)

‘I pass the test,’ Galadriel said.  ‘I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.’

~ J.R.R. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings.  Book 2

Tom Shippey

At the heart of THE LORD OF THE RINGS are the assertions which Gandalf makes in Book 1/2, his long conversation with Frodo. (…)  First, Gandalf says that the Ring is immensely powerful, in the right or the wrong hands. (…) Second, though, Gandalf insists that the Ring is deadly dangerous to all its possessors: it will take them over, ‘devour’ them, ‘possess’ them.  But finally, and this third point is one which Gandalf has to re-emphasize strongly and against opposition in the ‘Council of Elrond’, the Ring cannot simply be left unused, put aside, thrown away: it has to be destroyed, and the only place where it can be destroyed is the place of its fabrication, Orodruin, the Cracks of Doom.

This assertion determines the story. (…) One might point out that (…) Gandalf’s postulates might take a bit of swallowing.  Why should we believe them?  However, while critics have found fault with almost everything about THE LORD OF THE RINGS, on one pretext or another, no one to my knowledge has ever quibbled with what Gandalf says about the Ring.  It is far too plausible, and too recognizable.  It would not have been so before the many bitter experiences of the twentieth century.

If one fits together the many points which Gandalf makes in this early chapter, it would be a dull mind, nowadays, which did not reflect ‘All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.  This was first stated (…) in 1887. (…)  I do not think many people would have agreed (…) much before 1887.  The medieval world had its saints’ lives, in which the saints used their immense and indeed miraculous power entirely for good purposes; while there is no shortage of evil kings in medieval story, there is rarely any sign that they became evil by becoming kings (though there are some hints to that effect in BEOWULF). (…) The nearest thing (…) in Old English is the proverb (…) ‘A man does as he is when he can do what he wants’, and what this means is that power REVEALS character, not that it alters it.  Why have opinions changed?  (…)

The major disillusionment of the twentieth century has been over political good intentions, which have led only to gulags and killing fields.  That is why what Gandalf says rings true to virtually everyone who reads it – though it is, I repeat, yet one more anachronism in Middle-earth, and the greatest of them, an entirely modern conviction.

~ Tom Shippey: J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century

Maybe here lies one of the reasons for Beowulf’s undying popularity.

Death is a Boon Granted

Today 46 years ago, J.R.R. Tolkien passed on. 

“In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.”


Rest in Peace, Professor.  Death is a boon granted.

Our Own Dear John Ronald: 1066 and the Sackville-Bagginses

The Norman Conquest of England, led by William the Conqueror, was carried out between 1066 and 1071 AD. The conquest saw the death of King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and the replacement of the Anglo-Saxon elite as William was crowned king and redistributed land to his fellow Normans.

There is in fact a word which sums Bilbo up, often used of the English middle-class to which he so obviously belongs: ‘bourgeois’.  This is not an English word but a French one, and Tolkien does not use it – he regretted, again for professional reasons, the medieval takeover of the English language by Norman French, and always tried to reverse it as far as he could.  But he may well have been thinking of just that word, as is indicated by a couple of running private jokes.  Later on, in THE LORD OF THE RINGS, it will be disclosed that the road Bilbo’s hole is on is called Bag End: very appropriate for someone called Baggins, perhaps, but an odd name for a road.  And yet in a sense a very familiar one.  As part of the ongoing and French-oriented snobbery of English society in Tolkien’s day (and later), municipal councils were (and still are) in the habit of indicating a street with no outlet as a ‘cul-de-sac’.  This is French, of course, for ‘bag end’, though the French actually call such a thing an IMPASSE, while the native English is ‘dead end’.  ‘Cul-de-sac’ is a silly phrase, and it is to the Baggins’ family’s credit that they will not use it.  The Tolkien family’s, too, for his Aunt Jane Neave’s house was down a lane with no exit, also defiantly called ‘Bag End’ (see Humphrey Carpenter’s J.R.R.TOLKIEN: A BIOGRAPHY, p. 106).  It is a very bad mark for the socially aspiring branch of the Baggins family that they have tried to Frenchify themselves and disguise their origins: they call themselves the Sackville-Bagginses, as if they came from a VILLE (or villa?) in a CUL-DE-SAC(K) (Bag End).  They, then, are real BOURGEOIS.  Bilbo is just heading that way.

Gandalf means, however, to turn him back, and that is why he makes him a ‘burglar’. (…)  The root of ‘burglar’ is in fact the same as that of ‘bourgeois’, Old English (and probably Old Frankish too) BURH, ‘borough, town, fort, stockaded mansion’.  A BURGULATOR, as the OED points out, is someone who break into mansions, a BOURGEOIS lives in one.  They are connected opposites, like Sackvilles and Bagginses.  Gandalf means to move Bilbo from the one side, the snobbish side, to the other.  In doing so, Bilbo will not become less English, but more so.  (…)

We should note, in view of the bad press which ‘Englishness’ has had for most of the twentieth century, that Tolkien was quick to point out some of Bilbo’s native virtues (…).  The narrator comments, once Bilbo has recognized Gandalf and responded with genuine excitement and interest, ‘You will notice already that Mr. Baggins was not as prosy as he liked to believe, also that he was very fond of flowers’.  Hobbits, then, like the English middle class to which they so clearly belong, may aspire to be bourgeois and boring, but it is not natural to them.

Tom Shippey: J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century.

Incidentally, the German “Sackgasse” is quite close to ‘bag end’, with ‘Sack’ being a sack or bag, and ‘Gasse’ a lane.



Featured: Bayeux Tapestry, scene 51: Battle of Hastings; Norman knights and archers

Our Own Dear John Ronald: Nothing Else Really Happened

The inner life, the life of the mind…

And after this, one might say, nothing else really happened.  Tolkien came back to Oxford, was Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon for twenty years, was then elected Merton Professor of English Language and Literature, went to live in a conventional Oxford suburb where he spent the first part of his retirement, moved to a nondescript seaside resort, came back to Oxford after his wife died, and himself died a peaceful death at the age of 81.  It was the ordinary unremarkable life led by countless other scholars; a life of academic brilliance, certainly, but only in a very narrow professional field that is really of little interest to laymen.  And that would be that – apart from the strange fact that during these years when ‘nothing happened’ he wrote two books which have become world best-sellers, books that have captured the imagination and influenced the thinking of several million readers.  It is a strange paradox, the fact that THE HOBBIT and THE LORD OF THE RINGS are the work of an obscure Oxford professor whose specialization was the West Midland dialect of Middle English, and who lived an ordinary suburban life bringing up his children and tending his garden.

Humphrey Carpenter: J.R.R. Tolkien.  A Biography. 1977

John Tolkien

But what this summary misses out (as Carpenter recognizes) is the inner life, the life of the mind, the world of Tolkien’s work, which was also – he refused to distinguish the two – his hobby, his private amusement, his ruling passion.

If Tolkien had ever been asked to describe himself in one word, the word he would have chosen, I believe, would be ‘philologist’.

Tom Shippey: J.R.R. Tolkien.  Author of the Age. 2000


The remark about ‘philology’ was intended to allude to what is I think a primary ‘fact’ about my work, that it is all of a piece, and FUNDAMENTALLY LINGUISTIC in inspiration…  The invention of languages is the foundation.  The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse.  To me a name comes first and the story follows.

J.R.R. Tolkien.  1955

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