As staff at an academic research library, I enjoy the perk of access to a wide array of books. I also enjoy the week after finals, when the library shift from a place packed with students carefully cramming for terms-end tests to an empty tomb of knowledge and memory.
During this past week after finals, driven in part by diving into the Adventures in Middle Earth I went looking to see what books on Tolkien I might find. Armed with a search result, I found the location in the stacks.
As expected, there were quite a few. I spent 30 minutes scanning, looking for serendipitous discoveries. One of the joys of the analogue is finding those things adjacent to that which you first sought. My bookshelves are a reflection of my shifting yet somewhat cyclical interests. They say a lot about me, in a riddling kind of way.
Having just read the The Annotated Hobbit: Revised and Expanded Edition, ascendent again was my cyclical interest in Tolkien’s creation. And I found The Riddles of the Hobbit by Adam Roberts.
Flipping through the book, I found this one near the middle of the book:
My first is in blood and also in battle,
My second in oak and acorn and apple
My third and fourth are both the same
And can be found twice in refrain,
My second to last begins ending
And my ending begins last. What am I?
To be clear, as an academic book Riddles of the Hobbit has oodles of footnotes and references. Adam Roberts drills into the riddling theme of the Hobbit, Tolkien’s deep of love of riddling, and the Anglo-Saxon culture of riddling.
Adam Roberts sifts through The Hobbit’s “Riddles in the Dark” chapter and numerous sources. Roberts proposes that the answers to each riddle between Bilbo and Gollum are in fact themselves a riddle. And how could they not? Tolkien made a world and deep history so that he may craft a language. And that world and history are themselves pulled from Norse and Anglo-Saxon mythology.
I am in awe of the concentration necessary to build such things. Certainly, in the years to come, we’ll see Artificial Intelligence (AI 🔍) produce stories that echo this breadth of cultural history. Middle-earth is the sacred synthesis of one man’s deep devotion to mythology, religion, and language.
Tolkien is a bridge from the modern world to a past of myth, legend, and oral history. In reading scholarly references of Tolkien, I also learn of references to our older world. And add to an ever growing list of books and sources that I may one day get around to reading.
I leave you with an Old English “gnomic” poem, quoted by Adam Roberts:
A stream must mingle with the sea
And a mast stand tight when winds are free;
A sword be dear to humans still
And the wise serpent live in a hill;
A fish in water spread its race
And a king give gold from his lofty place;
An old hungry bear walk out on a heath
And a river fall over a hill without death.
An army united by unity stand
And truth be in man, and wisdom in his hand.
A wood cover the land with its courtly green boughs
And a hill be fresh green; and God in his house
The judger of deeds; and a door in a hall
Shall still be the widemouth that opens to all,
And the shield have a bow where the fingers can lock.
Birds shall speed up to heaven from every tall rock,
The salmon shall leap like the shot of a bow
And showers bring discomfort on worldlings below.
A thief still steal out on the darkest of nights
And the fiend live in fens full of misleading lights.