What fascinates me about all the story-telling in the “Shadow of the Past” is that Tolkien manages to work in a few commentaries on the way that stories and legends develop.  Consider the facts of Bilbo’s departure as Tolkien the Omniscient Narrator lays them out in Chapter 1.  Then consider the way in which the tale of Mad Baggins evolves through the first paragraph of Chapter 2.  The delightful (and slightly leprechaun-like) legend that the Hobbits develop among themselves is not concocted out of pure air—a healthy dose of the core material in the legend is factual.  The most noticeable difference is that the character of Mad Baggins is not quite true to what we know of Bilbo in real life.

Compare this with the rumors that Gandalf finds circulating among the Woodmen of Mirkwood when he comes to them looking for Gollum.  The Woodmen tell horrid tales of a ghost that drinks blood.  Once again, though the stories exaggerate what we know of the powers and ghostly skills of Gollum, we clearly recognize the substance of the stories.  In fact, the stories of this Bloodthirsty Ghost are more true than the stories about Mad Baggins, since (1) the Bloodthirsty Ghost as a character is much closer to the true character of the real Gollum, and (2) comparing Gollum to a Bloodthirsty Ghost actually stimulates our imagination as readers and infuses the real Gollum with a more dangerous aura in Gandalf’s story.  The presence of an “unfactual legend” serves a useful literary purpose.  We recognize the legend as a true untruth.

By presenting us in Chapter 2 with two unfactual legends, Tolkien (I believe) is revealing something of his attitude toward the veridicality of myths and legends in general.  On the surface, “Mad Baggins” exhibits all the irresponsible exaggeration that an anthropologist studying urban legends might find simultaneously charming and ludicrous, but hardly compelling.  On a deeper and darker level, however, Tolkien makes sure we realize that the legend has just enough truth to attract the attention of certain powers who know something of the “real” story of Bilbo Baggins, and who are able to read the truth through the exaggerations.  In short, the anthropologist who ignored or explained away the “unfactual” Mad Baggins legend would do so only to his own cost.

The same goes for the Bloodthirsty Ghost in Mirkwood.  We may laugh at the Hobbits for their ignorance in the Baggins story, but we cannot laugh at the Woodmen for their keenly accurate sense of the kinds of beings who cause terror.  The anthropologist who ignored the Bloodthirsty Ghost, whether or not Gollum was a ghost, would put his own life at risk.

Clearly, in both instances, debunking the legend misses the point.  Gandalf debunks no legends.  In fact, what stands out in Chapter 2 is how much he listens to stories, as well as relates them.  (Incidentally, in Chapter 2 Gandalf mentions having heard two other unfactual stories that were deliberately unfactual:  Gollum’s, and then Bilbo’s, “half-true” accounts of finding the Ring.  Far from debunking them, Gandalf uses the fact that they were not wholly true to prove how true his own story is about the corruptive nature of the Ring.)  Gandalf does not listen for what is incredulous but for what is clearly the case.  And, most to the point, he wastes no time thinking that a story is false unless he has compelling and pertinent reasons for doing so.

Perhaps Tolkien thought that Gandalf and the Woodmen had something to offer historians and biblical critics after all.

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