- Visibílium Ómnium et Invisibílium:Looking Out, On, and In Tolkien’s World
In The Hobbit, the bestowal of invisibility is the obvious and initially the only, property of the Ring. Bilbo, who begins his possession of the Ring in ignorance of its history, finds the invisibility it confers useful, whether to escape goblins, survive the Battle of the Five Armies, or avoid “unpleasant callers” (H, xix, 361). Tolkien does not call those unpleasant callers “visitors” and, indeed, it would be impossible, both pragmatically and etymologically, if the Ring were being used, for those “callers” to be “visitors.” The invisible is precisely that, not seeable, un-visitable, unreachable, and as a consequence, it behooves us to examine the nature of invisibility.1
Invisibility, of course, is something that can be understood literally as well as metaphorically and symbolically, but that is precisely the point of any metaphor or symbol; if it had no literal dimension, it could have no use in those other dimensions. We have better hope of understanding metaphors and symbols if we first examine the literal, and so we shall start by asking the literal question: what is invisibility? An invisible being, standing between an observed object and an observer, does not, in any way, change the image of the observed object. Things are seen exactly as they would have been had the invisible object not been intervening. This might happen because light from the observee passes, unhindered, through the invisible being or, perhaps, because some sort of cloaking device causes light from the observee to bend around the invisible being in such a way that, by the time it reaches the observer, it is as though there had been nothing but space between the observer and the observed. Now, our modern understanding tells us that, since eyesight relies on light being absorbed by the retina at the back of the eye, either of these two models of invisibility poses a problem: in both cases a direct consequence of invisibility is that light cannot possibly be absorbed by the retina of an invisible person. If light passes through an invisible person as though he or she were not there, then light cannot have been absorbed by the retina (or else it would not have traveled unhindered), and if light is bent around the invisible person, then it never reached the back of the eye at all. All of which is to say that an invisible man, or an invisible hobbit, ought to be blind.
There are many examples of science fiction and fantasy stories that do not obey the above physical principles, and so it might, perhaps, [End Page 131] be unreasonable to expect Tolkien’s work to be any different. Nevertheless, by the time the story of the Ring is rejoined in The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien’s depiction of invisibility seems to be the exception rather than the rule. When Frodo puts on the Ring to escape from Boromir, he sees as though he were “in a world of mist” (FR, II, x, 416). When Sam, thinking his master is dead, puts on the Ring, “all things about him now were not dark, but vague” (TT, IV, x, 343). Further, he later takes the ring off because “he wished to see more clearly” (RK, VI, i, 175). The Nazgûl, moreover, are apparently blind, at least in the light of day, with the significant possible exception of the Witch King at the battle at Pelennor. Indeed, Merry observes that the Riders seem to have used their noses more than any other sense in their pursuit of the hobbits, and when he asks if the Ringwraiths can see, Strider replies that they “do not see the world of light as we do” (FR, I, x, 202). One might wonder, quite justifiably, how the Nazgûl, if blind, can ride either horses or winged steeds, but we notice that, when Strider tells Merry that the Riders’ vision is other than ordinary, he also implies that their lack of vision is compensated for by that of their horses as well as that of “men and other creatures...