intimations of immortality

Tolkien’s most famous contribution to scholarship is his idea that the Anglo Saxon poet who composed Beowulf was a Christian who passed over the old pagan gods yet retained the monsters of the ancient mythology.

deorc déaþscua,      duguþe ond geogoþe,
seomade ond syrede;      sinnihte héold
mistige móras;       men ne cunnon,
hwyder helrúnan      hwyrftum scríþað. (Beowulf lines 160-3; Klaeber 7)

…a dark shadow of death, lurking, lying in wait, in long night keeping the misty moors: men know not whither sorcerers of hell in their wanderings roam. (Tolkien’s translation, Beowulf T&C 17)

The poet here classes the monster Grendel as one of the helrúnan. What is a helrún? In his recently published commentary, Tolkien tells us the Old English word is composed of two elements: hell ‘Hell’ and rún ‘secret.’ Hell is a native word meaning “the ‘hidden land’ of all the dead” (Beowulf T&C 298) and “is ultimately related to helan ‘conceal’” (Beowulf T&C 167). Thus, a helrún is one who knows the secrets of the hidden realm of the dead – a necromancer.

One of the most important lessons to be gleaned from Tolkien’s commentary is that he saw that the Old English poet glimpsed also something of ‘the other side’. The first lines of the poem tell of Scyld Scefing, the founding king of the Danish royal house, who came to his people from the further shore beyond the shoreless sea.


Tolkien believed that the Danes had taken a very ancient legend of Sheave (Scef) and welded it into their own royal genealogy. The Anglo Saxon poet was presenting the new Danish version of the ancient story. Yet Tolkien also believed that the poet had discerned something at the heart of the original story:

….at his allotted hour Scyld the valiant passed into the keeping of the Lord; and to the flowing sea his dear comrades bore him… With lesser gifts no whit did they adorn him, with treasures of that people, than did those that in the beginning sent him forth alone over the waves, a little child… (Beowulf 26-46, Tolkien’s translation; emphasis added)

In his commentary, Tolkien observes that the ship burial is not found in other versions of the Scyld Scefing story. He identifies its presence here as an innovation, albeit one that demonstrates a poetic insight into the ancient meaning of a legend already distorted and half-forgotten in the poet’s day. Specifically, in the ship burial Tolkien finds “the suggestion” – no more: for “the idea was probably not fully formed” in the mind of the poet – that Scyld Scefing had come “out of the Unknown beyond the Great Sea, and returned into it: a miraculous intrusion into history, which nonetheless left real historical effects” (Beowulf T&C 151).

Tolkien’s commentary reveals the importance that he attached to the unspecified “those” – þá – who in lines 43-46 are said to have sent the infant alone over the waves to his impoverished people. Here is a glimpse of mysterious allies of mankind, mythological beings who may or may not be gods but are certainly not the monsters of the ancient pagan mythology. Where Tolkien discovered Sauron the Necromancer in the word helrún, in the poet’s suggestion of a further shore beyond the shoreless sea he perceived Valinor.

* Post revised after some helpful criticism. I am indebted to the allwise Richard Rohlin.


Imagining The Lord of the Rings

Return of the Shadow is an edition of the early drafts of The Lord of the Rings, written between December 1937 and late 1939 and almost entirely devoted to the journey from Bag End to Rivendell (the last chapters take us on to Moria).

I’ve been studying this volume since last Christmas and have never faced a more challenging read. Tolkien did not sit down with a story ready-in-mind and begin writing it; he wrote a story and worked out what it was as he went along. By the end of Return of the Shadow he has imagined a story that, if recognizable to us, is still a very long way from the story that we know (to illustrate: Aragorn is not still not Strider but a hobbit known as Trotter who will become Bilbo’s lost nephew Peregrin Boffin before he becomes the heir of Elendil – the myth of Numenor has entered the new hobbit story, but its full repercussions are yet to be felt). To understand the story as it was imagined (in its entirety) at the end of 1939 is therefore to imagine a story that is not that which we know. But the same point applies to many earlier stages of composition: what we are looking at may be the gradual development of a familiar framework, but that development occurs by way of the imagining of a whole series of related yet distinct stories. Reading Return of the Shadow is to conduct an archaeology: it is an excavation of a series of ever more deeply buried stories.

With that caveat, I now set down some tenative conclusions intended to provide stable perspectives about what we find in the first  year of writing a story that took over a decade to complete. Before doing so, however, a framework of the phases of writing over the course of this year is useful:

1. December 1937: Long-expected party.

2. New Year – early summer 1938: Bingo (Bilbo’s heir) walks with hobbit friends all the way to Rivendell.

3. Summer 1938: Bingo starts again from Bag End, this time in the company of Sam Gamgee; they reach the Old Forest.

4. Autumn 1938: Tolkien again starts from Bag End, and now Bingo has become Frodo Baggins. By the end of the year Tolkien reaches the same conversation between Bingo/Frodo and Gloin he had reached in the early summer.

These returns to Bag End are indicative of Tolkien’s changing ideas about various key elements of his story. Nevertheless, and despite my above warnings of a teleological reading of Return of the Shadow, my sense is that at the heart of the story told by the successive drafts of his father’s story edited by Christopher Tolkien is the decision to introduce the Necromancer taken immediately after step 1 above: much of the subsequent writing, and then rewriting, reveals Tolkien gradually discovering the full significance of this early decision.


(1) Bilbo’s birthday party vanishing act

What we know as the first chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring was the first thing Tolkien wrote when he sat down to write a sequel to The Hobbit in the week before Christmas, 1937 (the original story having been published in September of that year). The first draft of this first chapter reveals the following:

(i) Bilbo’s final vanishment from hobbit society carefully mirrors the old – it is not only that the long-expected party (hosted by Bilbo) reflects the unexpected party (arranged by Gandalf) but the distribution of property after the vanishing reflects Bilbo’s return home to find his hobbit hole the scene of an auction.

(ii) Tolkien is clear in mind that this second vanishing will get Bilbo out of the way and prepare the way for a story about one of his “descendants.” To this end he has Bilbo announce at his party not only that he is going away but also he is about to get married. By the end of these first five manuscript pages, however, it is clear Tolkien is not happy with this prospect.

(iii) The magic ring is very deliberately circled – it is said to be in Bilbo’s hand when he makes his announcement; yet it is not clear that Tolkien from the start has in mind that the ring will be passed on to Bilbo’s heir and be at the center of the new story.

(2) A first page of notes: the Necromancer at the center

Christopher Tolkien shows how his father began an expanded version of the first chapter but stopped half way when he had the idea that the party and vanishing were not of Bilbo but of his heir, Bingo (initially his son). A page of notes reveals the appearance of this idea. This page of notes also points to adventures to come in the Old Forest, with Tom Bombadil, and with barrow-wights.

The pivotal element in these notes, however, is the idea that the origin of the magic ring is The Necromancer and – an idea that immediately follows given the nature of this dark sorcerer – that if an owner does not manage to lose the ring he will end up losing himself to the ring.

— We now hit a further and fundamental difficulty of reading Return of the Shadow, namely the introduction of an element into the story that has already been shaped elsewhere. In fact, this is the single most fundamental instance of such an introduction in the whole 11 years of composition: By the mid-1930s the Necromancer had become central to Tolkien’s thinking and by January 1938 had already entered into both his mythological and scholarly writings. Let me briefly survey what is already behind the idea of the Necromancer.

1. John Rateliff in his edition of the early manuscripts of The Hobbit notes the reference (dating to around 1931) in this story (made by Gandalf on the edge of Mirkwood) to the Necromancer’s dark tower. Rateliff shows how the Necromancer, aka Thu, aka Sauron, had already appeared in the Lay of Leithian (the story of Beren and Luthien) that Tolkien was still working on at that time, and aptly quotes from the Lay a description of the Necromancer as commanding a host of misbegotten phantoms and spell-wronged monsters.

2. Between composing The Hobbit and starting its sequel Tolkien had composed (in 1936) ‘The Fall of Numenor’ – a translation into the northern imagination of Plato’s myth of Atlantis, in which Sauron was responsible for corrupting the hearts of the Numenoreans and so causing the destruction of their island home. In other words, simply to name the Necromancer as the maker of Bilbo’s magic ring was to invite a relationship with the story of Numenor.

3. The idea of the Necromancer in the Lay and other stories is given shape by Tolkien’s commentary and lectures on Beowulf, which was Tolkien’s primary scholarly interest in the first part of the 1930s. In Beowulf we find a necromancer named as a helrun, a term applied to the ogre Grendel, apparently suggesting that this flesh and blood monster can summon the aid of other monsters. More illumination comes from the Anglo-Saxon poet’s identification of the Biblical Cain as the father of all monsters. The poet – Tolkien sees (but does not quite like to say) – inferred that Cain, roaming in the shadow lands of his biblical exile, had sexual intercourse with the giantesses. Such coupling with monsters is unatural, and hence has dark magical associations, and leads ultimately to the idea of a Necromancer as a flesh and blood sorcerer who begets an army of monsters purely by black magic. But because he makes these monsters alone he requires raw materials, which leads us back to the helrun – literally, one who knows the secrets of the land of the dead (hell): the monsters made by the Necromancer are associated with death, yet are not dead, nor are they living, they are undead.

This idea of the Necromancer as a flesh and blood master of undead servants is already present on this first page of notes – signalled by the naming of barrow-wights (who appear in Tolkien’s Beowulf commentary precisely as undead and bound up with Necromancy).

(3) First Story

With the magic ring now made by the Necromancer and Bilbo’s heir named as Bingo, Tolkien’s next step was to recraft his first chapter: Bilbo is said to have disappeared some years back and to have left both Bag End and the ring to Bingo (first his son, then his adopted second cousin or ‘nephew’). Bingo now hosts the birthday party, and vanishes from it.

Almost the first thing that Tolkien wrote when he finally moved beyond the party involved Bingo and his friends walking through the woods of the Shire and encountering a Ringwraith.

In a letter of early March, Tolkien describes this new development as “unpremeditated.” The draft reveals this: at first Tolkien describes a mystery rider on a white horse who turns out to be Gandalf and then he begins again and describes a black rider on a black horse…

But if the idea of the Ringwraiths pursuing Bingo and the ring of their master in the woods of the Shire popped into Tolkien’s head as the hobbits walked through those woods, it is really a very obvious development out of the ideas already contained in the page of notes, namely that the Necromancer made the ring, that the Necromancer turns people into undead servants, and that the ring is a trap made by the Necromancer intended to perform just such a transformation of its owner.

All that happens in the woods of the Shire is that Tolkien gives form to ideas already latent in his note by having one who has already passed through the ring confront Bingo, who is brought face to face with the fate that awaits him if his adventure turns out badly.

(4) Further Developments out of the Necromancer

The introduction of the idea (behind the scenes) that the magic ring was made by the Necromancer and is a trap generated the very first adventure of the story – with a Ringwraith (or two). This, in turn, generated explanations within the story that moved the Necromancer into the scene through hearsay. Bingo and friends are rescued from the second black rider by a party of Elves, whose leader explains (for the first time in the new story) the history of the rings made by the Necromancer and suggests that the black rider is a Ringwraith sent by the master – “the Lord of the Rings” – who evidently wants his ring back.

Tolkien now decides that all of this should really have been said by Gandalf before Bingo left Bag End, rather than by some Elf met by chance at a passing of the ways. Now he reorganizes his story: the first chapter is a conversation between Gandalf and Bingo in Bag End in which the wizard explains that the ring Bilbo had brought back from his adventure, and left with Bingo, is actually a very terrible thing. The second chapter is now to be Bingo’s party disappearance, the third the meeting with the black riders and then the Elves.

A point to note is that Tolkien has already began the job of providing background information – which will henceforth happen chiefly at Bag End and at Rivendell.

But the really fundamental point is that nothing so far has been added to the story after the Necromancer (the Ringwraiths being but his ‘natural’ shadows), and what we are seeing is the reorganization and reimagination of a story in light of the placing of the Necromancer at its center.

This reorganization appears to achieve a stable form around this point: Tolkien takes the hobbits all the way to the other end of the Shire (Crickhollow), pauses from writing for a few months, and then in the early summer simply picks up and continues the journey all the way to Rivendell. But…

But… Weathertop happened. Notes for the story-to-come again reveal Tolkien with no preconceived ideas of what will happen on Weathertop even as the hobbits leave Bree (now in the company of the Ranger hobbit, Trotter). What happened on Weathertop was that the Ringwraiths turned up in numbers, Bingo put on the ring – and stepped into their world: he can see their faces, they can see him – and is then stabbed by the wraith-king (Bingo can see his crown) with “the sword of the Necromancer.” This wound, as the next pages of the story make clear, will turn Bingo into a wraith.

Again, there is nothing here that is not already foreshadowed in the introduction of the Necromancer into that first page of notes, at least not when we look to Tolkien’s earlier writings of the 1930s and establish that the Necromancer is a flesh and blood sorcerer who turns living people into undead wraiths.

And again, what we find in the drafts of Return of the Shadow is Tolkien only discovering through writing his story the full meaning of his ideas.

We could put it like this:

0. Idea of Necromancer (one who makes wraiths out of living people).

1. Bilbo has an heir named Bingo who must flee with the ring of the Necromancer.

2. Bingo comes face to face with his own possible future in the form of a Ringwraith.

3. Bingo begins to become a wraith.

— Where 2 and 3 are already contained in 0 and 1.

On a conceptual level, Bingo’s steps into wraithhood open up a whole mythological dimension that will take Tolkien his lecture and essays on fairy stories (1939 and 1943, respectively) to see his way through: for what he has opened up here is a mortal vision of a world that mortals are not meant to see – and that unseen world (as very soon made clear in the story with Bingo’s vision of the Elf Glorfindel as a shining white figure at the ford) also includes a good as well as an evil side: the gateway to Lothlorien begins to be framed the moment Bingo is stabbed on Weathertop. But these developments are for another post.

On a purely narrative level it is hard to avoid feeling that Bingo did not survive the wound he received on Weathertop. That the hobbit who awoke in a hospital bed in Rivendell, while in the early summer of 1938 still called Bingo, was already Frodo Baggins – or put another way, Frodo Baggins was born to survive the blade of the Necromancer.

One can certainly frame subsequent developments in the story from the perspective of Tolkien realizing that Bingo as imagined is not up to the job and seeking some new heirs of Bilbo. Soon after arriving in Rivendell, Tolkien begins again. Bingo is still Bingo, but the story is now to begin as first intended – with a long-expected party hosted by Bilbo. And when in the second chapter Gandalf explains things to Bingo, Sam Gamgee is already listening outside the window. Now Bingo leaves Bag End under the protective custody of Sam; but he only got as far as the Old Forest: and when Tolkien began again it was Sam Gamgee and Frodo Baggins who set out together on an adventure. It is not, on this reading, exactly that Bingo becomes Frodo; rather, Bingo Bolger-Baggins became two hobbits: Sam and Frodo, both very different to Bingo, Sam having more of the young Bilbo in him than ‘his master,’ Frodo already quiet and withdrawn, Sam devoted to Frodo and the two together equipped to withstand the most deadly assaults of the servants of the Necromancer.

And again, all that is going on here on one level is that the new hobbit hero, the heir of Bilbo, is being lined up against the unseen center of the story – the Necromancer.

5. Bilbo’s Party (again)

Bilbo’s return as host is an appropriate point to stop – although Tolkien now carried on writing to the end of the year (he took a break from writing his story in the first half of 1939). It is appropriate because we can discern in this return Tolkien completing, as it were, a first cycle of his imagination.

He had begun with an impromptu account of Bilbo’s second and final vanishing from the Shire (a name that comes into being with the imagination of Buckland on “the other side” in the second or third draft of the party), but had as yet no destination for a new story. After displacing Bilbo as host, and seeing the long-expected party moved to the second chapter, the original beginning is now reinstated – only now it is set into its place of beginning with a good idea of the story to come.

So when, perhaps shortly after midsummer 1938, Tolkien refashioned the shape of his story he now deemed Bilbo’s vanishing from his birthday party a suitable beginning to a tale that saw his heir start to become a wraith. How did he see this?

The best that I can offer here is that the story of Bilbo’s vanishing now works in relation to the story as so far imagined in a roughly similar way as does the exordium to Beowulf to the story of Beowulf.

The opening of the story of Beowulf tells the genealogy of the Danish royal house, concluding with Hrothgar who has built the mead hall that is haunted by Grendel who will be slain by Beowulf, but beginning with Scyld Scefing. Scyld Scefing is the great-grandfather of Hrothgar. He is said in the poem to have been sent to our shore from the other side of the western ocean by unknown hands, and to have returned over the ocean to an unknown shore at the end of his story.

The relationship of both beginnings to the main story they introduce is somewhat mysterious. But roughly speaking, both serve to point us in precisely the opposite direction to the main action that will follow and yet – in some elliptical and obscure way  – frame that action.

In the case of Bilbo’s vanishing (which is all I shall discuss here) the key seems to be this: from the very first draft, the story of the vanishing was intended to fix the name and reputation of Bilbo Baggins within hobbit legend. Now, that legend was given a global significance: the vanishing was not simply a hobbit social spectacle but also constituted a defeat of the spell of the Necromancer. Bilbo’s vanishing is now also his escape from the magic ring that vanishes you.

Before the first summer of composition was passsed, Bilbo’s party-disappearance, initially conceived as a sort of mirror to the opening of The Hobbit (with reference of course to old Gollum’s ring), has become the story of how an eccentric hobbit, a legendary burglar but at heart a good soul, proved to be made of sterner stuff than the Necromancer could possibly have imagined.

Bilbo’s vanishing has become the gold that does not glitter but sets the gold-standard for the actions of all those who will subsequently fall into the orbit of the Ring.

That is almost an overview of the story as conceived in the first year – the suggestion being that all that was vital in this first year was established by the end of the summer.

What is missing from this account, but which will be left for now due to my fingers growing tired and my children demanding food, is the absolutely vital transformation of Gollum that seems to have begun in Tolkien’s mind from just about the first moment that the Necromancer was named the “origin” of the magic ring.

If the introduction of the Necromancer gave the shape to the story, the reimagination of Gollum was the creative force that drew out that shape.

The Return of the Shadow

RSThe Return of the Shadow (RS) is the first volume of Tolkien’s early drafts of The Lord of the Rings, from the very first draft of ‘A Long-expected Party,’ penned in the week before Christmas 1937, through to the Mines of Moria, where Tolkien left off writing for a while at the end of 1939. The drafts have been transcribed and arranged by Tolkien’s youngest son, Christopher.

Last Christmas I began a series of posts on this volume, but then ground to a half – ostensibly because I had too much editing work, but also because it became clear that to understand the story told in these drafts I had to look also further afield, especially to the volumes in the History of Middle-earth series that immediately precede and follow RS. I now feel I have ventured sufficiently far afield to return to my reading of RS.

In an implicit criticism of my earlier reading, I begin with a hard-learned methodological lesson: Christopher Tolkien (CT) always has good reason for presenting his father’s material as he does, but without due attention to the small print in his commentary his chosen presentation can confuse the hasty reader. Perhaps the most important illustration of this point concerns the relationship between RS and the early material in the following volume, The Treason of Isengard, which turns out to belong to the same early period of writing. I’ll explain what is going on here if I ever reach this second volume in these posts. But my concern at present is with the beginning of LOTR, where we find a similar example.

The first chapter of RS is entitled ‘A Long-expected Party’. Here CT presents four versions of the opening chapter of LOTR, penned one after the other between Christmas 1937 and late January 1938, and then concludes with some notes by his father about the story to come. The innocent reader is likely to assume that this order reflects the order of composition – only having drafted four versions of the party did Tolkien begin to think about the story to come. But careful reading reveals that the notes were composed between versions 2 and 3 (and CT is certainly aware of this).

Of all the changes mades to the various versions, the most significant in fact occurs between versions 2 and 3. In the first two versions, the party is hosted by Bilbo. But in the third and fourth the host has become Bingo (who will later become Frodo), who is first Bilbo’s son (version 3) and then his nephew and adopted heir (version 4). This change is clearly bound up with the following passage in the notes:

The Ring: whence its origin. Necromancer? Not very dangerous, when used for good purpose. But it exacts its penalty. You must either lose it, or yourself. Bilbo could not bring himself to lose it. He starts on a holiday handing over ring to Bingo. But he vanishes. Bingo worried. Resists desire to go and find him…

At last he meets Gandalf. Gandalf’s advice: You must stage a disappearance, and the ring may then be cheated into letting you follow a similar path. But you have got to really disappear and give up the past. Hence the ‘party’. (RS 42)

Let’s take this slowly. It is obvious that the long-expected party was intended to both echo and invert the unexpected party – having once been flummoxed by a party secretly arranged by Gandalf, Bilbo now himself arranges a party in order to flabbergast his fellow hobbits. Furthermore, and as I established last Christmas, from the first version of the long-exepcted party, Tolkien was associating both parties with Bilbo vanishing from the Shire, and so framing his first chapter of the sequel to The Hobbit in relation to Bilbo’s magic ring – which made its wearer disappear. In the note quoted above, however, we witness Tolkien’s first thoughts about the origin of the ring, which is now associated with the Necromancer (who will later be named as Sauron), and hence the dawning of the idea that ‘vanishment’ may have an unwholesome side. These initial thoughts evidently fed back into the already formed association between the party and vanishing and the ring, thereby giving rise to a new idea of what the long-expected party was all about…

The real difficulty for the reader is not so much CT’s order of presentation but the fact that so much of all four of these drafts  is familiar from the published version of the first chapter of LOTR. This sense of recognition is liable to blind us (well, it did me for a long while) to the emergence of an initially fundamental idea that will subsequently be discarded and is hence quite unfamiliar. The unfamiliar idea is that the ring may be tricked: specifically, the ring that makes you vanish may be tricked into thinking that you have already vanished.

From the very first draft of ‘a long-expected party’ Tolkien was clear in his mind that the adventure that he was setting out to tell the story of would not befall Bilbo but his heir (which is why, in the first version Bilbo declares he is getting married – hence paving the way to a son who would have a new adventure). So Bilbo’s party was Bilbo’s farewell, not only from the Shire but also from the new story. This is also the idea in the second version of this first chapter.

But Tolkien’s early reflections on the origin of the ring and the sinister side of vanishing led him to draw the ‘party of special magnificence’ into the new adventure. No longer Bilbo’s farewell, the long-expected party would now serve as the first stage of the adventure of Bilbo’s heir, Bingo, as well as providing an explanation for why Bingo sets out on an adventure.

All this is the more startling when we take on board that the fifth version of the party, in which Bilbo is once again the host, was only composed once Tolkien had taken Bingo and his friends all the way from Bag End to Rivendell, passing through all the familiar landmarks – black rider and Elves in the Shire, the Old Forest and Tom Bombadil and the Barrow-downs, Bree, Weathertop, and the flight to the ford. In other words, pretty much the whole of the first draft of the first book of The Fellowship of the Ring was first composed with a beginning that to us today is hard to truly make sense of, namely that Bingo (Frodo) was attempting to cheat the ring by staging a dissapearance.



The View from the Tower

In my last post I suggested a connection between the reading of modern literature and an Elvish vision that discerns the hearts and minds of others. While this might seem an outlandish claim, I think a related connection emerges into view if we approach Tolkien’s thought from a quite different perspective, namely the allegory of the tower set out in his famous lecture on Beowulf.

‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’ was delivered as a lecture before the British Academy in late 1936. Early in the lecture Tolkien criticized then dominant approaches to the Old English poem by way of the following allegory:

A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in building the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower.

The man’s friends do not climb the tower; rather, perceiving that its stones had once belonged to a more ancient building, they push it over, and search among the rubble for hidden carvings and descriptions. And, surveying the rubble, they all declare that the tower, while very interesting, is in a terrible muddle!

And even the man’s own descendants, who might have been expected to consider what he had been about, were heard to murmur: ‘He is such an odd fellow! Imagine his using these old stones just to build a nonsensical tower! Why did not he restore the old house? He had no sense of proportion.’ But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea. (‘Monsters and the Critics’, 7-8)

The allegory establishes a straightforward – albeit metaphorical – connection between the written word and (a fairy-tale) vision. But I think we can push this a little further by inquiring into the origins of the allegory.

The British Academy lecture was worked up from older material (dated by Michael Drout, who has edited these manuscripts, to 1933-1935). In this earlier material Tolkien likens the Old English poem, not to a tower but (believe it or not) a rock-garden:

A man found a mass of old stone: it was part of the old wall of his small house and garden which had recently been considerably altered and enlarged. Of this stone he made a rock-garden… And even the gardener’s best friend… was heard to say: ‘He’s such a tiresome fellow – imagine using these beautiful old stones just to set off commonplace flowers that are found in every back-garden: he has no sense of proportion, poor man!’ (Beowulf & the Critics, 81).

The difference between the two allegories is so striking – the one presenting a fairy-tale tower, the other a suburban English rock-garden – that a comment on the original allegory seems in order. As I read it, the commonplace rock-garden, back-garden, and flowers work to situate the Beowulf poet as belonging firmly on our side of the great divide that separates a modern, literate, and Christian English civilization from its ancient, oral, and pagan Germanic past – a past that the Old English poet was writing about. It reflects Tolkien’s conviction that the author of Beowulf was rather like him: a man of learning, who read books and composed a story by writing it down.

Be that as it may, the question arises as to what Tolkien was doing when, in preparing his British Academy lecture, he substituted the image of the rock-garden for that of the tower.

I think we can find an answer in the ‘Fall of Númenor’, which Tolkien also composed in 1936 – presumably before he worked up his British Academy lecture for delivery in late November. The tale is concerned with another great temporal divide – not the historical division between oral and literate society, but between Myth and History itself. The tale, presented as the last of those told by the Elves, tells how the Númenóreans attempted to conquer Valinor, thereby changing the very nature of the world: not only was Númenor destroyed but the world was bent into a globe so that mortals can no longer find the straight road over the ocean to the undying lands. Yet a remnant of the Númenóreans escape the deluge and settle in Middle-earth, where a few could still:

half see the paths to the True West, and believed that at times from a high place they could descry the peaks of Taniquetil at the end of the straight road, high above the world. Therefore they built very high towers in those days.

In his editorial notes to the ‘Fall of Númenor’ (Lost Road 33), Christopher Tolkien identifies the high towers built by the righteous exiles of Númenor as his father’s first reference to the Elf-towers of Emyn Beraid described in the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings. I concur, but would suggest that we can also discern in these Númenórean towers the source of the revised allegory of the British Academy lecture.

Both the Beowulf poet and the exiled Númenóreans are doing the same thing: peering into the abyss, straining to catch a glimpse of a now vanished world. But Beowulf is not simply a work of ‘historical fiction’, it is also a fairy tale, and Tolkien evidently believed that the poem provides a glimpse, not simply of a vanished past, but also of a lost world of Faërie.

So far we have not stepped beyond allegory and metaphor: it is as if the Beowulf poet, by the power of his word craft, has allowed us to see Faërie. Yet if we accept that the Númenórean towers are the origin of both the allegory of the tower in the 1936 lecture and the Elf-towers of Emyn Beraid to the west of the Shire, then we must conclude that in writing The Lord of the Rings Tolkien took what was an allegory in his British Academy lecture and realized it within his fantasy world.

What had been a metaphor of the power of the written word in a scholarly lecture became actual Elvish vision in Middle-earth.

For as time went by, Tolkien further developed his conception of these high coastal towers. They became the work of Elves rather than mortals (who else could build a tower that allows mortals to glimpse the realm of Faërie and itself symbolizes a fairy story?) And within the tallest Tolkien now placed a palantír, an Elvish crystal ball that allows mortals to see with Elvish vision. So, in The Silmarillion, we find:

It is said that the towers of Emyn Beraid were not built indeed by the Exiles of Númenor, but were raised by Gil-galad for Elendil, his friend; and the Seeing Stone of Emyn Beraid was set in Elostirion, the tallest of the towers. Thither Elendil would repair, and thence he would gaze out over the sundering seas, when the yearning of exile was upon him…

I suggest that we can read this passage in two ways: as a literal description of how a mortal once accessed Elvish vision in an ancient fantasy world; and as a development of the allegory of the tower in the British Academy lecture: an allegory of how we ourselves might read a fairy story – weary of the world, we remove ourselves to a secluded spot and, looking into the pages of The Lord of the Rings, we cast ourselves for a brief while into a world in which mortals may still encounter Faërie.

Image credit: runmonty: ‘Robe Coastline.’


Reading ‘Lord of the Rings': Part II

In the first of this series of posts I showed how in The Lord of the Rings Tolkien drew upon and even played with the etymology of the word ‘read’. For example, when Gandalf on Caradhras makes fire and then declares –

If there are any to see, then I at least am revealed to them. I have written Gandalf is here in signs that all can read from Rivendell to the mouths of Anduin.

– he is not metaphorically comparing the signs of his magic to the words in a book but, rather, using ‘read’ in the way the word was used in Old English before the advent of the book.

Of course, the word is also used in The Lord of the Rings in our modern sense: Gandalf reads Isildur’s account of the words engraved on the One Ring and, later, the words themselves; notices declaring ‘no admittance’ are put up in the Shire; Frodo tells Sam that, in the days to come, he will ‘read things out of the Red Book’, and so on. Yet these instances of modern reading are telling. Gandalf – the great counsellor (rædbora, that is ræd-giver, in the Old English-Latin glossaries) – reads everything, and in Gondor written records are preserved, although few are now able to read them. But basically it is only in or near the Shire that we encounter obvious instances of modern reading, the most striking illustration of which occurs in Bree when Barliman Butterbur hands Gandalf’s letter to Frodo:

Frodo read the letter to himself, and then passed it to Pippin and Sam.

The reason this sentence is so striking is because Frodo reads the letter silently and silent reading is a distinctly modern practice. As we saw in my last post, Anglo-Saxon reading began as the speaking aloud of the written word, and this reading aloud was the norm elsewhere too – St. Augustine famously related the utter bewilderment aroused by the silent reading of Ambrose, Bishop of Milan; nobody, Augustine included, could understand why he chose to read so strangely. Tolkien was certainly aware of all this and Frodo’s silent reading is one of the subtle yet powerful ways in which Tolkien allows his modern readers to feel at home in (or near) the Shire before taking them off into strange lands of ancient legend and fairy story.

So far, then, we have found in The Lord of the Rings three distinct reading practices, corresponding to three historical moments: a pre-literate reading of a situation; an Old English book reading – out loud and before an audience; and a modern English reading (of the kind you are now engaged in). Yet there is one other kind of reading encountered in Tolkien’s story, one that brings us back to my previous post on Macbeth: the reading of hearts and minds. Here are a few examples:

‘You do not ask me or tell me much that concerns yourself, Frodo,’ said Gildor. ‘But I already know a little, and I can read more in your face and in the thought behind your questions.

‘You have talked long in your sleep, Frodo,’ said Gandalf gently, ‘and it has not been hard for me to read your mind and memory.

‘To me it seemed exceedingly strange,’ said Boromir. ‘Maybe it was only a test, and she thought to read our thoughts for her own good purpose;

Gandalf and (at least some) Elves are able to read people. And it is not only wizards and Elves: ‘the lords of Gondor have keener sight than lesser men’, as Denethor says, and while we encounter Denethor’s older son, Boromir –

… sitting with his eyes fixed on Frodo, as if he was trying to read the Halfling’s thoughts.

– Denethor is not altogether off the mark when he declares:

Do I not know thee, Mithrandir? Thy hope is to rule in my stead, to stand behind every throne, north, south, or west. I have read thy mind and its policies.

And Faramir is spot on when he says to Frodo:

It is a hard doom and a hopeless errand. But at the least, remember my warning: beware of this guide, Smeagol. He has done murder before now. I read it in him.

Yet the lords of Gondor are Numenoreans, and as such Men who are connected with the Elves. Thus the art of reading people – attributed in the book to Gildor, Gandalf, Galadriel, Denethor, and Faramir – is evidently to be taken as something magical and Elvish.

What are we to make of this fourth sense of ‘reading’? One obvious answer is that to his three moments in the history of reading – pre-literate, Anglo-Saxon, and modern – Tolkien adds a non-historical moment, a fairy sense of reading that, as I suggested before, he derived from the first act of Macbeth. But I have an intuition that there is more to it than this.

I think that Tolkien’s fourth sense of reading – Elvish reading, we might call it – is actually a projection into fairy story of modern reading practices. We glimpsed one element of such modern reading in Frodo’s silent reading of Gandalf’s letter, but Galadriel’s silent reading of the hearts and minds of the Company is – in its magical way – even more characteristic of modern reading practices.

To the best of my knowledge (and here I would welcome correction from those who know the Old English texts), the original meaning of ræd did not encompass the reading of people, the idea of which arises in the early modern period (employed already by Shakespeare, as we have seen) by way of a metaphorical extension of the modern sense of reading a book. But the metaphor surely gained greater force as increased literacy and the development of printing technology gave rise by the nineteenth century to new kinds of books, specifically novels that explore the interior world of their characters.

While people have read the written word for well over two thousand years, it is a distinctly modern practice to sit alone and silently read a novel that explores the hearts and minds of its protagonists.

So I suggest that we revise somewhat our three distinct moments of reading as follows:

  1. A pre-literate reading of a situation (related to giving counsel and solving riddles).
  2. An Old English reading aloud before an audience (e.g. Gandalf in Moria).
  3. One instance of actual modern silent reading (Frodo reading Gandalf’s letter).
  4. And a projection of the modern practice of reading novels into a magical Elvish practice.

One reason why this reading (excuse the pun) of The Lord of the Rings appeals to me is that it provides a clue as to how Tolkien artfully combined medieval heroic and modern psychological literature. A standard – albeit erroneous – criticism of Tolkien is that the characters in his story are one-dimensional – merely literary types devoid of inner psychological conflict. (The same idea is used – with more justice – by those who criticize Peter Jackson’s movies for making Aragorn a modern hero who doubts himself rather than the archetype of a king of the kind found in medieval texts).

Such criticism rests upon the fact that Tolkien drew upon medieval sources that do not explore interiority, such exploration being a hallmark of modern literature. Yet it is erroneous for the simple reason that Tolkien does explore interiority within certain strands of his story. Indeed the nature of the Ring is such that it forces all who fall within its influence to choose between (wild and fantastic) desire and duty. Boromir is the obvious illustration, but  – as Tom Hillman has brilliantly demonstrated in a series of posts on his blog – Frodo’s quest is marked by an ever growing psychological conflict as the Ring gradually gains power over him.

But how to weave modern psychological themes of interiority into a story deliberately modelled upon pre-modern stories without marring the story with blatant anachronisms? One of the ways that Tolkien managed this, or so I suggest, was by transforming the distinctly modern psychological elements of his story into instances of Elvish magic, thus seeming to blend heroic literature, not with the modern novel, but with fairy story.


Reading in ‘Lord of the Rings': Part I

The following ruminations have their origin in an explanation of the epithet ‘Unready’ given to the Anglo-Saxon king Æthelred that I encountered in Eleanor Parker’s excellent A Short History of the Danish Conquest:

Æthelred has gone down in history as the ‘unready’, an epithet which was not, in origin, a comment on his preparedness, but on an irony of his name: in Old English Æthelræd means ‘noble counsel’, and unræd therefore means ‘bad counsel, lack of wisdom’.

This (inevitably) set me thinking about Tolkien, where counsel is a key theme and kings can be counselled both well and ill – Theoden under the spell of Wormtongue was ‘unready’, but with Gandalf as his counsellor he becomes ‘ready’.

I asked Eleanor’s advice on further reading on ræd and she directed me to a fascinating essay by Nicholas Howe entitled ‘The Cultural Construction of Reading in Anglo-Saxon England’ (in Old English Literature, ed. R.M. Liuzza, Yale, 2002). Howe points out that the Old English ræd predates the arrival of literacy: the word, as also its Germanic cognates, originally meant to give advice or counsel and to explain something obscure, such as a riddle.

On turning to The Lord of the Rings, we find just such an early use of ‘read’ in the words of Erestor at the Council of Elrond:

‘Then,’ said Erestor, ‘there are but two courses, as Glorfindel already has declared: to hide the Ring for ever; or to unmake it. But both are beyond our power. Who will read this riddle for us?’

Erestor is not using ‘read’ metaphorically, but in its earlier, pre-literate, sense. The same applies to the many uses of the word spoken by Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli as they pursue the Orcs accross Rohan. To give but three examples:

‘That is true,’ said Aragorn. ‘But if I read the signs back yonder rightly, the Orcs of the White Hand prevailed…’

‘That would not baffle a Ranger,’ said Gimli. ‘A bent blade is enough for Aragorn to read. But I do not expect him to find any traces. It was an evil phantom of Saruman that we saw last night. … ‘So I thought,’ said Aragorn; ‘but I cannot read the riddle, unless they return’.

‘There was sorcery here right enough,’ said Gimli. ‘What was that old man doing? What have you to say, Aragorn, to the reading of Legolas. Can you better it?’

Tolkien is illustrating an early, pre-literate, use of ræd. So how, in fact, did this term come to be metaphorically extended to give us our modern ‘reading’?

Howe points out that in a pre-literate society both giving counsel and answering a riddle are speech acts, that is, they entail a speaking out loud to an audience. And he further points out that the first Anglo-Saxon reading (in the modern sense) occurred in the context of the monasteries, where someone who had mastered the art of reading would read out loud a Biblical text (written in Latin) and interpret its meaning to those around him.

In a culture unaccustomed to the written text, the act of reading would have seemed remarkably like solving a riddle. For it meant translating meaningless but somehow magical squiggles on a leaf of vellum into significant discourse… The squiggles must be made to speak.

I suspect that Tolkien was invoking such early English reading practices in the scene in Moria where the Company gather around Gandalf as he pores over and reads out of a battered book found near Balin’s tomb. But at the western gate, before the Company enter Moria, Tolkien clearly plays with the etymology of ‘reading’.

‘What does the writing say?’ asked Frodo, who was trying to decipher the inscription on the arch. ‘I thought I knew the elf-letters, but I cannot read these.’

‘The words are in the elven-tongue of the West of Middle earth in the Elder Days,’ answered Gandalf. ‘But they do not say anything of importance to us. They say only: The Doors of Durin, Lord of Moria. Speak, friend, and enter. And underneath small and faint is written: I, Narvi, made them. Celebrimbor of Hollin drew these signs.

Gandalf both reads and fails to read the inscription: he reads the Elf-letters in our modern sense of turning the mysterious signs into intelligible words; yet he fails (at least at first) to read the riddle made up by these words.



Fair is Foul: Macbeth and LOTR

The twin pressures of earning a living and working on Rounded Globe have left me for now with insufficient time to continue my close reading of Return of the Shadow. I hope to resume in about a month. In the meanwhile, here is a first attempt to set down some as yet inchoate thoughts about the significance to LOTR of Tolkien’s reading of Macbeth.

To help initial orientation, note that Tolkien would have been drawn to Macbeth, not only because it is a story that descends from the days when the Norse men were a substantial power in Scotland (the play begins with reports of a great battle with the Norwegians), but also because the story includes one of those encounters between mortals and fairies that so interested him. On this latter, Shakespeare himself drew upon the history he found in Hollinshed’s ‘Chronicles’ (1577), where it is suggested that the three witches were “feiries, indued with knowledge of prophesie by their necromanticall science.”

Macbeth meets with the weird sisters twice in the play, and it is well known that the prophecies he receives on his second meeting were incorporated in revised form in LOTR:  Birnam wood coming to Dunsinane became the Ents marching on Isengard; no man of woman born shall harm Macbeth became the dispatch of the chief Ringwraith by a woman and a hobbit; and – less well known – the vision of the line of Stuart kings descending from Banquo became the vision of the Numenorean kings culminating in Aragorn seen by the hobbits as they listen to Tom Bombadil on the Barrow Downs.

This invites the question of whether we can discern within LOTR elements of Macbeth’s first meeting with the witches. I think we can, but I think this only comes to light when we explore the theme of what I will call ‘interiority’ that is opened up by this first encounter.

The first meeting is straightforward enough: Returning from battle, Macbeth and Banquo, two captains of the victorious army, meet the three ‘fairies,’ who hail Macbeth by his present title, by that of Thane of Cawdor, and by that of ‘king hereafter’.

The theme of interiority is struck at once by Banquo who, turning to Macbeth, exclaims:

Good sir, why do you start; and seem to fear things that do sound so fair?

Banquo’s question suggests that the witches have spoken aloud something that was already present within Macbeth’s inner thoughts. But while Macbeth’s subsequent aside (“why do I yield to that suggestion whose horrid image doth unfix my hair…”) would seem to confirm this suspicion, a suspicion it must remain – for while interior thoughts and desires may at times be discerned on the face of another, such readings can never be certain.

The relationship between the outer face and the inner thoughts and desires is in fact a prominent theme in the first act of the play. In the scene following the meeting with the witches, Duncan, King of Scotland, declares in reference to the treasonous Thane of Cawdor, in whom he had placed absolute trust:

There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.

Yet it is not quite so simple. Duncan is a lousy judge of character – betrayed by one Thane of Cawdor he gives the title to Macbeth, who promptly murders him in his sleep. And before the murder, when Macbeth first returns to his castle, his wife warns him:

Your face, my thane, is as a book where men may read strange matters.

Lady Macbeth’s words echo those of Banquo: Macbeth’s actual thoughts might not be written on his face, yet his face indicates that something untoward is going on within. Lady Macbeth therefore urges her husband to dissemble:

Bear welcome in your eye, your hand, your tongue: look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t.

This is what I mean by the theme of interiority: the fact is that we do read something of the inner state of someone in their face, but such readings are inherently uncertain, and this is in part because we all learn to dissemble to varying degrees – to put on a face to meet the faces that we meet.

Tolkien certainly played with the twin themes of interiority and dissembling. Mortals in LOTR must learn in whom to place their trust. Theoden, for example, is initially deceived by Wormtongue’s fair words, but by the time he encounters Saruman in his tower at Isengard he has learned to discern the foul purpose that lies behind the wizard’s enchanting talk. Or earlier, when the hobbits first meet Strider in Bree, Frodo must judge the heart of a rather grim looking stranger. And Frodo’s choice of words in Bree points us directly to Macbeth: a servant of the Enemy, Frodo declares, would “seem fairer and feel fouler, if you understand.” The relationship of fair and foul is a motif running through Macbeth (the three witches, for example, together cry: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair,” while Macbeth’s first words in the play are: “So foul and fair a day I have not seen”).

Such judgment of others is a peculiarly mortal business in LOTR. For there is, on the whole, no ambiguity about the inner natures of the fantastical creatures that we meet in Middle-earth: Orcs are foul and Elves are fair; it is only mortals who may be one or the other, or blend the two within them. And it is primarily mortals who are compelled to take the leap of faith that is trust in another; for Elves, or at least the greatest Elves, can somehow see directly into the hearts and minds of others, and so need not rely on perilous readings of the face.

And here, I think, is a key to much that we find in Lorien in the person of the Lady Galadriel.

On the face of it, the meeting of the Company with Galadriel, and her silent questioning and tempting of each of them, are far away from the meeting of Macbeth and Banquo with the three witches. Yet consider the nature of this silent questioning: Galadriel, as Gimli later recalls, “read many hearts and desires.” In other words, Tolkien imagines this encounter of mortals and fairy queen by discarding the prophetic power of Shakespeare’s witches and putting in its place precisely that power of reading the heart the near impossibility of which, for mortals, is a dominant theme in the first act of Macbeth.

What did Galadriel see when she looked into the heart of Boromir? And did she seal his fate any less than did the three witches when they hailed Macbeth as one who would be king?


LOTR: early drafts: Tom Bombadil in passing

This post is only in passing about Tom Bombadil. My general concern in this series of posts is to grasp how a new story about hobbits, began in the last weeks of 1937, slowly grew into the book we know today as The Lord of the Rings.

My posts of a month ago followed the early drafts of the story collected by Christopher Tolkien in Return of the Shadow through the first phase of writing – which lasted until early March 1938. At this point Tolkien had brought a party of hobbits to the house in Buckland, next to the Old Forest.

Tolkien returned to his story in August 1938, and seems to have worked steadily until the end of the year. He began by writing rapidly the adventures with Old Man Willow, Tom Bombadil, and the Barrow-wights – and it is in this part of the final book that we glimpse something of the original idea of a sequel to The Hobbit, before it had become absorbed into a much bigger tale.

That process of absorption becomes visible soon after the hobbits first arrive in Bree. A projection of the story to come as jotted down at this time (RS 126) envisages a quick journey from Bree to Rivendell.  But once Tolkien began writing he realized that the nature of the Ring as now envisaged, with black riders already in pursuit of it, demanded further plot developments – which is how the scene on Weathertop – which really is the high point of the first book of LOTR – came into being.

Another level of absorption was also at work. Already in the first draft of the scene on Weathertop, Tolkien mentions (p. 169)  that Gilgalad and Elendil had once built a fort on the hill. And from this point on references to the story of the history of the exiles from Numenor become both more frequent and – crucially – ever more integral to the plot of the new story. In other words, as one reads the successive drafts in Return of the Shadow one begins to realize that another story is breaking through into the new story about hobbits. This ‘back story’ is ‘The Fall of Numenor’, which Tolkien had composed a year earlier, and actually one could argue that its composition – rather than the ‘long expected party’ chapter penned in December 1937 – marks the real comencement of the book we know today as The Lord of the Rings.

What this means in terms of my reading of RS is that I need, not only to trace the development of the idea of the Ring, but also to chart the process whereby the ‘Fall of Numenor’ (and more generally the unfinished ‘Lost Road’, of which FN was intended as a preface) breaks through into – and eventually comes to provide the frame for – the new hobbit story. These tasks will occupy me in subsequent posts.

But the above reflections do shine a little light upon various enigmatic elements of the first book of LOTR, such as – that most enigmatic of all of Tolkien’s creations – Tom Bombadil.

Now let’s be clear. Spend half an hour googling TB and you will hit upon any number of wacked out accounts of who Bombadil is. That I cannot pretend to tell you. But what reading RS does illuminate is something of the way in which TB came to be who he is.

The singularity of Bombadil is perhaps best captured in his ability to see Frodo when he wears the Ring (and then to put on the Ring himself but remain visible). Tom Bombadil is thus set outside of the world of Sauron’s magic, which seems to cast its spell on all other human-like beings in Middle-earth. Tom’s seeing of Frodo (then called Bingo) is present in the earliest draft, but when read in the context of the story as it was then conceived in Tolkien’s mind reads differently.

The key to the original conception of Tom’s seeing seems to be Farmer Maggot, who had already appeared in the journey across the Shire and who, in these early drafts, is at times not imagined as a hobbit but as a similar kind of being as Tom Bombadil: ‘We are kinsfolk, he and I’ (RS 122), TB says of Farmer Maggot.

Now, when Tolkien wrote the first draft of the meeting with Maggot he was still very much in ‘Hobbit sequel’ mode, and his hobbits as they cross the Shire at times appear alarmingly akin to undergraduate students in rag week. Thus the episode at Maggot’s house is all about Bingo putting on the Ring and playing a practical joke on Farmer Maggot:

But at that moment the mug left the table, rose, tilted in the air, and then returned emtpy to its place. ‘Help and save us!’ cried the farmer, jumping up. (RS 96-7).

When we put all these elements together – and, crucially, let go of the story we know – it seems (to me, at least) that Tom Bombadil’s seeing of Bingo when he puts on the Ring was conceived in relation to Bingo’s practical joke on Farmer Maggot. Maggot and Bombadil are kin, the first one is taken in by Bingo’s juvenile humour, the second sees through it, and in doing so humbles Bingo.

But, as the months and years went by, and as the new hobbit story gradually became a development of the ‘Fall of Numenor’ – a story about Sauron and his enemies, the men of Westernesse, and the final fateful battle between them – so the Ring became something that could no longer be used for a practical joke.

And so the original Farmer Maggot episode became what we know today – the good hobbit farmer and his family and mushrooms (a shadow of the original idea of kinship was retained with the information that TB gets his news of the Shire from Maggot).

And here, I think, we glimpse Tolkien doing one of the things he does best, namely creating as he goes along as opposed to hitting on and then simply expressing some one original conception. Farmer Maggot’s identity was fixed as a hobbit, and the visiting party of hobbits do not use the Ring for a practical joke when visiting him. Yet the story of TB and the Ring remains, shorn of its original context and hence completely enigmatic – and all the better for it.



LOTR: Christmas 1937 to March 1938

In the week before Christmas, 1937, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the first chapter of a new story about hobbits. It bore the title ‘A long expected party.’ The next few weeks saw Tolkien pen three new drafts of this chapter – each enlarged and more polished – and then, around late February, start writing the adventures that befall four hobbits as they walk across the Shire, from Bag End to Buckland. Tolkien already had in mind a journey to Rivendell (and beyond), but when he put down the story for around half a year in March 1938 he had bought his hobbits to the house in Buckland, where they had taken hot baths and resolved to take a short cut through the Old Forest the next morning.

But the journey across the Shire rapidly led into a new development, which in turn led Tolkien to compose a new beginning to his story.

The hobbits meet a black rider, and subsequently a company of Elves, whose leader, Gildor, tells them something of these riders. But as Gildor spoke it became clear to Tolkien that what he had to say about Bilbo’s old ring ought to have been said by Gandalf already before the hobbits had begun their adventure. Indeed, the idea that the ‘Lord of the Ring’ was actively searching for Bingo finally gave Tolkien a decent motive for sending Bingo off on an adventure in the first place.

The first leg of the walk in the Shire thus begat a new opening chapter. In Return of the Shadow, Christopher Tolkien presents several drafts of explanations about the black riders and the ring, each more elaborate but with a morphing of the speaker from Gildor in the woods of the Shire to Gandalf by the fireplace in Bag End. Hence was born the precursor to ‘The Shadow of the Past.’

At this point, then, the plan of the book was as follows: an opening chapter with Gandalf telling Bingo something of the history and the dangers of the ring he has inherited from Bilbo, and suggesting that Bingo stage a disappearance in order to cheat the ring; ‘A long expected party’ as the second chapter; and then a journey that led over the Shire – with black riders and Elves encountered, and also by way of Farmer Maggot’s farm – to Buckland, and then off to Rivendell by way of the Old Forest and Barrow-wights and other adventures as yet only dimly glimpsed.

The encounter with the black rider was thus a turning point, in terms of narrative composition as well as conceptually.

Fascinatingly, we can watch the rider appear directly out of Tolkien’s imagination:

At first, the hobbits hear an approaching rider, who appears cloaked and with face unseen and who halts and sniffs, and turns out to be Gandalf.

Tolkien soon stopped writing this draft, and then began writing of the same journey over again. This time the same rider appears, stops, and sniffs; but he is on a black horse and he is not Gandalf.

Yet the black rider does not appear completely out of the blue. Recall from earlier posts how from the very start of this new story about hobbits the theme of the ring had been central and bound up in invisibility and disappearance, and how within a few weeks Tolkien had added the thought that the ring could overcome you, that you must lose it or lose yourself, and that it had been made by the Necromancer.

Once a Maker had been posited it was almost inevitable that he should come or send a servant to reclaim what was his; and who better a servant than one who had passed through a ring? There are of course unlooked for details added, in typically creative Tolkien fashion: the cold feeling of being a wraith, for example, or the idea that wraiths hunt by smell rather than sight (which seems to have been engendered by the sniff of the halted rider, originally Gandalf). Here is Tolkien’s first account of the Ringwraiths:

Yes, if the Ring overcomes you, you yourself become permanently invisible – and it is a horrible cold feeling. Everything becomes very faint like grey ghost pictures against the black background in which you live; but you can smell more clearly than you can hear or see. You have no power however like a Ring of making other things invisible: you are a ringwraith. You can wear clothes. But you are under the command of the Lord of the Rings. (75)

On the surface, the histories of the ring given first by Gildor and then Gandalf are all about the Necromancer and his attempts to ensnare elves, goblins, men and dwarves by dealing out rings in ancient days.  This is the kind of stuff that gives endless hours of amusement to Tolkien fans as it allows careful discrimination between the different races of Middle-earth: many Elves became wraiths, but ‘the Lord’ cannot command them, goblins and men both proved easy prey to the trick of the ring, Dwarves are too substantial to become wraiths — with slight variations in different drafts. But when read in the context of the emerging story as a whole, these passages come into view as really all about the one race that they do not mention at all, namely hobbits.

The appearance of the black riders as clothed yet invisible beings, wraiths who hunt by smell, was the fruit of Tolkien’s fecund meditations on the sinister power of the ring; but the new fruit set a new conundrum: if the black riders were people who had passed through the ring, why was Bilbo not even showing signs of becoming a wraith? And why had Gollum also not been a wraith?

Gollum’s appearance in the accounts of both Gildor and Gandalf is of course not in itself surprising. Any origin story about the ring was going to have to explain how Gollum came to be in possession of it, and once the black riders had appeared Gollum now served another narrative purpose – for it is his emergence from the Misty Mountains and wanderings that had eventually led him to the Necromancer that explain why the Lord of the Rings knows to look for his missing ring in the Shire.

Yet none of these narrative demands dictated that Gollum transform into an ancient sort of hobbit. This last development follows directly from the introduction of an invisible ringwraith and the need to confront the fact that neither Bilbo nor Gollum had become invisible.

Both Gildor and Gandalf tell Bingo that they think Gollum is a kind of hobbit – ‘of hobbit-kind, or akin to the fathers of the fathers of the hobbits’ (78), as Gandalf puts it. Yet Gollum is not a hobbit in the original edition of The Hobbit; and his becoming one now is surely all about economy of explanation, as in, one explanation could explain why both Bilbo and Gollum had withstood the effects of the ring for so long – namely because they were both hobbits and hobbits are relatively immune to the effects of the ring.

In my bones, I feel that this explanation is simply a continuation and strengthening of the original conception of the ring as bringing out Bilbo’s essential hobbit nature. The ring as inherited from The Hobbit was not sinister, and it simply gave Bilbo a formal power of appearing and disappearing at will that complemented his innate hobbit abilities to do so anyway (see my earlier post). A few weeks into writing his story and the ring could no longer be viewed as benign – it was made by the Necromancer and turned its bearer into a ringwraith – yet Tolkien was also clear in his mind that this evil had not entered into Bilbo’s use of the ring, which bespoke a special and peculiar relationship between hobbits and the necromancy behind the ring.

One concession Tolkien did make, largely prompted by the story of Gollum, was to allow that the ring bestowed longevity on hobbits. Initially this was to explain how Bilbo had met a sort of still living Neanderthal hobbit, but later it would be projected on to Bilbo too and also – at this point an idea present yet largely waiting in the wings – connected to ideas of mortality and the impossibility of cheating death.

So this first phase of writing saw much (by no means all) of the ring as we know it brought into view, including the rather odd fact that it did not work as intended by its Maker when in possession of a hobbit. I think that formulating this peculiarity of hobbits was a key moment in the emergence of the new story about hobbits. This singularity of unmenacing hobbits allowed them to enter into the very warp and weave of a story about the great and the wise and the terrible.

The strange relationship between the hobbits and the ring is at the center of the plot of The Lord of the Rings. Indeed it is stated candidly by various characters like Elrond and Gandalf at several points in the published story, and yet until my reading of Return of the Shadow I had always overlooked its significance, reading it as just another detail in a book piled high with peculiar details.

I’m tempted to stick my neck out and say that the most important fact about the Ring verse (which first appears on page 258 of Return of the Shadow) is that while the elves have three rings, the dwarves seven, and men nine, there are no rings for hobbits. This absence was deliberate on Tolkien’s part: the original Ring verse betrays (through omission) the great flaw in Sauron’s plans. For Sauron was very wise and very patient and understood with acute insight the weaknesses of each of those races whom he regarded as enemies or rivals, but because his mind was wholly given over to power and control he overlooked those who would prove his undoing.

The meek were to shake the counsels of the wise and the mighty, and ultimately prove the undoing of those who grasped for power and asserted their will to dominate. It was a Christmas message, and one peculiarly appropriate for the time in which it was written.

Christmas Day, 2016.