Category Archives: Tolkien


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.



LOTR: January & February 1938

It would be nice to post about Tolkien’s progress only around the dates that Christopher Tolkien has singled out in Return of the Shadow, his edition of his father’s first drafts of the volume that would become The Fellowship of the Ring. But that would mean waiting until the end of next February, when a lightening bolt strikes, so to speak, and a large swathe of the story we know suddenly steps out into the light. As I want to get a better feel for how this story came to life sooner rather than later I’m going to carry on this commentary on the early drafts a little longer, moving now into early 1938 (see picture above to set the mood).

So from the evidence of (dated) letters he wrote, we know that between December 19th, 1937 and February 17th, 1938 Tolkien wrote several versions of his first chapter, ‘A long expected party’ but had as yet little notion of what the story as a whole was going to be.

Return of the Shadow transcribes four versions of the first chapter, each more substantial than the last and each introducing new lines and details that would survive into the printed chapter. In and of themselves, these new versions, if each better than the last, are not supremely interesting and it is tempting to jump immediately to the period Feb 17 – March 4, in which days a new idea entered into the story and Tolkien found himself writing rapidly two new chapters.

However, there are a few details from these versions and a page of jottings worthy of note (and probably one or two others I have missed).

For example, only  in version 2 does Gandalf come to town – driving a cart toward Bag End in broad daylight in the days building up to the party.

The new versions show Tolkien casting around for the hero that would replace Bilbo for the new story. Thus the third version makes the holder of the long expected party not Bilbo but his son, Bingo Baggins, while by the fourth version Bingo has become Bilbo’s nephew.

It is only, then, with the fourth version that the idea of Bilbo marrying is permanently shelved. But Bilbo’s abortive wife left a permanent mark upon the geography of the Shire, and so of Middle-earth. For Mrs Bilbo Baggins was born a Brandybuck from Buckland, which (soon to be) Eastern part of the Shire in this way came into being. Buckland is first said to be: ‘across Brandywine River on the other side of the Shire and on the edge of the Old Forest – a dubious region’ (p.29).

Bingo’s mother recalls something of the talk of the Took and the fairy wife reported (as absurd) in the early pages of The Hobbit. Buckland and beyond that the Old Forest in the East mirror English perceptions of Wales in the West of the British Isles (recall the dubious marches and the wild lands beyond in Farmer Giles).

The Old Forest is also mentioned in some disjointed paragraphs jotted down on both sides of one page around this time:

Make dubious regions – Old Forest on way to Rivendell. South of River. They turn aside to call up Frodo Br[andybuck], get lost and caught by Willowman and by Barrow-wights. T. Bombadil comes in.

Christopher Tolkien notes that Tom Bombadil, Willow-man, and the Barrow-wights had all been in existence for some years before 1938.

Clearly, as he rewrote and revised his first chapter, Tolkien was turning over in his mind the possible adventures of Bingo and some friends or relations on the way to Rivendell, and these earliest ideas of a new story about hobbits survived – flourished – in the final story.

The jottings also contain some curious proposals, such as Elrond directing Bilbo to travel to an island called Britain where the Elves still dwell, a dragon descending on Hobbiton, and the suggestion that Bingo’s motive for starting off in the first place is to find his father, Bilbo (a theme reminscent of the ‘Lost Road’ time travel stories Tolkien had been writing the year before).

The ring fitted into at least the last of these themes, with Bilbo now giving it to Bingo as a parting gift, and Bingo subsequently holding on to the ring in order to return it to his lost father.

Tolkien on this page recorded the following notes specifically about the ring:

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 [struck out: with his wife] handing over ring to Bingo. But he vanishes. Bingo worried. Resists desire to go and find him – though he does travel round a lot looking for news. Won’t lose ring as he feels it will ultimately bring him to his father.

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’.

This is extremely interesting. The connection of the ring to the Necromancer is already (I feel sure, but should check) a connection with Sauron, who Tolkien had been writing of only 18 months or so earlier when he had penned the story of the ‘Fall of Numenor’ – a path has suddenly opened up down which will stride Aragorn, Elendil, Faramir, and Denethor, as well as the chief ring-wraith and the dread ancient realm of Angmar.

The ring has suddenly become sinister. In my last post I observed that the invisibilizing property of Bilbo’s ring in The Hobbit was framing both Bilbo’s past and immenant disappearances in the opening chapter of the new story about hobbits. In the jottings above we see an exploration of deeper and darker meanings of vanishing, which may be staged and real as well as the simple matter of appearance as in The Hobbit, and which have somehow become associated with the notion of losing something (the ring or oneself).

We also see how the nature of the ring was tied from the start to the question of inheritance: whatever this ring turned out to be, it was going to have to be explained in just what circumstances Bilbo had handed on a terrible burden to a loved and trusted relative.

Tolkien’s final note on this page of jottings reads:

Ring must eventually go back to Maker, or draw you towards it. Rather a dirty trick handing it on?

The origins of the ring – it comes from Sauron – are complicating the theme of the opening chapter, with Tolkien not yet clear what it means that the ring has passed from Bilbo to his heir.

Toward the end of February the story took ‘an unpremeditated turn’ (as Tolkien’s put it in a letter of that time). As we shall see in the next post, an intervention that originated with the Maker of the ring now revealed to Tolkien much of the nature and peculiar history of the Ring.

LOTR – the very first pages

Continuing my meditations of last night on the first five manuscript pages of the story that would become The Lord of the Rings, and which Tolkien set down on paper sometime between the 16th and the 19th of December, 1937.

A photograph of the very first page of this manuscript is helpfully reproduced in Return of the Shadow (p.12). At the top of the page JRR Tolkien has written the title: ‘A long expected party,’  The story begins with the observation that, for a day or two, Bilbo Baggins’ seventieth birthday celebration was the subject of ‘some talk in the neighbourhood.’ Bilbo is said to have ‘once had a little fleeting fame among the people of Hobbiton and Bywater — he had disappeared after breakfast ome April 30th and not reappeared until lunchtime on June 22nd in the following year.’ But this party turns out to have been planned by Bilbo to mark his final disappearance from Bag End.

Note how the ring provides a frame for both the recollection of Bilbo’s earlier adventure (described in this first draft, from the point of view of the party guests, as Bilbo’s ‘ridiculous vanishment’) and the point of this particular story, which will end with Bilbo’s final disappearance from the Shire, quite clearly with the aid of his ring (which ‘was in his hand even while he made his speech,’ and which allows him to disappear ‘silently and unnoticed in the middle of the confused outburst of talk that followed the flabbergasted silence [that followed his announcement]. He was never seen in Hobbiton again’).

At this point in time, we must remember, Tolkien was very much in the world of The Hobbit and not at all in that which we now know as The Lord of the Rings. The connection of the ring with the Necromancer has not yet been made, ringwraiths have not yet appeared in the Shire (they will two months later, in February 1938), and indeed the ring has as yet no history of its making and apocalyptic signifiance in Middle-earth, and no addictive moral pull towards possession. None of these properties of ‘the Ring’ have yet been invented by our author. Yet the ring of The Hobbit, which had given Bilbo in the second half of his adventure a characteristic trait of appearing and disappearing at will, is the frame around which these five pages have been composed.

And that, in fact, points to a peculiar feature of the Ring as we know it today. Buried deep beneath all the terrible properties just mentioned – all leading back to wraiths and shadows and Sauron – the original and in some ways enduringly fundamental characteristic of the ring found under the Misty Mountains by Bilbo is that it simply amplifies his innate hobbit characteristics.

In the first chapter of The Hobbit, ‘An unexpected party,’ the narrator asks: What is a Hobbit? And as part of his answer, he declares:

There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along…

So when Bilbo comes into possession of Gollum’s magic ring, his ‘ordinary and everyday’ hobbit magic is amplified and, as it were, formalized – he becomes The Great Disappearer (the ‘Mad Baggins, who used to vanish with a bang and a flash and reappear with bags of jewels and gold’ of later Shire legend).

Disappearing is how his adventure long ago is framed on this first page of the new story, and is the point of this first chapter of the new story: for the party of special magnificance is indeed the farewell party that we all know from the published book (although without the firework-accompanied actual putting on of the Ring trick that Bilbo pulls off in the book that we know).

To digress for a moment by turning from these five manuscript pages to the volume Fellowship of the Ring, first published in 1954: this original Bilboish or hobbitish nature of the Ring seems to still sparkle on occasion beneath the surface of the story and, or so i suspect, bears on the rightness of Bilbo’s composition of the ‘All that is gold does not glitter’ verse – composed about Aragorn, first heard by us in words written by Gandalf, and hallowed by recitation at the Council of Elrond – which, in the great symphony that is LOTR, is a sort of counterpoint to the Ring verse.

When we move beyond the first page (the remaining pages are transcribed but, unfortunately, not photographically reproduced) we soon come upon an astonishing feature of this very first conception of Bilbo’s birthday party. Bilbo’s after-dinner speech begins and proceeds much as in the published book, but when he gets to his ‘Announcement’ he declares, not only ‘Goodbye! I am going away after dinner,’ but immediately adds: ‘Also I am going to get married.’

Why Bilbo was to get married is easily explained. The Hobbit ends with Bilbo writing poetry and visiting the elves and, while few believed any of his tales, remaining ‘very happy’ to the end of his ‘extraordinarily long’ days – and Tolkien evidently felt this precluded any further adventures. Yet he wanted to tell the story of another Baggins (also with a Tookish side). And so the obvious solution was to turn forward in time to one of Bilbo’s  descendants – unamed in this first chapter. But to have descendants, Bilbo (properly speaking) needed to get married.

The juxtaposition of marriage with ‘final vanishment’ from society is intriguing; but was not to be further explored because Tolkien almost immediately starts backtracking, explaining in the second half of the manuscript that Bilbo did not actually get married, at least not there and then, and maybe not at all, and adding that the idea had just popped into his head, and adding also how hobbit marriage customs are rather curious… and so on. It seems Tolkien could not stomach the introduction of domesticity into the life of his confirmed bachelor, Bilbo Baggins (it would take the change of an age, with Sauron and his Ring destroyed and the king returned, and the change of a dynasty, from the Baggins to the Gamgees, before Tolkien could allow family domesticity into Bag End).

By the end of these five pages an alternative – and also not taken – solution comes fleetingly into view: after Bilbo disappears, this original chapter concludes, most of the hobbits of the neighbourhood ‘decided he had gone mad, and run off till he met a pool or a river or a steep fall, and there was one Baggins the less'; most, but not all, and there were some friends who ‘he had not said goodbye to. That is easily explained.’ We are still not at the cousins and relatives solution that will give us (via Bingo) Frodo.

All in all, or at least in light of Tolkien’s evident discomfort with the prospect of a Mrs. Bilbo Baggins, we can accept with the author that this first draft contained a large red herring to be discarded. Yet that discarding surely cemented the exclusive paternal perspective of the eye that oversaw the composition of what turned into a tale of epic proportions. And there is something about the final, published telling of Bilbo’s disappearance that is the weaker for it.

In the final telling, Bilbo’s ring is placed at the center of Bilbo’s after-dinner speech, his becoming invisible before the eyes of all assembled occuring with a flash and a bang thanks to some intervention from the side by Gandalf. It is indeed a moment of pure flabbergastation. And yet this published version substitutes the theatrical stagecraft of a magician for the genuine article: because that original startling of the party guests does really fit perfectly with an image of a rural assembly at a great gathering listening to their eccentric but wealthy seventy-year-old host announce to them that he is to going off again into the blue to be married!

the week before christmas – the story of the Ring begins

79 years ago to this day – it is the evening of the 19th of December, 2016 that i write this – the lord of the rings had begun as a story (though the story did not yet bear this title). we know that on the 16th of December, Tolkien had yet to begin a sequel to The Hobbit, which had been published with much success earlier in September of the year, but that three days later – on the 19th of December, 1937- he wrote in a letter: ‘I have written the first chapter of a new story about Hobbits – “A long expected party.”‘

I’d read this before – the narrative of first composition is set out in Christopher Tolkien’s introduction to Return of the Shadow, which volume itself presents many of the drafts of the book that emerged over the next decade and beyond; and which indeed begins with the original 5 page manuscript composition that had been composed in the days before or of the 19th of December, 1937.

But it was only recalling the date last night that i realised that Tolkien began his new story in the week before Christmas.

This timing, I feel sure, played a vital role in the imagination of the great party of special magnificance: the party thrown by Bilbo Baggins on the occasion of his final vanishing from Hobbiton, some several decades after his unlooked for return from adventure in forgien parts. For that is what Tolkien bascially wrote 79 years ago today, or yesterday (the manuscript is short enough that it was surely written in one sitting, or two at the most – say, over Dec. 18th and 19th): an account of how Bilbo gave a banquet to remember, made an announcement, and then disappeared – in order to allow a new story to begin that would be told of Bilbo’s (as yet unamed) heir (for the end of The Hobbit suggested that Bilbo himself had had no more adventures). So what Tolkien basically wrote – his ‘first chapter of a new story’ – was essentially a curtain-call on Bilbo, his final disappearing act, which, fittingly, was to come as the culmination of a great feast.

And as Tolkien described Bilbo’s party – many lines from this first version are familiar to readers of the published book – what he conjured up was a birthday party and a christmas party rolled into one – with everyone receiving presents and eating until they are fit to burst (it only really rains and snows food and drink at christmas).

In this first version Bilbo is only 70 on the day of the party – the 22nd of the ‘pleasant’ month of September, but it is indeed his birthday that is being celebrated. Birthday party, indeed! This was a feast imagined in days when academic routine had ground to a halt, the house was full of children’s voices, a tree had been erected inside the house and preparations were already afoot for a day of winter feasting soon to come.


Under the mill? c. 1912

Your hands, my dear, adorable,
Your lips of tenderness
—Oh, I’ve loved you faithfully and well,
Three years, or a bit less.
It wasn’t a success.

Thank God, that’s done! and I’ll take the road,
Quit of my youth and you,
The Roman road to Wendover
By Tring and Lilley Hoo,
As a free man may do.

For youth goes over, the joys that fly,
The tears that follow fast;
And the dirtiest things we do must lie
Forgotten at the last;
Even Love goes past.

I shall desire and I shall find
The best of my desires;
The autumn road, the mellow wind
That soothes the darkening shires.
And laughter, and inn-fires.

White mist about the black hedgerows,
The slumbering Midland plain,
The silence where the clover grows,
And the dead leaves in the lane,
Certainly, these remain.

But the years, that take the best away,
Give something in the end;
And a better friend than love have they,
For none to mar or mend,
That have themselves to friend.


Rupert Brooke