Indexes of Middle-earth

This post arises as I clarify the ideas of my index on the page naming the nameless.

A key idea advanced on that page is that Tolkien sees a story as generating its own index, which is the world of that story. A principle of Tolkien’s art, adopted by conventional indexes of Middle-earth (such as the Tolkien Gateway), is that there is only one world of both hobbit stories and so only one index for both. Yet the magic ring of the first edition of The Hobbit is a different thing than in later editions or in the sequel, and the same goes for Gollum and even Bilbo, and even the idea of hobbits themselves.

This raises the question of how many stories, worlds of story, and so indexes we have on our hands and a concern that once we turn to the early drafts of the sequel, the hero of which is named Bingo Bolger-Baggins, we add another story, world, and index. Let’s begin with a rough and ready chronology of the composition of the two hobbit stories:

1930-1933: The Hobbit composed and told (a compositional break after death of Smaug)

1936: ‘The Fall of Númenor’ (with much study of Beowulf behind it and some in front)

Christmas 1937: composition of ‘A long-expected party’: Tolkien’s most distilled commentary on The Hobbit

Winter 1938: Necromancer named as maker of magic ring and (as natural consequence) Ringwraiths encountered in woods of Shire

Late Summer 1938: digression through the Old Forest, house of Tom Bombadil, and Barrow-downs: Tolkien’s most intense commentary on The Hobbit and another picture of wraiths

Autumn 1938: Weathertop: everything changes. Bilbo’s heir starts to become a wraith and the first signs of a transformation into Frodo are glimpsed. And both hobbit stories, which since ‘The Fall of Númenor’ had introduced a distinction between the days of myth and the days of history had been firmly placed in myth, now entered history. ‘The Fall of Númenor’ begins to become the ancient history of the new hobbit story.

March 1939: Tolkien delivers a lecture on fairy-stories at St. Andrews: his story and his essay henceforth run parallel, working the transformation of magic ring into One Ring, generating the philosophy of art on which The Lord of the Rings is founded, and giving us also the elvish vision of Lothlórien and the Palantíri.

Summer 1940: the wild hobbit named Trotter becomes the man Aragorn, the heir of Elendil whose legend was sketched at the close of ‘The Fall of Númenor.’ For the next eight years, Tolkien imagines the history of Númenor in exile from the days of Elendil down to Aragorn by way of positioning various towers in Middle-earth.

Inspection of these stages suggests that we distinguish between revision within an index and transformation of the whole index into a new one.

My reading of Return of the Shadow, the early drafts of the first part of The Lord of the Rings, reveals that the moment that the magic ring was imagined as made by the Necromancer Tolkien began to to reimagine Gollum as an ancient hobbit and to reinterpret the original riddle game – in which Bilbo won the magic ring – as a competition Gollum had intended to lose.

Nevertheless, until Weathertop the new hobbit story was simply a sequel to the original, set in the same world and basically extending its index. In fact, in these early drafts we find the most exquisite commentary on The Hobbit that will ever be penned, a commentary that reveals much of the hidden meaning of the original. For example, Tom Bombadil reframes the underlying riddle around which The Hobbit was crafted. Gollum’s ‘transformation’ from stupid monster to ancient and ruined hobbit, while changing his character (the original monster is not malicious and no cheat) is not really a transformation but rather a making overt a hidden element of the original story, namely that Bilbo and Gollum are both aborigines.

Weathertop marks the moment when the original index comes to an end, and from this moment of composition through to the first drafts composed in the wake of the delivery of the lecture on fairy stories in 1939 we are, in terms of an index, in a sort of no-man’s land. From autumn 1939 onwards for nearly a decade we see a new story world under construction and hence a new index, and once the riddle game had been revised in the second edition of The Hobbit in 1951 the original story rewrote its own index and entered the same world as its sequel.

A question we wish answered is why did Tolkien rewrite the index to his hobbit stories? But in this post I focus only on the how, which has a simple answer.

The original index was rewritten once  ‘The Fall of Númenor’ entered the story as ancient history. This final myth of the elves composed between one hobbit story and the other posited a fundamental division between days of myth (before Númenor was destroyed) and days of history (after Númenor). Inspection leaves no doubt that both the original hobbit story and the early drafts of the sequel up to Weathertop are set in the days of myth. Weathertop established that the new story – and by implication also the original hobbit story – were situated in history long after the destruction of Númenor.

So, a philological reading of The Lord of the Rings reveals three indexes.

  1. The original index of The Hobbit, extended – with minimal revision – in the early story of the new hobbit story. (Index I)
  2. The 1936 index generated by ‘The Fall of Númenor.’ (Index 2)
  3. The final index: found in shorter form at the end of Return of the King and today found in longer form in various online wikis like Tolkien Gateway. (Index 3)

Index I is a ghost that haunts Index 3. Index 2 would seem simply to have been incorporated into Index 3, providing its basis and subsequently expanded as Tolkien drew the history of the exiles of Númenor from Elendil (who appears in the 1936 story) to Aragorn, thereby establishing the ancient historical background to his new story.

The crucial entry in Index 2 concerns time (sub-entries: myth and history) and the rewriting of the original involved reimagining a story set in myth as a fairy story in history.

The why is another question, but clearly relates to the fact that on Weathertop the implication of making the Necromancer the maker of the magic ring became clear. Having a wraith who had already passed through a similar magic ring appear in the Shire was an obvious consequence of this early decision, but a path was already being followed that saw Bingo stabbed on Weathertop by “the sword of the Necromancer” and start to become a wraith. This was to take a hobbit to a place that no other hobbit (not even Bilbo or Gollum) had been and involved all sorts of delicate questions about eternal hobbit souls and the inner being of a Ringwraith. These questions were resolved only through Tolkien’s lecture and subsequent essay On Fairy-stories, but – for reasons still to be determined – produced an immediate shifting of the world of the story out of myth and into history.

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