Let’s begin with the machinery of the magic trick, a vital item of Tolkien’s storytelling stagecraft. Here is an unfinished entry from the unfinished index of this website, the entry index itself:
Of Lord of the Rings, see also: Unfinished (elvish) index of LOTR; A Middle English Vocabulary (1922); Index theory of naming (The Hobbit); Index theory of fantasy (On Fairy-stories).
An index is central to Tolkien’s storytelling. He sees a story as navigating an index, which itself represents the world of the story by discrete words. Meaning, Tolkien understands, arises through connections discovered in the index by way of a story. Yet index is not a word we read often in Tolkien’s prose, certainly not in his two hobbit stories. As such, it is not found in a conventional index of Tolkien’s art (such as this one) but belongs rather to an inquiry into the nameless elements in Middle-earth, the hidden mushrooms that make the magic of the stories.
An idea of an index informs the story of The Hobbit (1937). When Bilbo riddles his name with Smaug he makes titles out of his adventures such that his riddles amount to an index of his story to this point. Of all possible titles (luck-finder, barrrel-rider, etc) only one sticks, and as such occupies a special place in the index, a title Smaug pronounces thief and Gandalf burglar. Both stories of the riddle game show what it means for such a name to stick (albeit differently). In the original story, in which there is neither lie nor pity but only delightful misunderstanding, Bilbo may be named a burglar only after legally (if unwittingly) aquiring a magic ring, an acquisition that involves contingency, luck, and hobbit vanishing, and illuminates Bilbo’s queer Took inheritance if nothing else does.
Once slipped on his finger, Bilbo’s body becomes invisible. But as soon as he slips it in his pocket his hidden character is revealed to us. In the original story of the riddle game Bilbo wins the magic ring from Gollum, who has already lost his original name and now loses another birthday present. Bilbo is lucky, but there is something queer in the whole story, a legal transfer of property conducted entirely unwittingly by both parties! This, too, is part of who Bilbo Baggins is.
The very idea of an index of the nameless in Middle-earth is thus derived from the index theory of naming that informs The Hobbit. This theory combines an early-twentieth-century modernist philosophy of grammar (in which the world and language are conceived in terms of an index) with the mysticism found in the poem Mythopoeia (composed while writing The Hobbit), in which the queer qualities in the index of the world are discerned as “movements… kin to life and death of trees, of beasts, of stars” felt astir within us “by deep monition.” As I read Tolkien’s thinking in the early 1930s, our monitions of the queerness of the world are the ground of the credibility of fantasy, and a good story is one that reveals to us and makes sense of deep monitions on the threshold of our awareness.
A first chapter in an account of the genesis of The Lord of the Rings must sketch the mystical index theory of naming that Tolkien had arrived at by the early 1930s. This chapter delves into the very idea of an index by establishing the index to the original story of Bilbo’s adventure, thereby bringing before our attention the story to which Tolkien began a sequel in Christmas 1937 (rather than the revised story we all know).
The second and third chapters begin with the first draft of ‘A long-expected party,’ penned in the week before Christmas 1937, and follow the direction and movement of Tolkien’s thought through his first year of writing. By the end of 1938, Tolkien put aside his new hobbit story to work on a lecture on fairy stories he was to deliver in Scotland in March 1939. The essay On Fairy-stories (1947) worked up from the lecture is read as an author’s solutions to various concrete and conceptual problems arising from his writing of his own fairy stories, and is the subject of a fifth chapter. Having given the lecture Tolkien began writing his story again only in late summer, just as WWII began. A sixth chapter reviews the state of the story as developed in the latter months of 1939. This takes us to the famous halt at Balin’s tomb in Moria, mentioned by Tolkien in his foreword.
Only once Tolkien began writing again in late summer 1940 were all the elements of his new story in place. He now wrote the story in the Golden Wood, Rohan, and Isengard, and began to move his mind to the last part of the tale in Gondor and in Mordor. All this new material, barely imagined before summer 1940, followed easily out of the conceptual vision established by the end of 1939. The last three chapters therefore turn from chronology of composition to an identification of the key themes that had been hammered out in the early drafts and the work on fairy stories: elvish vision, the towers of Middle-earth, and the word in Rohan.
The key objective of the present study is thus to make sense of our author’s struggle to make sense of a sequel to The Hobbit in the period between Christmas 1937 and summer 1940. Let’s return to the second chapter.
My working hypothesis is that Tolkien began the sequel to The Hobbit by holding up a mirror to the original, that this mirror soon disclosed the magic ring at the center of the new story, and that the new story was henceforth informed by a sort of inversion of Tolkien’s theory of naming, whereby that which revealed the queer quality of our monitions, as it were through a magnifying glass, became the object of the storytelling gaze, which now looked out from it, revealing the source of all the queerness.
At the moment the magic ring became the new center of the story it also became evil, imagined as one of many such rings made long ago by the Necromancer to ensnare people and turn them into undead servants. This strategy of composition (looking in a mirror and walking backwards) revealed an initial story, the main part of which took place on the way to Rivendell between the Shire and Bree, in which the new way of looking at the magic ring conjured Tom Bombadil as a mythical counterweight to the Necromancer. A Ringwraith was met in the woods of the Shire, and the hobbits were soon to be trapped by a Barrow-wight, and it seems that only on writing this last scene did Tolkien come to see that Ringwraiths and Barrow-wights were not the same thing. With the idea of a final confrontation with the Ringwraiths at the ford at Rivendell already in mind, Tolkien added a new encounter between Bree and Rivendell. On Weathertop, a hobbit was stabbed by ‘the sword of the Necromancer’ and began to become a wraith. Weathertop was first composed around early autumn 1938, and although Tolkien continued on to Rivendell the turns the story had just taken compelled him to start his story from the beginning back in Bag-end, and not for the last time.
A second chapter tells the story of the first journey from Bag-end to Weathertop. This chapter unearths what I call the mirror of the ghost index, where the ghost index is the index to the original story of The Hobbit (lost in the second edition) and the world between Crickhollow and Bree was imagined by looking at this ghost index in a mirror. While the ghost index is itself lost, and can only be rediscovered by the difficult art of forgetting the story of The Hobbit that we know, the mirror of the ghost index remains in the published story, its meaning twisted by the conceptual, cosmic, and geographical expansion of the story in the years after Weathertop.
A third chapter unravels the curious events on Weathertop, where everything changed. This was the moment Tolkien decided that his story was taking place in the days of history, and not myth as he had originally thought. This decision saw the introduction of the 1936 ‘Fall of Númenor’ into the background of the story, paving the way for the decision taken in summer 1940 that the wild ranger hobbit who joined the company in Bree was actually a man, the heir of Elendil. Meanwhile, the encounter on Weathertop itself opened up difficult issues of reconciling ancient pagan story-elements with Tolkien’s Christian idea of the soul. If the Necromancer could turn (by ring or sword) a living body and soul into an undead slave, what happened to the soul in this process? This question is at the heart of the thinking that gave rise to first a lecture and then an essay On Fairy-stories.
By this point the present website has served its purpose, in that I already have chapters five through to the end done and dusted. Actually I have drafts of the first four chapters, too; but I began this study with On Fairy-stories and how it related to elements of the Golden Wood, Rohan, and Orthanc, not to mention the Eye of Sauron, and only once this material was finished did I begin tracking back to work out how the problems that On Fairy-stories solves came to arise in the first place. This tracking back took me through the early drafts of The Lord of the Rings back to the original story of The Hobbit, and it was only early in 2018 that I saw the index theory of naming at the heart of the original. My present efforsts, which this website is meant to assist, therefore involve recrafting my early chapters in light of the story that is now appearing before my eyes whereby the idea of the One Ring arose out of a curious mirror inversion of the magic ring that, originally, served to illustrate the queer nature of the relationship between words and reality.