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.


the ecology of addiction

You may find the Shadow of the Wood at your own door next: it is wayward, and senseless, and has no love for Men.

The other day my youngest son, Albert, asked me: ‘what does “to be addicted” mean?’ After some head scratching I replied: ‘being addicted is when a plant has control of you.’

By the time I came up with this answer Albert had stopped listening; but I was rather pleased with it. Discussions of addiction tend to direct all the focus on to the human subject, with the addictive substance appearing merely as a test of the limits of human will power. On reflection, though, such approaches seem old-fashioned. They speak from a time when humanity conceived of itself as something distinct from nature.

Possibly the contrast is between economic and ecological modes of thought. In the former, which is characteristic of the nineteenth century, nature is conceived as a passive resource, elements of which humans (the active agents) consume and exploit. Putting the plant into the picture as an active agent in a symbiotic relationship fits with a post-Darwinian perspective in which organisms (plants, as well as animals) are seen to be engaged in evolutionary strategies of their own.

Unfortunately, my profound ignorance of biology and all related conceptual frameworks prevents me from properly thinking through my new perspective on addiction.

Nevertheless, I am greatly attracted to a perspective in which ‘the war on drugs’ is not  something distinct from the greater ecological picture presented to us in the news. While humans are driving countless species of animals and plants into extinction, a couple of plants are in turn wreaking untold damage and destruction on our urban centers. The evolutionary success of the Coca plant and the Poppy are turning the inner cities – concerete instances of manmade environments, supposedly liberated from nature – into wastelands. In our relationship to plant life, at least, humans are not nearly so dominant and in control as we tend to assume.

I also find the evolutionary strategy itself fascinating. Take tobacco, a plant with addictive properties I know all too well. To imbibe the nicotine (the addictive element in the tobacco) the leaf of the plant is consumed (usually by smoking it). So from our own individualistic perspective, the individual plant sacrifices itself – it literally goes up in smoke. But the addictive nature of the nicotine ensures that humans will plant more tobacco; indeed, will themselves give up the opportunity to cultivate other plants or pasture livestock in order to grow more tobacco.

And on a personal level I find this ecological perspective on addiction rather liberating. After a decade of not smoking I found myself a year ago back with the tobacco. Now I’ve just made the switch to a vaporizer, and – for the first time for a very long time – I’m really happy with my drug consumption. Because the vaporizer takes out all the tar and just delivers the nicotine my body no longer feels so sluggish and my lungs are opening up again. But – and this bit is crucial – I really love being addicted to nicotine. I love the hit it gives me, and I love the act of puffing away throughout the day. Thinking about my addiction in terms of a symbiotic relationship with a plant seems to capture something quite profound about the whole experience, and is just so much healthier (on a mental and emotional level) than the old-fashioned (and o so Victorian) moral equation whereby I spend the entire day trying to exert will-power over my cravings and feeling bad about myself when I ‘give in to temptation’.

My long-term goal these days is to put together a book on The Lord of the Rings. My heart has long told me that anyone who does not imbibe nicotine and yet talks authoritatively about Tolkien is not to be trusted. After all, this was a man who woke up with a smile every morning at the prospect of an entire day of pipe-smoking before him. Even Saruman consumed tobacco, but he did so in secret, and seemed a little ashamed of his habit – and probably it was this lack of honesty and openess about his relationship with a plant that was at the root of his downfall.


About ten days ago, while on my morning walk in the large expanse of scrub/parkland that borders my house, two puppies appeared out of nowhere and followed me home. As I write they are sitting on the porch outside. Having never had a dog before I have been blown away by the encounter with two little creatures that instinctively know how to fit into a human family. When they arrived I was just finishing publication of a Rounded Globe book on autism in the Stone Age, and I’m not sure if the book or the dogs have given me more insight into life in the paleolithic.

My new neighbour, who owns the house on the next street that is last in his road, has put up a small padock in which, on occasion, there is a horse. Newly aware of the whole world of dogs that I had previously been innocent of I sense that close encounters with a horse would take this kind of thing to a whole other level.

My wife has gone to Brussels for three days, leaving me with the three children. Before she left she ordered the shopping, which is delivered to our door. Within the shopping was a very large, whole, black fish, with dead eyes and a gaping mouth. I have no idea why it came and have never encountered the like before in our kitchen. It has now taken out a whole shelf in the freezer, sitting on top of lots of other frozen food access to which now lies through the great dead fish, which I am unwilling to lay hands on again.


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


By any other name.

Studying the history of ideas can engender a jaundiced perspective on contemporary academic writing.

Weariness can arise from a recognition that each generation is inventing the wheel. To give but one example, every generation since the 1870s seems to have proclaimed that the Anglo-Saxons rather interbred with than ethnically cleansed the older settlers of the British Isles, and then blasted the older generation for not grasping this.

It emerges also from reading the introductory sections of journal articles written by junior researchers who have been taught to begin with a potted history of the problem to be tackled. To anyone who has actually read the older texts so treated (clearly not the junior researchers – when would they have the time?) these histories are a travesty of the facts; but endlessly repeated they work to establish an ingrained miasprehension of a discipline’s own history among its practioners.

Another factor, that which has spurred this post, is the disciplinary myopia that pervades modern academic practice, the partial focus that is mistaken for inter-disciplinary self-awareness. This hit me yesterday following two seemingly unrelated discussions.

The first was a discussion of Tom Shippey’s argument that philology is the key to unlocking the secrets of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Shippey supports his claim with a series of dazzling insights and revelations, which he then uses to bash modern students of English, who have turned from philology to ‘literature’ and, says Shippey, thereby lost the true key to the study of English. I have some criticisms of Shippey’s presentation of the practice of philology in English universities before 1914 (it was not the straight line from the work of the Grimms that he presents, but rather mutated in the wake of various discoveries related to the prehistoric past in the 1880s). But in this post Shippey serves simply to remind us that philology once existed, that it was taught and practiced in English universities, that it  was great.

The second discussion followed a reading, on the request of the editor of a special journal issue, of a paper on the nature-society relationship in psychology. The paper was well-written and, within its world of science studies, more than decent. It began, of course, with a long historical survey, in this case intended to establish that language – all language, even scientific language – is not objective and theory neutral, and is ultimately metaphorical. This introduction, mirroring countless other introductory sections in articles on the history and sociology of the sciences, began with logical positivism and its attempt to establish an empirical language of science that could be demarcated from the language of poetry, metaphysics, and nonsense, and then observed how logical positivism had imploded by the 1930s, its very failure opening the door to a new kind of study of knowledge based on a new understanding of the nature of language.

The new approach to the sciences begins from the conviction that language is open-ended, fluid and inherently metaphorical. Its primary method is to chart local variations in specific terms over time. This the paper proceeded to do with regard to the psychological term ‘inhibition’ – noting early pre-psychological uses, different deployments since the French Revolution, and local variations in French, German, British, and Russian psychology, as well as popular uses through this whole period down to today.

All very interesting. But is it not astonishing that the author of the paper sets his own inquiry within an historical framework and never once mentions philology?

For what else is this ‘new’ method of reflection on the sciences but a form of philology? Of course the onus here is on modern usages (although Aristotle and Galen and other ancients are invariably mentioned). But basically we have a flourishing modern research program dedicated to producing papers and books that could well serve as appendices to the O.E.D.

The new method is only new in relation to a myopic intellectual history that pushes one school of philosophy to the forefront while absolutely occluding those who once held the crown of the social sciences, the philologists.