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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.