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.