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!

One thought on “LOTR – the very first pages

  1. tom hillman

    Clearly Tolkien felt that one ring was enough for any hobbit. Actually one could imagine a text where Mrs Baggins proved jealous of Bilbo’s relationship with the Ring, and the whole could be made to fit with the low comedy for which it often seems hobbits were born. There’s a piece of fan-fic for you. Then one could write the literary criticism which would certainly have arisen from such a scenario. Indeed it might be worth writing the first just so one could mock the second.

    All mirth aside, I really do like the idea of the verses about the Ring and about Aragorn as counterpoint. I am grateful for that thought. But what becomes really interesting then is the interplay of these with the ‘third counterpoint’ (sic?): The Road Goes Ever On. Not only do we have the interplay of the great evil and the great hero, that would be the center of a regular epic tale, but we the centrality, in terms of importance as well as perhaps placement between the other two, of the hobbits. It would be wonderful to explore this. Perhaps you and I could submit a paper on this for Mythmoot IV, and, since I don’t expect you’ll be attending, I could present it for both of us? What say you?

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