The Return of the Shadow

RSThe Return of the Shadow (RS) is the first volume of Tolkien’s early drafts of The Lord of the Rings, from the very first draft of ‘A Long-expected Party,’ penned in the week before Christmas 1937, through to the Mines of Moria, where Tolkien left off writing for a while at the end of 1939. The drafts have been transcribed and arranged by Tolkien’s youngest son, Christopher.

Last Christmas I began a series of posts on this volume, but then ground to a half – ostensibly because I had too much editing work, but also because it became clear that to understand the story told in these drafts I had to look also further afield, especially to the volumes in the History of Middle-earth series that immediately precede and follow RS. I now feel I have ventured sufficiently far afield to return to my reading of RS.

In an implicit criticism of my earlier reading, I begin with a hard-learned methodological lesson: Christopher Tolkien (CT) always has good reason for presenting his father’s material as he does, but without due attention to the small print in his commentary his chosen presentation can confuse the hasty reader. Perhaps the most important illustration of this point concerns the relationship between RS and the early material in the following volume, The Treason of Isengard, which turns out to belong to the same early period of writing. I’ll explain what is going on here if I ever reach this second volume in these posts. But my concern at present is with the beginning of LOTR, where we find a similar example.

The first chapter of RS is entitled ‘A Long-expected Party’. Here CT presents four versions of the opening chapter of LOTR, penned one after the other between Christmas 1937 and late January 1938, and then concludes with some notes by his father about the story to come. The innocent reader is likely to assume that this order reflects the order of composition – only having drafted four versions of the party did Tolkien begin to think about the story to come. But careful reading reveals that the notes were composed between versions 2 and 3 (and CT is certainly aware of this).

Of all the changes mades to the various versions, the most significant in fact occurs between versions 2 and 3. In the first two versions, the party is hosted by Bilbo. But in the third and fourth the host has become Bingo (who will later become Frodo), who is first Bilbo’s son (version 3) and then his nephew and adopted heir (version 4). This change is clearly bound up with the following passage in the notes:

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 handing over ring to Bingo. But he vanishes. Bingo worried. Resists desire to go and find him…

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’. (RS 42)

Let’s take this slowly. It is obvious that the long-expected party was intended to both echo and invert the unexpected party – having once been flummoxed by a party secretly arranged by Gandalf, Bilbo now himself arranges a party in order to flabbergast his fellow hobbits. Furthermore, and as I established last Christmas, from the first version of the long-exepcted party, Tolkien was associating both parties with Bilbo vanishing from the Shire, and so framing his first chapter of the sequel to The Hobbit in relation to Bilbo’s magic ring – which made its wearer disappear. In the note quoted above, however, we witness Tolkien’s first thoughts about the origin of the ring, which is now associated with the Necromancer (who will later be named as Sauron), and hence the dawning of the idea that ‘vanishment’ may have an unwholesome side. These initial thoughts evidently fed back into the already formed association between the party and vanishing and the ring, thereby giving rise to a new idea of what the long-expected party was all about…

The real difficulty for the reader is not so much CT’s order of presentation but the fact that so much of all four of these drafts  is familiar from the published version of the first chapter of LOTR. This sense of recognition is liable to blind us (well, it did me for a long while) to the emergence of an initially fundamental idea that will subsequently be discarded and is hence quite unfamiliar. The unfamiliar idea is that the ring may be tricked: specifically, the ring that makes you vanish may be tricked into thinking that you have already vanished.

From the very first draft of ‘a long-expected party’ Tolkien was clear in his mind that the adventure that he was setting out to tell the story of would not befall Bilbo but his heir (which is why, in the first version Bilbo declares he is getting married – hence paving the way to a son who would have a new adventure). So Bilbo’s party was Bilbo’s farewell, not only from the Shire but also from the new story. This is also the idea in the second version of this first chapter.

But Tolkien’s early reflections on the origin of the ring and the sinister side of vanishing led him to draw the ‘party of special magnificence’ into the new adventure. No longer Bilbo’s farewell, the long-expected party would now serve as the first stage of the adventure of Bilbo’s heir, Bingo, as well as providing an explanation for why Bingo sets out on an adventure.

All this is the more startling when we take on board that the fifth version of the party, in which Bilbo is once again the host, was only composed once Tolkien had taken Bingo and his friends all the way from Bag End to Rivendell, passing through all the familiar landmarks – black rider and Elves in the Shire, the Old Forest and Tom Bombadil and the Barrow-downs, Bree, Weathertop, and the flight to the ford. In other words, pretty much the whole of the first draft of the first book of The Fellowship of the Ring was first composed with a beginning that to us today is hard to truly make sense of, namely that Bingo (Frodo) was attempting to cheat the ring by staging a dissapearance.