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.