Imagining The Lord of the Rings

Return of the Shadow is an edition of the early drafts of The Lord of the Rings, written between December 1937 and late 1939 and almost entirely devoted to the journey from Bag End to Rivendell (the last chapters take us on to Moria).

I’ve been studying this volume since last Christmas and have never faced a more challenging read. Tolkien did not sit down with a story ready-in-mind and begin writing it; he wrote a story and worked out what it was as he went along. By the end of Return of the Shadow he has imagined a story that, if recognizable to us, is still a very long way from the story that we know (to illustrate: Aragorn is not still not Strider but a hobbit known as Trotter who will become Bilbo’s lost nephew Peregrin Boffin before he becomes the heir of Elendil – the myth of Numenor has entered the new hobbit story, but its full repercussions are yet to be felt). To understand the story as it was imagined (in its entirety) at the end of 1939 is therefore to imagine a story that is not that which we know. But the same point applies to many earlier stages of composition: what we are looking at may be the gradual development of a familiar framework, but that development occurs by way of the imagining of a whole series of related yet distinct stories. Reading Return of the Shadow is to conduct an archaeology: it is an excavation of a series of ever more deeply buried stories.

With that caveat, I now set down some tenative conclusions intended to provide stable perspectives about what we find in the first  year of writing a story that took over a decade to complete. Before doing so, however, a framework of the phases of writing over the course of this year is useful:

1. December 1937: Long-expected party.

2. New Year – early summer 1938: Bingo (Bilbo’s heir) walks with hobbit friends all the way to Rivendell.

3. Summer 1938: Bingo starts again from Bag End, this time in the company of Sam Gamgee; they reach the Old Forest.

4. Autumn 1938: Tolkien again starts from Bag End, and now Bingo has become Frodo Baggins. By the end of the year Tolkien reaches the same conversation between Bingo/Frodo and Gloin he had reached in the early summer.

These returns to Bag End are indicative of Tolkien’s changing ideas about various key elements of his story. Nevertheless, and despite my above warnings of a teleological reading of Return of the Shadow, my sense is that at the heart of the story told by the successive drafts of his father’s story edited by Christopher Tolkien is the decision to introduce the Necromancer taken immediately after step 1 above: much of the subsequent writing, and then rewriting, reveals Tolkien gradually discovering the full significance of this early decision.


(1) Bilbo’s birthday party vanishing act

What we know as the first chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring was the first thing Tolkien wrote when he sat down to write a sequel to The Hobbit in the week before Christmas, 1937 (the original story having been published in September of that year). The first draft of this first chapter reveals the following:

(i) Bilbo’s final vanishment from hobbit society carefully mirrors the old – it is not only that the long-expected party (hosted by Bilbo) reflects the unexpected party (arranged by Gandalf) but the distribution of property after the vanishing reflects Bilbo’s return home to find his hobbit hole the scene of an auction.

(ii) Tolkien is clear in mind that this second vanishing will get Bilbo out of the way and prepare the way for a story about one of his “descendants.” To this end he has Bilbo announce at his party not only that he is going away but also he is about to get married. By the end of these first five manuscript pages, however, it is clear Tolkien is not happy with this prospect.

(iii) The magic ring is very deliberately circled – it is said to be in Bilbo’s hand when he makes his announcement; yet it is not clear that Tolkien from the start has in mind that the ring will be passed on to Bilbo’s heir and be at the center of the new story.

(2) A first page of notes: the Necromancer at the center

Christopher Tolkien shows how his father began an expanded version of the first chapter but stopped half way when he had the idea that the party and vanishing were not of Bilbo but of his heir, Bingo (initially his son). A page of notes reveals the appearance of this idea. This page of notes also points to adventures to come in the Old Forest, with Tom Bombadil, and with barrow-wights.

The pivotal element in these notes, however, is the idea that the origin of the magic ring is The Necromancer and – an idea that immediately follows given the nature of this dark sorcerer – that if an owner does not manage to lose the ring he will end up losing himself to the ring.

— We now hit a further and fundamental difficulty of reading Return of the Shadow, namely the introduction of an element into the story that has already been shaped elsewhere. In fact, this is the single most fundamental instance of such an introduction in the whole 11 years of composition: By the mid-1930s the Necromancer had become central to Tolkien’s thinking and by January 1938 had already entered into both his mythological and scholarly writings. Let me briefly survey what is already behind the idea of the Necromancer.

1. John Rateliff in his edition of the early manuscripts of The Hobbit notes the reference (dating to around 1931) in this story (made by Gandalf on the edge of Mirkwood) to the Necromancer’s dark tower. Rateliff shows how the Necromancer, aka Thu, aka Sauron, had already appeared in the Lay of Leithian (the story of Beren and Luthien) that Tolkien was still working on at that time, and aptly quotes from the Lay a description of the Necromancer as commanding a host of misbegotten phantoms and spell-wronged monsters.

2. Between composing The Hobbit and starting its sequel Tolkien had composed (in 1936) ‘The Fall of Numenor’ – a translation into the northern imagination of Plato’s myth of Atlantis, in which Sauron was responsible for corrupting the hearts of the Numenoreans and so causing the destruction of their island home. In other words, simply to name the Necromancer as the maker of Bilbo’s magic ring was to invite a relationship with the story of Numenor.

3. The idea of the Necromancer in the Lay and other stories is given shape by Tolkien’s commentary and lectures on Beowulf, which was Tolkien’s primary scholarly interest in the first part of the 1930s. In Beowulf we find a necromancer named as a helrun, a term applied to the ogre Grendel, apparently suggesting that this flesh and blood monster can summon the aid of other monsters. More illumination comes from the Anglo-Saxon poet’s identification of the Biblical Cain as the father of all monsters. The poet – Tolkien sees (but does not quite like to say) – inferred that Cain, roaming in the shadow lands of his biblical exile, had sexual intercourse with the giantesses. Such coupling with monsters is unatural, and hence has dark magical associations, and leads ultimately to the idea of a Necromancer as a flesh and blood sorcerer who begets an army of monsters purely by black magic. But because he makes these monsters alone he requires raw materials, which leads us back to the helrun – literally, one who knows the secrets of the land of the dead (hell): the monsters made by the Necromancer are associated with death, yet are not dead, nor are they living, they are undead.

This idea of the Necromancer as a flesh and blood master of undead servants is already present on this first page of notes – signalled by the naming of barrow-wights (who appear in Tolkien’s Beowulf commentary precisely as undead and bound up with Necromancy).

(3) First Story

With the magic ring now made by the Necromancer and Bilbo’s heir named as Bingo, Tolkien’s next step was to recraft his first chapter: Bilbo is said to have disappeared some years back and to have left both Bag End and the ring to Bingo (first his son, then his adopted second cousin or ‘nephew’). Bingo now hosts the birthday party, and vanishes from it.

Almost the first thing that Tolkien wrote when he finally moved beyond the party involved Bingo and his friends walking through the woods of the Shire and encountering a Ringwraith.

In a letter of early March, Tolkien describes this new development as “unpremeditated.” The draft reveals this: at first Tolkien describes a mystery rider on a white horse who turns out to be Gandalf and then he begins again and describes a black rider on a black horse…

But if the idea of the Ringwraiths pursuing Bingo and the ring of their master in the woods of the Shire popped into Tolkien’s head as the hobbits walked through those woods, it is really a very obvious development out of the ideas already contained in the page of notes, namely that the Necromancer made the ring, that the Necromancer turns people into undead servants, and that the ring is a trap made by the Necromancer intended to perform just such a transformation of its owner.

All that happens in the woods of the Shire is that Tolkien gives form to ideas already latent in his note by having one who has already passed through the ring confront Bingo, who is brought face to face with the fate that awaits him if his adventure turns out badly.

(4) Further Developments out of the Necromancer

The introduction of the idea (behind the scenes) that the magic ring was made by the Necromancer and is a trap generated the very first adventure of the story – with a Ringwraith (or two). This, in turn, generated explanations within the story that moved the Necromancer into the scene through hearsay. Bingo and friends are rescued from the second black rider by a party of Elves, whose leader explains (for the first time in the new story) the history of the rings made by the Necromancer and suggests that the black rider is a Ringwraith sent by the master – “the Lord of the Rings” – who evidently wants his ring back.

Tolkien now decides that all of this should really have been said by Gandalf before Bingo left Bag End, rather than by some Elf met by chance at a passing of the ways. Now he reorganizes his story: the first chapter is a conversation between Gandalf and Bingo in Bag End in which the wizard explains that the ring Bilbo had brought back from his adventure, and left with Bingo, is actually a very terrible thing. The second chapter is now to be Bingo’s party disappearance, the third the meeting with the black riders and then the Elves.

A point to note is that Tolkien has already began the job of providing background information – which will henceforth happen chiefly at Bag End and at Rivendell.

But the really fundamental point is that nothing so far has been added to the story after the Necromancer (the Ringwraiths being but his ‘natural’ shadows), and what we are seeing is the reorganization and reimagination of a story in light of the placing of the Necromancer at its center.

This reorganization appears to achieve a stable form around this point: Tolkien takes the hobbits all the way to the other end of the Shire (Crickhollow), pauses from writing for a few months, and then in the early summer simply picks up and continues the journey all the way to Rivendell. But…

But… Weathertop happened. Notes for the story-to-come again reveal Tolkien with no preconceived ideas of what will happen on Weathertop even as the hobbits leave Bree (now in the company of the Ranger hobbit, Trotter). What happened on Weathertop was that the Ringwraiths turned up in numbers, Bingo put on the ring – and stepped into their world: he can see their faces, they can see him – and is then stabbed by the wraith-king (Bingo can see his crown) with “the sword of the Necromancer.” This wound, as the next pages of the story make clear, will turn Bingo into a wraith.

Again, there is nothing here that is not already foreshadowed in the introduction of the Necromancer into that first page of notes, at least not when we look to Tolkien’s earlier writings of the 1930s and establish that the Necromancer is a flesh and blood sorcerer who turns living people into undead wraiths.

And again, what we find in the drafts of Return of the Shadow is Tolkien only discovering through writing his story the full meaning of his ideas.

We could put it like this:

0. Idea of Necromancer (one who makes wraiths out of living people).

1. Bilbo has an heir named Bingo who must flee with the ring of the Necromancer.

2. Bingo comes face to face with his own possible future in the form of a Ringwraith.

3. Bingo begins to become a wraith.

— Where 2 and 3 are already contained in 0 and 1.

On a conceptual level, Bingo’s steps into wraithhood open up a whole mythological dimension that will take Tolkien his lecture and essays on fairy stories (1939 and 1943, respectively) to see his way through: for what he has opened up here is a mortal vision of a world that mortals are not meant to see – and that unseen world (as very soon made clear in the story with Bingo’s vision of the Elf Glorfindel as a shining white figure at the ford) also includes a good as well as an evil side: the gateway to Lothlorien begins to be framed the moment Bingo is stabbed on Weathertop. But these developments are for another post.

On a purely narrative level it is hard to avoid feeling that Bingo did not survive the wound he received on Weathertop. That the hobbit who awoke in a hospital bed in Rivendell, while in the early summer of 1938 still called Bingo, was already Frodo Baggins – or put another way, Frodo Baggins was born to survive the blade of the Necromancer.

One can certainly frame subsequent developments in the story from the perspective of Tolkien realizing that Bingo as imagined is not up to the job and seeking some new heirs of Bilbo. Soon after arriving in Rivendell, Tolkien begins again. Bingo is still Bingo, but the story is now to begin as first intended – with a long-expected party hosted by Bilbo. And when in the second chapter Gandalf explains things to Bingo, Sam Gamgee is already listening outside the window. Now Bingo leaves Bag End under the protective custody of Sam; but he only got as far as the Old Forest: and when Tolkien began again it was Sam Gamgee and Frodo Baggins who set out together on an adventure. It is not, on this reading, exactly that Bingo becomes Frodo; rather, Bingo Bolger-Baggins became two hobbits: Sam and Frodo, both very different to Bingo, Sam having more of the young Bilbo in him than ‘his master,’ Frodo already quiet and withdrawn, Sam devoted to Frodo and the two together equipped to withstand the most deadly assaults of the servants of the Necromancer.

And again, all that is going on here on one level is that the new hobbit hero, the heir of Bilbo, is being lined up against the unseen center of the story – the Necromancer.

5. Bilbo’s Party (again)

Bilbo’s return as host is an appropriate point to stop – although Tolkien now carried on writing to the end of the year (he took a break from writing his story in the first half of 1939). It is appropriate because we can discern in this return Tolkien completing, as it were, a first cycle of his imagination.

He had begun with an impromptu account of Bilbo’s second and final vanishing from the Shire (a name that comes into being with the imagination of Buckland on “the other side” in the second or third draft of the party), but had as yet no destination for a new story. After displacing Bilbo as host, and seeing the long-expected party moved to the second chapter, the original beginning is now reinstated – only now it is set into its place of beginning with a good idea of the story to come.

So when, perhaps shortly after midsummer 1938, Tolkien refashioned the shape of his story he now deemed Bilbo’s vanishing from his birthday party a suitable beginning to a tale that saw his heir start to become a wraith. How did he see this?

The best that I can offer here is that the story of Bilbo’s vanishing now works in relation to the story as so far imagined in a roughly similar way as does the exordium to Beowulf to the story of Beowulf.

The opening of the story of Beowulf tells the genealogy of the Danish royal house, concluding with Hrothgar who has built the mead hall that is haunted by Grendel who will be slain by Beowulf, but beginning with Scyld Scefing. Scyld Scefing is the great-grandfather of Hrothgar. He is said in the poem to have been sent to our shore from the other side of the western ocean by unknown hands, and to have returned over the ocean to an unknown shore at the end of his story.

The relationship of both beginnings to the main story they introduce is somewhat mysterious. But roughly speaking, both serve to point us in precisely the opposite direction to the main action that will follow and yet – in some elliptical and obscure way  – frame that action.

In the case of Bilbo’s vanishing (which is all I shall discuss here) the key seems to be this: from the very first draft, the story of the vanishing was intended to fix the name and reputation of Bilbo Baggins within hobbit legend. Now, that legend was given a global significance: the vanishing was not simply a hobbit social spectacle but also constituted a defeat of the spell of the Necromancer. Bilbo’s vanishing is now also his escape from the magic ring that vanishes you.

Before the first summer of composition was passsed, Bilbo’s party-disappearance, initially conceived as a sort of mirror to the opening of The Hobbit (with reference of course to old Gollum’s ring), has become the story of how an eccentric hobbit, a legendary burglar but at heart a good soul, proved to be made of sterner stuff than the Necromancer could possibly have imagined.

Bilbo’s vanishing has become the gold that does not glitter but sets the gold-standard for the actions of all those who will subsequently fall into the orbit of the Ring.

That is almost an overview of the story as conceived in the first year – the suggestion being that all that was vital in this first year was established by the end of the summer.

What is missing from this account, but which will be left for now due to my fingers growing tired and my children demanding food, is the absolutely vital transformation of Gollum that seems to have begun in Tolkien’s mind from just about the first moment that the Necromancer was named the “origin” of the magic ring.

If the introduction of the Necromancer gave the shape to the story, the reimagination of Gollum was the creative force that drew out that shape.