JRRT & 1939

This tale grew in the telling until it became a history of the Great War of the Ring.

Foreword to the Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings (1965)

Tolkien’s autobiographical reflections on the writing of his great story in the new foreword he penned for the second edition draw attention to World War Two. Much of the story, he recalls, was written under the shadow of the war years, and he emphasizes that one must personally experience war to understand its oppression. Yet the “real war” is drawn as background only for our author to categorically deny (or so it seems) that it impacted his story of the ‘legendary war.’ Even taken at face value, this denial does not hold water.

Originally, I started this page as a way of saying something about our present times and the context of composition of The Lord of the Rings. Before I could say anything about this, I discovered, I needed to engage with the autobiographical treatment of the war in the Foreword to the second edition of the story, and as this means taking on Tolkien at his most slippery, the result is a long page has been written just to begin. So now I place below three stars all that engagement with the Foreword by way of Christopher Tolkien’s editions, and return to the original idea, albeit with the usual digression…

Tolkien speaks of the need to experience war to feel its oppressive nature.  A world war must carry its own particular oppressiveness. This war Tolkien felt (quite rightly, no doubt) had cursed him professionally (as if the Great War had not damaged German Comparative Philology enough now the Nazis had embraced the Aryan, the foundational term of the grand old nineteenth-century science). So we should put firmly from our minds any thought that the present situation is akin to that of Tolkien when writing most of his new hobbit story. We are just not touched in quite such ways.

Nevertheless, we are today in a comparable historical situation such that the world as we know it is being remade before our eyes – but unlike, say, the moon landing, the fall of the Berlin Wall or the terror attack on the Twin Towers, this remaking does not take place in a moment. As of June 2020, I have the feeling of looking ahead at a comparable period as each of those world wars of the last century. What things will look like in the end must feel as uncertain now as they did to someone looking out of his study window in autumn 1939.

The world is in turmoil, and at such times one learns much about how wrong we have been for so long.

At such moments an individual life more easily touches the world-shaking events that come to be history. Our world is larger and we are differently aware of one another; if only in terms of death and distance, still we see more keenly the faces that we do meet.

Amid some very different whirlwind of thought and emotion, J.R.R. Tolkien took the audacious and momentous step of spinning out of his sequel to The Hobbit a fitting finale to his Silmarillion stories.

This step turned on a commitment, undertaken already before the war began, in a lecture (March 1939), and brought to enigmatic fruition in an essay (1943) on fairy-stories, to outline the nature of elvish art. The essay On Fairy-stories contains the conceptual capital of The Lord of the Rings (as such, its meaning is disguised).  A theory of the thing that is a a sign out of which is drawn a fantastic analysis of language in ordinary life – the philologic (or linguistic) theory that concluding the Silmarillion stories demanded of Tolkien. He has already begun to articulate some of this in his 1932 Pembroke lecture, A Secret Vice, but now the secrets of language and the secrets of elvish jewel-making are to coincide…

Fairies, Tolkien is forced to concede, must once have include among their number the most marvellous of word smiths. A few High Elves had penetrated to the root of words and their strange ways, compositional elements, changing usages, meanings and sounds. Fëanor, who made the Silmarils, is in the mid-1930s said to have invented elvish letters, more perfect than the ‘alphabets’ found in the two volumes of Isaac Taylor, an elvish alphabet that holds any language with signs the shapes of which have systematic meanings (which those of historical alphabets do not). Fëanor understands the relationship between vowel (breath) and consonant (wall) grasped in the first Semitic and all subsequent alphabets, in which the many varied and ultimately arbitrary shapes of different letters are the mark of an historical (as opposed to elvish or modern philologist’s) alphabet.

Now, here is a question that will be resisted (wrongly) by all serious students of intellectual history: was the analytical conversation of Bertrand Russell anything like that of one of these elvish word masters? This  proper name of an English philosopher of the early twentieth century means, as Russell would have put it, himself. To those who knew him, his proper name would have signified just this man of their acquaintance. To you and I, as Russell would have us believe, his proper name means some one or other definite description, a proposition that commences the man who… and supplies a title. So, for example, if I say ‘Bertrand Russell’ I may mean: the man who gave a queer account of the meaning of proper names in Mind in 1905.

I submit that what Russell has to say about proper names was considered by J.R.R. Tolkien as known to Pengoloð of Gondolin. Also that what Russell says of a proper name is echoed in Bombadill’s 1939 riddle: ‘who are you, alone, yourself, and nameless?’ – although Russell’s meaning is here subverted. For what Pengoloð knew about signs was more than Russell comprehended.

What did Russell know about proper names? That when usage of one is analyzed it more likely than not turns out that the user had in mind, not a proper name at all but rather some definite description. A proper name, insists Bertrand Russell, can only be assigned to an object we are acquainted with – and because Russell seems to believe, like J.S. Mill before him, that we can at best be acquainted with our own mind and certainly not with other minds (nor objects in themselves), but only sense impressions, his curious conclusion is that the only logical proper names we use (as in: word and meaning coalesce) are this and (less immediately) that, and perhaps also I.

If we are not acquainted with another mind we can, at most mean when we refer to them, even if we use what is conventionally considered a proper name (like John Smith or J.R.R. Tolkien), a definite description, a title: the man who made amazing fireworks, the ring-winner, the one who looks like a rabbit, the man who wrote the hobbit stories, and so on. As we are not acquainted with Bilbo Baggins we know him only through the definite descriptions given in The Hobbit (and its sequel, which rather complicated the original point).


This association of Russell, hero of a grand scientific logic, with magic and fantasy in the imagined commentary of Tolkien echoes vital expressions of Russell’s great student and teacher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who uses German words translated as enchantment and bewitchment to account for Russell’s (and his own, younger) state of mind when holding to such doctrines as this. Russell, the great logician of the new century,  the father of logical positivism, was seen by both Wittgenstein and (I infer) Tolkien as fairy god mother of fantasy – both, I think, saw and showed the fantastical in Russell’s fantastic logical analysis of language. (Wittgenstein expressed himself so and Tolkien I infer from The Hobbit).

For Tolkien’s exploration of Russell’s analysis of words and meaning had already been executed, superbly and singularly, in The Hobbit: a story of the relationship between a proper name and a definite description (or title).

What happened in  September 1939 was a flash of vision in which the man writing the story of the heir of Bilbo Baggins saw that this older idea of a sign of a person, and the new vision of Necromancy now drawn around this idea, allowed this Ring, of Gollum, to stand with a Silmaril, but as its very opposite. Plot-wise – as evidenced in the course of composition – the immediate demands of this step was to work out the backstory of Numenor between Isildur and Aragorn. The full force of the vision, however, dictated that theory of elvish (or fairy) art that was titled On Fairy-stories. That theory, or the making of it, gave us the Mirror of Galadriel and the Seeings Stones, and so polished an earlier image of a Tower looking upon the Sea.

Here was the conception. And it appears to have coincided precisely with the onset of war. Execution was another matter, of course, and took many years. But there was a vision, a vision of language in the world; reflected in the writings of this time in various ways, and one could no doubt argue forever as to how far and clearly this vision extended. But certainly there was a moment, in which Aragorn emerged and then was put aside for a while, in which Tolkien saw more clearly than we do today the shape of his great story.



Appendix: On the Foreword 

… To take the most general argument of the Foreword to the second edition: JRRT insists that evidence is never sufficient to allow us to know what was in an author’s mind, which on one level is true because one can never know what is in the mind of another; and yet the evidence we may assemble as to Tolkien’s (changing) intentions as he slowly wrote his story is far greater than that which Tolkien had before him when, in his own scholarship, he reconstructed – with astonishing confidence – the intentions of the Beowulf poet.

You can read the Foreword for yourself by opening a copy of The Lord of the Rings. The specific arguments you will read about why the story of the ‘legendary war’ is imaginatively independent of the ‘real war’ must be interrogated by way of what we can now read in the relevant HOME volumes of the story as Tolkien actually wrote it. Rather than take apart Tolkien’s various claims (e.g. that the key second chapter of the story was composed ‘long before’ the potential for disaster became actual) I’ll simply switch focus to this evidence (and pass comment on the Foreword where appropriate).

And before I commence a laborious and painstaking shifting through of the evidence I’ll announce my conclusion, which is that the strange context of the September 3 declaration of war stands in the background of JRRT’s novel imagining The Lord of the Rings as a conclusion to and as such an end of his Silmarillion stories.

An idea that first emerges in the wake of a radio announcement on September 3, 1939: only now does a vision of the tale of the Great War of the Ring as a legendary appendage to myth unravel within JRRT’s imagination.


To start at the beginning, the four (rather, 3 1/2) volumes revealing composition of The Lord of the Rings are:

VI: Return of the Shadow (25 chapters)

VII: Treason of Isengard (26 chapters)

VIII: War of the Ring (28 chapters)

IX: Sauron Defeated (11 chapters; the second part of this volume contains a different work)

These 90 chapters reveal, by and large, a masterful editorial arrangement that illuminates the coming into being of a masterpiece. But they are made of many hidden crevices and Christopher Tolkien proves on occasion a queer guide in an archival version of the Mines of Moria.

The Mines of Moria stand in fact at the pivotal moment in the entire 90 chapters, which occurs in the second volume, The Treason of Isengard (p. 162). This is my opinion, but I am simply following Tolkien’s son, who points out the nature of the turning-point concisely in terms of finally resolved tangles. To appreciate the nature of this turning point you need a little background on the story to this point. The new hobbit story was begun (with the ‘Long-expected party’) in the week before Christmas, 1937.  Christopher Tolkien (CT) has now brought us to summer 1940 as JRRT sets out to continue the story from Balin’s tomb (after the long halt recalled in the Foreword). The significant point, however, is that when JRRT left the Company at Balin’s tomb at the close of 1937, the Company consisted of Gandalf, Boromir, and five hobbits.

Now, in summer of 1940, Trotter, who in December 1939 was the hobbit Peregrin Boffin, has become Aragorn the heir of Elendil, with appropriate elaborations of Elendil’s legacy in Middle-earth at a revised Council of Elrond that also includes, for the first time, the explanation that the fallen wizard Saruman was the cause of Gandalf’s delay in meeting the hobbits. And now, at Balin’s tomb we find the nine walkers, with Gimli and Legolas joined and Trotter the man Aragorn. Up to this point JRRT had found himself unable to advance without returning to Bag-end and rewriting through to Rivendell again. But from this moment the HOME chapters advance an (almost) continuous narrative.

This turning point in composition of LOTR identified by CT is illustrated by the disproportionate amount of early material (early as in ‘pre-Rivendell’ or ‘pre-Moria’ and also as in before 1939 or before summer 1940). Of the total of 90 chapters 21 deal with the opening to Rivendell and 34 are required to reach the turning point at Moria in summer 1940 – a moment in the published work around the midpoint of the second book of only the first volume of the story, The Fellowship of the Ring.

So there is evidently some sort of sea-change occurring a year into World War Two. The next step is to break down the early composition further so we can ponder its relation to real world events. Now, in concluding his account of the turning point at Moria, CT observes that with the final explanation of what had delayed Gandalf “a new focal point” had arisen, namely the treason of Saruman. This is very well put, and so I now attempt to summarize the history of composition of the story up to this turning point as a series of ‘focal points’:

1938 The original focal point is certainly Tom Bombadil. But the story of 1938 is the displacement of Bombadil as an appropriate counter to the magic ring of the Necromancer in light of the terrible attack on Weathertop, when invisibility gained a whole new meaning.  Moving between Bag-end and the Last (or First) Homely House, JRRT comes to understand that if the Necromancer is the origin of the ring then its magic of invisibility must be connected (somehow) to elves, the mortal dead, and ourselves (visible or invisible).

(Sources: Return of the Shadow, chapters  1-21: from Bag-end to Rivendell; rewriting  Bag-end to the Old Forest (magic ring –> One Ring); third reworking Bag-end to Rivendell (Bingo –> Frodo).)

1939 From the New Year JRRT put aside his own story to read widely in the literature of fairy stories for his lecture in March, and returned to his own hobbit story in August, at which point he put down significant doubts, visions and possible revisions. From his lecture I highlight his deployment of (Chesteron’s) term sub-creation as a description of artistic invention.

(Source: lecture and other material in Anderson and Flieger’s edition of On Fairy-stories).

{{Followed further, the subtle relationships between lecture, story, and essay become part of the same biographical story. From 1939 to 1943, when the essay was composed, JRRT’s writing of a new hobbit story and his thinking about fairy stories coincided. Consequently, passages in all three may be aligned – with quite spectacular results. But this also means that On Fairy-stories, no less than The Lord of the Rings, has an interwar beginning but was composed in the war years. Taking the wider perspective steps through the image of sub-creation in the Mirror of the Lady to Rohan, where the treachery of the magical word is conquered with the aid of fairy story – discussed below.}

September 3, 1939

Britain declares war on Germany. But the battle is slow to commence… 

And now, at just the moment we are most concerned with, the immediate wake of that radio announcement on the 3rd of September, CT’s editorial organization goes weird on us… Why it does so is another matter, but to maintain chronological order we must step between two volumes of HOME.

Step 1:  Return of the Shadow, chapter XXII: ‘August 1939’ papers expressing radical doubts, uncertainties, and striking new visions.

Step 2: Treason of Isengard chapters I-III: a curious collection of revisions that concern: (i) Goings on with the hobbit at the house at Crickhollow (later discarded); (ii) Frodo dreams of Gandalf in the white elf-tower besieged by Ringwraiths (becomes two dream: white tower, then Orthanc); and (iii) the hobbit met in Bree in 1938, called Trotter, is Aragorn, heir of Elendil.

Step 3: Return of the Shadow, final chapters: material dated to the very end of the year and this phase of writing, the halt at Balin’s tomb mentioned in the Foreword. But in this first entrance into Moria the Ranger Trotter is the hobbit Peregrin Boffin.

CT gnomically comments that the two identities of Trotter somehow coincided for at least some of this phase of writing of  autumn and winter writing of 1939 (ref). But this can hardly be the last word on the matter. Basically, this phase of writing commences with a radical reappraisal of the new hobbit story, begins with the injection of the radical idea that the new hobbit story should – in a startlingly ambitious move – not also the sequel to the 1934 poem ‘The Adventures of Tom Bombadil’ as JRRT had first intended at the tale end of 1937 but rather, also the sequel to the 1936 myth ‘The Fall of Númenor,’ which was itself penned as the concluding chapter of an unfinished story of time travel back from the present, through legend, to a mythical beginning of history that was, at once, the end of the Silmarillion fairy stories that JRRT had been working on for two decades. In a word, with the onset of war, but in the context also of the scholarly meditation on fairy stories provided by the St Andrews lecture that March, the new hobbit story was glimpsed as also the (new) end of the Silmarillion stories.

But by the time he had his eye on the inscriptions of Moria, JRRT had stepped back from this hugely ambitious vision and reverted to the original script, what was called for was a new hobbit story and here were five hobbits entering the elvish door to the ancient dwarf mines mentioned in The Hobbit.


Unraveling this story of autumn and winter 1939 from HOME volumes VI and VII lends shape to CT’s identification of a turning point on the return to Moria a year later. JRRT does not in fact begin this new phase of writing by writing what happened next by Balin’s tomb; before doing so he writes a new scene at the house at Crickhollow, invents Saruman as the explanation of Gandalf’s delay, works long at establishing the Númenorian backstory to Aragorn and Boromir in the north and south of Middle-earth with intensive work on the Council of Elrond, and only then revisits the continuous narrative that we know as ‘The Ring Goes South’ that arrives at the western gate of Moria.

Simply put, most of the summer 1940 work prior to continuing the story at Balin’s tomb is dedicated to enlarging the borders of the story so that what began already in 1938 as a postscript to the story of the last alliance told at the end of  ‘The Fall of Númenor’ now becomes the ancient history of the world of the story (this process of enlarging the world of Middle-earth will continue to the end of composition (e.g. Angmar, doom of the northern kingdom imagined by way of the king Ringwraith when the story reached Minas Tirith in 1946). 

In a nutshell, the long pause of the first half of 1940 prepared JRRT to take the leap already glimpsed in the autumn of 1939: this sequel could be also the end of the Silmarillion!


What, if any, is the significance of this ‘prevision’ of autumn 1939 and realization a year later for the 1938 story, in which Tom Bombadil’s enchantment was displaced by the dark and terrible attack on Weathertop, and the subsequent introduction of the notion of artistic sub-creation in Tolkien’s March lecture in Scotland?

These conceptual  focal points are not drawn out by CT as he does the resolution of surface narrative problems as the identity of Trotter and the reason for Gandalf’s delay. Nevertheless, I think that they too have been resolved – or are sufficiently advanced towards resolution – for the first time in summer 1940.

This is the story of the western gateway to Moria, told in full elsewhere in these pages. In a nutshell, comparison of the 1939 and 1940 versions of the western gateway reveals the emergence of the Star of Fëanor, thereby identifying the notion of sub-creative art that is already associated with both alphabet invention and Silmaril making, and through the name of the elf who drew the signs, identified as the source of the original art of Ring-making (of which the One is a magical counterfeit, an imitation).

Once the sub-creative art of Fëanor is signaled on the western gateway to Moria a first step is taken that achieves full resolution only when two hobbits look first in Mirrormere and then in the Mirror of the Lady. Only in the Golden Wood of the Lady of the Elves did Tolkien establish the final history of the Rings of Power, thereby presenting Lothlorien as the fruit of one of the Three Elf-Rings: an island of Myth as a world that is not round because the Ring is a refuge from the river of time. The Mirror of Galadriel is Tolkien’s completed response to Weathertop, allowing him to draw the Eye of Sauron as an inferior version of the eye of Galadriel while transforming the sung enchantment of Tom Bombadil into an elvish pictorial language that, while passive, was tempted to take the power of the Necromancer. Here the riddle of the end of all stories was resolved by JRR. Tolkien, and what follows in the story is just the making its meaning visible to our mortal eyes, first in Rohan and then in Mordor and on our own doorstep in the Shire.


All I have established so far is that when Tolkien in his 1965 Foreword explains that the vital second chapter, ‘The Shadow of the Past’, in which is told the history of the Rings of Power in the mythical Eregion, was set down “long before” the impending disaster of war became inevitable we may respond as follows:

This second chapter was indeed set down in autumn 1938 (as a new beginning) at a very early stage of writing, but even in the redrafting of summer 1940 there is as yet still no mention of the Rings of Power and Eregion. 

What JRRT says does not square with the reality we can now set before us thanks to the tireless labours of his son, Christopher. The tale of the great War of the Ring came into being only in the wake of the onset of the real war – yet it remains to be understood just how and why…

Tolkien’s point in his Foreword about having to experience war to know its true oppression is surely a sign to his own thoughts and emotions in late 1939. Having witnessed (on a television screen) the September 11 attacks on America, lived in Israel under rocket fire (and heard it returned) and survived (so far) the Corona crisis, I am aware that historical events reveal fault lines that unleash mental and imaginative speculations and profound changes of perspective, I have no doubt that the new hobbit story that he began before the war began looked different (and consistently different) in the months and years that followed Great Britain’s declaration of war on Germany on 3 September, 1939.

Turning to specifics, I see three avenues the exploration of which may connect real and legendary wars. The first concerns Tom Bombadil after 1938, the second a queer dream of the white tower besieged and the fleeting appearance of Aragorn in Bree, and the third the story of Rohan and the essay published as On Fairy-stories. The first two are found in the complex arrangement given by CT to the material in the relevant HOME volumes and I’ll begin by introducing them together.


Reading the HOME volumes is a curious introduction to the Tolkien DNA. Because we are here reading the written words of J.R.R. Tolkien (JRRT), but inescapably we are doing so through the transcription, arrangement, and illumination of his son and literary executor, Christopher Tolkien. Having now engaged with these particular volumes for several years two features of them strike me as peculiar and potentially, if inadvertently, mischievous.

Of the first, at any rate, Christopher Tolkien (CT) can in no way be faulted – and yet what we have before us seems to indicate a peculiarity of his mind, or at least of his conception of his editorial duties. Quite rightly, CT does not reproduce material that is almost identical to the published story, which means that, aside from pointing out what textual differences there were, he gives very little of the story of the Old Forest, the house of Tom Bombadil, and the Barrow-downs. Now, CT would have been very aware of the great mass of papers that, having carefully correlated with the published version, he was thereby laying aside, but we who hold The Return of the Shadow (HOME volume VI) in our hands do not see this physical stack of manuscripts and are confronted by an absence. As I say, this is as it should be; yet I find it curious how rarely CT refers to this ‘Bombadil’ material in the weighty considerations that he often provides on the material that he does transcribe.

Put simply, the most notable fact about the first year of composition of the sequel to The Hobbit, the story of the party and journey to Rivendell told and retold in 1938, is that part of it that begins the other side of the hedge near Crickhollow – for it is the only part that never changes. Yet this ‘original story’ is invisible in Return of the Shadow.

What has Tom Bombadil to do with the war? Here the answer was provided me by the late online Tolkien fanatic, halfir, who in a legendary lost thread on Tom Bombadil once pointed out that in 1954 Tolkien associated Tom Bombadil (by way of ‘the view of Rivendell’) with a natural ‘pacifism that always arises in time of war’ (Letters) and further observed that it is in drafts of 1939 at Rivendell, so composed almost certainly after (but only just after) Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, that the idea that Tom Bombadil’s realm has borders he would not cross entered the story (a declaration that Bombadil would play no further part in the story).

So Tom Bombadil provides the original face of the new hobbit story, and there is reason to consider him a casualty of World War Two: which teases out in biographical terms, it seems to me, as a correlate of Tolkien’s growing sense that (for many reasons) this new story was different in kind to The Hobbit. Simply put, from 1938 Tom Bombadil drew the limits of the magic ring of the Necromancer, but after 1939 this was no longer sufficient – the evil must be met face to face (and the spoken enchantments of Bombadil’s realm are subsequently transformed into a vision of a mythical realm of the Lady of the Mirror).

But this is just to open the question. It is most certainly possible to tease out much more from the imagination of the story itself that might explain the marginalization of Tom Bombadil: the enchantment of his voice is the wrong kind of magic when dealing with a magic ring of invisibility, for starters. The attack on Weathertop revealed a kind of elvish magic (found in a Mirror) was needed here, an image of the eye and a mutual gaze, not the monologue of Bombadil and Goldberry’s song together but a meeting face to face of a hobbit and a being of myth (Galadriel/Sauron). And then we confront the biographical fact that JRRT put his story down at the close of 1938 because (though CT does not mention this) he was evidently now reading widely of all the fairy-stories he could get his hands on in preparation for the lecture on that subject he was to give at St Andrews in March 1939; the story as resumed in August 1939 with a series of doubts steps into a vast if mysterious arena of Tolkien’s theoretical reflections on the very roots of language, imagination, and history.

All I say here is that JRRT’s explicit connection of Tom Bombadil with pacifism and war, and his drawing a border around Bombadil after September 1939, point to some impact of World War II on the composition of The Lord of the Rings.


The situation becomes yet more mysterious once we enter the wake of the September 3 declaration of war. Above I’ve alluded to the dream of the elf-tower as entering the writings, bt we could add also Bilbo remarking that he has felt the magic ring an eye looking at him and a vision of Frodo approaching the Dark Tower, where an Eye searches for him. We also find here the definitive curtailment of Tom Bombadil (with the announcement that he never steps beyond his self-imposed borders).

And we have Trotter as alternatively a hobbit and a man who has stepped out of a myth of 1936, ‘The Fall of Númenor.’

{{Incidentally, the fact that Gandalf signs the letter (in 1939: letters) read at Bree with the Anglo-Saxon runes used in The Hobbit to my mind is itself sufficient demonstration that this Treason material was composed before the halt at Balin’s tomb with which CT concludes Return of the Shadow – for what CT here shows is the very last actions of his father’s pen at the close of 1939 was to first write the inscription on Balin’s tomb in Anglo-Saxon runes and then, in two variants, in the Cirth runic script he had elsewhere recently attributed to Daeron – and then to compose a page of the book discovered by the tomb in the same invented runic alphabet. (Once Tolkien had entered Moria with the Fëanorian letters above the Doors of Durin and then replaced the Anglo-Saxon runes with Cirth, there could be no return in his story, I am certain, to the Anglo-Saxon runes of The Hobbit.)}}

In the immediate wake of the declaration of war, the story we know as The Lord of the Rings breaks out: the Eye in the Dark Tower is named, Orthanc is glimpsed, Aragorn steps up. But a few months later Tolkien stops writing his story, having advanced for the first time, beyond Rivendell, and at Balin’s tomb Trotter is once more a hobbit.

All I can do here is invoke Walter Benjamin’s observation that the truth flits by in a moment of danger: it seems to me that the immediate declaration of war awoke something in Tolkien’s imagination, which he then backed away from before, on returning to his story in summer 1940, he grasped by the horns and made the foundation of his story.

This avenue leading is approached in my work on the Riddle of the Balrog of Moria.


After delivering a lecture on fairy stories at St Andrews in the north of Scotland in March 1939, JRRT returned to his story in August, and one month later Great Britain declared war on Germany. The pre-war lecture  and 1943 essay (published in 1947 in a collection dedicated to Charles Williams as) On Fairy-stories provide a third avenue that connects real and mythical (even more than legendary) wars.

I think we can follow in the turns of phrase and direction between lecture notes and essay, and in the correlate parts of the story in Rohan and Isengard, a commentary on the ‘treason’ of Saruman that relates to a shift of language: where in the lecture Tolkien apparently spoke of the “function” of fairy stories he now, in summer 1943, having told of legends springing to life on the green grass of Rohan, asked the “use” of fairy stories, and supplied an answer: “Recovery.”

I believe this idea of ‘Recovery’ is bound up with reflections on Appeasement and treachery, that Saruman and Wormtongue, and the idea of a fairy story as an antidote to their evil word spells disguised as counsels of peace, and that we have here a root of Tolkien’s considered reflections on the meaning of his hobbit story of Middle-earth in a time of war.

The story of Théoden, King of Rohan, is a dramatically personalized tale of the recovery of our senses by fairy story urgently demanded in a time of war.

Three questions of the story in Rohan:

  1. What is the nature of Theoden’s recovery once Gandalf has silenced Wormtongue?
  2. What is the difference between the spells of words cast by Wormtongue and by Saruman?
  3. Why does Éomer accept Aragorn’s word on the Lady but balk when he takes the Paths of the Dead?

The middle diagram below is incomplete, reflecting my failure to assign the first four chapters of The Treason of Isengard their correct date around Autumn 1939 (Trotter as Aragorn at Bree is an alternative story for a brief period).

Sources. The left hand side is real (with Wiki sources). The right hand side (legendary) is drawn from the relevant HOME volumes and from material provided by V. Flieger and D. Anderson in their definitive edition of On Fairy-stories.