On Tolkien and the writing of The Tale

It’s a good time to be a Tolkien fan. Not only do we have the movies, but if you haven’t noticed, bookstore shelves are overflowing with books not only by but also about the man and his work.

I’m in the process of finishing The Return of the Shadow, one of several books edited by Christopher Tolkien to trace the creative process by which his father constructed the characters, world, and narrative of The Lord of the Rings. I thought it would be worthwhile to sum up some of my reactions to the book here.

Return of the Shadow (hereafter RotS) is actually the sixth in a line of books tracing the history of Tolkien’s Middle Earth writing. (Most of the other books in the series are excellent, but I’d probably only recommend them to people who liked The Silmarillion and some of Tolkien’s other non-LotR writings.) RotS is essentially a documentation of the development of the story that would eventually be published as The Fellowship of the Ring. It is followed by several more books which detail the creation of The Two Towers and The Return of the King.

What is RotS? It’s essentially a heavily edited and annotated tour of Tolkien’s original written notes, ideas, and manuscripts. The tour guide in this case is Tolkien’s son Christopher, who makes an effort to identify several distinct “phases” in the writing and re-writing of Fellowship, and who provides us with the text of many of these original manuscripts so that we can observe Tolkien’s creative process in action.

One of the principle features of RotS is that it shows us, from the very beginning, the development of The Lord of the Rings. Begun as a simple sequel to The Hobbit, and very much written in the same less-formal, children-accessible style of that book, the story of LotR ballooned in theme and scale as it progressed until it had transformed into something far more epic than a simple Hobbit-adventure. Tolkien set out to trace the adventures of Bingo Baggins (much later renamed Frodo) with no real concept of the Ring, Sauron, Saruman, Aragorn, or even of the geography of Middle Earth beyond the borders of the Shire. As the story went on, more and more questions begin to crop up–Why is the Ring so important? Who is Trotter (later renamed Strider) and what is his relationship to the tale? Who is Gollum? Who are the Black Riders, and why are they interested in the Ring? The tale began without any answers to these questions, but Tolkien gradually began to formulate answers to them as he wrote; one can almost feel the story mushrooming out of control as each answer begets yet more questions!

At a certain point, the weight of all these questions became so great that it was clear that the story–which had progressed across the Fords of Isen to Rivendell (Tolkien considered the entire tale to be “3/4” finished at that stage)–would have to be revisited from the beginning, to incorporate the vast number of new plots, characters, and ideas that had occurred to Tolkien in the course of writing it. At Rivendell, Tolkien paused for a rewrite, and turned back to the beginning–Bilbo’s party at Bag End–with an entirely different story beginning to take shape in his mind and manuscripts.

One of the most amazing things about observing Tolkien’s rewriting processes (and several sections of the story, notably the earliest chapters, went through a great many rewrites, most of which are documented in RotS) is that while the plot and its significance underwent major changes, many of the characters and locations remained largely unchanged through all of the rewrites up to the publication of Fellowship. Tolkien’s first manuscript had detailed out most of the major encounters that would occur in Fellowship–the unexpected party, the Old Forest, Tom Bombadil, the Black Riders, Bree, Weathertop, the Ford–but with each subsequent re-write, these already-existing elements took on vastly new and important significance.

For instance, the Black Riders existed as enemies from some of the earliest manuscripts, and little of their natures or actions needed changing in subsequent drafts; but their significance in the story changes radically when their Sauronic identities are finally developed. The Ring’s actual role and usage (passed on by Bilbo, carried but largely unused by Frodo) in the tale doesn’t undergo any massive changes, but the entire tone of the story takes a major shift when the Ring is revealed not to be a silly magic plaything with very mild side effects, but the Master Ring sought after by one of Middle Earth’s most ancient enemies. In fact, Tolkien seemed downright determined at times to preserve some of his earliest story elements, even when they seemed at first glance to be completely incompatible with the new directions the story was taking; in places Tolkien makes major adjustments to timelines, characters, and scenes just to preserve particular elements of the story that he obviously considered particularly important or interesting. Bilbo’s farewell party and departure, the Farmer Maggot encounter, and Tom Bombadil all struck me as story elements that Tolkien fought mightily to keep intact throughout the various rewrites of the story, and it’s a testament to his writing skill that all of them work well even within the context of a story completely different from that in which they were originally conceived.

Also interesting to me was what Tolkien considered most important in the tale. One cannot read through RotS without realizing how much Tolkien enjoyed hobbits and everything related to them. While most modern readers tend to skim over the first half of Fellowship, eager to leave behind the “boring hobbit parts” of the story and move ahead to the epic and action-packed excitement of later scenes, Tolkien’s heart clearly lay in the Shire with the halflings he had created. He loved their rustic and naive lifestyle, he loved their lighthearted banter and interaction, and he took great joy simply in accompanying a small band of friendly hobbits on their journey through the Shire. Tolkien devoted an obsessive amount of energy to detailing hobbit genealogies, timelines, and geographies that most modern readers simply ignore. The first several chapters underwent countless rewrites as Tolkien adjusted tiny details of hobbit family trees and made tiny adjustments to maps, names, and personalities of the Shire. The first half of Fellowship feels an awful lot like a hobbit-tale at points, and that is simply because that’s how it began, and Tolkien was unwilling to lessen the focus on hobbits even in the face of a new plotline that involved not just the Shire but all of Middle Earth. (At one point, Tolkien laments that his friend and literary critic C.S. Lewis was one of several who took issue with the vast amount of trivial “hobbit-talk” in the story; if you think Fellowship features too much hobbit-ness now, you’d be horrified to learn that its final form is considerably edited-down from the original manuscripts!) Tolkiens fans–myself included–who traditionally focus on the “epic action scenes” of the later chapters would do well to re-examine the role of hobbits in the story, and to reconsider the messages Tolkien is sending with a focus on “little people” that exceeds his interest in the traditional, Beowulf-esque heroes of the tale.

Reading RotS is an immensely rewarding experience for anyone with more than a passing interest in Tolkien’s writing; it has certainly deepened my appreciation not only of Tolkien’s writing skills, but of the depth and wonder of the story itself. What a privilege it is to have access not only to the “finished product” that is The Lord of the Rings, but also to the drafts and manuscripts that preceded it; it’s an opportunity not only to enjoy the beauty of the published work but to peer directly into the mind of one of the greatest creative figures of the past century. I recommend RotS wholeheartedly, and can’t wait to delve into its sequels.

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2 thoughts on “On Tolkien and the writing of The Tale

  1. MM

    Isn’t it slightly disappointing to pour your heart into a long post, and then wonder if anyone’s read it?
    I haven’t read the Christopher Tolkien series, but it sounds awesome. The more I read about J.R.R’s creative process, the more I’m blown away by the depth of knowledge and meticulous craftsmanship of his writing. Others have said this, but considering the fact that NOBODY anymore studies the things Tolkien did, we may never see his equal.

  2. jrau

    I feel the same way about Tolkien. It’s interesting–I read a lot of books when I was growing up, and I considered quite a few of them to be spectacularly good. However, with only a handful of exceptions, anytime I’ve gone back to re-read one of my favorites from my youth, I end up slightly disappointed; they never quite seem to live up to my nostalgia-tinted memory of them. Some books not only fail to live up to my memories, but turn out to be actually disappointing, as I realize that they are not the great works of literature that I once thought they were.
    Tolkien, however, is the exception. He’s possibly the only author that I read when very young who has stood up to repeated re-readings throughout my adult life. In fact, my opinion of his works has skyrocketed since I hit adulthood and started grasping some of the true depth behind his writing. (Books like Shippey’s fascinating Author of the Century, which you recommended to me, have helped clue me in to a lot of what Tolkien was getting at behind the scenes.) Tolkien is even better in my estimation now than he was when I was a kid, and that’s saying something.
    When I was young, I used to think that it didn’t get much better than Tolkien. Now that I’ve grown up, I know it doesn’t get much better. There isn’t an author alive today with the patience or education to pen something like The Lord of the Rings. That’s not to rip on contemporary authors, some of whom I would consider literary equals with Tolkien (Umberto Eco springs to mind); but LotR is a work of truly unique depth, and I doubt we’ll see anything quite like it anytime in the near future.

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