Ossus Library Index
Fantasy Index


by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien
(1988, Houghton Mifflin Company)

The History of Middle-Earth, book 6

The earliest forms of the a sequel to The Hobbit, which began to shape into The Lord of the Rings.


+ -- 2nd reading (hardcover)
February 3rd to 22nd, 2007

    This book is not for those who easily get bored. It contains at least five versions of the first chapter of the Lord of the Rings, and three versions of the rest of the journey until the hobbits reach Rivendell.

Spoiler review:

In the "first phase" of the writing, Tolkien obviously had no idea what was going to happen. He rambles on with nonsense hobbit-talk, and the tone is much the same as in The Hobbit. There is, in fact, way too much hobbit-banter either between the hobbits, or by the narrator, for my tastes.

Given how little Tolkien knew about what was going to happen, it is astounding at how much detail from the published work was attained right away. Some of the lines of dialog come from the very first version of the tale.

The main character switches from being Bilbo, to a nephew called Bingo, and back, several times. Tolkien didn't want to mess with the line "and he lived happily ever after", which ended The Hobbit. But he had trouble giving the story over to another hobbit. Sometimes there were two hobbits, and sometimes five, who accompanied the one who was to leave the Shire (either Bilbo or Bingo). Sam was nowhere to be seen until much, much later. I kept getting confused between Frodo the companion, and the main character, who was actually Bingo.

The Ring was obviously central to the story, but had no insidious powers at first. The Black Rider obviously scared Tolkien as much as it did his characters, for he had no idea where it came from! Hiding from it was simply a matter of trying to keep the main character's secret about leaving -secret.

I find it unfortunate that while so many changes occurred from the first draft to the later ones, that the story of staying at Tom Bombadil's house, which was there from the start, was retained. That section, while a nice aside in itself, grinds the story to a halt, both in the early versions and in the published Fellowship of the Ring. I always find the Old Forest and the Barrow Wights very tiring, and they tend to be the first things I forget about when recalling the story. Oddly, for Tolkien, that entire section is so close to the published work in its very first draft, that most of it is not reproduced in this book because of that!

The world in this book, being the first drafts of the first half of the Fellowship of the Ring, is very much smaller than the world in The Lord of the Rings. When Gandalf and Bingo talk of destroying the Ring, it seems like they plan to go across the Misty Mountains and find Sauron's fortress somewhere near Mirkwood, like retracing Bilbo's path to the Lonely Mountain. When the hobbits reach Rivendell, Tolkien considered the story to be three quarters finished. I find that very funny in hindsight.

The next interesting aspect of the book is Strider, who is called Trotter. He starts out being a mysterious hobbit, and for most of this book, even Tolkien didn't know who he was. He was briefly switched to being a man, but then "permanently" became a hobbit again. Although his past would be changed to that of a Numenorian man (not any ordinary man), his character was mostly fully developed right from the start. When Tolkien finally decided who this guy was, he made him into a hobbit who had been influenced by Bilbo into being adventurous, and who had even traveled as far as Mordor (though Tolkien didn't know where that was at the time) and captured Gollum. His name was Peregrin Boffin.

Christopher Tolkien says that it characteristic of his father's writing that although the main elements were present from the beginning, the final significance of much of it is altered radically by the end.

Although so many of the lines of dialog and characters and events are the same as in the final form, because the world of Middle-Earth is so small in form (Gondor and Rohan didn't exist), it feels very much lacking in depth. It is difficult to say what that means, exactly, but because the ruins are simply ruins, without another, deeper history, they don't hold much interest. Because the characters are only risking their lives to get rid of the Ring, instead of freeing the world from the Enemy Sauron once and for all, the adventure doesn't hold as much interest, either. Something in the later version gives it a depth that makes it resonate, and that is what makes it into a classic. The story as it stood in the first few sections of this book don't hold that feeling of a classic, somehow.

Once the events were written down into a story in the first draft, they stayed that way all the way to the published work. Things like Trotter and the "man from Ond" (later to become Gondor) would change, creating major changes to the story, but for the most part, the chapters were simply "enriched", because the events were already there. From what I can tell, none of the events were removed once created. Many things were added through subsequent revisions, like the house at Crickhollow and the reason for Gandalf's delay. I like the fact that at first Gandalf was thought to be held prisoner by the "giant Treebeard". Even though the Ents had been created in the Silmarillion (though I think they were simply called tree shepards), Tolkien didn't think of using them in this story until much later.

I like the evolution of Gandalf's role in the story. As in The Hobbit, where Gandalf disappears for a very important period of time, he is never present when Bingo leaves the Shire. At one point, Bingo had left without waiting for Gandalf's instructions. In another draft, Gandalf arrived in Bree before the other hobbits, and tried to draw off pursuit. In one story he had another of the hobbits with him, who had been left behind to give a message to Gandalf.

In addition to the early drafts of the chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring, numerous outlines of what Tolkien thought might come next are also presented in this book. Many of them are very interesting.

The last sections of the book give the evolution of what happens in Rivendell, the journey south along the Misty Mountains, and the Mines of Moria up to Balin's tomb. These chapters are very well formed, but with major exceptions, the chief being that Trotter was still a hobbit, and there were no elves or dwarves in the company, although Boromir was among them. There is even a note that Gandalf should die, or at least seem to, but return later, as he did in The Hobbit.

According to Christopher Tolkien, the notes he was working with were very much messed up, written on ink over pencil, with the penciled original drafts partly erased underneath. It must have taken an eternity of patience to get through it all. I wonder if the book was late in being produced, though, because there are a huge number of punctuation mistakes, some of the numbered notes are wrong, and I could pick out several spelling mistakes. Tolkien changed place names and spelling often, but these mistakes are more ordinary.

The later two books, which bring the old world into the story, hold more interest to me at this time. The Shire and its strange customs are more tiring. I am glad that, with all the repetition, that Christopher Tolkien mostly gives only changes that occurred, rather than the same text over and over with minor changes.

Still, even with all the hobbit-talk, it is incredible to see the genesis of the story, especially the "lightbulb moments" when ideas were obviously conceived, and when others solidified into the moments that occur in the final published version.


-- First reading (hardcover)
December 14th, 1990 to January 13th, 1991


No review available.


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