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The Lord of the Rings

‘This tale grew in the telling, until it became a history of the Great War of the Ring and included many glimpses of the yet more ancient history that preceded it.’

Foreword to The Lord of the Rings (1966)

The Lord of the RingsLe Seigneur des AnneauxEl Señor de los AnillosKryezoti i Unazave, Sayyid al-Khawatim, Eraztunen Jauna, Sarbadhipoti Angti, Mo Jie, La Mastro de l’Ringoj… in over fifty languages, images engraved in the reader’s mind come to life with these words: Frodo and Sam climbing Mount Orodruin in order to destroy Sauron’s ring, which they had brought from the Shire to Mordor at the risk of their lives; Gollum on the steps of Cirith Ungol; the fight with Shelob, or the battle on Weathertop; the farewell to Lórien, or Éowyn’s grief at losing Aragorn; Tom Bombadil’s peacefulness and the solace to be found in Bag End.

Those who have not read the book know it by hearsay as an object of affection for its readers, as ‘an absolute must-read’ — sometimes even as ‘the book of the twentieth century’. In any case, as a book that has given rise to a thousand contradictory, sometimes controversial interpretations: for some, a novel in praise of freedom and nature — so much so that it became an object of worship for American students in the 1960s —; for others, an idealised expression of nostalgia for the Middle Ages; or a reflection of the last century; or even, for some who are less well-informed of Tolkien’s intentions, a mirror of the Second World War.

As a peculiar romance (in the original meaning of the word), a 1000-page book that is a world in itself, The Lord of the Rings has been subject to numerous readings and interpretations, and over-simplifications: its connections to war and heroism, the place of women in the plot, the relationships between the peoples of Middle-earth… It is interesting therefore to get past the ‘mythical’ aura of the ‘cult’ writer (two words that would certainly have displeased the author) in order to return to the text and consider the complex genesis of this novel.

Do all readers know that The Lord of the Rings was originally requested by the publisher, who wanted ‘more hobbits’, and that it was supposed to relate just a short, new adventure of Bilbo’s? That Strider — first called Trotter — was originally just a hobbit among others? Or that the story could have started with a conversation between Gandalf and Bingo in Bag End?

The first map of The Lord of the Rings

A long-expected publication

Pleased by the unexpected success of The Hobbit in 1937, but refusing to publish ‘The Silmarillion’, Allen & Unwin asked J.R.R. Tolkien for a ‘sequel’, which the latter started writing in December of the same year.

‘I have begun again on the sequel to the “Hobbit” – The Lord of the Ring. It is now flowing along, and getting quite out of hand. It has reached about Chapter VII and progresses towards quite unforeseen goals.’

Letter from Tolkien to his publisher, 31 Aug 1938

First of all, J.R.R. Tolkien had trouble in finding the main line of this ‘new story about Hobbits’. As he admitted to his publisher, ‘Not ever intending any sequel, I fear I squandered all my favourite “motifs” and characters on the original “Hobbit”‘, and in a subsequent letter, ‘it is difficult to find anything new in that world’. A few months later, and after having written several openings to the story — including the conversation between Gandalf and ‘Bingo Bolger-Baggins’, which was to develop into the chapter entitled ‘The Shadow of the Past’ —, Tolkien gave up on the idea of planning out in advance the main thread of the story. Letting the plot ‘[open] out in unexpected ways’ led him to forsake the universe of the Shire, this world of hobbits — whom he could untiringly contemplate ‘eating and making their rather fatuous jokes indefinitely’ — in order to go deeper into an epic, more complex tale; a darker one, also. And then a title appeared: The Lord of the Ring… (only one Ring!).

Should he contrive an attack on the Shire by a dragon? Have the hero travel to some island? Fit Tom Bombadil and Old Man Willow (who had already been created) into the story? Make use of Bilbo’s ring by linking it to the character of the Necromancer, who was only hinted at in The Hobbit, to give the plot its second wind? Tolkien considered having Bilbo depart again and also marrying him to Primula Brandybuck; all this before the emergence of a son named Bingo, who then became Bilbo’s nephew (or rather his cousin) and finally his adopted son! As to the name Frodo, it shifted from one character to another.

The two pages entitled ‘Queries and Alterations’, edited by Christopher Tolkien in the sixth volume of The History of Middle-earth (The Return of The Shadow), show the many questions that arose during the writing process: how many hobbits were needed? Should there be Men attending the party in the Shire? What should be the hero’s name? And what was to be done with the character of Trotter? Also in these notes Sam appeared without warning…

A year later, J.R.R. Tolkien had reached chapter XII, and thought his manuscript might be five hundred pages long. But the writing could take place only during time ‘stolen’ from academic tasks that grew more numerous during the war. Those years were troubled not only by overwork, but also by recurrent health problems, both for J.R.R. Tolkien and his wife Edith; by financial difficulties, as well as the worldwide conflict, which closely affected him, including involvement in the protection of Oxford. For instance, the scarcity and poor quality of paper during wartime made writing such a long manuscript all the more difficult, and the author would often have no choice but to write whole chapters of his book on the back of examination papers!

Five years later, in 1942, J.R.R. Tolkien had only reached chapter XXXI (about half of the book in its final form), and struggled to keep the pace and consistency of a tale that no longer had anything to with its first drafts. He conceived the appendices for this purpose, to record all the elements that might slow down the main plot, but which remained essential to him: historical annals, alphabets and languages, genealogical trees…

J.R.R. Tolkien would usually jot down a few ideas about the main outlines of a chapter, along with precise formulations; then he would develop them before making a clean, typewritten copy of the whole. But the work did not stop there: on some typewritten pages, there are no fewer than five different colours, each marking a separate stage of emendation.

Another difficulty was to keep a consistent chronology, as his characters — scattered about Middle Earth — moved between Gondor, Rohan, Mordor… He also had to match the sequence of the story with the maps that he had been redrafting over the years: there are no fewer than six of them just for the Shire.

During this time, Tolkien published a few short texts: Leaf, by Niggle and The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, in 1945, as well as Farmer Giles of Ham (1949). As to the creation of The Lord of the Rings, he arrived at its conclusion after seventeen years, at the cost of ‘immense pains’, as Christopher Tolkien put it. Only in 1954 was the first part published, entitled The Fellowship of the Ring, followed by The Two Towers and The Return of the King, in 1955. The book was so large that, for material reasons, it came out in three volumes and this is why it has been ever since wrongly considered as a ‘trilogy’!

Final page from the Book of Mazarbul

The high price of paper and fabrication costs in the blighted post-war period also meant abandoning the facsimiles of the ‘burnt’ pages of the book of Mazarbul created by the author; only the maps and appendices were retained. Even so, the publisher expected to lose hundreds of pounds on this work, which was for him that of a ‘genius’.

A ‘sequel’ to The Hobbit drawn into the universe of the ‘Silmarillion’

Thus came the completion of a long creative process, witnessed only by very few to whom fragments of The Lord of the Rings had been read: first and foremost his son Christopher — who read a major part of it in serial form while training as a fighter pilot during the Second World War — as well as his friends The Inklings, chief among them C.S. Lewis. Written with friends and relatives in mind, and intended to ‘move’ and ‘delight’ readers of The Hobbit (who had grown up in the meantime), The Lord of the Rings was also a tribute to Tolkien’s companions who were killed during the First World War, especially his two very close friends Robert Gilson and Geoffrey Smith.

The book is thus the result of a publisher’s request but also a very personal work, as can be seen in the way Tolkien — who had been urged to favour the universe of The Hobbit, was himself ‘attracted’ towards the universe of the ‘Silmarillion’, which he had been carrying for over twenty years when he started writing The Lord of the Rings.

A noteworthy paradox therefore: in 1937, wishing to pursue the success of The Hobbit, Allen & Unwin declined J.R.R. Tolkien’s proposal to publish ‘The Silmarillion’. But this ‘sequel’, the ‘new Hobbit’ that The Lord of the Rings was supposed to be, moved away from the originally requested story, as it travelled back towards the ‘mythology and legends of the Elder Days’ of the ‘Silmarillion’ itself.

Decades later, Christopher Tolkien edited these rejected versions: the Lay of Leithian and the Quenta Silmarillion – in The Lays of Beleriand and in The Shaping of Middle-earth, two of the volumes composing The History of Middle-earth. This series of twelve works also follows step by step the genesis of The Lord of the Rings, through four volumes (The Return of the Shadow, The Treason of Isengard, The War of the Ring and Sauron Defeated). They also reveal how the author built on the languages, Elvish in particular, that he had been creating ever since his youth.

As J.R.R. Tolkien explained in 1966, a few characters, objects and places that were only given a limited scope in The Hobbit (the Necromancer, Elrond…), or of which this book had disclosed limited aspects only (Gandalf, the Ring…), took on a new dimension in The Lord of the Rings: Elrond, the half-Elven whom we had met in The Hobbit, is thus provided with a prestigious genealogy, becoming the son of Eärendel, and the great-grandson of Beren and Lúthien!

The connection with the former ‘mythology’ is also evident in the author’s efforts to have The Lord of the Rings and ‘The Silmarillion’ published together. He even went so far as to approach another publisher, before he was met with another refusal and eventually agreed to let Allen & Unwin publish The Lord of the Rings on its own, proposing a single episode of the history of his invented world, with its geography, languages and peoples. In Tolkien’s mind, ‘The Silmarillion’ should have been published together with The Lord of the Rings. Up to the reader therefore to imagine the cycle of which the author had dreamt, linking the creation of the world and the history of the first Ages as disclosed in The Silmarillion to the vast epic adventure of The Lord of the Rings.

As J.R.R. Tolkien wrote later, ‘I then offered them the legends of the Elder Days, but their readers turned that down. They wanted a sequel [to The Hobbit]. But I wanted heroic legends and high romance. The result was The Lord of the Rings …’