"The History of The Lord of the Rings": 2020 Discussion Group


Well-Known Member
Aug 21, 2010
There's been a thread on the 12-volume History of Middle-earth, edited by the late Christopher Tolkien.

This thread is a place for discussion of the volumes of HoME specifically devoted to the story of Tolkien's writing of The Lord of the Rings. Those volumes of HoME are

6.The Return of the Shadow: May-July 2020
7.The Treason of Isengard: August-September 2020
8.The War of the Ring: October-November 2020
9.Sauron Defeated: December 2020

It's proposed to spend approximately two months each on the first three books, starting as soon as anyone is ready, and a month on the LotR material in the final volume, much of which is not concerned with LotR. (see above.)

This seven-month arrangement would take us from May-June through December 2020. It's assumed that people who arrive late to the discussion will be treated hospitably; for example, it's not proposed to ban discussion of The Return of the Shadow if someone joins in August and wants to comment on the earlier volume.

However, I'd hope that the discussion can mostly keep some focus as suggested by the schedule above, and press on to the goal of completing the complete History of The Lord of the Rings. Conversely, it would be disappointing if a bunch of side-conversations got going on earlier pages to the detriment of completing the reading of the whole sequence on time. It would be up to a Chrons moderator to decide if so much activity was being generated on an "behind schedule" topic as to justify the removal of that discussion to a new thread. Though I (Extollager) am writing this original posting, I would defer to a moderator to make a decisive call regarding this kind of situation -- I don't have, nor do I want, that authority.

I propose to start shortly, by posting some comments on The Return of the Shadow so that there are things to talk about here as soon as anyone's ready to begin the conversation.
Gods, that thread dates from before I joined the Chrons: and the posters! Dwndrgn, Knivesout, Lace, Polymorphikos - real blasts from the past. But I digress.

Happy to dip into this thread, Extollager, and shift around anything that needs it for you. For some reason (possibly the financial side of collecting the whole HoMe series) these excellent volumes have never been as popular on the Chrons as the Big Three, so I hope that you can attract a core readership. Personally, I find them fascinating, in spite of the occasional exasperation when you get so far, and then JRRT tears it all up and starts again. They really show, though, the thought, care and love that just about every sentence in LotR was given: and your thread might bring out why so many long-standing Tolkien readers have issues with Peter Jackson....

Good luck!
And to be really pedantic ( of which I suspect you'll see a fair amount) , it's HoMe, not HoME - the name of the place is Middle-earth, not Middle Earth. It's a modernization of the Old-English word Middangeard, which meant "the inhabited lands of Men between the seas".

I'd get out more, but it's a bit difficult at the moment...
I may well get interested: I've just ordered the first two books, but I can't say yet whether they'll draw me in.
I may well get interested: I've just ordered the first two books, but I can't say yet whether they'll draw me in.
Oh, I hope so - welcome to the wonderful world of Bingo Bolger-Baggins, Marmaduke Brandybuck, Odo Took-Took, and the enigmatic Trotter...
Oh, I hope so - welcome to the wonderful world of Bingo Bolger-Baggins, Marmaduke Brandybuck, Odo Took-Took, and the enigmatic Trotter...
It was only maybe three years ago that I read the Silmarillion for the first time. Though I found that hard work, it opened vast unexpected vistas on the LOTR, and led to a lot more reading (largely forgotten by now). At that time I drew the line at reading these volumes, though I did look through some of "Sauron Defeated". I think I could be ready for another burst of LOTR-related activity.
Bilbo says he’s leaving the Shire and he’s going to get married.
pages 16, 18/ Bilbo has spent all his money, a great deal of it on presents.

At this early point, Tolkien thinks he’s going to write another book for children. (He hasn't yet realized that the story will be about the Ring, which, it will turn out, is a terrible, seductive invention of Sauron.) The first "complication" is not that Bilbo possesses Sauron's Ring; it's that Bilbo has run out of money, evidently in no small part because of his pleasure in giving to others. Also he's a bit weary of the pettiness of hobbit culture.

We might speculate about the potential theme(s) of this second Hobbit book based just on what we have so far, these first pages (and The Hobbit). Tolkien senses that he needs to figure out a plot. One possibility would be for the new book to be, to be sure, a tale of magical adventures, but with a theme relating to generosity, hospitality, and sharing — and to their opposites.

So, if that had been the direction Tolkien took, what “properties” from the earlier book would have lent themselves to use in this new book?

Well, we know that the dwarves have a tendency to acquire, and tenaciously to keep, wealth. They are not known for generosity and hospitality. Worse, the Mirkwood spiders are a "natural emblem" of greed and keeping things, what with their nasty web-spinning and their habit of letting their prey dangle, unable to escape.

Let’s suppose that, fairly soon after leaving the Shire, and so within the space of not many pages after the point at which Tolkien stopped his earliest drafts, Bilbo shows costly generosity to someone in trouble, early on, who at that time couldn’t repay him.

Bilbo continues his journey (he has to have some place in mind). Does he eventually find himself caught in the middle of a dispute between dwarves and men regarding property, in which each wants to use, or for Bilbo to use, his magic ring on their behalf? He’s kidnapped and taken to someone’s realm but escapes in the company of the person he helped out? Fleeing, they have various adventures while pursued by the one party, dwarves or men; then they’re caught by the other side? Gandalf shows up and —? Where does Tolkien bring in the spider-swarms?

What might be some other possibilities? This isn't a "fanfic" scenario but rather an attempt to suggest some of the possibilties that might have occurred to Tolkien for his new hobbit book for youngsters.

I think I’m seeing that, if Tolkien hadn’t developed the element of the power and the evil of the Ring, he would virtually have HAD to write another children’s book; he couldn’t have written a book with the meaningfulness to adults of LotR except by developing the Ring. And that he had not done when he first set pen to paper on the "new Hobbit" book.
I think I’m seeing that, if Tolkien hadn’t developed the element of the power and the evil of the Ring, he would virtually have HAD to write another children’s book; he couldn’t have written a book with the meaningfulness to adults of LotR except by developing the Ring. And that he had not done when he first set pen to paper on the "new Hobbit" book.

This is attested to by the man himself in a letter. There's really nothing else in The Hobbit that would do as a link.

JRRT said:
But if you wanted to go on from the end of The Hobbit I think that the ring would be your inevitable choice as the link. If you then wanted a large tale, the Ring would at once acquire a capital letter; and the Dark Lord would immediately appear. As he did, unasked, on the hearth at Bag End as soon as I got to that point. So the essential Quest started at once.
Letters*: 163, To W.H. Auden, June 1955 - my emphasis.

*(The Letters of JRR Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter & Christopher Tolkien. Not essential to this thread, but does at times give a deeper view into what JRRT intended.)
Yes -- pp. 41-43 of The Return of the Shadow show Tolkien very early did realize that the Ring, as something sinister, had a key role to play in the story that was to be written. Other elements too are jotted down that would be developed in The Fellowship of the Ring -- the Willow-man, Barrow-wights, etc. But it seems that there was a brief period, of a few weeks or less, when Tolkien had started writing but did not know that the new Hobbit book was going to be about the Ring or include Tom Bombadil, etc. As a motive to get Bilbo to leave the Shire, he considered the possibility that Bilbo had a craving to see a live dragon again!

44/Tolkien has already begun giving his drafts to his youngest son and to C. S. Lewis by early 1938.

The Letters is a great resource for many matters Tolkienian.
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49/ Tolkien mentions that the hobbits have "packs." Irrelevantly, this raised in my mind the time when backpacks for ordinary daily use (as opposed to overnight excursions on woodland trails, etc.) first appeared. I'm old enough to remember that time (at least in Oregon). This would've been in the early 1970s. Up to that time, as I recall, kids carried their books to school in their hands. I didn't get a backpack till I was a college undergraduate well into the Seventies. My understanding is that a company called Jansport got the backpack thing going.

But back to Tolkien... from page 51 of The Return of the Shadow I see that a certain fox made his appearance very early in Tolkien's writing of LotR. Here, slightly revised, is an excerpt from something I wrote about him for a fanzine article, referring to the published Fellowship of the Ring:

Famously, Professor Tolkien included allusions to legends of the Elder Days in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. When The Silmarillion and other posthumous books were published, readers learned how very far these bits were from being mere ad hoc inventions that Tolkien had inserted to give a superficial sense of depth to the main story. Far from it! Whether Tolkien rendered the story in detail (e.g. Tύrin’s story) or not (Queen Berύthiel and her cats), these allusions turned out to be true glimpses of vistas that were to open out for readers when more of Tolkien’s work came before their eyes.

There remain a few brief bits that most readers probably forget, between readings. When they do encounter them, some readers may wonder whether the bits really do belong in Middle-earth. I think they do. Take this incident...

Frodo, Sam, and Pippin set out on a journey through the Shire to Crickhollow. Pippin tires, and the hobbits make a fire and settle down for the night. We read that:

A few creatures came and looked at them when the fire had died away. A fox passing through the wood on business of his own stopped several minutes and sniffed.

“Hobbits!” he thought. “Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Three of them! There’s something mighty queer behind this.” He was quite right, but he never found out any more about it. [The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 3 “Thee Is Company”]

Did you remember that fox? He is evidently a rational creature, possessed of self-awareness. He is thus what C. S. Lewis’s Ransom learns, in Out of the Silent Planet, to call hnau. The fox can converse with unspecified others, from whom he’s heard of unusual goings-on here in the “heart of the Shire.” He assesses the situation correctly as of the moment, and that’s all.

In later years, perhaps Tolkien wondered whether this passage should have been included in The Lord of the Rings. The time came, we know, when he found himself perplexed regarding elements of his own literary creation, such as the conundrum of the Orcs: evidently rational creatures capable of some sense of justice and injustice, as seen when lowly foot-soldiers gripe about treatment by their superiors – yet also irredeemable. In another example, Tolkien second-guessed himself about the idea of an originally flat earth.

And so he might also have wondered whether a rational, self-conscious fox should have been included in The Lord of the Rings. But I’m glad that the fox is there. The incident charms us because, for a moment, the fox embodies the life of a countryside that is shared by rural folk and by feral animals and belongs to both. Kentucky essayist Wendell Berry knows about “margins” such as this, between wilderness on the one hand, and the landscape extensively adapted to people’s uses on the other.

The fox was on business of his own. This phrase relates to a core belief of Tolkien (and Lewis) regarding the right relationship of human beings to other creatures: they are not there simply for us to make use of them. They have their own right business and ought, as a rule, to be left to it, on the “margins” of our lives, but reminding us that “it’s not all about us.” In the Bible, this is expressed in the verse “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1).* The Lord’s creation teems with creatures that are not anyone’s property but His, and which have their own right purposes that might be hidden from us. Even as we Tolkien readers are, perhaps, unsure regarding the place of foxes who can articulate their thoughts in anthropomorphic, or anthropopathic, minds – still, we like that fox.

….These early pages in Return (and Fellowship) remind me of something for which I venerate Tolkien, the sense that nothing in the long walks of his characters is faked. And walking in the Shire is one of my all-time favorite literary recreations.

…...And with this posting I think I'll wait a bit and see if anyone wants to comment on the first 50 pages of The Return of the Shadow before posting more.

*A whole book on this and related themes has been written by Evans and Dickerson, Ents, Elves and Eriador: The Environmental Vision of J. R. R. Tolkien, which I reviewed for Beyond Bree, March 2010, pp. 1-4.
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I've been holding off posting further extended comments, so as to give interested people the opportunity to discuss what's been said so far (if wished) and to post new thoughts on the first 50 pages of The Return of the Shadow.

However, I thought I'd post something so as to bring this thread alive after several days have passed -- as well as because of whatever intrinsic interest this comment possesses.

On page 179 Trotter speaks of "the Enemy." He is "the Lord of the Rings" (first mentioned on page 75).

But it doesn't seem that Tolkien has yet identified the Enemy, as a presence in this sequel he's writing to The Hobbit, with Sauron, the wicked being who led the Númenoreans to worship Morgoth, etc. Tolkien had been working on this latter myth very recently (in 1937) before he was persuaded to write a successor to The Hobbit.

It will be interesting to see the point in the manuscripts at which the "penny drops" and Tolkien is writing of the Enemy as being Sauron.

He has linked this Hobbit sequel to "The Silmarillion" by this point, because Trotter on Weathertop speaks of Lúthien Tinúviel and Beren. Indeed, I suppose that's the point at which one can say for sure that Tolkien has decided to make this children's book something occurring in the same "universe" as his vast "Silmarillion" mythology, but much later than the time of its narratives.

This, in turn, suggests that it's about at this point that the "New Hobbit" book became locked into its destiny as something not really "just" a children's book.

Up to this point, the "New Hobbit" has been something you could read as an adventurous book for youngsters. I don't say that this was the moment when Tolkien suddenly consciously realized that he was going to write a huge book aimed at least as much at adults as children -- in fact I don't think that he did. But it would seem that that kind of development was all but inevitable now.
I have theset of books. I'm not sure I'm up to the acedemic level displayed here, but I might give it a go.
Enjoy! It's just such a pleasure reading Tolkien's prose!

But it's interesting to get some sense of Tolkien's process of "discovering" the story. On page 182 "the Enemy" is used in connection with the Beren-Lúthien story -- which makes me wonder if Tolkien conceivably was thinking of Morgoth as being the Enemy for this Hobbit sequel, at this point. Of course we have to remember that all we have are surviving manuscript pages. We don't know what was clear in Tolkien's mind but not set out on paper.
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My copy arrived 20 minutes ago. I've always (well since I first read of him two or three years ago) been curious about how a hobbit with wooden feet metamorphised into someone rather different. Hopefully this thread will provide me with the momentum to carry me through these four books

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