J.R.R. Tolkien intended the new book, which would later develop into “The Lord of the Rings,” to be a simple sequel to “The Hobbit.” Yet somehow the sequel was growing more adult, and Tolkien admitted it reflected the “darkness of the present days” in the shadow of the Second World War.

On September 21, 1937, the publishing firm of George Allen & Unwin had published J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterful children’s story, The Hobbit. It would very quickly earn serious accolades, especially from the American press. In April 1938, for example, The New York Herald Tribune awarded The Hobbit with the title of best book of the year for children.[1]

Only three months after its initial release in England, sometime between December 16 and December 19, Tolkien began its sequel. Not yet endowed with such a noble title as The Lord of the Rings, this sequel, Tolkien admitted with some diffidence, was merely “a new story about Hobbits.”[2] For all intents and purposes, Tolkien truly proposed this new book to be a simple sequel, another story about Hobbits. To a large degree, the book, as it developed over the next two years, developed along these lines. As Tolkien wrote—sometimes with astounding speed and other times with painful torpidity—over the next two years, he shared it in serialized form with C.S. Lewis, with his youngest son, Christopher, and with young Rayner Unwin, son of the Unwin half of Allen and Unwin.

Of Tolkien’s earliest critics, both C.S. Lewis and Rayner Unwin thought the earliest version of the sequel had too much “Hobbit talk” in it, which both J.R.R. Tolkien and Christopher found delightful but which, Rayner reported, “tends to make” the story “lag a little.”[3]

Yet, as much as Tolkien kept the story a Hobbit story, unanticipated persons and scenes and moments inserted themselves into the story, as did Tolkien’s larger legendarium. “The sequel to The Hobbit has now progressed as far as the end of the third chapter,” the author informed Stanley Unwin, however, “stories tend to get out of hand, and this has taken an unpremeditated turn.”[4] Tolkien repeated this news to various letter recipients over the next several months, recognizing that his own children—for whom The Hobbit had been originally written—had aged, and thus too had the storytelling. Somehow the sequel was growing in dark and perplexing ways. The whole story, he feared by October 1938, “was becoming more terrifying than the Hobbit.” Most worrisome, “it may prove quite unsuitable” as it becomes more and more “adult.” Clearly, Tolkien admitted, though never allegorical, the story of the sequel—and its depth and intensity—reflected the “darkness of the present days.”[5] In particular, the Necromancer (that is, Sauron) was playing a much bigger role in the sequel, and he, by his very nature, “is not child’s play.”[6]

Despite all of these warnings, though, the sequel remained intensely Hobbitic in its focus. Tolkien himself, admitted: “Still there are hobbits, far more of them and about them, in the new story.”[7]

In 1988, as a part of his twelve-volume History of Middle-earth, Christopher Tolkien published volume 6 of that series, The Return of the Shadow [itself, part one of the subset of The History of the Lord of the Rings (4 parts)], which considers the earliest version of The Lord of the Rings as conceived during 1937-1939.

It should be remembered that Tolkien, in addition to being a popular author, was also a full-time father, husband, and academic during these same years. Additionally, as a background to the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, the Western world was collapsing as both Nazi Germany and Communist Russia made serious intrusions into western Europe. At times, the growing darkness became too much, and Tolkien suffered not only from serious bouts of flu during these years, but he also suffered from intense depression. Indeed, depression became so worrisome to Tolkien that his doctor, more or less, placed Tolkien under house arrest, demanding the Oxford Don to refrain from doing anything for several weeks in late August 1938. The doctor hoped to prevent what seemed to be certainly a “nervous breakdown.”[8] There were little victories during these same years, though. Not only did Tolkien arrange for a publisher for Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet, but he also guided one of his favorite students, J.A.W. Bennett to the completion of his D.Phil, and he and the other Inklings shockingly got one of their own, the Reverend Adam Fox, the position of “Professor of Poetry,” which Tolkien described as “our first public victory over established privilege.”[9] Another significant victory revealed itself on June 29, 1938, when the University of St. Andrews—Scotland’s most prestigious university—invited Tolkien to deliver the Andrew Lang Lecture. Gladly accepting the Scottish honor, Tolkien chose as his topic, “On Fairy Stories,” which itself proved to be one of the most important academic addresses of the century, a Christian humanist tour de force, delivered on October 8 of the same year.[10]

In another victory for humanity and Western civilization, Tolkien severely criticized the German National Socialists when they demanded to know if he possessed any Jewish ancestry prior to publishing a German version of The Hobbit. To the German publishing firm, Rütten & Loening, he wrote in blistering fashion: “I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Ayran extraction: that is Indo-iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.”[11] To his publisher, Tolkien further noted that he would never countenance “the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine” of the National Socialists.[12]

The Western world would, of course, collapse in on itself in September 1939, as the Germans and the Russians divided Poland, massacring its cavalry and enslaving its people. Tolkien, who had served so nobly in the First World War, well understood the sacrifices that would need to be made to wage a Second World War. This time, however, it would be his children who did the fighting.

This essay is the first of two in Bradley J. Birzer’s series on the early drafts of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] Scull and Hammond, JRRT Companion and Guide: Chronology, 229.

[2] JRRT to C.A. Furth, December 19, 1937, in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, no. 20.

[3] Scull and Hammond, JRRT Companion and Guide: Chronology, 230. Lewis had made the same criticism. See JRRT to Stanley Unwin, June 4, 1938, in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, no. 28.

[4] JRRT To Stanley Unwin, March 4, 1938, in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, no. 26.

[5] JRRT to Stanley Unwin, October 13, 1938, in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, no. 34.

[6] JRRT to C.A. Furth, February 2, 1939, in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, no. 35.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Scull and Hammond, JRRT Companion and Guide: Chronology, 234.

[9] JRRT to Stanley Unwin, June 4, 1938, in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, no. 28.

[10] Scull and Hammond, JRRT Companion and Guide: Chronology, 231-232.

[11] JRRT to Rütten & Loening, July 25, 1938, in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, no. 30.

[12] JRRT to Stanley Unwin, July 25, 1938, in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, no. 29.

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