Christopher Tolkien, in “The Return of the Shadow,” breaks down J.R.R. Tolkien’s drafts of the sequel to “The Hobbit” into three phases. In the third phase, the situations around the characters do grow tellingly darker, with drastic implications for the story that could shake the foundations even of the Blessed Realm, the land of the gods.
As noted in my previous essay, the first writings, 1937-1939, remain deeply Hobbitic. Christopher Tolkien, in The Return of the Shadow, breaks down Tolkien’s drafts into three phases of the story. In the first phase, December 1937 through September 1938, the story feels truly and tangibly a direct sequel to The Hobbit. The writing style is the same, the humor is the same, and the situations (for the most part) are the same. The world, to be sure, is darker than it was in the time of The Hobbit, but it still has an innocence about it that will be missing in the final version of The Lord of the Rings. Aragorn—known in these first few years as “Trotter”—is a wild Hobbit, a ranger of the wilderness, and Butterbur, too, is a Hobbit. It turns out, as explored in a later phase of the story, Trotter (called such because he wears wooden shoes) is also one of Bilbo’s nephews, one who had left the Shire years earlier.
Even Gandalf, in the first phase, though certainly not a Hobbit, seems really to be a wizened old gray man, humorous and cheeky, rather than the force of nature and the angel and avatar of Ilúvatar (God) as revealed in the final version of The Lord of the Rings.
Even Frodo’s original name, Bingo Bolger Baggins, is somewhat of an absurdity, and Tolkien uses his story to explain Hobbit culture. One longish section even explains the history and difference of the Hobbit Hole and the Hobbit house.
One character who is surprisingly well developed is Tom Bombadil, even in the earliest versions of the story. Bombadil and Old Man Willow had already appeared in Tolkien’s more whimsical poetry, so a history existed prior to their inclusion in the story. Still, from the beginning of the story and his first appearance, Bombadil is an enigma. He declares himself the “Aborigine of this land,” and notes, “Tom was here before the River or the Trees. Tom remembers the first acorn and the first rain-drop. He made paths before the Big People and saw the Little People arriving. He was here before the kings and the graves.”
The ring, though dangerous in the first phase, is more of a mystery than a weapon. The Ringwraiths are searching for it, but the wraiths are to be found among all races except for the Hobbits, and there is no clear line of power within the numerous rings in existence. Wearing the ring, though, did place the wearer within the world of the wraiths, fully and dramatically. “But such places as Rivendell (or the Shire in its own way) will soon become besieged islands, if things go on as they are going,” Tolkien wrote. “The Dark Lord is moving again. Dreadful is the power of the Necromancer.” At the very end of the first phase, Tolkien asked himself—in his marginalia—if there is something special about Bilbo’s ring. Could it be “the one missing Ring,” with all of the others having found their way back to the Dark Lord?
In the second phase, September 1938 through December 1938, Tolkien deepens the story considerably, adding much to the plot as well as to the overall atmosphere. Sam Gamgee makes his first appearance in the second phase, but so does a surprisingly grim and murderous Farmer Maggot!
In the second phase, Tolkien especially expanded the world of the Hobbits, noting that all outside of the Shire was falling into despair, with the emergence of evil and wicked creatures even “more terrible than goblins, trolls, or giants.”
Bilbo, though, had prepared Bingo for the larger world by having taught him the two Elvish languages. Further, Gandalf proclaims a greater power in the world than the things seen, as someone or something had prepared the way for Bilbo to have found the ring, originally, thus allowing it to pass beyond the petty but evil reach of Gollum. Perhaps, something as large as “fate” plays a role in the story and especially in the lives of its characters, the Elf Gildor suggests.
In the third phase, December 1938 through September 1939, Tolkien returns the story to a more “Hobbitic” one, but with drastic implications of the story that could shake the foundations even of the Blessed Realm, the land of the gods. Yet, despite the return to the Hobbitic feel and humor of the characters, the situations around them do grow tellingly darker. “Why was I chosen?” Frodo (no longer Bingo) asks, curious as to why his world must intersect with the larger one.
While the Elves are described as wholesome and their culture and world as rare, precious, and special, the events in and around the Mines of Moria are as creepy as anything in a “Weird Tale” as told by Robert Howard or H.P. Lovecraft. When the creature of the lake attempts to take Frodo, Gandalf says, the multiple arms “all belong to one creature, I should say, from the way they moved—but that is all I can say. Something that has,” he continued, “crept, or been driven out of the dark waters under ground, I guess. There are older and fouler things than goblins in the dark places of the world.” Treebeard, too, in this incarnation of the story, is a force of evil, holding Gandalf captive for “many weary days.” Phase three of the writing also ends grimly with Gandalf’s fall in the Mines of Moria.
Only days after the Second World War began, Tolkien assured his publisher that he was at least three-fourths done with the book and should have it completed relatively soon.
In his estimation, Tolkien was off by a full decade. He would not complete The Lord of the Rings until 1949.
This essay is the second of two in Bradley J. Birzer’s series on the early drafts of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The first can be read here.
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.
 Tolkien, The Return of the Shadow, 121.
 Ibid., 212.
 Ibid., 226.
 Ibid., 253.
 Ibid., 281.
 Ibid., 321.
 Ibid., 453.
 Ibid., 363. By the end of The Return of the Shadow, though, Treebeard has become a force of nature rather than an advocate of evil.
 Scull and Hammond, JRRT Companion and Guide: Chronology, 247.
The featured image is “One of the Nazgûl, fictional characters from The Lord of the Rings, looking at the sunset from a hill” (2006) by The Artifex and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. It has been brightened for clarity and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.