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#FellowshipOfTolkien Third Annyversary – Travelling Middle-earth with My Own Fellowship

I can’t believe it’s been three years!

And I never imagined this to happen when I first stepped into what looked like the usual reading challenge three years ago. 

I’m a member of the Litsy community, an awesome community of readers, rich in activities such as challenges, readalongs, readathons and basically, anything that brings readers together. No matter when you look, something is always going on.

So the readalong of Tolkien’s main work in the summer of 2017 was really just one of the many activities the community offered at that moment. I almost passed it on. I often do, because reading ‘challenges’ of any kind take up a lot of time, and I’m such a slow reader that often I don’t feel up to the task. 

But it had been such a long time since last I read any book by Tolkien. I mean, years. I had read The Lord of the Rings the last time when the film trilogy came out. A lifetime before. So, after finding any possible excuse not to take part, I was ready to go with the first chapter of The Hobbit on 18 July 2017. 

Sometimes I think it was time. 

I found no excuse to let the readalong go because it was the right time for me to go back to Middle-earth. It was a journey I needed to take. And I’m so happy I did because these three years have given me a lot. As a friend of mine would say, reading Tolkien has been my bibliotherapy. 

The Histories of the stories of the Third Age

I told elsewhere how this all happened. Here I’d like to have a look at just the last year or so, a year my fellow Middle-earth travellers and I dedicated to reading the Histories of how Tolkien’s stories of the Third Age were born. 

I’m talking about The History of the Hobbit by John D. Rateliff and the four volumes from The History of Middle-earth by Christopher Tolkien dedicated to The Lord of the RingsThe Return of the Shadow, The Treason of Isengard, The War of the Ring and Sauron Defeated

Tolkien was a writer who annotated most of his process, probably because he worked at his stories over long periods, in between his many commitments as a family man and university lecturer. Likely, he feared to forget. So it is possible to glean from his drafts most of his creating process, which is such a fascinating journey in itself. 

In my group, we have often commented that it is so lucky that he lived in a time when people still wrote by hand because this way his thinking process has been documented. In today’s world, he would use a word processor, and all corrections and evolutions would simply vanish in whatever space deleted sentences go. 

The History of the Hobbit and The History of the Lord of the Rings are two very different works. 

John Rateliff is a literary detective. He searches the drafts and notes with a fine comb and tries to reconstruct Tolkien’s process minutely. Primary sources come to the surface, dates are pinned down (Tolkien very rarely dated his writing, so deducing the time of writing on the base of external clues is a job in itself). 

It’s a fascinating work that let me see beyond the pages of what at first glance may seem a children story but is in fact a lot more. Rateliff speaks of the Norse and Germanic sources of most of the characters and situations in The Hobbit, it puts it in relations with Tolkien’s life passion for myths and legends and with his legendarium (when applicable). 

It’s a work that gives The Hobbit context, and I came out of it with a very different perception of the book. 

Christopher Tolkien, instead, lets the words speak. He does put the draft in context, he connects the dots, he points out similarities and differences in the succession of drafts and guesses at the reasons why certain choices were made, but his own part is minimum in comparison with the actual drafts. His father’s work always comes first. 

Besides, there’s a lot to discover even by simply reading the drafts and the working notes, which Tolkien sometimes wrote so close together that is almost possible to see his thinking as it shifted. 

Christopher used this method all though The History of Middle-earth, but I find it particularly effective and fascinating here, on the drafts of a story that is much more compressed than The Silmarillion (errr… if you know what I mean). In this phase of his creative work, Tolkien really noted down everything. 

I’m totally charmed both as a reader and a writer.

The History of the Hobbit

Tolkien started to tell The Hobbit to his children at the beginning of the 1930s (or, as Rateliff is more inclined to think, at the end of the 1920s). 

It was a common occurrence. Tolkien told stories to his children often. Many of those stories found publication during his life. 

Rateliff points out an interesting theory about the infamous issue of The Hobbit having no female character. Priscilla, Tolkien’s only daughter, was an infant when he started telling The Hobbit, which was, therefore, a story only for his boys. At that time, John, Michael and Christopher were in the phase were ‘female stuff is stupid’. 

The History of The Hobbit of JRR Tolkien (John D. Rateliff)

Tolkien invented this story for this very specific audience. And he not only knew perfectly what they liked but also he had them in front of him and could see their reactions live. No surprise that he tailored the story specifically for them. 

I’d say that the oral origin of The Hobbit is quite apparent, especially in the first third of the book. Tolkien used his knowledge in myths and legends to come up with many different characters and situations. He did it in a carefree way, as a game for his children, with no intention to be accurate. He did the same thing with elements from his own legendarium that at that time was still taking shape – this later proved to be his doom. 

The first part of The Hobbit is a fun collection of different adventure kept together by the Dwarves’ quest for their treasure, which, at this stage, is little more than an excuse. Every chapter has its own characters and its own adventure. Each adventure would have nothing in common with the others if not for the journey and the group of adventurers. 

One of Tolkien’s characteristics in all his work is that he gave particular attention to names, looking for the absolute best for every character, changing them often until he found the right one. It was funny to read Gandalf as the chief Dwarf (he would become Thorin in the last third of the story) and the wizard as Bladorthin!

The dragon-sickness that affects all characters in different degrees and the way each character responds to it is the core of a story that is not merely for children #JRRTolkien Share on X

Things subtly change more or less on Beorn’s episode. Here, the influence of Norse and Germanic myths becomes more prominent. Rateliff’s treatment of this matter, with long sections dedicated to the Norse characters and history Tolkien might have been drawing upon is absolutely fascinating. My view on this ‘children story’ changed forever when I read that commentary. 

It’s the same for the Mirkwood episode, one of my favourites in the book. With his echoes of the dark forest of the Germanic tales and the Medieval legend of the Wild Hunt, its foundations are hardly those suited for a child – one would think. Tolkien manages to tell a story that is perfectly suitable and engaging for a child, but it’s also interesting for the adult who cares to scratch the surface and looks beneath it. 

The History of The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien (John D. Rateliff) - Death of Smaug

The last third of the novel has a different genesis. After two long pauses in two different years, Tolkien didn’t tell this part to his children, but he wrote it with the clear intent to finish it. 

The different nature of the story from the arrival to Lake-Town is quite apparent. There’s a distinctly darker atmosphere. Adult themes and characters enter the tale. The matter of moral choices come to the fore. It is almost its own story inside the story. 

Rateliff makes a wonderful job of tracking down the mythic sources of this part, identifying the legend of Sigurd’s killing of the dragon and Tolkien’s own Túrin’s tale (also very reminiscent of Sigurd’s story and definitely dark) as the main fonts of inspiration. There is indeed a lot of these sagas in the last part of The Hobbit: the cursed dragon’s hoard, the hidden heroes, the battles, the magic animals, the blood and loyalty bonds. 

But what fascinated me even more is that Tolkien originally thought to a very different ending, where Bilbo kills Smaug, gives away the Arkenstone (which Thorin willingly gave him) and avoid the war, and Thorin becomes King under the Mountain. 

The last pause came after Smaug’s death. When Tolkien went back to the story, things had changed drastically in his mind. Realising the complications that the introduction of the dragon slayer brought about, and trying to keep the focus on Bilbo and his companions, he introduced the idea of the dragon-sickness. This shifted the moral position of the story dramatically. Whereas the first two parts of the story never posed moral complications in any of the characters’ decisions, in this last part, moral choices are on the forefront and are never clear-cut. 

The dragon-sickness that affects all characters in different degrees and the way each character responds to it is the core of a story that is not merely for children.

The History of the Lord of the Rings

The hobbit was such a success that Tolkien’s publisher asked him for a sequel. 

Now Tolkien wasn’t too keen on that. As he told to his publisher, he had already recounted everything there was to say about hobbits. He tried to offer The Silmarillion again, but – as he had done before – his publisher turned it down and insisted for a sequel to The Hobbit

So Tolkien agreed to try, and started off with very few ideas, if I may say. 

The Return of the Shadow is the best of the four volumes of The History of The Lord of the Rings, in my opinion, because it really tells the complex origin of a complex book and for the most part actually tells a different story. 

The Return of the Shadow - Names
The Return of the Shadow – It’s a funny thing that I found a few of the actors’ name from the film trilogy in Tolkien’s original drafts of The Lord of the Rings

Tolkien wrote the first chapter four times in succession, looking for the right idea. In the beginning, Bilbo was to be the protagonist of the new story too (imagine my shock when in one of the abandoned first chapters Bilbo disappeared from The Shire because he wanted to get married!), but then Tolkien settled on Bilbo’s heir, Bingo Bolger-Baggins, who goes on an adventure because the treasure Bilbo brought home is all gone, and he needs to find a different way to live by. He sets out with three companions. Their names and their personality change all the time. For some reason, I became very fond of Frodo Took, who was for a short time one of Bingo’s companions. Christopher says that he is not the precursor of Frodo Baggins, still I found his contemplative personality quite like that of Frodo Baggins. 

Tolkien wrote a few chapters where it is quite easy to see he was looking for a story. His enjoyment in writing about hobbits is quite clear (their dialogues are a joy to read), but there is very little direction. 

I had the impression that he meant to give a depiction of hobbit society in all its different manifestations. There is, in fact, a sense (which remains in the published book) that even if hobbit life may be charming and idyllic, there is also a dark side to it. In the beginning, all the characters are hobbits. Bree is a town of hobbits. Farmer Maggots is a very grumpy, even unsettling character. 

But then, two things happened – one sudden, the other very slowly – that set the story off. 

Bingo and his friends are travelling on the road when they hear the noise of a horse coming behind them. A white rider appears. It’s Gandalf, who looked for Bingo in Hobbiton and not finding him, went after him on the road. 

But immediately, Tolkien changed his mind. Not a white rider, but a black one. 

The story suddenly becomes darker, danger enters it, and when the hobbits reach Bree, they meet a stranger who claims to be a friend at the Prancing Pony. The hobbit Ranger Trotter. 

Let me tell you, I became very fond of Trotter. 

The other occurrence, which entered the story slowly and also evolved very slowly, is the transformation of Bilbo’s magic ring into the One Ring. 

There’s a series of absolutely fascinating notes where Tolkien’s changing mind regarding Bilbo’s ring is documented almost beat by beat. In those notes, it is possible to see how Bilbo’s ring moved from being one of the many magic rings in the world to one very special ring, the One Ring that the Dark Lord forged and lost. And in this way, that subterranean streak of Silmarillion ides that had help supporting The Hobbit but never came out in the open in that novel becomes an integral part of this new story. The Silmarillion that the publisher turned down takes over the ‘New Hobbit’. 

Doom!

The Return of the Shadow - The Tale That Is Brewing
The Return of the Shadow – The Tale That Is Brewing – Tolkien’s firs hesitant attempt at the New Hobbit

At this point, Tolkien knew the story was about the One Ring and the need to destroy it. He brings Bingo and the Ring to Rivendell. In subsequent revisions (there were quite a few), Sam enters the story, Bingo becomes Frodo Baggins, Trotter becomes a Man of Númenórian origins. The Fellowship (in a different composition) sets out from Rivendell and split after a part of the journey. Sam and Frodo enter Mordor and destroy the Ring, and Trotter and Boromir reach Minas Tirith. Here Boromir betrays his people, join with Sauron and Trotter opposes him, reclaiming then his place as king of Ondor (the first name of Gondor). 

It was going to be a matter of chapters. At that point, Tolkien though the book was almost done. 

But it was not going to be. 

The breaking out of WWII had a strong influence of Tolkien, his story and its themes. 

Even if the general idea, which he outlined at the end of the 1930s, never really changed, themes and events kept expanding, new characters entered the story, and – not last – many hiatuses paused the writing. In different times, Tolkien had to force himself to go back to The Lord of the Rings. I think it was difficult for him to face that narration that was causing his experience of WWI to come to the surface in the shadow of WWII, but also it was a story he needed to write. 

I think it was difficult for #Tolkien to face that narration that was causing his experience of WWI to come to the surface in the shadow of WWII, but also it was a story he needed to write.  Share on X

While the first phases of the writing of The Lord of the Rings were a meandering search for the right idea, the subsequent phases speak of a story that was remarkably the one we know already. The major changes were in the level of conflict. Many ideas entered the story in a much milder way and then evolved into situations laden with meaning and symbols. 

For example, there’s no animosity between Faramir and his father in the first draft. Or also, Eowyn and Merry go to war together with all the other Rohirrim, not in disguise. 

The History of The Lord of the Rings was an incredible adventure beginning to end, but I have to admit that the beginning was extremely fascinating. 

Third Anniversary

My group #FellowshipOfTolkien read all of this in over one year. It was an incredibly enriching journey, especially with such awesome fellow travellers like @Daisey, @Riveted_Reader_Melissa, @wordslinger42 and @BookwormAHN

As Tolkien well knew, a journey is better if it’s in company. 

I can’t wait to read through the fourth year of this adventure. 

MIDDLE-EARTH LITERARY GAZETTE (A Medium Publication) Exploring Tolkien's legendarium from every engle.

2 Comments

  • Steven Malone
    Posted July 16, 2020 at 21:37

    Wondrous stuff. Thanks for sharing.

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