Of the villain Treebeard and the hobbit Trotter
The first phases of writing the Lord of the Rings
Gandalf imprisoned by Treebeard! What do we have here? A forgery of the history
of the ring? No, in fact, this quote is taken from the fifth-version manuscript
in the year 1939, as published in The Return of the Shadow (aka The History of Middle Earth part VI).
(….)said Frodo. “I am wide awake now, and remember so many things that
want explaining.Why were you delayed? You ought to tell me that at least.”
“You will soon hear all you wish to know,” said Gandalf. “We shall have the
council, as soon as you are well enough. At the moment I will only say that
I was held captive.”
“You!” cried Frodo.
“Yes!” laughed Gandalf. “There are many powers greater than mine, for good
and evil, in the world. I was caught in Fangorn and spent many weary days
as a prisoner of the giant Treebeard. It was a desperately anxious time,
for I was hurrying back to the Shire to help you.
On 19 december 1937 Tolkien wrote to his publishers: “I have written the
first chapter of a new story about hobbits – “A long expected party””. So
when The Return of the King was first published in 1955, eighteen
years had passed. The changes that Tolkien made to the story during these
years have been manifold. All the subsequent versions and changes are documented
and explained by Christopher T. in The History Of Middle Earth parts VI (The return of the Shadow), VII (The Treason of Isengard), VIII (The war of the Ring) and IX (Sauron Defeated).
Let’s try to get a picture of the maior changes between 1937 and 1955. In
1937, Tolkien originally set himself to write a sequel to The Hobbit,
which was then just published . He did not like the idea wholeheartedly
though, as can be seen in this letter, written by Tolkien in December 1937:
“I don’t much approve of The Hobbit myself, preferring
my own mythology (which is just touched on) with its consistent nomenclature
– Elrond, Gondolin and Esgaroth have escaped out of it – and organized history,
to this rabble of Eddaic-named dwarves out of Volüspá, newfangled
hobbits and gollums (invented in an idle hour) and Anglo-Saxon runes.”
And indeed, what Tolkien starts out to do, is writing a story about hobbits as a sequel to The Hobbit. He intends as its title “The return of the Shadow”.
And initially it is his clear intention to leave out any clear reference
or relation to “his own mythology”, just as he had tried to leave these out
in the Hobbit. But he can’t keep that up. Gradually “The mythology” – as already established by him in large manuscripts like the Quenta Silmarillion
– becomes more and more the background for the story. And in the end the
two perspectives of burlesque hobbiterie and epic elverie are merged and
the synergetic result is The Lord of The Rings.
Thus it can be understood that the ranger that originally – in all of the
first versions – meets Bingo Baggins (>Frodo), Odo Bolger (>Sam), Frodo
Took (>Peregrin) and Marmaduke Brandybuck (>Meriadoc) at Bree, and
who defends them at Weathertop against the ringwraiths and takes them safely
to Rivendell is a hobbit (!) called Trotter.
When one reads the first versions of the Lord of the Rings, one falls
from one astonishment into another. But still, so much of the eventual
book is already there. Tom Bombadil is present from the first, typically
a “hobbit-story” figure, and completely inappropriate if the “mythology”
would already have been a predominant perspective. He stays in the story
as an enigma , defeating “the consistent mythology” of Tolkien’s Quenta.
What is so striking – and so typical of Tolkien’s specific writing style,
is that we find in the published versions many conversations, details, jokes
etc. that were never changed from the start. What is changed is mainly the
background, the context, and to a far lesser degree the substance of the
Most writers will typically start with outlines and backgrounds, and then fill in the details. But with the Lord of the Rings,
Tolkien started with a story, which he then adapted to a background. Thus
in the end the down-to-earth ranger-hobbit Trotter had to be changed to Strider-Aragorn,
the Númenorean heir, descendant from Luthien and Melian. But typically
Trotter/Strider/Aragorns lines and words often stay the same. And even his
bravery, when Bingo (>Frodo) is attacked by the leader of the Ringwraiths
At that moment Bingo threw himself forward onto the ground, and he heard himself crying aloud (though he did not know why): Elbereth! Gilthoniel! Gurth i Morthu.
At the same time he struck at the feet of his enemy. A shrill cry rang out
in the night; and he felt a pain like a dart of poisoned ice touch his shoulder.
Even as he swooned Bingo caught a glimpse of Trotter leaping out of the darkness
with a flaming fire-brand in each hand. With a last effort he slipped the
Ring from his finger, and closed his hand on it.
Now this was written in 1938, so 17 years before the publishing of the Lord of The Rings was concluded! And so were many more parts, both essential parts and trivial details.
But what the ring was about, why Bingo/Frodo went on a journey at all and
where that journey would end or result in, all that still had to be invented
as the story progressed. The idea of old Bilbo’s ring being The One Ruling
Ring would emerge only later. And there is not a clue why the ringwraiths
and their Master want the ring, except that it is a ring gone “missing”.
Originally, Bingo/Frodo goes on a journey because his inheritance from Bilbo
has run out and he is broke! In fact in the very first manuscript, it is
Bilbo himself who sets out to travel for that same reason (pennilessness).
But that is of course not consistent with the promise made at the end of
the Hobbit: that Bilbo would be very happy till the end of his days. So immediately
in the second version it is an adopted cousin who takes his place as the
hobbit starting on a journey to Rivendell.
For the Tolkien addict, reading the four volumes that constitute The History of The Writing Of the Lord of The Rings is a thrilling adventure. It appears that the definite change of scope in The Lord of the Rings
– between the unexpected party at the start and the fields of the Pelennor
at the end – is a feature of the story’s history. It started out as a simple
hobbit’s story and ended as an epos of vast depth and implications.
For the sake of those of you who intend to take up reading The Return of the Shadow, The Treason of Isengard, The War of the Ring and Sauron Defeated I won’t give away any more spoilers.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Harper&Collins
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, Harper&Collins
J.R.R. Tolkien, The History Of Middle Earth parts VI, VII, VIII and IX, Harper
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