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The Return of the Shadow by J.R.R. Tolkien

Published by Houghton Mifflin

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

After the success of The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien soon came under considerable pressure to write a sequel to this delightful story. However, he really had no idea where to start or how to proceed. He'd pretty much said in the end of The Hobbit that Bilbo Baggins would have no further adventures. And in any case, he really wanted to get back to his ongoing struggles to pull the stories of the Eldar and their battles against Morgoth into some kind of salable form.

Still, he felt an obligation to his publisher and his fans to produce another hobbit story. So he dutifully sat down and began to write in an effort to get Bilbo into a situation where he would have to go adventuring again, never mind the clear statement to the contrary at the end of the first book. However, that proved easier said than done, and it took a number of false starts before Tolkien finally settled on the idea that Bilbo's ring was no mere "ordinary" magical ring, but a great and terrible artifact left over from an earlier age. An artifact so terrible that any attempt to use it for good would only warp the user to evil, so that the only way to defeat it was to abjure its power and destroy it.

Once he had the germ of the idea that Bilbo's ring was the Ruling Ring, by which Sauron could control the other rings of power and conquor all of Middle-Earth, the story began to take shape of the quest to destroy the One Ring before Sauron could recover it. However, the process of writing the novel still was not an easy or steady one, largely because he still had no notion of the scope of the story he was setting forth. At least at first, he was still clearly thinking in terms of a relatively short novel, not much longer than The Hobbit, with a relatively light tone, suitable for reading aloud to children. Even as the story expanded in his hands, he seems to have subconsciously resisted a major shift in tone from the story to which it was to be a sequel. Only reluctantly did he begin to part with that notion, and as he did, he began to consider the original Hobbit to be flawed and in need of serious revision to bring it in line with the new story.

In this volume Christopher Tolkien presents his father's fumbling struggles to begin the "new hobbit story" which would ultimately become The Lord of the Rings. The first chapter alone required several starts, with whole ideas discarded as unworkable. He knew that it would begin with a party that had been long anticipated, a narrative contrast to the unexpected party that opens the original. However, he was still uncertain as to who would attend and what would be the exact circumstances. Only in the second version did Gandalf reappear, bearing his fireworks, and in the third version Tolkien toyed with the possibility of his protagonist being Bilbo's son Bingo (raising the question of just whom Bilbo married, but finally getting rid of that problematical contradiction with the ending of The Hobbit). In the next version, Tolkien decided against the wisdom of having Bilbo have a son, and instead made the younger Baggins a nephew whom Bilbo had taken into guardianship.

Once the precise nature of the relationships between the characters were established, the story could begin moving forward in earnest. He jotted out several sketches of the story that would take it to Rivendell and a meeting with Elrond, but the exact details remained tentative, particularly of motivation. He still was thinking primarily in terms of an adventure, rather than a grand quest to defeat an ancient Evil on the level of Morgoth in what he still regarded as his real life's work. As a result, many of the characters seem smaller and more trifling than the grand figures they would ultimately become -- for instance, Trotter is a hobbit who has been adventuring, rather than the proud Ranger and uncrowned king that Strider would ultimately become. This first phase of writing carried Tolkien through to Rivendell, but stalled as he realized he was writing a much larger story and thus needed to go back to the beginning and bring it in line with what he was now writing.

This led to the second phase, in which Tolkien re-arranged some of the characters and expanded several parts of the narrative. For instance, the rather quickly told story of the malice of the Lord of the Rings and how he used his various magical rings to ensnare various peoples is moved to the second chapter, before Bingo (who has still not been named Frodo) has even thought about heading off for an adventure. Thus Tolkien establishes from the beginning that this novel is not going to simply be an adventure tale like its predecessor, but is going to be a story of grand scope, an epic of the clash of good and evil.

Even then, Tolkien could not find a completely satisfactory form for the story, and he backed up again to re-develop the story from the journey to Bree. From there he was able to sustain his forward momentum for a number of chapters, until he reached the Tomb of Balin in the depths of Moria. There he stalled, with no idea of where the story should go from there. He remained stalled for some time, and that makes it a suitable stopping place for this volume.

The development of the first book of The Lord of the Rings is particularly interesting because it involves both expansion and transformation. In some places, Tolkien merely decides that an earlier draft was too sketchy, that it needed to be fleshed out to provide more details about the events rather than merely moving the characters to the next place at which things happen. But in other places he rejected what he has written, more frequently names and relationships than actual events, and replaced them with new things. However, it appears at times that a change in one place, for instance the alteration of the relationships between the protagonist's various buddies who will ultimately become Sam, Merry and Pippin, leads to a decision that a particular scene must be expanded significantly, no doubt because it supports something that has suddenly become important as a result of the transformation of the other part of the story.

But the really striking thing is the organic nature of the changes, by which I mean the way in which they seem to grow naturally from the process of telling. Tolkien always maintained that he was not so much the creator of Middle Earth as its discoverer, and in the appendices to the completed novel described himself merely as the translator of a book of unimaginable antiquity. And there is a real sense that he is not changing his mind about what will be happening so much as he is developing his understanding of what actually happened.

Which is a counterargument against the assertion that the only correct way to write a novel is to sit down and decide that it will be a story using x characters and y elements and z locations and put it together mechanically according to formula. For some people that approach may work fine, but for some of us it simply kills the story dead, reducing the characters to naught but little wooden puppets to be moved from plot point to plot point at the author's will.

Table of Contents

  • The First Phase
    1. A Long-Expected Party
    2. From Hobbiton to the Woody End
    3. Of Gollum and the Ring
    4. To Maggot's Farm and Buckland
    5. The Old Forest and the Withywindle
    6. Tom Bombadil
    7. The Barrow-Wight
    8. Arrival at Bree
    9. Trotter and the Journey to Weathertop
    10. The Attack on Weathertop
    11. From Weathertop to the Ford
    12. At Rivendell
    13. Queries and Alterations
  • The Second Phase
    1. Return to Hobbiton
    2. Ancient History
    3. Delays are Dangerous
    4. A Short Cut to Mushrooms
    5. Again from Buckland to the Withywindle
  • The Third Phase
    1. The Hourney to Bree
    2. At the Sign of the Prancing Pony
    3. To Rivertop and Rivendell
    4. New Uncertainties and New Projections
  • The Story Continued
    1. In the House of Elrond
    2. The Ring Goes South
    3. The Mines of Moria

Review posted February 23. 2010.

Buy The Return of the Shadow: The History of The Lord of the Rings, Part One (The History of Middle-Earth, Vol. 6) from