The grand designer was mortal after all
How the ring got good
A while back, I tore through a series of books I never expected to read, and they revealed something breathtaking about where The Good Stuff comes from.
The History of The Lord of the Rings sounds like it might be a nerdy diegetic reference work, something from Elrond’s library. Oh, it’s far nerdier than that:
These books present J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings at many stages of its development, from jotted notes to published text, with extensive commentary from Christopher Tolkien, the son who became THE great scholar of his father’s work. It is Christopher Tolkien who brought The Silmarillion into the world, along with many more, but/and, it’s this series —
My most recent reread of The Lord of the Rings turned into a very technical engagement, really inspecting the welds, which led me to The History of The Lord of the Rings, and I feel lucky that it did, because these books have been a revelation.
The heart of it is this:
Tolkien, for all his vaunted designs, only got to The Good Stuff when he was IN it, really working the text. He could not worldbuild his way into a workable story; he had to muddle and discover and revise, just like the rest of us.
Here is the example that took my breath away.
Early in the published version of The Lord of the Rings (hereafter, LOTR) we learn about the inscription on the One Ring, which provides the whole engine of the plot:
Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
Those lines are inscribed on the ring in the Tengwar script, which is reproduced in the book’s pages, fantastic:
We learn from Gandalf that these letters do not represent any language of the elves, but rather the Black Speech of Mordor.
All of this is SUPER cool. In a single stroke, we get: a mythic backstory, a grand MacGuffin, a sense of language and history, the sublimely satisfying train of magic numbers —
It’s all just tremendous —
And, guess what:
Not only was the inscription missing from the early drafts of LOTR … the whole logic of the ring was missing, too. In its place was a mess. The ring possessed by Bilbo Baggins was one of thousands the Dark Lord manufactured, all basically equivalent: they made their wearers invisible, and eventually claimed their souls. They were like cursed candies scattered by Sauron across Middle-earth.
Tolkien’s explanation of this, in his first draft, is about as compelling as what I just wrote.
It’s fine, as far as it goes; he could have made it work, probably? Possibly? But it is not COOL in the way that the final formulation is COOL. It has none of the symmetry, the inevitability. It does only the work it has to do, and nothing else. It is not yet aesthetically irresistible.
There are several revised approaches to “what’s the deal with the ring?” presented in The History of The Lord of the Rings, and, as you read through the drafts, the material just … slowly gets better! Bit by bit, the familiar angles emerge. There seems not to have been any magic moment: no electric thought in the bathtub, circa 1931, that sent Tolkien rushing to find a pen.
It was just revision.
I find this totally inspiring.
You have to understand: Tolkien, among writers of this kind, is revered as THE grand designer. The story goes: he’d worked it all out in advance —
This is technically true —
The One Ring is only one example among many; they are thick on the page. Aragorn, son of Arathorn, was missing entirely from early drafts. In his place was a ranger hobbit with wooden feet named Trotter.
Ranger hobbit. Wooden feet. Trotter.
And a character as indelible as Galadriel —
There is then a sentence, placed within brackets, which is unhappily —
since it is probably the first reference my father ever made to Galadriel — only in part decipherable: “[?Lord] of Galadrim [?and ?a] Lady and … [?went] to White Council.”
Tolkien discovered her on the page, just as we did.
The analogy is clear, and hugely heartening: if Tolkien can find his way to the One Ring in the middle of the fifth draft, so can I, and so can you.
There’s a section where Christopher Tolkien reproduces the various pasted-together iterations of his father’s first map of Middle-earth:
Not even the MAP was mapped out in advance!
I cannot recommend The History of The Lord of the Rings to everyone, or even to most people. It is really very dense. But … IF you have read and enjoyed the books … and IF you find this kind of in-the-workshop analysis engaging … then you MIGHT find them as captivating as I have.
(Note that there exists a 12-volume series titled The History of Middle-earth, containing too much gristle even for me. What you want is the subset photographed above: The History of The Lord of the Rings.)