This mini-site will serve as companion to Moonbound, the new novel by Robin Sloan, coming from MCD×FSG in June 2024.

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:

The History of The Lord of the Rings
The History of The Lord of the Rings

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 — this dialogue — that feels to me like his great achievement.

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:

The inscrip­tion on the One Ring, written in swoopy calli­graphic script.

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 — three … seven … nine … ONE! — plus something graph­i­cally weird and beautiful on the page.

It’s all just tremendous — the perfect kernel of Tolkien’s appeal.

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 — invented these amazing languages, plotted out this sprawling legen­darium — so, when he sat down to begin LOTR, it was all there to draw upon.

This is tech­ni­cally true — he HAD worked out the languages and legen­darium years before — but (I have now learned) that story doesn’t capture or explain, in any way at all really, the process of composing these books. It doesn’t tell us how Tolkien came up with the things that actually made them good.

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 — think of her powerful presiding role — walked not out of the legen­darium, but an errant note:

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:

An early map of Middle-earth
An early 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.)