Robin Sloan
main newsletter
March 2023

How the ring got good

The Wounded Philoctetes, 1775, Nicolai Abildgaard
The Wounded Philoctetes, 1775, Nicolai Abildgaard

I’ve been tearing through a series of books I never expected to read, and they have revealed something breath­taking about where The Good Stuff comes from.

In this edition, I’ll tell you about them, then share my customary bundle of recom­men­da­tions and links.

This is an archived edition of Robin’s newsletter. You can sign up to receive future editions using the form at the bottom of the page.

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.

I mentioned previ­ously that I’ve recently finished a reread of The Lord of the Rings. It 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 of the novels (or novel, if you consider The Lord of the Rings one big book). 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 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 not the only example; 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 — was the product not of some grand architecture, 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.)

Here is Christo­pher Tolkien artic­u­lating his father’s great theme:

As [my father] declared, I’m sure rightly declared, the funda­mental under­pin­ning concern of all his work was: death. The intolerable fact.

Adam Roberts continues his LOTR reread:

My view is that the ideal number for uses of the exclam­a­tory “lo!” in a novel is: zero.

In his concluding post, he iden­ti­fies LOTR’s striking “mode shift”, which I also noticed in my recent reread:

LOTR starts out as a piece of late 19th-century bourgeois narrative, then shifts into an earlier, prose-Romance adventure mode, and then shifts again in the later books into a cod-Biblical elevated Epic mode.

Once again, I find this electrifying: Tolkien as fallible composer, not totally in control of his material. Tolkien as mere AUTHOR, the same as any of us.

Study for The Wounded Philoctetes, 1774-75, Nicolai Abildgaard
Study for The Wounded Philoctetes, 1774-75, Nicolai Abildgaard

Behold, the Braggoscope

The long-running BBC show In Our Time is a treasure; I love the way Melvyn Bragg allows his scholarly guests to range and roam. The episode on Sir Gawain on the Green Knight absolutely cracked the poem open for me.

Now, Matt Webb has built a Braggoscope that allows you to explore the show’s archive in new and exciting ways. I’ve already used it to find the episodes featuring my favorite guest, Laura Ashe.

Characteristically, Matt has not only constructed this cool thing, but winningly docu­mented the process. He used OpenAI’s GPT-3 for the “heavy lift” of cate­go­rizing the episodes, which conforms to a pattern I’ve noticed more broadly: while the buzzy appli­ca­tion of these GPT-alike language models is chat, the real workhorse seems to be something we might call “text under­standing and transformation”.

If you’re curious about media, language models, and/or charis­mastic invention, it’s well worth reading Matt’s intro­duc­tory post.

An exemplary web application

I have been totally delin­quent not recom­mending this service earlier; I meant to include it in my 2022 gift guide!

Pirate Ship is the best way to purchase and print USPS postage. It is a truly exemplary web appli­ca­tion: simple and legible, blazing fast, not to mention shock­ingly cheap, with not a subscrip­tion in sight.

If you have ever purchased a shipping label from UPS or FedEx online: it is the opposite of that.

If the whole internet demon­strated this level of respect for its customers: global GDP would suddenly increase by two percent.

In a world in which Pirate Ship exists, there’s no reason to wait in line at the post office, ever. Remember, you don’t even have to get the weight of your package exactly right; these days, the USPS has machines that will charge or credit you appro­pri­ately if it’s heavier or lighter than the weight you specify.

Printing your postage on plain paper and affixing it with tape works fine, but if you ship more than a few things a month, it’s probably worth it to get a Rollo label printer and a stack of 4×6 labels.

I know this sounds like the kind of ad that plays midway through a podcast! I wish. Pirate Ship, I’m available for sponsorships! I discov­ered the service because of Fat Gold—we use it for all our shipping, happily, gratefully — and now I use it, too, whenever I need to send anything anywhere.

Chronicle capsules

I just finished a reread of The Chron­i­cles of Narnia, all in audiobook form, all while bottling olive oil, over the course of about a year. Here are my updated capsule reviews:

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
Perfectly seductive. This is simply one of the all-time great invitations into a fantastical world.

Prince Caspian
Good enough. For me, the indelible image is Caspian on the ramparts of the castle with Doctor Cornelius, gazing up at the stars.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The best in the series. A strange and sparkling picaresque; a train of images almost science fictional.

The Silver Chair
Offers some stirring vistas, but feels hollow at the core.

The Horse and His Boy
I have never, in any format, made it all the way through this book.

The Magician’s Nephew
In a way, the most coherent story in the series. The Wood Between the Worlds and Charn are fantastic — again, almost more sci-fi than fantastical.

The Last Battle
A dreary finish, unworthy of the series.

Basically, I think a person ought to read the first three books, then skip to The Magician’s Nephew, then stop.

Here is a post about new music and getting old, with the very compelling title Beyonce vs. ChatGPT.

I’m very glad to be reading Mehret Biruk, who insists: “THE VIBES ARE OFF.”

I loved Tomihiko Morimi’s novel The Tatami Galaxy, trans­lated into English by Emily Balistrieri. It was recently longlisted for the Pen Trans­la­tion Prize and, though it didn’t win, there’s at least the conso­la­tion of this blurb from noted author Robin Sloan:

The team of Tomihiko Morimi and Emily Balistrieri is unbeatable: this novel vibrates with a voice that is sharp and funny, wacky and winning. It’s a perfect slice of contem­po­rary Japanese pop: a tangle of fates, simul­ta­ne­ously cosmic and comic. I loved my voyage through The Tatami Galaxy.

I am very excited for the arrival of How to Sew Clothes, the new book by Amelia Greenhall and Amy Bornman. I come to it through Amelia, who is an absolute dynamo: her studio ANEMONE designs and prints some of the most beautiful zines in the world.

I have done a bit of sewing in the past; my great triumph remains my travel bag, made from Dyneema, a straight­for­ward DIY rip of Outlier’s Ultrahigh Duffle. But that’s an accessory. I have never success­fully sewn anything intended to fit a human body, and I feel like it’s time to try.

The Animation Obsessive is doing something really special; in its depth, it more power­fully evokes a glori­ously niche print magazine than any other newsletter I receive. If you’re inter­ested in global animation — past, present, and future — you really ought to be reading, and perhaps paying for a subscrip­tion, too.

TAO’s discussion of the anime short Invisible was wonderful; I’m grateful to have learned about this mesmer­izing work. I strongly recommend first reading that newsletter, then watching the short here.

Bicycle designer Grant Petersen writes:

I think the best widgets allow the perfect result but don’t guarantee it. You can pick how much help you want it to provide, but leave a gap to fill in with skill.

Here is a lucid lecture on “Einstein’s unfin­ished revolution” by Lee Smolin, whose scholarly stage presence I find totally capti­vating. A century later, we are still living in the wake of that incred­ible period, 1905-1935.

(If you watch this lecture, please note that I am not as hostile to the postmodern stance as Lee! But, it’s fun and bracing to hear his argument.)

Ernest Rutherford: “We have no money, so we shall have to think.”

Dan Bouk, historian of things shrouded in cloaks of boringness, is the most serious and committed walker I know. (Keep in mind that I know Craig Mod.) In a recent newsletter, he writes:

I did my best these last few weeks to schedule all meetings as walking meetings. When possible I located those meetings in Central Park and walked 120 blocks south along the Hudson just to get to the meeting. Those were good days.

120 blocks south!

Dan goes on to describe what he thinks about along these walks, and where he stops along the way.

I’ve written in the past about “super sweet spots”, the times and places in history about which you could plausibly say, “nobody had it better”. I happen to think my own Bay Area neigh­bor­hood is such a super sweet spot. I believe the Manhattan ambles Dan describes here might also qualify.

I’ve previ­ously mentioned the book I Am Error by Nathan Altice, a deep history of the Nintendo Enter­tain­ment System. This section on The Legend of Zelda struck me power­fully:

Miyamoto has cited two influ­en­tial videogame prece­dents for Zelda’s play style: Black Onyx and Ultima. The former, released for the NEC PC-8801 in 1984 (and later ported to the MSX and Famicom), was a landmark in Japanese gaming history. Black Onyx developer and American expat Henk Rogers, a devotee of Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons, intro­duced party-based, fantasy dungeon crawling to Japanese audiences, paving the way for Japanese RPG breakouts Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. The Ultima series, also Western-developed, first reached Japan in 1985, the same year Zelda’s devel­op­ment began. Like Black Onyx, Ultima II revolved around first-person dungeon crawling, but also featured an impres­sive tiled overworld map that linked the game’s under­ground labyrinths — a clear precursor to Hyrule. Ultima’s inno­v­a­tive time-traveling mechanic was also part of Zelda’s initial design. In a 2012 interview, Miyamoto revealed that the player was meant to travel between Hyrule’s past and future, and the hero would act as the “link” between them. Weirder still, the Triforce pieces were meant to be microchips. Though they ulti­mately settled on the fantasy setting, Miyamoto and team would revisit the time-linking concept in future Zelda titles.

Isn’t it all just fabulous? The ecstasy of influence: across borders, across genres. Every­thing goes back and forth, back and forth; nothing is original. How could it be? What would that even mean?

The newsletter I Spy with my Typo­graphic Eye is a new favorite. I enjoyed Pooja Saxena’s recent edition exploring the typog­raphy of Indian coins and bills.

Pooja is also a delight to follow on Instagram.

Here is a very cool project: Ancient Exchanges, an online journal devoted to literary trans­la­tions of ancient texts.

I want to draw your attention to the website itself, which is sturdy, clear, and appealing, all in the somewhat chal­lenging context of side-by-side translation.

Somebody give this web designer a raise!

Here is an exciting new bookstore in Los Angeles, funded in part by a few pioneering publishers. I have to say, it’s a real pleasure to be reading a story about publishing innovation, thinking, “ah, wow, cool … this is exactly how it ought to work … ” and then, surprise: encoun­tering the name of your own publisher. Like, yes! Of course! Hello!

Draft of the Philoctetes figure, 1774-75, Nicolai Abildgaard
Draft of the Philoctetes figure, 1774-75, Nicolai Abildgaard

That’s it for this edition! Thanks, as always, for following along.

From Oakland,


P.S. You’ll receive my next newsletter on April 5.

March 2023