Art is duplicitous. One of the hallmarks of great art is its success in casting a spell of illusion. The deception is a joyful one, however, one which offers insight or beauty. A taut stretch of artfully paint-dabbed canvas becomes the landscape of Tuscany or the Shire. By the sounds of music, by the movements of the dance, we are ensorcelled. Time and space are held in thrall. Emotions and memories are evoked by enchantment. Moreover, one of the most complete illusions cast by great art is the appearance of its being effortlessly executed. Like the mid-flight somersault of a trapeze artist, art gives the illusion that its perfection is pre-ordained and could not be otherwise than perfect.
So it is with `The Lord of the Rings’ by JRR Tolkien. On first reading, could any one of us imagine the story other than how it is told to us by him? Could we envision a character other than Strider/Aragorn leading the Fellowship or perhaps a hobbit other than Frodo being the Ring-bearer? Could `The Lord of the Rings’ be the beloved masterpiece it is reckoned to be if there were no Samwise Gamgee to serve as Frodo’s grounding point and as a constant flesh and blood, warts-and-all reminder of why their impossible quest must succeed? Would any wizard other than Gandalf have filled the bill? How many would read and re-read this noble saga if the stakes of the quest were no greater than the winning of treasure (as in Bilbo’s adventure) and the villains were of a lesser order of malevolence than the Black Riders or the Dark Lord, Sauron? No need to consider for long these fanciful flights of specious speculation because `The Lord of the Rings’ for most of us is perfection. But it was not always thus.
Long before any of us had the opportunity to yield to his artful illusions, Professor Tolkien was himself engaging in all manner of speculation and creative invention during the decades of writing and re-writing his masterwork, `The Lord of the Rings’. This should come as no surprise. However, one of the sweeter deceptions induced by Professor Tolkien’s labors is the impression that this marvelous epic was borne full-blown like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth.
Here, I must consider that readers may be split by the preceding pronouncement into two factions: one being those whose reaction would be expressed as “Absurdly obvious!” whereas the others’ might be voiced inversely as “Obviously absurd!”. The first faction may have either spent long hours studying literary criticism or have read one/any/all of the volumes of Christopher Tolkien’s `The History of Middle-earth’. To those of this jaded number, I ask forbearance. Stating the obvious is the prerogative of writers and teachers. I do so for the benefit of those who may count themselves members of the second group (as I most assuredly would have done in my callow youth) – those gentles gently ensnared in the artfully crafted illusion that the mythos and saga of Middle-earth flowed as effortlessly through the pen of JRR Tolkien as the Great River through the Mouths of Anduin. As enticing as the illusion is, the truth of Tolkien’s labors is far more edifying. For, to comprehend the full measure of a hero, we must know what trials and challenges the hero faced on his quest. Tolkien’s quest was a long painful one.
Please. Do not shoot the messenger. My intentions are not to diminish anyone’s fondness of Middle-earth by dragging them kicking and screaming from a cozy dream-state into the stark light of pedantry nor should it be inferred that I am endeavoring to give JRR Tolkien feet of clay. Quite the contrary. My purpose is to offer a few snippets of information which might provoke insight and further enhance the readers’ appreciation of Tolkien’s monumental achievement – the creation of a most beautiful, most elegant and most believable body of myth.
Christopher Tolkien, the son and posthumous editor of JRR Tolkien, states quite plainly in the forward to the sixth volume of `The History of Middle-earth’,
“My father bestowed immense pains on the creation of the `Lord of the Rings’, and my intention has been that this record of his first years of work on it should reflect those pains.”
The pains which are referred to are those of disquietude, uncertainty and a mistrust of his own ability to produce an acceptable sequel to `The Hobbit’. Clearly the task of writing a follow-up daunted him, for in his letter dated December 16, 1937 to his publisher, Stanley Unwin, Tolkien wrote rather plaintively, “What more can hobbits do?”.
Tolkien was, at this time, deeply involved with `The Silmarillion’ and apparently less than happily disposed to undertake the sequel at the expense of leaving off, even temporarily, with the older, mythological accounts of Middle-earth. Nevertheless, by the following February, he had written four versions of what would become the first chapter of `The Lord of the Rings’, `The Long-expected Party’ but had strong misgivings concerning the value of his efforts. In a letter dated February 1, 1938, to Charles Furth of Allen & Unwin, he confided “I have no confidence in it.” Eleven days later he wrote,
“I have only the vaguest notions of how to proceed. Not ever intending any sequel, I fear I squandered all my favorite `motifs’ and characters on the original `Hobbit’.”
Notwithstanding his fear, he continued writing. By March of 1938, he had taken the new story as far as Buckland, roughly equivalent to the fifth chapter of `The Fellowship of the Ring’. The basic storyline was coming together. It must be noted, however, that the `hero’ of this new tale was not young Frodo Baggins but rather a hobbit of 72 years named `Bingo Bolger-Baggins’ who was being accompanied by a trio of hobbits, all very much younger than himself, named Odo and Frodo Took and Marmaduke Brandybuck. Moreover, the Ring was only slowly evolving from a magic trinket of prankish use into a virulent, invasive instrument of evil. Unlike in `The Fellowship’, Gandalf provided no scene of discovery concerning the Ring nor was there an exposition offered by any character as to its ultimate role as `the One Ring’.
After seven months of fitful labor on the as yet unnamed sequel, Tolkien, writing to Mr Furth on July 24, lamented his lack of progress and expressed his dismay at ever finding a suitable story.
“The sequel to `The Hobbit’ has remained where it stopped. It has lost my favor, and I have no idea what to do with it. For one thing the original Hobbit was never intended to have a sequel – Bilbo `remained very happy to the end of his days and those were extraordinarily long’: a sentence I find an almost insuperable obstacle to a satisfactory link. For another nearly all of the `motives’ that I can use were packed into the original book, so that a sequel will appear either `thinner’ or merely repetitious.”
Plainly, Tolkien had not developed a `master plan’ for his new novel nor had he envisioned the immense scope this story would eventually encompass. It is reasonable to assume that the sequel was to be no more than an extension of `The Hobbit’ – another story about hobbits populated primarily by hobbits. In the earlier stages, for example, the characters who would become Strider and Barliman Butterbur of `The Prancing Pony’ were both played by hobbits. (Incidentally, the ranger hobbit, Trotter, wore wooden shoes.) Links or references to the history of Númenor or the lineage of their kings were not a part of the tale. This story, evidently, had been meant from its out-set, to be merely incidental, not integral to the history of Middle-earth which he was `sub-creating’ in `The Silmarillion’. That, of course, was to change dramatically.
After languishing `through some six months or more’ according to Christopher Tolkien, the story spoke to his father once more. For Charles Furth received a letter dated August 31, 1938 in which Professor Tolkien ebulliently announced:
“In the last two or three days…I have begun again on the sequel to `The Hobbit’ – The Lord of the Ring. It is now flowing along, and getting quite out of hand. It has reached about Chapter VII and progresses toward quite unforeseen goals.”
For the first time, the sequel is referred to by a title: `The Lord of the Ring’. Singular – `Ring’. The tale of Celebrimbor’s forging of the Rings of Power under the tutelage of Sauron, referenced in the familiar rhyme which begins “Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky…” still had not been applied to the on-going story of Bilbo’s ring nor had the rhyme yet been written. That would come later. Even so, this title would indicate that the Ring has its own rightful master which, by inference, is the Dark Lord, Sauron. This, in turn, would intimate that the tale has thus become something grander than simply `There and Back Again, part II’.
This discussion of Tolkien’s travails in authoring his master-piece must needs be cursory. Indeed, there are four full volumes concerning this matter, “The History of the Lord of the Rings”, in which Christopher Tolkien provides extensive details of the story’s evolution and his father’s impassioned and protracted effort to produce this timeless work of wonder, truth and hope.
Professor Tolkien dedicated the greater part of his eighty-one years to the creation of a world which would not only capture the attention and imagination of millions by its invention but also remain fascinating, instructive and inspirational by the detail and depth of its construction and its own self-referencing chronicles. To think the fulfillment of his quest was pre-ordained and predestined, to prefer the delusional spell of Art’s enchantment to the truth of his strife, strain and struggle is to demean his effort and devalue his gift to us. The `Lord of the Rings’ did not flow from his pen like the River Anduin. It flowed like the blood through his body, the sweat on his brow and the tears from his eyes. Its writing was his quest and he was its hero.