How Tolkien Invented a Day from Nothing (Day 48)

Camera: Holga 120N Film: FujiChrome Provia 100 (x-pro as C-41)

Camera: Holga 120N
Film: FujiChrome Provia 100 (x-pro as C-41)

Our proto-Fellowship have now reached the feet of the westward slopes of Weathertop. And here, they make their encampment.

Thoughts on the Passage – Book I, Chapter 11 (p185 50th Anniv. Ed.)
For the past few days, I’ve been working my way through the paragraph beginning with “The hills drew nearer.” It’s an average sized one that contains five sentences. It gives us about half of the details of the sixth day out from Bree. This is the day when Frodo jokingly comments about becoming a wraith and Strider, clearly in the know, chastises him for speaking such things.

But the paragraph I’ve spent the past three days working through describes the lay of the land. It talks of the “undulating ridge, often rising almost to a thousand feet.” It talks of low clefts and passes and old stone defenses left over from a previous war.

This paragraph wasn’t in the original manuscript, which means that the hobbits didn’t go into camp at the end of it. Along with developing the look of the Weather Hills in the proceeding drafts, Tolkien also played with the chronology. In this case, he added a day. But why? Why would it matter when the hobbits got to Weathertop? If Tolkien originally said they got there on October 5th, then shouldn’t it just be October 5th? Why the change?

The answer is that while Tolkien was just writing about the hobbits’ journey from Bree to Weathertop, he was also thinking and taking extensive notes on what Gandalf was doing at this time. I talk a bit about what Gandalf was doing at this time here, though it was the night before.

There are so many different versions of this chapter that it’s impossible to relate them all. But basically, in the published version, Gandalf battled the Nazgul all night and then slipped away in the morning. In the original draft, however, Gandalf stayed on Weathertop for three days, apparently alluding the Black Riders. But then why would Gandalf have been in a hurry?

Tolkien asked himself the same question. His answer: “Because Dark Lord knew of him and hated him. He had to get quick to Rivendell, and thought he was drawing pursuit off Bingo [Frodo].”
He also mentions that he just needed to get to Rivendell for a meeting. These notes were the first thought he had of the Council of Elrond.

Getting back to the missing day and the passage for this particular post, it was added in the third phase of writing (but only the second time he got to this chapter). But still, not everything was in place. Gandalf’s stay on Weathertop was chopped from three to two days (and a hobbit named Odo [who later evolved into Pippin] was now with him and he was kidnapped!). This was probably the first hint of an attack by the Nazgul.

Following the third phase of writing, Tolkien sat down and took a bunch of notes, simplifying this Weathertop business. I go into that a bit here, so won’t go at it again. While Frodo and Strider’s witnessing of Gandalf’s fight with the Nazgul didn’t enter the text until the final draft, Tolkien was now trying to figure out what exactly happened to Gandalf.

For this, he went back to Crickhollow, where Fatty Bolger (here named Hamilcar “Ham” Bolger) was living. Ham was captured by the Nazgul when they attacked. “Gandalf crashes into [two Riders] who hare carrying Ham and rescue him. He gallops to Weathertop, reaching it on Oct. 3.” This would be the same October 3rd as in the published version, except that Strider and Frodo don’t see any flashes. This is because there was, as of yet, no actual fight on Weathertop.

Gandalf must have fought a bit to rescue Ham, but that wasn’t on Weathertop. From the summit, Gandalf sees (all of the?) Black Riders gathering and so goes off to the north. Three Riders follow him, while “the rest patrol around and watch Weathertop.” The capture of Ham was quickly dropped – “Ham cannot be captured (Black Riders would obviously kill him).”

In the “final” draft of the fourth phase (the phase before it actually became the final draft), Tolkien finally had Gandalf battle the Nazgul on Weathertop, and thus we arrive at the timeline as given in the published Lord of the Rings.

A Few Notes:

  • This whole Weathertop thing was certainly a mess. If you really want to dig into it, hit The Return of the Shadow and The Treason of Isengard from the History of the Lord of the Rings Series.
  • After our hobbits leave Weathertop, there will be days upon days where there’s “nothing” going on in the story to write about. I’ve got a few fun things planned, but am also open to suggestions.

About the Photo

So I’ve apparently concluded that the Weatherhills are like the Rocky Mountains in summer. The obvious flaw in this might be the height difference. Weathertop is at 1000 feet, while your average Rocky Mountain is around 13,000 feet above sea level. But when you’re in the Rocky Mountains, they don’t really seem all that high. This is because of something called “prominence,” or how high the peek of the mountain is compared to stuff surrounding it.

I see Mt. Rainier every sunny day. It clocks in at 14,411ish. Of almost equal height is Mt. Harvard in the Rockie, at about 14,421 feet. They are nearly the same height, except in prominence. Mt. Rainier has a prominence of 13,211 feet, while Harvard appears to be only 2,327 feet tall.

Weathertop is 1,000 feet above a plain that’s roughly 200 feet above sea level, giving it a prominence of 800 feet. And so the Weatherhills, in my opinion, would probably look quite a bit like the Rockies (if you ignore the peaky, rocky bits) – so, the lower Rockies, a little higher than where the prominence is measured. Which is where these photos were taken, probably at 11,000 feet.


  • Miles today: 5
  • Miles thus far: 231
  • 10 miles to Weathertop Summit
  • 229 miles to Rivendell
  • 1,548 miles to Mt. Doom

Today’s stopping place: Camping on a ridge leading to Weathertop.(map)

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14 thoughts on “How Tolkien Invented a Day from Nothing (Day 48)

  1. I was wondering about the Rocky Mountain thing, having lived in Colorado for several years. The high peaks where I used to live tend to make me think more of the Misty Mountains. Prominence does make the comparison work, though, and your pics do have a Weatherhills feel to them. 🙂

  2. In all of the three books this chapter is the least polished to me. Now I know why. Of course it is a dreary, ominus 24 hours but there is something unsettling about the writing process of events. I’m glad Fatty Bolger was left alone. 🙂

    • The writing process here was an absolute mess. He had no idea at all where he was going with the story. He seemed to be trying too hard and yet not hard enough to connect it to the early Silm and Numenor stuff. It’s fun and frustrating to read. More hats off to Christopher Tolkien for sorting it out. Maybe this is why he’s so cranky.

  3. I really like what you’ve been doing so far, giving us information on the writing process (cos, tbh, I own all of the HIstory of Middle-earth books, but they are DRYYYYYYYYYYYY).

    Or you could just write your own fanfic. 😉

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