The Tale that is Brewing – Tolkien Tries to Figure Out What Comes Next

While he wrote, Tolkien often made random notes about the story to come. As our hobbits and Strider make their way toward the Last Bridge, let’s look at a series of notes to find “the tale that is brewing.”

Thoughts on the Passage – Book I, Chapter 12 (p200, 50th Anniv. Ed.)
“Would you ask Mr. Unwin whether his son, a very reliable critic, would care to read the first chapter of the sequel to The Hobbit? I have typed it. I have no confidence in it, but if he thought it a promising beginning, could add to it the tale that is brewing.”
-Letter from J.R.R. Tolkien to Allen & Unwin Publishers, February 1, 1938.

After typing up the fourth draft of the first chapter in the yet-unnamed sequel to The Hobbit, Tolkien sent it to the son of his publisher, Rayner Unwin. Less than two weeks later, he heard back from Stanley Unwin, the father. Rayner was “delighted” with what he read.

Tolkien found this encouraging, but admitted that opening chapters were easy. “I find it only too easy to write opening chapters,” he responded, “and for the moment the story is not unfolding.” He went on to bemoan he had “squandered so much on the original ‘Hobbit’ (which was not meant to have a sequel) that it is difficult to find anything new in that world.”

Taking a look at the first four drafts, the only the we can really see from them, as far as a continuing story was concerned, was that there was indeed going to be a continuing story. It would probably not deal with Bilbo (for various reason), and might involve several other Tookish hobbits. Probably Bingo (the proto-Frodo). When Tolkien said that it was difficult finding something new to write about, it didn’t mean that it was impossible. He had actually found quite a few things – some of which he’d even keep.

For a time (probably around the time of the second draft), he actually considered centering the story on Bilbo, but the “And he lived happily ever after, to the end of his days” bit seemed to negate it. If Bilbo had gone on more adventures, wouldn’t he have mentioned them in The Hobbit? This story was never fleshed out, but it was decided that he would be accompanied by his nephews Odo, Frodo, and Drogo. This “Frodo” was not the same Frodo from the published Lord of the Rings, but a proto-Sam (sort of).

Staying with that story, Tolkien swapped out Bilbo for Bingo, who was to be on a mission to return the ring to his father, who had left a few decades before (as in draft three). There was also thought about a real dragon coming to Hobbiton. The hobbits, presumably led by Bingo and the Tooks, would do heroic things and, well, he didn’t get far with that idea before scribbling “NO” across the note.

But in it, Bilbo explains to Bingo that nobody “can escape quite unscathed from dragons. The only thing is to shun them (if you can) like the Hobbitonians, though no necessarily to disbelieve in them (or refuse to remember them) like the Hobbitonians.” Bilbo confesses that “Hobbiton rather grows on you in 20 years, don’t you think; grows too heavy to bear, I mean.”

Bilbo was to journey to see Elrond. “I want to look again on a live dragon,” he would tell him. Elrond would direct him to an island “far west where the Elves still reign.” As a note, Tolkien wondered: “Britain?”

It was then when Tolkien turned to the ring. In the original published version of The Hobbit, Bilbo finds the ring, and then meets Gollum who bets it in the game of riddles. After Bilbo wins, Gollum can’t find it, but since Bilbo already had it, that’s just fine. They part ways very cordially (this would, of course, be changed after the Lord of the Rings was published).

“The Ring: whence its origin? Necromancer?” Began Tolkien’s wonderings. He noted that it wasn’t very dangerous when used for good, but “it exacts its penalty.” Even this early, Tolkien was giving the Ring a will. “You must either lose it, or yourself.”

In the draft where Bilbo leaves with his wife (and Bingo is Bilbo’s son), Bingo goes looking for his father, careful not to lose the ring, believing it will lead him back to Bilbo. Gandalf intervenes, suggesting that Bingo throw a party and disappear from Hobbiton, “and the ring may then be cheated into letting you follow a similar path.” Bingo decides to take his friends Odo (now proto-Pippin), Frodo (now proto-Sam) and Vigo (who soon became Marmaduke – proto-Merry).

Tolkien seemed to be centering much of the story around “dragon-longing,” the urge to see a dragon face-to-face. Bilbo had caught it again, but so had Bingo. This was a clear call-back to The Hobbit, but Tolkien wasn’t finished with adding in the older material.

He would place the Old Forest, which was the setting of the 1934 poem “Adventures of Tom Bombadil.” Bingo, Odo and Frodo would travel to the Old Forest to pick up Marmaduke, but get caught by Old Man Willow and the Barrow-wights. This echoes the poem – Tom even comes to rescue them.

In further notes, Tolkien considers: “Ring must eventually go back to Maker, or draw you towards it. Rather a dirty trick handing it on?”

And with that, the writing stopped for a time. But not long. On March 4, about three weeks later, Tolkien wrote to his publisher that the writing had now “progressed as far as the end of the third chapter. But stories get out of hand, and this has taken an unpremeditated turn.”

Christopher Tolkien assures us in The Return of the Shadow, that this turn was the first appearance of the Ring-wraiths. It seems as if the ring – now The Ring – had taken on a life of its own, and Tolkien would have to follow.

A Few Notes

  • Incidentally, this was the same letter (No. 24) where Tolkien discussed writing the “time-journey” book that eventually came into the aborted attempt to write about the Fall of Numenor, which I wrote about here.
  • This is the end of the first phase of the first chapter writings. I’m still debating whether or not I’ll continue on with the next two chapters of the first phase. These would be the second chapter: Three’s Company and Four’s More, which is about Jack, Janet and Crissy traveling to the Old Forest where Don Knotts plays an amazing Tom Bombadil. The third chapter was untitled (seriously, he never titled the thing). We’ll see what I do here. At this point, the basic outline is pretty similar to the published version. I could at least point out the differences.
  • We’re nearing the Last Bridge, at mile 358. There’s still obviously a few days to go, but there’s also a few things to talk about before we wind up there. Stay tuned!
Camera: Polaroid Automatic 250 Film: Fuji FP-100C (reclaimed negative)

Camera: Polaroid Automatic 250
Film: Fuji FP-100C (reclaimed negative)

About the Photo
Looks like Bilbo’s got that old wanderlust again (for various reasons). Same goes for young(ish) Bingo and the Took Triplets (not actually triplets). Ease on down the road, friends.

  • Day 66
  • Miles today: 5
  • Miles thus far: 321
  • 139 miles to Rivendell
  • 1,458 miles to Mt. Doom

Today’s stopping place: Still south of the East Road, southeast of Weathertop. (map)


9 thoughts on “The Tale that is Brewing – Tolkien Tries to Figure Out What Comes Next

  1. I can totally see Don Knotts playing Jolly Tom.

    It’s kinda frightening, though.

    I love that he just wrote NO in the margins, although I’d like it more if it was “NO!!!”

    I do this in books all the time, but usually my margin scribbling says “WTF?!”

  2. I don’t think I can handle a Hobbit named Bingo. I want to sing his name every time I read it…or yell it out like an old lady who’s about to cash in.

    • Yeah, it’s pretty jarring. I believe it came from a family inside joke, but I’m really glad that he changed it. In today’s post (Saturday), we’ll sort of find out why – or at least how it was able to be changed – from the invention of Sam’s name.

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