How Gandalf Became a Nazgul (And Other Evolutionary Notions)

After Tolkien finished the fourth draft of the first chapter, he sent it away to his publisher for a look-see. He sent it on February 2, 1938, and remarked on the reply on the 18th, explaining that he had gone no further in his writing. But on March 4th, he mentioned, almost in passing, that he had completed two additional chapters.

Tolkien also mentioned an “unpremeditated turn.” Let’s look at the first of those two, entitled “Three’s Company and Four’s More,” and see just what he meant.

It would be good to keep in mind that Tolkien’s concept of the ring was that from the originally published Hobbit – it was a magic ring (not The One Ring) that turned its wearer invisible. It was to have been freely given by Gollum to Bilbo.

Also keep in mind that at the end of the latest draft of the first chapter, Bingo (proto-Frodo) was about to leave Hobbiton for Rivendell with three friends, Odo (proto-Pippin), Frodo (proto-Sam), and Vigo (proto-Merry).

Before he wrote again, he did some name swapping and some preliminary drafting so that proto-Sam became Drogo and proto-Merry became Frodo, who was actually with the party at the beginning of the chapter. There was a bit of talk and Bingo pushed Odo and Drogo off a gate. Tolkien abandoned this draft, reworking it a bit, and writing a new short draft. Mostly at this point, he seemed to be trying to move on from Hobbiton.

It is here that “The Road Goes Ever On” poem first appeared, though there’s weirdly no indication who spoke it. It’s also here where they hear hoofbeats behind them. They hide, fearing that it might be someone they knew.

“The horse stopped when it came level with Bingo. The figure uncovered its nose and sniffed; and then sat silent as if listening. Suddenly a laugh came from inside the hood.

‘Bingo my boy!’ said Gandalf, throwing aside his wrappings. ‘You and your lads are somewhere about. Come along now and show up, I want a word with you!'”

He came right up to them, chiding the hobbits for laying down. As it turned out, Gandalf saw them from atop a hill and followed their track. But here is where this bit of draft stopped. Immediately, Tolkien abandoned the idea that the rider was Gandalf.

There wasn’t even a need to rewrite most of it. Tolkien merely crossed out words, replacing them where needed. The white horse became a black horse. The nondescript cloak became black. And the face was now under a shadow. It was the first appearance of the Black Rider!

In the actual first typed out draft, the story is more fleshed out. As in the scribbled draft, Odo and Frodo (proto-Pippin and Sam – Tolkien was flying fast and loose with names at this point) scurried for cover as Bingo (proto-Frodo) slipped on the ring and stepped behind a tree. And just as Gandalf had, the Black Rider rode forward, coming level with Bingo. He sat still and sniffled – just as Gandalf had in the earlier version. But in this case, the Rider moved on, unable to find the hobbit.

Of course, none of them had an idea who this Black Rider was – except Frodo (proto-Sam), who had met one “early last spring” (it was now the middle of autumn). “He was riding south, and he stopped and spoke, though he did not seem able to speak our language very well; he asked me if i knew where a place called Hobbiton was, and if there were any folk called Baggins there.”

Bingo, annoyed at Frodo, doubted that the Black Rider was really one of the Big People, but something else entirely. As in the published version, this is where they leave the road. A little while later, they also met Gildor Inglorion and the Elves (Wise-Elves, Gnomes, Noldor) – “But we have no need of other company, and hobbits are so dull!”

There are a few minor differences, but the general idea was the same. The hobbits and Elves walked for a bit and then Bingo stayed up to talk to Gildor. It has, as Christopher Tolkien pointed out, “as yet none of the dimension, the gravity, and the sense of vast danger” that the published version gushes. But the outline is there.

Their talk was a bit different and quickly moved to discussing the journey itself. Here, it’s clear that Bingo only intended to go to Rivendell. At first, he thought it was just going to be more or less a casual and perhaps permanent vacation away from Hobbiton. “We had no idea we should be pursued.”

Bingo wondered if it was wise to take Odo and Frodo if it was going to be dangerous. But Gildor encouraged him. “They must have known that if you intend to go wandering out of the Shire into the Wide World, you must be prepared for anything. I cannot see that it makes so much difference, if something has turned up rather soon. Are they not willing to do go?” See, Elves were dicks even in the early drafts.

Bingo, however, knew absolutely nothing about why the Black Riders would be after him. Gandalf told him little, apart from warning him to leave before the end of autumn. There was no “Shadow of the Past” chapter at this point. It’s Gildor who warns Bingo not to use the ring to escape the Black Riders: “if a Rider finds you or speaks to you, do not answer, and do not name yourself. Also do not again use the ring to escape form his search. I do not know, but I guess that the use of the ring helps them more than you.”

Since he had already used the ring and there was no effect at all, it could probably be assumed that the story and the ring were both evolving as Tolkien wrote it. However, Gildor also told Bingo that it was probably a good idea that his friends traveled with him: “I think the Riders do not know that they are with you, and their presence has confused the scent, and puzzled them.” So in the early drafts, the Riders could apparently not sense the ring, but only sniff out Bingo (or perhaps sniff out the ring). The scents of Odo and Frodo confused them.

They talked until Bingo was too sleepy to go on, and the chapter ended. Tomorrow, we’ll move on to the next.

A Few Notes

  • The original second and third chapters took us to Buckland, where Tolkien once again became stuck.
  • It’s pretty awesome that the Black Rider’s sniffing was originally Gandalf’s. *sniff sniff*
  • All of this information comes from The Return of the Shadow as well as the Letters. You should probably pick these up if you find yourself interested.
Camera: Holga 120N Film: Fujichrome Provia 100 x-pro as C-41

Camera: Holga 120N
Film: Fujichrome Provia 100 x-pro as C-41

About the Photo
Bingo mentions that the Elf gathering and meal “seems to me good enough for a birthday party.” And that’s probably something like a carnival, right? Hell, I don’t know, but I love this photo.

  • Day 69
  • Miles today: 5
  • Miles thus far: 336
  • 124 miles to Rivendell
  • 1,443 miles to Mt. Doom

Today’s stopping place: Book I, Chapter 12 (p200, 50th Anniv. Ed.) Still south of the East Road, southeast of Weathertop. (map)


5 thoughts on “How Gandalf Became a Nazgul (And Other Evolutionary Notions)

  1. Fascinating! So Gandalf’s sniffing became a Black Rider looking for… we’re not entirely sure what at this point… which eventually becomes a sinister search for Baggins and the One Ring! It is really amazing how Tolkien’s story changed as he progressed… and that we have the documents to follow his path! I find it also encouraging as I try to write a story myself… I don’t have to know everything now… the more drafts the better!

    • It made me so happy to see that. Gandalf’s sniffing became the Nazgul’s sniffing, right? Didn’t the Nazgul sniff a bit?

      I’d imagine that this would be really inspirational to a fiction writer.

      More drafts acomin’!

  2. Sure! And the Nazgul had a good reason to sniff… it’s one of the ways they hunted… but Gandalf sniffing? Rather uncharacteristic of him… I would think he had a cold or something! But it is neat that Tolkien could use such a little thread to dramatically change the direction of the rest of the story!

    Looking forward to the continuing story!

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