But a Fish Took the Ring and Was Filled With Madness

This whole week, I’ve been exploring the crap out of the second and third chapters of the original draft of Lord of the Rings. Sometime near to those writings, Tolkien penned what seems like a prologue or perhaps even a new first chapter.

Taking a few elements from the material I wrote about yesterday, Tolkien drafted much of the material that would eventually find its way to the published Chapter Two – “The Shadow of the Past.” Mostly, this was a conversation between Bingo (proto-Frodo) and Gandalf, where the wizard reveals the history of the Ring and a bit about the dangers ahead.

It begins:

“One day long ago two people were sitting talking in a small room. One was a wizard and the other was a hobbit, and the room was the sitting-room of the comfortable and well-furnished hobbit-hole known as Bag-end, Underhill, on the outskirts of Hobbiton in the middle of the Shire.”

It explains that whenever Gandalf would visit Bingo, they would talk about Bilbo, “who had quietly disappeared many years before.” During this visit, talk also turned to the Ring, which Bilbo had left behind for Bingo.

Seeming to jump into the conversation mid-stream, Bingo asked Gandalf how long he knew about the ring being the Ring. “I guessed a good deal immediately,” came the reply. He went on to explain that he went into the land of the Necromancer. He knew that Bilbo was safe “for that kind of power was powerless over him – or so I thought.”

After insulting the hobbits quite a bit, Gandalf tells Bingo that if the dark power overcame the Shire, the hobbits would become Wraiths. Bingo asked why the Necromancer would want such servants and what it has got to do with the Ring.

“‘It is the only Ring left,’ said Gandalf. ‘And hobbits are the only people of whom the Lord has not yet mastered anyone.'”

Gandalf then gave a history of the Ring, which alters the history given by (possibly) Gildor in yesterday’s post. In this version, the Elves still had many, the goblins had some, but the dwarves received seven (rather than none), “but nothing could make them invisible. In them it only kindled to flames the fire of greed, and the foundation of each of the seven hoards of the Dwarves of old was a golden ring. In this way the master controlled them. But these hoards are destroyed, and the dragons have devoured them and the rings are melted, or so some say.” This last bit was quite a departure, but it remained mostly true through to the published version.

The story got even more complicated when it came to Men, who received three. They found others, however, which had been thrown away by the elvewraiths. “The men-wraits are servants of the Lord, and they brought all their rings back to him; till at last he had gathered all into his hands again that had not been destroyed by fire – all save one.” Guess which one was missing.

Just as in the published “Shadow of the Past,” Gandalf explains how the Ring was lost. Here’s the very first seed of the death of Isildur.

“It fell from the hand of an elf as he swam across a river; and it betrayed him, for he was flying from pursuit in the old wars, and he became visible to his enemies, and the goblins slew him. But a fish took the ring and was filled with madness, and swam upstream, leaping over rocks and up waterfalls until it cast itself on a bank and spat out the ring and died.” Seriously. What the hell?

Here again entered Gollum, who was then named Digol. He was “the most inquisitive and curious-minded” of his family. One day, while exploring in the muck, he found the ring under the roots of a tree. When he discovered that it could make him invisible, he used it “to discover secrets.” This didn’t fly well with his family. “They kicked him, and he bit their feet.” Personally, I’m glad this line appeared so early, as it’s one of my favorites. The rest of the story of Gollum was carried through to the published version.

But here Gandalf related that whenever the Master “counted his rings, besides the seven rings that the Dwarves had held and lost, there was also one missing.” Apparently the Necromancer didn’t really notice it until he literally took count.

Additionally, here is the first instance of the Ring making someone’s life longer. “Of course it is a poor sort of long life that the Ring gives, a kind of stretched life rather than a continued growing – a sort of thinning and thinning.”

Tolkien, of course, had to work within the constraints of the original published Hobbit, in which Gollum was more than happy to get rid of the ring. But this didn’t he was somehow innocent. According to Gandalf, Gollum wanted to give the Ring to someone else “to whom it would become a burden.” This was, he explained, the best way of getting rid of its power.

Bingo asked why Gollum didn’t just give the Ring to the goblins. “I don’t think Gollum would have found that amusing enough,” came the reply. It apparently would be “wasting malice on them.” Also, trying to escape from an invisible goblin probably wasn’t something Gollum wanted to do.

Here, Gandalf brings a higher power into the mix. “There was, of course, something much more mysterious behind the whole thing – something quite beyond the Lord of the Rings himself, peculiar to Bilbo and his great Adventure. There was a queer fate over these rings, and especially over [?this] one.” He explains that this was why he let Bilbo keep the Ring for so long.

It’s interesting that the “Pity! It was pity that prevented him” line was in this early draft. But the explanation was much different. Bilbo could not kill Gollum without doing wrong. “It was against the rules. If he had done so he would not have had the ring, the ring would have had him at once. He might have been a wraith on the spot.”

Tolkien later lengthened the transformation of becoming a Ringwraith, making the “magic” of the Ring much more sinister (and much less “magic”). But the Ring still had a power over Bilbo – according to this early draft, it was the power of “Sentiment…… He liked to keep it as a memento. Let us be frank – he continued to be proud of his Great Adventure, and to look on the ring now and again warmed his memory, and made him feel just a trifle heroic.”

The discussion turns to how to destroy the Ring, which was echoed in the published version – Bingo couldn’t throw it in the fire. “They say only dragonfire can melt them – but I wonder if that is not a legend, or at any rate if there are any dragons now left in which the old fire is hot enough.” When Tolkien had started writing this, he apparently wasn’t sure about Smaug being the last dragon.

The only way to destroy the Ring was to “find one of the Cracks of Earth in the depth of the Fiery Mountain, and drop it down into the Secret Fire.” This is the first mention of what would become the Cracks of Doom and Orodruin.

Unlike in the published version, Bilbo knew exactly what he had. He knew the power of the Ring and somehow about its Lord. This was why, Gandalf explained, that he didn’t use it “for any serious purpose” after he returned.

At the end of the conversation, Bingo decides that he must leave the Shire to “draw the danger after me.” Gandalf suggests that he didn’t need to go alone. “Why not ask your thre best friend to, beg them to, order to (if you must) – I mean the three, the only three who you have (perhaps indiscreetly but perhaps with wise choice) told about your secret Ring: Odo, Frodo and Marmaduke [crossed out and changed to ‘Meriadoc’].”

Gandalf wanted the send off to be a big event. “But you must go quickly – and make it a joke, Bingo, a joke, a huge joke, a resounding jest. Don’t be mournful and seriously. Jokes are really in your line. That’s what Bilbo liked about you (among other things), if you care to know.”

But Gandalf didn’t know where Bingo and the others should go. After a bit of thought, he decided East, “towards danger.” He was to “make first for Rivendell.”

Tolkien ended the chapter with:

Suddenly Gandalf began to chuckle. He rubbed his long gnarled hands together and cracked the finger-joints. He leant forward to Bingo. ‘I have thought of a joke,’ he said. ‘Just a rough plan – you can set your comic wits to work on it.’ And his beard wagged backwards and forwards as he whispered long in Bingo’s ear. The fire burned low again – but suddenly in the darkness an unexpected sound rang out. Bingo was rocking with laughter.”

A Few Notes

  • It’s interesting to note that right around the time that Tolkien finished writing this manuscript (early March), The Hobbit was first published in the United States (March 1). The book had just hit the shelves, and already he was trying to change it.
  • One of the favorite Tolkien quotes was not yet written: “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.”
  • Tolkien wouldn’t return to writing Lord of the Rings for another four months (in August 1938).
  • Tomorrow, we’ll be getting back to the narrative. I hope you’ve enjoyed this little dive into the first three chapters of the book that here became known as the Lord of the Rings. Has it given you any further insight into the published version?
Camera: Ansco Color Clipper || FujiChrome Velvia 50 (RVP), expired mid 90s, xpro

Camera: Ansco Color Clipper || FujiChrome Velvia 50 (RVP), expired mid 90s, xpro

About the Photo
This wasn’t an easy post to match up with a photo. So here’s a picture of a cave. I think Gollum would have liked it here.


  • Day 72
  • Miles today: 5
  • Miles thus far: 351
  • 109 miles to Rivendell
  • 1,428 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 and nearing the Last Bridge. (map)

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11 thoughts on “But a Fish Took the Ring and Was Filled With Madness

  1. Thank god for revision, right?

    This is a gem of a post, you did a very good job with it, and that paragraph about the fish made me laugh out loud.

    But jeebus. Can I just say, this draft you are looking at is not good fiction? Gives me hope for my own work, though. Because the published version IS good.

    Thank you for doing this.

    • Thank you. I’m glad that the fish stuck around for a few drafts. I guess Tolkien decided later that only the Eagles got the Deus ex machina status.

      It’s not great fiction, but I’m really enjoying the first draft of the story. I really dig the Trotter idea (talked about a few weeks ago). Tolkien didn’t do outlines or take too many notes. This was him just brain storming.

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