As our heroes pick their way across the Trollshaws in a rocky montage*, let’s take another look at what Tolkien was early on considering for his sequel to The Hobbit.
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve delved into the very first drafts of the yet-untitled follow up to The Hobbit. In mid-December of 1937, Tolkien began on the manuscript. The Hobbit had just been released and was meeting with some pretty fine reviews. His publisher was pushing for a sequel and Tolkien agreed to comply. This drafting went on until early February, but that wasn’t all he was up to.
During this two month period, Tolkien also wrote a “Father Christmas” letter to his children. This was a tradition he had established where Father Christmas (basically Santa Claus) wrote to Christopher and Priscilla. While started by Father Christmas, it was finished by an elf named Ilbereth (!!!) with commentary by the North Polar Bear. I’ve never read these, but now I think I’m going to have to. There’s some speculation that the character of Gandalf was inspired by Father Christmas.
Additionally, Tolkien was researching his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” another piece that I’ve not yet read (I’m waiting for Verlyn Flieger’s edition of the expanded version of the piece to be released in August, though I have a copy of it in A Tolkien Miscellany, so there’s really no excuse at all.
But that still wasn’t everything. He had a talk on Anglo-Saxon poetry scheduled to give to the BBC, which he was in the process of revising through the early bits of January. There was also a lecture he gave on dragons at the University Museum at Oxford. During the talk, he showed slides of dinosaurs and his own drawings of dragons. We probably can’t know for sure, but I’m really hoping he shared a slide of Dimetrodon (seriously, doubleclick that).
And then, in mid-January, the University term began. He lectured on Beowulf, Exodus (in Old English), as well as other Old Norse and Old English texts. It seems like he taught only on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but he was also supervising at least one individual student.
Tolkien also prepared a version of Farmer Giles of Ham to read at Worcester College. He was supposed to read a version of “On Fairy Stories,” but couldn’t complete it in time. But, as always, his heart was set on finishing the Silmarillion, which he continued to write while also composing the first chapter of the Hobbit sequel. By mid-December, he had finished a draft to the point where Turin runs away from Thingol’s court. Soon, he would begin a new draft of the Quenta Silmarillion, which would be called I·Eldanyárë (The History of the Elves). He would abandon both projects shortly thereafter.
This hectic schedule was normal for him. He translated and edited several works in Middle and Old English. Even his summer was booked with students coming from Belgium and Canada to study under him. So it can be clear that he wasn’t simply writing Lord of the Rings. Tolkien didn’t simply do anything.
Come July of 1938, seven months after starting the Hobbit sequel, Tolkien had gotten only to the third chapter. The month before, he expressed regret to his publisher, Stanley Unwin, that he couldn’t find time to write. That’s no huge surprise, really. But even for him, Tolkien wasn’t only writing the sequel, but overseeing a translation of Beowulf, which was running late
Unable to find a student that could do the work, Tolkien suggested that he do it, but as a sort of ghostwriter. On the same day he made this suggestion, he also confessed his inability to write what would become Lord of the Rings.
He lamented that The Hobbit was released the year previous as this year was too busy for him to focus on a sequel. He hoped, however, to have all this work as a researcher “wound up if possible by September.” Such work had “dried up invention.”
“The sequel to the Hobbit has remained where it stopped [end of third chapter]. It has lost my favour, 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.”
As he had before, Tolkien wrote that everything he could come up with about hobbits had already been used in the first book. A sequel, he feared, “will appear either ‘thinner’ or merely repetitional.”
While he would certainly be proved wrong about the ‘thinner’ part (both in girth and substance), he wasn’t too far off on the repetitional nature of Lord of the Rings compared to The Hobbit. To put it in more modern terms, compare Sam Raimi’s original Evil Dead with Evil Dead 2 (or even, dare I say, Breakin’ with Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo).
Tolkien went on to say that he was “immensely amused by hobbits as such, and can contemplate them eating and making their rather fatuous jokes indefinitely: but I find that is not the case with even my most devoted ‘fans’ (such as Mr Lewis [that’s C.S. Lewis] and Rayner Unwin [the publisher’s son who complained that there was too much hobbit talk in the drafts he had been shown]).” C.S. Lewis thought that hobbits were amusing, but only in “unhobbitlike situations.”**
Despite C.S. Lewis’ maniacal blatherings, Tolkien had an even larger obstacle than unamusing hobbits.
“My mind on the ‘story’ side is really preoccupied with the ‘pure’ fairy stories or mythologies of the Silmarillion, into which even Mr. Baggins got dragged against my original will, and I do not think I shall be able to move much outside it – unless it is finished (and perhaps published) – which has a releasing effect.”
Maybe this was Tolkien’s way of trying to force his publisher’s hand to allow him to finish the Silmarillion before moving onto Lord of the Rings. But, as we know, that was never to be. It probably worked out about right. It could have been different, but it couldn’t have been better.
It would be another month and a half, which would include a doctor’s order to slow down lest he have a breakdown, until he would begin writing, picking up with what would later become “The Old Forest” chapter. He would add things already existing in his writing, like Tom Bombadil and the Barrow-wights, but wouldn’t dip into the Silmarillion material until a bit later. Trotter (prodo-Strider) would tell of Gilgalad, but he was only just invented a year or two before when writing The Fall of Numenor.
Does this mean that Tolkien was hesitant to include earlier Silmarillion material like Turin or the Valar? I’m not really sure about that. Maybe we’ll find out.
*As opposed to a Rocky montage.
**Shut up, Lewis.
A Few Notes
- Did you watch the Doubleclicks video? Come on now. Let’s play along.
- I was planning on writing a short, sort of throw-away post about the letter I quoted toward the end of the piece. But yeah, that didn’t happen.
- Today marks Day 75 of my sweat to Mordor! I’ve ellipticaled 368 miles since January 1. That, of course, means that our hobbits have walked the same amount. That’s how this project works, you see.
- And yes, dear pedants, I know that Gandalf actually said “You cannot pass” to the Balrog. (Also, I know that Dimetrodon wasn’t technically a dinosaur.)
About the Photo
This is as close as I can get to explaining how Tolkien’s mind worked. It’s the Bottle Forest along Route 66 in California.
- Day 75
- Miles today: 6
- Miles thus far: 368
- 92 miles to Rivendell
- 1,411 miles to Mt. Doom
Today’s stopping place: Book I, Chapter 12. In the Trollshaws, across the River Hoarwell. (map)