Not Even a Policeman on a Bicycle is Ever Seen this Way

Since our heroes are still picking their way across the Trollshaws, trodding a well-montaged path, I thought we could dip into the first rumblings of how Tolkien dreamed up the land around the Last Bridge and the road toward Rivendell. In The Hobbit, Bilbo and company met the Trolls, and in Lord of the Rings, Frodo and company saw their stone forms. These characters and this setting had been present since the “beginning,” but let’s see what the “beginning” actually was.

The history of Tolkien writing The Hobbit has been divided into five (but kind of seven) phases by Tolkien scholar John D. Rateliff. This was the method used by Christopher Tolkien to divvy up the Lord of the Rings writing. The first three are made up of manuscripts that were written prior to the first publication in 1937. The fourth concerned the revisions done for the 1951 edition, while the fifth was the abandoned 1960 rewriting.

Tolkien began writing The Hobbit in the summer of 1930. The first phase of the writing consisted mostly of Tolkien’s attempts to iron out the opening chapter. The story is surprisingly familiar, except that Gandalf is named Bladorthin, and Thorin is named Gandalf. Writing at a fairly relentless pace, Tolkien continued the story into the second phase, which was the first to bring us to the bridge crossing the river leading to where the trolls were encamped.

In this early manuscript, the land was hardly described. But if we backtrack a few miles (or many miles, if we’re talking about Lord of the Rings distances) to Weathertop, we’ll notice something pretty fun. While Weathertop was never mentioned in any edition of The Hobbit (even in the ones written after Lord of the Rings was published), a sliver of it might exist even in the first manuscript covering this location:


“Inns were rare, the roads were not good, and there were hills in the distance rising higher and higher. There were castles on some of the hills, and some looked as if they had not been built for any good purpose.”

The 1937 and 1951 versions basically mirror that, though “many” rather than “some” of the castles looked not good. But in the current, 1966 edition, Tolkien changed it to read:

“Now they had gone far into the Lone-lands, where there were no people left, no inns, and the roads grew steadily worse. Not far ahead were dreary hills, rising higher and higher, dark with trees. On some of them were old castles with an evil look, as if they had been built by wicked people.”

The defining feature of the Trollshaws, apart from the Trolls, was the rocky ground. In the Lord of the Rings passage, the land is described as having cliffs and valleys, “fallen trees and tumbled rocks.” In the The Hobbit, however, these descriptions were never there. The Trolls’ fire was seen “on a hill some way off with trees on it, pretty thick in parts.” I talked yesterday about the discrepancy over the distances, and so you can check that out here.

In the original versions of The Hobbit, the road travels along side the river (later named the Hoarwell or Greyflood). It was raining and so after coming to the river, the narrator said: “I don’t know what river it was, a rushing red one swollen with the rains of the last few days that came down from the hills and mountains in front of them.” The idea that it was a red river was actually carried through to the first published edition from 1937. It would later be nixed in the 1966 edition, which is the one we now have today. In the Lord of the Rings the river became the Greyflood, so the red bits had to go.

While in the current (1966) edition of The Hobbit, the road they’re on (later called the East Road) crossed the river via an ancient stone bridge, in this early manuscript they don’t cross it at all. In fact, the story doesn’t have the party crossing the river until the 1966 edition. In this version, the party simply follows the road along the river. Of course, the geography of Lord of the Rings did not allow for that, so he went back and changed it.

There is another line that caught my eye, and this too made it through the 1937 and 1951 editions. In this early manuscript the narrator tells us: “Not even a policeman on a bicycle is ever seen this way; they have rarely heard of the king even; and the less inquisitive you are as you go along the less trouble you are likely to find.”

In the current version, this sentiment is revealed by the Dwarves when arguing about whether or not to check out the fire (that wound up being the Trolls’ fire). “Travellers seldom come this way now. The old maps are no use: things have changed for the worse and the road is unguarded. They have seldom even heard of the king round here, and the less inquisitive you are as you go along, the less trouble you are likely to find.”

Personally, I miss the “policemen on bicycles” line. When Tolkien first published The Hobbit, some of it remained: “Policemen never come so far, and the map-makers have not reached this country yet.” It’s understandable why the bicycle was lost, but still, it’s a pretty nice touch. Hell, even Lord of the Rings described Gandalf’s fireworks: “The dragon passed like an express train….”

A Few Notes

  • Writing these past two posts has shown me that I don’t know The Hobbit nearly as well as I thought I did.
  • It’s also shown me that the history of Tolkien writing The Hobbit is pretty confusing. What appeared in different published editions is mostly clear, but the writing phases are a bit mind boggling (at least until the first edition was published).
  • John Rateliff’s commentary in The History of The Hobbit is wonderfully thorough. That said, he’s apparently releasing a scaled down version of it which cuts most of it, leaving Tolkien’s original manuscripts.
Camera: Kodak Duaflex II (1950) || Film: FujiChrome Provia 400D (expired 08/1994 -- xpro as C-41)

Camera: Kodak Duaflex II (1950) || Film: FujiChrome Provia 400D (expired 08/1994 — xpro as C-41)

About the Photo
Maybe the Trollshaws looked something like this? It’s Lone Pine Canyon in central Washington. There’s something about the lower ponderosa ecoregion that really makes my day. Yours too, I’d bet.


  • Day 77
  • Miles today: 6
  • Miles thus far: 380
  • 78 miles to Rivendell
  • 1,399 miles to Mt. Doom

Today’s stopping place: Book I, Chapter 12. Deeper into the Trollshaws. (map)

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6 thoughts on “Not Even a Policeman on a Bicycle is Ever Seen this Way

  1. You know, it never occurred to me until now that the dragon acting like an express train just shouldn’t work, should it? đŸ˜®

    I kind of like the idea of the Shire with bicycles, though.

    • It really shouldn’t work at all. I’m really surprised he kept it. I always forget that it’s in LotR, and think it’s in the Hobbit. It’s as out of place as the weird bit with the fox.

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