“But They Trailed Him by Slot and Scent” – The Early Late Life of Isildur

Boy oh boy, do I have a treat for you today! So you know how yesterday I told you that I’m going to start delving into the story of Isildur’s death and the Ring, right? Well before we go forward to the Council of Elrond, I thought it would be best to see what Tolkien was thinking about the story of the Ring post-Sauron before he wrote that chapter.

Christopher Tolkien has divided up his father’s Lord of the Rings writings into phases. The First Phase was started in November or December of 1937. By July of 1938, he had written three chapters, including a bit about how the Ring was lost (which was supposed to be in a sort of Forward that he was also creating at the time). The Council of Elrond chapter wasn’t written until around August of 1939, and it was then that he fleshed out the story a bit more (to nearly what we see in the published version).

Anyway, two years prior to that, he wrote a strange passage about how the “dark master” had made many Rings, “and he dealt them out lavishly, so that they might be spread abroad to ensnare folk.”

Long-time readers might remember that I covered this way back in March, but then I was mostly focusing on how many rings Sauron had made. I didn’t even mention Isildur, so I don’t see this as ‘chewing the chewed,’ as they say.

So anyway, there were many Rings, as well as Elf-wraiths and men-wraiths and goblin-wraiths. These wraiths would gather up the Rings and bring them back to Sauron. “…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.”

And this is what proto-Isildur came in: “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.”

This is basically the story of Isildur. Of course, he wasn’t an Elf, but the rest pretty well holds true.

Around the time when Tolkien finished writing his “First Phase” of Lord of the Rings drafts, he stopped (just after getting to Rivendell) and took a bunch of notes about where he wanted the story to head next. This was probably in August of 1938.

In this, he returned to the idea of rings and the elf who lost the Ring in the river. This time, “the Elf got the Ring from Gil-galad, who took it from the Dark Lord,” as Christopher Tolkien summarizes. Tolkien also considered for a minute that the Ring was “taken from the Lord himself when Gilgalad wrestled with him, and taken by a flying Elf.” That was quickly dismissed.

It was also at this point when Tolkien finally figured out what the One Ring was and why Sauron desired it. And while the reasons weren’t exactly the same reasons in the published version, he was well on his way.

Later, in the so-called “Second Phase,” written in the late summer of 1938, Tolkien finally gives this Elf a name: Isildor, and further develops the story from the notes just mentioned.

Gil-galad was “the one who bereft the Dark Lord of the One Ring.”

“It is enough to say that they marched against Sauron and besieged him in his tower; and he came forth and wrestled with Gilgalad and Orendil [proto-Elendil], and was overthrown. But he forsook his bodily shape and fled like a ghost to waste places until he rested in Mirkwood and took shape again in the darkness. Gilgalad and Orendil were both mortally hurt and perished in the land of Mordor; but Isildor son of Orendil cut the One Ring from the finger of Sauron and took it for his own.

“But when he marched back from Mordor, Isildor’s host was overwhelmed by Goblins that swarmed down out of the mountains. And it is told that Isildor put on the Ring and vanished from their sight, but they trailed him by slot and scent, until he came to the banks of a wide river. Then Isildor plunged in and swam across, but the Ring betrayed him, and slipped form his hand, and he became visible to his enemies; and they killed him with their arrows.”

Okay – here we are given a more thorough telling than anywhere given in Lord of the Rings. It doesn’t quite match up with what’s told in the Silmarillion or Unfinished Tales, but this early draft is pretty complete. yet, there’s still no mention as to why Isildur took the Ring.

But this shows us just how much Tolkien knew about the story of Isildur and the Ring prior to the draft of the Rivendell chapters.

A Few Notes
In the First Phase and Second, Tolkien wrote (as I’ve posted about before): “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.” This is fucking awesome.

I was really caught off guard by the longer telling from the “Second Phase” writings. I had no idea that it was so complete so early.

“but they trailed him by slot and scent” is one of my favorite lines. It’s also used in the Silmarillion version. According to A New General English Dictionary from 1760, “drawing on the slot is when the hounds take a scent, and draw, or go on till they find the same scent again.” Basically, the Orcs were scenting him and then tracking him until they scented him again. Nasty things.

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
This is sort of appropriate to tracking. These are the old abutments for the Interurban street cars that used to run on tracks (get it?) from Seattle to Bellingham. There are some old photos of it in action, and it was a thing of beauty.


  • Day 121
  • Miles today: 5
  • Miles thus far: 606 (152 from Rivendell)
  • 315 miles to Lothlórien
  • 1,173 miles to Mt. Doom

Today’s stopping place in the narrative: Book II, Chapter 3. Marching south along the western foothills of the Misty Mountains. Seventh night out from Rivendell. January 2, 3019 TA. (map)

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6 thoughts on ““But They Trailed Him by Slot and Scent” – The Early Late Life of Isildur

  1. ok so this was probably obvious to everyone else in the universe but your post helped me make the connection that when a person slipped on the ring they weren’t just doing a trick by becoming invisible: they were actually transforming even if briefly into a wraith. doh. The ‘slot and scent’ line really is awesome and the idea of being tracked by orcs one of the scariest things I could ever imagine.

    • Oh.. hmm.. That’s interesting! I’m not sure they were transforming into a wraith, but maybe more like visiting the wrait-world. Sort of a probationary period. Either way, you’re right. They weren’t just becoming invisible. And wait until we get to the Unfinished Tales version. The whole invisibility bit gets turned on its head.

      I’ve always loved the Silmarillion’s “scent and slot” line and am ridiculously happy that it came from one of the early drafts and was then cut by Tolkien only to be re-added by his son later (probably – how exactly the Silm was put together is mystifying).

  2. I’ve not long been following your blog, but I must say you’re keeping me very engaged with what you’re posting on here. Also I totally agree, the slot and scent line alone shows the ingenuity of Tolkien.

    • Thank you so much! I really hope that I can keep things interesting. With the Isildur story – I’m not sure that everyone will be able to tolerate the week and a half of posts, but I’m learning a whole bunch and love it.

      It’s weird that the “slot and scent” line was dropped in the final draft. It really makes it clear that Isildur had been reduced to an animal. Maybe Tolkien didn’t want that (as we’ll see in the Unfinished Tales version, he left that whole concept behind). Just seems like too good a line to lose.

      • Yeah even with that in mind it’s still strange that he dropped the line as it is a good one, and I think by all means keep posting, it’s a fascinating subject when you don’t get much information from the main body of story.

        • Thanks! I can’t see me stopping until Mordor. And after that, I can’t imagine that I won’t delve into something else Tolkien-related.

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