Bilbo and Tolkien Change Their Stories

“I have seen a bright ring in the Halfling’s hand; but Isildur perished ere this age of the world began, they say. How do the Wise know that this ring is his? And how has it passed down the years, until it is brought hither by so strange a messenger?”

Boromir raises a fine question. How does everyone know for sure that this ring is the One Ring? For that answer – or at least part of it – Elrond called upon Bilbo to tell his tale.

Bilbo’s tale is, of course, The Hobbit, and if, as readers, we know just how the story evolved, it’s all the more interesting.

When Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, he had no idea that Bilbo’s ring was anything more than a magical ring of invisibility. It wasn’t until he was well into writing its sequel, Lord of the Rings, that its true importance came to him.

In the originally-published Hobbit, Bilbo received the ring from a very willing Gollum, after winning the riddle game. The rules of the game as we know them now were that if Bilbo won, Gollum would show him out of the mountain. If Gollum won, he’d get to eat Bilbo. In the original version, while Gollum’s spoils would be the same, Bilbo’s prize was to be a present from Gollum.

“Must we give it the thing, preciouss? Yess, we must! We must feetch it, preciouss, and give it the present we promised.” Gollum wanted to give Bilbo the Ring, but when he could not find it (because Bilbo already had it), he was upset and apologized profusely.

The original narrator explained: “I don’t know how many times Gollum begged Bilbo’s partdon. He kept on saying: ‘We are ssorry; we didn’t meant to cheat, we meant to give it our only pressent, if it won the competition.’ He even offered to catch Bilbo some nice juicy fish to eat as a consolation.”

This version remained unchanged until 1950 when it was altered without Tolkien’s permission (though he never requested that it be reverted). He had submitted some notes in the form of narration to his publisher and they mistakenly thought that it was a final draft. It was not. And so he worked it into his story.

During the Council of Elrond, Bilbo explained the change:

“‘But I will now tell the true story, and if some here have heard me tell it otherwise’ – he looked sidelong at Gloin – ‘I ask them to forget it and forgive me. I only wished to claim the treasure as my very own in those days, and to be rid of the name of thief that was put on me. But perhaps I understand things a little better now. Anyway, this is what happened.'”

The narrator admits to us that “to some there Bilbo’s tale was wholly new.” To most who were familiar with The Hobbit as it was originally published, this tale would have been wholly new. But Tolkien does not go into how it was new. He doesn’t give away the newly rewritten “Riddles in the Dark” chapter of The Hobbit. For that, the reader was to pick up a new copy of his first book.

When this change appeared in 1950 (four years before Fellowship of the Ring was published), Tolkien was not happy. Now, in the writing process and within the story, he had to figure out how to make this work.

“I have now on my hands two printed versions of a crucial incident,” he wrote to his publisher in September of 1950. “Either the first must be regarded as washed out, a mere miswriting that ought never to have seen the light; or the story as a whole must take into an account the existence of two versions and use it.”

Faced with this decision, he thought on it for a few days until he finally decided “to accept the existence of both versions of Chapter Five, so far as the sequel goes.”

He decided to explain it away in the prologue, which, if you haven’t read it, you need to. Basically, Bilbo wrote down the story as it was first published in the 1937 version of The Hobbit. But he did not personally change it, not even after revealing its untruth at the Council of Elrond.

“Evidentially, it still appeared in the original Red Book, as it did in several of the copies and abstracts. But many copies contain the true account (as an alternative), derived no doubt from notes by Frodo or Samwise, both of whom learned the truth, though they seem to have been unwilling to delete anything actually written by the old hobbit himself.”

So Tolkien was forced to make the change and then really ran with it, making the change all part of the story. Brilliant, no?

A Few Notes
We’re slowly creeping toward Gandalf’s tale, I promise!

Have you seriously not read the prologue? For shame!

Camera: Imperial Savoy Film: FujiChrome Provia 400D  expired 10/1994 x-pro

Camera: Imperial Savoy
Film: FujiChrome Provia 400D
expired 10/1994
x-pro

About the Photo
Concrete, you say? Maybe not…
The town of Concrete, Washington is known for one thing – their reaction to Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of War of the Worlds. I suggest you read this, because it is hilarious.


  • Day 137
  • Miles today: 5
  • Miles thus far: 676 (222 from Rivendell)
  • 118 miles to the Doors of Moria
  • 245 miles to Lothlórien
  • 1,103 miles to Mt. Doom

Today’s stopping place in the narrative: Book II, Chapter 3. Encamped along the western foothills of the Misty Mountains. 15th night out from Rivendell. January 7-8, 3019 TA. (map)

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6 thoughts on “Bilbo and Tolkien Change Their Stories

  1. I love Bilbo more than I can ever say, and a huge reason is little details like “But perhaps I understand things a little better now.” It’s so amazingly humble yet wise. Bilbo is my patron saint.

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