Welcome to sometime in (maybe?) late April, 3018 of the Third Age. We’ve got some of Tolkien’s wild speculation here, so hang tight.
One might be tempted to think that Tolkien would have known for sure when everything happened. That even if not stated explicitly in the “Tale of Years,” he had notes somewhere that kept track of the movements of the players in his story.
It’s true to an extent. Tolkien kept meticulous notes on these things. However, he could almost never stop himself from wandering off on tangents while writing them. Because of this, we’re left with several versions of the earliest movements of the Nazgûl.
Trailing into Illegibility
According to Hammond & Scull’s Reader’s Companion, Tolkien noticed “some problems of chronology” while writing “The Hunt for the Ring.” In an unpublished manuscript (that they published in their book), Tolkien tried to work it all out.
Unfortunately, he wandered off again while, as they put it, “trailing into illegibility…”
For this project, I’m going to try to split the difference. Tolkien worked out much of this, and this manuscript fleshes out some questions that are raised from the published text, especially concerning the Nazgûl.
One unfortunate consequence is that they all cannot be true. What I’m left to do is pluck interesting tidbits from all and hope that it at least fills in some details. The dates may not be perfect, but the actions all probably happened. For the most part. Maybe.
A larger issue arises though. The unpublished manuscript has the Nazgûl crossing the Anduin about nowish, rather than in late July following the Battle of Osgiliath. They arrive at Isengard “towards early July.” In the other, published in Unfinished Tales, they arrive at Isengard in mid-September.
Both make great sense, but I don’t believe that Tolkien settled on one over the other. Probably.
So, What’s Happening Todayish?
In the unpublished manuscript, Tolkien wrote:
“The Nazgûl are ordered to steal over Anduin one by one and make enquiries. This is ordered soon after Sauron learns that Gollum (who disappeared into the Dead Marshes) has been captured and is with Thranduil, and that Gandalf has visited that realm sometime early in April.”
I’m not sure to what “early in April” is referring. It could be when Gandalf was in Thranduil’s realm or it could be when Sauron learned that Gollum was captured. For the first, it’s too late – Gandalf was in Mirkwood from March 23 through March 28. For the second, it’s too early – Tolkien writes in “The Hunt for the Ring” (published in Unfinished Tales) that it wouldn’t be until “late April” that Sauron received the news that Gollum was captured.
For this project, I put the (vague) date at April 24th.
Because of this, it’s not possible to say when the Nazgûl were “ordered to steal over Anduin.” If we keep this date, it would have to be around nowish.
Can Find No Trace
If Sauron sent the Nazgûl out this early, it sort of makes it seem like he’s overreacting. In the Unfinished Tales version of “Hunt for the Ring,” Sauron used his spies to track Gollum and eventually to attack Thranduil’s realm. The Nazgûl were meant as a sort of decoy for themselves – a way to trick the good guys into thinking that they were only called upon specifically for the battle of Osgiliath.
“At length he resolved that no others would serve him in this case but his mightiest servants, the Ringwraiths, who had no will but his own, being each utterly subservient to the ring that had enslaved him, which Sauron held.”
In the unpublished manuscript, the Nazgûl are dispatched over the Anduin months prior to the battle.
“At first the Nazgûl investigate Anduin’s Vale … but can find no trace of Ring or ‘Baggins’ … some begin to investigate Rohan ….”
What’s curious is that in the unpublished manuscript, the Battle of Osgiliath still takes place. This means that the Nazgûl, who definitely led the battle, would have had to have traveled north to the Gladden Fields area, as well as into Rohan, and then recross the river to fall upon Osgiliath.
This is all possible because the Nazgûl split up and cover a lot of ground.
Can This Be Reconciled?
Simply put – no. It can’t. Much of how we date this time period is from one of the manuscripts published in Unfinished Tales. Yet, there’s no great reason to assume that one is more valid than this.
Tolkien never figured this out (as far as I can tell).
For the most part, I’m going to stick to the version that most people follow – the Unfinished Tales version. But I’ll dip back into this unpublished manuscript from time to time, as it helps with a bit of understanding here and there.
A good example of this has to do with Radagast and when he learned of the Nazgûl; also his visit to Isengard before meeting up with Gandalf on Midyear’s Day.
We’ll next check in with Sarumon and dig into his relationship with Sauron and the Shire. This will almost exclusively come from manuscripts – from both Unfinished Tales and The Reader’s Companion.