I do find it wonderful that in the face of everything new in the world, sometimes old things are the best. I am currently reading a rare and delightful book called ‘The History of Middle Earth, II’. Instead of being rather academic as the title suggests, it‘s a fascinating collection of early Lord of the Rings drafts, as Tolkien finds his way out of the Shire and along the road to creating his epic.
First the names hit you. Frodo is called Bingo at this stage. In fact: Bingo Bolger Baggins, a name daft enough to qualify for a role in a Dickens novel. Bingo sets off with Frodo – whose name is later transferred to our hero, and along the way they meet Marmaduke – who becomes Meriadoc. Someone called Odo is in there too. I guess Odo really had to go.
It is fascinating to see Tolkien weaving his magic. We are at an early stage in his endeavours here. Which mysterious figure originally comes pursuing the hobbits along the road? Not a Black Rider at all – first time out it’s Gandalf. No Saruman or Orthanc imagined here at all.
Who are the Black Riders? Tolkien appears unsure – but wonders if they might not be ‘horsed Barrow-wights’.
Tom Bombadil pops up and describes himself as an ‘aborigine’. Strider arrives, humbly named as ‘Trotter’; he is a strange breed of hobbit and wears loud, clacking wooden shoes. Possibly Tolkien’s worse day at the office ever! There are charming flashes of word-smithery, where, for example, Gildor describes Bingo as a scholar in ‘elf-latin’.
One passage, which did not make the final book, explains why a hard-up, restless Bingo set out on an adventure, somehow overcoming his stay-at-home side.
‘The stay-at-home half surrendered; it did not want to make other people’s chairs or grow other people’s potatoes. It was soft and fat. I think the journey will do it good. But of course the other half is not looking for treasure, but for Adventure…’
Perhaps here there is an autobiographical hint of Tolkien’s creative spirit, deciding to embark on the great challenge of LOTR instead of just the academic tasks his learned life offered him.
This fragment of Tolkien’s plotting notes is intriguing:
‘Elrond tells him of an island. Britain? Far west where elves still reign.’
Was Britain going to be in LOTR? Or at least a fanciful equivalent? Here we glimpse the join between reality and fantasy, always so beautifully hidden in Tolkien’s completed work.
Christopher Tolkien whose insightful notes accompany you every step of the way, describes how Tolkien’s publisher, Unwin, and friend CS Lewis both cajoled him away from too much jolly hobbitry. They both urged him onto nobler themes, his elves, his wars, his dark lord.
Yet there is real treasure here, discovering a Tolkien who is closer to the light-hearted soul who wrote the Hobbit, and not the older, wiser man who led us through bleak Mordor in almost biblical prose.
Here we have a younger JRR, walking with a spring in his step, enjoying his natural creativity and breaking out in wonderful notions on all sides. One lost treat is the song Marmaduke makes for his friends, as he encounters them plodding in tired silence, and not acting like merry hobbits at all:
“As I was sitting by the way,
I saw three hobbits walking:
One was dumb with naught to say,
The others were not talking.
‘Good night!’ I said. ‘Good night to you!’
They heeded not my greeting:
One was deaf like the other two.
It was a merry meeting.”
And there is this fragment of pure Tolkien, as Bingo talks to his pals on their journey away from all they know.
‘There used to be here elftowers standing in the land away west beyond the edge of the Shire. I saw them once. They shone white in the Moon. The tallest was furthest away. Standing alone on a hill. It was told that you could see the sea from the top of that tower; but I don’t believe any hobbit has ever climbed it.’
There with the sense of marvels on the edge of sight, is Tolkien, in a grain of sand.
Some Tolkien-lovers have complained that since the movies were made they have lost their own picture of Middle–Earth, and find it harder to re–read the book. The nice thing about the History Of Middle Earth (which acronyms nicely as: HOME) is that most of the scenes in it never occur in the movie – never even occur in the book, so the reader’s mental pictures are all new – fresh and fragrant – like the herbs Sam found for Frodo in Ithilien.