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The History of The Lord of the Rings

The History of The Lord of the Rings is a 4-volume work by Christopher Tolkien that documents the process of J. R. R. Tolkien's writing of his masterwork The Lord of the Rings (LotR). The History is also numbered as volumes 6 to 9 of The History of Middle-earth. Some information can also be found in volume 12, The Peoples of Middle-earth (concerning the appendixes and a soon-abandoned sequel to the novel).

Although at first blush this might seem like four volumes of stupefying dullness, it has some saving graces. First, despite its limitations as literature, LotR has been enormously popular since its publication, some sales numbers showing it outdone only by the Bible, and any aspiring fantasy writer should like to know how he did it. Second, Tolkien began writing his sequel to The Hobbit without any idea of where he was going with the story, and in the 15-year genesis there were many twists and turns before the story took on its published form. Third, the gigantic backstory of the legends of Middle-earth that became The Silmarillion were mostly written before LotR was penned, and one can see how the tale of here-and-now adventure is stitched into the memories of ages long past. Finally, there is an intimate note, in that the young Christopher participated in the writing of LotR, giving feedback, helping draft maps, etc, and this history includes his personal recollections of the process.

  1. The Return of the Shadow(1988) begins with the initial composition, and goes through to the episode in the Mines of Moria.
  2. The Treason of Isengard (1989) continues to the meeting with Theoden king of Rohan.
  3. The War of the Ring (1990) continues to the opening of the Black Gate.
  4. Sauron Defeated (1992) finishes the story, which only takes about 1/3 of the volume. The remainder consists of the rather odd "The Notion Club Papers" (see below), and another draft of the Drowning of Anadune.

In general, the books are organized as chapters corresponding to the chapters in the final LotR, with additional chapters describing the "First Map", the "Second Map", and other matters. Each chapter begins with some context, then the text of a first or second draft, possibly some alternate drafts if there were especially large changes, and interspersed with extended discussion of confusing or contradictory situations. The end of each chapter includes a set of notes about points of interest, such as words that were used originally and then partially erased or struck out.

The drafts can be somewhat jarring to read; while much of the plot will be familiar, the characters are often quite different. For instance, Aragorn in his "Strider" guise is called "Trotter" instead - and he's a hobbit instead of a man - and he has wooden feet - because he had once been to Mordor and been tortured there. We find out that the hobbits travel east initially because that was the part of the world that had been mapped out, because of The Hobbit, and that the areas to the south were literally being mapped out only a few miles ahead of the fellowship.

Still, even though publication of the drafts exposes some of the improvised carpentry behind the stage sets, for the Tolkien enthusiast they offer a fuller understanding of the story, and a renewed appreciation for Tolkien's creativity.

(add Notion Club Papers info here)