Commentary: History of Middle-earth

Vol VIII: The War of the Ring


squire: Up to 50% of the writing in the four-volume sub-series of HoME known as The History of The Lord of the Rings (HoLR) is editorial commentary by Christopher Tolkien. He tends to excerpt only the most interesting sections of the messy, overwritten, chaotically organized drafts that J R R Tolkien left in his wake as he composed his masterpiece.

I had hopes of putting a grid together that would organize the entire HoLR text, and the entire Two Towers text, to let us follow clearly and graphically how Tolkien’s early drafts evolved into the final text of this chapter. I found it’s not worth the (late-night) candle: CT spends far more time explaining his father’s convoluted process of imagining and assembling the various episodes than he does giving us examples of the prose—and the jumping around between manuscripts is dizzying and wearying.


Here is the full text of this chapter in HoME Vol. VIII, The War of the Ring. But you don’t have to read this material for today’s fun. Let me sum up what one learns by slogging through this dense and difficult chapter.

1. To begin with, Tolkien believed he had only to get Frodo, Sam, and Gollum from the Morannon to the Cross Roads and Minas Morgul: a journey of three or four days, to be gotten over with as quickly as possible. No rabbits, no Haradrim, no Faramir.

2. However, as he sketched in more details, he began making Ithilien a more fertile land than the waste lands about the Morannon – and imagined that Gollum would begin finding his own food on hunting side trips. Thus began the idea of the rabbits: Sam asks Gollum to get some for them to eat also.

3. The entire rabbit episode—the cooking by the pool—originally took place just one day’s journey south of the Morannon. The hobbits entered Ithilien on that overnight journey, smelling it first rather than seeing it.

4. Inspired by Sam’s cookery, Tolkien noted to himself that he should write a description of the spicy herbs and plants – thus the pastoral passages were inserted.

5. The hobbits then notice Men in the vicinity, and hide. A battle is fought in the distance, and one Gondorian soldier falls dead at Sam’s feet. His final word is “Gondor”.

6. Sam and Frodo then proceed to the Crossroads without further incident.

7. But quickly revising, Tolkien added the encounter with Falborn, the Gondorians’ leader, who is a distant relative of Boromir. He holds them in custody during the battle; the elephant passes through, and in the end Frodo and Sam go to sleep, awaiting Falborn’s return.

8. As Tolkien continued to explore who this leader was, our Faramir emerged. But his character development really takes place in the next chapter, not this one. Here Tolkien basically just changed the name of the already-written captain to Faramir.

9. Several months later, Tolkien inserted a second full day and night of journeying between the Morannon and the Rabbit cooking campsite, to adjust his plot’s calendar correctly.

With that rough outline under our belts, and the additional material available for those with an interest, here are a few random questions that come to my mind:

squire: A. Does the chapter make more sense when you know that almost nothing in it was originally foreseen by the author—that it was composed spontaneously, out of order, and piecemeal?

drogo_drogo: Actually answering all the questions here. It is like much of the composition of LOTR, a happy accident or chance encounter--and in the end we all know what chance means in Middle-earth!  As I mentioned yesterday, it's another in a patter of detours (a la Bomadil), but yet this one is less of an intrusion and interruption of the narrative than the earlier episode.  The discovery of Faramir, Boromir's foil, in essence, was one of the better accidents in Tolkien's meandering composition, for this reader at least.


That second night the moon was full. Not long before the dawn they saw it sinking round and yellow far beyond the great vale below them. Here and there a white gleam showed where Anduin rolled, a mighty stream swollen with the waters of Emyn Muil and of slow-winding Entwash. Far far away, pale ghosts above the mists, the peaks of the Black Mountains were caught by the beaming moon. There glimmered through the night the snows on Mount Mindolluin; but though Frodo’s eyes stared out into the west wondering where in the vastness of the land his old companions might now be, he did not know that under…

squire: Almost the only image Tolkien originally had in his head about this part of the journey was Frodo’s view of the full moon setting in the West. It eventually appears in “The Forbidden Pool”.

B. Why was this so important to him? What was the original association for Ithilien in Tolkien’s head? What changed about Ithilien as he wrote this chapter?

drogo_drogo: This is that bridge that connects the two major strands of the narrative.  Tolkien wanted to build in ways to link the two stories so that readers could follow their progress in relation to each other.  It also links Frodo to Gondor early on, even if it is only at a distance.


though the wind blowing from the north-west over the Misty Mountains far away had a sharp tooth.

squire: C. Why did the prevailing wind change from the bitter north to the balmy south?

drogo_drogo: Oh Curious?  Where art thou, Curious? :)

squire: A silly yen for Ithilien B&C together: I guess that Tolkien, meaning to get through "Ithilien" as soon as possible in order to get his heroes to the Haunted City for their next adventure, had a preconceived negative image of the land. All he 'knew' was that its capital city of Minas Ithil, Isildur's old city, was now Minas Morghul [sic], a very evil place -- and Isildur, of course, was the overproud prince who had taken the Ring in unwarranted folly in the first place. All in all, Ithilien is a pretty cursed land, the 'Land of the Rising Moon', as Tolkien begins writing his chapter about it.

Thus the emphasis on the Moon in the early drafts: when it rose, what light it gave. Hence also Tolkien's seeming obsession with getting the timing of the full Moon just right, so that Frodo might have the opportunity of seeing Gondor from Ithilien, under a full moon, with the implication that he is lost under its influence, cut off from knowledge of his surviving friends. Hence the 'sharp tooth' of a nasty wind from the north.

Now as we see here, Tolkien changed his mind -- to his own surprise, Ithilien "proves a lovely land". Harsh wind and cold fatal Moonlight is replaced by soft southern winds from the Sea and warm sunlight perfect for strolling in. Good plain hobbit-food, sensual spices and smells, and heroic soldiers of Gondor become the focus of three whole chapters in place of the planned one. The climate, the spring-like weather, the greening leaves, don't even make sense geologically or meterologically, and contradict the theme of death that pervades Frodo's journey.


Who knows? The very journey itself is a detour, a complexity added to complicate what was formerly a straightline journey from Emyn Muil to Morannon to the Spider's Pass just next to it, and then on to Mt Doom. Perhaps the introduction of additional counterpoint, the complication of a pastoral recap of the Shire, just struck Tolkien as the "right" thing to do to make his story more complex and so more interesting -- more 'right'. The balance of bliss with horror is part of the appeal of the story -- and it was time for some bliss, by gosh.

Anyway, that's about as far as I've gotten with Ithilien in this chapter: it was never expected or intended, but it, like its guardian-angel Faramir, just happened to Tolkien by chance, if chance you call it.


 Gollum brings back 2 rabbits. Angry at fire (a) fear (b) rage at nice juicy rabbits being spoiled. Pacified by Frodo (promise of fish?).

squire: D. Why did Tolkien decide not to have Frodo intervene in the argument between Sam and Gollum?

drogo_drogo: Perhaps Tolkien wanted Frodo to rise above the little domestic comedy sequence of Sam and Gollum bickering.  Frodo's interactions with Gollum at the Morannon and later at the Forbidden Pool are far more serious, and it could spoil the tension and the mood of those scenes to have Frodo stoop to the level of parting two squabbling "children."


 For a third night they went on. They had good water in plenty, and Gollum was better fed. Already he was less famished to look at. At early morning when they lay hidden for rest, and at evening when they set out again, he would slip away and return licking his lips. Sometimes in the long night he would take out something . . . and would crunch it as he walked.

squire: E. I like this, and it got cut! What do you think?

drogo_drogo: PJ, FW, and PB wanted to keep Gollum hungry and maintain his junkie physique, I suspect.  They didn't want to put him, or the hobbits, too much at ease.

dernwyn: Gollum snacks I'm chuckling a bit here, at your response to E.  PJ & al. did not "cut" this scene: JRR himself did, from further drafts!  And it is too bad, it's a very "Gollum-y" thing.

And it is a bit confusing: from where did Gollum "take out something", if all he wears is rags?  Does he have pocketsses, precious?  But I seem to recall that Gollum wore a pouch of some type tied around his waist; I haven't the texts with me here, will try to locate that later.

dernwyn: Gollum's "pouch" I found the source of Gollum carrying a pouch.  Tolkien's implication of one in this draft is a holdover from The Hobbit, where he says of Gollum and the Ring: "Gollum used to wear it at first, till it tired him; and then he kept it in a pouch next his skin..."

I thought there was a reference in LotR, but have not been able to find one yet.

squire: Loincloth? or something more? I've never entirely believed that Gollum is as scantily dressed as most illustrators, and the movie, have him. The only text I recall is in the previous chapter to this one: Gollum is seen from an eagle's point of view, "...the famished skeleton of some child of Men, its ragged garment still clinging to it, it's long arms and legs almost bone-white and bone-thin..."

It's irrelevant who his tailor is, of course, but I could imagine Gollum wearing both ragged pants frayed to his knees, and a ragged shift top -- the  worn remnants of real clothes that any adult would wear in Middle-earth. In that case, he might have something like a pocket that he could keep the munchies in.

dernwyn: That would make more sense I'd thought of him as being in a ragged tunic: more than just a loincloth, since the text only describes how his arms and legs would be seen from above; and the pouch would be tied to a cloth or rope about the waist.

That is strange about the illustrators.  I've found only a couple who have him more dressed than just a rag about the hips.  I wonder if they've a feeling that showing his emaciated torso would give visibility to his corrupt nature, evoking an immediate response of revulsion.


A slain Tirith-man falls over bank and crashes down on them. Frodo goes to him and he cries orch and tries to . . . but falls dead crying ‘Gondor!’ The Harad-men drive the Gondorians [?down] hill. …. [The hobbits]   See Gondorians fight and win finally.

squire: F. Why was it originally a Gondorian soldier who died in front of Frodo? Why does he cry “Gondor”?

drogo_drogo: Tolkien probably wanted the sympathy to be with the "good" guys at first, and build up Frodo's ties to Gondor through his cry.  But then, wisely I think, Tolkien changed it create a moment of sympathy for the "devil," as it were--at least from Sam's perspective.


squire: G. Why does Gondor win handily in the final text, while here they barely survive and only win in the end?

drogo_drogo: Again, Tolkien changed the focus of our sympathy.  At first he wanted us to be nervous about the Gondorians (and fear that the hobbits could be captured, perhaps), but then he made the skirmish swing in the Gondorians' favor, and created an opportunity for Sam to see the face of his enemy.


 ‘Sleep if thou wilt,’ said Mablung. ‘We will guard thee and thy master until Falborn comes. Falborn will come hither, if he has saved his life. But when he cometh we must move swiftly. All this tumult will not go unmarked, and ere night is old we shall have many pursuers. We shall need all speed to gain the river first.’

squire: H. Tolkien had the Gondorians speak in “antique” English. Why did he change this in the final text?

drogo_drogo: It would have been hard to sustain, though Tolkien did have Denethor and others occasionally use some antiquated expressions.


squire: I find reading HoLR difficult and tiresome: Tolkien’s changes from his drafts are almost always for the better, as you might expect! And poor C. Tolkien always has his hands full with the detective work of putting the creative sequence together, leaves unanswered the question of whether the drafts he omits are of interest, and almost never comments on the contents or meaning of it all.

I. Would you rather not read these books at all? What purpose do they serve?

drogo_drogo: I love them, but that's the academic in me speaking.  It depends on whether you want to approach Tolkien from the point of view of a writer who is constantly changing his mind, rewriting, recreating, or if you would rather have a polished final product.  It's like Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.  There are so many different versions of that massive poem written over so many years of his life, including a "Deathbed Edition," that it drives some readers mad trying to decide where to begin analyzing it. 

I admit that I do find some of the minor changes from the Quenta Noldorinwa to the Grey Annals and so on a bit tedious to plow through.  I am a big defender of the 77 Silmarillion because I think compiling a basic text comprised of the most common elements of all the HOME versions of the First Age stories is a good thing (despite Christopher's later regrets).  It's better to have some "definitive" version even if it is an artificially-created one.  Some here prefer the BOLT or some of the other earlier version, and we would be poorer with out them appearing in print (someday we may get all that Christopher left out published too), but they are fragments of fragments and it's difficult to analyze how incomplete parts relate to each other.  There must be some basis for comparison.

The LOTR HoME volumes are the ones I enjoy the most *because* they show the evolution to the Professor's final form.  Here we can see how the process of writing went for him, and where one character appeared or how another one changed (Trotter to Srider, for example).  So in this case, the HOME books are the kind of background notes I simply adore.

Again, I am an academic in the way I approach even my fandom, so I like footnotes and rooting around in etymologies.  But I know others get tired of it, and weary of Christopher's commentary!

I'm spent, now what's that work thing I have to go to, anyway? :)



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