Mr. Baggins addresses the early drafts of roughly the first half of The Hobbit while the second volume Return to Bag-End covers the final part of the narrative and its resolution.
This review will pick out some of the important points of the first volume. For a general overview of both volumes and the history behind their writing, check out:
For the purpose of this review, I will assume the reader is familiar with the story of The Hobbit.
In the two volumes, Rateliff divides the writing of The Hobbit into five distinct “Phases”, referring to the various starts and stops that Tolkien made during his progression through the novel.
‘Mr. Baggins’ covers the “First Phase” and the bulk of the “Second Phase” which is far and away the longest of the phases, during which Tolkien took the narrative from the mid-point of Chapter One through the death of Smaug.
Many people are familiar with the “synthesis” of The Hobbit. Tolkien was grading summer exam papers one day when he came across a sheet that was left blank. In the open space, on a whim, he wrote the famous first line of the novel – “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”.
This was the beginning, but the real work on the story had just begun.
Mr. Baggins begins with what Rateliff terms the ‘First Phase’ of writing on The Hobbit (which Rateliff calls ‘The Pryftan Fragment’ & ‘The Bladorthin Typescript’) and takes the writing of the novel up very near to the end of the first finished chapter of The Hobbit.
There are some interesting notes on the ‘First Phase’, particularly in the character names.
Gandalf first appears as ‘Bladorthin’, and the name of Gandalf is given to the leader of the Dwarves, who later became Thorin. Pryftan was the name originally given to the dragon Smaug.
A few other names given in the “First Phase” and later amended include Fimbulfami (originally given as the name of Thorin’s father, which became Thror in the final manuscript) and Fingolfin as the goblin king beheaded by Bilbo’s ancestor, Bullroarer Took.
The name Fingolfin, of course, for those familiar with Tolkien’s earlier mythology, already existed as a heroic Elven King (second son of Finwë and brother of Fëanor) from the First Age of Middle-earth, and it is rather shocking to hear it affixed to a Goblin.
But of course, as most people are aware, The Hobbit began as a very separate tale from Tolkien’s earlier Middle-earth stories. Only later did some names and characters from his earlier ‘mythologies’ creep in.
That, at least, is the perception that the author himself gave. Tolkien noted in a letter to Stanley Unwin in 1937 that “Mr. Baggins began as a comic tale among conventional and inconsistent Grimm’s fairy tale dwarves, and got drawn to the edge of it [Middle-earth] (Letters of JRR Tolkien, no. 19).
Rateliff, however, builds an argument that Tolkien considered ‘The Hobbit’ as set in the world of his ‘Silmarillion’ mythology right from the very start. And, given some of the ideas written and discarded in the original drafts, he has a compelling case.
Following each chapter, Rateliff includes in-depth essays and analysis of the preceding text, tracing character sources, text sources, and connections to Tolkien’s earlier works.
One of the first of Rateliff’s essays is on the character ‘Bladorthin’, Tolkien’s earlier name for Gandalf. “Bladorthin” he notes, is a Sindarin name meaning something along the lines of “The Grey Country” (Mr Baggins, pg 53).
He also traces Bladorthin’s slow evolution from his original incarnation in the first chapter of ‘The Hobbit’ (“a traditional fairy-tale enchanter” Rateliff calls him) to “Gandalf the White, Enemy of Sauron; altogether a much more dignified, powerful, and political figure” (MB, pg 49).
‘The Second Phase’
The most interesting (and compelling) bit of evidence supporting Rateliff’s claim that Tolkien consciously wrote ‘The Hobbit’ set in the same world of his earlier mythologies, occurs early in the writing of the “Second Phase”.
The “First Phase” of composition had not progressed far, halting mid-sentence during the first chapter, when Bladorthin (Gandalf) is explaining to Gandalf (Thorin) how he came to acquire the map to Lonely Mountain.
At this point in the narrative, the Necromancer is mentioned for the first time, having imprisoned Thorin’s father. Thorin makes an oblique comment to the effect that perhaps they (the company of dwarves) should deal with the Necromancer as well as the dragon.
Bladorthin’s response (as originally set down) is thus: “Don’t be absurd…That is quite beyond the powers of all the dwarves. Any anyway his castle stands no more and he is flown – Beren and Tinúviel broke his power, but that is quite another story (Mr Baggins pg 73).
This refers to the story of Beren and Luthien in the ‘Lay of Lethian’, the long epic poem in rhyming couplets which Tolkien had begun working on in 1925 (five years prior to the beginning of ‘The Hobbit’) and later abandoned in 1931, overlapping at least the first part of the writing of ‘The Hobbit’.
Though the line was later excised, it reveals an early association in Tolkien’s mind between Sauron (known as Thû in the “Lay of Leithian”) and the mysterious “Necromancer” of ‘The Hobbit’.
Mr. Baggins reveals an interesting view of Tolkien’s thoughts while writing.
When reading books VI through IX of The History of Middle-earth – those that comprise the writing of The Lord of the Rings – the primary points of interest are the characters, ideas, and themes that were missing from those early drafts that later were inserted into the story.
The story ‘grew’ so to speak, and many of the ideas that were finally encompassed by the book were originally missing.
Nearly the opposite is true of The Hobbit. The early drafts of The Hobbit are primarily of interest for what they include that was edited out of the final text. We see many more references to Tolkien’s earlier mythology in the early drafts of The Hobbit than appear in the published novel, fodder for Rateliff’s contention that Tolkien had set The Hobbit in Middle-earth right from the very start.
There is the aforementioned ‘Beren & Luthien’ and the ties of the Necromancer to Sauron/Thû from the ‘Lay of Lethian’.
Further ties appear in the early draft of the ‘Rivendell’ chapter, which carries some of these references forward into the finished novel. The references to Elrond’s ancestry “whose fathers came into the strange stories before the beginning of History, the wars of the evil goblins and the elves and the first men of the North” (Hobbit, pgs 50-51) and Gondolin – “old swords of the High Elves of the West…made in Gondolin for the Goblin-wars” (Hobbit, pg 51).
References to “Gnomes” – Tolkien’s name in The Book of Lost Tales for the Noldor – and of how “dragons it was that destroyed [Gondolin] many ages ago” appear in the ‘Second Phase’ draft but are missing from the finished novel (Mr Baggins, pg 115).
Rateliff goes on to note that Rivendell, ‘The Last Homely House’ of The Hobbit, “is clearly inspired by the Cottage of Lost Play that had appeared in the frame story of ‘The Book of Lost Tales’” (Mr Baggins, pg 119).
“Riddles in the Dark”
“Riddles in the Dark” is certainly the most famous scene in The Hobbit, recognized as not only the first appearance of the character Gollum, but also of the sinister One Ring, the primary plot device of Tolkien’s later novel, The Lord of the Rings.
But those who know something of the history of The Hobbit know that the magic ring Bilbo finds in the goblins’ caves is exactly that, an ambiguous magic ring, NOT the One Ring of The Lord of the Rings, at least not in intention.
Tolkien later decided, as he put it in a letter to W.H. Auden in 1955: “if you wanted to go on from the end of ‘The Hobbit’ I think the ring would be your inevitable choice as the link…then if you wanted a large tale, the Ring would at once acquire a capital letter” (Letters of JRR Tolkien, no 163).
It is fairly well known that Bilbo’s “magic ring” grew in significance to become the One Ring, a link between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. What is not so well-known is how much Tolkien’s original conception of Bilbo’s finding of the ring (and the ensuing riddle-game) differed from the version most people know.
In the original version of the riddle-game, as it was published in the first edition in 1937, Gollum offers to “give” the ring to Bilbo, as his “present” for having defeated Gollum in the riddle-game.
“For one thing the Gollum had learned long long ago was never to cheat at the riddle-game” (Mr Baggins, pg 160).
When he cannot find his magic ring to present as a gift to Bilbo, Gollum “begged Bilbo’s pardon. And he offered him fish caught fresh to eat instead” (Mr. Baggins, pg 160).
Bilbo, instead, opts for Gollum to discharge his debt by showing Bilbo the way out, which he graciously does.
This is certainly a far cry from the well-known version of this chapter (revised in 1951) in which Gollum, a slave to the power of the Ring, attempts to deceive Bilbo and only when he realizes he had been instead deceived by Bilbo cries his infamous line – “Thief, thief, thief! Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it for ever!” (Hobbit, pg 80).
This version was only written after Tolkien had finished The Lord of the Rings and knew of the Ring’s significance.
In Mr. Baggins we are able to read the text as it was originally conceived and it is a fascinating (and disconcerting) alternate to the well-known version. As Rateliff mentions in his notes: “many who read or re-read ‘The Hobbit’ after ‘The Lord of the Rings’ unconsciously impart more sinister associations for the ring into the earlier book than the story itself supports” (Mr. Baggins, pg 174-5).
Forward from Gollum’s Cave
The next couple of manuscript “chapters” (I use this term to describe the chapters as they were broken up in the published novel, since the original manuscript was not divided into chapters), suffer very little major change from the final published versions aside from Beorn, the bear/man shapeshifter, who is given the name ‘Medwed’ in the original draft.
Rateliff does include, in his textual notes on the Beorn/Medwed chapter, a fascinating study of Beorn’s mythological origins, specifically a ‘lost tale’ from Norse mythology alluded to by other tales in ‘The Elder Edda’.
This story, called the Bjarkamál, tells the story of Bothvar Bjarki, a shapeshifter who is the great warrior-champion of King Hrolf.
Another fascinating study is made into the person of the wizard Radagast, who is mentioned in passing by Bladorthin as “my good cousin” (Mr. Baggins, pg 233).
Radagast, as you may know, also appeared as an off-screen (no reference to the movies here) presence in The Lord of the Rings. His character (and its eventual fate after ‘The War of the Ring’) are left rather ambiguous. Rateliff spends a good 5+ pages on Radagast, the most thorough study of the wizard that I have seen.
Travels Through Mirkwood
While some of the chapters undergo few changes from first draft to finished novel, one chapter to undergo many revisions from the original draft is that of ‘Mirkwood’.
Tolkien discarded many early conceptions for the ‘Mirkwood’ chapter, including what Rateliff terms “The Theseus Theme”.
In the early drafts of the narrative, Bilbo uses a long piece of spider-thread, tied to a tree, to find his way back to the forest-path after leaving it to search for the spider-abducted dwarves.
Also, several episodes that occur in the finished novel – most notably the enchanted stream and the final version of the party’s capture by the wood-elves – are not present in the chapter’s inception.
One final (and important) distinction between the final draft and the first draft lies in the original description of the wood-elves. The wood-elves from the published novel are certainly not the same elves (at least not in many important details) as the noble and elevated elves of Tolkien’s First Age.
We are told that they are ‘dark elves’, ie., not of the Noldor, but this distinction alone would not sufficiently explain their nearly prehistoric simplicity.
The first draft explains that the wood-elves “mostly lived in the woods in huts on the ground or in the branches” (Mr. Baggins, pg 315). The narrator also notes that “few of them have swords of iron or steel at all…they fight chiefly with clubs, and bows, and arrows pointed with bone or stone” (Mr. Baggins, pg 316).
Finally, one of the most interesting features included with the early drafts are Tolkien’s “plot notes”, breaks in the narrative during which Tolkien paused to sketch out the story going forward.
These notes were usually quite general and compressed, but give a fascinating glimpse into the creative process at work and how the tale evolved from its original conceptions.
The first set of plot notes, written when the story had reached the house of Medwed/Beorn, sketches out the material as far as Bilbo’s escape (on a barrel) from the Elvenking’s hall.
The second set of plot notes, slightly more compressed and rough-sketched, were written after the first draft of ‘Mirkwood’, and outlined the remainder of the plot clear to the point where Bilbo returns home in the middle of an auction and “presumed dead” (Mr. Baggins pg. 366).
Mr. Baggins ends after the chapter known in the finished novel as “A Warm Welcome”, when the party arrives rather unceremoniously at Laketown in the shadow of Lonely Mountain.
The second volume of The History of The Hobbit, Return to Bag-End, picks up the thread of story here, and also covers all of the subsequent “phases” of composition and revision that followed.