Return to Bag-End

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Return to Bag-End is the second volume of The History of the Hobbit, a two-volume study of the early drafts and writing process of The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien.

Return to Bag-End continues the study of “The Second Phase” of The Hobbit narrative.

Mr. Baggins, the first volume of The History of The Hobbit, studied the short “First Phase” of the writing of The Hobbit, which took the narrative to approximately the end of Chapter One, and much of the “Second Phase” of writing which comprises the bulk of the tale.

As in my review of the previous volume, I attempted to boil this down to a short overview, but the sheer bulk of information here, and my enthusiasm for the books, has created a rather long-winded page.

Mr. Baggins leaves off after the chapter known as “A Warm Welcome” in the finished novel, in which Bilbo and Co. reach Laketown, very near to Lonely Mountain.

Return to Bag-End picks up the narrative here, at a moment of rest before the final perilous trek to Smaug’s mountain and the end (or so the company thought) of their quest.

Rateliff maintains the same format for this second volume that he employed in the first. Tolkien’s narrative appears as complete and unbroken by editorial commentary as possible, then after each chapter Rateliff adds his textual notes and his explorations into sources, themes, and variations from the published text.

This continues to work exceptionally well, allowing the story to flow along with minimal interruption while providing in-depth essays after each chapter.

A few highlights from Volume Two, Return to Bag-End:

The Second Phase

Return to Bag-End continues what Rateliff calls ‘The Second Phase’ of the novel’s composition, which took the narrative from nearly the end of Chapter One (where ‘The First Phase’ ended) to approximately the death of Smaug.

This phase encompasses the first ~150 pages of Return to Bag-End, and stimulates some of the more interesting pieces of editorial commentary in either volume.

Smaug

It is fitting that perhaps the most fascinating of Rateliff’s “mini-essays” focuses on one of the most interesting characters in the novel (and one of the greatest dragons in all of literature), Smaug.

Rateliff focuses nearly ten manuscript pages on Tolkien’s dragons, and Smaug in particular, discussing the various sources – such as Fafnir from the Norse Volsunga Saga, Beowulf’s Dragon, and the Midgard Serpent – and the evolution of dragons within Tolkien’s own writings, from Glaurung/Glorund of Tolkien’s early mythology to Smaug and Chrysophylax Dives of Farmer Giles of Ham.

Rateliff writes in his Text Notes: “It is characteristic of Tolkien’s eclecticism that he could combine in the figure of Smaug elements from sources as disparate as [Kenneth] Grahame’s whimsical little tale, the grim Volsunga Saga, and the Book of Job” (Return to Bag-End pg. 517).

Rateliff further contends that Tolkien’s treatment and use of dragons in his work completely revitalized what was being seen as an outmoded fantasy element.

He notes “[Tolkien] presented them so dramatically and successfully in his own work that he single-handedly reversed the trend of the preceding half-century or more, both in fantasy and in scholarship” (Return to Bag-End, pg. 526).

The Death of Smaug

Throughout the following chapters we see Tolkien adopt a very adaptable narrative style. He had laid out plot notes for moving forward, but in several important instances decided against his earlier ideas and opted for major changes.

The most notable of these changes includes the reversal of an earlier decision to have Bilbo slay Smaug himself, with the aid of his magic ring, and “[float] away in a golden bowl on [dragon’s] blood” (Return to Bag-End, pg 496).

Tolkien (wisely) rejects this outcome, allowing Bard the Bowman to take center stage for this event, and furthermore setting up Laketown’s claim to some of the dwarves’ treasure.

The Third Phase

Here Tolkien halted for some time. Though it is unsure, Rateliff contends that “a gap of no more than a year” passed between the ending of “The Second Phase” and the beginning of “The Third Phase”, which takes the narrative to its conclusion.

Battle of Five Armies

The other evidence of Tolkien’s mutability during the late stages of the narrative occur in the lead-up to the “Battle of Five Armies”, the “secondary climax” of the tale.

Tolkien had originally planned for the battle with the goblins to take place on Bilbo’s return trip to the Shire, minus the dwarves, called “The Battle of the Anduin Vale”.

This preplanned battle became complicated when Tolkien began to deal with the issues of the “dragon sickness” (ie. immense greed) that overcomes the dwarves once they recover their treasure and Laketown’s (legitimate) claim to some portion of the treasure in order to rebuild their destroyed town.

Tolkien deals with this by rethinking the setting and motives for the final battle from the return trip to the feet of Lonely Mountain.

The Third Phase takes the book through the Battle and Bilbo’s return trip, deviating only slightly from the final published text.

The Fourth Phase

The Fourth Phase addresses the well-known changes made to the “Second Edition” of The Hobbit to make the events consistent with the “in progress” novel Tolkien was working on during that period, The Lord of the Rings.

Most changes were minor, but one particularly well-known change was effected during this Phase – the revision of the “Riddles in the Dark” chapter – to mesh with Tolkien’s darker conception of Bilbo’s magic ring.

These revisions became part of the canonical text, and is the version of the tale known to most readers of Tolkien.

See the “Riddles in the Dark” section of the Mr. Baggins page for more info on how the earlier and later chapters differ from one another.

The Fifth Phase

The Fifth Phase gives us a view of some never before published revisions Tolkien made for an American paperback edition of The Hobbit (needed to assert the American copyright) in 1960.

The actual revised Third Edition did not appear until 1966, and by then Tolkien had abandoned his 1960 revisions for something far simpler, retaining most of his original text outside of a few small textual errors.

In 1960 Tolkien rewrote the entire first chapter (“An Unexpected Party”) and extensive parts of chapters two and three, in an attempt to reconcile notable differences between geography and characterization between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

These revisions fill some detail into the rather sketchy path Bilbo & Co. took on their way to Rivendell, and removes some of the whimsical language and characterization that marks The Hobbit, giving it a much more formal style, ala The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien must have realized (either on his own or through a secondary reader) that these changes altered the entire tone of the novel, creating a more serious, but much less charming, adventure.

Tolkien (again, wisely) decided against such major changes by the time the actual revisions were made for the Third Edition. The proposed changes, however, are fascinating reading and give us a glimpse of what might have happened had Tolkien a more fully developed view of Middle-earth (and Bilbo’s place in it) at the time of The Hobbit’s inception.

The books ends with some extensive notes Tolkien made of Bilbo’s journey, creating a timeline and an itinerary for Bilbo and the dwarves. As in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien was attentive to the minute details of the journey, including the specific dates, phases of the moon, and the like.

This itinerary is merely a reiteration of Tolkien’s involvement in his creations, and the painstaking care he took with his writing.

Despite the great bulk of studies focusing on The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit has been generally neglected by scholars up until now (outside of Douglas A. Anderson’s wonderful Annotated Hobbit), and the two volumes of The History of The Hobbit do a phenomenal job of delving into the source material and exploring the writing process of one of the 20th century’s most beloved novels.

The study also gives us some perspective on The Hobbit’s place in JRR Tolkien’s legendarium next to The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings. Mr. Baggins and Return to Bag-End are highly-recommended reading for any serious fan of JRR Tolkien’s books, illuminating as they do not only the tale itself and its associated scholarship, but a great deal about the writer himself.

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