The Return of the Shadow


The Return of the Shadow is book VI of the twelve-volume History of Middle Earth series, which collects the previously unpublished writings on Middle Earth by JRR Tolkien.

Return of the ShadowThe Return of the Shadow also marks the beginning of Tolkien’s Lord of the Ringstexts. By December 1937, Tolkien had decided to embark upon “a sequel to The Hobbit, and set about writing the opening chapters of what would become The Lord of the Rings.

The first five volumes in the History of Middle Earth series had covered the period, from roughly late 1916 to December of 1937, when Professor Tolkien’s writings had focused almost solely on the “Silmarillion” writings…his mythologies set long before the events in the Lord of the Rings (except of course for his writing of The Hobbit, which is not covered by the History of Middle Earth series).

Books VI-IX of The History of hobi Earthseries are known as The History of The Lord of the Rings, and constitute Tolkien’s early drafts of the LotR manuscript.


By the end of 1937, however, he began to dabble his fingers in the waters of LotR, though he had very little idea of the direction in which it would take him.

As Frodo recalls Bilbo telling him in The Fellowship of the Ring:

    “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door…You step onto the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.” (FotR pg. 83)

The creation process for The Lord of the Rings was very much like this for Tolkien. Early texts in The Return of the Shadow suggest he sat down to write what he believed was the “sequel or successor to The Hobbit”. Another lighthearted tale involving the adventures of the hobbit. He even feared, as he wrote to Stanley Unwin in early 1938, “I squandered so much on the original ‘Hobbit’ (which was not meant to have a sequel) that it is difficult to find anything new in that world” (RotS pg. 44).

Of course, what he finished with was far from that, and he found that the tale had “grown in the telling” until it had far outgrown its “Hobbit” roots.

We find in The Return of the Shadow that Tolkien wrote no less than six “opening chapters” to The Fellowship of the Ring, the first four of which progressed little further than Bilbo’s farewell speech, the appearance of his nephew “Bingo”, and some scribbled notes concerning the hobbits getting lost in the “Old Forest” and having adventures with “T. Bombadil”.

This, of course, lays bare the bones of the story’s development. In the later versions of the first chapter, a few scrawled ideas about the ring appear, although it is not yet the Ring.

In the second section of writing, called “From Hobbiton to the Woody End”, we begin to see the narrative develop with the appearance of the “Black Riders”, who waylay and pursue Bingo and his companions on the road.

“The idea of the Riders and the Ring was no doubt evolving as my father wrote” editor Christopher Tolkien adds, noting how near the early version of the companions’ encounter with a Black Rider in the wilderness was to the finished version, only “their bearing and significance would afterwards be enormously enlarged” (RotS pg. 71).

Over the next couple of chapters, the importance of these main characters, the Black Riders and the Ring, would grow even more “enormously enlarged”. The next chapter to be written is titled “Of Gollum and the Ring”, and backtracks to a meeting between Gandalf and Bingo, where they discuss the history of ‘Sauron’s Ring’ and of all ‘magic rings’, the chapter that would later become “A Shadow of the Past”.

The story continues on through the Old Forest, the encounters with Old Man Willow, Tom Bombadil, and the Barrow Wight. These versions are not unchanged from the finished version, but little of great significance evolves from the early versions of these chapters.

The hobbits arrive in due time at The Prancing Pony in Bree, where they meet a Ranger named “Trotter”. Trotter is a hobbit with a “long nose…broken-stemmed pipe…long shaggy hair…and wooden shoes”! (RotS pgs. 137-138)

A far cry, certainly, from the fearsome descendant of Númenorean kings that he would later become. As Tolkien admitted many years later in a letter to W.H. Auden, “Strider sitting in a corner at the inn was a shock, and I had no more idea who he was than Frodo” (RotS preface).

The hobbits then proceed with Trotter to Weathertop, where they are attacked and Bingo wounded (similar to the final version). They escape, are found in the trollshaws by Glorfindel, and win the race to the ford, where the Black Riders are overtaken by the waters of the River Bruinen. Here the narrative has begun to take on a more familiar appearance to the finished versions.


In Rivendell, at the reunion of Bingo with Gandalf, Tolkien halts the story and return to the beginning (Hobbiton), where he begins writing “The Second Phase” of the narrative, completely rewriting what he had written up to that point. Essentially bringing the story ‘up to speed’ with his growing vision.

‘The Second Phase’ of The Return of the Shadow takes the story from Bilbo’s leave-taking to the hobbits’ adventure into the Old Forest. We see the Ring continue to grow in significance. At that point, as Christopher Tolkien notes, “It seems to me extremely probable that the ‘second phase’ of writing…now petered out, and once again a new start was made on the whole work” (RotS pg 309).

There is indeed a ‘Third Phase’ that advances as far as Rivendell, and even a point where Tolkien considered scrapping his entire narrative up to that point and making Bilbo the story’s main protagonist!

Thankfully, he soon scraps that idea as well, and progresses past the “Council of Elrond” clear to the Mines of Moria, where, as Tolkien said in his forward to The Fellowship of the Ring: “I plodded on, mostly by night, till I stood by Balin’s tomb in Moria…There I halted for a long while (FotR pg 5).

There the The Return of the Shadow halts also, and the early drafts that would later become The Lord of the Rings are continued in volume VII of The History of Middle Earth, The Treason of Isengard.

The Return of the Shadow provides the very unique chance to watch the evolution of one of the greatest literary works of the twentieth century. It was not an easy evolution. Tolkien battled the story every step of the way, especially in its early stages.

But Tolkien was a compulsive editor of his own writings, and from that impulse he created out of the pile of ideas and misdirections the books and characters that are so well-loved today. The Return of the Shadow provides a rare window into creativity at work.

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