• Will Sherwood

LOTR 4: Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's just a Ringwraith.

Chapter 3: 'Three is Company'. The adventure begins! Frodo sells Bag End to Lobelia Sackville-Baggins and begins his journey across the Shire to Crickhollow with Pippin and Sam. Christopher observed that Tolkien's drafting of this chapter was particularly tricky. The first version consists of three drafts and was initially the second chapter of the book ('Ancient History' had not yet been written). When we get to Phase Two, the new version becomes the 'most complicated document yet encountered' (Return, p. 273). He outlines that version two saw a complex chronological matrix of textual development:

Manuscript of version two: split into two variant forms.

Heavily corrected typescript of version one: extent in two forms that are identified via red or blue ink, more extensive changes added using inserted slips.

New Manuscript of version two: extent in three versions. Although 'very rough [it] reaches in all essentials the final form in FR' (Return, p. 274).

Thankfully Christopher's work has meant that I can here summarise and reflect on some changes Tolkien made.

1. Back in Black

By the end of Phase One the chapter was called 'Three's Company and Four's More'. Christopher considers its meaning to be 'unclear' and hypothesises that it could be linked to the group's arrival in Buckland as Marmaduke Brandybuck (the precursor to Merry) says 'Three's company, but four's more' in a later chapter (Return, p. 103). It could alternatively be linked to the developments of the chapter within Phase One. Version one consists of three opening drafts and the first two were untitled. In the first draft there were four travellers: Bingo, Frodo, Drogo, and Odo. By draft two this was reduced to three: Bingo, Frodo, and Odo. This number was continued into the third draft that was entitled 'Three's Company and Four's More'.

So what happened to indicate 'Four's More'? Well the second draft introduced the Black Rider for the first time and Humphrey Carpenter remarks that its appearance was 'unplanned' and the 'first of several unpremeditated turns that the story was to take. Unconsciously, and usually without forethought' (Biography, p. 248). Tolkien himself described it as an 'unpremeditated turn' in his 4th March 1938 letter to Stanley Unwin (Letters, p. 34).

What is striking is not how the idea suddenly blossomed in his mind but how he rejected what he had written before. This was not the first time he had rejected something either and suddenly found what was going to steer the story. The very first words of the first version of 'A Long-Expected Party' starts:

When N

When Bilbo (Return, p. 12)

The 'M' is not even completed according to Christopher and the text is not crossed out (Return, p. 11). Tolkien automatically rejected wherever his mind was going and found the story's protagonist at that point: Bilbo.

The first incarnation of the Black Rider was actually Gandalf on a white horse. After his arrival and a few lines of dialogue however, the draft stops. Christopher contemplates this is because his father 'abandoned the idea that the rider was Gandalf as soon as written' (Return, p 48). It was also the first time Tolkien would carry out pencilled changes on the draft; he crossed out a handful of words and suddenly Gandalf was transformed into the germ that would become the nightmarish Ringwraith. The [...] include the pencilled changes:

Round a turn came a white [>black] horse, and on it sat a bundle - or that is what

it looked like: a small [>short] man wrapped entirely in a great [added: black]

cloak and hood so that only his eyes peered out [>so that his face was entirely

shadowed]... (Return, p. 48).

So the 'Four's More' of the new chapter's title could easily be connected to Gandalf/the Black Rider. I think this is more likely as the chapter came to be known in Phases Two and Three as 'Delays are Dangerous', foreshadowing the presence of the Black Rider and the growing history attached to them. In Phase Two, this chapter shifted from chapter two to three as 'Ancient History' had been inserted as the second chapter. With 'Ancient History' also came Gandalf's travels and warnings for Bingo to not leave the Shire until he had returned. This also lends to the change from 'Three's Company and Four's More' to 'Delays are Dangerous' as Gandalf's absence up to autumn meant that Bingo could not leave the Shire, delaying their journey and allowing the Black Riders to invade the Shire.

Neither title fully stuck. In Phase Four Tolkien clipped the title down to 'Three is Company' (Treason, p. 29). This is quite effective as it eliminates any foreshadowing or readerly ruminating about the 'fourth' figure or the 'danger' presented by the delay. We are simply presented with three hobbits: Frodo, Sam, and Pippin, who start their journey towards Crickhollow.

2. A Ringwraith's Conduct Manual

Tolkien's Ringwraiths are mere shadows of their former kingly beings. They are not what they once were and he reflects this perfectly in the way they are presented. In the quotation above from first draft of version one, the Black Rider is changed from 'small' to 'short', indicating its physical degeneration. By making it short however, Tolkien was likening the Black Rider to the stature of the hobbits and as there had been previous issues in the south of the Shire with taller folk, making it short would not induce as much fear as is achieved in the published version. Perhaps because of this, the Black Rider became a 'large man, who seemed to crouch in the saddle' (Lord, p. 74). Draft three also starts to move towards this by changing the description to a 'broad, squat man' (Return, p. 54).

The arrival of the Black Rider is a staple moment of The Lord of the Rings adaptions by Ralph Bakshi and Peter Jackson. Their Black Riders mirror Tolkien's descriptions closely (albeit adding to the action):

(Ralph Bakshi, 1978) (Peter Jackson, 2001)

Bakshi's version harkens back to the first draft where 'only his eyes peered out' but both are presented as tall and crouched (Return, p. 48). Both also incorporate the characteristic sniffing as well. However, both scenes adapt Tolkien in a way that saves some screen time and raises the tension. The second appearance of the Black Rider is kept by Jackson but dramatically changed.

In draft three of version one, the Black Rider reappears just before Gildor Inglorion and begins to 'crawl' towards Bingo (Return, p. 58). Neither Bakshi or Jackson show the Black Rider crawling at any time during their adaptions and this perhaps is due to the actions being associated with Sméagol and Gollum. The latter's exposure to the Ring leads him to a rather primal way of life and he appears to regress from hobbit culture and societal norms. Clothes are no longer required, he eats raw food and cannot stomach what Frodo and Sam consume. In addition, he barely ever walks on two legs. For Bakshi and Jackson to link the Black Riders to Gollum through the act of crawling would have visually diminished the threat they pose.

This overlooks Tolkien's intention that the corruption of the Rings of Power regress their bearers. Bilbo felt 'stretched' by the Ring; he did not age correctly, rather inhabiting a liminal space between life and death where he could ever so slowly degenerate. 478 years with the Ring brought Sméagol to a crawling savage so it is no surprise that the Black Rider crawls towards Bingo/Frodo in the early drafts and the published version.

3. Tolkien's Metafiction

Just a small point to conclude this post. In Phase Two Tolkien gave Bingo a specific line of speech: '"This will indeed be the opposite of Bilbo's adventure: setting out without any known destination, and to get rid of a treasure, not to find one"' (Return, p. 274). I found this to be particularly reflective as Tolkien at this point was still in the dark about his own story. As was noted at the start of the post, there were many moments that were unpremeditated and Tolkien was 'finding' the story, not 'creating' it. He had no clue about the destination of the story, only that it was to build itself around the destroying of the Ring. Even Tolkien's wider mythology had no 'known destination' to begin with, it took him years to work out what was going on.


Carpenter, H. (2002). J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography. London: HarperCollins.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1988). The History of Middle-earth: The Return of the Shadow. [Ed. Tolkien, C.]. London: HarperCollins.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1989). The History of Middle-earth: The Treason of Isengard. [Ed. Tolkien, C.]. London: HarperCollins.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (2006). The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. [Ed. Carpenter, H.]. London: HarperCollins.

Tolkien. J. R. R. (2007). The Lord of the Rings. London: HarperCollins.

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