• Will Sherwood

LOTR 1: One Prologue to Rule them All

Updated: Apr 10, 2020

So here is the first blog post on The Lord of the Rings and what better place to start than the 'Prologue'? It should not come as a surprise to hear that the 'Prologue' we are familiar with has had a long history. Indeed, Christopher Tolkien notes how it is 'remarkable' that it has its place in the origins of the novel and dates the composition of the first two drafts to 1938 - 1939 (Peoples, p. 3). Including the final product the 'Prologue' went through an unsurprising seven drafts that stretched across the period that Tolkien spent writing and editing the novel. Christopher identifies each draft with a P and a number; therefore the first draft is P 1.

To help navigate the various roles that Tolkien had during the creative process of The Lord of the Rings, I'm going to refer to him in two ways: Tolkien the Writer and Tolkien the Editor. The former refers to the man who was writing the story, the latter refers to the man who was predominantly concerned with adapting the story (through translation, notes, appendices, etymology, letters etc) for his twentieth-century audience.

1. One or two significant changes

The first draft is printed in full in The Return of the Shadow (pp. 310 - 314) and bears the title 'Foreword: Concerning Hobbits'. P 2 is predominantly a typescript of P 1 with some changes and contains the basic ideas that the final version expands on. Christopher concluded that his father's 'return to the Shire at the end of The Lord of the Rings provided the impulse for his renewed work on the Prologue and its subsequent extension by stages' (p. 15). He considered P 3 and P 4 to have been written in 1948 but does not give a date for 5 - 7. I was particularly taken by P 5 which added 'much new material', including the discovery of the three Hobbit breeds (Peoples, p. 10).

In P 1 Tolkien had only speculated that 'perhaps the hobbit-breed was not quite pure . . . no pure-bred hobbit had a beard' (Return, p. 312). Now in P 5 and some separate papers he expanded on his previous work and discovered much more of the hobbit's history. One of these was the three hobbit breeds: the Harfoots, Stoors and the Fallohides. Dimitra Fimi has commented on how Tolkien 'apparently follow[ed] the same principles he used to divide Men into the three Houses to describe the sub-divisions of hobbits', they are 'distinguished by their skin colour, skeletal structure and respective skills and abilities that seem to be associated to these bodily characteristics' (p. 145).

Perhaps the simple reason for this was that he had now completed a draft of The Lord of the Rings. Knowing how it had changed from the fairy-tale style of The Hobbit when he wrote P1 and 2 to the mythical style of the epics he studied as a professor, Tolkien realised that by necessity he needed to uncover the rich back-story and daily lives of the hobbits. Tolkien therefore re-structured the 'Prologue' into the four sub-sections, added many historic-socio aspects such as the lengthy quotation from Merry's Herblore of the Shire, and made references to the tangible manuscript of the 'Red Book of Westmarch' that was originally composed by Bilbo, Frodo and Sam.

One particular addition that caught my attention from P 5 was the origins of the hobbits and their migration across the Misty Mountains:

The Dreadful Mountains over which (according to their own tales) their people

had long ago wandered westward; also from the smaller country, the Oldhome

at Bree, where they had first settled - but not by themselves: for Bree they shared

with the Bree-men. . . . they existed now only in the Shire, Bree and [?lonely] here

and there were a few wild Hobbits in Eriador. And it is said that there were still a

few "wild hobbits" in the eaves of Mirkwood west and east of the Forest.

(pp. 9 - 10).

What also got me thinking was the brief etymological discussion of the word 'hobbit'. In P 5 it is stated that the hobbits call 'themselves Hobbits. Most other peoples called them Halflings (or words of similar meaning in various language) (Peoples, p 10). This is the English 'translation' of the 'ancient native word' used in the Shire: cūbuc (plural cūbugin) meaning 'hole-dweller' (Peoples, p. 49). Tolkien highlighted that the word was similar to cūgbagu that King Théoden used when referring to the hobbit race. At this point Tolkien the Editor had decided that the plethora of languages the 'Red Book' had originally been written in would be 'best represented by drawing on the similar wealth of names [and languages] that we find or could find in our own traditions, in Celtic, Frankish, Latin and Greek and other sources' (my emphasis, Peoples, p. 46). This way, his twentieth-century readers could best understand the complex web of languages that had made up Middle-earth and how they interconnected.

As Tolkien was re-drafting the 'Prologue', he was also composing 'The Appendix on Languages'. In the 'Appendix's' 'Foreword' he explained that 'the Rohirric spoke a language that was in effect an archaic form of the Common Speech' (Peoples, p. 50). Tolkien applied his translation scheme whereby he 'represented C[ommon] S[peech] by modern English and have therefore turned the language of Rohan into archaic English terms' (Peoples, p. 50). This allowed Tolkien to create the etymology for 'hobbit', drawing on 'ancient English hol-bytla' "hole-dweller"' (Peoples, p. 50). Notice how he avoided Old English as he had previously created 'hobbit' without any philological basis. He now needed to retrospectively create an etymology for the titular word of his 1937 novel and the word did not fully align with Old English.

2. A link between the finding of the Shire and Rome

When I was reading over the passages that related to the finding of the Shire, a peculiar idea sprouted. It was one that seemed a bit far-fetched but not entirely without reason. The finding of the Shire was first included in 'two small slips and attached to the amanuensis typescript of P 4' and detailed the following:

In the Year 1 (according to the reckoning of Shire-folk) and in the month of Luyde

(as they used to say) the brothers Marco and Cavallo, having obtained formal

permission from the king Argeleb II in the waning city of Fornost, crossed the

wide brown river Baranduin. . . . After the crossing the L[ittle] P[eople] settled

down and almost disappeared from history. . . .This land they called the Shire.

(Peoples, p. 9).

Two brothers travel and find a new land where they build a new civilisation. Is this a description of Marco and Cavallo (later changed to Marcho and Blanco) or Romulus and Remus, the mythical brothers who founded Rome? Albeit both stories contain significantly contrasting details (neither Marcho or Blanco are out for blood or looked after by a wolf) but the mythic link is something that at least provides a tentative link. Tolkien at least studied Classics at King Edward's School, Birmingham and during his first year at Exeter College, Oxford. I am not promulgating that Romulus and Remus influenced Marcho and Blanco, I merely aim to note a similarity between Classical mythology and Tolkien's early drafting of The Lord of the Rings that stood out to me.

(Capitoline Wolf )

3. Tolkien the Writer, Tolkien the Editor and 'Riddles in the Dark'

Tolkien the Writer and Tolkien the Editor worked collaboratively when creating their version of the 'Red Book'. The first edition of The Hobbit included a version of 'Riddles in the Dark' that would not fully correlate with the events and characters of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien the Writer therefore rewrote the chapter in the summer on 1947 and was shortly afterwards 'astonished' to see it included in editions of The Hobbits (Biography, p. 271). This created a 'primary world' problem: two texts; two stories. Clearly the second was the true story that Gandalf had supposedly squeezed from Bilbo by putting the 'fear of fire' into him and the first was a false one advertised by Bilbo (Peoples, p. 14). In P 7, Tolkien the Editor drew on his 'knowledge of manuscript variances' from his long studies of Medieval manuscripts to adapt the 'primary world' problem to his advantage (Companion, p. 60):

This is not the story as Bilbo first told it to his companions and to Gandalf, or

indeed as he first set it down in his book . . . many copies contain the true account

(alone or as an alternative), derived, no doubt, from notes made by Frodo or

Samwise, both of whom knew the truth. (Peoples, pp. 12 - 13).

He interwove Bilbo, Frodo and Sam's accounts into his greater framework, with Bilbo as the central antiquarian figure who would make everything possible. According to Fimi, 'the choice of the "Red Book" as the method of transmission of the legendarium to the readers of modern times was a nearly perfect solution: Bilbo would have had access to the records of Rivendell where much material from Númenor was also preserved' (p. 128). Tolkien the Writer's decision to rewrite 'Riddles in the Dark' therefore provided Tolkien the Editor with an excellent new motive to call the first one the 'false story' and the second the 'true story'. The publishing of these texts reflect his own progress in translating the 'Red Book'. As he 'finds' new information, he changes accordingly and makes it known to his reader.

As a final comment on the textual development of the 'Prologue', I would like to mention that the Note on the Shire Records did not appear until the Second Edition in 1966 (and even before publication it was withdrawn and connected to the The Silmarillion for a time). The 'Prologue' is Tolkien the Editor's addition to the 'five volumes' produced by a long list of writers and editors. The Note is the moment where Tolkien takes a step back and provides a full history of the manuscript, acknowledging his precursors (LOTR, p. 14). It is one of a handful of places where The Lord of the Rings explicitly turns from a fictional work by Tolkien the Writer into a masterly translated manuscript by Tolkien the Editor.


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

Fimi, D. (2009). Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lee, S. (2014). ‘Manuscripts: Use, and Using’. In Stuart Lee (Ed.), A Companion to J. R. R. Tolkien. (pp. 56 – 76). Chichester: John Wiley & Sons LTD.

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

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1996). The History of Middle-earth: The Peoples of Middle-earth. [Ed. Tolkien, C.]. London: HarperCollins.

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