Tolkien didn't always know what was going to happen.
There are few imaginary worlds as fully realized as Middle-Earth. Across a lifetime of crafting, J.R.R. Tolkien fashioned numerous histories, romances, languages, and cultures for Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits, and Men [sic]. It almost seems as though Tolkien uncovered a treasure trove of stories that had already existed, and he was merely the curator of them.
But if you take a peek into The History of Middle-Earth, a compendium of Tolkien’s writings, you immediately witness how very much he labored to give shape to his creative vision.
In the late 1970s, Tolkien’s son, Christopher, compiled The Silmarillion from his father’s writings. It was never meant to be a definitive edition, given the many variations of the core stories. As a follow-up, he edited a massive 12-volume series, The History of Middle-Earth, which covers the origin stories of Middle-Earth, the creation of the Elves, the story of the Silmarils, and continues through the writing of The Lord of the Rings.
Over the last few years, I have worked my way through the first seven volumes, and just recently completed The Treason of Isengard, the second book to address the writing of The Lord of the Rings. To be honest, I’m not quite sure who the target audience is for The History. Is it scholars who specialize in Tolkien’s linguistic craft? Is it for die-hard fans of all-things Hobbits who want more information? The books, while they have narrative elements, are often bogged down in footnotes and extensive examinations of the different nomenclature of the Elvish languages.
While a fan of Middle-Earth, I find that what draws me to these books is Tolkien’s creative process. As a writer, I am fascinated by how other writers work. Where are the moments of inspiration? Why were certain choices made? How did the characters get named?
As shown in The Return of the Shadow and The Treason of Isengard (the first two books about The Lord of the Rings), Tolkien didn’t have a clue where the story was heading when he sat down to write it. Initially, it was meant as a pleasant follow-up to The Hobbit, but once he started including the Middle-Earth legendarium, the story took on a more dramatic tone.
As a result, marginal notes on a manuscript become the catalyst for radical changes in the story. For example, in The Fellowship of the Ring, as the Hobbits are leaving the Shire, on a wooded road they encounter … Gandalf. At least, it was meant to be Gandalf. But in the margin, Tolkien wrote “Black Rider?” He had no idea who or what a Black Rider was. Was it a friend or foe? Was it the wizard? Was it Aragorn? Or was it a servant of Sauron?
When interviewed, Tolkien said that he initially got the Fellowship to Moria, where they got trapped by goblins. He could see no way out for them, so he abandoned the story for almost a year (in The Treason of Isengard, Christopher Tolkien suggests that it may have been as much as two years). Then he went back to the beginning and reworked the episodes again, until he ultimately found a way out.
But if anything is clear, it’s that nothing is clear. Tolkien did not even have a fully designed map of Middle-Earth when he started writing. He created it in the process and often tried different names for different locations. Even the location of key rivers or cities changed as he figured out the chronology of events. For example, did it take the Fellowship 9, 10, or 11 days to travel down the River Anduin?
In The Return of the Shadow, the reader is presented with all the different names for Hobbits that Tokien considered. Not only surnames, but first names as well. Frodo was initially Bingo, and Pippin was variously called Odo, Folco, and Frodo. Pippin also had a brief existence as Trotter, the precursor to Strider/Aragon.
As described in The Treason of Isengard, Aragorn undergoes the same naming process. He was initially called Trotter, and when his real name was revealed, it was variously Elfstone, Ingold, and Tarkil. Tolkien wasn’t always consistent in his initial drafts, sometimes forgetting that he was supposed to be using Ingold when suddenly Elfstone pops into the text.
"I don't think Professor Tolkien has any idea where we're headed."
Even with its shortcomings, The Lord of the Rings is a beautifully crafted work. The story seems almost predetermined, as though it could unfold in no other fashion. Maybe that is a testament to Tolkien’s commitment to getting the story right. But speaking as a writer, I think he could have gone down other paths and still ended up with a remarkable story. That’s the amazing thing about the creative process. Ideas come to you, and sometimes they make perfect sense, and other times they peter out into nothingness. For example, here are some of the elements that Tolkien considered:
Aragorn marries Eówyn, not Arwen.
Boromir and Aragorn go to Minas Tirith together, and Aragorn is selected as king. A jealous Boromir goes to Saruman for aid.
Merry and Pippin return to Rivendell, rather than encounter Treebeard.
Frodo uses the ring to control the Nazgûl.
Theoretically, any of these scenarios could have worked. But you never know if they will unless you give them a try.