How Tolkien Conceived of the One Ring - By Muddle Not Masterstroke

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 08, 2023

Inspired by a reread of The Lord of the Rings, Robin Sloan has been reading The History of The Lord of the Rings, a four-volume book series that details Tolkien’s process of writing LOTR. As he read, the idea of Tolkien as Middle-earth master planner fell away and the text revealed a writer who muddles through and revises, just like the rest of us. Here’s Sloan on Tolkien’s conception of the One Ring’s backstory (“One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them”, etc.):

In a single stroke, we get: a mythic backstory, a grand MacGuffin, a sense of language and history, the sublimely satisfying train of magic numbers - three … seven … nine … ONE! - plus something graphically weird and beautiful on the page.

It’s all just tremendous — the perfect kernel of Tolkien’s appeal.

And, guess what:

Not only was the inscription missing from the early drafts of LOTR … the whole logic of the ring was missing, too. In its place was a mess. The ring possessed by Bilbo Baggins was one of thousands the Dark Lord manufactured, all basically equivalent: they made their wearers invisible, and eventually claimed their souls. They were like cursed candies scattered by Sauron across Middle-earth.

Tolkien’s explanation of this, in his first draft, is about about as compelling as what I just wrote.

It’s fine, as far as it goes; he could have made it work, probably? Possibly? But it is not COOL in the way that the final formulation is COOL. It has none of the symmetry, the inevitability. It does only the work it has to do, and nothing else. It is not yet aesthetically irresistible.

There are several revised approaches to “what’s the deal with the ring?” presented in The History of The Lord of the Rings, and, as you read through the drafts, the material just … slowly gets better! Bit by bit, the familiar angles emerge. There seems not to have been any magic moment: no electric thought in the bathtub, circa 1931, that sent Tolkien rushing to find a pen.

It was just revision.

I find this totally inspiring.