Lord of the Rings is a big story with a dramatic buildup. At first it seems like the quest would unfold in a The Hobbit-like manner, with an eclectic band on a journey of adventure, but the story gets more and more serious. The contrast between the start (a birthday party) and the climax (entire world at war for survival) is astounding.

It's in hindsight where some elements near the start, which make sense for a light-hearted fantasy story, now seem out of place after the entire story is told. Hobbits and the birthday party, described in excruciating detail. Tom Bombadil, mysterious in his disconnection with the world, let alone the story. In fact, many locales and factions presented in the first book are never heard from again until well after the climax, such as the contribution of Erebor, Lothlorien and Moria in the war. Contrast this with the factions encountered in the latter two books, which all tie together with the larger story: Fangorn with Isengard with Rohan with Gondor with the Black Gate.

Therefore, I suspect that Tolkien originally intended a The Hobbit-like story, with the serious-business, geopolitical stuff coming out of serendipity. It's as if Tolkien realised how much drama would be available if he smashed all the factions together in diplomacy and war. Or he realised how many more interesting settings he could write about if he split up the fellowship and jumped the narrative between them. Mind you, this is no indictment of Tolkien's writing skills; many great writers let their characters and setting come to life and take the story in unexpected directions, and it's to his credit that they are so believable and unique, and thus could tell such a grand story.

If you accept this thesis, a few other questions about the story make more sense, like how easily the fellowship broke, or how anticlimatic the Battle of Bywater seemed.

Did Tolkien ever state whether he changed his mind about how Lord of the Rings would go? Was there a very early draft or plot outline that was different in this manner? Did Tolkien ever explain why the tone of the story changes so dramatically during the first book?

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    I don't know what Tolkien had in mind, but I really think the contrast from peaceful Hobbiton to the quest and eventual journey to Mordor (or the War for Pippin & Merry) is an important part of the story. It's really a larger version of the Hobbit in this: a plain ordinary hobbit gets caught up in events and somehow grows to handle them.
    – jamesqf
    May 22, 2015 at 5:41
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    There are so many stories that are light-hearted at the beginning, but grow darker and more serious as the story unfolds. The Deer Hunter springs to mind, with its detailed depiction of the wedding party at the beginning, but I'm sure there are more.
    – Mr Lister
    May 22, 2015 at 10:51
  • Shortest answer possible: Yes. He was supposed to write a sequel to The Hobbit. He ended up writing an epic saga.
    – Wad Cheber
    May 23, 2015 at 21:47
  • Wad has the right of it; it will have to wait until I get home, but the earliest versions of LotR were very Hobbit-like. For example, Aragorn was Trotter the nature hobbit, not a Ranger descended from kings.
    – Shamshiel
    May 25, 2015 at 11:35
  • You know I always thought the breakup of the Fellowship felt sudden and premature. Still that might be because my favorite part of the book is when the Fellowship was together on its grand adventure, not split up and 1) dead, 2) kidnapped, 3) chasing the kinappers, and 4) skulking toward Mordor with no idea what they were doing because their wizard was dead and they'd just abandoned their companions who did have a clue.
    – peyre
    Sep 18, 2015 at 3:57

5 Answers 5


This is a hard question to answer, but I will make a few points.

As Tolkien explicitly says in his foreword, "This tale grew in the telling". Yes, he did begin by writing a story much more in the vein of The Hobbit, because that was what both readers and his publisher wanted: more of the same. He goes on to say: "But the story was drawn irresistibly towards the older world", ie the legends of the Elder Days, and as it did the tone changed until it became the much more mythic one of the later parts of the book.

Tolkien's son Christopher traces this evolution in volumes 6 to 9 of his History of Middle-earth series, and although at times it's a bit repetitive, it is fascinating to see how the story developed as it was being written.

I don't think though that there was ever a full outline of a more Hobbit-like version of the story; that's not really how Tolkien wrote, he preferred to draft and rewrite things as he went along.

I must argue with you on one point: the Battle of Bywater, and the whole Scouring of the Shire, is very far from an anti-climax. In my opinion it's the culmination of the whole book, and of the Hobbits' journey. And Tolkien himself says, again in that foreword: "It is an essential part of the plot, foreseen from the outset."

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    +1 for the the Battle of Bywater, that whole chapter showed how the 4 hobbits had grown and developed, it was a great part of the story.
    – deep64blue
    Jun 24, 2022 at 20:10

We don't know what The Lord of the Rings would have looked like if Tolkien had written it as he initially intended, but it seems very clear that the series we have is quite different from the one he began writing. A letter from Tolkien to his publisher, Stanley Unwin, gives us some insight into what led to the drastically different tone in LotR as compared to The Hobbit.

...I have worked very hard for a month (in the time which my doctors said must be devoted to some distraction!) on a sequel to The Hobbit. It has reached Chapter XI (though in rather an illegible state); I am now thoroughly engrossed in it, and have the threads all in hand – and I have to put it completely aside, till I do not know when. Even the Christmas vacation will be darkened by New Zealand scripts, as my friend Gordon1 died in the middle of their Honours Exams, and I had to finish setting the papers. But I still live in hopes that I may be able to submit it early next year.

When I spoke, in an earlier letter to Mr Furth, of this sequel getting 'out of hand', I did not mean it to be complimentary to the process. I really meant it was running its course, and forgetting 'children', and was becoming more terrifying than the Hobbit. It may prove quite unsuitable. It is more 'adult' – but my own children who criticize it as it appears are now older. However, you will be the judge of that, I hope, some day! The darkness of the present days has had some effect on it. Though it is not an 'allegory'. (I have already had one letter from America asking for an authoritative exposition of the allegory of The Hobbit).
Yours sincerely
J. R. R. Tolkien.
- The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, #34

The "darkness of the present days" is a reference to the Czechoslovak crisis. This letter was written in early October 1938, and Hitler had just demanded that a large portion of Czechoslovakia be handed over to Germany in reparation for the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I. Everyone had previously been living in a dream world, fooling themselves into believing that war was impossible. The Czechoslovak crisis destroyed the illusion of security, and Britain was forced to realize that war was not only not impossible, but was actually imminent.

Tolkien himself had fought in that terrible First World War, and had served in the Somme Campaign; the first day of which was the deadliest day in British history. His life was probably saved by a case of Trench Fever, which resulted in his being sent home and invalided out of the army, but most of his friends were killed. He was all too aware of the horrors of war, and in 1938, he had sons who were almost of fighting age. For Tolkien, like everyone else in Britain, the prospect of an apocalyptic war with Germany was terrifying.

It was inevitable, therefore, that the intense mood of fear and anxiety in Britain and mainland Europe would find its way into Tolkien's writing. As he says in this letter, this was not a deliberate decision; it was simply the unavoidable effect of the atmosphere in which he was living.

He had been asked to write a sequel to The Hobbit, which was, of course, originally a children's story - in fact, he had written it primarily for his own children. But in the climate of fear in which Tolkien found himself, it became almost impossible to carry on in this vein. The mood of tension and terror prevalent in Europe and Britain at the time crept into the story, and it became quite apparent that this would not be a book for kids.

  • I'm not saying that it isn't part of it but I think it's a stretch to say (unless he said otherwise which I do not recall from the Letters - at least relevant to this one) it was specifically the Czech issue; after all there were quite a lot of other issues going on - there was the Anschluss, the (re)militarisation of the Rheineland and other various things going on. And much would follow even in November and onward. So he could have been talking about more than Czech and something tells me he was.
    – Pryftan
    May 25, 2018 at 17:50

Tolkien didn't have much "intention" when he started the sequel to The Hobbit in the first place; he started with an idea that Bilbo would get married, and that his son would have some adventures with the Ring (which was still just some magical ring that made you invisible). The gravity of the story grew as he kept working on it. It wasn't until much later into the writing that Aragorn became the heir of Isildur, for example. He started out as a Hobbit nicknamed Trotter :o)

I highly suggest you read "The Return of the Shadow" from the 12-volume series "History of Middle-Earth", which documents this development.

[Edit]Here's a quote from the History of Middle-Earth:

"Humphrey Carpenter remarked (Biography p. 185): Tolkien had as yet no clear idea of what the new story was going to be about. At the end of The Hobbit he had stated that Bilbo 'remained very happy to the end of his days, and those were extraordinarily long.'
So how could the hobbit have any new adventures worth the name without this being contradicted? And had he not explored most of the possibilities in Bilbo's character? He decided to introduce a new hobbit, Bilbo's son - and to give him the name of a family of toy koala bears owned by his children, 'The Bingos'."

The literary "evolution" of Aragorn is mentioned in the Wikipedia page for him: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aragorn#Concept_and_creation

  • Would you mind quoting the relevant parts? It would greatly enhance your answer.
    – SQB
    May 25, 2015 at 9:57
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    Quoting relevant parts from the HoME series would be a tangled and fragmented affair (much like Tolkien's drafts themselves), but I'll include one.
    – Maksim
    May 26, 2015 at 11:42

Short answer: no.

In one of his letters (reprinted in a wonderful book edited by his son, with over a hundred letters to friend and family on multitude of topics) he specifically wrote, that he later* regretted the language used to write The Hobbit. It was for him too light and with a bit more levity than was warranted. And, above all, made the book look like targeted for younger audience and standing out from all other books of the "series". Which never was the intention. I will try and find the quote, but as book is in another country (if not on a different continent ;)... no promises.

So while I agree with Daniel Roseman here - LOTR grew in the telling - the form and format was very deliberately chosen from the beginning.

*EDIT - previously "always".

  • I was always kind of under the impression that The Hobbit was originally intended to be entirely separate from the mythology of The Silmarillion and he only integrated them in retrospect, but this book chapter on the subject of the connections between the two makes a good case that they were always part of the same world, although the first page notes that Tolkien did make the comment that The Hobbit was "quite independently conceived" (maybe he was just talking about the original story idea before any complete drafts?)
    – Hypnosifl
    May 22, 2015 at 19:43
  • From the lecture of the "Letters" I'm left with impression that JRRT didn't think about it, at least initially. There was The Hobbit and Silmarillion paralelly... As he put it (from memory): "Everything I got went into that book, I'm not sure I have any more ideas left". The SIlmarillon and others are the bedrock for everything in JRRT's universe. Moreover, initially LOTR (at least I think it was about LOTR) was thought of as The Hobbit 2. But Also was characterized as more darkly...
    – AcePL
    May 26, 2015 at 8:05
  • Well define 'intent'. Certainly he actually loved hobbits so much that he wanted to write more about them - only he realised there was only so much he could write about them. And publishers wanted more; it was the publishers who encouraged him to have a sequel at all. So I think it's not correct to say there wasn't intent to write something different. I would say even that having no intent whatsoever counts as very different - very very different...
    – Pryftan
    May 25, 2018 at 17:53

I've just started reading The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, so there might be something contradictory later, but so far, in the letters to the publishers, he keeps saying that the story keeps evolving beyond a tale for children. He also mentions the difficulty of writing a continuation to The Hobbit as everything was resolved by the end of the book.

To me, this seems to suggest that originally the goal was to write a similar story; but how rapidly the goal changed is unknown. Additionally, while it doesn't seem likely that he wouldn't review the early chapters to make them more "compatible" with the rest of the story, it sounds reasonable that they would be an inspiration and adopted rather than discarded, similarly to Glorfindel's name (Tolkien considered elf names unique, the original Glorfindel died but then reappeared, instead of renaming the second character it's explained as an exception).

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