Volume VI of Christopher Tolkien’s edition of his father’s manuscripts is a fascinating and obsessive work, tracing the evolution of The Fellowship of the Ring. For any writer, this is seriously comforting reading–Tolkien’s false starts, dead ends, and bad ideas are all laid out in excrutiating detail, thoroughly annotated.

Frodo used to be called Bingo, Strider was a Hobbit called Trotter, and the opening of the story, from Bilbo’s birthday party to Rivendell, was redone again and again and again–in longhand, mind you. Christopher’s footnotes are insightful, revealing just why and how Tolkien kept on changing who left when with whom for what reason. It’s also clear that JRRT initially had no idea where The Lord of the Rings was going–he thought Rivendell was 3/4 of the story, he had no idea who Strider (or “Trotter”) really was, no concept of Rohan, Fangorn, or Gondor. It’s fascinating to watch him hit on the idea of the One Ring, come up with the verses, work out exactly what it does, and tweak the story once the scope of the tale grows larger and darker.

In letters to Auden, he talks about having run out of ideas because “I used them all up in The Hobbit.” He takes a long break at before the Council of Elrond when World War II breaks out. Then comes the invention of the Giant Tree Beard (who may or may not be evil), the concept of Moria (with a scribbled note “Loss of Gandalf?”) and the Stone City to the South, in the Kingdom of Ond. Sometimes, entire chapters emerge full-fledged, notes for the ending are surprisingly dead-on, and again and again characters are removed and added (Odo and his mysterious history disappeared; Sam was a late addition.)

For anybody interested in Lord of the Rings or the creative process, this is worthwhile, at least to dip in and sample some of its 400 pages. It’s just one of twelve volumes–Tolkien’s output was tremendous, and The Lord of the Rings just a small part of his mythology. I guess this series is what Christopher did with his life.