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LOTR: The second-edition Foreword by Tolkien


Aug 19, 2002
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There is a chapter-by-chapter study of The Lord of the Rings going on (although not that active at the moment), but I feel that the foreword that JRR Tolkien wrote in 1966 also deserves a little discussion. So here goes:

This tale grew in the telling, until it became a history of the Great War of the Ring and included many glimpses of the yet more ancient history that preceded it. It was begun soon after The Hobbit was written and before its publication in 1937; but I did not go on with this sequel, for I wished first to complete and set in order the mythology and legends of the Elder Days, which had then been taking shape for some years. I desired to do this for my own satisfaction, and I had little hope that other people would be interested in this work, especially since it was primarily linguistic in inspiration and was begun in order to provide the necessary background of 'history' for Elvish tongues.
When those whose advice and opinion I sought corrected “little hope” to “no hope,” I went back to the sequel, encouraged by requests from readers for more information concerning hobbits and their adventures. But the story was drawn irresistibly towards the older world, and became an account, as it were, of its end and passing away before its beginning and middle had been told. The process had begun in the writing of The Hobbit, in which there were already some references to the older matter: Elrond, Gondolin, the High-elves, and the orcs, as well as glimpses that had arisen unbidden of things higher or deeper or darker than its surface: Durin, Moria, Gandalf, the Necromancer, the Ring. The discovery of the significance of these glimpses and of their relation to the ancient histories revealed the Third Age and its culmination in the War of the Ring.
All this can of course be read elsewhere in Humphrey Carpenter's Biography for instance. It is still to this day in my opinion, interesting to see how the unpublished legendarium influenced The Lord of the Rings already from the beginning.
Those who had asked for more information about hobbits eventually got it, but they had to wait a long time; for the composition of The Lord of the Rings went on at intervals during the years 1936 to 1949, a period in which I had many duties that I did not neglect, and many other interests as a learner and teacher that often absorbed me. The delay was, of course, also increased by the outbreak of war in 1939, by the end of which year the tale had not yet reached the end of Book One. In spite of the darkness of the next five years I found that the story could not now be wholly abandoned, and I plodded on, mostly by night, till I stood by Balin's tomb in Moria. There I halted for a long while. It was almost a year later when I went on and so came to Lothlórien and the Great River late in 1941. In the next year I wrote the first drafts of the matter that now stands as Book Three, and the beginnings of chapters I and III of Book Five; and there as the beacons flared in Anórien and Théoden came to Harrowdale I stopped. Foresight had failed and there was no time for thought.
It was during 1944 that, leaving the loose ends and perplexities of a war which it was my task to conduct, or at least to report, I forced myself to tackle the journey of Frodo to Mordor. These chapters, eventually to become Book Four, were written and sent out as a serial to my son, Christopher, then in South Africa with the RAF. Nonetheless it took another five years before the tale was brought to its present end; in that time I changed my house, my chair, and my college, and the days though less dark were no less laborious. Then when the 'end' had at last been reached the whole story had to be revised, and indeed largely re-written backwards. And it had to be typed, and re-typed: by me; the cost of professional typing by the ten-fingered was beyond my means.
Again: this can be read elsewhere. But for those that don't feel the need to get the HoME-series, this is a quite telling explanation on how much effort the writing of The Lord of the Rings was to Tolkien. Mostly working in the night, and with long pauses in between, it is no wonder why it took years and years to finish this work.


Aug 19, 2002
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The Lord of the Rings has been read by many people since it finally appeared in print; and I should like to say something here with reference to the many opinions or guesses that I have received or have read concerning the motives and meaning of the tale. The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them. As a guide I had only my own feelings for what is appealing or moving, and for many the guide was inevitably often at fault. Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer. But even from the points of view of many who have enjoyed my story there is much that fails to please. It is perhaps not possible in a long tale to please everybody at all points, nor to displease everybody at the same points; for I find from the letters that I have received that the passages or chapters that are to some a blemish are all by others specially approved. The most critical reader of all, myself, now finds many defects, minor and major, but being fortunately under no obligation either to review the book or to write it again, he will pass over these in silence, except one that has been noted by others: the book is too short.
I think that it is quite interesting to see what Tolkien himself presents as his prime motive for writing this story. I have read many explanations here and there, but there are few that actually quote the author's own words.
Tolkien's reply to those that have found the book "boting, absurd, or contemptible" is a raher harsh reply, of course. And I find it rather typical that he chooses to do so in a foreword, where noone can argue against him. Typical in that there are few, if any, instances where Tolkien have argued against critics in an open debate. I wonder if he would have been allowed this luxury if The Lord of the Rings were published today?
As for any inner meaning or 'message', it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical. As the story grew it put down roots (into the past) and threw out unexpected branches: but its main theme was settled from the outset by the inevitable choice of the Ring as the link between it and The Hobbit. The crucial chapter, "The Shadow of the Past', is one of the oldest parts of the tale. It was written long before the foreshadow of 1939 had yet become a threat of inevitable disaster, and from that point the story would have developed along essentially the same lines, if that disaster had been averted. Its sources are things long before in mind, or in some cases already written, and little or nothing in the war that began in 1939 or its sequels modified it.
This is of course one of the most quoted parts that Tolkien wrote. And still today, some people find different meanings in The Lord of the Rings...
The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion. If it had inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dûr would not have been destroyed but occupied. Saruman, failing to get possession of the Ring, would in the confusion and treacheries of the time have found in Mordor the missing links in his own researches into Ring-lore, and before long he would have made a Great Ring of his own with which to challenge the self-styled Ruler of Middle-earth. In that conflict both sides would have held hobbits in hatred and contempt: they would not long have survived even as slaves.
The Hobbits of the Shire have a lot more to thank Frodo and Sam for than they ever knew...
Other arrangements could be devised according to the tastes or views of those who like allegory or topical reference. But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse 'applicability' with 'allegory'; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.
I personally find it interesting how Tolkien is aware of the responsibility he has as an author when it comes to the freedom of the reader, although I don't know if I agree with him. And I find it rather amusing that one of his most "beautiful" works is an allegory: Leaf by Niggle.
An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience, but the ways in which a story-germ uses the soil of experience are extremely complex, and attempts to define the process are at best guesses from evidence that is inadequate and ambiguous. It is also false, though naturally attractive, when the lives of an author and critic have overlapped, to suppose that the movements of thought or the events of times common to both were necessarily the most powerful influences. One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead. Or to take a less grievous matter: it has been supposed by some that The Scouring of the Shire reflects the situation in England at the time when I was finishing my tale. It does not. It is an essential part of the plot, foreseen from the outset, though in the event modified by the character of Saruman as developed in the story without, need I say, any allegorical significance or contemporary political reference whatsoever. It has indeed some basis in experience, though slender (for the economic situation was entirely different), and much further back. The country in which I lived in childhood was being shabbily destroyed before I was ten, in days when motor-cars were rare objects (I had never seen one) and men were still building suburban railways. Recently I saw in a paper a picture of the last decrepitude of the once thriving corn-mill beside its pool that long ago seemed to me so important. I never liked the looks of the Young miller, but his father, the Old miller, had a black beard, and he was not named Sandyman.
Other might want to comment on this?
The Lord of the Rings is now issued in a new edition, and the opportunity has been taken of revising it. A number of errors and inconsistencies that still remained in the text have been corrected, and an attempt has been made to provide information on a few points which attentive readers have raised. I have considered all their comments and enquiries, and if some seem to have been passed over that may be because I have failed to keep my notes in order; but many enquiries could only be answered by additional appendices, or indeed by the production of an accessory volume containing much of the material that I did not include in the original edition, in particular more detailed linguistic information. In the meantime this edition offers this Foreword, an addition to the Prologue, some notes, and an index of the names of persons and places. This index is in intention complete in items but not in references, since for the present purpose it has been necessary to reduce its bulk. A complete index, making full use of the material prepared for me by Mrs. N. Smith, belongs rather to the accessory volume.
I don't know about others, but I would have loved an additional volume.

The Tall Hobbit

Registered User
Jan 11, 2002
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While I do agree that the second edition Forward is worth a closer look, I've always thought that it was a shame that Tolkien chose to eliminate the original Forward which appeared at the beginning of the book from 1954 to 1965:

This tale, which has grown to be almost a history of the great War
of the Ring, is drawn for the most part from the memoirs of the
renowned Hobbits, Bilbo and Frodo, as they are preserved in the
Red Book of Westmarch. This chief monument of Hobbit-lore is so
called because it was compiled, repeatedly copied, and enlarged and
handed down in the family of the Fairbairns of Westmarch,
descended from that Master Samwise of whom this tale has much
to say.

I have supplemented the account of the Red Book, in places, with
information derived from the surviving records of Gondor, notably
the Book of the Kings; but in general, though I have omitted much,
I have in this tale adhered more closely to the actual words and
narrative of my original than in the previous selection from the Red
Book, The Hobbit. That was drawn from the early chapters, com-
posed originally by Bilbo himself. If 'composed' is a just word. Bilbo
was not assiduous, nor an orderly narrator, and his account is
involved and discursive, and sometimes confused: faults that still
appear in the Red Book, since the copiers were pious and careful,
and altered very little.

The tale has been put into its present form in response to the
many requests that I have received for further information about the
history of the Third Age, and about Hobbits in particular. But since
my children and others of their age, who first heard of the finding of
the Ring, have grown older with the years, this book speaks more
plainly of those darker things which lurked only on the borders of
the earlier tale, but which have troubled Middle-earth in all its
history. It is, in fact, not a book written for children at all; though
many children will, of course, be interested in it, or parts of it, as
they still are in the histories and legends of other times (especially in
those not specially written for them).

I dedicate the book to all admirers of Bilbo, but especially to
my sons and my daughter, and to my friends the Inklings. To the
Inklings, because they have already listened to it with a patience,
and indeed with an interest, that almost leads me to suspect that
they have hobbit-blood in their venerable ancestry. To my sons and
my daughter for the same reason, and also because they have all
helped me in the labours of composition. If 'composition' is a just
word, and these pages do not deserve all that I have said about
Bilbo's work. For if the labour has been long (more than fourteen years), it has
been neither orderly nor continuous. But I have not had Bilbo's
leisure. Indeed much of that time has contained for me no leisure at
all, and more than once for a whole year the dust has gathered on
my unfinished pages. I only say this to explain to those who have
waited for this book why they have had to wait so long. I have no
reason to complain. I am surprised and delighted to find from
numerous letters that so many people, both in England and across
the Water, share my interest in this almost forgotten history; but it
is not yet universally recognized as an important branch of study. It
has indeed no obvious practical use, and those who go in for it can
hardly expect to be assisted.

Much information, necessary and unnecessary, will be found in
the Prologue. To complete it some maps are given, including
one of the Shire that has been approved as reasonably correct
by those Hobbits that still concern themselves with ancient
history. At the end of the third volume will be found also some
abridged family-trees There is also an index of names and strange
words; and a table of days and dates. For those who
are curious and like such lore some account is given in an
appendix of the languages, the alphabets, and the calendars that
were used in the Westlands in the Third Age of Middle-earth.
But such lore is not necessary, and those who do not need it, or
desire it, may neglect it, and even the names they may pro-
nounce as they will. Some care has been given to the translation
of their spelling from the original alphabets, and some notes
on the sounds that are intended are offered. But not all are
interested in such matters, and many who are not may still find
the account of these great and valiant deeds worth the reading.
It was in that hope that this long labour was undertaken; for it
has required several years to translate, select, and arrange the
matter of the Red Book of Westmarch in the form in which it is
now presented to Men of a later Age, one no less darkling and
ominous than were the great years 1418 and 1419 of the Shire
long ago.
Tolkien's explanation (as given in The Peoples of Middle Earth) for removing this original forward was simply:
This Foreword I should wish very much in any case to cancel.
Confusing (as it does) real personal matters with the "machinery" of
the Tale is a serious mistake.
Perhaps some future edition might include both Forwards.


Hipster Doofus
Feb 15, 2004
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Perth, Australia
Arvedui said:
I personally find it interesting how Tolkien is aware of the responsibility he has as an author when it comes to the freedom of the reader, although I don't know if I agree with him.
The "freedom of the reader" is not the author's to grant.

Barliman Butterbur

Worthy Keeper/Bree Roué
Dec 7, 2003
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Prancing Pony, Bree
The Tall Hobbit said:
While I do agree that the second edition Forward is worth a closer look, I've always thought that it was a shame that Tolkien chose to eliminate the original Forward which appeared at the beginning of the book from 1954 to 1965...
THANKS for that quote of the original forward! I've never seen it before, and I've copy/pasted it into its own file in my Tolkien folder, (I like it better than the one now used, as it seems both more fun and more humane) and pasted [very judiciously] a printout of it to the back of the front flyleaf in my new 50th Anniversary Edition of LOTR.)

Arthur_Vandelay said:
The "freedom of the reader" is not the author's to grant.
And Vandelay — where the HELL have you been all this time???!!! (And welcome back!:D)

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The Sword that was Broken
Aug 30, 2003
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Barliman Butterbur said:
THANKS for that quote of the original forward! I've never seen it before, and I've copy/pasted it into its own file in my Tolkien folder, (I like it better than the one now used, as it seems both more fun and more humane) and pasted [very judiciously] a printout of it to the back of the front flyleaf in my new 50th Anniversary Edition of LOTR.)
What a great thread! I enjoyed gaining so much insight into Tolkien and how he felt about writing the books as well as his experiences while doing so.

I have to admit, I REALLY like the original forward as well. It's definitely more fun and completely different from the usual. I would love to see it preserved in upcoming editions.


mad about mallorn
Dec 27, 2001
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Beleg Iant in Va Usa
Re: The Second-edition Foreword (and the First)

Quite so, to all that's been said above!

The first Foreword is indeed enchanting, and despite Tolkien's demur and deletion, the second does also intermingle and consider, if not "confuse", personal matters with the machinery of the Tale.

I'll echo Barley particularly, in thanking The Halfling of Height for his addition to the thread; I'd encountered the text before, but it was a great pleasure to be reminded of (and be able to reread) it again; further I'm minded to lift a few lines of it in introducing my Pennas Echuir o Enydon in Birmingham this August. . .

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