Happy Tolkien Reading Day! Today, March 25th, is the day when we commemorate the Downfall of Sauron after the destruction of the Ruling Ring. As a result, the Tolkien Society invites readers all around the world to celebrate this day by reading–or rereading–their favorite passages or works by J.R.R. Tolkien. To foster a sense of fellowship in all participants, the Society proposes a topic each year. In 2019, the proposed topic was “Tolkien and the Mysterious”—and that was the main thrust behind me writing this post.
When considering this year’s topic, my mind went immediately to what I consider one of the most interesting Tolkien-related mysteries. What happened to the sequel to The Lord of the Rings that the Professor started but quickly abandoned? Why did he do so it and, perhaps more interestingly, why if he was so adamant about his decision was he still trying to restart it years later? Although I won’t be able to answer those questions definitely, I hope that you find this discussion, analysis, and speculation as fascinating as I do.
The sequel to The Lord of the Rings was tentatively entitled The New Shadow. A composite version of what Tolkien wrote was published by his son and literary executor, Christopher, in The Peoples of Middle-earth, the 12th and final volume in The History of Middle-earth series, back in 1996.
The version published there is, as I mentioned, a composite of at least three different versions. Although these versions have no specific date attached to them, Christopher mentions that the second version of the surviving, unfinished text corresponds to the typewriter Tolkien used during the 1950s. This dates this attempt to develop The New Shadow around the time after the publication of The Return of the King and Tolkien’s renewed interest in revisiting—and publishing—the stories of the “Elder Days” of his legendarium.
The most interesting aspect of the text’s composition history, however, is that the last known version of The New Shadow, which, according to Christopher, “[alters] the expression (fairly radically in places), but in no way [alters] the story or [gives] it new bearings,” was one Tolkien wrote on the last typewriter he used.
The last writing Tolkien did on The New Shadow was on the back of a used envelope postmarked January 8th, 1968. Even more intriguing, in this passage Tolkien scribbled further information about the supposed protagonist of the story.
These facts exist in contrast with the author’s own assertions on his published Letters. In a letter dated May 13th, 1964, Tolkien wrote, in reference to The New Shadow,
I did begin a story placed […] after the Downfall [of Sauron], but it proved both sinister and depressing […]. I could have written a ‘thriller’ […] but it would be just that. Not worth doing.
If Tolkien was so sure that The New Shadow was “not worth doing” in 1964, why was he still adding material to it in 1968?
One clue about maybe why Tolkien changed his mind on writing this story—if he did, at least to the extent of scribbling new material about the story after having taken the decision to not write it—is presented by Humphrey Carpenter in his Biography on the author. There Carpenter mentions that, in 1965, the Professor “found a typescript of The New Shadow, a sequel to The Lord of the Rings which he had begun a long time ago but had abandoned after a few pages […]. He sat up till 4 AM, reading it and thinking about it.”
Christopher mentions in The Peoples of Middle-earth that he doesn’t know what Carpenter’s source is to make that assertion, but he doesn’t disprove it either. We have to remember here that Carpenter interviewed Tolkien a couple of times, so it is possible that the author had relayed this occurrence in one of their conversations. On the other hand, we have to consider that Carpenter employs some “poetic license”—so to speak—on his Biography more than once.
What Is It About
Apart from its interesting textual history—at least to me, that is—the most interesting thing about The New Shadow is the story itself. In summary—and using Tolkien’s words—the text was supposed to be about how
The people of Gondor in times of peace, justice and prosperity, would become discontented and restless—while the dynasts descended from Aragorn would become just kings and governors—like Denethor or worse. I found that even so early there was an outcrop of revolutionary plots, about a centre of secret Satanistic religion; while Gondorian boys were playing at being Orcs and going round doing damage.
I believe that this is pitch is not only fascinating, but I’ve even discussed with some people that this story seed is a precursor to the “grimdark” fantasy that has risen in popularity during the past decade or so, with titles like A Song of Ice and Fire and The First Law.
The New Shadow
Apart from its importance as a literary antecedent, the surviving text of The New Shadow, although short, it’s in my opinion a fruitful read on its own. The text, although clearly belonging to the beginning of a story, it’s mainly composed of a dialogue between the youngest son of the Beregond from The Lord of the Rings, Borlas—who’s now an elder man—and a young Gondorian noble who’s called Saelon.
Indeed, the first line of dialogue uttered by Borlas is an ominous declaration and quite the powerful opener to the story, “Deep indeed run the roots of Evil, and the black sap is strong in them. That tree will never be slain.”
Compared to the wise and hardened veteran that is Borlas, Saelon is young and proud of himself. So much so that he argues strongly against the old man’s ideas by presenting a philosophy of his own. That worldview appears right after Saelon remembers an instance in which Borlas lectured him about what the old man designated as “Orcs’ work”
Stealing good fruit, well, I suppose that is no worse than boys’ work, if they are hungry, or their fathers are too easy. But pulling down unripe apples to break or cast away! That is Orcs’ work.
Saelon’s follow up commentary to that memory is both dark and disturbing.
It was a mistake, Master Borlas. For I had heard tales of the Orcs and their doings, but I had not been interested till then. You turned my mind to them. I grew out of petty thefts (my father was not too easy), but I did not forget the Orcs. I began to feel hatred and think of the sweetness of revenge. We played at Orcs, I and my friends, and sometimes I thought: “Shall I gather my band and go and cut down his trees? Then he will think that the Orcs have really returned.”
The best—or worst, depending on our viewpoint—part comes immediately after Saelon’s open admittance of his dark desires and intentions. After the dialogue I just quoted, he adds, “But that was a long time ago,” followed by a smile.
This is the crux of the tension in the little fragment we have. Is Saelon really part of a Sauron—or even Morgoth—cult? Or is he just playing with the old man’s fears? The answer? We’ll never know, because Tolkien didn’t go further than a couple more pages after this. Maybe Morpheus has a complete copy of the nightmarish vision that Tolkien had for this story in his library.
Conclusion and Speculation
Although the story of The New Shadow, the sequel to The Lord of the Rings that never came to fruition, will remain a mystery, we can still speculate on why Tolkien abandoned such an interesting premise. I believe his words when he said that it was only a “thriller”, but I still believe that a story in that style could have been a great one, especially in contrast with the high and tragic fantasy of the “father work,” so to speak.
The most interesting part of this unfinished story, in my opinion, is that Tolkien seemed to have gone back to it just before the end of his life. What fears were assailing him that guided his thoughts back to this dark story? Was he feeling like Borlas, an old man who remember a shadow that younger people had already forgotten, even after a few years? And what was that shadow? The fear of a World War III that would end the world as we know it? Or something even… worse? A dystopian nightmare in which Evil was not limited to those deformed by it—like Orcs—but something that lay in the heart of everybody?
The New Shadow, even though incomplete, remains a fascinating read and powerful insight into Tolkien’s later days. And a wonderful mystery to discuss and argue endlessly, of course.
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