In The Return of the Shadow, the first of four volumes, J.R.R. Tolkien's son Christopher laboriously sifts through his father's myriad handwritten manuscripts, notes, and scribblings on the backside of exams with their many changes and emendations, in an attempt to recreate J.R.R.'s process in writing his masterpiece, Lord of the Rings. What emerges amongst the maddening detail (each change is meticulously documented) is a fascinating look at the creative process.
J.R.R. Tolkien began his epic simply as a sequel to the Hobbit in response to his publisher saying fans would like more about hobbits. The earliest draft concerns Bilbo and later his nephew, who has the terrible name of Bingo Bolger-Baggins (JRR himself wrote in a margin that it was a terrible name)along with several relatives (later to become Pippin and Merry) setting out on another light-hearted adventure. In the process of following these characters (who change names numerous times) the story slowly emerges. As elements solidified, such as the reason for leaving was actually the Ring rather than a desire for adventure, Tolkien would then circle back and rewrite the beginning, which he did about five times.
Much of the depth and changes to the story came about from Tolkien figuring out why things happened. For example, why didn't Gandalf meet Bingo (Frodo) when he first set out from Hobbiton? What kept him? That led to the whole story of Saruman's treason. Aragorn starts out as a hobbit named Trotter (a name he keeps through much of the first drafts even once Tolkien determined that he was, in fact, a man). But clearly this character gnawed at Tolkien's imagination. He wrote several times in the manuscript. Who is Trotter? The answer to that, found in the backstory J.R.R. created for the Silmarillion added an epic quality to the tale.
From a writer's perspective, watching the evolution from the rough beginnings of a rather mediocre children's adventure to the epic tale of heroism against dark forces with its backdrop of numerous cultures and languages, landscapes, and sweeping history is a fascinating slog. It was encouraging to see that the genius came not so much from inspiration (although that's clearly there in a host of smaller decisions) but more through sheer hard work until he finally arrived at the story we know and love.
This is not a book for anyone wanting a light read or for discussions of Tolkien's thought process. Christopher Tolkien never attempts to guess at anything that wasn't present in his father's notes. So, when a change is made, there is no explanation for it. I ended up skimming over portions of the manuscript because one can only dwell so much in minutiae. But sometimes the best insights could be gleaned from one of the footnotes. Recommended for those fellow geeks who are hopelessly fascinated by Middle-earth.