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The New Shadow: The History Of J.R.R. Tolkien's Abandoned Sequel To The Lord Of The Rings

J.R.R. Tolkien's world of Middle-earth is massive, complex, and full of details. There are a lot of books, movies, series, and other media that call it home. But the author himself actually published very little Middle-earth material during his lifetime. He released "The Hobbit" in 1937, and the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy slowly formed over the next couple of decades. It wasn't until after his death in 1973 that his son, Christopher Tolkien, began publishing reams of his father's endlessly unfinished writings. We're talking about books like "The Silmarillion," "Unfinished Tales," and "The Children of Hurin."

One massive chunk of these posthumous publications — and we mean massive — is the 12-volume series "The History of Middle-earth." The lengthy, often mind-numbing compendium traces the evolution of Tolkien's world as it was developed over the decades. As the dozen volumes progress, "The Silmarillion" slowly emerges from its dense, academic pages. The collection includes notes and written copy from multiple versions of "The Hobbit," too. It even traces the maturation of "The Lord of the Rings" throughout its various drafts.

And there, tucked away neatly in the last part of the final book, "The Peoples of Middle-earth," is an abandoned 13-page chapter called "The New Shadow." What is it? Why, the beginning of a sequel to "The Lord of the Rings," of course. Let's take a quick look at Tolkien's discarded sequel, why it existed in the first place, and why it never got past the earliest stages of development.

The genesis of The Lord of the Rings

Before we get too far into the details, we need to ask: Why did J.R.R. Tolkien try to write a sequel to "The Lord of the Rings" in the first place? At the end of his life, the professor still had a very unpublished "The Silmarillion" sitting in his office. Why move forward into the future of his world when his interests so clearly lay backward on the Middle-earth timeline?

The most obvious answer here is that people wanted more Middle-earth content — especially the easily digestible stuff. The author's publisher consistently rejected Tolkien's requests to publish the older content due to the fact that, well, it read more like an ancient chronicle than a fast-paced adventure.

Initially, Tolkien tried to satisfy his newly minted fandom by working on a sequel to "The Hobbit," which he started within months of the publication of that book. Around that time, Tolkien shared in a letter, "I have written the first chapter of a new story about Hobbits." But it took years for this story to develop, which is why Tolkien opens up the foreword to "The Fellowship of the Ring" by saying, "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." So what started out as a simple sequel to "The Hobbit" spiraled into the epic trilogy that we all know and love.

A sequel to the sequel

Once J.R.R. Tolkien had finished the herculean effort of writing "The Lord of the Rings," and it had become wildly popular, the natural question for his endlessly ravenous fandom was whether there would be a sequel to the sequel. Could Tolkien muster the creative juices to continue the story after Aragorn's coronation and Frodo's departure from Middle-earth? At first, the answer seemed to be yes. At least, it appears that Tolkien wanted to keep going.

The earliest version of his failed attempt at a sequel dates from the same decade that "The Return of the King" was published. So he clearly tried to continue to give the people what they wanted, even if his personal interests remained in the genesis rather than the ending of his world. This time around, though, his fascination with the creation and earlier eras of Middle-earth won out. Tolkien only got a handful of pages into a sequel before he ground to a halt. The resulting text is called "The New Shadow," and it leaves us with a tiny glimpse into what could have been.

What is The New Shadow about?

Both "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" start in the green fields of the Shire. Not so with "The New Shadow." That false-start-of-a-book begins in the kingdom of Gondor, which immediately gives it a more sophisticated and definitively darker feel. Instead of light-hearted Hobbits going about their innocent lives, the story picks up with the elderly Borlas of Pen-arduin, who is described as the younger son of one Beregond.

For those who have only seen the movies, Beregond is a key supporting character in the book "The Return of the King" and one of Faramir's most devout followers. Borlas would also presumably be the younger brother of the boy Bergil, whom Pippin hangs out with early in the same book while they're waiting for Sauron to attack Minas Tirith.

In "The New Shadow," Borlas is very old. This is because, while the precise date of the story depends on the version you're reading, the sequel picks up at least a century after the events of "The Lord of the Rings." While the exact timeline gets a bit dicey, the one consistent factor here is that the story begins in the reign of Eldarion after his father, our old friend Aragorn, has already died. So right away, it's clear that Tolkien was trying to start a completely new tale. With that said, the distant connection through an elderly character is a bit reminiscent of starting "The Fellowship of the Ring" with an older Bilbo at his 111th birthday party.

A lengthy conversation

"The Hobbit" starts with a characteristically fun interaction between Bilbo and Gandalf, while "The Fellowship of the Ring" launches with a description of the lead-up to Bilbo's impending party of special magnificence. The bulk of the scrap of writing that is "The New Shadow" is much more tempered, focusing on a single, moody conversation between Borlas and a younger fellow named Saelon. The two are working in Borlas' garden at the end of the day as they discuss troublesome "Orc's work" (at this point, Orcs are semi-mythological beings of the past) and a metaphorical "dark tree" that is spreading out its evil roots.

The arboreal identification of evil is interesting, considering J.R.R. Tolkien's well-known environmental affinity. There is precedence, though. In the original drafts of "The Lord of the Rings," the lovable Treebeard actually starts as an evil character that fills the role Saruman would eventually play. The Old Forest in the book "The Fellowship of the Ring" is also full of dark-hearted trees that are willing to torment, harm, and even murder two-legged creatures.

As the conversation progresses, Saelon processes the childhood trauma he experienced while raiding Borlas' gardens as a younger lad. The two also go back and forth as they have a philosophical debate between an elder and a youth about the state of the land and the potential presence of evil. Some things never change.

An unsettling and maddeningly open-ended tale

As the precious few pages of "The New Shadow" draw to a close, things start to pick up. Saelon invites Borlas to a secret meeting after nightfall. He says that Borlas will find answers at the mysterious enclave and warns him to dress in black if he decides to come. A few early whisperings of a crisis are also mentioned, such as a number of fishermen disappearing in a nearby port, doubtless setting the stage for future trouble.

Saelon leaves, and a thoughtful Borlas heads back to the shadowy haunt of his house in the dimming light of evening. But before the story gets much further, it abruptly cuts off. The last line reads, "Suddenly he smelt it, or so it seemed, though it came as it were from within outwards to the sense: he smelt the old Evil and knew it for what it was."

And that's it. That's as far as Tolkien got. It's a disquieting end to a promising beginning.

When was The New Shadow written?

As with most of J.R.R. Tolkien's writings, the development of "The New Shadow" didn't happen overnight. On the contrary, he probably started the story not long after "The Return of the King," which was published in 1955. From there, he worked on what little there was in fits and starts for the next decade.

In Tolkien's biography, Humphrey Carpenter claims that the professor dug up a copy of this original attempt at a sequel in 1965, when searching for other revision notes to "The Hobbit." The biographer says that Tolkien had not looked at "The New Shadow" for quite some time before chancing upon it again. "It was about the return of evil to Middle-earth," writes Carpenter. "He sat up till four a.m. reading it and thinking about it."

While this is an interesting development at first glance, it doesn't appear to have sparked any particularly special creative enlightenment. Instead, Tolkien returned to revising his already published works the next day. Still, the story shows that a full decade after "The Lord of the Rings" was complete, Tolkien was still pondering its sequel ... and was still just as stumped about how to get some traction on the story.

Tolkien wrote three copies of the short sequel

Despite the paucity of material, it's worth noting that Tolkien did put some work into "The New Shadow" on multiple occasions in one of the best ways he knew how: by reworking what he had already written. In "The Peoples of Middle-earth," Tolkien's son, Christopher, prefaces the story by describing three different versions of the short text written in the 1950s and 1960s, adding, "It seems strange that my father should have made no less than three versions, each showing very careful attention to improvement of the text in detail, when the story had proceeded for so short a distance."

There are minor (though signature) edits in these drafts, such as scrupulously changing the younger character's name from Egalmoth to Saelon. Despite these rewrites, however, the story remained stubbornly short. Tolkien appears to have primarily rewritten the same few pages over and over again, perfecting what was there (as was his habit) and perhaps hoping to jumpstart the next portion of the tale, even though that event never took place — for the most part, anyway.

A scrap note on a letter

While the official text of "The New Shadow" is short as all get-out, there is one final, minor addition to the story of an attempted sequel to "The Lord of the Rings." It comes to us via a note scribbled on a used envelope from 1968. In "The Peoples of Middle-earth," Christopher Tolkien describes this note, which his father hastily scribbled down, as "a passage concerning Borlas, developing further the account of his circumstances at the time of the opening of the story."

The note is provided in a footnote, where it describes a bit of Borlas' past and current life. The character was originally a member of a group called the Prince's guard. When the story starts, he lives with two servants and is a widower of 10 years, with a married daughter who lives in a distant part of the realm. His youngest and only son, Berelach, is a sailor in the King's ships — a term that sounds like it comes straight from the "Rings of Power" Second Age story. Saelon was apparently going to be spun as an old friend of Berelach, who by the time the story starts, hadn't been stationed locally for three years.

It's beefy for a note, but ultimately the new finding is just as unsatisfying as the brief, formally written text that precedes it.

Why didn't Tolkien finish The New Shadow?

The gnawing question that remains is why J.R.R. Tolkien never got any further — let alone finished — "The New Shadow." Time-wise, the author had plenty of cushion, even at his own slow rate of writing. In the foreward to "The Fellowship of the Ring," Tolkien states, "The composition of 'The Lord of the Rings' went on at intervals during the years 1936 to 1949." That's 13 years. In comparison, there are 18 years between the publication of "The Return of the King" in 1955 and Tolkien's death in 1973. On top of that, we know that he rewrote the first few pages of the sequel repeatedly over a decade or more of that time. So why didn't he get any further?

In a letter from May 1964, Tolkien wrote, "I did begin a story placed about 100 years after the Downfall [of Mordor], but it proved both sinister and depressing." He added, "Since we are dealing with Men it is inevitable that we should be concerned with the most regrettable feature of their nature: their quick satiety with good." He went on to explain that the people of Gondor would become restless, and their leaders would become mere kings and governors — or even something less savory — like the decadent, embittered Denethor. He finishes with the line, "I could have written a 'thriller' about the plot and its discovery and overthrow — but it would be just that. Not worth doing."

A story not worth telling?

Tolkien's view of "The New Shadow" as a "thriller" that wasn't worth telling is interesting. In his 1964 letter, he refers to the primary dangers of a sequel stemming from Men, saying, "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."

In another letter in 1972, not long before his death, Tolkien once again explained the problem with trying to write a sequel set after Aragorn's life: "[The] King's Peace would contain no tales worth recounting ... almost certainly a restlessness would appear about then, owing to the (it seems) inevitable boredom of Men with the good: there would be secret societies practicing dark cults, and 'orc-cults' among adolescents."

In "The Peoples of Middle-earth," Christopher Tolkien points out that, despite its "thriller" label, "The New Shadow" would have likely been a remarkable story. However, he reinforces his father's decision to abandon it by pointing to the "good and evil" nature of "The Lord of the Rings" and how that clear delineation in Middle-earth ended with that story. He even quotes his father, saying, "Sauron was a problem that Men had to deal with finally ... it was also the last of those in 'mythological' personalized (but non-human) form."

Is it a good thing that we didn't get a sequel to The Lord of the Rings?

Tolkien thought that a sequel to "The Lord of the Rings" wouldn't have been worth the trouble. His son admitted that the book would have doubtless been a fascinating thriller, despite its differences from his father's more "mythological" material. Were they right, though?

After all, "The Lord of the Rings" itself is a vast deviation from "The Hobbit." Sure, there are connections and crossovers. But the spirit of the pair of stories is very different — and most agree that "The Lord of the Rings" is the better of the two tales. Is it wrong to assume that, if Tolkien had gone on writing, "The New Shadow" wouldn't have been equally mature and profound when compared to "The Lord of the Rings"?

Then again, while its avid fans loves to dig deep into the material, the larger Middle-earth audience is here for the flashier stuff — the Elves and Dwarves and dragons. These are elements that would have likely been absent from a proper sequel, with the story instead revolving around humans interacting, engaging, and fighting with one another. If that was the case, maybe it's best to let the unwritten story lie as its author intended — an unfinished thriller not worth writing.