In the early 1950s, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a few pages of a potential sequel to The Lord of the Rings called The New Shadow, but he quickly abandoned the idea. In the late 1960s, he came back to it and typed up a fresh draft of its opening, but then abandoned it again. He tinkered with this potential continuation of the story of Middle-earth until just months before his death in 1973.
These days, you can read a version of the approximately 13-page manuscript of The New Shadow, made up mainly of the last draft with additions from the earlier ones, in The Peoples of Middle-earth, volume 12 of The History of Middle-earth, the series of books edited by Christopher Tolkien in which he published many of his father’s drafts and notes from throughout his life. The pages not only hint at the future of Men a century after the War of the Ring but also how the shifting tides of real-world history continued to be a strong influence on Tolkien’s writing.
The New Shadow features two characters, both human: an old man called Borlas and a young man called Saelon in the later version (he was called Egalmoth or Arthael in earlier versions). The manuscript takes place near to Osgiliath, across the plain from Minas Tirith in Gondor, after the death of King Elessar (we know him best as Aragorn) in the Fourth Age. Tolkien changed his mind about the exact date a few times, and Christopher Tolkien later seemed slightly frustrated by the fact that none of the suggested dates really quite work or match up to previously established lore.
What’s really significant is that Tolkien wanted the story to take place, first, after Aragorn’s death; second, at least one hundred years after the Fall of Sauron, and third, just about within living memory of the War of the Ring (assuming the Men of Gondor had rather long lifespans). The fact that doing all three was largely impossible within the timeline he had set out was not going to stop him!
Borlas is working in his garden when his neighbor Saelon, who used to steal apples from the garden when he was a young boy, wanders over for a chat. It becomes clear that Saelon is a member of a secretive group of men who are followers of Herumor, a rebellious Númenorean who went over to the Haradrim, the Southrons, before the Last Alliance centuries earlier. Herumor is mentioned in The Silmarillion, where he and other renegade Númenoreans are described as “mighty and evil,” and the Haradrim as “a great and cruel people.” Even long-lived Númenoreans do not live quite that long, so whether Tolkien intended this to be the same Herumor, who had extended his life through unnatural means, or a new character by the same name, is unknown.
At the end of the draft, Saelon tells Borlas that if he wants to know more about this secret society, he must dress all in black and wait by the gate behind his house. Saelon will pass by later that evening, and Borlas can come with Saelon to a meeting if he wants to. Borlas is half-convinced that Saelon intends to kill him for speaking out against the group earlier, but he decides to go anyway, to remind these young men of how terrible the war that happened before they were born had been and why they must try to preserve peace.
It is not hard to see why Tolkien felt so strongly about the importance of remembering the horrors of war as a veteran of World War I. When he first started working on this story in the early 1950s, World War II must have been fresh in everyone’s minds, but perhaps the growing Cold War pushed the issue to the forefront, and it must have been in his thoughts when he came back to the story in the late 1960s.
Tolkien talked about the potential new story in a couple of letters. In 1964, in between drafts, he explained that he had abandoned the story because it was “sinister and depressing.” It had already been established in The Lord of the Rings and its Appendices that the Fall of Sauron coincided with the fading away of Elves, Dwarves, and Hobbits, and the rise in power of “Men” (i.e. humankind). After the War of the Ring, the Ringbearers of the Three Elven Rings of Power — Galadriel, Elrond, and Gandalf — all sailed away to the Undying Lands with their Rings, and Men became the dominant species in Middle-earth.
For Tolkien, this meant an inevitable decline. “Since we are dealing with Men,” he wrote (his italics), “it is inevitable that we should be concerned with the most regrettable feature of their nature: their quick satiety with good.” Tolkien explained that the people of Gondor would inevitably become “discontented and restless” during a time of prosperity. Aragorn’s descendants would become kings and governors “like Denethor or worse,” and Gondorian young boys would be “playing at being Orcs and going round doing damage.” The story was going to explore “an outcrop of revolutionary plots, about a center of secret Satanistic religion.”
He made similar comments in a later letter, written in 1972, shortly after resuming and then abandoning the project again, just 15 months before his death. He said that the King’s Peace that followed the war would have no tales worthy of telling. He had explained as far back as Bilbo and the Dwarves’ stay in Rivendell in The Hobbit that “things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale.” In the 1972 letter, he once again explained that in the “restlessness” that followed the King’s Peace of Aragorn’s reign, due to “the (it seems) inevitable boredom of Men with the good,” there would be “secret societies practicing dark cults, and ‘orc-cults’ among adolescents.”
It is clear from these letters that Tolkien’s own Catholicism was going to have a much more obvious impact on this story. Tolkien’s Catholic religious beliefs inform all of his work on Middle-earth in various ways, especially in the stories about Eru Ilúvatar, the Creator of all things in the Lord of the Rings universe. However, in his published works, and even in posthumously published works like The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, this theological background is something that informs his ideas and creative choices, without being overtly pushed into his reader’s face. Unlike his friend C.S. Lewis, Tolkien did not write real-world religion into his stories, and a reader without any knowledge of Catholic theology might not know it was there.
In The New Shadow, however, the religious themes would have been impossible to ignore. The opening is rather more preachy than anything in Tolkien’s most popular works. Much of the conversation between Borlas and his younger neighbour Saelon is about what does or does not constitute “Orkish” [sic] behavior – Borlas explains repeatedly that young boys stealing apples for food is wrong but understandable, but stealing them to throw away is “Orcs’ work” and is evil because it is wasteful. Saelon, of course, does not agree. The fact that the entire conversation is about stealing apples from a tree really hammers home the moralizing thanks to the inevitable comparison with the Biblical story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. If the story then went on to explore “Satanistic” cults, the religious elements would have surely been front and center.
Religiosity aside, Tolkien’s writing in the manuscript is as readable as ever. Like The Lord of the Rings – which is, of course, a sequel to The Hobbit – it opens on a character related to someone we know. The old man Borlas, the hero of the tale, is the younger son of Beregond, a soldier from Minas Tirith. Beregond and his older son Bergil acted as guides for Pippin in The Return of the King, while Gandalf was busy with Denethor. Beregond helped Pippin rescue Faramir from the Steward of Gondor and later became Faramir’s Captain of the Guard and moved to the region of Gondor governed by Faramir, Ithilien. That’s where we find his younger son Borlas in The New Shadow.
In some ways it is a great shame that Tolkien never went further with this idea, as the story could have been really quite exciting. In a letter in 1964, Tolkien said he could have a written a “’thriller about the [Satanistic cult] plot and its discovery and overthrow” but that it would have been “just that” – implying he did not think much of thrillers – and therefore was “not worth doing.” To those of us who enjoy thrillers, the idea of a “thriller” set in Middle-earth is rather appealing! And the fact that the story would be a different genre than its predecessors would hardly be a deal-breaker. The Hobbit is a whimsical children’s fairy tale, and The Lord of the Rings is an epic mythopoeic fantasy, so a third sequel in a third genre would not necessarily be so strange or confusing for readers.
On the other hand, Tolkien’s hesitation and his conviction that a world run by Men will inevitably decline might have produced a less compelling story than his ultimately optimistic earlier works. Tolkien had an unfortunate habit of assigning personality characteristics to entire species – Hobbits are “merry,” Elves are “wonderful,” Dwarves love and desire “beautiful things made by hands and by cunning,” and Men are, apparently, prone to Devil-worship if left in peace for too long.
There are gray areas within these broad characterizations. None of his characters are faultless, except for perhaps Gandalf, nor are any of the Elves, Dwarves, Men, or Hobbits entirely evil. The history of the “wonderful” Elves certainly includes all sorts of bad and destructive behavior, particularly the terrible “kin-slaying” wars fought over the jewels called the Silmarils, the history of which is told in The Silmarillion and is occasionally referred to in The Rings of Power TV series. And on a slightly lighter note, Thranduil and the Wood-Elves’ treatment of Thorin and his company in The Hobbit is pretty terrible. But there is a definite thread of “Elves and Hobbits good; Men and Dwarves flawed” that runs through Tolkien’s works.
The strongest parts of The Lord of the Rings are scenes that question this simplistic characterization-by-species: the sections where the Elf Galadriel or Hobbit Frodo are tempted by the Ring, where the Man Faramir proves his worth, or the friendship between traditional enemies Legolas (Elf) and Gimli (Dwarf). At its heart, The Lord of the Rings is a story about inner conflict, about the interior battle between temptation and the desire to do good, and about how difficult it can be to put the needs of others above the needs of oneself. A story in which characters inevitably succumb to various temptations just because they are biologically programmed to do so would be far less interesting.
Tolkien lived through two World Wars, fighting and losing many friends in one of them while his sons fought in the other. He would have seen the newsreel footage as the Nazi concentration camps were liberated, and he lived to see the dropping of two atomic bombs in 1945. When he was working on The New Shadow, first in the early 1950s and then in the late 1960s, he was writing during the Cold War. By the late 1960s, he had lived through the world taking itself to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and the assassination of JFK in 1963. He was also, as the chapter “The Scouring of the Shire” in The Return of the King demonstrates, concerned about the environmental impact of widespread industrialization. It is, perhaps, no wonder that he was pessimistic about the future of humankind. And maybe it is also understandable why, having developed the view that after Aragorn’s death the only way for Men was down, he decided he simply did not want to tell that story.