The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

The general public has known for some time (through biographies and commentaries) that John Ronald Reuel Tolkien carried on an extensive correspondence, much of it directed to his son Christopher Tolkien during World War II. Prior to his entering the service, Christopher had been an auditor of the growing Lord of the Rings (1954-1955); father and son were close, and Christopher had even drafted maps of Middle Earth in the Third Age, illustrating the progressing work. Christopher’s overseas duty coincided with a period when The Lord of the Rings was undergoing rapid expansion—almost an explosion of character and incident. It has likewise been known that many comments about The Lord of the Rings found their way into these heartfelt letters from a father to a son who had shared his tastes and enthusiasms. When Humphrey Carpenter published his authorized biography entitled Tolkien: A Biography (1977), he quoted from many of these letters and referred to many more. Now almost 430 pages of that correspondence is available for the study of admirers of The Hobbit (1937), The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion (1977), and whatever parts remain to be published of that vast and original mythology. Readers of these letters will gain a deeper understanding of Tolkien, a complex man of strong emotions, loyalties, aversions, and friendships.

The book, large as it is, is only a selection of the surviving letters. Tolkien’s correspondence was “immense” (Carpenter’s term), and some principle of inclusion had to be established. Rightly, Carpenter gave preference to those letters in which Tolkien discussed his works, but he also included a sampling of those on other topics, with the purpose of demonstrating the range of Tolkien’s interests. A brief introduction gives an overview of the contents: the first major omission is the exclusion of the letters from Tolkien to Edith Bratt (whom he later married), written between 1913 and 1918. Although Carpenter notes that these letters are numerous, he describes them as “highly personal”; Tolkien’s love-letters, therefore, do not find a place in the volume, perhaps out of respect for the privacy of the family. It is hard to argue with this understandable exclusion, particularly because the letters that have been included were obviously not chosen for the purpose of whitewashing the character of Tolkien: the letters given here reveal Tolkien’s quirks and flaws as well as his many virtues.

The letters show that Tolkien’s foremost literary ambition was to see The Silmarillion through the press. This oldest of his works—and his chief love—appears again and again in letters to publishers, being advanced as a candidate for print. The reader learns of Tolkien’s frequent inability to work to a deadline—his own or others’—and his impatience with the delays of his publishers. Revealed here are both his eagerness to approach a rival publisher (Collins) with his manuscripts when that approach seemed to promise publication of The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion; and his chagrin at having to resubmit the manuscript to Allen & Unwin when the flirtation with Collins came to nothing.

Carpenter notes that few letters survive from the period 1918 to 1937; this gap is regrettable, because this was the time of the composition of The Hobbit. The loss is balanced, however, by a wealth of correspondence covering the war years, the process of seeing The Lord of the Rings through the press, and the many, many letters written in reply to well-wishers and enthusiasts.

The editor has presented the letters, he states, much as they were written, and the blue pencil was used very sparingly. Where omissions occur in the printed versions (omissions always indicated by marks of ellipsis), those cuts have been made principally to conserve space; Carpenter adds that “only very rarely has it been necessary to leave a passage out of a letter for reasons of discretion.” The selecting and editing was made with the advice and cooperation of Christopher Tolkien, and the son’s contribution was so large that Carpenter regards the book as almost a joint production.

The selection seems very appropriately made, expressing the character of Tolkien at length and at leisure. There are no unsuspected revelations here: the friendship of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, for example, was common knowledge (and frequently attested to in print) before the publication of this book, but there is a special pleasure in seeing the friendship between two scholars and artists, so like-minded in many ways, displayed and detailed over the years. Some new information appears about The Inklings, and the reputation for wit of the members of that informal group finds substantial reinforcement in these letters as well.

Similarly, it had been known before that Tolkien was a genuinely and...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Book World. XI, October 18, 1981, p. 11.

Booklist. LXXVIII, September 1, 1981, p. 3.

Library Journal. CVI, November 15, 1981, p. 2232.

Listener. CVI, August 27, 1981, p. 213.

National Review. XXXIII, October 2, 1981, p. 1148.

New Statesman. CII, October 30, 1981, p. 24.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, November 15, 1981, p. 7.

Observer. August 23, 1981, p. 23.

Spectator. CCXLVII, September 12, 1981, p. 17.

Times Literary Supplement. August 28, 1981, p. 975.