The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2023

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...

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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 deeply religious man, a sincere Roman Catholic in an academic circle where his faith was sometimes a handicap. That religious spirit is beautifully expressed in his letters to Christopher, then at war. These documents of paternal love and consolation are models of their kind.

Some of the letters written during World War II will be unpleasant to Americans: Tolkien occasionally gave vent to disparaging remarks about Americans and what he perceived to be American culture. Tolkien’s prejudices in this matter might have been predictable, given his class, education, and experience. Still, it is shocking to read his statement of doubt about whether American or Soviet influence was worse; he characterized the position of the smaller states of Europe as “between the devil and the deep blue sea all right (and you can stick which D you like on to which side you like).” Again, he can complain about the Oxford pubs being filled with American soldiers early in 1944, and rejoice later in that year that the pubs were no longer crowded. Some of these grumbles must have been sheer thoughtlessness, since those boisterous Americans were then fighting in France, and had he reflected on their condition, he would surely have sympathized with it.

Of course, the greatest risk a famous person undergoes is the publication of his private letters: every crochet, every complaint written in a moment of solitary jaundice is set forth for the world to see, no matter how fleeting the feeling may have been. Certainly, Tolkien was not intemperate or hostile to the individual Americans (one as young as twelve) to whom he addressed replies. With them he was courteous and generous; his reaction to Americans in the mass was that of a conservative, rather cloistered Englishman of middle age, piqued at and baffled by the sounds of jazz in an Oxford pub.

A more admirable side of Tolkien’s character shown in the letters is his pleasure in observing nature, and the keenness of his vision. Many letters are filled with minute recording of changes in the weather and the progress of the seasons. He takes an obvious pleasure in noting the different colors of green in the leaves of the budding trees, the light on the frost of a mid-winter’s day, and similar evidences of common glories. The Lord of the Rings is a vividly pictorial book, and in Tolkien’s attention to nature’s details one can see the basis of his imaginative subcreation.

The great bulk of the book is made up of letters dealing with commentary on his literary works. Those interested in the creative process will find much to study here. The Lord of the Rings was composed over almost a dozen years, with time stolen at odd moments from a busy academic and domestic life. During many an evening that in a calmer time could have been spent writing, Tolkien stood duty as an air-raid warden in a communications post. For those times filled with dulling and repetitive events, Tolkien had the balance of the stimulating company of the Lewis brothers, Charles Williams, and others. This company was at once a spur to writing and a standard by which the writing could be measured. At one point, for example, C. S. Lewis was moved “almost to tears” on hearing the chapter of Frodo’s approach to Kirith Ungol in The Lord of the Rings.

Details are revealed about the work itself, such as Tolkien’s fondness for Sam over other characters in The Lord of the Rings, and his comment that Sam is the character “most closely drawn,” “the successor to Bilbo of the first book, the genuine hobbit.” Frodo his author found not so interesting, since Frodo’s calling set him apart from the ordinary and took him out of the common sphere. When the ending was not yet written, Tolkien foresaw that Frodo would become too “ennobled and rarefied” by his achievements to return to the humble life of the Shire, and that it would be Sam who provided the reader’s link with what Charles Williams perceived as the book’s center: “freedom, peace, ordinary life and good liking.” Sam figures also in the passage that was Tolkien’s favorite: Frodo and Sam on the slopes of Mount Doom, when Sam consoles Frodo by talking about the nature of stories.

There was a great deal of spontaneity about Tolkien’s method of writing. He seems to have been a person who ran dry for weeks, months, even years at a time; but when inspiration came, it was likely to take him in unplanned directions, despite all the outlining done in advance. This was the case with the character of Faramir; as Tolkien wrote to Christopher in 1944, “A new character has come on the scene (I am sure I did not invent him, I did not even want him, though I like him, but there he came walking into the woods of Ithilien).” Consistently throughout his career, Tolkien spoke of his writing as if he were uncovering old myths, rather than creating new ones. In his biography of Tolkien, Carpenter records that as early as 1915, when Tolkien had shown a friend some verses about a character later to be discussed in The Silmarillion, the friend asked what they were about. Tolkien replied, “I don’t know. I’ll try to find out.” From the beginning, he spoke of the work more as its discoverer than its author. Indeed, that is how much of the work must have seemed to him. The Lord of the Rings, especially, was woven from threads spun for The Silmarillion twenty years before, and to someone whose professional training was as a philologist, the creation of the trilogy must have seemed much like historical reconstruction of a forgotten language.

The last 270 or so letters were written after the publication of The Lord of the Rings, between 1956 and 1973. In many of these, Tolkien provides commentary on his published works and on the linguistic groundwork on which they rest. Time and again, Tolkien writes at great length to admirers explaining and interpolating his creations. The sheer amount of detail provided in these letters is formidable: some of it, of course, had already found its way into print, as one correspondent or another referred to comments Tolkien had made, but to have it all gathered in one place is a great help to students of the novels. It will take critics a long time to absorb the information given here, supplied from the privileged position of the author of the works.

The text of the letters is followed by twenty pages of notes, which give valuable information about persons, events, and institutions referred to in the letters.

The publication of Tolkien’s letters is a major event for the study of fantasy in the twentieth century. Interpretations of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion will be modified (and clarified) by the light provided here. Something else will be welcomed, even by those who have no taste for fantasy: the biography—from his own pen—of an ordinary yet extraordinary man; a loving father and husband, a man sustained by family and friends, nettled by worries of teaching students, earning a living, raising children; a man surviving in a world at war; an outsider in religion, a devoted artist; a man with a personality deep and honest and human.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 49

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.

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