Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien: Half-way

I'm back!  I had a great time at the lake with my friend Anna but now it's time to get back to blogging.  I'm about half-way through The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien and figured I would do an update.  It's a fairly large book full of things I could comment on for hours so I wanted to stop half-way through and give my thoughts.

First off, I went into this book expecting to be mildly bored (reading someone's personal letters seemed a bit odd to me on the surface) but hoping to find a rare jewel of wisdom or insight scattered about.  I was completely wrong and I gobbled the book up, realizing it is really something special.

The letters are mainly either to his wife Edith (mostly early on when he was away in WWI), his son Christopher, his publishers Allen & Unwin, and C.S. Lewis.  The later ones look like they are mostly to fans who have questions about The Lord of the Rings.  Where I am in the book he has not yet published it (he is going to soon...I think at this point he's about a year away) so most of the correspondence is trying to convince his editors and publishers to take The Lord of the Rings.

A letter to Rayner Unwin, the son of Stanley Unwin, Tolkien's publisher.  This letter was writtin in 1955,
the same year Tolkien published The Return of the King.

Tolkien writes in such a witty and thoughtful way.  I particularly loved some of his letters to Christopher as he relayed what he, his daughter Priscilla and "Mummy" (Edith) were doing as Christopher was off in WWII.  It was interesting to see what the Tolkien family did.  In one of his letters to Christopher Tolkien attached a copy of a letter sent to him by a young American boy about the Hobbit which said:
Dear Mr Tolkien, I have just finished reading your book The Hobbit for the 11th time and I want to tell you what I think of it. I think it is the most wonderful book I have ever read. It is beyond description... Gee Whiz, I am surprised that it's not more popular...If you have written any other books, would you please send me their names? 
John Barrow, 12 yrs., West Town PA.
and Tolkien commented:
P.S. It's nice to find that little American boys do really say "Gee Whiz".
It's also really intriguing to read Tolkien trying to convince his editors to accept both The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings and talk about how he is writing them.

Many of Tolkien's more ideological letters were to C.S. Lewis including one where he defended the Church's teaching on divorce, and one I particularly liked addressed to his son Michael about how to foster a good relationship (Letter 43).

Michael Tolkien

I also gained a glimpse into academic life for Tolkien including one instance where a fellow don insulted him for Roman Catholics which I found particularly hurtful and could sense Tolkien's disdain for.  But Tolkien also comments his particular love for the Blessed Sacrament and Our Lady which and you can really sense his deep faith throughout his letters.

He does, however, show a bit of dismissal of Americans, often in ways I did not find offensive as an American and it was sometimes even funny.  He seemed to expect very little of the American publishing company and American readers in general.  I don't take it to heart, and since these were originally his private letters and not intended to be blanket statements to everyone.

John Tolkien, the professor's son, became a Roman Catholic priest and was no doubt influenced
by J.R.R.'s steadfast faith.

There is also a fair amount of commentary regarding World War II and his great distaste for it.  He comments on the Russians, Berlin, the damage in England, his great hatred towards the atomic bomb and war machines in general.  He particularly comments vehemently about Adolf Hitler who he had great reason to dislike not only because of the atrocities he commissioned but also because Tolkien didn't like how Hitler was ruining the German name and the Northern spirit...making the Northern European culture seem hateful and racist.

Overall, I found this first part of the book to be very insightful and I really love reading Tolkien's articulate and witty.  Reading all these letters makes me wish that I lived in a time where people sent long letters to each other instead of short little texts.  Perhaps I'll start writing letters to my friends from now on!  So far I am loving this book and highly recommend it.  I'll keep you updated when I finish the entire book.

Tolkien was particularly outspoken about his dislike for Adolf Hitler and WWII.


  1. How interesting! I've always been a bit on the fence about reading people's personal letters, but if they have been published I suppose it's fair game. :)
    Have you ever gotten the sense that J.R.R. Tolkien may have been the tiniest bit conceited about literature? I am by no means an expert, as he was, but some of the stories he has called "rubbish" (or something of the like) I think were perfectly wonderful pieces of literature when appreciated for what they were. Maybe that's a mistaken impression I've picked up, but it really does seem that he treated other people's literary works with a little less kindness than I would have expected...

    1. That's understandable. A lot of personal letters (particularly to Edith) were kept out and the ones that remain are primarily businesslike in nature. Christopher Tolkien (who I assume knew his father's wishes clearly) was also very involved in the selection of the letters to be published, so I trusted that nothing Tolkien wouldn't have wanted would be displayed.

      I have gotten the impression that Tolkien looked down on certain literary works, but I don't necessarily think he meant to be mean about it. It's not like he sent angry letters to the authors he critiqued; these letters were meant for specific audiences (i.e. his family, publisher, etc.). Though Tolkien had strong (and sometimes unfavorable) opinions of certain works, you can certainly tell throughout this compilation of his letters that a) he had specific reasons for disliking what he did and b) he did not think that he was much better than anyone else. Throughout his letters he seemed very humble about his own work and regarded himself more as a philologist and not as a literature specialist. I guess what I mean to say is that yes, Tolkien did express disdain for some works to his private friends, but he also recognized that he wasn't the top dog when it came to literature.