I had such great fun on Monday drawing out one of C.S. Lewis’ moments on that day in history, I thought I might repeat the project. I am going through J.R.R. Tolkien’s letters, poems, and essays, reading The Lord of the Rings to my eight year old, and getting ready for the second film, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug–coming Dec 11th. So I thought I would dig into Tolkien’s letters to see what today’s date, October 23rd, revealed.
We don’t have a complete collection of Tolkien’s letters, or at least not nearly as complete as Walter Hooper’s 3 volumes of Lewis’ letters. The key resource is Humphrey Carpenter’s The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Allen & Unwin, 1981). The first letter of Oct 23rd is–at least at first glance–unimpressive: a note to the editor of The Hobbit, Stanley Unwin:
Thank you in return for your encouraging letter. I will start something soon, & submit it to your boy at the earliest opportunity.
This note, however, is actually pretty important. Tolkien needed encouragement, and some say that if it wasn’t for the persistence of C.S. Lewis, Tolkien may never have sought publication for The Hobbit, which means that Peter Jackson would be out of work. But it is also important because of what Editor Unwin had written to Tolkien on Oct 19th:
It is seldom that a children’s writer gets firmly established with one book, but that you will do so very rapidly I have not the slightest doubt. …. You are one of those rare people with genius, and, unlike some publishers, it is a word I have not used half a dozen times in thirty years of publishing.
What Tolkien could not see in his own work but what his editor and C.S. Lewis could, was Tolkien’s genius that we all can now recognize. It is fascinating to read in the first 50 pages or so of Tolkien’s letters the insecurity and faint hope he expresses as The Hobbit goes from pen on paper to an international hit. Later, when Tolkien finally finished The Fellowship of the Ring, Unwin wrote him on Oct 23rd, 1952 with the bad news that such a large book would cost more than £3 to print. In 1952, this was a very high price for a book, and you can see Tolkien’s anxiety in his response on Oct 24th. Indeed, Tolkien half-asks whether the publisher will actually publish it.
As he moves on in the letter, Tolkien lists a litany of tasks that contribute to his busyness and tiredness–tiredness is a theme throughout his letters. In reflection of this “modern life,” Tolkien quips: “Mordor in our midst.” Mordor, indeed.
Beyond letters to his editor, Tolkien also carried on a correspondence with his children. We know Christopher Tolkien best, who is the editor of The Silmarilion and so many other of Tolkien’s posthumously-published books–things we would not see if they were not carefully edited. J.R.R. Tolkien often writes to Christopher, calling him “My dearest man,” and signing, “Your own Father.” Here is a letter of Oct 23rd, 1944. You can sense the WWII context, but also Tolkien’s wit and his bright mind engaged on a question about God:
I have just been out to look up: the noise is terrific: the biggest for a long time, skywide Armada. I suppose it is allright to say so, as by the time that this reaches you somewhere will have ceased to exist and all the world will have known about it and already forgotten it. ….
There seems no time to do anything properly; and I feel tired all the time, or rather bored. I think if a jinn came and gave me a wish – what would you really like? – I should reply: Nothing. Go away!….
With regard to the blasphemy, one can only recall (when applicable) the words Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do – or say. And somehow I fancy that Our Lord actually is more pained by offences we commit against one another than those we commit against himself, esp. his
incarnate person. And linguistically there is not a great deal of difference between a damn you, said without reflection or even knowledge of the terror and majesty of the One Judge, and the things you mention. Both the sexual and the sacred words have ceased to have any content except the ghost of past emotion. I don’t mean that it is not a bad thing, and it is certainly very wearisome, saddening and maddening, but it is at any rate not blasphemy in the full sense.
If I can cheat–since it is almost Oct 24th in the land of Tolkien’s birth and since I have already cheated–I will close with a letter dated Oct 24th, 1955, to Katherine Farrer. Katherine Farrer’s husband was Trinity College theologian Austin Farrar, who formulated a creative, and, I think, quite wrong theory on the relationship of the gospels. Katherine Farrer was in her own right a successful mystery writer. The first letter to her in Carpenter’s collection is actually written in Runes, like you might see in your copy of the Hobbit. The whole letter is in Runic writing, including the signature:
Return of the King was published in England on Oct 20th, 1955. The Lord of the Rings trilogy has been plagued with printer errors–read the introduction to the HarperCollins edition or read through Tolkien’s letters. But, beside printing errors, Tolkien is never content with what he has done. LOTR was no exception, and even as it sits on shelves he is working on the next draft.
Since (in spite of being laid up with a throat that made lecturing impossible until last Friday) I have actually managed to deliver the O’Donnell Lecture on English and Welsh (Friday), and am no longer a college official, and the Book is complete – except for an errata slip for the reprint already required for Vol. III, to cover the important errors of the whole: I shall be a great deal freer after this week…..
I am indeed surprised at the reception of the ‘Ring’, and immensely pleased. But I don’t think I have started any tide. I don’t think such a small hobbitlike creature, or even a Man of any size, does that. If there is a tide (I think there is) then I am just lucky enough to have caught it, being just a bit of it. ….
I still feel the picture incomplete without something on Samwise and Elanor, but I could not devise anything that would not have destroyed the ending, more than the hints (possibly sufficient)
in the appendices.
In the end, though, Tolkien is pleased with the popularity of the books. I think he would be astounded by fans in the hundreds of millions as they exist today. Notably, Tolkien does not think he caused a great shift in literature, but was able to be on the front end of that shift. I’m not sure I agree. I think it is difficult to look back on the history of fantasy literature and not see Tolkien’s work as definitive. Leaving aside the Disneyfication of fairyland–“for all whose works I have a heartfelt loathing,” Tolkien wrote of Disney to Unwin–almost all contemporary Faerie tales find their way back to Tolkien. From the beginning of his writing career to the end, Tolkien underestimates his value as a writer. Such is the testimony of his October letters.