The Tolkien Letter that Every Lover of Middle-Earth Must Read

It is sort of a trick, isn’t it? Any true Tolkien fan will say that every page in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien is essential. However, not everyone enjoys letters as much as I do. Some might absolutely love The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but don’t find great joy peeking into the lives of authors by reading their mail. I may well be the odd man out.

However, embedded in the bits and pieces of correspondence that remain are some absolute gems. It is in these letters that we discover that Tolkien supported C.S. Lewis in his first foray into fiction. We see the heart-crushing weight of work that Tolkien was faced with, and the struggles that he had to complete The Lord of the Rings. And we have the moments, finally, when he finished his work and made it ready for publication. The letters of Tolkien to his friends, family, and publishers are the heart and joy behind the mythic worlds of Middle-Earth.

For the true lovers of Tolkien’s subcreated world, there are also moments where he explains bits and pieces of Middle-Earth and The Silmarillion that we may not know except by a scientific reading of the texts or by archival work that is limited to very few scholars. And even then, some of the points of myth, language, geography, and character development only existed in Tolkien’s brain. So the letters are priceless resources for the Tolkien reader hungry for more.

One of these essential pieces is a 9,500-word letter–really an essay–written to Milton Waldman, a publisher at Collins. Tolkien was trying to win Waldman to the idea of publishing both The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion–a project that the publishers of The Hobbit were unable to commit to at the stage the manuscripts were in at that time (1951). According to the editor of Tolkien’s Letters, Humphrey Carpenter, Waldman was so impressed by Tolkien’s letter he had a typed copy made for posterity. This detailed letter lays out most clearly the relationship between the various complex parts of Tolkien’s legendarium. It is such an important piece that editor Christopher Tolkien included it as prolegomena to The Silmarillion.

There is a second letter, though, that gives a great deal of background to The Lord of the Rings. Naomi Mitchison, a prolific novelist and memoirist–and sister of J.B.S. Haldane–read proofs of LOTR as it was being prepared for publication in early 1954. She wrote to Tolkien with a number of perceptive questions. In reading Tolkien’s response, he is obviously delighted with the depth of her interest in and knowledge of the world that exists in and behind the text. Included in the letter are links between LOTR and the great wealth of myth, legend, history, and story behind it. He takes some time to talk about the different kinds of characters in Middle-Earth, including relationships between Elves, Dwarves, and humans, but also the fallen creatures and the ones that do not have a full explanation in the text-world, like Tom Bombadil, the Ents (and missing Entwives), Hobbits, Shelob, and dragons.

And, of course, Tolkien explains about the languages–his absolute favourite part of the creative process. This letter is particularly interesting because he does not just explain the links between the languages of Middle-Earth, but explains how they developed with relationship to other European languages and Tolkien’s own “phonaesthetic pleasure,” as he puts it.

If you would like to deepen your experience of The Lord of the Rings, and perhaps help transition to the difficult text of The Silmarillion, this letter is a great resource for knowing Tolkien’s mind and the world he made.

25 April 1954                                                                76 Sandfield Road, Headington, Oxford

Dear Mrs. Mitchison,

It has been both rude and ungrateful of me not to have acknowledged, or to have thanked you for past letters, gifts, and remembrances – all the more so, since your interest has, in fact, been a great comfort to me, and encouragement in the despondency that not unnaturally accompanies the labours of actually publishing such a work as The Lord of the Rings.

But it is most unfortunate that this has coincided with a period of exceptionally heavy labours and duties in other functions, so that I have been at times almost distracted.

I will try and answer your questions. I may say that they are very welcome. I like things worked out in detail myself, and answers provided to all reasonable questions. Your letter will, I hope, guide me in choosing the kind of information to be provided (as promised) in an appendix, and strengthen my hand with the publishers. Since the third volume will be rather slimmer than the second (events move quicker, and less explanations are needed), there will, I believe be a certain amount of room for such matter. My problem is not the difficulty of providing it, but of choosing from the mass of material I have already composed.

There is of course a clash between ‘literary’ technique, and the fascination of elaborating in detail an imaginary mythical Age (mythical, not allegorical: my mind does not work allegorically). As a story, I think it is good that there should be a lot of things unexplained (especially if an explanation actually exists); and I have perhaps from this point of view erred in trying to explain too much, and give too much past history. Many readers have, for instance, rather stuck at the Council of Elrond. And even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).

But as much further history (backwards) as anyone could desire actually exists in the Silmarillion and related stories and poems, composing the History of the Eldar (Elves). I believe that in the event (which seems much to hope) of sufficient people being interested in the Lord of the Rings to pay for the cost of its publication, the gallant publishers may consider printing some of that. It was actually written first, and I wished to have the matter issued in historical order, which would have saved a lot of allusion and explanation in the present book. But I could not get it accepted.

The third volume was of course completed years ago, as far as the tale goes. I have finished such revision, as seemed necessary, and it will go to be set up almost at once. In the meanwhile I am giving what fragments of time I have to making compressed versions of such historical, ethnographical, and linguistic matter as can go in the Appendix. If it will interest you, I will send you a copy (rather rough) of the matter dealing with Languages (and Writing), Peoples and Translation.

The latter has given me much thought. It seems seldom regarded by other creators of imaginary worlds, however gifted as narrators (such as Eddison). But then I am a philologist, and much though I should like to be more precise on other cultural aspects and features, that is not within my competence. Anyway ‘language’ is the most important, for the story has to be told, and the dialogue conducted in a language; but English cannot have been the language of any people at that time. What I have, in fact done, is to equate the Westron or wide-spread Common Speech of the Third Age with English; and translate everything, including names such as The Shire, that was in the Westron into English terms, with some differentiation of style to represent dialectal differences. Languages quite alien to the C.S. have been left alone. Except for a few scraps in the Black Speech of Mordor, and a few names and a battle-cry in Dwarvish, these are almost entirely Elvish (Eldarin).

Languages, however, that were related to the Westron presented a special problem. I turned them into forms of speech related to English. Since the Rohirrim are represented as recent comers out of the North, and users of an archaic Mannish language relatively untouched by the influence of Eldarin, I have turned their names into forms like (but not identical with) Old English. The language of Dale and the Long Lake would, if it appeared, be represented as more or less Scandinavian in character; but it is only represented by a few names, especially those of the Dwarves that came from that region. These are all Old Norse Dwarf-names.

(Dwarves are represented as keeping their own native tongue more or less secret, and using for all ‘outer’ purposes the language of the people they dwelt near; they never reveal their own ‘true’ personal names in their own tongue.)

The Westron or C.S. is supposed to be derived from the Mannish Adunaic language of the Númenóreans, spreading from the Númenórean Kingdoms in the days of the Kings, and especially from Gondor, where it remains spoken in nobler and rather more antique style (a style also usually adopted by the Elves when they use this language). But all the names in Gondor, except for a few of supposedly prehistoric origin, are of Elvish form, since the Númenórean nobility still used an Elvish language, or could. This was because they had been allies of the Elves in the First Age, and had for that reason been granted the Atlantis isle of Númenor.

Two of the Elvish tongues appear in this book. They have some sort of existence, since I have composed them in some completeness, as well as their history and account of their relationship. They are intended (a) to be definitely of a European kind in style and structure (not in detail); and (b) to be specially pleasant. The former is not difficult to achieve; but the latter is more difficult, since individuals’ personal predilections, especially in the phonetic structure of languages, varies widely, even when modified by the imposed languages (including their so-called ‘native’ tongue).

I have therefore pleased myself. The archaic language of lore is meant to be a kind of ‘Elven-latin’, and by transcribing it into a spelling closely resembling that of Latin (except that y is only used as a consonant, as y in E. Yes) the similarity to Latin has been increased ocularly. Actually it might be said to be composed on a Latin basis with two other (main) ingredients that happen to give me ‘phonaesthetic’ pleasure: Finnish and Greek. It is however less consonantal than any of the three. This language is High-elven or in its own terms Quenya (Elvish).

The living language of the Western Elves (Sindarin or Grey-elven) is the one usually met, especially in names. This is derived from an origin common to it and Quenya; but the changes have been deliberately devised to give it a linguistic character very like (though not identical with) British-Welsh: because that character is one that I find, in some linguistic moods, very attractive; and because it seems to fit the rather ‘Celtic’ type of legends and stories told of its speakers.

‘Elves’ is a translation, not perhaps now very suitable, but originally good enough, of Quendi. They are represented as a race similar in appearance (and more so the further back) to Men, and in former days of the same stature. I will not here go into their differences from Men! But I suppose that the Quendi are in fact in these histories very little akin to the Elves and Fairies of Europe; and if I were pressed to rationalize, I should say that they represent really Men with greatly enhanced aesthetic and creative faculties, greater beauty and longer life, and nobility – the Elder Children, doomed to fade before the Followers (Men), and to live ultimately only by the thin line of their blood that was mingled with that of Men, among whom it was the only real claim to ‘nobility’.

They are represented as having become early divided in to two, or three, varieties. 1. The Eldar who heard the summons of the Valar or Powers to pass from Middle-earth over the Sea to the West; and 2. the Lesser Elves who did not answer it. Most of the Eldar after a great march reached the Western Shores and passed over Sea; these were the High Elves, who became immensely enhanced in powers and knowledge. But part of them in the event remained in the coast-lands of the North-west: these were the Sindar or Grey-elves. The lesser Elves hardly appear, except as part of the people of The Elf-realm; of Northern Mirkwood, and of Lorien, ruled by Eldar; their languages do not appear.

The High Elves met in this book are Exiles, returned back over Sea to Middle-earth, after events which are the main matter of the Silmarillion, part of one of the main kindreds of the Eldar: the Noldor[1] (Masters of Lore). Or rather a last remnant of these. For the Silmarillion proper and the First Age ended with the destruction of the primeval Dark Power (of whom Sauron was a mere lieutenant), and the rehabilitation of the Exiles, who returned again over Sea. Those who lingered were those who were enamoured of Middle-earth and yet desired the unchanging beauty of the Land of the Valar. Hence the making of the Rings; for the Three Rings were precisely endowed with the power of preservation, not of birth. Though unsullied, because they were not made by Sauron nor touched by him, they were nonetheless partly products of his instruction, and ultimately under the control of the One. Thus, as you will see, when the One goes, the last defenders of High-elven lore and beauty are shorn of power to hold back time, and depart.

I am sorry about the Geography. It must have been dreadfully difficult without a map or maps. There will be in volume I a map of part of the Shire, and a small-scale general map of the whole scene of action and reference (of which the map at the end of The Hobbit is the N.E. corner). These have been drawn from my less elegant maps by my son Christopher, who is learned in this lore. But I have only had one proof and that had to go back. I wisely started with a map, and made the story fit (generally with meticulous care for distances). The other way about lands one in confusions and impossibilities, and in any case it is weary work to compose a map from a story — as I fear you have found.

I cannot send you my own working maps; but perhaps these very rough and not entirely accurate drafts, made hurriedly at various times for readers, would be of some assistance. …. Perhaps when you have done with these MS. maps or made some notes you would not mind sending them back. I shall find them useful in making some more; but I cannot get to that yet. I may say that my son’s maps are beautifully clear, as far as reduction in reproduction allows; but they do not contain everything, alas!

Some stray answers. Dragons. They had not stopped; since they were active in far later times, close to our own. Have I said anything to suggest the final ending of dragons? If so it should be altered. The only passage I can think of is Vol. I p. 70 : ‘there is not now any dragon left on earth in which the old fire is hot enough’. But that implies, I think, that there are still dragons, if not of full primeval stature. I have a long historical table of events from the Beginning to the End of the Third Age. It is rather full; but I agree that a short form, containing events important for this tale would be useful. If you would care for typed copies of some of this material: eg. The Rings of Power; The Downfall of Númenor; the Lists of the Heirs of Elendil; the House of Eorl (Genealogy); Genealogy of Durin and the Dwarf-lords of Moria; and The Tale of the Years (esp. those of the Second and Third Ages), I will try and get copies made soon. ….

Orcs (the word is as far as I am concerned actually derived from Old English orc ‘demon’, but only because of its phonetic suitability) are nowhere clearly stated to be of any particular origin. But since they are servants of the Dark Power, and later of Sauron, neither of whom could, or would, produce living things, they must be ‘corruptions’. They are not based on direct experience of mine; but owe, I suppose, a good deal to the goblin tradition (goblin is used as a translation in The Hobbit, where orc only occurs once, I think), especially as it appears in George MacDonald, except for the soft feet which I never believed in. The name has the form orch (pl. yrch) in Sindarin and uruk in the Black Speech.

The Black Speech was only used in Mordor; it only occurs in the Ring inscription, and a sentence uttered by the Orcs of Barad-dûr (Vol. II p. 48) and in the word Nazgûl (cf. nazg in the Ring inscription). It was never used willingly by any other people, and consequently even the names of places in Mordor are in English (for the C.S.) or Elvish. Morannon is just the Elvish for Black Gate; cf. Mordor Black Land, Mor-ia Black Chasm, Mor-thond Black-root (river-name). Rohir-rim is the Elvish (Gondorian) name for the people that called themselves Riders of the Mark or Eorlings. The formation is not meant to resemble Hebrew. The Eldarin languages distinguish in forms and use between a ‘partitive’ or ‘particular’ plural, and the general or total plural. Thus yrch ‘orcs, some orcs, des orques’ occurs in vol I pp. 359,402; the Orcs, as a race, or the whole of a group previously mentioned would have been orchoth. In Grey-elven the general plurals were very frequently made by adding to a name (or a place-name) some word meaning ‘tribe, host, horde, people’. So Haradrim the Southrons: Q. rimbe, S. rim, host; Onod-rim the Ents. The Rohirrim is derived from roch (Q. rokko) horse, and the Elvish stem kher- ‘possess’; whence Sindarin Rochir ‘horse-lord’, and Rochir-rim ‘the host of the Horse-lords’. In the pronunciation of Gondor the ch (as in German, Welsh, etc) had been softened to a sounded h; so in Rochann ‘Hippia’ to Rohan.

Beorn is dead; see vol. I p. 241. He appeared in The Hobbit. It was then the year Third Age 2940 (Shire-reckoning 1340). We are now in the years 3018-19 (1418-19). Though a skin-changer and no doubt a bit of a magician, Beorn was a Man.

Tom Bombadil is not an important person – to the narrative. I suppose he has some importance as a ‘comment’. I mean, I do not really write like that: he is just an invention (who first appeared in the Oxford Magazine about 1933), and he represents something that I feel important, though I would not be prepared to analyze the feeling precisely. I would not, however, have left him in, if he did not have some kind of function. I might put it this way. The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power, and so on; but both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of control. but if you have, as it were taken ‘a vow of poverty’, renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless. It is a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war. But the view of Rivendell seems to be that it is an excellent thing to have represented, but that there are in fact things with which it cannot cope; and upon which its existence nonetheless depends. Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left for him in the world of Sauron.

He has no connexion in my mind with the Entwives. What had happened to them is not resolved in this book. He is in a way the answer to them in the sense that he is almost the opposite, being say, Botany and Zoology (as sciences) and Poetry as opposed to Cattle-breeding and Agriculture and practicality.

I think that in fact the Entwives had disappeared for good, being destroyed with their gardens in the War of the Last Alliance (Second Age 3429-3441) when Sauron pursued a scorched earth policy and burned their land against the advance of the Allies down the Anduin (vol. II p. 79 refers to it). They survived only in the ‘agriculture’ transmitted to Men (and Hobbits). Some, of course, may have fled east, or even have become enslaved: tyrants even in such tales must have an economic and agricultural background to their soldiers and metal-workers. If any survived so, they would indeed be far estranged from the Ents, and any rapprochement would be difficult – unless experience of industrialized and militarized agriculture had made them a little more anarchic. I hope so. I don’t know.

Hobbit-children were delightful, but I am afraid that the only glimpses of them in this book are found at the beginning of vol. I. An epilogue giving a further glimpse (though of a rather exceptional family) has been so universally condemned that I shall not insert it. One must stop somewhere.

Yes, Sam Gamgee is in a sense a relation of Dr. Gamgee, in that his name would not have taken that form, if I had not heard of ‘Gamgee tissue’; there was I believe a Dr. Gamgee (no doubt of the kin) in Birmingham when I was a child. The name was any way always familiar to me. Gaffer Gamgee arose first: he was a legendary character to my children (based on a real-life gaffer, not of that name). But, as you will find explained, in this tale the name is a ‘translation’ of the real Hobbit name, derived from a village (devoted to rope-making) anglicized as Gamwich (pron. Gammidge), near Tighfield (see vol. II p. 217). Since Sam was close friends of the family of Cotton (another village-name), I was led astray into the Hobbit-like joke of spelling Gamwichy Gamgee, though I do not think that in actual Hobbit-dialect the joke really arose.

There are no precise opposites to the Wizards – a translation (perhaps not suitable, but throughout distinguished from other ‘magician’ terms) of Q. Elvish Istari. Their origin was not known to any but a few (such as Elrond and Galadriel) in the Third Age. They are said to have first appeared about the year 1000 of the Third Age, when the shadow of Sauron began first to grow again to new shape. They always appeared old, but grew older with their labours, slowly, and disappeared with the end of the Rings. They were thought to be Emissaries (in the terms of this tale from the Far West beyond the Sea), and their proper function, maintained by Gandalf, and perverted by Saruman, was to encourage and bring out the native powers of the Enemies of Sauron. Gandalf’s opposite was, strictly, Sauron, in one part of Sauron’s operations; as Aragorn was in another.

The Balrog is a survivor from the Silmarillion and the legends of the First Age. So is Shelob. The Balrogs, of whom the whips were the chief weapons, were primeval spirits of destroying fire, chief servants of the primeval Dark Power of the First Age. They were supposed to have been all destroyed in the overthrow of Thangorodrim, his fortress in the North. But it is here found (there is usually a hang-over especially of evil from one age to another) that one had escaped and taken refuge under the mountains of Hithaeglin (the Misty Mountains). It is observable that only the Elf knows what the thing is – and doubtless Gandalf.

Shelob (English representing C.S ‘she-lob’ = female spider) is a translation of Elvish Ungol ‘spider’. She is represented in vol. II p. 332 as descendant of the giant spiders of the glens of Nandungorthin, which come into the legends of the First Age, especially into the chief of them, the tale of Beren and Lúthien. This is constantly referred to, since as Sam points out (vol. II p. 321) this history is in a sense only a further continuation of it. Both Elrond (and his daughter Arwen Undómiel, who resembles Lúthien closely in looks and fate) are descendants of Beren and Lúthien; and so at very many more removes is Aragorn. The giant spiders were themselves only the offspring of Ungoliante the primeval devourer of light, that in spider-form assisted the Dark Power, but ultimately quarrelled with him. There is thus no alliance between Shelob and Sauron, the Dark Power’s deputy; only a common hatred.

Galadriel is as old, or older than Shelob. She is the last remaining of the Great among the High Elves, and ‘awoke’ in Eldamar beyond the Sea, long before Ungoliante came to Middle-earth and produced her broods there. ….

Well, after a long silence you have evoked a fairly long reply. Not too long, I hope, even for such delightful and encouraging interest. I am deeply grateful for it; and I hope all staying at Carradale will accept my thanks.

Yours sincerely,
J. R. R. Tolkien.

[1] N = ng as in ding.

Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. Print.


About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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8 Responses to The Tolkien Letter that Every Lover of Middle-Earth Must Read

  1. That is a fascinating letter. I am happy I chanced across your blog! Here’s to fantasy fiction and the worlds they open up for us. Cheers.


  2. traildustfotm says:

    This was a really fun read! Thank you Brenton.


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