I don’t know that there is any more famous Tolkien quote than his claim to, in fact, be a hobbit. It’s really quite a delightful statement and worth quoting more fully:
I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size). I like gardens, trees and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humour (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much.
The only time I ever wore an ornamental waistcoat was when I was paid to do so (as an actor), and I would be terribly afraid to try most of the mushrooms that grow wild nearby. I can’t afford French cooking, and I like my food either hot or cold–not luke warm–and stored safely in the refrigerator. Though I am closer in size to a hobbit than Professor Tolkien and have characteristic rotundity and floppy hair, and though I do love green growing things, I am not in fact, a hobbit.
But where is this sudden statement of hobbit self-identification coming from? And why was Tolkien talking about vegetables and waistcoats in the first place?
The fun of it is that Tolkien is, actually, responding to a personal research request. All through the letters that Humphrey Carpenter has collected from the late 1950s, Tolkien found himself responding to fans who pushed him on the world in and behind the text of Lord of the Rings. Though Tolkien occasionally found it tiresome to correspond, he kept a number of these letters in draft or duplicate form. I think they allowed him space to clarify things like linguistics and philology, hobbit lore, and the many dancing threads of the legendarium, still hidden from the rest of the reading world.
This note on hobbitishness was to Deborah Webster on 25 Oct 1958. Webster, who would go on to write about Tolkien in society journals, wanted background facts about his life so she could get to know his work better. This happened before as well. In June of 1957. Caroline Everett wrote to Tolkien for biographical details to support her thesis research. This is a famous letter because in it Tolkien talks about “Leaf by Niggle”–a story so peculiar to his work because it is so autobiographical, not to mention being in the short story genre and an allegory. He generously shares the struggles he had in developing the Lord of the Rings over two decades. And he does supply some background biography, including schooling and his connection to the Inklings.
Famously, though, Tolkien begins the letter like this:
Though it is a great compliment, I am really rather sorry to find myself the subject of a thesis.
This is not mere humility, for he liked that his myth was getting some traction in the publishing world. His reluctance comes from his understanding of what literary critics do:
I do not feel inclined to go into biographical detail. I doubt its relevance to criticism.
For many of us this might come as a shock. My whole literary critical project is about triangulating the life-story of the Inklings with their work and their contemporary culture. What would I do without biography? Lord of the Rings is a Tolkienish book, and Tolkien was a Middle-earth man. How to I sever the two?
The knife that was purported to cut this Gordian knot appeared in this period. Prof. I.A. Richards led the Cambridge critics and new critics, passing out p0ems to students stripped of context and authorship beginning in the 1920s. This began a school of thinking about literature at the very space of the encounter between reader and text–a conversation that dominated the 20th century and still teases in the minds of readers today. Was Tolkien adding to this school of readership?
While the Inklings as literary critics were part of the conversation, Tolkien did not think that texts needed to be anonymous or that there was no real author–though he valued anonymous works, especially that of Beowulf.
Instead, Tolkien went on to articulate what he thought (for him) was the connection between his work and his life.
I doubt its [a biography’s] relevance to criticism. Certainly in any form less than a complete biography, interior and exterior, which I alone could write, and which I do not intend to write. The chief biographical fact to me is the completion of The Lord of the Rings, which still astonishes me. A notorious beginner of enterprises and non-finisher, partly through lack of time, partly through lack of single-minded concentration, I still wonder how and why I managed to peg away at this thing year after year, often under real difficulties, and bring it to a conclusion. I suppose, because from the beginning it began to catch up in its narrative folds visions of most of the things that I have most loved or hated.
I think there is a kind of honest, humble–can I say hobbitish?–genius about this phrase. While books can extend out to all kinds of meanings, and while we may never know an author from his or her works in the way we know our friends and family, there is an authorial imprint left on most books. Tolkien’s intense care and scattered perfectionism shine through. As does the great expansiveness of his mind, his critical love of languages, his interest in geography and botany, and the fact that his work is a kind of biography of human mortality. Though I cannot know everything about Tolkien from his work, I could never believe that he wasn’t someone who delighted in humour.
And this is the critical thing: With due respect to the “Death of the Author” folks, I cannot read C.S. Lewis’ work and not believe that he was a funny person and well read. Before I knew of Charles Williams‘ or Stephen King‘s darker sides, I felt it in the text. I cannot pick up Harry Potter and believe that J.K. Rowling was not someone who evinced a deepfelt motherly love and personal care for outsiders. As much as Ursula K. Le Guin tried to keep her feminism out of her fiction, it squeezed through finally in Earthsea to give us a sublime reading of how women and men find their voices.
There is something of the author left in the text. Kafka, who tried to erase himself as author, has left us something that is more Kafkaesque than any of the copies.
My hope in putting Tolkien’s doubts about biography and an author’s work in context will help us see how perceptive and instinctive is his sense of self in the text. I think he is not just a hobbit when it comes to food and green, growing things, but a hobbit in the way he understands books–that stories come with histories, that great tales have a certain pattern to them, and that all claims should be taken with a halfling’s self-contradicting innocent skepticism. Here is the entire letter to Deborah Webster with its hobbit self-identification in context, from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter:
Letter 213: From a letter to Deborah Webster 25 October 1958)
I do not like giving ‘facts’ about myself other than ‘dry’ ones (which anyway are quite as relevant to my books as any other more Juicy details). Not simply for personal reasons; but also because I object to the contemporary trend in criticism, with its excessive interest in the details of the lives of authors and artists. They only distract attention from an author’s works (if the works are in fact worthy of attention), and end, as one now often sees, in becoming the main interest. But only one’s guardian Angel, or indeed God Himself, could unravel the real relationship between personal facts and an author’s works. Not the author himself (though he knows more than any investigator), and certainly not so-called ‘psychologists’.
But, of course, there is a scale of significance in ‘facts’ of this sort. There are insignificant facts (those particularly dear to analysts and writers about writers): such as drunkenness, wife-beating, and suchlike disorders. I do not happen to be guilty of these particular sins. But if I were, I should not suppose that artistic work proceeded from the weaknesses that produced them, but from other and still uncorrupted regions of my being. Modern ‘researchers’ inform me that Beethoven cheated his publishers, and abominably ill-treated his nephew; but I do not believe that has anything to do with his music. Then there are more significant facts, which have some relation to an author’s works; though knowledge of them does not really explain the works, even if examined at length. For instance I dislike French, and prefer Spanish to Italian – but the relation of these facts to my taste in languages (which is obviously a large ingredient in The Lord of the Rings) would take a long time to unravel, and leave you liking (or disliking) the names and bits of language in my books, just as before. And there are a few basic facts, which however drily expressed, are really significant. For instance I was born in 1892 and lived for my early years in ‘the Shire’ in a pre-mechanical age. Or more important, I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories), and in fact a Roman Catholic. The latter ‘fact’ perhaps cannot be deduced; though one critic (by letter) asserted that the invocations of Elbereth, and the character of Galadriel as directly described (or through the words of Gimli and Sam) were clearly related to Catholic devotion to Mary. Another saw in waybread (lembas)= viaticum and the reference to its feeding the will (vol. III, p. 213) and being more potent when fasting, a derivation from the Eucharist. (That is: far greater things may colour the mind in dealing with the lesser things of a fairy-story.)
I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size). I like gardens, trees and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humour (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I love Wales (what is left of it, when mines, and the even more ghastly sea-side resons, have done their worst), and especially the Welsh language. But I have not in fact been in W. for a long time (except for crossing it on the way to Ireland). I go frequently to Ireland (Eire: Southern Ireland) being fond of it and of (most of) its people; but the Irish language I find wholly unattractive. I hope that is enough to go on with.
Thank you for this!
That “visions of most of the things that I have most loved or hated” leaps out as interesting, beyond, as well as in, the context of the Webster letter details. I wonder how far we could supplement it from other letters, as to, e.g., in how far these are things he happened for a variety of reasons or causes to love or hate, and in how far among these are things he considered justly to be loved or hated? For example, what would he say about spiders in comparison and contrast with “the machine”? Bad experiences with spiders could help in imagining properly fearful monstrous spiders, without leading to sweeping hatred of actual spiders. (I write as a spider lover, full of rational fears and precautions.)
I wonder what he particularly disliked about “the even more ghastly sea-side resorts” of Wales (in comparison with, say, relatively resortless sea sides – of which Roverandom, perhaps, offers examples?)? (I write as having greatly loved Llandudno as a boy, when there were still pounds, shillings, and pence – and real penny-arcades to go with them.)
Alas, I’m probably too tall even for an Ent-draught-drinking Hobbit, and love waistcoats, but have never encountered affordable ornamental ones – now, Stephen Medcalf was a wearer of marvellous waistcoats…
We used to pick and eat inkcaps at The Kilns – the only edible wild mushroom I can confidently recognize – it was only years later I read they could react terribly with red wine – which, if true, we somehow happily escaped. (I wonder if that was in fact a Lewisian tradition, sometime enjoyed by visiting Tolkiens?)
I wonder if Tolkien’s identification with hobbits might have run deeper than similar tastes in mushrooms and waistcoats? Saying he was a hobbit could have been his way of saying that (of all the creatures in the middle-earth) the hobbit was the creature he felt he most resembled: as opposed to, say, an elf, a dwarf, a dragon, or somebody of obviously heroic stature like Aragorn.
An interesting question, finely expressed – “most resembled” – Tolkien can have Elvish artistic aspirations, yet most resemble a hobbit. You’ve also got me wondering about hobbit-Strider (and Ranger) parallels – hobbits and Rangers as variously óutsiders’, not obviously significant to many observers – and yet, in fact… the heroic stature of Aragorn becomes more widely obvious, as does that of hobbits, put to the test.
‘Tolkien can have Elvish artistic aspirations, yet most resemble a hobbit.’
Absolutely. Elves represent a sort of ideal (while ironically being all the less ‘human’ as a result) – maybe something like angels?
‘You’ve also got me wondering about hobbit-Strider (and Ranger) parallels.’
My reading of the books is that there are different kinds of bravery. I think Tolkien’s qualified assessment of himself may in part be due to the fact that he wasn’t a physically brave man, but – no more than the rest of us – believed he would do ‘the right thing’ when the occasion called for it. So although the hobbits have clearly defined moral compass, they are not warriors or even fighters, unless cornered. I think this is one trait which distinguishes them from most of the other characters (Aragorn, Boromir etc) – yet it is Frodo who carries the ring all the way to Mount Doom without fully succumbing to its spell.
Oh, it’s late and I only just began reading, but your theme strikes close to home. My Signum thesis on the development of the character of Lúthien touched on biographical issues. I acknowledged my daring with the point that it is foolish to look just at scholarly or historical/cultural influences without acknowledging the personal facts of an author’s life. JRRT was a married man with 4 children. To ignore that fact is to picture Niggle’s tree without the mountains behind it or the meadows and gardens surrounding it.
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Oh, that’s a nice way of drawing the question together. Very well done!
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There can be no wall between an author’s life and work. But there can be greater caution exercised than we often see. Identifying points of contact between aspects of an author’s life and aspects of his/her work has to be more than a parlor game, just like tracing his/her sources. Otherwise what you end up with is nothing more than a sterile list. Such points of contact, between life and work, between source and text, are far less important than what the author does with them. Tolkien’s love of Edith and the impact of her dancing for him in the woods after he return ill and stunned from the war and the deaths of his 2 closest friends there clearly helped form the moment when Beren sees Luthien for the first time. But that is hardly all. He transformed that love and that moment in the woods into a grand myth about life, death, immortality, the doom of men and elves, and perhaps how the choice of Luthien might ultimately release the Elves from the bondage of Arda. But that transformation required more than that moment. It required every bit of his knowledge of myth and story, and, as his world grew over the years, that too became a source for the developing Tale of Beren and Luthien, just as happens in our own history, in which the present is built upon the people and events of the past.
It’s interesting to note how carefully Tolkien phrases the ‘Virgin Mary’ part. Some one ‘asserted’ it. He does not explicitly confirm or deny. In letter 142 he is equally cagey: ‘I think I know exactly what you mean … by your references to Our Lady’, where he goes on to say that much of the ‘religious’ element was unconscious. Perhaps, like me (also a Catholic but by no means as good a Catholic) he may be willing to concede that there may be something to what the critic noticed about the descriptions, but unwilling to say that that makes Galadriel or Elbereth an allegory or stand-in or echo even of the Virgin Mary. The descriptions, whether called upon consciously by Tolkien or merely ladled out of the cauldron of story along with the rest of that day’s serving, are transformed and used to create very different characters, neither of whom resembles the Virgin Mary much at all. I would sooner believe that PJ’s Galadriel turns blue because the Virgin is often depicted in blue than that Tolkien meant us to see her as such. Galadriel, even as described in LotR as she sprang fully formed from Tolkien’s head, is conceived of as far from immaculate. It is long suffering that has humbled her and made her wise, not being born a second Eve.
Thanks for a thoughtful post, as always, Brent.
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I can’t remember if he ever discusses typology explicitly, but my impression is that the whole Middle-earth mythology and legendarium is typological in a distinct way, with characters both glorious and flawed, like Galadriel, Gandalf, and Frodo, with their real but limited accomplishments, who point forward in history to the Incarnation of Christ as the only-sufficient. (The end of ‘On Fairy-Stories’ seems obviously relevant, here.)
David, do you mean typological in the strict sense (prototype, type, antetype, etc.)?
I think I do, though I also know I don’t know enough about (let us say) the taxonomy of typological analyses. But, as Isaac is a type of Christ in the near-sacrifice on Moriah, so, Gandalf is a type of Christ in Moria – and in his resurrection, yet Gandalf not only has his personal flaws, but is not incarnate as Christ is Incarnate, and not even a flawless incarnate one of the Istari could be salvific as Christ is, but would only be a finer sort of positive typological analogue than Gandalf already is of something in part like an Arian christology (!). The destruction of the Ring and defeat of Sauron therewith occurs on 25 March, a date richly laden with significant events throughout Christian exegetical history, but especially the date of the Annunciation, of the Incarnation beginning the final defeat of sin and death – and, further, in the words of Frederick Holweck, “as the actual day of Our Lord’s death.” In his 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia article, “The Feast of the Annunciation”, he says, “All Christian antiquity (against all astronomical possibility)” recognized this, and further notes “the ancient martyrologies assign to the 25th of March the creation of Adam and the crucifixion of Our Lord; also, the fall of Lucifer, the passing of Israel through the Red Sea and the immolation of Isaac.” (Eleanor Parker has more interesting details about such things in Annunciation-related post at her Clerk of Oxford blog.) I think Tolkien is consciously entering into this with his Middle-earth ancient history.
I have to think about this David, so I’m mentally placemarking it. Bug me if I don’t come back!
Thank you, Tom, for your careful and thoughtful response.
I like that you refuse the either-or (or, we would say at work, a false binary). I do think these moments and others of biographical interest create a conversation with the text. I break the Personal Heresy to study C.S. Lewis. It matters that Tolkien was Roman Catholic and that Lewis was not.
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Going off on a bit of a tangent, I wonder what Tolkien thought of the Lady’s Magnificat-like speech in chapter 5 of Perelandra?
Don’t know. Most of his comments were mildly positive.
Tolkien’s falling out with Lewis at the end of their friendship over the Biblical allegories in the Narnia Tales seem to make clear how he certainly would not have meant any (if any) “allegory or stand-in or echo even of the Virgin Mary of Galadriel or Elbereth” ?
Hmm, I’m not sure. I’ve been thinking about this. Tolkien did actually write allegory, and he admits to the symbolic layering in his work–though I don’t know many careful readers who would want to call LOTR an allegory (or even some of the legendarium, where we have “myth” material that looks like allegory, but isn’t).
But Tolkien simply misunderstood Narnia. It wasn’t to his taste, and he didn’t attend to the project that was actually happening. The allegorical elements in it are not biblical but mythical (like Father Time), and Tolkien didn’t know how or refused to read it well.
And I’ve wondered about this “falling out.” I’m not convinced it was such a rift, but the slow drift of drifting friends over 15 years. This included a big lifestyle choice that Tolkien didn’t approve of, and Tolkien’s increasingly overworked and ornery behaviour.
But granted that drifting, I’ve wondered how much Tolkien’s abrupt dismissal of Lewis’ Narnia affected things. Lewis had worked so hard to support JRRT and bring the Hobbit and LOTR to light. When Lewis felt he had something, Tolkien threw it away in a breath. Did that make that rift bigger? Lewis had a physical collapse that year, and perhaps his capacity for Tolkien’s criticism was low.
Whatever it was, a real rift or mere drifting, it was a sad ending to such a wonderful and rich friendship over so many years.
As to your biblical vs mythical remark: Aslan has very clear resemblance to Christ (so much clearer than Aragorn or Gandalf in LOTR). It also reminded me of “the long talk Lewis had with Dyson and Tolkien on 19 September 1931 during the Addison’s Walk when they were able to demonstrate to Lewis that Jesus’ resurrection is the True Myth, the mythical story that really happened.
But I also remembered reading about it in The Company They Keep by Diana Pavlac Glyer, on pages 83-86. Here some quotes from those pages in addition to all you already mentioned about it.
There was Tolkien’s general discomfort with Lewis’s religious writing in defiance of Academic protocol, eg. the Screwtape Letters. His strongest antipathy was though towards the Chronicles of Narnia, because of their allegorical nature. Tolkien’s dislike of allegory in general and religious allegory in particular is well known. Tolkien is quite clear on the matter: “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have so ever since a grew old and wary enough to detect its presence … My mind does not work allegorically …. Allegory is entirely foreign to my thought “.
Other explanations she mentions for Tolkien’s objections to the Narnia Tales are by Carpenter, namely two jealousies: of Lewis’s quick and easy writing style and his seemingly borrowing of certain elements of Tolkien’s work.
Hooper: “Tolkien …. thought the Narnia Tales too hastily written and with too many inconsistencies”, objecting to the haphazard mixing of widely diverse mythologies.
David Graham: “Tolkien saw the Tales as a jumble of unrelated mythologies ….”.
Joe R. Chrisopher: “Tolkien was not bothered so much by the mixing of mythologies as by their distortion, eg. Lucy meeting Tumnus, a faun or satyr …. Lewis is reducing Greek mythology to the pleasant level of a child’s story, where a faun is just a picturesque exterior of a nice person ….”
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