I have just finished reading The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (1982), which is fitting given that this is the 45th anniversary of his death (2 Sep 1973). With help from Christopher Tolkien, noted writer, broadcaster, and biographer Humphrey Carpenter collected the letters in that energetic period between the publication of The Silmarillion (1977) and the beginning of The History of Middle-earth in the two-volume Book of Lost Tales (1983-4).
Though I was not yet awake to the world, I can imagine that these were heady days for Tolkien fans. The Maker of Middle-earth passed in 1973, no doubt leading to the great disappointment of throngs of avid readers hoping (since 1955) for more. Then, with the help of Guy Gavriel Kay, Christopher Tolkien is able to publish The Silmarillion–something his father was never able to do. Carpenter published his Tolkien biography the same year, followed by a biography of the Inklings in 1978 and the letters in 1981. I can imagine the energy of Tolkien and fantasy societies in these days, long before the internet, when hope for more was fueled by hearsay, rumour, and happy self-delusion. And yet, in the 45 years since his father’s death, Christopher Tolkien has published 23 major volumes. My copy of The Fall of Gondolin (2018) arrived on Friday at suppertime.
Tolkien’s Letters was my most recent “occasional book,” meaning that I read about a letter a day, taking a break last winter to read L.M. Montgomery’s diary. Of the 400 pages of letters, unfortunately only a handful are pre–Hobbit, leaving us with a great gap in that incredibly fertile period of the pre-narrative production of the legendarium. I suppose that gives plenty of space for fans to speculate, for students to explore, and for scholars to make their living. After all, in Carpenter’s collection there are dozens of critical letters concerning Middle-earth (including this one). There are also critical moments in the history of the Inklings (see here and here), letters about the inspiration of his work (like this one), letters to, from, and about fans (like this and this), and–especially in the last decade–many letters about critical details of language development and what we might call Middle-earth theory (like this one–though the ignorance in the post title is mine, not Tolkien’s).
For me, the most profound moments among Tolkien’s letters were when he shared his deeply personal and painful struggle to complete his work. No doubt Tolkien was a publisher’s nightmare even if, when the work was done, he was a dream. In either his academic or his popular work, I’m not sure he ever hit a deadline (at least after the 1930s). I talk here about how the first quarter of The Letters are filled with “insecurity and faint hope.” The brief and light post, “12 Reasons not to Write Lord of the Rings, or an Ode Against the Muses” shows Tolkien at his procrastinating best. But it is not all sheer perfectionism and the self-delusion of “I’ll do it tomorrow.” As I blogged occasionally about the Letters, I often mixed these moving moments in Tolkien’s life. In particular, “Battling a Mountain of Neglects with J.R.R. Tolkien” is about the weight of neglected tasks when desire to tackle them is deep–and yet, there is no time. And in “The Shocking Reason Tolkien Finished The Lord of the Rings” we finally get to look toward the end of that 20-year journey.
I am a little sad now that I have finished The Letters. It was moving to see the end of his life come. Though it was 45 years ago–and the anniversary is only a coincidence–I have joined thousands that have no doubt bowed their heads for a brief moment on closing the last page of this book.
How did The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien end? In the last few pages there are letters about proper Middle-earth names for cattle, detailed letters about philology and Elvin tongues, reflections on his status as a “cult figure,” a reunion with Christopher Wiseman of the TCBS, and notes of grief at the death of his wife, the distance of his family, the debilitations of old age, and his disappearing set of friends. In this collection filled with information about the man and his work that we would have in no other way, what is the last letter about?
Actually, it’s a prattling, familial note to his daughter, Priscilla, while on vacation in Bournemouth at his friends, the Tolhursts. While there are a hundred great notes we would wish to have from J.R.R. Tolkien on his deathbed, I kind of like that this collection ends with the phrase, “… but forecasts are more favourable.” We don’t–or I don’t, in any case–actually know the last thing that Tolkien wrote. We do not have a definitive “Collected Letters” as we do with Dorothy L. Sayers (edited by Barbara Reynolds) or C.S. Lewis (edited by Walter Hooper). Until then, here is the last post of J.R.R. Tolkien, on the 45th anniversary of his death.
Wed. Aug. 29th. 1973 at 22 Little Forest Road, Bournemouth.
I arrived in B’th. about 3.15 yesterday, after a successful drive with most traffic going north not seawards, & a curry-lunch shared by Causier [the driver], Mrs C. and David. It was v. v. hot here & crowded. The Cs. then went off to find ‘accommodation’ for 2 nights, and departed necessarily with all my luggage on what looked like a hopeless quest. They dropped me on the East Overcliff by the Miramar which nostalgically attracted me; but I went into the town & did some shopping, including having a hair trim. I then walked back to the Miramar at 4.45 – and things then began to go wrong. I was told Causier had called to find me about 4 p.m. which made me afraid that he was in difficulties. I also found that I had lost my Bank Card &: some money. ‘Reception’ were surprised but welcoming, comforted me with a good tea. Also assuming that I had been looking for something more than a tea, they told me they could have done nothing at all for me, but for a cancellation which would allow them to take me in on Tuesday Sep. 4 – but I said I would see. I took a taxi to 22 L.F.R. (which promptly lost its way) and arrived late to find the house crowded & lively — only the Dr. was away till evening. (Happy go-lucky folk.) Then I waited anxiously for Causier. It was nearly 7 before he (and Mrs C. & D) turned up – I suspect he too had lost his way – and said it had only taken him 15 mins to find v. g. rooms for 2 nights! In the meanwhile Martin Tolhurst (formerly of N[ew] College), now grown to an immensely tall, charming, and efficient man, had by telephone located my Bank Card etc. at The Red Lion Salisbury. So all was well, for the present. But I have accepted the Miramar offer, and shall not return to Oxford till Sep. 11. For various reasons: the chief being I wish to give Carr plenty of time to clean my rooms [at Merton College], which, and I too, were much neglected latterly; I wish v. much to visit various people here, also Chris Wiseman at Milford, and I am old enough to much prefer familiar surroundings.
My dearest love to you.
It is stuffy, sticky, and rainy here at present – but forecasts are more favourable.