The Last Letter of J.R.R. Tolkien, on the 45th Anniversary of His Death

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 preHobbit, 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.

Dearest Prisca,

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.

Daddy.

It is stuffy, sticky, and rainy here at present – but forecasts are more favourable.

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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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21 Responses to The Last Letter of J.R.R. Tolkien, on the 45th Anniversary of His Death

  1. Bookstooge says:

    Books like this make me glad I am not famous nor will I ever be. Having my personal letters out and about for everyone to see? I can’t say what a violation that would be.

    One of the reasons I always clean my emails out. Just in case I accidentally become famous 😉

    Like

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      One is at the mercy of recipients, and, later, executors, heirs, and scholars (of various sorts and degrees – even before one dies, if one passes on any papers to a library in life).

      But I’m very glad of what Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien made of this selection (though I am often confessedly curious about what’s behind the “…”s – assuming they are editorial rather than Tolkien’s). They are happily well indexed, too – which enables us to return browsingly (though I am always pencilling in additional index entries – and a quick check at Amazon suggests there is a Kindle version, which would presumably be easily searchable). And they are well worth rereading in all sorts of ways.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Ah, but of course, you are only deleting half the email. Someone else has the other half!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Bookstooge says:

        Very true.
        But it is much harder to track down 68 different people than to get everything from the source (do you know how many people SAVE their sent mail? aye yi yi!)

        Plus, I suspect there is going to be alot of surprises for future researchers if they’re relying on emails in the future. Mainly that they’re as disposable as tissue and about as useful as used tp.

        Throw in kids now communicating on various apps, that last for a couple of years before getting switched out and wham, so much info is being thrown around but at the same time being thrown away as well.

        It’s why I keep a paper journal for the big events (big to me anyway). But since I’m not donating it to a library, I should be ok 😀

        Liked by 1 person

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Maybe somebody’s told about it and I’ve missed it (sadly not unlikely) buy I’d love to know about how they got all the Lewis letters together – Warren, in the first place… And my Lewis Papers details memories are too fuzzy – I seem to remember they usually (partly) transcribed things, then destroyed the originals (!). I also recall something about, I think it was Christopher J. R. Armstrong in his Evelyn Underhill biography, complaining about the originals of her letters in Charles Williams’s edition of them being missing…

          Liked by 1 person

          • I think it went like this: In 1965 Warren began bringing together letters from friends and connections. Then he wrote to some of the correspondents that he knew from his work as the lit secretary, asking to have or borrow the letters. He also talked to the publishers and organizations. He put the bio & letters together in 1965-6 and published them. But the publication did not go well (his bio was injudiciously cut) and at that point he lacked some focus and a sophisticated organizational pattern for the letters.
            By this time, Clyde Kilby had gone some distance in creating an archive at Wheaton and had people collecting letters and other mss. from across the UK and America. Kilby did the “Letters to an American Lady” just after Waren was finishing the bio/letters. At some point in the late 60s there was a minor rift between Warren and some others in the literary estate, so that a group of papers went to Bodleian and a major group went to Wheaton (including the Lewis Papers, the Boxen materials, and many letters). The largest letter collection is Greeves, and I believe that Kilby & Wheaton secured them on their own.
            By the late 70s and early 80s when individual collections were coming out by the Wheaton Wade team and Walter Hooper, Warren had died, there was a cooperation agreement between the Wade and the Bod, and researchers could visit each archive and get 90% of known letters. There are a dozen or so other major collections, with some copies at the Wade.
            In the late 90s or early 00s, Walter Hooper begins the major letter collection (I assume after the Companion and Guide in 1996). It is almost, but not quite beginning again and he has some research assistants typing up the letters and checking tss. & mss. I presume that would take a decade to do, but I don’t know.
            All that is just my feeling and I have no evidence! Does anyone know?

            Like

            • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

              Thanks! I seem to remember when someone wanted to do a separate edition of the E.R, Eddison-Lewis correspondence (many if not all of which were written in something like Thomas Malory style English), and had no success – I think before Martin Moynihan’s excellent separate edition of the Latin Letters… But I still have not caught up with all the Collected Letters (or their editorial material).

              Like

  2. Dorothea says:

    thank you for sharing this, Brenton. I don’t think it’s a terrible thing to have letters read after death (still better than the diary!). A letter, after all, is always censored in some way and mostly appropriate. There is something kind of heart-warming reading this possibly last letter and seeing “It is stuffy, sticky, and rainy here at present – but forecasts are more favourable”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, well done on the self-censorship think. I’ve been thinking about letters in scholarship and that works. Diaries can be self-censored. Lewis read his aloud to his partner, Mrs. Moore, each evening. Lucy Maud Montgomery clearly edited and rewrote hers when she became famous (though they are still quite revealing).

      Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        “Howdy, pawdner, I reck’n I got a new entry.” “Ochone, Jacksie, put down that six-shooter first.” (Didn’t remember that: still haven’t got round to reading it!)

        I was flabbergasted when I read Boswell’s London Journal and learned he had written it to send to a friend to read – whew! A lot different from the Life of Johnson in content!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Dorothea says:

        yes, see! that’s an interesting route to go down… goes along with the ideas of archives and libraries: what gets kept and what gets saved.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. L.A. Smith says:

    Aww, this is lovely. Thank you for this post. All those links in it will lead me to much enjoyable reading, I am sure.

    I think it’s kinda sad that the written letter has pretty much gone the way of the dodo. None of us get to experience any more the happy thrill of seeing a letter addressed to ourselves when we get the mail. Just bills and advertisements. Not nearly as fun. 🙂

    It’s nice to see that he was in relatively good health up to his death. A quick Google search tells me he died of pneumonia as a result of treatment for a gastric ulcer. Only four days after this letter!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t look that up, actually. Thanks! Although, I am a wee bit skeptical that pneumonia came in that quickly. But who am I to question Google?
      Yes, letters. I send my nephew postcards from time to time, but I rarely write letters. Someday again, perhaps.

      Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        It can come on shockingly quickly and fiercely (as was diagnosed to be the case with Jim Henson: here the current Wikipedia text (“6 September 2018, at 00:29 (UTC)”) and its linked NYT source (q.v.) do not seem, to me, to be saying exactly the same thing!).

        I seem to remember the late Roma King as editor of Robert Browning’s collected correspondence saying something about how a decision had to be made about numerous surviving postcards with brief formal replies to invitations… (cliff-hanger: I can’t remember what the decision was!).

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Emily Austin says:

    This little letter does truly offer a moment to bow the head at. Thanks for providing the opportunity to re-read. And it is rather lovely to think of him not only as a writer or academic, but as a daddy.

    Liked by 1 person

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