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)–but you can hear more about Tolkien’s diamond waistcoat here. 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 lukewarm–and stored safely in the refrigerator whenever possible. Though I am closer in size to a hobbit than Professor Tolkien and have characteristic rotundity and floppy hair. Though I do love green growing things, and have a good urban garden, 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 published 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.
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? The Lord of the Rings is a Tolkienish book, and Tolkien was a Middle-earth man. How do 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 the New Critics, passing out poems 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. With his literary theory text, The Personal Heresy, Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis was part of this new critical movement that distanced itself from biographical criticism. 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 authors from their 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:
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.