Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Letters of JRR Tolkien: An illuminating look into the author

I recieved a few blissful days off from work this Christmas, and in addition to lots of time with the family I spent a few free hours digging into The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. I'll admit to not having read any dedicated collections of letters in the past, preferring to read works of fiction or traditional non-fiction, with occasional forays into biographies and literary criticism.

But being a personal favorite author of mine, I made an exception for Tolkien. And so far (just 90 pages into a roughly 500 page book), I'm glad that I did.

Tolkien was old-school in every sense of the phrase, and one of his and his contemporaries' endearing traits was the act of letter writing. While I'm sure that personal correspondence has increased with the advent of computers and e-mail, there's just something special about the process of setting pen to paper and writing an honest letter, a piece of paper that you can hold in your hand and read. Paper letters seem simultaneously more formal and more personal (if that's possible), and are certainly more tangible than an e-mail that arrives nearly instantaneously when you click "send," can be just as easily deleted. In fact, I wonder how much e-mail correspondence will ultimately survive.

But back to the matter at hand. Tolkien was particularly voluminous as a letter-writer (at least according to the dust jacket of this book), and left a huge paper trail following his death in 1973, a trail which often leads to illuminating revelations about the man.

Take this letter he wrote to his son, Christopher, in the latter days of World War II (dated May 6, 1944). This was a trying time for Tolkien, who was not only teaching a full courseload at Oxford and spending his few remaining free hours trying to write the Lord of the Rings, but was also subject to constant worry about his son who was in the Royal Air Force helping wage a campaign to defeat Nazi Germany.

Tolkien begins the letter sympathizing with the deplorable camp conditions through which Christopher was suffering (the elder Tolkien himself being a WW I veteran with similar experiences), but then ties it into one of the prevailing themes of the Lord of the Rings:

Your service is, of course, as anybody with any intelligence and ears and eyes knows, a very bad one, living on the repute of a few gallant men, and you are probably in a particularly bad corner of it. But all Big Things planned in a big way feel like that to the toad under the harrow, though on a general view they do function and do their job. An ultimately evil job. For we are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring. And we shall (it seems) succeed. But the penalty is, as you will know, to breed new Saurons, and slowly turn Men and Elves into Orcs.

In other words, evil means are often (unfortunately) needed to defeat evil, to the detriment of both the victor and of mankind in general. In this case, Tolkien was referring to how the common soldiers--the Tommies--get ground up in the gears of war, which are set in motion by politicians and madmen.

Later in the same letter Tolkien describes some of his writing process to Christopher:

A new character has come on the scene (I am sure I did not invent him, I did not even want him, though I like him, but there he came walking into the woods of Ithilien): Faramir, the brother of Boromir...

This for me was a fun bit of magic, a glimpse at the divine spark of invention that comes of inspired writing. Actually reading about how a characer like Faramir more or less strode, fully formed like a real person, onto the rough pages of The Lord of the Rings, was inexpressably rewarding. Revelations like this and the one above have made Letters a truly illuminating read.

No comments: