Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, an illuminating look into the author, part 3

After chipping away at it for the last couple weeks, last night I finished up The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. My one line review? It's not hyperbole to say that, if you're a fan of this man's great works of fiction, you owe it to yourself to read Letters.

Over the course of this book I developed a much deeper appreciation not only for The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion, but also for what a unique individual Tolkien was. For example, unbelievably, even towards his last days while continuing to chip away at The Silmarillion, Tolkien regularly answered fan mail. And not just in a cursory, "thank you for the kind words" manner. Letters contains dozens of detailed, multi-page letters on the history of the elves, the derivations of words and names, and the various historic ages of Middle Earth, which Tolkien composed and sent off to bog-standard readers and fans.

Take a moment to think about that: A man who is now regarded as the single greatest influence on not just fantasy literature, but the entire fantasy genre, taking an hour or two out of his busy day to write an eight-page explanation to a reader commenting on Frodo's failure to surrender the Ring in the Cracks of Doom (Letter 246), or to a woman wanting to know whether Shadowfax went with Gandalf across the sea (Letter 268), or to answer a fan's request for a translation of the opening words to one of Treebeard's song (yes, this is in here too--Letter 168).

A few times I actually found myself getting angry: Tolkien died in 1973 at age 81 before he could complete The Silmarillion, which he considered to be his life's work, and a book he continued to chip away at, unsuccessfully, until his death. His son, Christopher, published it posthumously in 1977, but I can't help but think how much more Tolkien could have fleshed out the legends and mythologies of Middle Earth if he spent those hours writing instead of corresponding with fans. But that's who he was.

While Tolkien was quite private about matters of his own life, Letters reveals some personal details which I found quite touching. For example, the fact that he asked to have his wife's headstone engraved as follows (Letter 340):


Tolkien himself had "Beren" engraved on his own gravestone (Beren and Luthien were a mortal man and immortal elf-maiden, respectively, who were the first-age equivalent of Aragorn and Arwen). "She (Edith) was, and knew she was, my Luthien," he wrote.

Tolkien lived and breathed Middle Earth, and spent the majority of his life thinking about it and expanding upon its legends. His devotion to his creation is apparent everywhere and even bleeds through into casual correspondence. For example, he described his relationship to his friend and publisher Rayner Unwin, "like that of Rohan and Gondor... and for my part the oath of Eorl will never be broken, and I shall continue to rely on and be grateful for the wisdom and courtesy of Minas Tirith." Middle Earth was no silly outlet for Tolkien--it was him, and he was it. This is probably the greatest reason why it remains (in my opinion) the most convincing act of sub-creation in all of fantasy literature, one that countless other fantasy authors have sought to imitate, but without the same success.

Other of Tolkien's letters reveal his sense of humor. For example, Tolkien tells that he received a drinking goblet from a fan, "which proved to be steel engraved with the terrible words seen on the Ring. I of course have never drunk from it, but use it for tobacco ash" (Letter 343). When a reader wrote to ask for Tolkien's help with an academic project about his works, Tolkien rebuffed him with a quote from Gandalf: "Do not meddle in the affairs of Wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger." (Letter 346). When another fan asked Tolkien to sign her copy of The Hobbit, he did, but also sent her a postcard written in elvish runes.

There are tons of other great details in Letters, too many to tell here. But just a few nuggets:
  • Tolkien "began a story placed about 100 years after the Downfall of Mordor, but it proved both sinister and depressing" (Letter 256);
  • Frodo's "failure" as a hero: "Frodo 'failed' as a hero"... but "had done what he could and spent himself completely (as an instrument of Providence) and had produced a situation in which the object of his quest could be achieved. His humility (with which he began) and his sufferings were justly rewarded by the highest honour; and his exercise of patience and mercy towards Gollum gained him Mercy: his failure was redressed" (Letter 246);
  • Tolkien actually "welcomed the idea of an animated motion picture, with all the risk of vulgarization" (Letter 198);
  • Tolkien more or less told a German publisher in 1938 to go screw himself when the latter wrote to inquire whether Tolkien was of Aryan descent (Letter 3o)

In short, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien is highly recommended for any serious Tolkien reader.

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