|The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are not the only Tolkien gems we can get our hands on. I have to say that his letters are equally entertaining.
They may not inspire the same level of visual entertainment as his major works, now adapted into major films, but each is a story that should interest and delight any Tolkien fan.
If you want to know more about the beloved writer, his personal letters, published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien will help you gain such insight.
The June 1972 issue of the Daily Telegraph had a theme central to forestry. In the attempt to lead the readers' imaginations, it used Tolkien's name in conjunction with the term “gloom,” thus, “Tolkien gloom” to describe a bleak expanse of land “where no bird sing.” To this, Tolkien reacted by posting a letter that was published by the Daily Telegraph the following month.
In his letter, he stated his objection to the use of his name to qualify the word gloom. He called it unfair and proved why, citing the 4 forests in Middle Earth, as well as each their special characteristics that give no room for gloom.
Moreover, Tolkien's explanation moved from specifics in the LOTR books to a pro-environment and political sentiment:
“It would be unfair to compare the Forestry Commission with Sauron because as you observe it is capable of repentance; but nothing it has done that is stupid compares with the destruction, torture and murder of trees perpetrated by private individuals and minor official bodies.”
Every year for more than 20 years, Tolkien corresponded as Father Christmas with his 4 kids, sharing news from the North Pole. This started in 1920. All such letters were compiled in “Letters From Father Christmas.” One of the letters was about the North Polar Bear's misfortune leading to “awful things” just before Christmas. It was penned in Father Christmas' usual shaky handwriting style and enclosed was an artistic illustration of the accident that ensured visual entertainment to the little ones.
Tolkien founded this Christmas tradition, partly with the intention to have his children get into writing:
“When is Michael going to learn to read, and write his own letters to me?”
To the rest of us, reading this compilation is like going back to childhood to recover wonder.
In 1938, German publisher Rütten & Loening, who had intentions of translating The Hobbit for German readers, sent Tolkien an inquiry regarding his roots. Apparently, they were concerned that he was of Aryan descent and they needed proof.
To be of Aryan race meant having Indo-European heritage, a grouping that became latently racist in the late 19th century.
The letter infuriated Tolkien who wrote back to the publisher in two letters. One was objective and with an effort to evade the offensive inquiry and one showed dismay in a distinct, professional Tolkien-style.
His letter of dismay was, of course, more interesting as he did not only explain his roots, he also noted that he wasn't Jewish to any degree, in case it was also a question. In addition, he implied that everyone is equal when it comes to literature:
“...if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.”
However, nobody knew which reply was sent.
In the January 1938 issue of The Observer, a letter addressed to Tolkien was published, posting inquiries regarding The Hobbit. It was signed by “The Habit” who expressed interest in the inspiration behind the creation of the “hobbit” creature, among other things. Tolkien gave a lenghty reply, which was also printed by the same publication a month later.
Tolkien answered every inquiry, but not in the way The Observer or its readers probably hoped. For example, he did say that his books were not based on other existing literature, except The Silmarillion (unpublished at that time), which he also wrote. To add entertainment to his reply, he explained the characters' orgins by enumerating names and here we see his love of names, naming, and onomastics:
“The dwarf-names, and the wizard's, are from the Elder Edda. The hobbit-names from Obvious Sources proper to their kind. The full list of their wealthier families is: Baggins, Boffin, Bolger, Bracegirdle, Brandybuck, Burrowes, Chubb, Grubb, Hornblower, Proudfoot, Sackville, and Took.”
While “The Habit” believed that Tolkien's specific answers should help future research students, Tolkien believed otherwise.
On March 1956, Tolkien received a letter from a Sam Gamgee residing in London, inquiring about the inspiration behind Samwise Gamgee's name. Mr. Gamgee apparently learned of the character from the LOTR radio serials and not from the books and got intrigued. Tolkien, surprised and thrilled, replied with enthusiasm to explain how he came up with name:
“I lived near Birmingham as a child, and we used 'g amgee' as a word for 'cotton-wool'; so in my story the families of Cotton and Gamgee are c onnected.”
He also sent Mr. Gamgee signed books, which the delighted man promised to read. Later, he wrote to his son sharing the news of this exciting encounter.
In Tolkien's 1938 letter to Masefield, we get a glimpse of his literary perception when he challenged the school of thought regarding Chaucer's place in the history of literature. The letter was an answer to Masefield's invitation to recite lines from Chaucer's “Nun's Priest's Tale” for the Summer Diversions event in Oxford. Though Tolkien disliked the idea as it seemed to him “..to allude to the erroneous imagination that Chaucer was the first English poet..” he expressed his acquiescence.
Furthermore, we learn that he contested three (3) things about Chaucer:
a) Chaucer was a pioneer in English poetry
b) Chaucer was elite in the these respects, but only mostly common, and
c) that those before him were “dumb and barbaric”
In 1972, Tolkien answered a letter from Mrs. Muriel Thurston who expressed her desire to use “Rivendell” to name her herd of bulls. Tolkien, in a reply, asked her what specific names Mrs. Thurston intended to give her bulls and offered to help her invent names based on the Elvish suffix “mundo” for the word bull. In another reply, Tolkien gave these names: "Aramund" for Kingly bull, "Tarmund" for Noble bull, and "Turcomund" meaning Chief of bulls among others.
Many letters like these give valuable insight about his works, private life, and career. Clearly useful to students studying Tolkien's literature, they are also entertaining to vast redearship.
Savannah Elwood is a literature student, traveler, and a nature lover - one reason why she loves Tolkien's Middle Earth stories. She writes at paper on time.
|Title: The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien
Publishers: HarperCollins; New Ed edition
Authors: Humphrey Carpenter & Christopher Tolkien
Publication Date: 2 May 2006
Type: paperback, 480 pages
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