A fine lengthy letter by Tolkien to an admirer, H. cotton Minchin, regarding publication of The Lord of the Rings, his interests in the Elvish tongues he invented and their attendant fanciful scripts, and his plans to complete The Silmarillion is up for sale right now at rrauction.
It provides a fascinating inside look in Tolkien's creative processes and the pragmatism of his publishers. The last volume of the trilogy, The Return of the King, was published on 20 October 1955. Its publication had been delayed six months due to the difficulties Tolkien had in bringing the Appendices into publishable form, compiling an index, and creating a detailed map of Gondor. After many attempts, Tolkien succeeded in arranging the Appendices but abandoned the idea of an index, while his son Christopher drew the map.
Written in his stunning calligraphic hand, this lengthy letter is one of the finest known to exist, both in content and appearance, indulging in the details of The Lord of the Rings that captured the imaginations of millions.
J.H. Cotton Minchin was the editor of The Legion Book (1929), he surely must have been thrilled or touched the right buttons, since J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a fine long letter to her. It discusses map drawing, shows how Tolkien draws connections from placenames and names, tells a fun anecdote about a real 'Sam Gamgee' and talks about poor compensations for authors, mentions The Lord of the Rings is not actually a trilogy and more like a symphony. Excellent material and a truly fascinating read. Since I found the auction house (both now and previously - since this is the second time the letter comes up for sale) do never make full transcripts I tried to make one here. Feel free to send in some corrections... it was sometimes hard to transcribe. But here you go! Enjoy!
Dear Mr Cotton Minchin,
There is no need to apologize to an author for writing to him, at least not in your generous terms. I now discover the great pleasure that this gives—too late to amend my own neglect of those who have delighted me.
Your letter also contained many interesting suggestions. I once had myself the idea of preparing a special volume of material for "specialists", but under the shadow of the great production costs, this did not come off. It might now, however, be a practical proposition, as they say. The chief objection is the labour involved (on my part), and the weight of other duties which demand most of my time. My professional and philological colleagues and critics are scandalized by my disgraceful excursion into "literature". They are kind enough not to refer to my misdemeanour (except behind my back), but they have "turned on the heat", as I believe they said in Mordor. The many unfinished and long promised professional commitments and works are being demanded with increasing pressure. One of them said to me recently: "Isn’t it time you did some work?"
The immediate future seems as dark and arid as Gorgoroth. And from getting—well rather olderly: with the retirement of Cherwell and Sir John Beasley this summer, I shall be the senior professor of this elderly institution, having been 'chair-borne' (as those who are not term it) since 1925.
Maps take a lot of time and work. It would of course be impossible to make a map of an 'invented' tale, or rather to write a mappable tale, unless one started with a Map from the beginning. That I did—though inevitably some inconsistencies, needing the adjustment of map or text, crept in in the course of a long work, constantly interrupted. But there is a wide gap between a rough map, though accurate in scale and distances, and one drawn and lettered passably enough for reproduction!
As research-students always discover, however long they take or carefully they work, there is always a rush at the end where the thesis must at last be put into presentable form. So it was with this book. I had to call in the help of my son Christopher (the C.T. or CJRT of the modest initials on the maps), a better calligraphist than myself, and a sound student of ‘hobbit-lore’ [A term I owe to the Dutch. This branch of learning seems to be well recognized in Amsterdam]. When it became clear last year that the "General Map" was inadequate for Vol iii, I had to devote days, the last three almost without sleep, in drawing re-scaling and readjusting a huge map. At this Christopher then worked for about 20 hours non-stop (10 a.m to 6 a.m), and produced the published map, just in time. Inconsistencies in spelling (and omissions) are mainly my fault. For instance, it was only in the last stages that I abandoned K in the spelling or transcription of Elvish names—inspite of my son's protest. He holds that few or none will pronounce Cirith right, inspite of the Appendix. It appears as Kirith on the map, as it did formerly in the text. [I should have preferred (Elvish writing) to either!]
You would, by the way, render us a very great service, if more and better maps are to be produced, if you would be so kind as to send us any notes of faults, inconsistencies, or omissions, in maps or text.
I am, all the same, primarily a “philologist”. To me far the most absorbing interest is the Elvish tongues (which were made before and independently of this tale), the nomenclature derived from them, and the scripts. So my plans for the “specialist volume” were largely linguistic. The major item was to have been an index of names, with references, & with explanations and etymologies that would have incidentally have provided quite a large Elvish vocabulary. I worked at it for weeks, and indexed Vols i and most of ii—it was the chief cause of the delay of Vol iii. But it eventually became plain that the size and cost would sink the boat; so it had to be postponed. And some other things. Among them the facsimiles of three pages of the Book of Mazarbul, which I had spent some time in forging, burned, tattered, and stained with blood, really necessary as an accompaniment to Ch. 5 of Book Two.
But the problems raised by this extra volume increase. Most people want more (and better) maps; some wish more for geological indications than place-names; many want more specimens of Elvish, with structural and grammatical sketches; others ask for metrics and prosodies, not only of the Elvish, but of the “translations” that are in unfamiliar modes—such as those composed in the strictest forms of Anglo-Saxon verse (e.g. the fragment on the Battle of Pelennor, Book Five, vi, 124). Musicians want tunes and musical notations. Archaeologists enquire about ceramics, metallurgy, tools and architecture. Botanists desire more accurate descriptions of the mallorn+, of elanor, niphredil, alfirin and mallos, and of symbelmynë.
+ I am informed that a new house far away has been called The Mallorns—regrettable: the plural is mellyrn.
Historians require more details about the social and political structure of Gondor, and the contemporary monetary system; and the generally inquisitive wish to be told more about Drúadan, the Wainriders, the Dead Men, Harad, Khand, Dwarvish origins, the Beornings, and especially the missing two wizards (out of five).
It will be a large volume, even if I attend only to the things revealed to my very limited understanding of a complicated world! But personally, I desire and intend first of all to put into order the Silmarillion, with associated legends of the Beginning and the First and Second Ages. All of these were written first; and it was my wish to issue the corpus chronologically. (It would have lightened parts of the Lord of the Rings). But it was only as a sequel to The Hobbit that publication proved possible. The ‘Little People’ floated the whole unwieldy ship, bless them.
As it is, The Lord of the Rings has astonished me, and I believe the gallant publishers still more. It is actually selling more than well, inspite of 3 guineas and the borrowing habit. (The latter is no doubt inevitable at such a price. It is nonetheless with mixed feelings that I receive such letters as one from which I quote—from a well-known man and not impecunious: "I am sure you will be pleased to hear that I have been so enthralled that I have had each volume out of the public library several times, and have gladly paid heavy fines for keeping it out over time"! ). H.M.
Treasury is no niggard at the receiving end, however, and will inevitably without labour pocket a large proportion of the proceeds. The fact that I have worked at the book unremunerated for 18 years, and sacrificed in that time other emoluments, does not touch its heart at all. I see that the Commission has even recommended that the permission for a 3-year spread, only recently granted, should be withdrawn from authors. It does not help much. Works that have taken a long time to make are simply victimized. Trevelyan's ‘Social History’, I believe, made enormous sums: about £24,000. He was permitted to retain £4,000.
I am glad you approve the appearance of the Three Vols. They cost about £4,000 to produce and put on sale. That has to be covered before I get any cash reward. I get no ‘royalty’, but an eventual share of profits. The poor ‘Hobbit’ is a war-casualty, alive but damaged. The original editions were far better—and larger, with grand margins. But the stocks went up in smoke in the war-fires of London. Compensation was negligible. I lost all the royalties. I believe the bulk of the stock was "unbound", as so by one of those clever technical catches
by which officials trip us up, it was valued only as ‘paper’. The post-war reprints have been “cheap”. Even so, at the price of two ounces of tobacco (and some matches+), that is as much as most people will spend on Tommy (or Sally), for what is after all rather old-fashioned nonsense.
Thank you for the point about the Synopsis. The attack of the Orcs is, of course, only learned about in Vol. ii, though it was going on actually in the gap between i and ii. But I do not think it matters enough to pay for alteration. The Synopses are a nuisance, anyway. I did my best, but I cannot think that they really make any one vol. readable without the others.
The Work was planned and carried out as a whole, and it is not in any proper sense a “trilogy”. It is, as Julius Harrison says, a symphony, in movements to which the “books” on the whole correspond. The “books” are the only intentional divisions, and originally had titles. The titles of the Volumes are unsatisfactory, since the vols. are a mere publishing convenience and have no unity. But the publishers, for practical purposes rightly, insisted on the division into three parts, and for sales reasons demanded titles other than Parts i, ii, iii. The ‘break’ is least clean between Books Two and Three. The “Departure of Boromir” could as well (or better) belong to Book Two, and at one time did. Its transference lightened Vol i and strengthened Vol ii.
I note Cotton with pleasure and approval. Down Cotton Lane I used to walk as a child to my grandmother’s house. What of Minchin, which has also a Shire-like sound? I suppose it to be a variant of the surname Nunn, since Minchin in place-names (as Minchinhampton: of Nuneaton) is derived from Anglo-Saxon mynecen, fem. of munne ‘monk’, more or less a synonym of nunne. But names are often not derived from what seem obvious sources. My own name comes ultimately and long ago from German tollkühn, and perhaps a trace of the remote ancestral ‘rashness’ has been inherited. But I am a Westmidlander.
You will be interested to hear that I recently had a letter from Sam Gamgee (of Tooting), a genuine possessor of that name. He seemed a little surprised, but not displeased at my use of his name. [[Thank goodness, it was not S. Gollum. I live now in fear of receiving a note from him; I am afraid he will be less pleased]] In the case of S. Gamgee ‘research’ has to a certain extent made explicable this curious coincidence.
My use of gamgee is assoc. with cotton, was like most of the Shire derived from childhood. In those days we called “cotton-wool” gamgee. This now seems almost obsolete. But it was once fairly wide-spread, and appears to be derived from Sampson Gamgee (died about 1886), who invented “gamgee-tissue”, a combination of lint and cotton-wool, I believe.
It was his son, as I learn from obituaries sent to me, L.P. Gamgee who died (at 88) on 1 March this year, once Professor of Surgery in Birmingham. (Odd how Sam in some form clings to the name!)
Mr. Sam Gamgee (who I think is Samuel) informs me that the name comes from Essex, specially Billericay; but he does not seem to know much more than that, except that several publicans in the London area bear the name—as seems quite suitable.
Anyway, I seem to have stirred up the Gamgees, and I am threatened now with genealogical notes at least as complicated as the fictitious.
My ‘Samwise’ is indeed (as you note) largely a reflexion of the English soldier—grafted on the village-boys of early days, the memory of the privates and my batmen that I knew in the 1914 War, and recognized as so far superior to myself.
Thanking you again warmly,
I fear you may now feel that you have got an answer longer than you could wish. Though you may have guessed that an author so long-winded would either say nothing or a lot. JRRT
Your letter though bearing the address to which I wrote, bore a London postmark, and a George VI stamp. Hobbitual curiosity makes me wonder why JRRT
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