Thursday, 8 January 2009

The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien

I've just finished this book, a collection of Tolkien's correspondence spanning the years 1914-1973 and concentrated on the years spent writing The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. I'm a great fan of collections of letters, perhaps mainly because I never manage to write letters myself and see the process as a dying art. But they also provide fascinating insights into how authors viewed their own work. Raymond Barthes might protest all he likes, but I still find that worth investigating.

What I think is most interesting about Tolkien's thoughts on The Lord of the Rings is his idea of the trilogy's main theme. It surprised me to learn that he didn't consider it to be friendship, adventure, exploration, the triumph of good over evil, or hope - which are the things that come to my mind when I think about the books. In fact, he states on several occasions and to several different correspondents that the trilogy is at root about Death. That strikes me as highly unusual, and isn't very well explained. Next time I read the books (which I do about once a year), I'll have to give it some thought.

Another example: Tolkien seemed to consider Frodo to be a rather boring cipher and in the final analysis a failure. He believed strongly that the true hero of the piece was in fact Sam. This is something that I had felt was true for years, and it was both pleasant and surprising to find that the man himself had the same idea. It was Sam, after all, who managed to resist the temptation to take the ring for himself, who saw Gollum for what he was, and who saved the day (and the world) when the entire quest was at its bleakest moment. All Frodo did was carry the ring - and then, crucially, give in at the last minute.

Tolkien also felt that he had made a crucial mistake in making The Hobbit too childish. He regretted that it became relegated to a "children's book", and only originally submitted it as such because he wasn't sure what other category it could go into - given that "fantasy" as a genre barely existed at the time. This wasn't due to churlishness about children - he even notes on a few occasions that children often wrote to him to complain about the book's most 'childish' aspects - but because all the stuff about Bullroarer Took inventing golf etc. clashed with the verisimilitudinous nature of The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.

These days it's often said that The Lord of the Rings wasn't nearly as much an influence on the development of fantasy role playing as were the writings of Howard, Moorcock or Leiber. This may be the case. But where I think Tolkien directly influenced play was in his love of world building and tinkering with races, geography, language and history - and his absolute denial of allegory. D&D and its like draw a direct bead from that; the creation of a consistent reality different from our own. Even if he is not the spiritual father of The Game as he is with fantasy fiction, he's certainly the one who made it all possible.


  1. Death is omnipresent in the trilogy. Not necessarily physical death, although there's lots of that. Consider all the corrupt and weakened governments in Middle Earth, or all the talk of the elves' waning power, and so on. It's not so much a violent or sudden death, but a wasting away, and the story reeks of it.

    But I suppose it should. It's supposed to be a mythology, and I can't think of many of those that end happily.

  2. Some of the childishness of the Hobbit bleeds over into Lord of the Rings - the first few chapters, in the Shire, are much lighter in tone. Gandalf's fireworks are described as "hissing like a railway-engine" or somesuch.

    (I'm saddened that he regretted the Bullroarer Took story - that was wonderful. A little bit of whimsy in an epic is not a bad thing.)

  3. I just want to echo what kelvingreen said. LotR is elegaic, and focused on the sorrow of human existence - heroism is acting in the face of things being engulfed by death. Loss is an inevitable counterpart of heroism. The Old English view of life - the bright light of the hall burning bravely in the black wilderness - entirely informed Tolkien's view. And WWI, of course - the War of the Ring brings destruction and death irrespective of who 'wins'. The Elves still decline and pass away to the West. Funny about Frodo. I think the movies do a decent enough job in recuperating him, though that's mainly because they trivialise the other non-human races pretty badly.

  4. Kelvin: I suppose you're right. Definitely that's the them of the Silmarillion - gradual collapse.

    Allandaros: I'd completely forgotten about the train, even though I must have read that passage about 20 times. Weird.

    Viriconium: All true, though Tolkien strenuously denied any WWI allegories. I certainly think it influenced him, however - maybe only subconsciously.

    I hated the dwarves and elves in the films. They were just cardboard cutouts and/or comic relief.

  5. Absolutely, and I wouldn't want to suggest allegory. His was a literary understanding of war that drew as much from ancient literature as from 'personal' experience (thouugh have you read Paul Fussell's 'Great War and Modern Memory', in which he argues that the horrors of war were interpreted through literature, and so 'personal' experience of such terrible events was necessarily filtered through literature). Thanks for this post, noisms, I could discuss this all day, and I am glad to have had the letters recommended to me (I'm a Tolkien lover and a medievalist...)
    And the Dwarves and the Elves and the Hobbits - those films could have been so wonderful, but....(another discussion for another day)

  6. Hey Noisms, I had the pleasure of reading Tolkien's letters for the first time myself a short while ago. They were pretty amazing. Anyone with half an interest in Tolkien's writings and their creative origins owe themselves a read. It's a treasure trove that not only deepens the meaning of The Lord of the Rings, but also reveals some of what was left on the "cutting room floor."

    There's so much to talk about from the letters, but one thing that absolutely floored me was the amount of time Tolkien spent responding to readers. I couldn't get over the detailed, multi-page letters explaining the history of the elves, or the fate of Shadowfax, for instance, that he sent to fans. It reveals quite a bit about Tolkien's character.

  7. Viriconium: Yeah, I might have a rant about those films one day, but then again I feel like I ought to tie most of my posts into role playing... ;)

    Brian: It is pretty amazing to have an author show that level of care and interest in his fans. I can't imagine a writer doing that these days. Then again I've never written a fan letter to anyone so I can't be sure... maybe people like Stephen King do respond to letters?