Monday, January 11, 2010

Book Review: The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Part 2

I want to be careful with my statement about Tolkien's "Oxford snobbery". I'm sure some people would take offense at that. I don't want to denigrate a great institution that has produced many scholars and statesmen. My concern is that Tolkien seemed to put himself above the masses as far as literature goes. Maybe C.S. Lewis did as well, for when they were meeting one time and decrying the lack of good literature in English, Lewis said to Tolkien, "We shall just have to write the types of stories we like." [loose quote]

Tolkien was constantly correcting readers and reviewers about their misinterpretation of his works. This shows up in the letters. A reviewer would write something about The Lord of the Rings being excellent Christian allegory. Tolkien would write the reviewer and say it isn't an allegory, Christian or otherwise, and that he hates allegory. Then he would write his publisher about it, and then one of his children, then maybe even a friend. A reader would ask a question about the mythology that came before his published works. Tolkien would sometimes write pages about Luthien and Beren and the Valor and Numenor (apologies to the Elvin language for not adding the accents where JRRT did), or at times he would advise the reader to just enjoy what was written and not worry about what wasn't. His tone often seemed snobbish to me.

But, perhaps it is more a case of author pride than it is snobbishness. Tolkien worked years on his books, developing first the languages then adding appropriate myths that the languages must tell. He fought to have it published, even trying to strong arm his publishers into accepting a package deal of The Lord of the Rings and the unfinished The Silmarillion. He fought proofreaders who kept trying to change the spelling of words he wanted spelled a certain way. He fought his own personal schedule that never seemed to give him quite enough time to do all he wanted. Finally a book was produced. How dare a reader misinterpret something and then have the audacity to write him about it!

I don't quite know why I am so fascinated by letters. It began with the letters of Charles Lamb, and has spread in every direction therefrom. I think I like them because they tend to be unfiltered history. Read someones letter, something not expected to be published, and you might just find out about the real person, not something a biographer wants you to know. Since these Tolkien letters are selected rather than complete, and since many of the letters are excerpted, some filtration has taken place. Yet, the history comes through.

I always try to include in my book reviews a recommendation of whether my readers should read what I read. What about this one? It cost me $7.98 plus Overland Park and Kansas sales tax, a steep price compared to what I usually pay. Should you go off and do the same? Probably not, not unless you are an incredible Tolkien fan, or unless you love letters as I do. Don't worry about his references to Bilbo and Frodo and Gandalf. Don't worry about the twenty pages of explanation of Numenor mythology. These might be difficult--they were for me. I'm glad I read them, and the book is a keeper for me, so that my letters collection is that much more complete.


David A. Todd said...


Your comment is gibberish. As owner of this blog, and as benevelent dictator thereof, I hereby delete it. Goodbye.

sincerelymsred said...

Hey David! Long time, no see, eh? I, too, like reading letters for the same reason you do. I enjoyed reading your review, and I may just check that book out at the library one day.

David A. Todd said...

Hey Red!

Not really sure who I'm talking to. The only redhead that I know follows my blog was in Mississippi last time I checked, whereas your IPA was Little Rock. Is this Poppy?

Whoever, thanks for the comment.