Sunday, January 10, 2010

Book Review: The Letters of J.R.R.Tolkien

JRR Tolkien wrote three great works:

The Hobbit, 1937
The Lord of the Rings trilogy, 1954-55
The Silmarillion, posthumously 1977,

and a few lesser tales related to his invented mythology, a hots of professional essays, papers, and speeches, and his collected letters. Let me say right off that I enjoyed The Hobbit, but disliked The Lord of the Ring, bogging down in the second half of The Fellowship of the Ring, and not picking it up again. Someday I will finish it, when many things more to my liking I have read.

I was predisposed to dislike Tolkien from my college experience. IN Butterfield Hall, all the guys I disliked because of their politics, alcohol consumption, or drug use raves about him. I concluded that Tolkien wasn't for me, and gave him no more thought until reading a biography of C.S. Lewis. Still, I read nothing of Tolkien's until the movies came out and decided I should read the books.

Fast forward to March 2009, when I was in Kansas City to present a paper at an engineering conference and, as is my out-of-town-habit, sought out a bookstore. In a seconds bookstore on Metcalf Ave., I found volumes of both Tolkien's and Lewis' letters. I left the bookstore poorer in cash but rich in literary acquisitions.

I found Tolien's letters [The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien: Selected and Edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien, 1981, Houghton Mifflin Company] fascinating. many dealt with publishing and writing. Beginning with Letter 9 (in the book, which excludes many of Tolien's extant letters) written on Jan 4, 1937, we learn about The Hobbit, already in production with mainly the maps and illustrations to finish. He was greatly concerned about the American edition, especially the illustrations: "...let the Americans do what seems good to them--as long as it was veto anything from or influenced by the Disney studios (for all whose works I have a heartfelt loathing)."

This is an example of what I tend to call "Oxford snobbery" in Tolkien. It was just against Americans, but against anyone who tried to analyze his works. Tolkien commented to friends and publishers about negative reviews. He corrected those who misunderstood his invented languages. He corrected misconceptions about the mythology of Middle Earth, main after The Lord of the Rings appearance, and sometimes advised his correspondents not to worry about it.

Certain themes continually show in the letters.
  • The importance of literature: We all need literature that is above our measure--though we may not have sufficient energy for it all the time. April 1959, to Walter Allen
  • His health issues: I was assailed by very considerable pain, and depression, which no ordinary remedy would relieve. ...We (or at least I) know far too little about the complicated machine we inhabit.... 31 July 1969, to Christopher Tolkien
  • Friendship with and criticism of C.S. Lewis: But for the encouragement of C.S.L. I do not think that I should ever have completed or offered for publication The Lord of the Rings. 18 Dec 1965 to Clyde S. Kilby; It is sad that 'Narnia' and all that part of C.S.L.'s work should remain outside the range of my sympathy, as much of my work was outside his. 11 Nov 1964 to David Kolb
I have much more to write about this, but my post is too long as it is, and I need time to collect some more thoughts. Look for a second post.


Gary said...

I read LOTR twice, once in high school and again several years ago when Peter Jackson directed the movies. The first time I found it heavy slogging through all the descriptive scenery, but the second was a journey much more enjoyable. Perspective and maturity make the difference. Lewis was much more into allegory and that perhaps is why they couldn't quite appreciate the work of the other. Both were idiosyncratic, just different.

David A. Todd said...


Some day I will pick up LOTR again and finish it. I also want to read The Silmarillion as well. Neither is on the reading pile radar screen right now.

"Idiosyncratic." Good way to describe Lewis and Tolkien. The fact that these two became lifelong friends shows how true friendship can overcome differences. Kind of like with Emerson and Carlyle, one of my other studies.