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Letter 133

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The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Letter 133
RecipientRayner Unwin
DateJune 22, 1950
Subject(s)The history of "Errantry", restarting the path to publication of The Lord of the Rings

Letter 133 is a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien and published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Preface

In the spring of 1952, Tolkien ran out of patience and demanded that Collins publish The Lord of the Rings immediately or else he would withdraw the manuscript. Collins decided that the book was too long and declined to publish it, along with The Silmarillion. In June, Rayner Unwin wrote to Tolkien about his poem "Errantry" and to enquire about how the publication of The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings.

Summary

Tolkien was glad to hear from Rayner and chided himself for not writing.[notes 1] He was faced with "disaster": He was chairman again of the English examiners and was working 7-day weeks with 12-hour days.

A few weeks before a lady unknown to him had written to ask about "Errantry". A friend of hers had written out some verses from memory and she was so taken with them she set out to discover their origin. The friend got them from a son-in-law who had a vague idea the poem came from English universities. She determinedly applied to Vice-Chancellors and eventually was directly to Tolkien. Tolkien was intrigued with the idea that he was becoming "folk-lore". Also intriguing was the oral version she recalled – "hard words" preserved, common words altered, and the metre undisturbed.

Tolkien traced the first presentations of "Errantry": It had been read at a literary club of dons and undergraduates and it had appeared in The Oxford Magazine. A revised version went to a house-party. The hostess, Mrs. Roberts of Lightwater Manor, could not understand how the verses had remained unpublished. Tolkien said that he had tried to get “Errantry” and such things published, but not successfully. He would be pleased to submit a collection to Rayner, but warned that "Errantry" was the most attractive, having a metre he invented (trisyllabic assonances or near-assonances).

The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings were where they were, said Tolkien, both gathering dust. He stated that he had modified his views, and said that something was better than nothing. He would gladly consider publication of part of the stuff, in part because upcoming retirement looked like poverty rather than leisure. When he had the time he would try to process the Silmarillion fragments. Could The Lord of the Rings be published?

Tolkien knew that Rayner had married and was conscience-stricken for not writing. He had had a terrible bout of fibrositis and neuritis of the arm and could not write for a month. He was still chasing lost days. It was a blessing to have determined friends who would not let one relapse into permanent silence.

Tolkien enclosed his only revised version of "Errantry".

Note

  1. Rayner had written on 19 November asking if he could see The Silmarillion, stating that he believed that Tolkien had something most important in it and The Lord of the Rings.