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Letter 153

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The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Letter 153
RecipientPeter Hastings (draft)
DateUnsent, written September, 1954
Subject(s)Middle-earth metaphysics

Letter 153 is a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien and published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.


Peter Hastings was the manager of the (Catholic) Newman Bookshop in Oxford. He wrote to Tolkien expressing enthusiasm for The Lord of the Rings but heavily criticized the metaphysics of the work. Hastings said Treebeard's statement that the Dark Lord had created Trolls and Orcs was wrong because evil was incapable of creation. Even if it could create creatures they could not have any tendency to good, such as the pity that William the troll feels for Bilbo. Citing Goldberry's description of Bombadill: "He is", Hasting said this implied that Bombadil was God. Hastings' strongest objection was to the reincarnation of Elves, declaring that "God has not used that device in any of his creations" and that Tolkien had stepped "beyond the position of a sub-creator to produce it as an actual working thing" (Hastings further insisted that Tolkien had over-stepped "the bounds of a writer's job"). He questioned what happened to the descendants of a union of a human and an elf. Also, he asked how Sauron could have kept the co-operation of the elves until the Rings of Power were forged, given his extreme evil.

Tolkien struggled with his reply, writing a very long draft answering Hastings’ points. Eventually he left it unfinished, marked it "Not sent", and noted: "It seemed to be taking myself too importantly."

Tolkien politely thanked Hastings for his letter. He said that Hastings had paid him the compliment of taking him seriously, although perhaps too seriously since what he had produced was a tale intended to have a literary effect and was not real history. The historical air he had striven to produce had been successful since others had treated it the same way, treating it as if it were a report of "real" times and places. Yet Tolkien pointed out that may things – economics, science, artifacts, religion, and philosophy – were defective or sketchy. Tolkien said that he had already considered all of Hastings' points and that answering his more profound queries ought to wait until Volume III (The Return of the King) was published, along with his earlier histories. Things may be fundamentally "wrong" from the point of view of external reality but they cannot be wrong within an imaginary world.

We differ entirely, stated Tolkien, about the relationship of sub-creation to Creation. Being liberated "from the channels the creator is known to have used" is the fundamental function of "sub-creation" and a tribute to His infinite potential variety. It was a curious metaphysic that restricted God to only the channels known in our finite corner.

While "reincarnation" may be bad theology (which applied to the Men of Númenor whose downfall rested upon their attempt to achieve immortality), Tolkien did not see how any theologian or philosopher in our world could deny the possibility of it as a mode of existence. Tolkien declared that he was just as concerned about the scientific and biological difficulties as the theological and metaphysical (which Hastings seemed not to mind). Tolkien said that Elves and Men were, in biological terms, one race since they could produce fertile offspring. Since some held that longevity was a biological characteristic then Elves could not be immortal (not dying of old age), and Men mortal, and yet sufficiently akin. Tolkien said that he could answer all this by declaring ageing only a theory, but his actual answer was that he did not care: The situation was simply a biological dictum in his imaginary world. In literary terms Elves and Men were biologically akin because Elves represented certain aspects of Men.

Sauron was not "evil" in origin; he had been corrupted by the Prime Dark Lord Morgoth. He had been given the opportunity to repent when Morgoth was overcome, could not face the humiliation of recantation, had seemed to turn to good, and then relapsed to become the main representative of Evil in later ages. At the beginning of the Second Age he was still beautiful to look at and was not wholly evil, not unless all "reformers" are evil even before pride eats them up. The particular High-Elves concerned were always on the side of "science and technology" as we should call it, desired Sauron's genuine knowledge, and ignored the warnings of Gilgalad and Elrond. This also accounted for their special friendship with the Dwarves of Moria. Tolkien would regard them as no more wicked (but in the same peril) as Catholics researching poisonous gasses or explosives – things not innately evil but pretty certain to serve evil ends.

Tolkien reservedly agreed about "creation by evil" but felt that Hastings was more free with the word "creation" than he was. Tolkien clarified that Treebeard did not say that the Dark Lord "created" Trolls and Orcs; he said he "made" counterfeits of pre-existing creatures. It was not true of Orcs, who were a race of "rational incarnate" creatures horribly corrupted. Again emphasizing that his world was imaginary, Tolkien said that Treebeard was a character who was not one of the Wise and did not know or understand many things (such as not knowing what "wizards" were). In the not yet released Volume III Hastings would be able to read Frodo's words to Sam: "The Shadow that bred them [Orcs] can only mock, it cannot make real new things of its own. I don't think it gave life to the Orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them."[1] In the legends of the Elder Days it is suggested that some of the earliest Elves were subjugated and corrupted before even hearing about "gods" or God.

Tolkien was unsure about Trolls. Stone-trolls he thought were mere "counterfeits" that returned to mere stone when not in the dark, while other sorts of Trolls might have other origins. Tolkien said that his world was highly imperfect and felt that the Real World was not altogether coherent either. He disagreed that his trolls showed any sign of "good". He did not say William felt pity (a word of moral and imaginative worth – it was the Pity of Bilbo and later Frodo that allowed the Quest to be achieved) and did not think he showed pity. Had he written The Hobbit more carefully he might not have used "poor little Blighter"[2] just as he should not have called the troll William. However, he discerned no "pity" here than in a beast of prey yawning.

Tolkien stated that Hastings was being too serious and missing the point regarding Tom Bombadil (pointing out that it was Goldberry, not he, who commented on Tom). Goldberry and Tom were referring to the mystery of names and Tolkien recommended that Hasting ponder Tom's statement: "Don't you know my name yet? That's the only answer. Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless?"[3] Frodo had not asked "What is Tom Bombadil" but "Who is he", a laxly confused question. Tom was a master in a peculiar way: fearless, desiring no possessions or domination, merely knowing and understanding things that concerned him in his little realm. He hardly even judged, making no effort to reform or remove the Willow.

Tolkien felt that Tom needed no philosophizing and was not improved by it. Many found him an odd or discordant ingredient. Historically he put him in because he had already "invented" him and wanted an adventure at that point. He was kept in because he represented certain things otherwise left out. Tom embodied pure (real) natural science, a spirit desiring knowledge of other things because they are other, with no concern of "doing" anything with the knowledge. Elves did not exhibit this: they are primarily artists. Tom’s attitude to the Ring exhibits another point. A story concentrates on a point of view, which leaves out other points of view. The Ring's power over "all" in the story is not a delusion but it is not the whole picture.

Returning to Elf-Human marriages, Tolkien noted that they occurred in "fairy-story" and folk lore, but he had made it far more exceptional in his works. In the story of Lúthien and Beren, Lúthien received an absolute exception to shed "immortality" and become "mortal". When Beren is slain Lúthien obtains a short respite, returning both to Middle-earth "alive" although living separately from others. Túor wedded Idril and he supposedly received Elvish limited "immortality" as a unique exception. Túor and Idril's son was Eärendil who married Elwing, daughter of Dior, son of Beren and Lúthien, uniting the Half-elven all in one line, which led to Elros and Elrond. The Half-elven had a one-time choice of which kin's fate to accept. Elros chose mortality, long-lived and generating an especially noble line, but with dwindling longevity (Aragorn eventually had a double but not original triple long life). Elrond chose Elven immortality (adding a renewed Elvish strain through Celebrían daughter of Galadriel) and his children had to make their choices. Arwen was not Lúthien reincarnated; that was impossible. When she wed Aragorn she made "the choice of Lúthien". Elrond’s sons, Elladan and Elrohir delayed their choice, left untold in the story.

As for "whose authority decides these things?" - The immediate authorities are the Valar who are only created spirits, high "angels" with attendant lesser "angels" – revered but not worshiped (thus there are no religious edifices in Middle-earth). In this "primitive" age folk may view the Valar as children view parents. Hobbits practiced no form of worship or prayer. Men were monotheists, but there was no temple in Númenor until Sauron created the cult of Morgoth. On the Meneltarma Eru was invoked, praised, and adored, but after the Downfall there was no substitute. The exiles had no divine worship although there is a trace in Faramir’s "grace at meat".[4] The Valar cannot alter any fundamental provision of the world. They called upon the One in the rebellious Númenórean crisis resulting in a catastrophic change in the shape of the Earth.

Immortality and Mortality, being the special gifts of God to the Eruhíni, could only be altered as a direct act of God. Adding the Elven-strain into Men was part of the Divine Plan to ennoble the Human Race, destined to replace the Elves.

Do "bounds to a writer's job" exist except those imposed by his own finiteness? No bounds but the laws of contradiction. One required humility and an awareness of peril. A writer may be "benevolent" (as Tolkien hoped he was) and yet not "beneficent" due to error and stupidity. He may have been in error, his truths may not be true, they may be distorted. But he needed to be fully convinced that he had been harmful before he recanted or rewrote anything. Great harm could be done by the potent mode of "myth". The "freedom" of the sub-creator is no guarantee that it will not be used as wickedly as Free Will, but Tolkien was comforted that more pious and learned persons than himself had found nothing harmful in his works.

Free Will and subcreation were used in his myth in a special way to illustrate visibly and physically the effects of Sin or misused Free Will (subcreation in art criticism was different and Tolkien had addressed that allegorically in Leaf by Niggle). Free Will is only operative as granted by the Author. Something done "against His Will" only appears so on a finite level. He does not stop or make "unreal" sinful acts and their consequences. In Tolkien's myth special "sub-creative" powers had been given to certain of the highest created beings. Fallen Morgoth made things "for himself, to be their Lord", and God would let them "be" even though this broke the supreme ban again making other “rational” creatures. These creations would "be" real physical realities in the physical world, however evil they might prove. They would be Morgoth’s greatest sins, abuses of his highest privilege, and creatures begotten of Sin, and naturally bad. Tolkien nearly said "irredeemably bad" but that would be going too far. God's accepting and tolerating their making and existence made these creations (even Orcs) part of the World, which is God’s and ultimately good.

Tolkien said it was a different question as to whether or not Orcs had "souls" or "spirits". In his myth the making of such could not be delegated. He had represented Orcs as pre-existing real beings that the Dark Lord had remodeled and corrupted, but he had not made them. God’s toleration of this was no worse theology than the toleration of the acts of tyrants today. There might be other "makings" more like puppets or ants operating under a queen-centre.

Tolkien admitted that he had made a great song and oration about his tale, and had taken himself even more seriously than Hastings had done. Yet the issues he had "scribbled" about arise in some form in all writing or art that does no stay strictly with "observed fact".


  1. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, "The Tower of Cirith Ungol"
  2. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, "Roast Mutton"
  3. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "In the House of Tom Bombadil"
  4. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, "The Window on the West"