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Letter 154

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The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Letter 154
RecipientNaomi Mitchison
DateSeptember 25, 1954
Subject(s)Response to Mitchison’s comments about The Lord of the Rings

Letter 154 is a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien and published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Summary

Tolkien explained why he had not written long before: he had been plagued by business, troubles, illness, and journeys. He acknowledged that Mitchison had been kind and encouraging, and called her review[notes 1] generous and perceptive.

Mitchison was the only commentator, Tolkien said, that had recognized the book not only as "literature" and serious but also as an elaborate game of inventing a country. Such a game was endless because even a committee of experts could not complete an entire picture. More than economic issues, Tolkien was aware of sketchiness in archaeology and technical facts (covering clothes, agricultural implements, metal-working, pottery, architecture, music and its apparatus.

Tolkien said that he was not incapable of or unaware of economics, and believed that the economic situation for Men, Hobbit, and Dwarfs[notes 2] could be worked out. Gondor had townlands, fiefs, water and road communications, and clear indications of many industries. The Shire’s geographical position ensured natural fertility and was well-tended. Shire-hobbits had little need of metals but the Dwarfs could supply their wants. The Dwarfs had mines in the eastern Mountains of Lune and trafficked in metals, which explained their frequent crossing of the Shire.

Some of the modernities among Hobbits were a mistake, said Tolkien, especially umbrellas. On the same order were their silly names, tolerable only as deliberate "Anglicization" to contrast them with other peoples. Tolkien did not think that people can be both peaceable and very brave and tough "at a pinch" – two wars had confirmed him in that view. Hobbits did differ from other peoples by not being cruel, by not having any blood-sports, and by having a feel for "wild creatures". However, they are not a Utopian vision or a recommended ideal. The way they were was an historical accident, impermanent over a long time. Tolkien declared himself to be neither a reformer (the exercising of power doomed one to Sarumanism) or an "embalmer" (which has its own punishments).

Some reviewers, reported Tolkien, called the whole thing simple-minded, a plain fight between Good and Evil, with the good just good and the bad just bad. They had overlooked Boromir and had not read the then-unwritten history of the Elves, who were not wholly good or in the right. The Elves had flirted with Sauron. They were "embalmers" who wanted to live in mortal historical Middle-earth while trying to stop change, history, and growth. The Gondorians were similar: a withering people whose only "hallows" were their tombs. Since his story was about a war it was not much good complaining that all the people on one side are against the other. But the issue was not simple: there were Saruman, Denethor, and Boromir, not to mention treachers and strife even among the Orcs.

In the imagination of the Lord of the Rings we are now living on a physically round Earth. But the "legendarium" contains a transition from a flat world to a globe. Tolkien called this inevitable to a modern "mythmaker", subjected to the same "appearance" as ancient men, but taught that the Earth was round from the earliest years. This particular "myth" and the mood of Men and Elves was the Downfall of Númenor, Tolkien’s variety of the Atlantis myth, which he said was so fundamental to "mythical history" that some version of it had to be included.

Before the Downfall there lay beyond the sea and west-shores of Middle-earth an earthly Elvish paradise in Eressëa and Valinor beyond (land of the Valar, the "gods" although that was not strictly an accurate equivalent). It could be reached physically by ordinary sailing ships. After the rebellion (when the Númenóreans attempted to occupy Eressëa and Valinor by force) Númenor was destroyed and Eressëa and Valinor were removed from the physically attainable Earth. Elendil and his sons were the chiefs of those that took no part in the attempt to seize world-power and immortality, escaping to the west-shores of Middle-earth. But since there was no going back for them or any mortal men they had a nostalgic mood.

The Eldar, the High Elves, had for their sufferings in struggling against the prime Dark Lord a promise that they could always be able to leave Middle-earth by passing over the Sea by the Straight Road to the True West. The other elves did not have this option, they had made an irrevocable choice to stay in Middle-eath. The Half-elven, such as Elrond and Arwen, could choose, once, which kind they were, hence the grief at the parting of these two.

There may be rare exceptions (such as there always seem to be) where certain "mortals", having played great parts in Elvish affairs, could go to Elvenhome: Frodo by the express gift of Arwen, Bilbo, Sam adumbrated by Frodo, and Gimli as friend of Legolas and "servant" of Galadriel. However, since the mythical idea was that mortals cannot be changed in "kind" their lives is Elvenhome was only temporary, to be a healing and redress of suffering. Eventually they can and will "die" – of free will and leave the world. In Tolkien’s setting the return of King Arthur would be impossible and a vain imagining.

Tolkien was sorry that the Ice-bay of Forochel had no significant part. Forochel was just "Elvish" for Northern Ice, a mere remnant of the colds of the North where the prime Dark Lord had dwelt. Arvedui, the last king of Arnor, fled thither, tried to escape by ship, but was destroyed in the ice along with the last palantíri of the North Kingdom.

Tolkien apologized for the length of this letter, hoping that Mitchison’s kindness and interest offered an excuse. After her pleasant and unexpected visit he made a copy of the chronology of the Second and Third Ages. If that would interest here he would send it. Tolkien also mentioned that a reprint of The Fellowship was already needed.

Notes

  1. Her review had appeared in the New Statesman on 18 September 1954, calling The Lord of the Rings "extraordinary, terrifying, and beautiful."
  2. "Dwarfs" instead of dwarves was used in this letter.