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Letter 234

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The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Letter 234
RecipientJane Neave
Date22 November 1961
Subject(s)Not writing for children, the meaning of fine words, loathing The Pied Piper

Letter 234 is a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien and published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

[edit] Summary

Tolkien thanked his aunt for returning some poems he had sent her. He had enjoyed digging them out and rubbing up the half-forgotten things, especially since he had other, duller things he ought to have done.

Tolkien stated that he was not interested in writing for children. It was a mistake to do so, useless for the stupid and pernicious for the gifted. He had only made the mistake once, in the early part of The Hobbit. He had to think about his delusions regarding "fairy-stories" when he created a lecture and that was beneficial to The Lord of the Rings. It was not written for children or any kind of person but for itself. For those children who did read or listen to it he hoped it increased their vocabularies.

The words plenilune and argent are beautiful before being understood, said Tolkien, and best met in a living context rather than in a dictionary. Children are a collection of immature persons that varied, as people do, in their reach and in their ability to extend that reach. Limiting your vocabulary to what is supposedly within their reach simply prevents the gifted ones from expanding their knowledge.

The meaning of fine words cannot be made obvious. Adults think argent "means" silver but it does not. Both words refer to the element Ag but each is clothed in different phonetic incarnations. They sound different and arouse different responses. They are used in different ways. It is better to hear "argent" as a sound in poetic context than to think "it only means silver." You may like it for itself and later appreciate its heraldic overtones, which mere "silver" does not have. Tolkien deprecated the writing down, flattening attitude that made so many children have little respect and no love for words.

Jane Neave reported that children always asked for The Pied Piper. Tolkien loathed the story and would rather give them crude and vulgar plastic toys. Tolkien viewed the story as the presage of the most vulgar elements in Disney. Tolkien even disputed Neave's report that the story never fails, stating that she could not know what is really happening. Children may seem to pay attention but then mentally throw the stuff over the garden wall. When he was a child he listened intently to Hans Andersen's stories but he actually disliked them then and carried that distaste with him down through the years.

Tolkien called himself "childish" enough for real children or those "childish" in the same way. He sent his aunt a new "piece of nonsense" he had recently written.