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Letter 236

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The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Letter 236
RecipientRayner Unwin
Date30 December 1961
Subject(s)Niggling over the Puffin Hobbit, the Fell Winter, learning versus invention

Letter 236 is a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien and published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

[edit] Summary

Tolkien had received a copy of The Hobbit published by Puffin Books. Irritated, he wrote to Rayner Unwin, wishing that well-meaning folk who think they know could be restrained. Opening the Puffin copy for the first time he discovered that one of the well-meaning breed had been busy. If they could not reproduce the book faithfully they should have had the courtesy to Allen and Unwin and himself to ask before correcting the text.

Dwarves, dwarves', and dwarvish had been corrected, with one exception, to dwarfs, dwarfs’, and dwarfish. Elvish had become Elfish seven out of ten times. Tolkien viewed this with dudgeon since he had deliberately used dwarves etc. for special purpose and effect. It should have occurred to someone that if the author used a particular form for 300 times it would not have been a casual mistake. Dwarfs is the only recognized modern form of the plural, but the inconsistent elvish correction did not have any such excuse. At least changes of elven to elfin or further to farther had not been inflicted. Gollum's grammar had not been changed for it seemed that he was regarded as "without the law", but not so for the narrator.

Tolkien mentioned a few more errors before apologizing for niggling, which he declared natural to him. Nothing could be done now but Penguin Books ought to be informed that the errors had been observed.

Tolkien was experiencing the Fell Winter in Oxford, expecting White Wolves anytime. A single car had appeared on his road but had slid backwards and disappeared. He figured he would be isolated in his igloo-house on his 3 January birthday, but with several bottles of excellent burgundy at hand the problem was mitigated. With that hobbit-like note he closed.

In a postscript, Tolkien asked Rayner to thank Miss M.J. Hill for a copy of School Magazine from November 1961, which had an extract from The Hobbit and an article "Something Special". However, faced with actual stories people are always more willing to believe in learning and arcane knowledge than in invention, especially if the title "professor" is there. Tolkien then listed the very few instances of Elves or Dwarfs in any stories. The gap between the meager old stories and Elrond or Galadriel was unbridgeable by mere learning.