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Letter 241

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The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Letter 241
RecipientJane Neave
Date8-9 September 1962
Subject(s)English and Welsh, Welsh postmen, Leaf by Niggle, trees, writing The Lord of the Rings

Letter 241 is a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien and published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Summary

Tolkien's aunt had been reading proofs of his lecture English and Welsh. Tolkien feared that he had overstepped with it. He said it was not really "learned"; he had threaded items of common knowledge together. The only original parts were some autobiographical bits, "beauty" in language, and his differentiation of "native language" from "cradle-tongue".

Neave's postman did not know bobi: caws bobi. Not surprising, said Tolkien, since it was not in modern dictionaries and probably obsolete. It meant “toasted cheese”. Tolkien talked about the Welsh claim that theirs was the "language of heaven". Her postman had probably heard of that. Postmen, especially the country ones who still walk, are generally a good tribe. Sir John Morris Jones, a famous Welsh scholar, had commented on the work of a learned French scholar on Welsh metres: "I get more learning and sense on the topic out of my postman." The Welsh had not yet learnt to associate art or knowledge with certain classes. However, for all their virtues the Welsh were contentious and often malicious, especially in matters of scholarship and philology.

Tolkien told his aunt that he was sending her Leaf by Niggle in a copy specially made for her to keep. He wrote it just before the War when he had awoken and scribbled it down, and the printed version was hardly different. He still found it quite moving when he reread it. It was not an "allegory" so much as "mythical" since Niggle was a mixed-quality person not representing any single vice or virtue. He had once known a gardener called Parish; the name had no special significance in the story. Some elements could be explicable in biographical terms, such as a huge poplar visible through his window. He loved the tree and was anxious about it. It had been mutilated years before, had grown new limbs, and now a foolish neighbor agitated to have it felled. Every tree has its enemy, few have any advocate. The neighbor made claims as to why the tree should come down which Tolkien refuted.

At that time (during the War when he wrote Leaf by Niggle) Tolkien was worried about his own internal Tree, The Lord of the Rings. It was growing out of hand, he wanted to finish it, but he was dead stuck. It was not until Christopher went to Africa that he forced himself to go on. The first rough draft was not completed until 1949, when he remembered blotting the pages (the welcome of Frodo and Sam on the Field of Cormallen) with tears as he wrote. He had then typed the whole work out and then again in revision. But none of this illuminated Leaf by Niggle, said Tolkien. He hoped she would think it had some virtue.