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Letter 26

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The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Letter 26
RecipientStanley Unwin
Date4 March 1938
Subject(s)Out of the Silent Planet, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit

Letter 26 is a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien and published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Summary

On 2 March, 1938, Unwin sent Tolkien an extract from a reader’s report on C.S. LewisOut of the Silent Planet. The reviewed was negative and called the creatures of the planet Malacandra “bunk”. Unwin asked for Tolkien’s opinion of the book. Tolkien posted a quick reply, explaining that he had composed the current letter some time ago but hesitated in sending it because he did not wish to interfere with the sending of Lewis’ book to Unwin’s reader.

Tolkien said that when he read Lewis’ original manuscript he was enthralled and could do nothing else until he had finished it. He noted a few early criticisms of his own which had been corrected, although some of Lewis’ remaining linguistic inventions did not appeal to him. Tolkien called this a matter of taste and remarked that the same reader found Tolkien’s invented names to be eye-splitting. He was disturbed by the reader’s use of the word “bunk” because he felt that any person using this word would inevitably find matter of this sort to be bunk. Tolkien acknowledged that to be marketable stories such as Lewis’ must have the feeling of vera historia (true history) even in a journey to a strange land, and said that Out of the Silent Planet passed the test. Tolkien’s first criticism was that the story was too short and concluded that that opinion, for practical and artistic reasons, still held.

Tolkien praised the great number of philosophical and mythical implications that enhanced rather than detracted from the surface “adventure”. He discussed the underlying myth of the story and said that the reader’s critique should have pointed out the existence of the myth. Tolkien claimed that if he had simply discovered the story in print he would have bought it at any price and loudly recommended it, although he further claimed that his taste was not normal.

Turning to his own works, Tolkien said that he had reached the end of the third chapter in the sequel to The Hobbit, but that the story had taken an unpremeditated turn. Tolkien asked if Rayner Unwin could read and criticize the work, stating that Mr. Lewis and Christopher Tolkien had read the material and thought it better than The Hobbit. Having received a copy of the American edition of The Hobbit Tolkien pronounced it “not so bad” although the Rivendell picture was spoilt by top and bottom trimming. Numerous textual errors still existed and he hoped some day to get rid of them.

Tolkien commented on his “long and ridiculous letter” published in The Observer on February 20. A writer to the publication had sent in some questions regarding the origins of elements of The Hobbit. Tolkien explained that he had sent The Observer a long jesting reply to be forwarded to the writer and a shorter and saner reply for publication. Unfairly, in Tolkien’s view, the editor published in full his “ill-considered joke”.