Tolkien Gateway

Letter 181

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Letter 181
RecipientMichael Straight, editor of New Republic (drafts)
DateUnsent and undated, probably January or February 1956
Subject(s)Answering questions for Mr. Straight’s review of The Lord of the Rings

Letter 181 is a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien and published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

[edit] Summary

Before writing a review of The Lord of the Rings, Straight wrote to Tolkien asking a number of questions: Was there a "meaning" in Gollum's role and in Frodo's moral failure at the climax? Was the "Scouring of the Shire" directed especially to contemporary England? Why should others depart from the Grey Havens with Frodo – "Is it for the same reason that there are those who gain in victory but cannot enjoy it?"

Tolkien thanked Mr. Straight for his letter but asked if he had enjoyed The Lord of the Rings, which was written to amuse, as in to be readable. He stressed that there was no "allegory" in the book at all. It was a "fairy-story" written for adults. Tolkien thought that a fairy story had its own mode of reflecting "truth", but that it must first succeed as a tale and within its own imagined world be accorded literary belief.

But, said Tolkien, "adults" would not be pleased, excited, or moved unless there seemed to be something worth considering beyond mere danger and escape—some relevance to the "human situation". While some of the teller's reflections and "values" appear it was not the same as allegory. We all exemplify general principles but do not represent them. Hobbits were no more allegorical than African pygmies. Gollum was just a character who acted in a probable way in the situation.

The final scene of the Quest fit the situation and the "characters" of Frodo, Sam, and Gollum. If Mr. Straight wanted more reflection, the "catastrophe" exemplified the familiar words: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." Tolkien stated that "Lead us not into temptation" is the harder and less considered part. Every event, said Tolkien, has two aspects: the history of the individual and the history of the world. Sometimes there are "sacrificial" situations in which the good of the world depends on an individual faced with suffering and endurance far beyond normal. More is demanded (of mind and body) than he possesses. Frodo was in such a position.

The Quest was bound to fail as a piece of world-plan and end in disaster as the story of Frodo's sanctification. It did fail as far as Frodo alone was concerned since he "apostatized". Tolkien reported receiving a savage letter crying out that he should have been executed as a traitor. Tolkien said he had no idea how "topical" the situation had appeared; it had arisen naturally as conceived in his main outline in 1936.

However, at this point the "salvation" of the world and Frodo was achieved by his previous pity and forgiveness of injury. Anyone would have told Frodo that Gollum meant to betray and rob him. To pity and not kill Gollum was either folly or a mystical belief in the ultimate value of pity and generosity. Gollum did rob and injure Frodo in the end, but by "grace" that last betrayal at that time was the most beneficial thing anyone could have done for Frodo! His "forgiveness" created the situation that saved him and relieved his burden.

Gollum was pitiable but ended in persistent wickedness. His last act worked good but of no credit to him. We must face the fact that some yield to temptation and appear to be "damnable". The Ring was too strong for Sméagol but he would never have had to endure it if he had not already been a mean sort of thief. His dawning love for Frodo was too easily withered by jealousy of Sam before Shelob's lair and he was lost.

There was no special reference to England in the Shire; Tolkien said he took his models like anyone else, from such life as he knew. There was no post-war reference. He was not a "socialist" in any sense—adverse to "planning" and "planners" who become bad with power—but he did not feel that England had to suffer anything like the malice of Sharkey and his ruffians. He did feel that the spirit of Isengard if not Mordor was always cropping up, as in the destroying of Oxford to accommodate motor-cars.

Tolkien agreed that "victors" never can enjoy "victory" in the terms they envisaged; the more they fought for something to be enjoyed by themselves the less satisfied they would be. But the departure of the Ringbearers (of the Three) had another side, part of the mythological structure behind the story. There is no embodiment of the One, of God, who is only directly accessible to the Valar. These "gods" are actually created spirits. They shared in the "making" of the world but only as artists—the realization of the world was an act of the One God. The One retained all ultimate authority, including the right to intrude the finger of God, producing outcomes not deducible by any means but which become real for all subsequent time (i.e. "miracles"). Men and Elves were the first of these intrusions and thus not conceived or made by the Valar. For the Valar the Eruhíni were an incalculable element: rational creatures of free will.

Far exterior to the story, Elves and Men are just different aspects of the Humane and represent the problem of Death. Elves and Men are kindred but represent different "experiments". The Elves represent the artistic, aesthetic, and scientific aspects of the Humane, devoted to the physical world for its own sake. They are "immortal" but not "eternal", made to endure with and within the created world. When "killed" they remain in the world either disincarnate or re-born. This becomes a great burden as time progresses and their weakness is regret for the past and unwillingness to face change. They fell in measure to Sauron's deceits, desiring "power" to arrest change. The Three Rings were unsullied because this object was a limited good, including the power to heal as well as resisting change. But with the downfall of "Power" their preservation efforts fell to bits, leaving them nothing more in Middle-earth but weariness. So Elrond and Galadriel departed. Gandalf was a special case, returning because his labour and errand were finished.

Gandalf is a "created" person, though possibly a spirit that existed before in the physical world. His function was to assist the rational creatures of Middle-earth to resist Sauron, a power too great for them unaided. Since Power that seeks to dominate other wills (except by the assent of their reason) is evil, the "wizards" were incarnated as life-forms subjected to suffering pains of mind and body. For the same reason they were in peril of "falling", of sin, by becoming impatient, leading to the desire to force others to their own good ends, ending in the desire to enforce their wills by any means. Saruman succumbed to this while Gandalf did not. The situation became so much worse because of Saruman's fall that the "good" were obliged to greater effort and sacrifice. Gandalf died and was sent back with enhanced power. While reminiscent of the Gospels it is not the same at all.

Tolkien explained that he was only concerned with Death as part of nature and with Hope without guarantees. The Tale of Arwen and Aragorn is the most important of the Appendices, part of the essential story and only placed so because it did not fit the main narrative.