Tolkien Gateway

Letter 165

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Letter 165
RecipientHoughton Mifflin Co.
DateUndated, written in June 1955
Subject(s)Details about Tolkien and his writings for enquirers

Letter 165 is a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien and published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

[edit] Summary

A representative from the New York Times sent a series of questions to Tolkien, asking for brief, bright, and quotable replies. Tolkien responded and columnist Harvey Breit used the information in his weekly “In and Out of Books” article. This prompted Tolkien on 30 June 1955 to write to Houghton Mifflin, asking them to not blame him for what Breit made of his letter. He stated that his original letter made sense, not something that Breit perceived.

"Out of sheet pity" for any new enquirer, Tolkien enclosed a few notes in his letter for Houghton Mifflin. The notes were put into a typescript that was sent to a number of enquirers at different times, and quotes from it found their way into various articles about Tolkien. A copy of the typescript was sent to Tolkien, who annotated and corrected it (these changes are incorporated in the text below).

He stated that his name is TOLKIEN and not –kein, being an Anglicization of the German Tollkiehn (from tollkühn). However, calling this a fallacious fact, he said that he was neither "foolhardy"[note 1] nor German. His ancestors arrived in England over 200 years earlier and became intensely English (with a family trait of musicality that did not pass along to him).

Tolkien felt that he was more of a Suffield.[note 2] When he was young his mother taught him and infused in him his taste for philology and romance. He was a West-midlander at home only in counties bordering the Welsh Marches. Both descent and opportunity made Anglo-Saxon and Western Middle English a childhood attraction and his main professional sphere. Welsh he found particularly attractive and he constructed Sindarin to resemble the language phonologically (and related to High-elven in the same way as British is to Latin). All names and languages in his books are constructed rather than being at random.

Alliterative verse Tolkien wrote for pleasure, fragments of which had appeared in The Lord of the Rings. He also used it in his poem, "The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth", and in a yet unfinished poem, "The Fall of Arthur".[note 3]

Another "fallacious fact" was his birth in Bloemfontein, Orange River Free State, fallacious because he was shipped to England in 1895 and had lived in Birmingham and Oxford for most of 60 years thereafter (except for 5 or 6 years in Leeds at the university there). Tolkien said that he was untraveled. He knew Wales, he had visited Scotland (south of the Tay) often, and knew something of France, Belgium, and Ireland. Although he had spent a good deal of time in Ireland, his first visit was not until 1949, after The Lord of the Rings was completed and he found Gaelic and Ireland wholly alien. Tolkien mentioned that in Liège, Belgium in October 1954 he had received a degree and was astonished to be welcomed in French as "le createur de M. Bilbo Baggins".

Tolkien wanted to elucidate his remark about "philology" from the Harvey Breit article: A primary fact about his work was that it was all of a piece and fundamentally linguistic in inspiration. The writing of "fairy stories and romances" was not a hobby (as being something different from his work); they and the world in them were created as a setting for the languages, not the reverse. He would have preferred to write in "Elvish". The Lord of the Rings was edited so that only as much "language" as he thought his readers could take was included, although now he had found many wanted more. When people ask what his story is about he sometimes replied that it was mostly an essay in "linguistic aesthetic".

The Lord of the Rings is only "about" itself, said Tolkien, stressing that it was not allegorical. The only annoying criticism was that it "contained no religion" (and no "Women", which he said was untrue). Its world has a monotheistic "natural theology". The lack of religious buildings or rites and ceremonies was just part of its historic climate, and would be explained when the Silmarillion appeared. While he was Christian the Third Age was not.

Tolkien also insisted that "Middle-earth" was not a never-never land unrelated to our world. He used the Middle English middel-erde (or erthe), altered from Old English Middangeard, for the inhabited lands "between the seas". Although his geography did not match what geologists said or surmised about the past, imaginatively his "history" occupied a period of the actual Old World of this planet.

Certain themes moved Tolkien specially, such as the inter-relations between the "noble" and the "simple", particularly the ennoblement of the ignoble. His love for plants and above all trees was obvious. He also stated that so-called fairy stories were actually one of the highest forms of literature, erroneously associated with children only. He had placed his views on this in an essay, "On Fairy-Stories", which he called an important work.

To the few notes above Tolkien appended a postscript proclaiming that The Lord of the Rings was not a "trilogy", explaining that the reason for the tripartite division was due to publication length and cost. "Books" I – VI originally had their own titles and were the only natural divisions.

In The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien noted that the above comments were incorporated into "Tolkien on Tolkien" in the magazine Diplomat, October 1966. He added three paragraphs from the article that he believed were written circa 1966, which are summarized below.

Tolkien’s writing business began at birth. He recalled when about six he tried to write about a dragon and was told that "a green great dragon" should be written as "a great green dragon".[1] The mythology and languages started taking shape during World War I, with The Fall of Gondolin and Eärendil’s birth appearing in 1916. The kernel, Lúthien Tinúviel and Beren, arose from a small woodland glade near Roos on the Holderness peninsula, where he would go when free from duty in 1918.

The Lord of the Rings was written slowly and to satisfy himself. He still found parts of it very moving, such as the description of Cerin Amroth, the sound of Rohirrim horses at cockcrow, and the grievous failure of Gollum’s near repentance. Nothing had astonished Tolkien more than the welcome given to his work, but it was a constant consolation, pleasure, and good fortune to him.

[edit] Notes

  1. Tollkühn means "foolhardy" in German.
  2. Suffield was his mother’s maiden name.
  3. "The Fall of Arthur" was never finished, but it has since been edited and published by Christopher Tolkien.


  1. Also recounted in Letter 163.