Tolkien Gateway

Letter 180

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Letter 180
RecipientMr. Tompson (draft)
DateUnsent, 14 January 1956
Subject(s)The sub-creation process

Letter 180 is a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien and published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

[edit] Summary

Tolkien said he recognized the "arrogance" of his self-imposed task of restoring to the English an epic tradition and mythology and found it wonderful that Tompson said that he had succeeded. The task effectively began when as an undergraduate Tolkien began to explore his linguistic aesthetic. In World War I he discovered that "legends" depended upon the language to which they belonged and that living language equally depended upon its traditional legends. Volapük, Esperanto, Ido, Novial[notes 1] were deader than any ancient unused languages because no one had invented any Esperanto legends. Thus he began with languages. The early work was done in camps and hospitals between 1915 and 1918, but he thought that this kind of work continued even when saying how-do-you-do or "sleeping".

He had long ceased to invent; he just waited until he seemed to know what happened. He had known for years that Frodo would run into a tree-adventure. When he came to the point he wrote the Treebeard chapter with no previous thought, and discovered that it had not happened to Frodo at all.

Tolkien was sure that all this was boring but he took a dispassionate and scientific interest in these matters and cited himself because he was the most readily available example of the mystery of literary sub-creation. He said that there was hardly anything in The Lord of the Rings that did not actually exist on its own plane – the only nonexistent things he could remember were the cats of Queen Berúthiel and the adventures of the two unnamed wizards. [notes 2]

Tolkien had offered The Silmarillion for publication years ago and it was turned down. From this blow had come The Lord of the Rings. The hobbits had been welcomed and he loved them himself, loving the vulgar and simple as dearly as the noble. The ennoblement of the Ugly Duckling to Frodo most moved his heart. He was meant to write the story as Gandalf would have said. From a "blurb" that he wrote for The Hobbit, mentioning a time between the Elder Days and the Dominion of Men, the "Downfall of Númenor" popped out of some hidden "complex". When Faramir spoke of a vision of a Great Wave he spoke Tolkien. (Faramir was the character most like himself, Tolkien said, except that he lacked what all his characters possessed – courage.)

Tolkien noted that The Lord of the Rings had been such a success that he was being positively bullied into putting The Silmarillion into form, or anything else.

[edit] Notes

  1. All invented languages.
  2. Christopher Tolkien did find information about these subjects; see J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Unfinished Tales, "The Istari" – which discusses the wizards and, in note 7, tells about Berúthiel.