Tolkien Gateway

Letter 183

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Letter 183
RecipientNone, written for Tolkien’s own satisfaction
DateProbably written in 1956, never sent
Subject(s)Notes on W.H. Auden's review of The Return of the King

Letter 183 is a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien and published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

[edit] Summary

Tolkien opened his comments by expressing gratitude for W.H. Auden's review since it came from a poet and critic of distinction. Yet he thought it came from one little practiced in telling tales, written in a critic's way of talking rather than as an author. Tolkien said that the story's success came from not trying to "objectify" his life. This may be the reason why it failed to please some readers and critics.

Middle-earth was not an imaginary world, stated Tolkien. It was a modernized form of the 13th century midden-erd, the abiding place of Men and their objectively real world, specifically opposed to imaginary worlds (as Fairyland) or unseen worlds (as Heaven or Hell). The setting of his story was here, in northwest Europe; it was the historical period that was imaginary.

Men have gone and still do go on journeys and quests without acting out allegories of life. It was untrue of any period that "only the rich or those on vacation can take journeys" (as Auden had asserted). Whether long or short, for an errand or simply to go "there and back again", was not important, but even the smallest journey may have an important effect. Having gone no further than the Woody End, Sam had already experienced an "eye-opener". A journey of any length was a deliverance from the plantlike helplessness of a passive sufferer; an exercise of will and mobility and curiosity that prevents stultification. Of course, for a storyteller a journey is a marvelous device to present a multitude of things – Tolkien said his chief reason for using this form was simply technical.

Auden saw most men as rooted in one place and usually predictable. Tolkien said that men have innate characters but also had change possible in their modes of behaviour. A seed had vitality and heredity plus a capacity to grow and develop. Changes in a man are unfolding of the patterns hidden in the seed, which could be modified by situations or damaged by accidents. But a man is not only a seed but also a gardener, for good or ill. Tolkien was impressed by the degree in which "character" could be the product of conscious intention. He had found most people incalculable in any particular situation or emergency. Even Auden had said "usually" predictable, which damaged his point.

Some persons were or seemed more calculable than others, but that was due to fortune rather than nature. Calculable people reside in relatively fixed circumstances. This made Hobbits ideal: Seemingly simple, calculable people in long-settled circumstances get sent on a journey far from home into strange lands and dangers.

In such a context the use of the term "political" seemed false. Frodo's duty was “humane” and not political. Although he thought first of the Shire his quest was not to preserve this or that polity, but rather to liberate all the "humane" (which in a fairy-story included Elves and all "speaking creatures"), even those still serving the tyranny.

Denethor was a mere politician who therefore mistrusted Faramir and ultimately failed. His prime motive was to preserve the polity of Gondor. He opposed another potentate, who being stronger was to be feared and opposed for that reason, rather than because he was ruthless and wicked. He despised lesser men and surely did not distinguish between orcs and Mordor's allies. As a victor, even without the Ring, he would become a tyrant, cruel and vengeful.

At the Council of Elrond, Frodo realized the nature of the quest and accepted the burden of his mission. The Elves accepted the destruction of their own polity in pursuit of "humane" duty. The outcome could not be advantageous to the Elves and Elrond cannot be said to have acted politically.

Tolkien said that Auerbach's use of "political" seemed more justifiable but not really admissible. Feats of arms in Arthurian Romance do not need to "fit into a politically purposive pattern". Auerbach ought to have approved of Beowulf for the author tried to fit a deed of "errantry" into a complex political field. But that was the story's weakness, not its strength. Beowulf had personal objects in his journey but we keep glimpsing something deeper. Grendel had attacked the centre of the realm, bringing an outer darkness such that the king could only sit upon the throne in daylight. This was something quite different than a "political" invasion of equals. Grendel's overthrow made a good wonder-tale. He was too strong and dangerous for any ordinary man to defeat. His downfall was a victory for all men because he was a monster. His monstrosity and fairy-tale quality make the story important when all the later political parts of the tale have become dim.

Real life causes are not clear cut because human tyrants are seldom utterly corrupted into pure evil will. Even the most corrupt have followers only partly as corrupt, and many leaders still need to have "good motives". In conflicts about important things or ideas Tolkien was most impressed with the importance of being on the right side. If a side has the right, which depended on values and beliefs above and independent of a particular conflict, then it justifies that side's cause throughout.

Tolkien spoke not of individuals. The rightness of a cause will not justify the actions of its supporters who are morally wicked. Aggressors are primarily to blame for evil deeds proceeding from their original violation of justice. They had no right to demand that their assaulted victims should not demand an eye for an eye. Similarly, good actions do not justify the wrong side. One may honour and rejoice at acts heroic courage or deeds of mercy, but it still would not alter a judgment as to which side was right.

His story did not deal with Absolute Evil, said Tolkien, doubting that there is such a thing. No rational being is wholly evil. Sauron was as near an approach to the wholly evil will as is possible. Yet he had begun well, at least on the level of desiring to order all things according to his own wisdom. But he went further than any human tyrant in pride and lust for domination, being in origin an immortal spirit, of the same kind as Gandalf and Saruman but of a far higher order. In The Lord of the Rings the basic conflict was not about "freedom" (though it was involved), but about God and His sole right to divine honour. The Eldar and Númenóreans believed in The One and held worship of any other an abomination.

Sauron desired to be a God-King. He was thrice involved in treachery: First, admiring strength, he had followed Morgoth and become his chief agent in Middle-earth. Second, when Morgoth fell he forsook his allegiance, but from fear only and remained in Middle-earth. Third, seeing how his knowledge was greatly admired and how easy it was to influence other rational creatures, he re-assumed the position of Morgoth's representative in the Second Age. By the end of the Third Age, although actually weaker than before, he claimed, in his pride, to be Morgoth returned. If victorious he would have demanded divine honour and absolute temporal power over all. Even if "the West" had bred or hired orcs or ravaged the lands of other men, their cause would have remained indefeasibly right.

Thus the fiddle-faddle in reviews, said Tolkien, as to whether his "good people" were kind and merciful and gave quarter (which they did) was beside the point. Some critics seemed determined to represent him as a simple-minded adolescent and willfully distorted what was said in his tale. Denethor alone proved this but none of the people on the "right side" were any better than men have been, are, or could be. Middle-earth is not an "imaginary" world but an imaginary historical moment in our habitation.