Tolkien Gateway

Letter 257

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Letter 257
RecipientChristopher Bretherton
Date16 July 1964
Subject(s)A short history of the construction of Tolkien's legendarium

Letter 257 is a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien and published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

[edit] Summary

Tolkien assured Bretherton that typing was not a discourtesy. He usually typed since his handwriting tended to start fair but then drift into picturesque inscrutability. His dream was to have an electric typewriter fitted with Fëanorian script. He had typed The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings on his bed in an attic.

At the time this letter was written Tolkien was living at 76 Sandfield Road, Headington. When he had moved in it had been a cul-de-sac, but it had been opened up and had for a time become a lorry by-pass. The neighbors produced non-stop noise from radios, teles, dogs, scooters, buzzbikes, and cars from early morn to about 2 a.m., and three doors away were young men trying to become a "Beatle Group", producing indescribable noise.

Bretherton had asked a question that Tolkien said almost required an autobiography to answer. He began constructing languages in early boyhood and became primarily a scientific philologist. However he was also interested in traditional tales and writing verse and metrical devices. This interest warmed up when he was an undergraduate. While officially engaged on "Classics" he studied unrelated languages: Welsh, Finnish, and fourth-century Gothic.

The germ of his writing his own legends fitted to his private languages was the tragic tale of hapless Kullervo in the Finish Kalevala. It was the basis for The Children of Húrin although all had changed except for the tragic ending. The Fall of Gondolin came out of his head, as did the story of Idril and Eärendil, during sick leave from the army in 1917, as well as the first version of Lúthien and Beren's tale. He kept adding to his construction post-army. In Oxford he wrote the Music of the Ainur, defining the structure of the earliest period of his mythology. When he went to the University of Leeds in 1920 through 1926 he began to deal with matters in high and serious style, and written in verse.

Tolkien returned to Oxford in January 1926. By the time The Hobbit appeared in 1937 the Elder Days material was in coherent form. The Hobbit was not intended to be connected to the rest of the legendarium. When his children were young he had inventing "children’s stories" for them according to his notions of that type of story's style and attitude. None of those stories had been published and The Hobbit was supposed to be one of them. However, it had attracted references from his dominant construction (the Fall of Gondolin, branches of the Elfkin, and King Thingol’s quarrel with the dwarves) which were unnecessary but added an impression of historical depth.

Tolkien described the accidental path taken by The Hobbit to Allen and Unwin. He lent it to the Mother Superior of Cherwell Edge, where it was noticed by a student resident who worked in the Allen and Unwin offices. Stanley Unwin saw it and tried it on his son Rayner, who enthusiastically endorsed it and thus it was published. They turned Tolkien down on his offered Elder Days legends because they wanted a sequel. He wanted to write high legends and high romance and the result was The Lord of the Rings.

The magic ring was the one obvious thing that could connect The Hobbit to his mythology, but to be the burden of a large story it had to be supremely important. This linked in the Necromancer, who originally was only a device to draw off Gandalf and force Bilbo and the Dwarves to proceed without the wizard’s assistance. From The Hobbit also sprang the matter of Dwarves, Durin, Moria, and Elrond. Calling Elrond Half-elven was a fortunate accident, which from his mythology he could expand upon in The Lord of the Rings.

Another ingredient previously unmentioned was Tolkien’s need to provide a great function for Strider-Aragorn, which related to his Atlantis-haunting. He was often troubled in his sleep by this legend or myth or dim memory, dreaming of a tremendous wave coming from the sea. When C.S. Lewis and Tolkien first got together, Lewis was supposed to write on space-travel and Tolkien on time-travel, and Tolkien began a book in which his hero would be at the drowning of Atlantis. This was to be called Númenor. The thread was the continuous occurrence in human families of a father and son with names interpretable as Bliss-friend and Elf-friend. It began with an Edwin and Elwin in the present, went back to an Eädwine and Ælfwine of circa A.D. 918, then back to Audoin and Alboin of Lombardic legend, and at last to Amandil and Elendil, leaders of the loyal party in Númenor. However, Tolkien found that he was only really interested in the upper part, the Akallabêth so he transferred what he had written into his main mythology.

Regarding the name "Gamgee", about 30 years earlier Tolkien was at Lamorna Cove.[note 1] An old local man went about swapping gossip and weather-wisdom, and to amuse his sons he named him Gaffer Gamgee, which became a family name for old chaps of the kind. "Gamgee" popped out of a childhood memory as a comic word. In Birmingham when Tolkien was small it was the name for "cotton-wool", which associated the names "Gamgee" with "Cottons".

Tolkien hoped that Bretherton was not appalled by the fragments he had written. He was indulging himself when he should have been working on Sir Gawain.

Tolkien once lived in a decayed road named Duchess in Edgbaston, Birmingham that ran into a more decayed road called Beaufort, where a Mr. Shorthouse lived. He was an amateur (like Tolkien himself) of no literary status who suddenly produced a long book called John Inglesant. It became a best seller and discussed by many, including the Prime Minister. He never wrote anything else but wasted the rest of his time explaining his book. Tolkien took him as a melancholy warning, although he did sometimes fall from wisdom. However, the story of Shorthouse also illustrated the fickleness of the Public. Bretherton had cited Sir Stanley’s Truth about Publishing, which actually made Tolkien apprehensive. Sir Stanley had delighted Tolkien with his approbation (he had told readers to take The Lord of the Rings on vacation and predicted a long life for it). However, as Gandalf has said, "We cannot master, nor foretell, all the tides of the world."

Tolkien stated that C.S. Lewis had been his closest friend from 1927 to 1940, remained very dear to him, and that his death was a grievous blow. However they had grown apart after Lewis had come under Charles Williams' influence, and further apart after Lewis' very strange marriage.[note 2]

Tolkien ended by apologizing for his garrulity and hoped that Bretherton found this letter interesting in parts.

[edit] Notes

  1. In Cornwall near Penzance.
  2. For details of Lewis' marriage, see Wikipedia:C.S. Lewis, "Joy Gresham"