Tolkien Gateway

Letter 109

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Letter 109
RecipientSir Stanley Unwin
Date31 July 1947
Subject(s)Responding to Rayner Unwin's comments on The Fellowship of the Ring

Letter 109 is a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien and published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

[edit] Summary

A "fair" typescript of Book I of The Fellowship of the Ring had been given to Rayner Unwin and on 28 July 1947 he had sent his comments to Tolkien. Rayner noted "tortuous and contending events…almost overpower one". He suspected the story to shift into pure allegory and said that the converting of the original Ring into its new form took some hard explaining. He was not sure who would be the audience for the book, noted some corrections to be made, but judged it to be a brilliant and gripping story. Tolkien wrote his reply on 31 July but sent it on 21 September, as explained in Letter 111.

Tolkien was surprised to get the installment back so quickly. It was large but apparently not too long in the reading for one with the appetite. He thanked Unwin for Rayner's impressions since he was a critic worth listening to. He would send another installment in August.

If Rayner felt overpowered Tolkien was sorry, and he particularly missed any reference to the comedy, which may have misfired. Tolkien was adverse to stories that set out to be funny but felt it was precisely against the darkness of the world that comedy arose. Evidently he managed to make the horrible really horrible, which was a great comfort, for a romance must have serious fear and horror if it is to resemble reality and not mere escapism. He hoped that it seemed possible for mere mundane hobbits to cope with such things.

Tolkien insisted that there was no "Allegory". Even the struggle between darkness and light is part of the pattern of history but not The Pattern, and the actors are individuals. The only perfectly consistent allegory is real life and the only fully intelligible story is an allegory. But life and literature start from opposite ends. You could make the Ring an allegory of the inevitable fate that waits for all attempts to defeat evil power by power, but that is only because all magical or mechanical things work that way.

Rayner, said Tolkien, had spotted the inevitable weakness: the linking. He was glad that Rayner felt that it had been done fairly well. He had to have his loved hobbits and a glimpse of Bilbo. The discovery of the Ring and Bilbo's actions did not need explanation; the real weakness was Gollum and his offering of the Ring as a present.[note 1] He said the proper way to negotiate the difficulty would be to slightly remodel The Hobbit.[note 2]

Who would read it? Tolkien lamented that the world was dividing more and more into impenetrable factions, such as the Morlocks and Eloi and others. However, those who liked this kind of thing liked it very much and want more. Tolkien listed the various people who all liked the story: C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Christopher Tolkien, a solicitor, a doctor, an elderly army officer, an elementary school-mistress, an artist, and a farmer, which did not count professionally literary folk.

Tolkien felt that a proof-reader would have little to do. "Belisarius" had been scribbled over the name "Hamilcar"[note 3] in a few cases; he hoped such "detestable slovenliness" of not keeping a minor character's name firm would not disfigure the final form. Tolkien revealed that he had a Forward[note 4] that would retell part of The Hobbit and add information requested by “fans”. He returned to the opinion that the only liberty taken was making Bilbo's Ring the One Ring.

The thing is, Tolkien stated, to finish the story as devised and then let it be judged. But he asked forgiveness since it was written in his life-blood and he could do no other. He truly desired publication yet the chief thing was to complete one’s work. He was grateful to be taken seriously by a busy man. He wished Stanly and Rayner a good voyage and great days among the mountains.[note 5]

In a postscript Tolkien mentioned revising The Hobbit. Radical alteration was impossible and unnecessary, but there were still many misprints and minor errors, some caught by fans. He enclosed a list for them to consider.

[edit] Notes

  1. Later Tolkien hit upon the idea that the first edition of The Hobbit contained Bilbo's untruthful account.
  2. Which happened in later editions.
  3. Later changed to "Fredegar" for Fatty Bolger.
  4. Later it would become the Prologue.
  5. The Unwins were traveling to Switzerland.