Tolkien Gateway

Letter 163

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Letter 163
RecipientW.H. Auden
Date7 June 1955
Subject(s)The Lord of the Rings talking points for the BBC

Letter 163 is a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien and published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

[edit] Summary

W.H Auden was asked to talk about The Lord of the Rings on the BBC Third Programme. He asked Tolkien if there were any points he wanted made in the broadcast and if he had any "human touches" about how the book came to be written.

Tolkien responded that he wrote the Trilogy[note 1] for personal satisfaction since there was a scarcity of this sort of literature that he wanted to read. He was not thinking much of profit or others' delight although one cannot write anything purely privately. However, since the BBC had asked someone as important as Mr. Auden to speak about the Trilogy it prompted him to think about it in personal terms, which was interesting and difficult to do briefly and accurately.

When writing The Lord of the Rings Tolkien said he had very little particular, conscious, intellectual intentions. For instance, Ents were not consciously invented at all; when he wrote the chapter on Treebeard it was as if he were reading someone else’s work. He liked Ents now because they seemed to have nothing to do with him. They had been in his unconscious awhile. He had had a feeling while writing that he was not inventing but reporting, and at times had to wait until "what really happened" appeared. But analytically, Ents were composed of philology, literature, and life. The name came from eald enta geweorc.[note 2] As a boy he had been bitterly disappointed with Shakespeare’s Great Birnam Wood in Macbeth; in his story trees really would march to war.

Tolkien acknowledged that some reviews had disparaged both Auden and himself with terms of "pubescent" and "infantilism" but what appreciative readers had gotten out of the work was fair enough (even when he disagreed with it). However, he reiterated that The Lord of the Rings was not allegorical. People had primarily responded to it as an exciting story and that’s how it was written.

Regarding "human touches" and when he started writing the work, that was like asking Man when language started. It was always with him: a sensibility to linguistic patters, a love of growing things, and a deep response to legends of the North-western temper. He had consulted his roots with its memories of the Shoreless Sea to the west and endless lands (filled with enemies) to the east. Also, his heart remembered the rumor of the Men out of the Sea, which had produced an Atlantis complex. He had once had a dream of the Great Wave, as had his son Michael, that he had not had since he had written about the downfall of Númenor. Tolkien called himself a West-midlander by blood and took to early Middle English of the region as a known tongue, although he had been born in Bloemfontein in Orange Free State.

Concerning conditioning, he was chiefly aware of linguistics. In school he had learned Latin, Greek, and English (but not English literature – Tolkien cordially disliked Shakespeare). He also learned Anglo-Saxon and on his own discovered Gothic, which introduced to him love of a language for its own sake, for aesthetic pleasure rather than for usefulness or as a means to literature. There were other linguistic strands: He had been fascinated by Welsh, which remained an abiding linguistic-aesthetic satisfaction. He enjoyed Spanish but loved Finnish – finding a book on Finnish grammar was like discovering a complete wine-cellar filled with amazing wines never before tasted. Over time his tastes had changed; he had switched to Latin and the British type of Celtic. Tolkien stated that all this was but background to the stories yet languages and names are inextricable from the telling of them.

Tolkien first tried to write a story about a dragon at age seven. The story was forgotten but he still recalled his mother stating that he could not say “a green great dragon”, you had to say “a great green dragon”. He wondered then and still did wonder why.

Tolkien was immensely attracted by the Kalevala and said it was the beginning of his Legendarium in 1912 or 1913, of which the Trilogy is the concluding part. The first real story was written during sick-leave in 1916. The Fall of Gondolin was written and read to the Exeter College Essay Club in 1918[note 3]. None of his early material was published.

The Hobbit originally was unconnected to the Legendarium but got drawn into its circumference. Unhappily, he said, it was conceived as a "children’s story", something he now regretted. All he remembered of its start was sitting and correcting School Certificate papers when on a blank leaf he scrawled: "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." He made Thrór's Map but dropped the invention for years. His children had liked it well enough, but not any better than The Marvellous Land of Snergs, which Tolkien mused was probably an unconscious source-book for The Hobbit. It was finally published because he had lent it to the Rev. Mother of Cherwell Edge where it was seen by a former student who worked for Allen and Unwin.

The success of The Hobbit called for a sequel but the remote Elvish legends were turned down (too full of the kind of Celtic beauty that maddened Anglo-Saxons in large dose). Seeing the value of Hobbits in grounding a "romance" and as the subjects for "ennoblement" he used them in the sequel. However, he did not want to write another children’s story. Instead he wanted to write a "Fairy Story" directed at adults (and wanted to work with a larger canvas). It required a lot of labor since the sequel was not only linked with The Hobbit but with the background mythology, which had to be rewritten as well. He wanted to publish it all in chronological order, but that was impossible. He also wanted to include a great deal more Elvish language in the book.

The work on The Lord of the Rings had to contend with his other duties as an administrator and teacher, and during World War II there was often no time for anything rational. He was stuck for ages at the end of Book Three (in The Two Towers). Book Four was written serially and sent to his son in the army in 1944. The last two books (in The Return of the King) were written between 1944 and 1948. Tolkien emphasized that the main idea of the story was not a product of the war. The germ of the story was the Necromancer and the Ring from The Hobbit. The Ring was an inevitable choice as the link. For a larger tale the Ring had to acquire a capital letter and then a Dark Lord immediately appeared. However, he met a lot of things along the way that astonished him. He had known Tom Bombadil but had never been to Bree. He had no more idea than Frodo who Strider was, the Mines of Moria had only been a name, and Lothlórien only appeared when he came there. He had known about the Horse-lords but Fangorn Forest was unforeseen. Saruman had never been revealed to him and thus he was as mystified as Frodo at Gandalf’s failure to appear on September 22. He had known nothing of the Palantíri, though the moment the Orthanc-stone came through the window he recognized it. He had yet to discover anything about the cats of Queen Berúthiel. But he did know more or less about Gollum, Sam, and that the way was guarded by a Spider.

As an aside, Tolkien mentioned that he had been stung by a tarantula when he was a young child. He supposed people would make something of that although he remembered nothing about it, did not particularly dislike spiders, and had no urge to kill them.

Tolkien ended by hoping that Auden had not gotten bored and that he could see him again. He said that Auden’s interest in Tolkien’s work was a considerable encouragement.

[edit] Notes

  1. Auden had used the word "Trilogy" in his letter; Tolkien disliked it (see Letter 149 and Letter 165).
  2. An Anglo-Saxon poem
  3. Actually it was read to the club in 1920 per the club’s minutes.