Tolkien Gateway

Letter 294

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Letter 294
RecipientCharlotte and Denis Plimmer
Date8 February 1967
Subject(s)Tolkien's corrections of a draft of the Plimmers' article The Man Who Understands Hobbits

Letter 294 is a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien and published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

[edit] Summary

Tolkien thanked the Plimmers for the draft of the article, which showed that he had given them difficulties when they had interviewed him. His speaking had been swift, a congenital and incurable condition. His walking about, a discourtesy, was due to arthritis that made his knees ache if he sat too long. His pipe-smoking was a necessary sedative since he found interviews to be increasingly distasteful and distracting. He then stated that after reviewing the draft he had some points he wished to be altered, calling himself a pedant devoted to accuracy. He also refused to being photographed at home and at work for it was too intrusive of his privacy and he could not afford the time for it.

Below are extracts from Tolkien's commentary on the draft. The italicized parts are quotations from their draft.

the cramped garage that he uses as a study

Tolkien said that it wasn't a study, just a hastily contrived necessity after he was obliged to give up his college room and store what he could from his library. It was now a storage place used by his part-time secretary and he had never written anything literary in it. His present home was forced on him and he was caught in acute discomfort, but since removal would be too dislocating there was no solution until he completed his contracted work. Someday he hoped to live at an address appearing in no directory or reference book.

If they wondered why Tolkien had received them in such a hole, he said that the only alternative was his wife's sitting-room. A visitor from the New Yorker had described it contemptuously, subjecting he and his wife to ridicule, and she had since refused admittance to anybody but personal friends. Tolkien had a "bedsitter" room when he actually did his writing but that was off limits too.

Tolkien, tall and strongly built

Tolkien objected, stating that he was not tall (measuring 5 ft 8 ½), and very slightly built with notably small hands. Most of his life he was very thin, but since his early sixties he had become "tubby".

Tolkien let a few Oxford friends read The Hobbit. One, the Mother Superior of a girls' hostel, lent it to a student, Susan Dagnall… Tolkien recounted the details of The Hobbit’s progress: The Rev. Mother was a superior of a convent at Cherwell Edge; the women undergraduates’ hostel was one of its functions. He had lent the story to Miss M.E. Griffiths, a former pupil of Tolkien’s and a friend, who was living at the hostel. She lent it to Susan Dagnall, whom she was tutoring. It was lent to the Mother Superior, but that was a side-track of the book’s journey. Susan Dagnall was the connection to Allen and Unwin. Sadly, she had died not long after marriage in a car accident.

The Silmarillion was turned down by Allen and Unwin as being too dark and Celtic.

It was not turned down as too dark and Celtic, said Tolkien, but because it needed re-writing and more thought.

Middle-earth grew out of Tolkien's predilection for creating languages…

Tolkien felt the reference to the "invention of Language" had become confused and not pertinent. Many children make up languages (he once wrote a paper about it, called A Secret Vice) and it sometimes continues into adulthood. However, what was important and missing from the article was how linguistic invention lead to imaginary history. He explained that if you carry out such inventions to any degree of completion then a suitable habitation and history is required.

"When you invent a language," he said, "you more or less catch it out of the air. You say boo-hoo and that means something."

Tolkien said he did not remember exactly what he said but it was unlikely that he said anything like this, contrary to considered opinions. An inventor does not catch noises out of the air; it comes from his linguistic equipment and threads of connexion with other words. Vocal noises mean nothing in themselves without attribution of a human mind.

Middle-earth…corresponds spiritually to Nordic Europe.

Tolkien disliked Nordic, associated as it was with racialist theories and said Northern would be better. But even that was inapplicable (geographically or spiritually) to “Middle-earth”. It was an old word that meant the habitable lands of our world amid the surrounding Ocean. The action of the story takes place in the North-west of “Middle-earth”, approximating Europe and the north shores of the Mediterranean, not a purely "Nordic" area in any sense. Hobbiton and Rivendell are intended to be at about the latitude of Oxford. Minas Tirith, 600 miles south, is at about the latitude of Florence [Italy]. The Mouths of Anduin and Pelargir are about the latitude of ancient Troy.

Auden had asserted that for Tolkien "the North is a sacred direction", which was untrue. The North-west of Europe had his affection as him home, but it was not "sacred" and did not exhaust his affections. In his stories, Tolkien remarked, the North was the seat of the Devil and at the end of The Lord of the Rings it is more like the re-establishment of an effective Holy Roman Empire with its seat in Rome, not anything a "Nordic" would devise.

[Of C.S. Lewis's comments on The Lord of the Rings:] "When he would say, 'You can do better than that. Better, Tolkien, please!' I would try. I'd sit down and write the section over and over. That happened with the scene I think is the best in the book, the confrontation between Gandalf and Saruman."

Tolkien clarified that he did not think the Saruman passage the best in the book, it was just better than the first draft. It was one of the few places where he found Lewis' detailed criticisms to be useful and just. Tolkien cut out some light-hearted hobbit conversation that Lewis had found tiresome, fearing that other readers would feel the same. Lewis never liked hobbits much, especially Merry and Pippin. What moved him most were the end of the chapter Lothlórien[1] and the horns of the Rohirrim at cockcrow.[2]

His taste for Nordic languages stems from the fact that he had German ancestors who migrated to England two centuries ago.

Tolkien called this the reverse of the truth. First, Nordic was not a linguistic term, Germanic is what appears to be meant. Second, his taste for Germanic languages had no connexion to the history of his surname. His father and kin had been extremely "British" and had shown no interest in linguistics. His interest in languages derived from his mother, a Suffield.

Dante…"doesn't attract me. He's full of spite and malice. I don't care for his petty relations with petty people in petty cities."

Tolkien said his reference to Dante was outrageous and did not seriously dream of being measured against him. He did say that there was a "pettiness" that was a sad blemish in places.

"I don’t read much now, except for fairy-stories."

Change "except" to "not even", said Tolkien, for few modern books held his attention. He had read all that E.R. Eddison wrote, was greatly taken by Death of Grass, and enjoyed the science fiction of Isaac Asimov. He had been deeply engaged in the books of Mary Renault (receiving a card of appreciation from her was perhaps the piece of "Fan-mail" that had given him the most pleasure). Mostly Tolkien did not read much because he was trying to finish his own work.

"I’m always looking for something I can’t find…Something like what I wrote myself. There’s nothing like being vain, is there?"

Tolkien apologized for seeming to speak out of vanity. Actually it all arose out of the humility of amateurs (Tolkien and Lewis) in a world of great writers. They agreed to write what they really liked in stories, with Lewis trying "space-travel" and Tolkien attempting "time-travel". Lewis' result was well known while Tolkien's effort finally ended up in The Downfall of Númenor. In the large parts each liked what the other had written.

Tolkien…is among the "principal collaborators" of the newly translated Jerusalem Bible.

The editor of the Jerusalem Bible had paid him an undeserved courtesy, said Tolkien, since he was only consulted on some points of style and criticized some contributions of others. He only completed "Jonah", one of the shortest books before resigning due to other work pressure.


  1. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "Lothlórien"
  2. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, "The Field of Cormallen"