Saturday, March 27, 2021

Book Reviews: The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien
When we read books we dislocate ourselves in space and also time if the book is sufficiently old. What Tolkien did with The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings was to create a world which was (he was sometimes coy about this) our own but much removed in time. This world had a backstory of untold eons, its own invented languages (Tolkien was above all a philogist, being able to speak or read at least seven different languages), and its creation stories that intertwined Christianity and the Northern European myths of which Tolkien was so fond. Tolkien was also keen to point out that although the Northern myths were his favorite because they were those of his origin he was also interested in many other cultures and tales.
Although Tolkien lived and died long before the internet was a thing he was a prodigious letter writer. This book is exactly what it claims to be. It is a collection of letters written by Tolkien to friends, relatives, business associates, employers, priests, publishers, fellow writers, fans, detractors, and finally a few to his fiancee and later wife Edith. There aren't many epistles to Edith in this collection because Carpenter and evidently the Tolkien Estate thought most of them were too personal for public release. Would you want to know all of your parents' intimate discussions? Would you want everyone else to read them? I'm betting not. 
Tolkien's letters range from October 1914 to August 1973, just a few days before Tolkien's death. There is a gap in letters from 1916 to about 1923 and another from 1925 to about 1937. Carpenter says that there (a) aren't a lot of surviving letters from that period and (b) many of those that do survive are either again too personal or have little to do with Tolkien's literary works. 
The 1916 gap is also because during that year Tolkien was busy kicking a$$ and taking names at WWI's Battle of the Somme. Most of Tolkien's friends were killed. Tolkien's entire battalion was virtually eliminated. Adolf Hitler, whom Tolkien later called a "ruddy little ignoramus" also participated in that battle. Imagine how different the world would have been if Tolkien had put him down then.
Anyhow the letters give an interesting deep dive into Tolkien's worldviews, his morality and religion and how they impacted his works, his love for his wife and children, his skepticism of what is called progress, gripes about poor translations, worries about money, political and class ideology, musings on monogamy and male :female differences with one of his sons, his constant reworking and explanations of themes and ideas in his works, grief at Edith's death, health challenges, his adoration of the natural world, his retirement, his humility, his pride in his work, and his dry sense of humor. Once when challenged by a fan on what a book invention meant, Tolkien responded by saying (paraphrase) "[He] may be entitled to think he knows more about my work than I do but he's not entitled to my agreement that this is so."
If you are a fan of Tolkien's works you owe it to yourself to get this book. It's a little over 400 pages with copious footnotes. This book fills out gaps in understanding Tolkien's work. It does so by giving a better insight into the man. Rather unusually for a man of his background and time, Tolkien was strongly against apartheid and what he called the "pernicious and unscientific race doctrine". Tolkien's incredibly sarcastic and angry response to a German publisher asking if he was of Aryan origin is worthwhile reading on how to insult someone while seeming to merely ask questions. In other letters to his son(s) he criticized British racism and colonialism. Although Tolkien was both temperamentally and politically a "conservative" he did not then and does not now line up perfectly with what people have come to think of as right wing thinking. 
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