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The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien ~ A Presentation

We have chosen to present in this section the text of six letters selected from amongst the 354 Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien and Douglas Anderson (1981).

We have chosen to present in this section the text of six letters selected from amongst the 354 Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien and Douglas Anderson (1981).

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien covers the author's correspondence over 60 years, from 1914 to the days before his death in 1973, at the age of 81. It includes letters written by Tolkien to relatives or close friends (his wife, his four children, people like C.S. Lewis), to his publishers (Stanley Unwin, then Rayner Unwin), but also to journalists, fellow professors or writers (such as his friend C.S. Lewis, or the poet W.H. Auden), as well as many readers asking him questions about his work.

This book – worth many a biography! – will appeal to anyone wishing to reach a better understanding of J.R.R. Tolkien and his creation: beyond the story of his life, it takes the reader on a journey through the 20th Century, from World War I to its later decades, revealing a man in all his complexity, far from the simple image of the writer taking refuge in his imagination, or the world-weary and isolated philologist and academic...

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letters shed a unique light on the writing process of a work that is a world in itself, especially from the year 1937 (when the Hobbit was published) through the Second World War to the publication of The Lord of the Rings, which was to prove an unprecedented success during the 1960s.

In this anthology, we discover Tolkien’s cautious explanations on the meaning of his creative approach, his intentions; his conception of literature and fantasy; the connexion between myth and truth; the relationship between languages and stories… and also expresses his misgivings about a work that seemed to be almost self-generating and became so abundant that he found the idea of publishing it less and less probable; and, as we know, he did not live to see the publication of The Silmarillion.

Writing to his readers, J.R.R. Tolkien would refer to unpublished texts, to the unknown aspects of his fictional world, or of the languages that he had invented, commenting upon their diversity – rendering it definitely impossible to draw a simplistic image of the author!

Readers of these Letters can only be struck by the complexity of the man himself: his deep humanity and the full attention given to his readers (to all the readers that wrote to him), as well as his attentiveness to the outside world; his constant activity in order to defend language and literature together in his university and the carrying out of his personal projects, at the cost of constant efforts ; by his humour, too, not to say his mischief ; and by his sensibility, which allowed him to adapt to each of his correspondents.

Nothing could shed a better light on The Lord of the Rings than these Letters, with the author answering his readers about Frodo’s « failure » or his fate at the end of the story; reacting to the interpretations of the Ring or the theme of power in his work; or when he refers to the genealogy of his world, the genesis of The Lord of the Rings, and the « Silmarillion project » – which was to keep him busy throughout his writing life.

However, one should keep in mind that this book is a selection of letters sent by a writer: no isolated quotation should be mistaken for Tolkien’s ‘last word’ on any given subject. His complex character and the variety of positions taken according to his correspondents and their interests, should always remind the reader to keep in mind the context and the recipients of his letters.

This correspondence is revealing of a young Tolkien at the time of the First World War; a dedicated academic fully engaged in his profession for 35 years; a loving father and husband; a believer pondering on his faith; a keen observer of the modern world, whose analyses were always lucid and elaborate (too much so, perhaps, for his detractors?). And finally, they refer to a myriad of texts often overshadowed by The Lord of the Rings: Farmer Giles of Ham, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Leaf by Niggle, the poems making up The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, and  the many stories, poems and documents published in The History of the Middle-Earth.

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