Tolkien’s whole life emerges from his letters. There are intimate letters to his wife; personal letters to his children filled with love and advice; detailed letters to his publisher concerned with the minutiae of the publishing process; expansive letters to readers answering questions about the world he had created; and professorial notes to his academic colleagues.

Sir Stanley Unwin, photographed by Walter Stoneman, 26 Jan 1946.
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Letter to Stanley Unwin, his publisher, 16 December 1937

The success of The Hobbit, published in September 1937, led Tolkien’s publisher to ask about other works. In response he sent some of the unfinished prose and verse tales from the ‘Silmarillion’. These were rejected as too difficult to market and instead he was urged to write more about hobbits.

Michael outside 20 Northmoor Road, 1940

Letter to his son, Michael Tolkien, 6-8 March 1941

This letter, written when Michael was undergoing officer training during the Second World War, recalls his early romance with his wife Edith, and the opposition they faced from his family and his guardian. During their courtship he gained a scholarship at Oxford, graduated with a First Class degree and enlisted in the army as the First World War raged.

Christopher (standing, centre) with his squadron in South Africa, July 1944

Letter to Christopher Tolkien, his son, 30 April 1944

In this letter, written during the fifth year of the Second World War when Christopher was training to be a fighter pilot in South Africa, Tolkien writes of the universal misery caused by the war and the need to draw on one’s reserves of faith and courage. On a more positive note he describes his progress with Book 4 of The Lord of the Rings, as Frodo, Sam and Gollum cross the Dead Marshes before being captured by the men of Gondor in Ithilien.

Christopher and his father, 1945

Letter to his son, Christopher Tolkien, 30 January 1945

Written towards the end of the Second World War when Christopher was training with the Royal Air Force in South Africa, this letter discusses poignancy in The Lord of the Rings, life in the armed forces, his own army service in France during the First World War and the current destruction of Europe by the ‘War of the Machines’.

Tolkien writing in the garden, 1953

Letter to Milton Waldman, publisher, 1951

This letter describes the relationship between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and explains the differences in their tone and style. It describes the central importance of his invented languages, his love of myth and fairy tale, his dislike of allegory and his desire to create an English mythology. There is also an explanation of the nature of hobbits and wizards.

W.H. Auden at Christ Church, Oxford, 1972

© Billett Potter

Letter to the poet, W.H. Auden, 7 June 1955

In this long letter Tolkien writes of his love of northern myths, legends and languages. He provides some early biographical background as well as some of the sources of inspiration for his literary work. He describes the relationship between his major works, and the process of writing The Lord of the Rings.

Letter to a reader, Rhona Beare, October 1958

In this letter to a fan of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien describes the wider religious context behind the work, touching on the creation of the world, the role of the Valar and the different fates of Elves, Men and Dwarves.

Tolkien aged seventy-three in 1965

Letter to Eileen Elgar, September 1963

In this letter to an elderly friend, Tolkien explores the opinion, expressed by some readers, that Frodo was not a hero as he had failed to cast the Ring into the Cracks of Doom.

C.S. Lewis, Oct 1946, photographed by Hans Wild

Letter to Priscilla Tolkien, his daughter, 26 November 1963

Tolkien’s close friend, colleague and fellow inkling, C.S. Lewis, died aged sixty-four on the 22nd November 1963. In this letter Tolkien describes his friend’s funeral and his own feelings of loss.

Duchess Road, Edgbaston where Tolkien lived, 1908-1909, and where he met his future wife, Edith Bratt

Letter to Christopher Bretherton, a reader, 16 July 1964

In this long letter Tolkien explains the relationship of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to the earlier legends which were written first, describes the origins of his unfinished time-travel story, The Lost Road, and reveals the family story behind Gaffer Gamgee.

Tolkien (seated in centre) with his walking party in Switzerland, 1911

Letter to Michael Tolkien, his son, 1967-1968

This letter, which was started in Oxford in 1967 and completed after Tolkien’s move to Poole in Dorset in 1968, describes a walking holiday in Switzerland when he was nineteen. The landscape and certain episodes inspired parts of The Hobbit.

Tolkien in the Botanic Garden, Oxford, 1973

Letter to Carole Batten-Phelps, a reader, autumn 1971

In this letter Tolkien describes his amazement at creating a hugely popular work and reflects on the reasons for its impact on so many readers.

Edith, taken the year she and Tolkien were married, 1916

Letter to Christopher Tolkien, his son, 11 July 1972

In this letter, written eight months after the death of his wife, Edith, he describes their early relationship, the inspiration she provided for his legendarium and the utter grief he felt at her loss.