Home / Letters / Letter to Christopher Bretherton, a reader, 16 July 1964

Letter to Christopher Bretherton, a reader, 16 July 1964

‘by the time The Hobbit appeared (1937) this ‘matter of the Elder Days’ was in coherent form. The Hobbit was not intended to have anything to do with it.’

Dear Bretherton,

Receiving an answer on July 14th to a letter only posted on the 10th was prompt work, even for normal postal conditions. I do not regard typing as a discourtesy. Anyway, I usually type, since my ‘hand’ tends to start fair and rapidly fall away into picturesque inscrutability. Also I like typewriters; and my dream is of suddenly finding myself rich enough to have an electric typewriter built to my specifications, to type the Fëanorian script … I typed out The Hobbit – and the whole of The Lord of the Rings twice (and several sections many times) on my bed in an attic of Manor Road. In the dark days between the loss of my large house in North Oxford, which I could no longer afford, and my brief elevation to the dignity of an old college house in Holywell.

That became hellish as soon as petrol restriction ceased. But Headington is no paradise of peace. Sandfield Road was a cul-de-sac when I came here, but was soon opened at the bottom end, and became for a time an unofficial lorry by-pass, before Headley Way was completed. Now it is a car-park for the field of ‘Oxford United’ at the top end. While the actual inhabitants do all that radio, tele, dogs, scooters, buzzbikes, and cars of all sizes but the smallest, can do to produce noise from early morn to about 2 a.m. In addition in a house three doors away dwells a member of a group of young men who are evidently aiming to turn themselves into a Beatle Group. On days when it falls to his turn to have a practice session the noise is indescribable…

With regard to your question. Not easy to answer, with anything shorter than an autobiography. I began the construction of languages in early boyhood: I am primarily a scientific philologist. My interests were, and remain, largely scientific. But I was also interested in traditional tales (especially those concerning dragons); and writing (not reading) verse and metrical devices. These things began to flow together when I was an undergraduate to the despair of my tutors and near-wrecking of my career. For when officially engaged on ‘Classics’ I made the acquaintance of languages not usually studied by the modern English, each with a powerfully individual phonetic aesthetic: Welsh, Finnish, and the remnants of fourth-century Gothic. Finnish also provided a glimpse of an entirely different mythological world.

The germ of my attempt to write legends of my own to fit my private languages was the tragic tale of the hapless Kullervo in the Finnish Kalevala. It remains a major matter in the legends of the First Age (which I hope to publish as The Silmarillion), though as ‘The Children of Húrin’ it is entirely changed except in the tragic ending. The second point was the writing, ‘out of my head’, of the ‘Fall of Gondolin’, the story of Idril and Earendel (The Lord of the Rings, Appendix A I (i)), during sickleave from the army in 1917; and by the original version of the ‘Tale of Lúthien Tinúviel and Beren’ later in the same year. That was founded on a small wood with a great undergrowth of ‘hemlock’ (no doubt many other related plants were also there) near Roos in Holderness, where I was for a while on the Humber Garrison. I carried on with this construction after escaping from the army: during a short time in Oxford, employed on the staff of the then still incomplete great Dictionary; and then when I went to the University of Leeds, 1920-26. In Oxford I wrote a cosmogonical myth, ‘The Music of the Ainur’, defining the relation of The One, the transcendental Creator, to the Valar, the ‘Powers’, the angelical First-created, and their part in ordering and carrying out the Primeval Design. It was also told how it came about that Eru, the One, made an addition to the Design: introducing the themes of the Eruhîn, the Children of God, The First-born (Elves) and the Successors (Men), whom the Valar were forbidden to try and dominate by fear or force. At that time I also began to invent alphabets. In Leeds I began to try and deal with this matter in high and serious style, and wrote much of it in verse. (The first version of the song of Strider concerning Lúthien, now included in Book I, ch. 11, originally appeared in the Leeds Univ. magazine; but the whole tale, as sketched by Aragorn, was written in a poem of great length, as far as line 17 ‘her father’.)

I returned to Oxford in Jan 1926, and by the time The Hobbit appeared (1937) this ‘matter of the Elder Days’ was in coherent form. The Hobbit was not intended to have anything to do with it. I had the habit while my children were still young of inventing and telling orally, sometimes of writing down, ‘children’s stories’ for their private amusement – according to the notions I then had, and many still have, of what these should be like in style and attitude. None of these have been published. The Hobbit was intended to be one of them. It had no necessary connexion with the ‘mythology’, but naturally became attracted towards this dominant construction in my mind, causing the tale to become larger and more heroic as it proceeded. Even so it could really stand quite apart, except for the references (unnecessary, though they give an impression of historical depth) to the Fall of Gondolin (ch. 3); the branches of the Elfkin (ch. 8), and the quarrel of King Thingol, Lúthien’s father, with the Dwarves (ch. 8).

The Hobbit saw the light and made my connexion with Allen & Unwin by an accident. It was not known except to my children and to my friend, C.S. Lewis; but I lent it to the Mother Superior of Cherwell Edge to amuse her while recovering from ‘flu. It thus came to the notice of a young woman, a student resident in the house or the friend of one, who worked in A & U’s office. Thus it passed to the eyes of Stanley Unwin, who tried it on his younger son Rayner, then a small boy. So it was published. I then offered them the legends of the Elder Days, but their readers turned that down. They wanted a sequel. But I wanted heroic legends and high romance. The result was The Lord of the Rings…

The magic ring was the one obvious thing in The Hobbit that could be connected with my mythology. To be the burden of a large story it had to be of supreme importance. I then linked it with the (originally) quite casual reference to the Necromancer, end of Ch. vii and Ch. xix, whose function was hardly more than to provide a reason for Gandalf going away and leaving Bilbo and the Dwarves to fend for themselves, which was necessary for the tale. From The Hobbit are also derived the matter of the Dwarves, Durin their prime ancestor, and Moria; and Elrond. The passage in Ch. iii relating him to the Half-elven of the mythology was a fortunate accident, due to the difficulty of constantly inventing good names for new characters. I gave him the name Elrond casually, but as this came from the mythology (Elros and Elrond the two sons of Eärendel) I made him half-elven. Only in The Lord was he identified with the son of Eärendel, and so the great-grandson of Lúthien and Beren, a great power and a Ringholder. 

Another ingredient, not before mentioned, also came into operation in my need to provide a great function for Strider-Aragorn. What I might call my Atlantis-haunting. This legend or myth or dim memory of some ancient history has always troubled me. In sleep I had the dreadful dream of the ineluctable Wave, either coming out of the quiet sea, or coming in towering over the green inlands. It still occurs occasionally, though now exorcized by writing about it. It always ends by surrender, and I awake gasping out of deep water. I used to draw it or write bad poems about it. When C.S. Lewis and I tossed up, and he was to write on space-travel and I on time-travel, I began an abortive book of time-travel of which the end was to be the presence of my hero in the drowning of Atlantis. This was to be called Númenor, the Land in the West. The thread was to be the occurrence time and again in human families (like Durin among the Dwarves) of a father and son called by names that could be interpreted as Bliss-friend and Elf-friend. These no longer understood are found in the end to refer to the Atlantid-Númenórean situation and mean ‘one loyal to the Valar, content with the bliss and prosperity within the limits prescribed’ and ‘one loyal to friendship with the High-elves’. It started with a father-son affinity between Edwin and Elwin of the present, and was supposed to go back into legendary time by way of an Eädwine and Ælfwine of circa A.D. 918, and Audoin and Alboin of Lombardic legend, and so the traditions of the North Sea concerning the coming of corn and culture heroes, ancestors of kingly lines, in boats (and their departure in funeral ships). One such Sheaf, or Shield Sheafing, can actually be made out as one of the remote ancestors of our present Queen. In my tale we were to come at last to Amandil and Elendil leaders of the loyal party in Númenor, when it fell under the domination of Sauron. Elendil ‘Elf-friend’ was the founder of the Exiled kingdoms in Arnor and Gondor. But I found my real interest was only in the upper end, the Akallabêth or Atalantie (‘Downfall’ in Númenórean and Quenya), so I brought all the stuff I had written on the originally unrelated legends of Númenor into relation with the main mythology.

Well, there you are. I hope it does not bore you …

It started with a holiday about 30 years ago at Lamorna Cove (then wild and fairly inaccessible). There was a curious local character, an old man who used to go about swapping gossip and weather-wisdom and such like. To amuse my boys I named him Gaffer Gamgee, and the name became part of family lore to fix on old chaps of the kind. At that time I was beginning on The Hobbit. The choice of Gamgee was primarily directed by alliteration; but I did not invent it. It was caught out of childhood memory, as a comic word or name. It was in fact the name when I was small (in Birmingham) for ‘cotton-wool’. (Hence the association of the Gamgees with the Cottons.) I knew nothing of its origin…

I hope you are not appalled by these fragments of ‘research’, or ‘auto-research’. It is a terrible temptation, especially to a pedant like myself. I am afraid I have indulged in it almost entirely for private pleasure – in a blessed cessation of letters. (I hasten to say, not of your sort: of them I have too few), which I should have employed in getting on with Sir Gawain.

I lived for a while in a rather decayed road (aptly called Duchess) in Edgbaston, Birmingham; it ran into a more decayed road called Beaufort. I mention this only because in Beaufort road was a house, occupied in its palmier days, by Mr Shorthouse, a manufacturer of acids, of (I believe) Quaker connexions. He, a mere amateur (like myself) with no status in the literary world, suddenly produced a long book, which was queer, exciting, and debatable – or seemed so then, few now find it possible to read. It slowly took on, eventually became a best-seller, and the subject of public discussion from the Prime Minister downwards. This was John Inglesant. Mr Shorthouse became very queer, and very UnBrummagem not to say UnEnglish. He seemed to fancy himself as a reincarnation of some renaissance Italian, and dressed the part. Also his religious opinions, while never leading him to the final lunacy of Romanism, took on a Catholic tincture. I think he never wrote any more, but wasted the rest of his time trying to explain what he had and what he had not meant in John Inglesant. (What happened to the carboys of acid I do not know.) I have always tried to take him as a melancholy warning, and still try to attend to my technical carboys, and to writing some more. But as you see I occasionally fall from wisdom. But not from the sober thought (which this tale of Shorthouse also illustrates) of the fickleness of the Public. It is strange that Sir Stanley, whose Truth about Publishing you cite, should be the one most often to make me apprehensive. I am delighted with his approbation; but I take it as a bit of sunshine on my little hayfield, a special favour and very seasonable; but I follow Gandalf rather, saying: ‘we cannot master, nor foretell, all the tides of the world. What weather is to come we cannot rule or know.’

Yes, C.S. Lewis was my closest friend from about 1927 to 1940, and remained very dear to me. His death was a grievous blow. But in fact we saw less and less of one another after he came under the dominant influence of Charles Williams, and still less after his very strange marriage … I read The Pilgrim’s Regress in manuscript. I have never been able to enjoy Pickwick. I now find The Lord of the Rings ‘good in parts’. I must now end with deep apologies for my garrulity: I hope however that it is interesting ‘in parts’.