Review: The Letters of JRR Tolkien

Previously on An Adventure in Tolkien: Did I really just cry for 300 pages straight?

Wow, it has been a minute and a half since the last time I reviewed something for Tolkien! Wildly, the last one was back in January, when we were doing a month of celebratory posts for his birthday. This is, much like his biography, a step off the beaten path with my An Adventure in Tolkien project, and will be much more structured than my normal Middle-earth reviews.

This massive tome is not for the faint of heart, and honestly probably not for someone not already actively in love with Tolkien since a lot of it is linguistic gibberish, but a lot of it also left me yelling about Sauron, so I guess it’s a win either way. As I did with Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, I’m going to include a bit of his introduction so I can properly set the scene:

An immense amount of Tolkien’s time was taken up with the written word: not just his academic work and the stories of ‘Middle-earth’, but also letters. Many of these had to be written in the way of business, but in any case letter-writing was on most occasions a favourite activity with him. The consequence is that an immense number of letters by Tolkien survive; and when, with the help of Christopher Tolkien, I began work on this selection, it became obvious what an enormous quantity of material would have to be omitted, and that only passages of particular interest could be included. Naturally, priority has been given to those letters where Tolkien discusses his own books; but the selection has also been made with an eye to demonstrating the huge range of Tolkien’s mind and interests, and his idiosyncratic but always clear view of the world.

Humphrey Carpenter

This was such a captivating book. I don’t think I was quite prepared for how much knowledge was going to be contained inside its’ insane 500 pages, and how none of that knowledge was going to be overshadowed by anyone else. I guess I’m used to books about authors containing lots of opinions by other authors, but after Carpenter’s introduction, he leaves the rest of the book up entirely to Tolkien. There’s not a single interruption in the letters. An index is provided for additional information, so there are numbers scattered throughout the letters, but I found it entirely possible to ignore those and just peruse the letters at my leisure.

I liked, too, that this wasn’t broken up into sections, like one to Middle-earth, one to personal, one to business; instead, it was set out following the span of Tolkien’s letter-writing life. From 1914 until four days before his death in 1973, we’re provided with a full scope of Tolkien’s life, perhaps better than any biography could have possibly done. We’re allowed to see the inner workings of his mind–his great love of his family, constant wishes to have the stories of his life known by his children, how disgruntled he was at being interviewed, the complexities of Quenya & Sindarin and how they influenced the entirety of Middle-earth, arguments with countless people on how CS Lewis used Númenor wrong, his endless love for the Gothic language. This is, perhaps, one of the most comprehensive looks I’ve ever seen of an author, and all of it was provided by the author himself.

There are, of course, a million and one things that I could talk about since we have literally 500 pages of letters, but then we’d be here all day, so instead, I’m going to pick out a few quotes to talk about.

For it I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce).

To Christopher Tolkien, pg 100

A lot of what I loved about Tolkien’s letters was the insight into Middle-earth, the way he came about different mythologies, and the backstories that we never got. But something that I enjoyed almost as much were his letters to Christopher. They were often wandering and full of warmth, peeling apart the layers of whatever was occupying Tolkien’s mind at the time. And to hear him talk about how he viewed fairytales was even better. He held them in such high regard that I need to get my hands on a copy of his essay, On Fairy-Stories, as soon as possible.

It was apparently at Waldman’s suggestion that Tolkien wrote the following letter–of which the full text is some ten thousand words long–with the intention of demonstrating the The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion were interdependent and indivisible.

To Milton Waldman, pgs 143-161

If I could quote this entire letter, I would. Before LOTR was ultimately published as three separate books, Tolkien was determined to not only publish LOTR as a single volume, but to publish it simultaneously with Silmarillion, which, as you can imagine, was absolute insanity at the time. He definitely could have managed it now, but back then, with the combined difficulty of paper expense & audience attention, it was just not going to happen.

Together, the trilogy + Silmarillion is a little over 610k words, which when thinking about the sheer one million words of ASOIAF (and it’s not even finished), seems like well, why wasn’t it done? It was the 50s, guys.

But this letter. Oh boy. I really wish I could quote the entire thing for you because it is truly glorious. Someone really asked Tolkien to explain, in depth, why LOTR & Silmarillion could not be published separately. They asked him to do this. Like, for real, this wasn’t just him deciding he was going to write a 10k letter by hand outlining every single reason why these stories were important together and no other way.

Sometimes, I wonder if maybe he’d stopped fighting earlier and just sent over LOTR, then perhaps we’d have The Silmarillion in full, but I also respect why he wanted to keep them together. They do work better as a unit. This letter, though, is literally every Tolkien nerd’s dream. It’s so full of lore and history and passion, and I’m going to treasure it forever.

‘if they won’t write the kind of books we want to read, we shall have to write them ourselves; but it is very laborious’.

From a letter to Dora Marshall, pg 209

This was said by CS Lewis to Tolkien, but isn’t this the whole reason why writers write? A lot of what I got out of these letters was feeling like I wasn’t alone, really and truly. Like there were other people out there who weren’t these literary geniuses, that we were all just trying to write the stories that lived in our bones.

But I met a lot of things on the way that astonished me. Tom Bombadil I knew already; but I had never been to Bree. Strider sitting in the corner at the inn was a shock, and I had no idea who he was more than Frodo. Th eMines of Moria had been a mere name; and of Lothlórien no word had reached my mortal ears till I came there. Far away I knew there were the Horse-lords on the confines of an ancient Kingdom of Men, but Fangorn Forest was an unforeseen adventure. I had never heard of the House of Eorl nor the Stewards of Gondor. Most disquieting of all, Saruman had never been revealed to me, and I was as mystified as Frodo at Gandalf’s failure to appear on September 22. I knew nothing of the Palantíri, though the moment the Orthanc-stone was cast form the window, I recognized it, and knew the meaning of the ‘rhyme of lore’ that had been running in my mind: seven stars and seven stones and one white tree. These rhymes and names will crop up; but they do not always explain themselves. I Have yet to discover anything about the cats of Queen Berúthiel. But I did know more or less all about Gollum and his part, and Sam, and I knew that the way was guarded by a Spider.

To W.H. Auden, pg 216-217

This is perhaps my favorite letter of the book, and circles right back to my point about not feeling alone. Forever, I’ve felt like I’m the only one that does this. I so remember being in college, sitting out with my friends while they all did homework, and suddenly slamming my laptop shut. “He’s dead!” I shouted, “He just died! What the hell!” They all knew I was writing, and they all gave me this look like you’re the one writing it??

My mom has always said a similar thing to me, too. When I’m shocked about something happening in one of my books, she says, “But you’re literally the one writing it.” Or Alex, “How did you not know? You’re in control!” But I’m so, so not in control, and it’s really bolstering to find out that I’m definitely not alone, that there were people who wrote incredibly well-developed worlds like Middle-earth and still had no idea what they were doing half the time. One of my favorite moments is when Tolkien says to Christopher, “And then this man named Faramir walked into the field, and I’d never met him before?!” That! Thank you! UGH! That’s just so validating, and I loved being able to see these moments written out.

The last letter we’ll chat about has the possibility to go off the rails a little because it answers one of my burning questions. We were watching Justice League the other day, and I asked my dad, “Okay, but does anyone ever actually completely defeat Superman? Like, not just defeat him once and he comes back eventually, but that’s it, he’s dead, it’s over, Superman is gone?”

And the answer? No.

Well, I have a similar question in Middle-earth because Morgoth isn’t dead at the end of The Silmarillion, he’s just banished. And while yes, Sauron is dead at the end of LOTR, Tolkien’s also hinted at the fact that the Valar & Maiar just eventually end up back in the West repenting their sins. So, also no? Sauron isn’t gone? My question has always been this, though–what is the ultimate defeat for someone like Sauron?

I’m not going to quote the whole letter because it’s long, so instead I’ll just break it down for you, but if you’re really curious, it’s the From a letter to Mrs Eileen Elgar (drafts) letter on pgs 325-333. And I know, these are letters, they’re not part of canon, it’s basically like taking what Rowling says on Twitter as hard and fast HP truth, but Tolkien died before he could write everything down, and his letters weren’t full of ridiculousness like Rowling’s Tweets are, so yeah, I’m calling this canon.

First, a thing to note, Tolkien says that if Sam had shown Gollum pity & guilt earlier than he eventually did, the ending of ROTK would have been much different. Though the Ring has undeniable power, and whoever is currently wielding it has no hope of fighting that power, they can have the frame of mind to realize that in order to destroy it, they have to destroy themselves. So, if Sam had shown the level of pity & guilt that Frodo did at the same time, Gollum would have been able to willingly step into the fires of Mount Doom because of his combined love for Frodo and Sam. This is in no way blaming Sam for anything, just some background.

So, if, for whatever reason, Frodo was able to hold onto the Ring and Gollum wasn’t an issue, there is no chance that Frodo would have been able to cast it into the fires without also throwing himself in. He would have turned right around, marched out of Mount Doom, and come face to face with the Ringwraiths. The wraiths, having sensed a switch in the Ring’s master, would have left the Battle of the Black Gates, flown straight to Mount Doom, and done everything in their power to keep Frodo there. They would have felt a sense of allegiance toward Frodo because duh, the Ring, but Sauron still also had their rings in his grasp, thus was still master of their will, and so they were mostly just there to appease Frodo and make him feel like their master until Sauron arrived.

Lord Of The Rings GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

heyyyyyy boiii

Now, much like Voldemort in Goblet of Fire, once Sauron has possession of the Ring again, he has possession of a physical form. And then? Well, then he’s pretty much unstoppable. Up until now, Sauron has been without the ring for literal centuries, and he’s super tired, so Frodo defeating him was a possibility. But the second he gets that ring back? Damn, guys, Middle-earth is done for.

So, Tolkien argues there is one person who could have then defeated him. And, even then, it’s not really a defeat. He says that even though Galadriel & Elrond are in possession of two of the elven rings, they would not have been able to go up against Sauron and the Ring. Defeating Sauron’s physical form again would have been possible for them, but then he’s just ethereal again and waiting for the Ring to come back to him. And once they get the Ring, it twists them. It’s too powerful.

Gandalf, however, is the exception. Kind of. Gandalf has the third elven ring, but he’s also not really of Middle-earth. He is, but not like the rest of them. They were all born here, grew up here, lived their lives here. Gandalf is from the West, sent to Middle-earth to help defeat Sauron. Thus, he’s got the thing that Gollum might have had–presence of mind.

This is why I think it’s not really a total defeat. Because yes, Tolkien says Gandalf would have been able to go up against Sauron, defeat his physical form, and then saw what the Ring was going to do to him and realized that they only way to truly best both Sauron and the Ring is to destroy oneself. In the end, Gandalf also has to sacrifice himself in order to defeat Sauron completely. So, like, yeah, Sauron can be destroyed, end of story, it’s over, but it also comes at an enormous sacrifice, and that doesn’t feel like a win.

Black Widow Thor GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

These letters give us a lot–insight to Tolkien’s life and the inner workings of his writer mind, deeper lore and knowledge of Middle-earth, and a whole lot of hope and light. I had a really fun time peeling back the layers of the different Middle-earth info. I kind of breezed through the linguistic bits because I didn’t fully understand them. And I adored every moment that we got to see him discuss fairy-stories and life with Christopher. They were definitely worth the read, and I’m going to hold them fondly in my heart for a long time.

Previously: J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography | Next: Beowulf: A Translation

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she/her | yoga teacher | Tibetan Buddhism | part-time witch | full-time author | astronaut in a previous life

8 thoughts on “Review: The Letters of JRR Tolkien

  1. Great review! The Letters really are a fascinating and unique read. Now I want to reread this book, haha. I read it twice before I finally tackled The Silmarillion, which helped me better understand the whole thing. The Milton Waldman letter in particular really helped me comprehend what Tolkien’s mythology was about before I was ready to read The Silmarillion. I appreciate this comment – “his letters weren’t full of ridiculousness like Rowling’s Tweets” lol thank god for that!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh yeah, I definitely think these are a great read before The Silmarillion, and they’ve certainly made me want to reread it with all the new knowledge. I’m reading his commentary on Beowulf right now, and it’s more of the same delightful kind of rhetoric. He’s got so many interesting things to say, and he doesn’t waste space like some people tweeting into the void, hahaha.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I recently saw the “Tolkien” movie and, without knowing how accurately it portrayed him, I thought it was interesting. Approaching his creative realm from the perspective of language isn’t something I had put together before.

    Liked by 1 person

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