Wall Street Journal: ‘The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien’ Review: Notes From Middle-earth
This article was originally posted at Wall Street Journal.
On Sept. 15, 1939, two weeks after Nazi Germany invaded Poland, triggering World War II, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to his publisher to explain why he didn’t expect to make much progress on his new story about hobbits. “I am liable to be summoned to a job undertaken last Spring at any moment, and have no idea what time, if any, outside it I shall have.” The story in question was his epic masterpiece, “The Lord of the Rings.” The job in question was that of codebreaker for the British Foreign Office.
The letter is among more than 150 previously unpublished letters contained in an expanded edition of Tolkien’s correspondence, dating from 1914, when he was a soldier in World War I, to August 1973, four days before his death. There are some revealing gems in the new edition of “The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien”—the first appeared in 1981—though Tolkien enthusiasts may be disappointed by what remains under lock and key.
The present collection, drawing on material originally assembled by Humphrey Carpenter (d. 2005) with the assistance of Tolkien’s youngest son, Christopher (d. 2020), illuminates Tolkien’s family and professional life, his friendships and his grueling effort to complete his saga about Middle-earth. No authorized biography has appeared since Carpenter’s “J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography” (1977), and the letters are the closest thing we have to an autobiography, as Chris Smith, an editor at HarperCollins, rightly says in his introductory note.
Unfortunately, the revised volume offers very little about Tolkien’s wartime service—he fought at the Battle of the Somme in 1916—or his struggles in the years immediately after the war. Tolkien once said that his love for fantasy was “quickened to full life by war.” But how? As in the earlier volume, his letters from 1914 to 1918 are almost completely omitted, on the grounds of being “highly personal in character.”
We learn more about Tolkien’s conservative politics, especially during the Cold War. In a letter to his son Michael, dated Nov. 6, 1956, Tolkien notes the popular “hysteria” over Britain’s role in the Suez crisis. The Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser had seized the Suez Canal, causing Israel—joined by Britain and France—to send troops into Egypt to reclaim it. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union had just invaded Hungary to crush the democratic revolution led by Imre Nagy. “Half Oxford is in a kind of screaming frenzy—about Suez not Hungary!”
Tolkien proceeds to chide the Oxford professors and undergraduates noisily protesting government policy, the “pacifists” destroying private property, and the fellow dons screaming “fascist” at colleagues who disagreed with them. “What a rot and stink is left by liberalism devoid of religion!” He also worries that encroaching socialist policies will reduce him to poverty. “As it is socialist legislation is robbing me of probably ¾ of the fruits of my labors, and my ‘royalties’ are merely waiting in the bank until the Tax Collectors walk in and bag them. Do you wonder that anyone who can gets out of this island?”
There are more apologetic letters to Tolkien’s publisher, explaining his delay in providing final drafts, maps and appendices to his epic novel. “I am sorry that I have cracked at the critical moment,” he writes to Rayner Unwin in November 1953, “but this year has been too much for me!” A year later: “I have been trying hard; but I have been grievously harried.” And, again, in May 1955: “To prevent a collapse I am just secretly disappearing without a word to anyone.” Tolkien once admitted that had it not been for the great encouragement of his Oxford friend, C.S. Lewis, “I should never have brought The L. of the R. to a conclusion.”
Of special interest is Tolkien’s extensive summary of the story’s plot, included for the first time in a lengthy 1951 letter intended to persuade another publisher to release the book together with “The Silmarillion” (the attempt failed). The catastrophic years of World War II, when Tolkien wrote most of the story, had brought its key themes into focus. In his outline of the first volume, “The Fellowship of the Ring,” for example, Tolkien writes that “rumors of troubles in the great world outside reach the Hobbits, especially the rise again of the Enemy.” For “The Two Towers,” he draws attention to the wizard Saruman, “who has turned himself to evil and seeks for domination.” In his summary of “The Return of the King,” the final volume, we read of Sam Gamgee and “his supreme plain dogged common-sensible heroism in aid of his master.”
All of these ideas were deeply meaningful to Tolkien: the contagion of war, the persistence of radical evil and the courage required to meet it. All are found in the classical, biblical and medieval literature that inspired his imaginative world. They also defined everyday life for the British people during the nightmare years of 1939-45.
In a 1954 letter to Katharine Farrer, a detective-story writer, Tolkien thanks her for her review of “The Fellowship,” which had just been published. He was grateful that Farrer had emphasized the “morality” of the story. “It was not ‘planned,’ of course, but arose naturally in the attempt to treat the matter seriously; but it is now the foundation.” The “kernel” of the work, he adds, is found in the final volume of the book, in Frodo’s words to Sam when the Ring of Power has been destroyed. After bearing the terrible burden of carrying the Ring, Frodo finds himself changed, unable to resume his life in the Shire: “I have been too deeply hurt. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.”
Tolkien thus reveals the moral bedrock of his literary outlook: the necessity of heroic sacrifice in the face of impossible odds, to rescue the innocent from great evil. Here is a vision of redemption with roots in an ancient story. “It brought tears to my eyes to write it, and still moves me, and I cannot help believing that it is a supreme moment of its kind.”
Joseph Loconte, PhD, is a Presidential Scholar in Residence at New College of Florida and the C.S. Lewis Scholar for Public Life at Grove City College. He is the author of God, Locke, and Liberty: The Struggle for Religious Freedom in the West. His most recent book is the New York Times bestseller A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War.