Members of The Tolkien Society outside his family home, 99 Holywell Street in Oxford

There is a lushness to this expanded Letters

There is frequent reporting of local news, often betraying a hobbit-like preoccupation with the availability of beer


This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien: Revised and Expanded edition, edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher, Tolkien (HarperCollins, £30)

The publication of letters by 20th century scholars is an uncommon enterprise, especially when they are issued by a trade press. But then Tolkien was an uncommon scholar. “I was brought up on the Classics,” he recalled later in life, “and first discovered the sensation of literary pleasure in Homer.” At school he also learned Anglo-Saxon and Gothic, and in the latter found “for the first time the study of a language out of mere love: I mean for the acute aesthetic pleasure derived from a language for its own sake”.

At Exeter College, Oxford, whilst preparing for examinations in 1913, he chanced on a Finnish grammar and became intoxicated: “my ‘own language’ … became heavily Finnicised in phonetic pattern and structure.” His language was, of course, Elvish (Quenya; joined in 1916 by the related Sindarin), and he would become famous for the world he built around it.

The purest expression of this creative process is found in a letter to his son, Christopher, who had just given a talk on the barbarian enemies of late antiquity, the Goths and Huns. Tolkien wrote to congratulate him:

It was enormously successful, and I realise now why you hold audiences … All the same, I suddenly realised that I am a pure philologist. I like history, and I am moved by it, but its finest moments for me are those things in which it throws light on words and names! … The thing that really thrills my nerves is the one you mention casually: atta, Attila. Without those syllables, the whole great drama, both of history and legend, loses its savour for me.

The curious fact is that Attila seems not to be a Hunnic name at all, but a diminutive of the Gothic atta, “father”: and so against the great tradition of the rapacious conqueror is a story, attested only in his name, of love and affection from his forgotten Gothic allies. It was from the same notion of stories hidden behind names that Middle Earth grew from Elvish.

The first edition of Tolkien’s letters was compiled in 1981 by Humphrey Carpenter with assistance from Tolkien’s son, Christopher. In their preface there occurs the unassuming note: “we found it necessary to reduce the text quite severely for reasons of space”. This rather understates the reality, which saw 150 letters cut, 50 abridged, and the entire typescript reduced by a fifth.

This new edition, billed on the cover as “revised and expanded” is in fact the complete first edition as intended by Carpenter and C. Tolkien. It includes 508 letters, around a third of what is thought to survive.

The difference is profound. To take a single section: the account of publishing Fellowship of the Ring with Allen and Unwin includes 15 letters over 21 pages in the first edition. As restored, we have 41 pages and 40 letters. The result is a lushness that adds greatly to the experience of reading. One of the restored letters records Tolkien’s frustration with the illustration of the inscription on the Doors of Durin at the entrance to Moria, in which he thought the elvish letters poorly reproduced. Not, on its face, the most pressing issue, as the staff at Allen and Unwin must have thought. But it illustrates something essential in Tolkien, the scholar-artist who could not be one without the other.

Amongst the more moving letters are those sent to Christopher Tolkien after his call-up to the RAF in 1943. Here on full display is the grief and sympathy of a father who has grown to watch his children re-live the terror that marred his own youth. “I miss you constantly, and I am waiting anxiously for news … God bless you, my dearest boy. All the love of your own Father.”

Tolkien and Christopher at home in Oxford, July 1936, a year before The Hobbit was published

There is frequent reporting of local news, often betraying a Hobbit-like preoccupation with the availability of beer, and picturesque descriptions of daily life and weather (“we woke to find all our windows opaque, painted over with frost patterns, and outside a dim silent misty world, all white, but with a light jewelry of rime”).

And there are hobbits too. Most of Book IV (the latter half of Two Towers) was written serially and mailed chapter-by-chapter to Christopher in South Africa: “for a long time now I have written with you most in mind”. But somehow most poignant is a restored letter, late in the sequence, carrying good wishes for Christopher’s twentieth birthday: one is struck by just how young he was to be off to war.

There is also here an amusing insight into Tolkien’s creative and linguistic process. As the story grew, he drew it deeper into his personal mythology, and had at this point come to regret Sam’s frivolous last name, Gamgee. “I should change it to Goodchild if I thought that you would let me,” he wrote to Christopher. The problem was its unclear etymology. “I doubt if it’s English. I know of it only through Gamgee (Tissue) as cottonwool was called, being invented by a man of that name … However I daresay all your imagination of the character is now bound up with the name.”

It could not change: so it must be explained. A decade later, writing to a friend, Tolkien could explain that Gamgee “is a translation of a real Hobbit name, derived from a village Anglicised as Gamwich (pron. Gammidge). Since Sam was close friends of the family of Cotton, I was led astray by the Hobbit-like joke of spelling Gamwichy Gamgee.” This is entirely backwards, of course, but illustrative. By the same process he would justify “hobbit”, entirely his own creation, as a descendant of Anglo-Saxon holbytla, “hole-builder”.

Since publication in 1981, The Letters has been the richest source of Tolkien’s thoughts on almost everything, especially his own works. But the later letters reveal something of a curmudgeonly streak, and questions that once prompted long responses are dismissed in a paragraph or less.

Inquiries about language, though, could still be met with long letters, full of Elvish declensions. Most charming of all is the response to a Mrs Meriel Thurston, who wished to use Rivendell as the name for a herd of cattle. Tolkien gave his blessing, adding, “I should be interested to hear what names you eventually choose for your bulls; and interested to choose or invent suitable names myself if you wish. The elvish word for ‘bull’ doesn’t appear in any published work; it was mundo.”

In response she clearly suggested various names from the Lord of the Rings, but Tolkien was “rather against giving strictly human and noble names to animals” and suggested names like Aramund (“Kingly bull”) or Tarmund (“Noble bull”). And if one wonders just how a bull might earn such a name, then they have shared, for a moment, in Tolkien’s creative spirit. From Attila to Aramund, it all came back to names.

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