On the slower days, as our heroes tramp descriptionless through the empty grounds east of Weathertop, we’ll be taking a look at some of Tolkien’s letters.
Thoughts on the Passage – Book I, Chapter 12 (p200, 50th Anniv. Ed.)
If you’ve not picked up a copy of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien edited by Humphrey Carpenter, you’re doing yourself a disservice. While I’m not one to care all that much about the life of an author, I’ve found this book to be nearly essential in understanding the legendarium.
The vast majority of these letters explain and detail not only the writing process, but the finished work itself. For today’s plunk into the letters, I wanted to start with something that was written after The Hobbit was published (September 1937), but before he began writing Lord of the Rings (mid-December of that same year).
That led me to a letter written to his publisher, Stanley Unwin, on October 15, 1937. The Hobbit had just been released, and he was just now fielding some of the first reviews of the work. Remember, that this was really the first major work he had published about Middle-earth. Though much of the larger picture in the ledgendarium was already set, this was the world’s first peak into Tolkien’s imagination.
In a review attached to a letter written by Unwin, author Richard Hughes raved about The Hobbit, calling it “one of the best stories for children I have come across for a very long time.” But he saw what he called “a snag.” There were parts of the story that might be “too terrifying for bedside reading.” And that’s hard to deny, at least at the bedsides of the more squeamish youngsters.
But Unwin wrote to Tolkien, exclaiming that “a large public” would be “clamouring next year to hear more from you about Hobbits!” This was good news for the publisher, of course, but what did it mean for Tolkien?
Of course, he was humbled by the praise, but Hobbits weren’t really the focus of the rest of his work. What about the Elves, who played a pivotal (if dickish) roll in the story? And at this time, only a very select few knew anything about the Valar, the West or even Illuvatar.
“All the same,” he wrote, “I am a little perturbed. I cannot think of anything more to say about hobbits.” Bilbo, in Tolkien’s mind, had exhausted everything he had to say about their nature.
The problem it seems, wasn’t with hobbits, but with everything else. “I have only too much to say, and much already written, about the world into which the hobbit intruded.” Here, he was asking Unwin to read the early Silmarillion works. So far, he had gotten the opinions of C.S. Lewis, a close friend, as well as his own children. Now he wanted Unwin to tell him “whether it has any value in itself, or as a marketable commodity, apart from hobbits.”
In the end, Tolkien was a professional author. If the public wanted more Hobbits, he admitted that he would have to comply: “I will start the process of thought, and try to get some idea of a theme drawn from this material for treatment in a similar style and for a similar audience – possibly including actual hobbits.”
Here, we see the first time Tolkien committed himself to writing Lord of the Rings, but we also see an example of how he so thinly trod the blade between fact and fiction, that he might be writing this for “actual hobbits.” His letters are filled with such lines. In another letter that I can’t now locate, he claims to have written something before “discovering” the Redbook of Westmarch, as if it was an actual historical text he uncovered like some vastly more entertaining Joseph Smith.
For the rest of this letter, Tolkien muses on ideas. While his daughter wanted to know more about the Tooks, another had written asking for more information on Gandalf and the Necromancer. “But that is too dark,” he asserted, calling back to the “snag” mentioned by Richard Hughes.
“I am afraid that snag appears in everything,” he continued. No doubt he quickly remembered the Tale of the Children of Hurin. There was nothing but darkness in the story of Turin Turambar. “A safe fairyland is untrue to all worlds.”
Simultaneously, Tolkien was out of ideas, but also filled with a bit of “faint hope” from Unwin’s letter and the encouragement he was receiving from the pubic.
A week later, he reconfirmed his commitment, telling Unwin that he would start something soon. But two more months would slip by before he committed anything to paper.
A Few Notes:
- We should also keep in mind that the public reception of The Hobbit at this point was incredibly small. Thus far, only one bookstore was carrying it. Tolkien was pleased to announce that his own university, Oxford, wanted six copies, “if only in order to find material for teasing me.”
- I’m loving this new Letters idea. I should have started this long ago. What do you think?
About the Photo
Though Tolkien really wanted to continue with this Silmarillion stuff, he was willing to set it aside to start writing more about hobbits. In this was, hobbits were Tolkien’s load, and he was “humpin’ to please.”
- Day 61
- Miles today: 5
- Miles thus far: 296
- 164 miles to Rivendell
- 1,483 miles to Mt. Doom
Today’s stopping place: Still south of the East Road, southeast of Weathertop. (map)