You Can’t Fight the Enemy with His Own Ring

Since today is a Saturday (and I’m taking tomorrow off), I thought it would be fun to hit up a few of Tolkien’s letters. The book The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien is an absolutely essential tool in the study of all things Middle-earth – especially Lord of the Rings.

We’re been talking a bit about Gandalf and I thought it would be fun to see what Tolkien had to say about him in his letter written before the publication of Lord of the Rings. Gandalf first appeared in The Hobbit and was created specifically for the book.

Shortly after the publication of The Hobbit on September 21, 1937, author Richard Hughes wrote to Tolkien with a million questions about the larger context of the narrative. He said that it was “one of the best stories for children,” but he was “afraid that certain parts of it would be too terrifying for bedside reading.” This was, he said, “a snag.”

In his reply (No. 17, sent via his publisher), Tolkien relates that another reader wanted to know “fuller details about Gandalf and the Necromancer.” Tolkien, however, recognized Hughes’ snag – “but that is dark – much too much…”

“I am afraid that snag appears in everything’ though actually the presence (even if only on the borders) of the terrible is, I believe, what give this imagined world its verisimilitude.”

Moving on, Tolkien mentioned him again in a note (yes, even his letters had footnotes), from a February 1939 letter (No. 33). By this time, he was well into writing Lord of the Rings – 300 of 500 manuscript pages, according to his own accounting.

Here he returned to the “readers young and old who clamoured for ‘more about the Necromancer.'” But the Necromancer, he replied “is not child’s play.” In the note accompanying this passage, he gives a veritable Robot Roll Call of who we might expect to find in this sequel to The Hobbit:

“Still there are more hobbits, far more of them and about them, in the new story. Gollum reappears, and Gandalf is to the fore: ‘dwarves’ come in; and though there is no dragon (so far) there is going to be a Giant; and the new and (very alarming) Ringwraiths are a feature. There ought to be things that people who liked the old mixture will find to have a similar taste.”

The “Giant” was, of course, Treebeard. Tolkien wrote this letter as he was still kicking around the idea that Treebeard would be evil.

But for the next five years, Gandalf went unmentioned in these letters. And when he was brought up again (No. 83), it came as a surprising allegory. In a letter to his son Christopher, he complained bitterly that while Hitler was a “vulgar and ignorant little cad,” there were many other such people “who don’t speak German, and who given the same chance would show most of the other Hitlerian characteristics.”

He wrote with disdain about articles in the paper “seriously advocating systematic exterminating of the entire German nation as the only proper course after military victory: because, if you please, they are rattlesnakes, and don’t know the difference between good and evil! (What of the writer?)”

In conclusion to this thought, he wrote: “It can’t be helped. You can’t fight the Enemy with his own Ring without turning into an Enemy; but unfortunately Gandalf’s wisdom seems long ago to have passed with him into the True West.”

A Few Notes

  • There are a few other references, of course. But those were mostly incidental and maybe not as interesting.
  • Also, the version of Letters that I use is a first edition and its index is incredibly bad. I really need to update my copy.
Camera: Tru-View (vintage Diana clone, circa 1970s) Film: Kodak Portra 400NC (expired 12/2005)

Camera: Tru-View (vintage Diana clone, circa 1970s)
Film: Kodak Portra 400NC (expired 12/2005)

About the Photo
I suppose that I’m going to have to get a few more photos having to do with war, huh? This is a Spanish-American War era cannon outside the courthouse in Mt. Vernon, Washington.


  • Day 144
  • Miles today: 5
  • Miles thus far: 711 (257 from Rivendell)
  • 83 miles to the Doors of Moria
  • 210 miles to Lothlórien
  • 1,068 miles to Mt. Doom

Today’s stopping place in the narrative: Book II, Chapter 3. Encamped along the western foothills of the Misty Mountains. 17th night out from Rivendell. January 9-10, 3019 TA. (map)

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8 thoughts on “You Can’t Fight the Enemy with His Own Ring

  1. The man has a point about wars of extermination! I hereby rest my case with the ruling that Tolkien is not a racist, as some have accused. Because what is extermination–genocide–if not racism taken to an extreme? (Thankfully, we know that really, orcs and other wholly-corrupted entire races of creatures are fantasy.)

    • It would be a horrible statement about humankind if a whole group–say, of colonists, of any and all nationalities–was to go bad like that. And frankly, hopefully it’s just imagination.

    • Too true! The folks who accuse Tolkien of racism probably don’t read a whole lot of Tolkien. The Orcs were created/altered by Morgoth to only be corrupt. Besides, his stories are filled with people of different races setting aside their preconceived notions to battle evil. That’s basically the whole plot of Lord of the Rings!

      • Yeah. Just about the only race no one has any accusations against (except the Ents) are the Hobbits! 😛 And I love the way that Legolas and Gimli overcame the Elf/Dwarf rivalry. 😀 Their friendship is so awesome!

        • I think the Ents are mostly feared (the whole ‘stay out of Fangorn Forest’ thing). Nobody seems to dislike the Hobbits. Even Saruman took a liking to them (or their pipe weed, anyway). But then, not many knew about them.

          One race that got a pretty raw deal were the Druedain. Such an incredibly interesting people. How Tolkien wrote about them should be enough to convince anyone that he was incredibly anti-racist.

          • Yeah. Either that or Galadriel and Celeborn weren’t sure about how the Company would react to them. 😛
            Yes indeed! Also, they proved that humans (despite being surrounded by other fascinating races, aka Dwarves, Hobbits, Elves and Ents) can still be pretty awesome. ^_^ I was bummed that they left Halbarad and the other Rangers out of “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King.” Also we missed out on Elladan and Elrohir. :’-( I would have loved seeing the sons of Elrond getting a bigger role in the movie–surely they can’t have been THAT hard-pressed to find two more dark-haired dark-eyed actors who looked fairly alike! After all, Orlando Bloom has a doppelganger… doesn’t he???

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