The Letters of JRR Tolkien
Selected and Edited by Humphrey Carpenter
With the Assistance of Christopher Tolkien
Published by Houghton Mifflin
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
The sheer depth of the imagined world portrayed in The Lord of the Rings led readers to want to know more about it, and particularly about things merely mentioned by characters in that offhand manner which makes plain that the referent is so commonly known within the world that nothing more needs to be said about it. No doubt many were content to speculate privately, or with other fans, but at least some of them wrote letters asking for more information. And Tolkien, being a gentleman of the old school and deeply in love with his own world and the process of subcreation, frequently wrote back with lengthy, detailed replies that revealed even more of a world far more fully imagined than appeared within the covers of the published book.
At times one may feel that such lengthy letter-writing was robbing the good Professor of valuable time which he might otherwise have completed the Silmarillion instead of leaving a confusion of papers for his son Christopher to try to put into some kind of order. Yet Tolkien's love for his world and his delight in sharing it with those who appreciate it shine through so clearly in his words that it becomes difficult to begrudge him the time he took to answer questions not merely with a curt note of fact, but by expounding upon the matters in depth that makes the letters like treatises in their own right.
For instance, take his letter to Naomi Mitchison from 25 April 1954, in which he begins by apologizing for not having acknowledged the receipt of various correspondence in the past, and then launches into a lengthy discussion of the problem of representing the languages of Middle Earth in modern English, as well as the issue of maps and other ancilliary materials to be included in the final volume of the work. Although it is possible that this letter influenced some of the material in the appendices to The Return of the King, there are enough differences and omissions in the published product that being able to read this letter shines light upon how Tolkien went about filling in gaps in his imagined world as he came upon them.
Yet just because people wrote and asked him questions does not mean that he always provided a definite answer. More than once, Tolkien left the door open for further possibilities, as in the case of Arwen's brothers. In a letter to bookseller Peter Hastings in September of 1954, he states that Elladan and Elrohir remained for a time in Middle Earth, delaying their choice to throw their lot in with either of their two kindreds. Whether he just couldn't bring himself to make up his mind about their final choices or whether he was holding out because he was thinking about the possibility of writing another novel in which they would be important figures is no longer possible to determine at this remove, but the effect is to reinforce the sense that the Secondary World exists at some level independent of the subcreator's imagination, that Tolkien is not merely making up the story at will, but is its discoverer and explorer.
In addition to the letters relating to the worldbuilding process, there are also letters that relate to the purely business side of writing, particularly letters to his publishers in which he discussed his difficulties with the original versions of the covers or the problems of presenting the table of elvish letters or the various family trees adequately.
One group of letters is notable by its absence from this collection, namely, those letters of a purely personal nature which he wrote to his wife during their courtship and early years of marriage. Only a few in which he mentions either his writing or research related to the worldbuilding process have been included, on the grounds that they are relevant to the understanding of his writing, rather than merely peering voyeuristically into the private life of a family.
Even with their absence, this volume is an excellent primary source collection absolutely essential for anyone wishing to do research on Tolkien or Middle Earth. And even for the person who is merely interested in discovering more about Tolkien's imagined world, the later letters are absolutely invaluable for the manner in which he expounds upon various subjects, particularly related to languages and names, but also to the cultures of his imagined world.
Review posted January 31, 2010.
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