The Letters of J.R.R.Tolkien


The political views of an author don’t matter very much. You pick up a book to be entertained, and the plain fact is that the ability to write something worth reading is pretty evenly distributed across the political spectrum. Nonetheless we like to think that authors we admire hold roughly the same views that we do. Sadly for the many fans of J.R.R.Tolkien his views are not ones that many people currently hold. But before we get into that lets have a look at the character of Tolkien as it emerges from these letters.

If you like his writing you will probably like his letters. They are erudite and well composed. Every word seems to have been carefully chosen and delicately placed. I think they probably were. Because although there is no problem with the quality, there seems to have been a distinct lack of quantity and the ones he did produce were not rushed out. Letter after letter starts with apologies for the length of time it has taken to reply. The picture that emerges is of a man who is always behind with his projects and commitments. Most of us can retrospectively forgive him because we know he was working on some good stuff, but he must have been murder to work with.

In the Lord of the Rings Tolkien describes the character of Faramir.  “He read the hearts of men as shrewdly as his father, but what he read moved him sooner to pity than to scorn.”  Tolkien wasn’t like that.  He is generally unimpressed by the people he comes into contact with.  The unfortunate man who was given the job of translating the Lord of the Rings into Dutch proposed to transpose the very English names of the The Shire into their Dutch cognates.  This might be  supposed to be an exercise very much in keeping with the spirit of the book.  But J.R.R gives him both barrels for his pretension and ends the letter “I am actually very angry indeed”, just in case you didn’t realise.

The Dutchman even then did not receive the full ire that the Swedish translator copped. He had the good sense to simply do his translation without any reference back so Tolkien could only lament the liberties taken with his text.

Although translators seem to have really bent the spine of Tolkien’s mental thesaurus, there is plenty of contempt to go round.  An American on a train is corrected on his misconceptions about British history, and gets his accent slammed in the process.  His doctor is referred to as the ‘Useless Quack’.  A bit of humour would go a long way to making all this seem entertaining rather than tiresome.  Anyone familiar with his work will know that Tolkien can be very funny indeed, but sadly he doesn’t apply this to his misanthropy.  I don’t think that his dislike of his fellow human beings can be attributed to arrogance though.  Tolkien certainly doesn’t behave well towards those around him but he seems quite resigned to his own shortcomings.

The thing that surprised me most from the letters was the documentation of Tolkien’s attempt to switch to another publisher.  Unwin’s had been very good to him. They gave him his big break by publishing the Hobbit, a most unlikely bestseller.  They had shown a level of patience that would do credit to an ent with the sequel.  Having waited a couple of decades for the manuscript they were presented with a project that required them to break all the rules of publishing success with precious little guarantee of even getting their money back. This did not remotely induce any reduction in cantankerous behaviour from Tolkien in his dealings with them. Had they know he was secretly negotiating with another publisher behind their back they would probably have been only too happy to see the back of him.

But I was interested in seeing what the letters would reveal about the author’s politics. I’ve written before about how I managed to read the Hobbit as a child and conclude that the author was a progressive atheist.  Indeed it was one of the things that influenced me to become a progressive atheist.  Reading the Lord of the Rings did not dislodge this notion.  I did this at the age of 14 in 1974.  It wasn’t until the publicity surrounding the launch of the Silmarillion a couple of years later that I discovered that Middle Earth was supposed to be based on Christianity.  You could have fooled me – and in fact it did.

But how about the political angle.  I realise that in America at the moment Christianity is closely linked with the right.  This wasn’t always the case even in America, and in Britain there has never been a strong link between actual religious belief and political orientation.  There has been a bit of a trend for the established Church of England to represent the views of the establishment.  But nobody familiar with the Church of England would expect God to have been consulted on any of this.  So the fact that Tolkien was a Catholic in the British context didn’t preclude him being a radical.  I rather hoped he would be.  “It is a comfort not to be mistaken at all points” as Gandalf says in the Two Towers.

I was to be disappointed. Tolkien self describes himself as an anarchist – albeit not of the bomb throwing variety.  But he doesn’t see that as a practical option. He prefers hereditary non-constitutional monarchy. His logic is that a man who spends his time collecting stamps or racing horses is likely to be the least likely to meddle.  I’d taken his interest in nature, trees in particular, as an early form of environmentalism.  It turned out to be simply a yearning for a lost past. I’d thought that his placing of the hobbits at centre stage was a nod towards equality.  The withering away of old structures and the removal of the elites is a strong theme of the Lord of the Rings.  This is meant to be simply a tragedy.  I was completely wrong to think of it as a wistful look back at times that inevitably had to be replaced by something better.

Political views don’t come up very often in the letters, and I imagine that it wasn’t something that cropped up much in Tolkien’s day to day life.  But they made me cringe when they did.  I had already seen the letter boldly refusing to co-operate with the German publisher’s request for information about any Jewish ancestry.  I hadn’t realised that that was the more strident one of two versions.  The one that actually got sent hasn’t survived.  The very fact that he dissimulated at all rather robs the story of its supposed heroism.  I hope the lost version wasn’t too comforting to the Nazis.

And it gets worse.  We see him criticising C.S.Lewis for disbelieving stories of atrocities committed against Catholic clergy in Spain and effectively supporting Franco.   (C.S.Lewis disbelieved them for the very good reason that most of them were made up.)  Franco as a tyrant has rather slipped under the radar of history.  Sharing the same slot in time as Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini has made his regime seem a little tame in comparison.  Since his death the Spanish have, for perfectly understandable reasons, not really wanted to talk about his time in office too much.  But let’s remember he was a man who seized power by force from an elected government.  He went on to rule with an iron fist.

One of the monuments of the Franco era was a huge cross he had erected near Madrid, described as a monument to the fallen.  It was built by slave labour over 18 years and is visible 20 miles away.  (The complex includes a Catholic abbey.)  As an example of the tasteless banality of evil it calls to my mind the various dark towers of the tyrants of Middle Earth.  It is now beginning to decay and is no longer safe to be visited.  It is quite a good real life example of one of the recurring themes of Tolkien’s world, where evil is a transitory and ultimately self defeating.  It is a shame he didn’t spot the same thing about Franco.

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I think that Tolkien was blind to the truth rather than actually complicit.  He was born at the time in human history where the idea of progress was most easy to dismiss.  He fought in the Great War which saw science applied in appalling ways to destroying people.  The part of Britain he lived in was one that the process of industrialisation was hardly making more beautiful.  And as he lived he saw the great depression, another war where untold destructive power was created and the establishment of an international order based on the principle of mutually assured destruction.  Who wouldn’t be suspicious of progress and reformers?

His response was to retreat into a world which he could control.  This isn’t the black and white world of good versus evil that some people who haven’t read him imagine.  Middle Earth has nearly as many shades of grey as the real one.  The difference is that they are on a scale that we can understand and conceivably do something about.  Despite the weird names, they are real people with real personalities.  The attention to detail in the creation of this alternative universe is what makes it a work of genius.  The letters provide a lot of fascinating insight into how it was created and fills in some gaps that the books themselves leave out.

For example, we get a bit about the motivations of Sauron and Saruman.  In Tolkien’s world nothing starts out evil.  Sauron was originally intent not on domination but creating order.  Saruman on the other hand is a reformer, who has classically made the error of thinking that the ends justify the means.  Tolkien doesn’t do allegory so it would be wrong to equate Saruman with Stalin and Sauron with Hitler.  But I don’t think it would be too far fetched to say that to Tolkien communism and fascism were not identical.  I can’t help thinking that given the choice he’d have preferred the latter.  Neither would suit him much though – basically he just wants to be left alone.

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Portrait of Sauron by Tolkien

The issue that most concerns Tolkien is one that was not really on the agenda of politics until very late in his life.  His attitude to nature was one that was really in tune with the green movement that was very prominent in the seventies when I was reading and rereading Lord of the Rings.  A little later I came across the ideas of the scientist James Lovelock and his Gaia hypothesis.  The idea that what really mattered was how we treated the planet gives a completely different perspective on the world.  The Shire suddenly becomes not so much an anachronism as an ideal example of how we can live sustainably.  I now realise that Tolkien actually quite liked the idea that it was an anachronism, and that the last thing he wanted to become was fashionable.

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James Lovelock with Gaia

I hope that in reality Tolkien wasn’t as miserable and unpleasant as he comes across in this collection of his letters.  But after living with his work for four decades now I think I realise that only with his particular perspective could have created what he did.  I don’t think he needed to be religious.  You can trace his moral framework back to Christianity if you put your mind to it, but any other would have done as well.  But he had to be a reactionary.   It puts me in mind of something Manwe says when predicting that tragedy was now inevitable, but that at least some good songs would come out of it.  “Dear bought shall be those songs, yet well bought.  For the price could be no other.”

 

2 Comments

Filed under 20th Century, Tolkien

2 Responses to The Letters of J.R.R.Tolkien

  1. John Usher

    On the matter of Tolkien’s misanthropy (I presume you meant this and not misogyny, you cite no evidence of misogyny in the article) and lack of humour, I feel you have badly misinterpreted several of the letters and incidents you cite.
    The “Useless Quack” was R.E.Harvard, Tolkien’s doctor, friend and fellow Inkling. The nickname is blatantly an affectionate one, and known to Harvard.
    “V Sorry to hear you are laid low-and with no U.Q. to suggest that it may be your last illness!” Letter 48 to CS Lewis.
    A gag! It’s an obvious joke between friends. You’d have to go a long way to interpret it as mean spirited, but perhaps you have new shoes and are a willing walker.
    As for the translators, for the Dutch translator, you say “This might be supposed to be an exercise very much in keeping with the spirit of the book” I don’t understand how this might be in keeping with book, it certainly isn’t in keeping with any interview with Tolkien about the creation of his stories, it’s not in keeping with what he explains in that letter. The words, the names, for Tolkien, part of the story. I understand his peevishness, you may not.
    However to not understand or empathise Tolkien’s anger at Ake Ohlmarks Swedish translation is strange. Surely a translator making up a fantasy potted biography and then adding a cod PHD thesis on The Meaning Of The Lord Of The Rings in the introduction, is a bit off, no? Not something you’d find rude, to say the least? It would annoy me.
    The American on the train story, again I seem to be able to find the humour, American chap boorishly holds court on things he knows little about, Tolkien puts him right, “insults” him (“…and generally suggested (falsly to an English observer that together with the American slouch, it indicated a slovenly and ill-disciplined people-well we got quite friendly.”) and then they go for coffee. Sounds like a gag to me, the American fellow seems to have taken it as such.
    Lastly (you’ll be happy at that) in painting Tolkien as misanthropic and humourless you seem to me to have missed a lot. All the letters about the Inklings to start with, full of warmth and humour. Letter 206 about his trip to Holland. The rather lovely letter to C Tolkien talking about his ARP experience and being woken by Cecil Roth to go to communion (55).
    Anyway, I agree with some of your other points but we won’t get anywhere if we were to write long under the column replies agreeing with people on the internet, would we?

  2. Thanks for the comment and particularly the correction John – I have changed it to misanthropic which was what I meant.

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