Favourite Subjects

J.I.M. Stewart

  • The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien
    Allen and Unwin, 463 pp, £9.95, August 1981, ISBN 0 04 826005 3
  • Tolkien and the Silmarils by Randel Helms
    Thames and Hudson, 104 pp, £5.50, September 1981, ISBN 0 500 01264 4

It is probable that J.R.R. Tolkien was throughout his life a copious correspondent, but he appears to have been in his midforties before people took to preserving what he had addressed to them. Even so, Humphrey Carpenter has found that ‘an immense number’ of letters survive. In projecting the present selection, he realised that ‘an enormous quantity of material would have to be omitted’ and that ‘only passages of particular interest could be included.’ In the event, he has given priority to those letters in which Tolkien discusses his own books, but he has also worked with ‘an eye to demonstrating the huge range of Tolkien’s mind and interests’.

Tolkien certainly proves to have a great deal to say about his own books: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and (in rather a troubled and baffled way) The Silmarillion. About other people’s books he says little, and that little is commonly unfavourable. He disapproves of drama, and so doesn’t talk about it. Shakespeare when read at school he had ‘disliked cordially’, and in later life he was to reprehend him for his ‘unforgivable part’ in the disastrous debasement of the term ‘Elves’, as also for his shabby dealing with the splendid notion of Great Birnam wood advancing upon high Dunsinane hill. The Merton Professor of English Language and Literature admits with some complacency to ‘not being specially well read in modern English’ and to ‘no interest at all in the history or present situation of the English novel’. And so with individual writers and artists. He deplores ‘the shallow vulgarity of Browning’; meets Walter de la Mare but records, ‘we had little to say’; judges Robert Graves to be an Ass; declares it ‘possible to dislike Eliot with some intensity’; refers to ‘greasy Epstein’, and to his admirer W.H. Auden as belonging (mysteriously) with ‘the corduroy panzers’; dismisses the Poet Laureate as ‘poor old John Masefield’. Nor do the members of his own coterie fare much better. He is ‘wholly unsympathetic’ to Charles Williams’s mind, and although he has many warm and generous things to say about C.S. Lewis there comes a point at which he judges that ‘his ponderous silliness is becoming a fixed manner.’ Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer is a ‘distressing and in parts horrifying work’ – not much better (one is made to feel) than the sick-making Busman’s Honeymoon by Miss Dorothy L. Sayers. Nor did he think highly of Lewis as a critic: it was in only a ‘very few places’ that he found his great friend’s detailed criticisms of The Lord of the Rings ‘useful and just’. But then it is true that here Tolkien’s standard was peculiarly high. ‘The only just literary critic,’ he wrote to Lewis, ‘is Christ.’

Even a professor of literature, I suppose, has no need of the wide and sustained reading which might enable him to command a ‘huge range of ... interests’. Yet there is a certain quirkiness in all this reiteration of a theme (‘I seldom find any modern books that hold my attention’ ... ‘Certainly I have not been nourished by English literature’) which knits with similarly persistent quirkinesses in other fields to an effect that is not exactly that of breadth of view. Tolkien detests the ‘infernal combustion engine’ and the brutal arterial roads ploughed out for it; he detests wireless as ‘a weapon for the fool, the savage and the villain to afflict the minority with, and to destroy thought’; above all, he detests the path ‘from Daedalus and Icarus to the Giant Bomber’, so that during the Second World War it is a special agony to him that his youngest son is in training with the loathed Third Service. In small matters he shared with Lewis a disposition to air prejudices suggestive of honest homespun worth. Lewis liked bread and cheese but despised the refinement of sandwiches. Tolkien goes much on record as detesting French cooking – a profession which a certain amount of personal recollection obliges me to find surprising.

Tolkien’s effective strength, then, lay not in any breadth of intellectual interests: on the contrary, it inhered in his passionate and lifelong devotion to what many would consider the somewhat narrow field of comparative philology. This cardinal fact about him comes forcibly home in a letter to his son Christopher dated 21 February 1958. Christopher had read a paper to a college society on the heroes of Northern legend as seen in different fashion by Germanic poets and Roman writers. His father, having heard the paper, went straight home and wrote as follows:

I suddenly realised that I am a pure philologist. I like history, and am moved by it, but its finest moments for me are those in which it throws light on words and names! ... I find the thing that really thrills my nerves is the one you mentioned casually: atta, attila. Without those syllables the whole great drama both of history and legend loses savour for me – or would.

Attila, it seems, is a diminutive of atta, the Gothic for ‘father’. Tolkien continues:

I do not know what I mean, because ‘aesthetic’ is always impossible to catch in a net of words. Nobody believes me when I say that my long book [The Lord of the Rings] is an attempt to create a world in which a form of language agreeable to my personal aesthetic might seem real. But it is true. An enquirer (among many) asked what the L.R. was all about, and whether it was an ‘allegory’. And I said it was an effort to create a situation in which a common greeting would be elen sila lúmenn’ omentielmo, and that the phase [sic] long antedated the book ... I enjoyed myself immensely and retire to bed really happy.

Tolkien believed that the amusement of making up languages is very common among children, and declared that he himself had been at it since he could write. There is a slight suggestion that early on he found the compulsion mildly alarming: in a letter to his future wife in March 1916 he records endeavouring to hold off his ‘nonsense fairy language’ because ‘though I love it so it does seem such a mad hobby!’ But it had already become a linguistically sophisticated activity. In his first year as an Oxford undergraduate he had discovered a Finnish grammar in his college library and under its influence was working on ‘Quenya’, eventually to be established as High-elven, the most developed of that ‘nexus of languages’ which he was to regard as the main integrating element in his romances. ‘My work,’ he wrote to an American correspondent, ‘is all of a piece, and fundamentally linguistic in inspiration.’ And in 1967, for the guidance of two journalists writing on his books in an English newspaper, he offered a succinct account of the state of the case: ‘The imaginary histories grew out of Tolkien’s predilection for inventing languages. He discovered, as others have who carry out such inventions to any degree of completion, that a language requires a suitable habitation, and a history in which it can develop.’

This picture of himself as a mad philologist at play is percurrent in the letters, and Christopher is brought in as a supporting figure in the composition. ‘... And my son after me. To us far and away the most absorbing interest is the Elvish tongues, and the nomenclature based on them; and the alphabets.’ But quite early in the sequence of the letters a very different posture is to be glimpsed. The Hobbit, an entrancing story, has been highly successful; to its publisher, it seems that an almost immediate sequel is in the natural order of things; its author has gone along with the idea that something of the sort is at least cooking. Stanley Unwin becomes pressing, and Tolkien has to represent that there are impediments in the way: ‘I am sure you will sympathise when I say that the construction of elaborate and consistent mythology (and two languages) rather occupies the mind, and the Silmarils are in my heart ... Mr Baggins began as a comic tale among conventional and inconsistent Grimm’s fairly-tale dwarves, and got drawn into the edge of it [i.e. the ‘consistent mythology’] – so that even Sauron the terrible peeped over the edge.’

By the date of this letter, 16 December 1937, Unwin had already seen some of the material for The Silmarillion, that basic work failing the prior publication of which Tolkien frequently represented that The Lord of the Rings might prove unintelligible. But the point of major importance is the elaborate mythological corpus which he here declares to be his aim. It remains an unwavering aim. Many years later, although he comes to speak of it as a dream unachieved, he is still dedicated to compassing it:

Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story – the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths – which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country ... fit for the more adult mind of a land now long steeped in poetry ... The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd.

Thus Tolkien wrote to a publisher in 1951. Absurd, perhaps. But it is as if suddenly we are hearing not the voice of the philologically-obsessed professor but of John Milton, speaking of a hope to leave to after-times something they should not willingly let die. Regularly though infrequently the same note sounds: what he has written he has written in his life-blood, and it has been his aim ‘to restore to the English an epic tradition and present them with a mythology of their own’. And what little of the grand design he had achieved he has confidence in. Some two years before the publication of the first volume of The Lord of the Rings he tells Rayner Unwin (who as a boy had ensured that his father Stanley Unwin should publish The Hobbit) that he believes L.R. to be ‘a great (though not flawless) work’.

Mr Carpenter published a perceptive and judicious biography of Tolkien in 1977, and what the letters now add to the portrait lies largely in the field of temperament. At Oxford Tolkien was often regarded as rather a grumbling type: chronically under the weather of indifferent health, inadequate pay and much consequent dreary examining for School Certificate and the like; prevented from getting on with one thing by vexatious pressure and distraction over another. Yet all this was in a sense lightly borne and at times amusingly travestied, so that his company was consistently enjoyable and his conversation (often malicious in a curiously innocent way) never boring: he could wonderfully light up the solemnities of a learned dining club. One of his stories concerned a don and a colleague, a nervous lady, who were doing the B. Lit. viva of a black man. The male don has a sudden fit, jumps to his feet, shouts, splutters, and turns coal black on the instant. The lady thus abruptly outnumbered runs from the room with outcries and the two black gentlemen are left together and at gaze. He got enormous pleasure out of telling this one.

What we now become aware of as underlying these superficialities is something that shows almost as a deep constitutional melancholy. ‘History depresses one with the sense of the everlasting mass and weight of human iniquity: old, old, dreary, endless repetitive unchanging incurable wickedness.’ So he judged in 1944, and a quarter of a century later this is still a theme: ‘What a dreadful, fear-darkened, sorrow-laden world we live in.’ (It is like the utterance of the Shade in ‘The Fall of Hyperion’, speaking of those to whom the miseries of the world art misery, and will not let them rest.) And nowhere is our fallen nature more evident than in the field of sex. Writing a long letter in 1941 to his 21-year-old son Michael on this difficult topic, he makes discouraging play with the fact: ‘In this fallen world the “friendship” that should be possible between all human beings, is virtually impossible between man and woman. The devil is endlessly ingenious, and sex is his favourite subject ... Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes.’ So what is one to do? ‘Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament.’

One of the problems perpetually before him must have been the relationship of his lifelong devout Catholicism to the lifelong labour of the mythology. In The Lord of the Rings he believed himself to have achieved ‘a fundamentally religious and Catholic work’, and in this view his close family friend, Father Robert Murray SJ, wisely and weightily concurred. In several letters, or drafts of letters, written in the mid-1950s Tolkien is found struggling with this aspect of his imagination. The conflict he has depicted ‘is about God, and His sole right to divine honour’, and his essential theme has been ‘Death and Immortality’. This last claim is immediately followed in the present collection by the letter carrying his forthright statement that his ‘most absorbing interest is in the Elvish tongues’. But if Tolkien to the end was unable to exorcise a certain elusiveness from any Christian hinterland to The Lord of the Rings, he may have drawn comfort from the fact that similar dubieties have attended the exegesis of Beowulf itself. Is Beowulf a Christian poem? About this there used to be large debate. In the issue (if I remember aright) the Oxford English School at large denounced as monstrous error the contention that it can be anything else. And so it may eventually be declared to be with The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.

On page 24 Mr Carpenter, whose scholarly regard for detail would surely have satisfied Tolkien himself, misses a small misprint the effect of which is to bring into being a ‘Mrs C.S. Lewis’ twenty years before there was in fact such a lady. Lewis’s marriage to Joy Davidman, when it did take place, was not disclosed to Tolkien beforehand, and it is evident that it deeply disturbed him. The friendship of the two men had always somehow been limited. Clive Staples Lewis had a nickname, ‘Jack’, and could be so addressed, but they remained ‘Lewis’ and ‘Tolkien’ to one another to the end. And although they spent long hours in reading and talking together, Tolkien could oddly record in a letter that he had seen Lewis ‘from about 10.40 to 12.50’. There is something curiously moving about this. In the final years of his life, in particular, Tolkien was, and declared himself to be, a lonely man. Upon the death of his wife at the end of 1971, Merton College, of which he had been a professorial fellow for so many years, received him into residence with a noble hospitality. But he had become a guest, and was without a function among busy men. Even his wealth bewildered him, for it had arrived – I once heard him say – ‘too late’. The long vacation of 1973 was a problem, since during it the life of the college drained away. He went to Bournemouth, where he and his wife had lived for a time and had a favourite hotel. There were minor confusions, which he recounted to his daughter in his last letter, written on 29 August. He was then taken suddenly ill, and died in a nursing home four days later.

It was with The Silmarilllon still incomplete, in disorder, and unfit for publication. By 1965 he had become doubtful about this long-cherished potential chef-d’oeuvre. The earlier work wasn’t like The Lord of the Rings, and he didn’t ‘really know what to make of it’. Although now in his last years he might no longer claim to be without adequate leisure for pulling the work together, he could only potter at the text, and little progress was made. He must have known that there had ceased to be fire in the flint. The Silmarillion had to be abandoned ‘in the doldrums’ – from which he hoped his son would rescue it one day. Christopher Tolkien successfully achieved the task in 1977.

The task can have been no easy one, if only because the son found himself doing what the father had not very wholeheartedly wanted to do. The work had been precious to J.R.R. Tolkien chiefly as a continuing and evolving creation, the confusions, duplications and inconsistencies of which he could view as challenging his energies to the end. Any commentary on The Silmarillion – such as Randel Helms, a devoted Tolkien exegete, has now attempted in an agreeably continent form – must take account of the fact that the labour of two Tolkiens has gone to its shaping.