The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien

Book cover: 'The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien'
Humphrey Carpenter (ed.)
Houghton Mifflin
Number of pages: 
432 pages
Grade / Age level: 

This book is not a "must read", but it is an enlightening read (best for high school and up). I have not read any other compilation of letters like this, so even the concept was new to me. There isn't a format, a thesis or an argument to unify the book. Rather, it is the life, work and times of Tolkien which generate the letters. He writes to his wife, his children, fans of his work, his publishers and various friends. The book is a subset of his letters (edited with the help of his son Christopher). Much of what is represented is in response to questions about his works - Middle Earth, elves, hobbits etc. - and so it is much more interesting to read if one is familiar with his works. One missive in particular was written to his son about love and marriage (MOST interesting). Others relate events of his life. The letters to his publishers reveal how difficult it was for him to write.In explaining these things, much is revealed about his understanding of the world (both philosophically and theologically). Reading the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, he, in one letter, describes as a "keyhole" view of his subcreation, Middle Earth. This in itself is revealing. It seems to have been very time consuming and difficult for Tolkien to produce his works. Through the letters, you begin to see that this is partly due to the fact that he was a perfectionist. He would let you see something through the keyhole (eg. a fairly brief mention of the story Luthien Tinuviel looked upon as an historical event) but wasn't really satisfied until he tackled the complete story of Luthien as well. He must have had an enormous amount of material in his study and in his head! He indicates that there are only two things in the Lord of the Rings that he does NOT know about - one being "the cats of Queen Beruthiel". ... the point being that he DOES know about the rest in great detail. He has firm ideas about the creation and descent of the elves, the work and character of the Valar/Angels, the history of the landscape, the fables associated with the morning star, Earindel. And nothing gets more attention than the languages used. He made them up for fun - it was a true love of his. He knows where they started, how they mingled with others down through Middle Earth's history, their forms, changes and pronunciations.But I lost my thread. His philosophy and theology are very evident in his works of fiction - they make the world of Middle Earth seem real BECAUSE they are so well grounded. They blossom in these letters. He can stand back from the events and tell an inquisitor WHY something in Middle Earth happened - and that is very edifying. His perfectionism has driven him to understand our own world well enough to figure out what is really possible in Middle Earth. He makes the critical distinction between what is accidental and what is essential so that Middle Earth may diverge from our own place in space and time yet still appear REAL.As an example, he responds to a priest who challenges Tolkien's ideas about elves - elves are undying in Middle Earth. Tolkien explains the notion that this is not an essential problem with God's creative abilities - even if it seems impossible that we would see it ourselves. You have to read his explanation - the whole point being that he DID think about it and had reasons for it even before he put it in the books.It is gratifying, as a Catholic, to learn that Tolkien's good philosophy and theology are heartily Catholic in nature. And to learn that his greatest inspiration, comfort and love was the Eucharist!It is interesting to read that one letter of fatherly advice to his son about love and marraige. This is one area where he makes so much sense you want to cheer. It is not mushy sentimentalism and it is not clinical psychology. It is the very human assesment of the how fallen-nature and super-nature manifest themselves in finding and keeping a spouse. And as such it is darned good advice for anyone!You will also learn a lot about Tolkien in this book. And even though he is not perfect - there is so much to learn. There are areas in which you want to emulate him. And areas in which you may find him shy of the mark. You can do your own philosophizing about where to draw that line - and his manner and style - so humble - INVITES you to reflect like this. This book is like a life experience. His life is, after all, another life. It is good and not so good and filled with the decisions that help make us who we are.

Additional notes: 

also includes extensive notes and index

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