Tolkien's letters

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien edited by Humphrey Carpenter

The History of The Lord of the Rings edited by Christopher Tolkien

If considered at all, Oxford philologist and novelist J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) remains a perplexing twentieth-century figure for most academics, conservative or otherwise. Most famous academically for his insightful and seminal 1936 essay on Beowulf, “The Monsters and the Critics,” Tolkien is better known as a 1960s and 1970s cult/LSD figure as well as the 1980s and 1990s inspiration for innumerable bad fantasy novels and role-playing games. With the astounding success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, the media arid scholarly community are reexamining Tolkien. Still, as one typical reviewer, Andrew Rissek, wrote of him recently: “After the annihilating traumas of the last century, it’s merely perverse to ascribe greatness to this airy but strangely simplified mock-Teutonic never-never land.”

The re-publication of Tolkien’s collected (though by no means comprehensive) letters should help place the English author as one of the great Christian Humanists of the twentieth century, in league with his closest friend C.S. Lewis, his sometime rival, T.S. Eliot, and other greats such as Christopher Dawson, Romano Guardini and fellow traveler Eric Voegelin. Contrary to Rissek’s assertions, it was Tolkien’s desire, through sanctified and created myth, to attack the “annihilating traumas” not just of the twentieth century, but of modernity at large. Tolkien, like Lewis, believed that myth held within it the power to reinvigorate moral order and first principles. Following the lead of the anonymous author of Beowulf, most likely a first-generation Christian hoping to sanctify and baptize the traditional stories rather than destroy them, Tolkien wanted to take the best of northern European myth and make it Christian. The result—The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings—did just that. As Tolkien himself wrote in another famous essay, “On Fairy Stories,” Christianized myth offers one a “glimpse of the final victory,” the true joy. “I have in this War a burning private grudge.. . against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler,” Tolkien wrote to his son Michael, for “ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light. Nowhere, incidently, as it nobler than in England, nor more early sanctified and Christianized. “

Tolkien’s letters reveal his rather conservative/libertarian politics as well. “My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs)—or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy,” Tolkien wrote. “I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate!”

The year 2000 also saw the republication of four volumes of the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth, edited by Tolkien’s son, Christopher. Also a former Oxford don and expert on old and middle English, Christopher has done an excellent job editing the unfinished works and various permutations of The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings. These four volumes provide a nice look into Tolkien’s creative process, as well as his belief that he merely recorded rather than invented his stories. God, Tolkien claimed throughout his life, was the ultimate author. The best example of this was the arrival of the Ringwraiths toward the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring. Tolkien was as surprised as his traveling Hobbits at its sudden appearance. From this point forward, The Lord of the Rings became an adult story, not merely a sequel to the more child-oriented Hobbit.

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