The Letters of JRR Tolkien were collected and edited by Tolkien biographer (and Tolkien-family friend) Humphrey Carpenter and first published by George Allen & Unwin Publishers in 1981.
Throughout his life, Tolkien was a compulsive letter writer. As Carpenter notes in the book’s introduction, “letter-writing was on most occasions a favorite activity with him” (Letters of JRR Tolkienpg. 1).
The letters are arranged chronologically, beginning with several written during the late 1910’s and early 1920’s, including several wartime letters from Tolkien to his fiancé (and future wife) Edith Bratt.
The early letters Carpenter has selected (and they are rather few), concentrate primarily on Tolkien’s academic interests. Carpenter has admitted that most of the letters prior to 1920 “are highly personal in character” and were therefore omitted as irrelevant to Tolkien’s professional interests (which is the focus of the collection).
“Between 1918 and 1937 few letters survive”, Carpenter writes, and so the very great bulk of the Letters consists of correspondence written between 1937 and the author’s death in 1973.
These begin, fittingly, with several letters to George Allen & Unwin Publishers in regards to the publication of The Hobbit, which had been accepted but not yet published.
Many more of the Letters of JRR Tolkien are concerned with the writing, publication, and aftermath of The Lord of the Rings. These make for fascinating reading. The reader is able to see, first hand, the difficulties and thought processes Tolkien encountered during the writing, his reactions to critical opinion, and the change that overtook the Professor’s life as The Lord of the Ringsslowly grew in popularity, forcing the reclusive author into the public limelight like Bilbo from his cozy hobbit-hole.
There are many, many gems here for both the Tolkien scholar and those with a passing interest in JRR Tolkien and his works. In many of the letters to family, friends, academic acquaintances, readers, publishers, and others, he eloquently expresses his opinions and philosophy on writing, nature, evil, academics, language, friendship and many other things scholarly and mundane.
- “I have begun again on the sequel to the ‘Hobbit’ – The Lord of the Ring” Tolkien wrote to his publisher in August 1938. “It is now flowing along, and getting quite out of hand. It has reached about Chapter VII and progresses towards quite unforeseen goals. I must say I think it is a good deal better in places and some ways than the predecessor; but that does not say that I think it either more suitable or more adapted for its audience” (
Letters of JRR Tolkien
- , No. 33).
In contrast to such professional updates, some of the letters are far more personal in content:
- “I am still staggered by the frescoes of Assisi” he wrote to his son Chrisopher in August 1955. “You must visit it…Our opera was washed out by torrents all Thursday evening; but they put on a special extra on Friday (our last day in Venice) at which our tickets were good. So we had our
- . Perfectly astounding. (
The Letters of JRR Tolkien
- , no. 167).
With its ability to give us glimpses into many aspects of JRR Tolkien’s life and mind, Letters by JRR Tolkien is a must-have for any serious Tolkien fan.