When I was a freshman at Radcliffe college, in January, 1964, I saw an announcement for a meeting of people interested in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. This was before the paperback edition of Lord of the Rings had been published, so he was not well known in the U.S., but my roommate, Cory Seidman, had lent me her hardcover copy, so I was a fan. We weren’t expecting a lot of people, but the room was jammed. The main guest at the meeting was a woman who had been his secretary, and she brought a letter from him addressed to the group. After the meeting, the attendees were all sent transcripts of the letter, and I have heard that the original of the letter is in the Harvard Widener Library. Here is what he wrote to us.
76 Sandfield Road, Headington
Christmas Day : 1963
Dear Mrs. Smith, It was delightful to hear from you; and in spite of our dislocated posts your letter arrived on Christmas Eve: or rather I retrieved it then from my son’s house, in the midst of a C. Eve turmoil of grandfathers (Cam. and Ox.), grandmother, great aunts, uncles, dog, grandson and others. Christopher was very mystified wondering how you knew me and were writing to me. But he is perhaps not yet old enough to have discovered that it is impossible to keep one’s life separated into different strands. The most reckless user of coincidence and chance-connexions in story-telling cannot rival what actually happens.
With regard to the Occasion on January 8th I am greatly honoured to hear of it, and wish I could be there (with an embroidered waistcoat: I have one or two choice specimens, which I sometimes wear when required to make a speech, as I find they so fascinate the eyes of the audience that they do not notice if my dentures become a little loose in the excitements of rhetoric). I have, however, only once attended any such Occasion. In Rotterdam Hobbits have (or had for a while) a fascination for the Dutch, and of course tobacco. Through the hazes of memory I recall that a large part of the company smoked large clay-pipes, and that the walls were decorated with large coloured posters of a tobacco firm in which the name of the brand had been altered to Old Toby and Longbottom Leaf. My pride was (temporarily) swelled to Pooh-bah dimensions by an announcement from ecclesiastic authority (the Archdeacon of Rotterdam, I think) that in view of the importance of the occasion R. Catholics present were excused from abstinence. It was a Friday, a fact that as a bona fide traveller had escaped my memory, and anyway (like Gollum) I am fond of fish. The announcement was nonetheless greeting by the others with great applause. You might try Eccl. A. on Jan. 8th and see whether you could not get it to send a message saying that “in view of the solemnity of the occasion a special mortification is imposed on R.C.s present (if any) of abstaining from flesh meat (or tobacco and alcohol).” The applause should be terrific (from the separated brethren). Try a bogus announcement, if E.A. is too sticky.
I am happy to announce anyway that Jan. 8th is the anniversary of my baptism in the Anglican Cathedral, Bloemfontein, Orange River Colony; and of my engagement to my wife (in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire) shortly after my 21st birthday Jan. 3rd, 1913. In spite of the confusing accidents of the place of my birth,* and of bearing a German name, I am a West-midlander (and my wife also) by taste, habitat, and the major part of my descent.
* I became for a while a “stateless person” and had to re-establish my nationality before I could get a passport in 1949.
My patriotism generally embraces most of Europe, but its heart is the March counties, especially Hereford, Shropshire, Worcester, and Staffordshire, and the rest of this island I regard as somewhat alien and inferior (especially linguistically). A fact which has some bearing on the placing of Hobbiton and Michel Delving in the West Farthing. (Incidentally it was recently proposed, in no less an organ than the Yorkshire Post, that if the mooted redivision of Yorkshire in 2 four parts were carried out no better term than “Farthing” as used in The L.R. could be found, especially since as a coin name farthing is as obsolete as a groat. Nothing seems to have come of it.) Apart from that there is little that is autobiographical in my stories. There were no bachelors in my family and I was, in fact, blessed by the possession of many women kin of talent and great intelligence, and beauty.
I do not (and never did) much enjoy the reading of ‘literature’. For amusement and relaxation I like to read accounts of the structure and history (if known) of languages, though these accounts commonly offer a sense of disappointment similar to my experience of ‘literature’, the languages described seem seldom to “come off”. ‘Literature’ seems for me almost always to miss the point — i.e. what I hoped to find, except in falshes. I eventually, and by slow degrees, came to write The Lord of the Rings to satisfy myself: of course without success, at any rate not above 75%. But now (when the work is no longer hot, immediate, or so personal) certain factions of it, and espec. certain places still move me very powerfully. The heart remains in the description of Cerin Amroth (end of Vol. I, Bk ii ch. 6), but I am most stirred by the sound of the horses of Rohirrim at cockcrow; and most grieved by Gollum’s failure (just) to repent when interrupted by Sam; this seems to me really like the real world in which the instruments of just retribution are seldom themselves just or holy; and the good are often stumbling-blocks.
This business began so far back that it might be said to have begun at birth. Somewhere about 8 years old I tried to write some verses on a dragon — about which I now remember nothing except that it contained the expression a green great dragon, and that I remained puzzled for a very long time at being told that this should be great green. But the mythology (and associated languages) first began to take shape during the 1914-18 war. The Fall of Gondolin (and the birth of Earendil) was written in hospital and on leave after surviving the ‘Battle of the Somme’ in 1916. The kernel of the mythology, the matter of Luthien Tinuviel & Beren arose from a small woodland glade filled with ‘hemlocks’ (or other white umbellifers) near Roos on the Holderness peninsular — to which I occasionally went when free from regimental duties when in the Humber Garrison in 1919.
Nothing has astonished me more (and I think my publishers) than the welcome given to the L.R. But it is, of course, a constant source of consolation and pleasure to me. And, I may say, a piece of singular good fortune, much envied by some of my contemporaries. Wonderful people still buy the book, and to a man ‘retired’ that is both grateful & comforting. There are a great many more things I could say. I rarely unlock my hreberloca /bosom/, or for such a purpose my wordhard /vocabulary/, but time and a sense of propriety stop me now. I have taken some time at intervals to write this since Christmas; I hope not hopelessly illegible; and if it is to reach you before Jan. 8, it had better take wings tomorrow.
With warmest greeting to all hobbit-fanciers, and special wishes to you, your husband, and your daughter,
P.S. The index is of the greatest use to me personally. It will eventually be used I think in some form of new edition. I have in mind a reduced form – reduced by cutting out (say) some of the Prologue, and the Appendices (especially C.D.E.) and substituting an index. But bringing out a fourth volume for anciers containing the information excised, & a good deal more that was jettisoned. Eg.g. the facsimiles of the Book of Mazarbul, that should have faced pp.335 and 336 of Vol. I. What do you think.
Item. ‘Rembrandt’ films are thinking of producing a “Hobbit”: ??