The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien

How did we communicate before email? Before SMS? Before faxes? While using a telephone was an expensive luxury? People wrote letters. Writing a personal letter is a great exercise for the mind, giving the opportunity to think and focus, and make visible the train of your thought. Those who loved their language probably wrote more than others. And for many it was customary to keep letters, for reference, or for cherishing. So while looking for clues about someone’s life over the first 70 years of the 20th century, one should look for their letters.

J.R.R. Tolkien had during his lifetime a massive correspondence. He constantly wrote to his family, employers, friends, and publishers. Some of them are collected in this book. Through his letters, we follow his life, as seen with Tolkien’s own eyes, from the small everyday events when writing to his friends and family, through the drafts of The Lord of the Rings while writing to his publishers, and even to religious musings or pure philosophy, when writing to his children in his elder days.

Many of the letters were found in draft form, or collected from their receivers. The collection is comprehensive, but of course not complete. Lots of letters are missing, and no one knows how many Tolkien ever wrote. From the known letters, this is of course also an edition, and the editors have focused on Tolkien’s life, and especially the occations that touched the legendarium, from which his most famous works arose.

For those interested in Tolkien’s life and the story of his books, this is pure silver, and specked with golden treasures, like these:

Got my head-harvest reaped: a big crop: still fertile soil, evidently (#63)

The vast sum om human courage is stupendous (#64)

Finnish nearly ruined my Hon. Mods, and was the original gem of the Silmarillion (#75)

I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argue is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce) (#89)

This university business of earning one’s living by teaching, delivering philological lectures, and daily attendance at ‘boards’ and other talk-meetings, interferes sadly with serious work. (#117)

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien is highly recommended reading. And if you get nothing else from this, at least I have learned, that taking time to write personal letters, is something I should do more often.

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