Commentary: Letters

“I had no idea who Faramir was.”

Oh, really!


squire: I feel a little odd bringing up the Letters for this discussion, since C. Tolkien cites them in his HoME chapter, in my previous post – and also because Menelwyn gave most of them nice coverage in her RR Letters discussion just a few months ago.


Still, attention must be paid.


When J R R Tolkien picked up his ‘Ring’ project in early 1944, after having left it alone for some time, he began to write what became Book IV. His outlines and sketches from earlier years show his vague thoughts about how Frodo would get into Mordor, and how the Ring would be destroyed. But Tolkien liked to tell a story, and only when he began to write the actual narrative did the creativity really flow.


Letter 62, 23 April 1944, to Christopher Tolkien:

I read my second chapter, Passage of the Dead Marshes, to Lewis and Williams . . . it was approved. I have now nearly done a third: Gates of the Land of Shadow. But this story takes me in charge, and I have already taken three chapters over what was meant to be one!

squire: A. Was Tolkien really surprised, by this point in his project (which had long since expanded past his Hobbit-sequel expectations), that his “meant to be” chapter lengths were drastically underestimated? Is he bragging a little here?

                *muffled sobbing*



Letter 63, 24 April 1944, to Christopher Tolkien:

Wed. April 26. . mowed three lawns, and wrote letter to John, and struggled with a recalcitrant passage in ‘The Ring’. At this point I require to know how much later the moon gets up each night when nearing full, and how to stew a rabbit!

squire: B. Before the internet, how would Tolkien typically have found the answers to such questions? How much “research” of this sort do you suppose he put into The Lord of the Rings?

drogo_drogo: Some answers Well, there were wonderful things called B-O-O-K-S that are like the internet--made up of "pages"--only they are printed on paper and one must touch them.  ;-)  (Sorry, I had to say it!)  Actually, almanacs long recorded all that data, we know the Farmer's Almanac in the States, and Tolkien did know how to research arcana in the old-fashioned, tried and true way:  He probably made the librarians at the Bodleian look it up for him!  He seems to have incorporated quite a bit of research into herbs, topography, customs, etc., so clearly he did his homework for the LOTR.


Letter 64, 30 April 1944, to Christopher Tolkien:

I hope to see [Lewis] tomorrow, and read some more of ‘the Ring’. It is growing and sprouting again (I did a whole day at it yesterday to the neglect of many matters) and opening out in unexpected ways. So far in the new chapters Frodo and Sam have traversed Sarn Gebir, climbed down the cliff, encountered and temporarily tamed Gollum. They have with his guidance crossed the Dead Marshes and the slag-heaps of Mordor, lain in hiding outside the main gates and found them impassable, and set out for a more secret entrance near Minas Morghul (formerly M. Ithil). It will turn out to be the deadly Kirith Ungol and Gollum will play false. But at the moment they are in Ithilien (which is proving a lovely land); there has been a lot of bother about stewed rabbit; and they have been captured by Gondorians, and witnessed them ambushing a Swerting army (dark men of the South) marching to Mordor’s aid. A large elephant of prehistoric size, a war-elephant of the Swertings, is loose, and Sam has gratified a life-long wish to see an Oliphaunt, an animal about which there was a hobbit nursery-rhyme (though it was commonly supposed to be mythical). In the chapter next to be done they will get to Kirith Ungol and Frodo will be caught. Here is the rhyme cited by Sam: Grey as a mouse,/Big as a house,/Nose like a snake,/I make the earth quake,/As I tramp through the grass;/Trees crack as I pass./With horns in my mouth/I walk in the South/Flapping big ears./Beyond count of years/I’ve stumped round and round,/Never lie on the ground,/Not even to die./Oliphaunt am I,/Biggest of All,/huge, old, and tall./If ever you’d met me,/You wouldn’t forget me./If you never do,/You won’t think I’m true;/But old Oliphaunt am I,/and I never lie. I hope that has something of the ‘nursery rhyme’ flavour. On the whole Sam is behaving well, and living up to repute. He treats Gollum rather like Ariel to Caliban . . .

We’ve heard comments this week already how dependent Tolkien’s writing style is on sounding well when read out loud. Here we see him testing himself, chapter by chapter, with readings to Lewis and Williams.

squire: C. Are any other authors known to do this? Is this the key to Tolkien’s “style” working despite its archaisms and changing points of view?

FarFromHome: Reading aloud I don't know whether other authors read their works in progress aloud to trusted friends. It strikes me as being absolutely crucial to Tolkien's storytelling abilities, which seem to have grown out of his love of making up stories for his children. I seem to recall him mentioning testing out The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings on them too, which may be part of the reason LotR became so adult, to reflect the tastes of his children by that time.

I can't help remembering Sam imagining their tale being "read out of a great book, years and years afterwards." A lot of the appeal of LotR, for me, is its resemblance to the oral traditions of pre-printing-press days, when stories were much less fixed, and were meant to be read aloud. LotR's many registers and storylines all crowd together, like a story that has grown and evolved as if passed down and added to by multiple authors.

In fact, LotR seems to have grown and evolved even without the multiple authorship, just from Tolkien's own unstoppable imagination! I can certainly imagine the story 'getting away from him', and stuff flowing that he's not sure he can incorporate into the story proper.

It's a marvel that Ithilien came to him this way, as without it, Frodo's storyline would have been almost unbearable in its growing darkness and intensity. The only release then would have been the discussion on stories on the Stairs of Cirith Ungol - which is the only rival to Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit as my favourite chapter of them all.


 squire: D. To whom is Ithilien “proving a lovely land”? Did any other landscape that he invented take him by such surprise as this one seems to have?

                *bedsprings squeaking*



squire: E. What ‘nursery rhyme’, if any, does the Oliphaunt poem remind you of? Tolkien is going for ‘flavour’, of course.

drogo_drogo: Hammond and Scull in their Reader's Companion point out that Tolkien's poem evokes the medieval bestiary tradition (we know that word from one of the titles of David Day's reference book on Tolkien, the "Tolkien Bestiary").  These were accounts of fantastic beasts, and were written almost like travelogues of exotic, faraway locales for Europe in the era before the great explorers.  Chaucer has elements of that style in some of his Canterbury tales (the beast fables, for example).  There are nursery rhymes that survive today like Mother Goose, etc.


squire: F. ‘Sam is behaving well, and living up to repute’: What is Sam’s repute? Is Tolkien talking to the Gaffer in his head, here? Or to Christopher Tolkien?

                *traffic noises*



squire: G. Sam as Ariel; Gollum as Caliban. What does Tolkien mean? Does that comparison change your opinion of the Rabbits scene?

FarFromHome: (I'd like to answer more of the points you've raised in the last three posts, but for the moment I'm overwhelmed with all the ideas that these posts inspire. Maybe later... but thanks so much for all the food for thought. BTW, I'd especially like you hear your - or another kind person's - thoughts on the Ariel-Caliban quote. I don't know the Tempest that well, and have puzzled over that quote before.)


Letter 66, 6 May 1944, to Christopher Tolkien:

A new character has come on the scene (I am sure I did not invent him, I did not even want him, though I like him, but there he came walking into the woods of Ithilien): Faramir, the brother of Boromir—and he is holding up the ‘catastrophe’ by a lot of stuff about the history of Gondor and Rohan (with some very sound reflections no doubt on martial glory and true glory): but if he goes on much more a lot of him will have to be removed to the appendices—where already some fascinating material on the hobbit Tobacco industry and the Languages of the West have gone. There has been a battle—with a monstrous Oliphaunt (the Mâmuk of Harad) included—and after a short while in a cave behind a waterfall, I think I shall get Sam and Frodo at last into Kirith Ungol and the webs of the Spiders.

squire: H. Why does Tolkien so obsessively talk about the story as if it were someone else’s? What was his state of mind at this point in the writing, do you think?

                *refrigerator door closing*



squire: I. ‘Very sound reflections no doubt on martial glory and true glory’ – To what or to whom is Tolkien applying this irony?

                *beer can opening*



Letter 85, 16 October, to Christopher Tolkien:

I have been struggling with the dislocated chronology of the Ring, which has proved most vexatious, and has not only interfered with other more urgent and duller duties, but has stopped me getting on. I think I have solved it all at last by small map alterations, and by inserting an extra day’s Entmoot, and extra days into Trotter’s chase and Frodo’s journey (a small alteration in the first chapter I have just sent: 2 days from Morannon to Ithilien).

squire: J. ‘More urgent and duller duties’ – has Tolkien literally been neglecting his professional work at this point, to solve his chronology problems? *whispers* Would anyone have ever noticed the dislocated chronology had he just gone ahead and fudged it? *whispers even quieter* Are there any parts of LotR that he did fudge?

                *Jeopardy theme*



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