18 From a letter to
[On 19 October, Unwin wrote to Tolkien: ‘I think there is cause for your faint hope...It is seldom that a children’s writer gets firmly established with one book, but that you will do so very rapidly I have not the slightest doubt…You are one of those rare people with genius, and, unlike some publishers, it is a word I have not used half a dozen times in thirty years of publishing.’]
Thank you in return for your encouraging letter. I will start something soon, & submit it to your boy at the earliest opportunity.
[Tolkien lunched with Unwin in London on 15 November, and told him about a number of his writings which already existed in manuscript: the series of Father Christmas Letters, which he had addressed to his children each Christmas since 1920; various short tales and poems; and The Silmarillion. Following this meeting, he handed to Allen & Unwin the ‘Quenta Silmarillion’, a prose formulation of the latter book, together with the long unfinished poem ‘The Gest of Beren and Luthien’. These were shown to one of the firm’s outside readers, Edward Crankshaw, who reported unfavorably on the poem, but praised the prose narrative for its ‘brevity and dignity’, though he said he disliked it ‘eye-splitting Celtic names’. His report continued: ‘It has something of that mad, bright-eyed beauty that perplexes all Anglo-Saxons in the face of Celtic art.’ These comments were passed on to Tolkien.]
16 December 1937 20 Northmoor Road, Oxford
Dear Mr Unwin,
I have been ill and am still rather tottery, and have had others of the common human troubles, so that time has slipped out of my hands: I have accomplished next to nothing of any kind since I saw you. Father Christmas’ 1937 letter is unwritten yet…
My chief joy comes from learning that the Silmarillion is not rejected with scorn. I have suffered a sense of fear and bereavement, quite ridiculous, since I let this private and beloved nonsense out; and I think if it had seemed to you to be nonsense I should have felt really crushed. I do not mind about the verse-form, which in spite of certain virtuous passages has grave defects, for it is only for me the rough material. But I shall certainly now hope one day to be able, or to be able to afford, to publish the Silmarillion! Your reader’s comment affords me delight. I am sorry the names split his eyes – personally I believe (and here believe I am a good judge) they are good, and a large part of the effect. They are coherent and consistent and made upon two related linguistic formulae, so that they achieve a reality not fully achieved to my feeling by other name-inventors (say Swift or Dunsany!). Needless to say they are not Celtic! Neither are the tales. I do know Celtic things (many in their original languages Irish and Welsh), and feel for them a certain distaste: largely for their fundamental unreason. They have bright colour, but are like a broken stained glass window reassembled without design. They are in fact as ‘mad’ as your reader says – but I don’t believe I am. Still I am very grateful for his words, and particularly encouraged that the style is good for the purpose and even gets over the nomenclature.
I did not think any of the stuff I dropped on you filled
the bill. But did want to know whether any of the stuff had
any exterior non-personal value. I think it is plain that quite apart
from it, a sequel of successor to The Hobbit is called for. I promise to give
this thought and attention. But I am sure you will sympathize when I say that
the construction of elaborate and consistent mythology (and two languages)
rather occupies the mind, and the Silmarils are in my
heart. So that goodness knows what will happen. Mr
Baggins began as a comic tale among conventional and inconsistent Grimm’s fairy-tale
dwarves, and got drawn into the edge of it – so that even Sauron
the terrible peeped over the edge. And what more can hobbits do? They can be
comic, but their comedy is suburban unless it is set against things more
elemental. But the real fun about orcs and dragons
(to my mind) was before their time. Perhaps a new (if
similar) line? Do you think Tom Bombadil,
spirit of the (vanishing)
Which are the four
coloured illustrations you are using?2 Have the five originals yet returned? Is there
a spare one available of the dragon on his hoard? I have to give a lecture on dragons, (at the
Could I have four more copies of the Hobbit at author’s rates, to use as Christmas presents?
May I wish you bon voyage – and a safe return.4 I am supposed to be broadcasting from BBC on Jan 14th, but that will I suppose be after your return.5 I shall look forward to seeing you again.
J. R. R. Tolkien
P.S. I have received several queries, on behalf of children and adults, concerning the runes and whether they are real and can be read. Some children have tried to puzzle them out Would it be a good thing to provide a runic alphabet? I have tried to write one out for several people. Please excuse scrawling and rambling nature of this letter. I feel only half-alive. JRRT.
I have received safely by a later post the Geste (in verse) and the Silmarillion and related fragments.
1. ‘The Adventures of Tom Bombadil’, first published in the Oxford Magazine in 1934. 2. i.e. in the reprint of The Hobbit. 3. On 1 January 1938 Tolkien lectured on ‘Dragons’ as part of a series of lectures for children at the University Museum, Oxford. 4. Unwin had told Tolkien he was going abroad. 5. Tolkien gave a talk on ‘Ango-Saxon Verse’ on the BBC on 14 January 1938. The duration was 13 minutes, and the talk was part of the series ‘Studies in National Inspiration and Characteristic Forms’.
20 To C. A. Furth, Allen & Unwin
[On 17 December, Furth wrote to Tolkien: ‘The demand for The Hobbit became so acute with the beginning of the Christmas orders that we had to rush the reprint through….At the last minute the crisis was so acute that we fetched part of the reprint from our printers in Woking in a private car.’]
19 December 1937 20 Northmoor Road, Oxford
Dear Mr Furth,
Thank you for the account of recent events with regard to ‘the Hobbit’. It sounds quite exciting.
I have received four copies of the new impression charged to me, as ordered in my letter to Mr Unwin. I think the coloured pictures have come out well . . . I am sorry that the Eagle picture (to face p. 118) is not included – merely because I should have liked to see it reproduced. I marvel that four can have been included without raising the price. Perhaps the Americans will use it? Odd folk . . .
I have written the first chapter of a new story about Hobbits – ‘A long expected party’.1 A merry Christmas.
J. R. R. Tolkien.
[P.S.] . . . Mr Arthur Ransome2 objects to man on p. 27 (line 7 from end). Read fellow as in earlier rescension? He also objects to more men on p. 294 l. 11. Read more of us? Men with a capital is, I think, used in text when ‘human kind’ are specifically intended.; and man, men with a miniscule are occasionally and loosely used as ‘adult male’ and ‘people’. But perhaps, although this can be mythologically defended (and is according to Anglo-Saxon usage!), it may be as well to avoid raising mythological issues outside the story. Mr Ransome also seems not to like Gandalf’s use of boys on p. 112 (lines 11, 13). But, though I agree that his insult was rather silly and not quite up to form, I do not think anything can be done about it now. Unless oaves would do? JRRT.
1. For an account of the first draft of the opening chapter of The Lord of the Rings, see Biography p. 185. 2. Arthur Ransome, whose books were much admired by Tolkien’s children, wrote to Tolkien, describing himself as a ‘humble hobbit fancier’, and complaining about Gandalf’s use of the term ‘excitable little man’ as a description of Bilbo. He cited other, similar uses of ‘man’ or ‘men’ to describe dwarves and goblins.
21 From a letter to Allen & Unwin 1 February 1938
Would you care to ask Mr Unwin whether his son, a very reliable critic, would care to read the first chapter of the sequel to The Hobbit? I have typed it. I have no confidence in it, but if he thought it a promising beginning, could add to it the tale that is brewing.
22 To C. A. Furth, Allen & Unwin
4 February 1938 20 Northmoor Road, Oxford
Dear Mr Furth,
I enclose a copy of Chapter I ‘A Long-expected Party’ of possible sequel to The Hobbit . . .
I received a letter from a young reader in
J. R. R. Tolkien.
1. Christopher Tolkien was confined to bed with irregularities of the heart, a condition which caused him to be a total invalid for several years.
23 To C. A. Furth, Allen & Unwin
[The publishers had again been considering the possibility of publishing Mr Bliss, for which see the introductory note to no. 10.]
17 February 1938 20 Northmoor Road, Oxford
Dear Mr Furth,
‘Mr Bliss’ returned safely. I am sorry you have had so much trouble with him. I wish you could find someone to redraw the pictures properly. I don’t believe I am capable of it. I have at any rate no time now – it is easier to write a story at odd moments than draw (though neither are easy) . . .
They say it is the first step that costs the effort. I do not find it so. I am sure I could write unlimited ‘first chapters’. I have indeed written many. The Hobbit sequel is still where it was, and I have only the vaguest notions of how to proceed. Not ever intending any sequel, I fear I squandered all my favourite ‘motifs’ and characters on the original ‘Hobbit’.
I will write and get your advice on ‘Mr Bliss’ before I do anything. It will hardly be before the Long Vacation, or the end of my ‘research fellowship’.1
J. R. R. Tolkien
1. The Long
Vacation is the summer vacation at
[On February 11, Unwin reported that his son Rayner was ‘delighted with the first chapter’ of the new story.]
18 February 1938
Dear Mr Unwin,
I am most grateful to your son Rayner; and am encouraged. At the same time I find it only too easy to write opening chapters – and for the moment the story is not unfolding. I have unfortunately very little time, made shorter by a rather disasterous Christmas vacation. I squandered so much on the original ‘Hobbit’ (which was not meant to have a sequel) that it is difficult to find anything new in that world.
Mr C. S. Lewis tells me you have allowed him to submit to you ‘Out of the Silent Planet’. I read it, of course; and I have since heard it pass a rather different test: that of being read aloud to our local club (which goes in for reading things short and long aloud). It proved an exciting serial, and was highly approved. But of course we are all rather like-minded.
It is only by an odd accident that the hero is a philologist (one point in which he resembles me) and has your name.1 The latter detail could I am sure be altered: I do not believe it has any special significance.
We originally meant each to write an excursionary ‘Thriller’: a Space-journey and a Time-journey (mine) each discovering Myth.2 But the Space-journey has been finished, and the Time-journey remains owing to my slowness and uncertainty only a fragment, as you know.3
J. R. R. Tolkien.
1. This indicates that in the original draft of Out of the Silent Planet the hero was named Unwin; in the published book his name is Ransom. 2. For another account of this, see no. 294. 3. Tolkien’s unfinished story of time-travel, ‘The Lost Road’, was shown to Allen & Unwin in November 1937, and was returned by them with the comment that it did not seem likely, even if it was finished, to be a commercial success. For a description of the story, see no. 257, and Biography pp. 170-1.
25 To the editor of the ‘Observer’
[On 16 January 1938, the Observer published a letter,
signed ‘Habit”, asking whether hobbits might have been suggested to Tolkien by Julian Huxley’s account of ‘the “little furry
men” seen in
Sir, -- I need no persuasion: I am as susceptible as a dragon to flattery, and would gladly show off my diamond waistcoat, and even discuss its sources, since the Habit (more inquisitive than the Hobbit) has not only professed to admire it, but has also asked where I got it from. But would not that be rather unfair to the research students? To save them trouble is to rob them of any excuse for existing.
However, with regard to the Habit’s principal question there is no danger: I do not remember anything about the name and inception of the hero. I could guess, of course, but the guesses would have no more authority than those of future researchers, and I leave the game to them.
I was born in
But are they? I have no waking recollection of furry
pygmies (in book or moonlight); nor of any Hobbit bogey in print by 1904. I suspect
that the two hobbits are accidental homophones, and am content* that they are
not (it would seem) synonyms. And I protest that my hobbit did not live in
As for the rest of the tale it is, as the Habit suggests, derived from (previously digested) epic, mythology, and fairy-story – not, however, Victorian in authorship, as a rule to which George MacDonald is the chief exception. Beowulf is among my most valued sources; though it was not consciously present to the mind in the process of writing, in which the episode of the theft arose naturally (and almost inevitably) from the circumstances. It is difficult to think of any other way of conducting the story at that point. I fancy the author of Beowulf would say much the same.
My tale is not consciously based on any other book – save one, and that is unpublished: the ‘Silmarillion’, a history of the Elves, to which frequent allusion is made. I had not thought of the future researchers; and as there is only one manuscript there seems at the moment small chance of this reference proving useful.
But these questions are mere preliminaries. Now that I have been made to see Mr Baggins’s adventures as the subject of future enquiry I realize that a lot of work will be needed. There is the question of nomenclature. The dwarf-names, and the wizard’s, are from the Elder Edda. The hobbit-names from Obvious Sources proper to their kind. The full list of their wealthier families is: Baggins, Boffin, Bolger, Bracegirdle, Brandybuck, Burrowes, Chubb, Grubb, Hornblower, Proudfoot, Sackville, and Took. The dragon bears its name – a pseudonym – the past tense of the primitive Germanic verb Smugan, to squeeze through a hole: a low philological jest. The rest of the names are of the Ancient and Elvish World, and have not been modernized.
And why dwarves? Grammar prescribes dwarfs; philology suggests that dwarrows would be the historical form. The real answer is that I knew no better. But dwarves goes well with elves; and, in any case, elf, gnome, goblin, dwarf are only approximate translations of the Old Elvish names for beings of not quite same kinds and functions.
These dwarves are not quite the dwarfs of better known lore. They have been given Scandinavian names, it is true; but that is an editorial concession. Too many names in the tongues proper to the period might have been alarming. Dwarvish was both complicated and cacophonous. Even early elvish philologists avoided it, and the dwarves were obliged to use other languages, except for entirely private conversation. The language of Hobbits was remarkably like English, as one would expect: they only lived on the borders of The Wild, and were mostly unaware of it. Their family names remain for the most part as well known and justly respected in this island as they were in Hobbiton and Bywater.
There is the matter of the Runes. Those used by Thorin and Co., for special purposes, were comprised in an alphabet of thirty-two letters (full list on application), similar to, but not identical, with the runes of Anglo-Saxon inscription. There is doubtless an historical connection between the two. The Feanorian alphabet, generally used at that time, was of Elvish origin. It appears in the curse inscribed on the pot of gold in the picture of Smaug’s lair, but had otherwise been transcribed (a facsimile of the original letter left on the mantelpiece can be supplied).
And what about the Riddles? There is work to be done here on the sources and analogues. I should not be at all surprised to learn that both the hobbit and Gollum will find their claim to have invented any other disallowed.
Finally, I present the future researcher with a little problem. The tale halted in the telling for about a year at two separate points: where are they? But probably that would have been discovered anyway. And suddenly I remember that the hobbit thought ‘Old fool’, when the dragon succumbed to blandishment. I fear that the Habit’s comment (and yours) will already be the same. But you must admit that the temptation was strong. – Yours, etc.,
J. R. R. Tolkien.
[On 2 March, Unwin sent Tolkien an extract from a reader’s report on
Dear Mr Unwin,
I wrote you the enclosed letter1 some time ago; but I hesitated to send it, knowing that you would wish to send Mr Lewis’ work to your reader, and not wishing to interfere beyond getting you to consider it. Lewis is a great friend of mine, and we are in close sympathy (witness his two reviews of my Hobbit): this may make for understanding, but it may also cast an unduly rosy light. Since you ask for my opinion, here it is.
I read the story in the original MS. and was so enthralled that I could do nothing else until I had finished it. My first criticism was simply that it was too short. I still think that criticism holds, for both practical and artistic reasons. Other criticisms, concerning narrative style (Lewis is always apt to have rather creaking stiff-jointed passages), inconsistent details in the plot, and philology, have since been corrected to my satisfaction. The author holds to items of linguistic invention that do not appeal to me (Malacandra, Maleldil – eldila, in any case, I suspect to be due to the influence of the Eldar in the Silmarillion – and Pfifltriggi); but this is a matter of taste. After all your reader found my invented names, made with cherished care, eye-splitting. But the linguistic inventions and the philology on the whole are more than good enough. All the part about language and poetry – the glimpses of its Malacandrian nature and form – is very well done, and extremely interesting, far superior to what one usually gets from travellers in untravelled regions. The language difficulty is usually slid over or fudged. Here it not only has verisimilitude, but also underlying thought.
I was disturbed by your reader’s report. I am afraid that at the first blush I feel inclined to retort that anyone capable of using the word ‘bunk’ will inevitably find matter of this sort – bunk. But one must be reasonable. I realize of course that to be even moderately marketable such a story must pass muster on its surface value, as a vera historia of a journey to a strange land. I am extremely fond of the genre, even having read Land Under England 2 with some pleasure (though it was a weak example, and distasteful to me in many points). I thought Out of the Silent Planet did pass this test very successfully. The openings and the actual mode of transportation in time or space are always the weakest points of such tales. They are well enough worked here, but there should be more narrative given to adventure on Malacandra to balance and justify them. The theme of three distinct rational species (hnau) requires more attention to the third species, Pfifltriggi. Also the central episode of the visit to Eldilorn is reached too soon, artistically. Also would not the book be in fact practically rather short for a narrative of this type?
But I should have said that the story had for the more intelligent reader a great number of philosophical and mythical implications that enormously enhanced without distracting from the surface ‘adventure’. I found the blend of vera historia with mythos irresistible. There are of course certain satirical elements, inevitably in any such traveller’s tale, and also a spice of satire on other superficially similar works of ‘scientific’ fiction – such as the reference to the notion that higher intelligence will inevitably be combined with ruthlessness. The underlying myth is of course that the Fall of the Angels (and the fall of man on this our silent planet); and the central point is the sculpture of the planets revealing the erasure of the sign of the Angel of this world. I cannot understand how any one can say this sticks in his gullet, unless (a) he thinks this particular myth ‘bunk’, that is not worth adult attention (even on a mythical plane); or (b) the use of it unjustified or perhaps unsuccessful. The latter is perhaps arguable – though I dissent – but at any rate the critique should have pointed out the existence of the myth. Oyarsa is not of course a ‘nice kind of scientific God’,3 but something so profoundly different that the difference seems to have been unnoticed, namely an Angel. Yet even as a nice kind scientific God I think he compares favourably with the governing potentates of other stories of this kind. His name is not invented, but is from Bernardus Silvestris, as I think is explained at the end of the book (not that I think that this learned detail matters, but it is as legitimate as pseudo-scientific learning). In conclusion I might say that in designating the Pfifltriggi as the ‘workers’ your reader also misses the point, and is misled by current notions that are not applicable. But I have probably said more than enough. I at any rate should have bought this story at almost any price if I had found it in print, and loudly recommended it as a ‘thriller’ by (however and surprisingly) an intelligent man. But I know only too sadly from efforts to find anything to read even with an ‘on demand’ subscription at a library that my taste is not normal. I read ‘Voyage to Arcturus’4 with avidity – the most comparable work, though it is both more powerful and more mythical (and less rational, and also less of a story – no one could read it merely as a thriller and without interest in philosophy religion and morals). I wonder what your reader thinks of it? All the same I shall be comforted on my own behalf, if the second reader supports my taste a bit more!
The sequel to The Hobbit has now progressed as far as the end of the third chapter. But stories tend to get out of hand, and this has taken an unpremeditated turn. Mr Lewis and my youngest boy are reading it in bits as a serial. I hesitate to bother your son, though I should value his criticisms. At any rate if he would like to read it in serial form he can. My Christopher and Mr Lewis approve it enough to say that they think it is better than the Hobbit; but Rayner need not agree!
I have received a copy of the American edition. Not so bad. I am glad they have included the eagle picture, but I cannot imagine why they have spoilt the Rivendell picture, by slicing the top and cutting out the ornament at the bottom. All the numerous textual errors are of course included. I hope it will some day be possible to get rid of them.
I don’t know whether you saw the long and ridiculous letter in The Observer of Feb. 20, and thought I had suddenly gone cracked. I think the editor was unfair. There was a letter signed Habit in the paper in January (asking if the hobbit was influenced by Julian Huxley’s lectures on furry African pygmies, and other questions). I sent this jesting reply with a stamped envelope for transmission to Habit; and also a short and fairly sane reply for publication. Nothing happened for a month, and then I woke up to find my ill-considered joke occupying nearly a column.
With best wishes. Yours sincerely,
J. R. R. Tolkien.
no. 24, which may have been sent as an enclosure with this letter. 2. Land Under
27 To the Houghton Mifflin Company
[An extract from a letter apparently addressed to Tolkien’s American publishers, and probably written in March or April 1938. Houghton Mifflin seem to have asked him to supply drawings of hobbits for use in some future edition of The Hobbit.]
I am afraid, if you will need drawings of hobbits in various attitudes, I must leave it in the hands of someone who can draw. My own pictures are an unsafe guide – e.g. the picture of Mr. Baggins in Chapter VI and XII. The very ill-drawn one in Chapter XIX is a better guide than these in general impressions.
I picture a fairly human figure, not a kind of ‘fairy’ rabbit as some of my British reviewers seem to fancy: fattish in the stomach, shortish in the leg. A round, jovial face; ears only slightly pointed and ‘elvish’; hair short and curling (brown). The feet from the ankles down, covered with brown hairy fur. Clothing: green velvet breeches; red or yellow waistcoat; brown or green jacket; gold (or brass) buttons; a dark green hood and cloak (belonging to a dwarf).
Actual size – only important if other objects are in picture – say about three feet or three feet six inches. The hobbit in the picture of the gold-hoard, Chapter XII, is of course (apart from being fat in the wrong places) enormously too large. But (as my children, at any rate, understand) he is really in a separate picture or ‘plane’ – being invisible to the dragon.
There is in the text no mention of his acquiring of boots. There should be! It has dropped out somehow or other in the various revisions – the bootings occurred at Rivendell; and he was again bootless after leaving Rivendell on the way home. But since leathery soles, and well-brushed furry feet are a feature of essential hobbitness, he ought really to appear unbooted, except in special illustrations of episodes.
[On 1 June, Unwin told Tolkien that Houghton Mifflin had now sold approximately three thousand copies of the American edition of The Hobbit. In April, the book had been awarded a $250 prize by the New York Herald Tribune for the best juvenile story of the season. Meanwhile Rayner Unwin had criticized the second and third chapters of the new story for having too much ‘hobbit talk’.]
4 June 1938
Dear Mr Unwin,
Thank you for your comforting news. It is indeed comforting, for in spite of unexpected strokes of luck, such as the American prize, I am in considerable difficulties; and things will not be improved in September, when I vacate my research fellowship. That will mean, of course, that the pressure on my writing time will be less, except that as far as I can see I shall have to return to the examination treadmill1 to keep the boat afloat.
Your previous letters of April 29 and May 3 have I fear long lain unanswered. I meant long ago to have thanked Rayner for bothering to read the tentative chapters, and for his excellent criticism. It agrees strikingly with Mr Lewis’, which is therefore confirmed. I must plainly bow to my two chief (and most well-disposed) critics. The trouble is that ‘hobbit talk’ amuses me privately (and to a certain degree also my boy Christopher) more than adventures; but I must curb this severely. Although longing to do so, I have not had a chance to touch any story-writing since the Christmas vacation. With three works in Middle English and Old English going to or through the press, and another in Old Norse in a series of which I am an editor under my hand on behalf of the author who is abroad,2 and students coming in July from Belgium and Canada to work under my direction, I cannot see any loophole left for months!...
J. R. R. Tolkien.
P.S. My answer was delayed,
because your letter arrived in the midst of our little local strife. You may
not have noticed that on June 2 the Rev. Adam Fox3 was elected Professor of Poetry, defeating a Knight and
a noble Lord. He was nominated by Lewis and myself, and miraculously elected:
our first public victory over established privilege. For Fox is a member of our
literary club of practicing poets –
before whom the Hobbit, and other
works (such as the Silent Planet)
have been read. We are slowly getting even into print. One of Fox’s works is Old King Coel,
a rhymed tale in four books (
1. Besides his
other duties at Oxford, Tolkien often acted as an
external examiner for other universities, and marked Higher Certificate papers,
as he was in need of the extra income. 2.
It is not clear precisely to which works Tolkien was
referring. Possibly he had in mind the Middle English Ancrene Wisse and