26       To Stanley Unwin

 

[On 2 March, Unwin sent Tolkien an extract from a reader’s report on C. S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet. The reader commented: ‘Mr Lewis is quite likely, I dare say, to write a worth while novel one day. This one isn’t quite good enough – quite.’ The reader judged the creatures of the planet Malacandra to be ‘bunk’. Unwin asked Tolkien for his opinion of the book.]

4 March 1938                                20 Northmoor Road, Oxford

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, Maleldileldila, 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.

 

Notes

1. Possibly no. 24, which may have been sent as an enclosure with this letter. 2. Land Under England by Joseph O’Neill (1935). 3. A phrase used in the reader’s report. 4. Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay (1920).