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Tolkien: Life and Letters

In the U.S. Houghton Mifflin has just published new trade paperback editions of two volumes essential to an understanding of Tolkien. The first is the authorized biography of Tolkien by Humphrey Carpenter, entitled simply Tolkien: A Biography ($14.00, ISBN 0-618-05702-1). The second is selection of Tolkien’s letters, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter, with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien ($15.00, ISBN 0-618-05699-8).

The biography of Tolkien was first published in 1977, and it stands head and shoulders above any competition as a superb look at the life and writings of the creator of Middle-earth. If you have any interest at all in the man behind The Lord of the Rings, this is the book to read.

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien was first published in 1981, and this edition marks the first time the book has been made available in paperback in the U.S. I know that, to some people, the thought of a volume of letters sounds rather dreary, but this is most emphatically not the case with Tolkien. He was as fine a letter-writer as he was prose stylist in The Lord of the Rings. And many of the letters published in this volume were written in answer to questions sent in to Tolkien by the readers of his books. Tolkien discourses at length about his writings, about various details of his creation (be it on Gandalf, Gollum, Queen Beruthiel and her cats, or the Elvish word for ‘bull’), and if you like reading in The Appendices of The Lord of the Rings, there is similar fare all throughout these letters. I’ll put a few excerpts of interesting passages below, to give some idea of what will be found in the book.

Tolkien:  A Biography - Click to see larger version The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien - Click to see larger version

This edition of The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien also contains a "new, expanded index," compiled by Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond, the editors of the recent Tolkien volumes Roverandom (1998) and the fiftieth anniversary edition of Farmer Giles of Ham (1999). The index in the original encompassed about ten pages, whereas this expanded index is about forty-eight pages. Trying to find specific quotes and facts you might remember from a previous reading of the book was rather problematic with the original index, and this new index is a vast improvement. My first chance to use it came up recently, and not only did I quickly find the exact quote I was after, but I turned up two other quotes with some additional information. And that certainly helps us folks at Green Books answer some of the Q&As! However, just now when trying to find Tolkien’s letter giving the otherwise unknown history of the hobbit Lalia, or Lalia the Fat as she was sometimes called, I came up empty. There is no entry for Lalia, and in the extensive entry under "Hobbits", which includes a full column worth of pages numbers and subheadings, I still find nothing that points me to Lalia. So I’m back to flipping pages again, searching for it.

Update: Oops! I blunder! A reader has informed me that Lalia does indeed appear in the Index, under her last name Took. I’m afraid I didn’t remember that detail–hence my lack of success in locating her.

Still, these are two excellent volumes, essential to a Tolkien Library. I’ll close here with a few excerpts from The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien.

Letter no. 144, 25 April 1954:

"The Balrog is a survivor from The Silmarillion and the legends of the First Age. So is Shelob. The Balrogs, of whom the whips were the chief weapons, were primeval spirits of destroying fire, chief servants of the primeval Dark Power of the First Age. They were supposed to have been all destroyed in the overthrow of Thangorodrim, his fortress in the North. But it is here found (there is usually a hag-over especially of evil from one age to another) that one had escaped and taken refuge under the mountains of Hithaeglin (the Misty Mountains). It is observable that only the Elf knows what the thing is–and doubtless Gandalf."

Letter no. 214, not dated; probably late 1958-early 1959:

"A well-known case, also, was that of Lalia the Great (or less courteously the Fat). Fortinbras II, one time head of the Tooks and Thain, married Lalia of the Clayhangers in 1314, when he was 36 and she was 31. He died in 1380 at the age of 102, but she long outlived him, coming to an unfortunate end in 1402 at the age of 119. So she ruled the Tooks and the Great Smials for 22 years, a great and memorable, if not universally beloved, ‘matriarch’. She was not at the famous Party (SY 1401), but was prevented from attending rather by her great size and immobility than by her age. Her son, Ferumbras, had no wife, being unable (it was alleged) to find anyone willing to occupy apartments in the Great Smials, under the rule of Lalia. Lalia, in her last and fattest years, had the custom of being wheeled to the great Door, to take the air on a fine morning. In the spring of SY 1402 her clumsy attendant let the heavy chair run over the threshold and tipped Lalia down the flight of steps into the garden. So ended a reign and life that might well have rivalled that of the Great Took."

Letter no. 320, 25 January 1971:

"I was particularly interested in your remarks about Galadriel. . . . I think it is true that I owe much of this character to Christian and Catholic teaching and imagination about Mary, but actually Galadriel was a penitent: in her youth a leader in the rebellion against the Valar (the angelic guardians). At the end of the First Age she proudly refused forgiveness or permission to return. She was pardoned because of her resistance to the final and overwhelming temptation to take the Ring for herself."

Letter no. 339, 30 June 1972:

[Following a newspaper article where it was written that "Sheepwalks where you could once ramble for miles are transformed into a kind of Tolkien gloom, where no bird sings…"]

"With reference to the Daily Telegraph of June 29th, page 18, I feel that it is unfair to use my name as an adjective qualifying ‘gloom’, especially in a context dealing with trees. In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies. Lothlórien is beautiful because there the trees were loved; elsewhere forests are represented as awakening to consciousness of themselves. The Old Forest was hostile to two legged creatures because of the memory of many injuries. Fangorn Forest was old and beautiful, but at the time of the story tense with hostility because it was threatened by a machine-loving enemy. Mirkwood had fallen under the dominion of a Power that hated all living things but was restored to beauty and became Greenwood the Great before the end of the story."

Letter no. 345, 30 November 1972:

"Personally I am rather against giving strictly human and noble names to animals; and in any case Elrond and Glorfindel seem unsuitable characters, for their names which meant (1) ‘The vault of stars’ and (2) ‘Golden hair’ seem inapt. I recently played with the notion of using the word for bull I gave you, which introduced in the form –mund gives a fairly familiar sound (as in Edmund, Sigismund, etc.), and adding a few Elvish prefixes, producing names like Aramund (‘Kingly bull’), Tarmund (‘Noble bull’), Rasmund (‘Horned bull’), Turcomund (‘Chief of bulls’), etc. I wonder what you think of these?"


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