The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien edited by Humphrey Carpenter (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981)
It may seem as if I've copied the whole book, but is a lot of value in those 463 pages. It's too long, perhaps, for anyone not a Tolkien fan, but it's a fascinating look not only into the life and mind of the creator of The Lord of the Rings, but into his times and society as well.
Herewith only a small sample.
An American publisher showed interest in The Hobbit, adding that they would like more illustrations and suggesting the employment of good American artists. Tolkien was amenable but had one concern:
It might be advisable, rather than lose the American interest, to let the Americans do what seems good to them—as long as it was possible ... to veto anything from or influenced by the Disney studios (for all whose works I have a heartfelt loathing).
At any minute it is what we are and are doing, not what we plan to be and do that counts.
[C. S. ] Lewis is as energetic and jolly as ever, but getting too much publicity for his or any of our tastes. [One publication], usually fairly reasonable, did him the doubtful honour of a peculiarly misrepresentative and asinine paragraph.... It began "Ascetic Mr. Lewis"—!!! I ask you! He put away three pints in a very short session we had this morning, and said he was "going short for Lent." I suppose all the stuff you see in print is about as accurate about Tom, Dick, or Harry. It is a pity newspapers can't leave people alone, and don't make some effort to understand what they say (if it is worth it): at any rate they might have some standards that would prevent them saying things about people which are quite untrue, even if not actually (as often) painful, angering, or indeed injurious....
Both the sexual and the sacred [curse] words have ceased to have any content except the ghost of past emotion. I don't mean that it is not a bad thing, and it is certainly very wearisome, saddening and maddening, but it is at any rate no blasphemy in the full sense.
I include the following fan letter excerpt simply for the name of the school, which will have meaning to our family.
Dear Mr Tolkien, I have just finished reading your book The Hobbit for the 11th time and I want to tell you what I think of it. I think it is the most wonderful book I have ever read. It is beyond description ... Gee Whiz, I'm surprised that it's not more popular ... If you have written any other books, would you please send me their names?
John Barrow 12 yrs.
West town School, West town, Pa.
Jive and Boogie-Woogie [are] essentially vulgar, music corrupted by the mechanism, echoing in dreary unnourished heads.
The appalling destruction and misery of this war mount hourly: destruction of what should be (indeed is) the common wealth of Europe, and the world, if mankind were not so besotted, wealth the loss of which will affect us all, victors or not. ... There seem no bowels of mercy or compassion, no imagination, left in this dark diabolic hour. By which I do not mean that it may not all, in the present situation ... be necessary and inevitable. But why gloat! We were supposed to have reached a stage of civilization in which it might still be necessary to execute a criminal, but not to gloat, or to hang his wife and child by him while the orc-crowd hooted. The destruction of Germany, be it 100 times merited, is one of the most appalling, world-catastrophes.
Pages 122-123 (from a letter to his publisher)
The thing is to finish the thing as devised and then let it be judged. But forgive me! It is written in my life-blood, such as that is, thick or thin; and I can no other. I fear it must stand or fall as it substantially is. It would be idle to pretend that I do not greatly desire publication, since a solitary art is no art; nor that I have not a pleasure in praise, with as little vanity as fallen man can manage (he has not much more share in his writings than in his children of the body, but it is something to have a function); yet the chief thing is to complete one's work, as far as completion has any real sense.
I write only because I find it easier to say such things as I really want to say. If they are foolish or seem so, I am not present when they fall flat.
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.
My work did not "evolve" into serious work. It started like that. [The Hobbit] was a fragment, torn out of an already existing mythology. In so far as it was dressed up as "for children," in style or manner, I regret it. So do the children.
I avoid hobbies because I am a very serious person and cannot distinguish between private amusement and duty.
I am affable, but unsociable.
I am (obviously) much in love with plants and above all trees, and always have been; and I find human maltreatment of them as hard to bear as some find ill-treatment of animals.
I find that many children become interested, even engrossed, in The Lord of the Rings, from about 10 onwards. I think it rather a pity, really. It was not written for them. But then I am a very "unvoracious" reader, and since I can seldom bring myself to read a work twice I think of the many things that I read—too soon! Nothing, not even a (possible) deeper appreciation, for me replaces the bloom on a book, the freshness of the unread.
[The completion of The Lord of the Rings] still astonishes me. A notorious beginner of enterprises and non-finisher, partly through lack of time, partly through lack of single-minded concentration, I still wonder how and why I managed to peg away at this thing year after year, often under real difficulties, and bring it to a conclusion.
In 1958, Tolkien and his publisher were considering a film proposal that eventually fell through.
[The story line document] is sufficient to give me grave anxiety about the actual dialogue that (I suppose) will be used. I should say [Morton Grady] Zimmerman, the constructor of this s-l, is quite incapable of excerpting, or adapting the "spoken words" of the book. He is hasty, insensitive, and impertinent.
He does not read books. It seems to me evident that he has skimmed through the L.R. at a great pace, and then constructed his s.l. from partly confused memories, and with the minimum of references back to the original. Thus he gets most of the names wrong in form—not occasionally by casual error but fixedly (always Borimor for Boromir); or he misapplies them: Radagast becomes an Eagle. The introduction of characters and the indications of what they are to say have little or no reference to the book....
I feel very unhappy about the extreme silliness and incompetence of Z and his complete lack of respect for the original (it seems wilfully wrong without discernible technical reasons at nearly every point). But I need, and shall soon need very much indeed, money, and I am conscious of your rights and interests; so that I shall endeavour to restrain myself, and avoid all avoidable offence.
In another letter, Tolkien sets out in detail some of his objections. I fear he would also apply the following judgment (as well as many others that I won't take the space to quote here), to Peter Jackson's version, had he had the chance to see the film that is now nearly synonymous with his book.
He has cut the parts of the story upon which its characteristic and peculiar tone principally depends, showing a preference for fights; and he has made no serious attempt to represent the heart of the tale....
When I published The Hobbit—hurriedly and without due consideration—I was still influenced by the convention that "fairy-stories" are naturally directed to children (with or without the silly added waggery "from seven to seventy"). And I had children of my own. But the desire to address children, as such, had nothing to do with the story as such in itself or the urge to write it. But it had some unfortunate effects on the mode of expression and narrative method, which if I had not been rushed, I should have corrected. Intelligent children of good taste (of which there seem quite a number) have always, I am glad to say, singled out the points in manner where the address is to children as blemishes.
Children are not a class or kind, they are a heterogeneous collection of immature persons, varying, as persons do, in their reach, and in their ability to extend it when stimulated. As soon as you limit your vocabulary to what you suppose to be within their reach, you in fact simply cut off the gifted ones from the chance of extending it.
There was a great tree—a huge poplar with vast limbs—visible through my window even as I lay in bed. I loved it, and was anxious about it. It had been savagely mutilated some years before, but had gallantly grown new limbs—though of course not with the unblemished grace of its former natural self; and now a foolish neighbour was agitating to have it felled. Every tree has its enemy, few have an advocate.
Well here comes Christmas! That astonishing thing that no "commercialism" can in fact defile—unless you let it.
Years before I had rejected as disgusting cynicism by an old vulgarian the words of warning given me by old Joseph Write. "What do you take Oxford for, lad?" "A university, a place of learning." "Nay, lad, it's a factory! And what's it making? I'll tell you. It's making fees. Get that into your head, and you'll begin to understand what goes on."
Alas! by 1935 I new knew that it was perfectly true.
The "protestant" search backwards for "simplicity" and directness—which, of course, though it contains some good or at least intelligible motives, is mistaken and indeed vain. Because "primitive Christianity" is now and in spite of all "research" will ever remain largely unknown; because "primitiveness" is no guarantee of value, and is and was in great part a reflection of ignorance. Grave abuses were as much an element in Christian "liturgical" behaviour from the beginning as now. (St. Paul's strictures on eucharistic behaviour are sufficient to show this!) Still more because "my church" was not intended by Our Lord to be static or remain in perpetual childhood; but to be a living organism (likened to a plant), which develops and changes in externals by the interaction of its bequeathed divine life and history—the particular circumstances of the world into which it is set. There is no resemblance between the "mustard seed" and the full-grown tree. For those living in the days of its branching growth the Tree is the thing, for the history of a living thing is part of its life, and the history of a divine thing is sacred. The wise may know that it began with a seed, but it is vain to try and dig it up, for it no longer exists, and the virtue and powers that it had now reside in the Tree.
I have only since I retired learned that I was a successful professor. I had no idea that my lectures had such an effect—and, if I had, they might have been better. My "friends" among dons were chiefly pleased to tell me that I spoke too fast and might have been interesting if I could be heard. True often: due in part to having too much to say in too little time, in larger part to diffidence, which such comments increased.
Pages 401-402 (written in November 1969)
What a dreadful, fear-darkened, sorrow-laden world we live in—especially for those who have also the burden of age, whose friends and all they especially care for are afflicted in the same way. Chesterton once said that it is our duty to keep the Flag of This World flying: but it takes now a sturdier and more sublime patriotism than it did then. Gandalf added that it is not for us to choose the times into which we are born, but to do what we could to repair them; but the spirit of wickedness in high places is now so powerful and so many-headed in its incarnations that there seems nothing more to do than personally to refuse to worship any of the hydras' heads.
I am wholly in favour of the "dull stodges." I had once a considerable experience of what are/were probably England's most (at least apparently) dullest and stodgiest students: Yorkshire's young men and women of sub-public school class and home backgrounds bookless and cultureless. ... A surprisingly large proportion prove "educable": for which a primary qualification is the willingness to do some work (to learn) (at any level of intelligence). Teaching is a most exhausting task. But I would rather spend myself on removing the "dull" from "stodges"—providing some products of [B to B+] quality that retain some sanity—a hopeful soil from which another generation with some higher intelligence could arise. Rather—rather than waste effort on those of (apparently at any rate) higher intelligence that have been corrupted and disintegrated by school, and the "climate" of our present days. Teaching an organized subject is simply not the instrument for their rehabilitation—if anything is.