The Letters of JRR Tolkien Is a fascinating collection spanning more than fifty years, containing both whole letters, and extracts detailing his personal and professional correspondence on a wide variety of matters, giving a uneven but honest insight into Tolkien’s personal life. It will be of great interest to fans of his work wishing to gain more of an understanding into the why’s and how’s of their idol’s life, and provides an insight into how he shaped Middle Earth over the decades. Tolkien clearly found Letter Writing was an enjoyable pastime, this collection should prove just as rewarding for the right reader.
Edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the Assistance of Tolkien’s Son Christopher it is a weighty volume numbering 502 pages, yet is largely an easy to follow read, the letters are arranged by year and a detailed index (newly updated for this edition) proves very helpful. However It may prove frustrating for some readers, the book demands a fairly detailed knowledge of Middle Earth, and at least some understanding of British Geography and History, the letters aren’t arranged in subject order, so additional tools of reference may be needed for the casual Tolkien fan.
The editors largely shy away from commentary, with only a series of short footnotes, and occasional introductions to letters, both largely dealing with background facts such as page references and dates. Tolkien is left to speak for himself; fortunately his skills as a writer, and humour shine through making even mundane business letters (generally) rewarding reading. Some readers may find the lack of insight from Tolkien’s son a surprise- he did after all edit the Silmarillion, and assemble Unfinished Tales, but a commentary would be unnecessarily intrusive, this isn’t a work of fiction, finishing a piece of work for his father is one thing, but to try and pick apart his personal thoughts would be detrimental to the book, it is a honest insight of Tolkien’s personal life which is told through his own words.
The earliest letters date from the mid 1910’s shortly after the outbreak of World War One. It makes for rather strange reading, linking the young man with the old professor that would go on to write Lord of The Rings. This is the shortest part of the book, only a few letters written before the mid-thirties are still in existence, and many weren’t selected for inclusion in this book, but those few that do make very interesting reading and provide a good introduction to Tolkien’s approach to correspondence.
A large proportion of the letters concern The Lord of The Rings, and the troubles Tolkien encountered writing it, this was the most detailed. Written and rewritten for a period of 15 years, it was a novel that changed extensively, during the course of this process Tolkien often wrote to his son Christopher. His worries and ideas are shown over a period of many months, giving a fascinating insight into how the novel changed, and a somewhat revealing portrait of his relationship with his son. This was a portion of the book that revealed a lot of interesting trivia: how and why Frodo was chosen as the protagonist, the rather random entry of Faramir, and the fact that for a long time it was to be Five Books, not Six, much of this was later to be repeated in the series History of Middle Earth, but it remains interesting reading all the same. Some readers may find such trivia a little dry and rather pointless reading, but this was not intended to be a universally loved book.
Tolkien often corresponded with fans eager for advice, or answers to questions, many of the replies he sent are included- some are funny, some insightful, and some show a somewhat annoyed author, it makes for humorous, rewarding reading, showing how baffled Tolkien was by his celebrity status. Some of the replies answered questions- Who were the Missing Two Wizards out of the Five named? Did Frodo die after leaving the Havens? Did Shadowfax leave with Gandalf?, to name only a few, it is very rewarding reading for fans of his work, but make no mistake this is largely a book concerned with the how’s and why’s of his work and life.
This book does however have several issues. The abundance of letters in this book covers vast areas of Tolkien’s Personal and Professional life, yet there still feels like there is repetition, several of the letters repeat information in a slightly different context or date, and some are so brief they don’t merit inclusion, in short a tighter edit could have done the book favours.
Some readers: casual fans of Tolkien’s, or entirely new to his work probably won’t get much reward from reading this book; it is quite long, with no particular theme or context guiding the letters. Tolkien demonstrates his long winded, technical use of the English language (a criticism of The Lord of The Rings- it was simply too complicated) on a regular basis, which may leave some readers confused, or plain bored. But for those who can look past these flaws, or choose to pretend that they aren’t, this will prove an enjoyable read, essential for the serious Tolkien fan. In the introduction Humphrey Carpenter hints at a possible second edition…