[On 5 June 1955 in the New York Times Book Review, the columnist Harvey Breit devoted part of his weekly article 'In and Out of Books' to an account of Tolkien and his writings. It included this passage: 'What, we asked Dr [sic] Tolkien, makes you tick? Dr T., who teaches at
when he isn't writing novels, has this brisk reply: Oxford
"I don't tick. I am not a machine. (If I did tick, I should have no views on it, and you had better ask the winder.) My work did not 'evolve' into a serious work. It started like that. The so-called 'children's story' [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 am a philologist, and all my work is philological. I avoid hobbies because I am a very serious person and cannot distinguish between private amusement and duty. I am affable, but unsociable. I only work for private amusement, since I find my duties privately amusing." '
These remarks were apparently taken from a letter written by Tolkien in answer to enquiries by a representative of the New York Times. On 30 June 1955, Tolkien wrote to the Houghton Mifflin Co., his American publishers: 'Please do not blame me for what Breit made of my letter!.... The original made sense: not a quality, however, of which Harvey B. seems perceptive. I was asked a series of questions, with a request to answer briefly, brightly, and quotably. .... Out of sheer pity [for another enquirer wanting information] .... I do enclose a few notes on points other than mere facts of my "curriculum vitae" (which can be got from reference books).' What follows is these 'few notes'. The text is taken from a typescript apparently made by the Houghton Mifflin Co. from Tolkien's original; this typescript was sent to a number of enquirers at different times, some of whom quoted from it in articles about Tolkien. Tolkien himself was given a copy of the typescript, and he made a number of annotations and corrections to it, which are incorporated into the text which is here printed.]
My name is TOLKIEN (not -kein). It is a German name (from
Saxony), an anglicization of Tollkiehn, i.e. tollkühn. But, except as a guide to spelling, this fact is as fallacious as all facts in the raw. For I am neither 'foolhardy' nor German, whatever some remote ancestors may have been. They migrated to more than 200 years ago, and became quickly intensely English (not British), though remaining musical – a talent that unfortunately did not descend to me. England
I am in fact far more of a Suffield (a family deriving from Evesham in Worcestershire), and it is to my mother who taught me (until I obtained a scholarship at the ancient Grammar School in
) that I owe my tastes for philology, especially of Germanic languages, and for romance. I am indeed in English terms a West-midiander at home only in the counties upon the Welsh Marches; and it is, I believe, as much due to descent as to opportunity that Anglo-Saxon and Western Middle English and alliterative verse have been both a childhood attraction and my main professional sphere. (I also find the Welsh language specially attractive. I write alliterative verse with pleasure, though I have published little beyond the fragments in The Lord of the Rings, except 'The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth' (in Essays and Studies of the English Association, 1953, London, John Murray) recently twice broadcast by the BBC: a dramatic dialogue on the nature of the 'heroic' and the 'chivalrous'. I still hope to finish a long poem on The Fall of Arthur in the same measure. Birmingham
All the same, I was born in Bloemfontein, Orange River Free State – another fallacious fact (though my earliest memories are of a hot country) since I was shipped home in 1895, and have spent most of 60 years since in Birmingham and Oxford, except for 5 or 6 years in Leeds: my first post after the 1914-18 War was in the university there. I am very untravelled, though I know
Wales, and have often been in Scotland (never north of the Tay), and know something of France, Belgium, and . I have spent a good deal of time in Ireland , and am since last July actually a D. Litt. of University College Dublin; but be it noted I first set foot in 'Eire' in 1949 after The Lord of the Rings was finished, and find both Gaelic and the air of Ireland wholly alien – though the latter (not the language) is attractive. Ireland
I might add that in October I received a degree (Doct. en Lettres et Phil.) at Liège (Belgium) – if only to record the fact that it astonished me to be welcomed in French as 'le createur de M. Bilbo Baggins' and still more to be told in explanation of applause that I was a 'set book' ?????? Alas!
If I might elucidate what H. Breit has left of my letter: the remark about 'philology' was intended to allude to what is I think a primary 'fact' about my work, that it is all of a piece, and fundamentally linguistic in inspiration. The authorities of the university might well consider it an aberration of an elderly professor of philology to write and publish fairy stories and romances, and call it a 'hobby', pardonable because it has been (surprisingly to me as much as to anyone) successful. But it is not a 'hobby', in the sense of something quite different from one's work, taken up as a relief-outlet. The invention of languages is the foundation. The 'stones' were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows. I should have preferred to write in 'Elvish'. But, of course, such a work as The Lord of the Rings has been edited and only as much 'language' has been left in as I thought would be stomached by readers. (I now find that many would have liked more.) But there is a great deal of linguistic matter (other than actually 'elvish' names and words) included or mythologically expressed in the book. It is to me, anyway, largely an essay in 'linguistic aesthetic', as I sometimes say to people who ask me 'what is it all about?'
It is not 'about' anything but itself. Certainly it has no allegorical intentions, general, particular, or topical, moral, religious, or political. The only criticism that annoyed me was one that it 'contained no religion' (and 'no Women', but that does not matter, and is not true anyway). It is a monotheistic world of 'natural theology'. The odd fact that there are no churches, temples, or religious rites and ceremonies, is simply part of the historical climate depicted. It will be sufficiently explained, if (as now seems likely) the Silmarillion and other legends of the First and Second Ages are published. I am in any case myself a Christian; but the 'Third Age' was not a Christian world.
'Middle-earth', by the way, is not a name of a never-never land without relation to the world we live in (like the Mercury of Eddison). It is just a use of Middle English middel-erde (or erthe), altered from Old English Middangeard: the name for the inhabited lands of Men 'between the seas'. And though I have not attempted to relate the shape of the mountains and land-masses to what geologists may say or surmise about the nearer past, imaginatively this 'history' is supposed to take place in a period of the actual Old World of this planet.
There are of course certain things and themes that move me specially. The inter-relations between the 'noble' and the 'simple' (or common, vulgar) for instance. The ennoblement of the ignoble I find specially moving. 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 think the so-called 'fairy story' one of the highest forms of literature, and quite erroneously associated with children (as such). But my views on that I set out in a lecture delivered at St Andrew's (on the Andrew Lang foundation, eventually published in Essays Presented to Charles Williams by Oxford University Press, as 'On Fairy Stories'). I think it is quite an important work, at least for anyone who thinks me worth considering at all; but the O.U.P. have infuriatingly let it go out of print, though it is now in demand – and my only copy has been stolen. Still it might be found in a library, or I might get hold of a copy.
If all this is obscure, wordy, and self-regarding and neither 'bright, brief, nor quotable' forgive me. Is there anything else you would like me to say?
J(ohn) R(onald) R(euel) Tolkien.
P.S. The book is not of course a 'trilogy'. That and the titles of the volumes was a fudge thought necessary for publication, owing to length and cost. There is no real division into 3, nor is any one pan intelligible alone. The story was conceived and written as a whole and the only natural divisions are the 'books' I-VI (which originally had titles).
Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
#165 to the Houghton Mifflin Co
#165 to the Houghton Mifflin Co