The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien

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The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien
Tolkien Letters Cover.jpg
Dust wrapper of UK first edition
AuthorHumphrey Carpenter (editor), with Christopher Tolkien
CountryUnited Kingdom
SubjectJ. R. R. Tolkien
Tolkien's legendarium
PublisherGeorge Allen & Unwin, Houghton Mifflin
Publication date
828/.91209 B 19
LC ClassPR6039.O32 Z48 1981b
Preceded byUnfinished Tales 
Followed byMr. Bliss 

The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien is a selection of J. R. R. Tolkien's letters published in 1981, edited by Tolkien's biographer Humphrey Carpenter assisted by Christopher Tolkien. The selection contains 354 letters, dating between October 1914, when Tolkien was an undergraduate at Oxford, and 29 August 1973, four days before his death.


The letters can be roughly divided in four categories:

  1. Personal letters to Tolkien's wife Edith, to his son Christopher Tolkien and his other children,
  2. Letters about Tolkien's career as a professor of Anglo-Saxon
  3. Letters to his publishers at Allen & Unwin explaining his failing to meet deadlines and related topics
  4. Letters about Middle-earth

The last category is especially of interest to Tolkien fans, as it provides a lot of information about Middle-earth which cannot be found anywhere in the works published by Tolkien himself.


Nazi racial politics[edit]

Letters 29 and 30 show that a German translation of The Hobbit was being negotiated in 1938. The German firm enquired whether Tolkien was of Arisch (Aryan) origin. Tolkien was infuriated by this, and wrote two drafts of possible replies for his publisher to choose.[1] The first one is not present – in it Tolkien is assumed to have refused to give any declaration whatsoever of his racial origins. The second, surviving, draft included:

Thank you for your letter ... I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.

— Tolkien, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, #30 (Emphasis in original)


A former signals officer at the Battle of the Somme, Tolkien frequently expressed his great dislike for war, whatever the cause. This is evident in a great many letters which he wrote during the Second World War to his son Christopher, which often invoke a sense of gloom. Notable among these is his reaction to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, in which he refers to the bombmakers of the Manhattan Project as "lunatics" and "Babel builders".


In 1951, Tolkien hoped that Collins would publish both The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. To help persuade them that the two were "interdependent and indivisible",[2] he sent a letter to Milton Waldman of Collins, outlining the foundations and ambitions of his writings, and giving a potted history of the whole story from the creation, through the First, Second and Third Ages, and finishing with a reference to The Hobbit (already published and therefore assumed to be known) and an outline of The Lord of the Rings. The letter is #131 in this book; the outline of The Lord of the Rings is omitted for reasons of length. (That part of the letter has been published in The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion.)[3] Duriez describes the 10,000-word letter as "one of the best keys to the extraordinary legendarium".[4]

Other letters provide illumination on subjects as widely varied as the location of Middle-earth ("the actual Old World of this planet", p.220, #165), the shape of hobbits' ears ("only slightly pointed", p.35, #27) and the source of the 'Downfall of Númenor' in Tolkien's recurring dream of Atlantis (p.213, #163).[5]


  1. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R.; Carpenter, Humphrey; Tolkien, Christopher (2014). The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Editorial comments at the head of Letter 30. ISBN 978-0-61805-6-996.
  2. ^ Carpenter, Humphrey (1977), J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography, New York: Ballantine Books, p. 103, ISBN 978-0-04-928037-3
  3. ^ Hammond, Wayne G.; Scull, Christina (2005), The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion, London: HarperCollins, p. 742, ISBN 0-00-720907-X
  4. ^ Duriez, Colin (2012). J.R.R. Tolkien : the making of a legend. Oxford: Lion Books. p. 201. ISBN 9780745955148.
  5. ^ Patterson, Nancy-Lou (15 April 1982). "Reviews". Mythlore: A Journal of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Mythopoeic Literature. 9 (1): 27–28.

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