Tolkien Gateway

Letter 131

Revision as of 21:42, 21 December 2011 by Morgan (Talk | contribs)
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Letter 131
RecipientMilton Waldman
DateLate 1951
Subject(s)The Lord of the Rings, publication

Letter 131 is a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien and published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.



Allen & Unwin, under pressure from Tolkien to make up their minds, reluctantly declined to publish The Lord of the Rings together with The Silmarillion. Tolkien was confident that Milton Waldman of Collins (= William Collins, Sons and Co Ltd.) would shortly issue both books under his firm's imprint. In the spring of 1950, Waldman told Tolkien that he hoped to begin typesetting the following autumn. But there were delays, largely caused by Waldman's frequent absences in Italy and his bad health. By the latter part of 1951 no definite arrangements for publication had yet been made, and Collins were becoming anxious about the combined length of both books. Apparently at Waldman's suggestion Tolkien wrote the following letter – of which the full text is some ten thousand words long – with the intention of demonstrating that The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion were interdependent and indivisible. The letter, which interested Waldman so much that he had a typed copy made (see the end of no. 137), was not dated, but was probably written late in 1951.

Tolkien's Introductory Comments

Tolkien noted that Waldman had asked for a brief sketch of his imaginary world. He said it was difficult to say anything without saying too much: the attempt opened a floodgate of excitement. The egoist and artist desired to unfold how it all had grown, what it was like, and what he was trying to mean or represent. He would inflict some of this upon Waldman but then append a mere resumé of its contents.

There was never a time, said Tolkien, when he was not building his world. Many children make up imaginary languages but he had never stopped. As a professional philologist he had changed in taste, and improved in theory and craft. A nexus of languages was behind his stories and to his Elves were assigned two related languages that had their own history and a scientifically deduced common origin. From these languages came names appearing in his legend, endowed with consistent linguistic style and an illusion of historicity, lacking in comparable works by others.

However, an equal passion was for myth and fairy-story; above all heroic legend on the brink of fairy-tale and history. These were not divergent interests – opposite poles of science and romance – but integrally related, and he had always sought material with a certain tone and air about it. He was also grieved from early on by the poverty of England, which has no stories bound up with its tongue and soil, such as found in Greek, Celtic, Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish.

The Arthurian world was powerful but imperfectly naturalized. Its "faerie" was too lavish, fantastic, incoherent, and repetitive. More importantly, it involved and explicitly contained the Christian religion. That seemed fatal. Myth and fairy-story must reflect and contain parts of moral and religious truth or error, but not explicitly as in the real world.

Long ago it was Tolkien's quest to create a body of legend, ranging from the cosmogonic to the level of romantic fairy-story. The larger would rest upon the lesser, in contact with the earth, while the lesser drew upon the splendour of the vast backcloths. It would be dedicated to England. Its tone and quality, cool and clear, would be redolent of the clime and soil of the North West, Britain and the hither parts of Europe. It would possess the fair elusive beauty some called Celtic, be "high", fit for adult minds of a land steeped in poetry. He would tell some tales in full while leaving others as sketches, but linked to a majestic whole for other minds to elaborate. "Absurd", concluded Tolkien.

This purpose did not develop all at once. Initially the mere stories were the thing, but as they came the links developed. Much interrupted (especially by linguistics), he always had a sense of records what was already "there" rather than inventing.

There were other unrelated works over time (especially for his children). The only two printed that had escaped the grasp of his theme were Leaf by Niggle and Farmer Giles. The Hobbit was independently conceived. When he began it he did not know that it belonged, but it proved to be the discovery of the whole with its mode of descent to earth and merging with history. The early high Legends are supposed to be from an Elvish view, the middle tale of The Hobbit has a virtually human view, and the last tale blends them.

Although Tolkien disliked Allegory, allegorical language was necessary to explain myth or fairytale. The more "life" a story has the more it may be interpreted allegorically while the best allegory will be acceptable as a story. What his stuff was concerned about was the Fall, Mortality, and the Machine. The Fall was inevitable and appeared in several modes. Mortality was entangled with the desire for creativity, which was apart and often at strife with plain ordinary biological living. This desire was wedded to a passionate love of the real world and thus tied to a sense of mortality and unsatisfied by it. This generated opportunities of "Fall". A sub-creator may become possessive, challenging God as the lord of his "private creation". Or, one may rebel against God's laws, especially regarding mortality. Either or both lead to the desire of Power to make the will more effective and to the Machine (or Magic). The Machine was the use of external plans or devices instead of the developing inner powers or talents.

Tolkien's "magic" was not consistent. Galadriel remonstrated the Hobbits for confusing the Enemy's devices and operations with those of the Elves. Elves practiced Art, shorn of many human limitations. Its object was not Power, seeking the domination and tyrannical re-forming of Creation. The "immortal" Elves bore the burden and grief of deathlessness in time and change. The Enemy in successive forms was concerned with sheer Domination, and thus the Lord of magic and machines. But a recurrent motive was evil's good root, the desire to be beneficial, but speedily and according to the benefactor's own plans.

Summary of The Silmarillion

The cycles started with a cosmogonical myth: the Music of the Ainur. God and the Valar were revealed. Tolkien specified the nature of these angelic Powers, who had authority within their spheres but not the power of creation. Their power derived from their Knowledge of what was at first a drama and then made into reality. As a narrative device they serve as the "gods" of higher mythology, yet in a way acceptable to a mind that believes in the Blessed Trinity.

Swiftly came the History of the Elves or The Silmarillion proper: Our world, but still in half-mythical mode, with rational incarnates comparable to our stature. The Knowledge of the Creation Drama was incomplete, individually and even if the entire pantheon's knowledge was pooled. The Children of God were the two chief secrets and all that the Valar knew was that they would come at appointed times. They were akin to the gods but wholly other, and became objects of special love and desire to them. They were the First-born (Elves) and the Followers (Men). The immortal Elves were doomed to love the beauty of the world, bringing to it their talents of delicacy and perfection, lasting as long as it lasts (if slain they return). Yet when Men arrived they were to teach them and "fade", for Men would absorb the life from which both proceeded. Men were free from the circles of the world. Being from the Elvish point of view, mortality was not explained. It was a mystery of God and a grief and envy to the immortal Elves.

The Silmarillion was peculiar, differing from all similar things in not being anthropocentric but Elf-centered. Men inevitably arrived since the author is a man, the audience are Men, and Men must come into our tales. Yet they remained peripheral if of growing importance.

Tolkien said that his cosmogony had a fall of Angels, very different from Christian myth. While his tales were "new" they contained large amounts of ancient wide-spread motives or elements. Tolkien believed that legends and myths were made of "truth" and some aspects could only be presented that way. All stories, at least from human minds, must have a "Fall". Thus the Elves had a fall (the fall of Man does not appear and by the time they come on stage it is long past). The main body of the Silmarillion told of the fall of the most gifted kindred of the Elves, their exile from Valinor, the home of the gods, their reentry into Middle-earth, and their strife with the Enemy (the power of Evil visibly incarnate).

The name Silmarillion derived from the thread of the stories, the fate and significance of the Silmarilli or Primeval Jewels. They were the chief symbol of the sub-creative function or art of the Elves. More than that, they contained the Light of Valinor from the Two Trees. Here Tolkien interjected the comment that Light is such a primeval symbol that it could hardly be analysed. The Enemy slew the Trees out of malice and Valinor was darkened, though before they utterly died the light of the sun and moon were drawn from them. (Here was another difference, noted Tolkien, in his legends: The sun was not a divine symbol but a second-best thing and the "light of the sun" was a term for a fallen world).

The chief artificer of the Elves, Fëanor, had imprisoned the Light of Valinor in the Silmarilli before the death of the Trees, so they alone preserved this Light. The Elves fell because of the possessive attitude of Fëanor and his sons toward the gems. They were captured by the Enemy and the sons of Fëanor swore blasphemous enmity and vengeance against any, even the gods, who dared claim any part or right in the Silmarilli. The sons led most of their kindred into hopeless war upon the Enemy. The first fruit of their fall was war in Paradise, the killing of fellow Elves. This sin and their oath dogged all later heroism and undid all victories. The Silmarillion recorded the War of the Exiled Elves against the Enemy in the North-west of Middle-earth. After several tales of victory and tragedy there was final catastrophe, ending the Ancient World and its First Age. The jewels were lost forever to the Elves and the world was broken and remade.

As the mythology diminished and the stories became more like romance, Men were interwoven. Most were "good Men" who came West following rumours of gods and High Elves, rejecting service to the Enemy and joining the war of the Exiled Elves. The contact of Men and Elves foreshadowed the history of later Ages, and a recurrent theme was that in Men (as they are now) there is a strand of "blood" and inheritance derived from the Elves. The art and poetry of Men depended largely upon it. Two marriages occurred between mortal and elf which coalesced in the line of Earendil, represented by Elrond the Half-elven who appears in all the stories, even The Hobbit. The chief story of the Silmarillion was the Story of Beren and Lúthien the Elfmaiden (a reduced version of a long poem by Tolkien). Here was the first example (becoming dominant in Hobbits) that great policies of world history were often turned not by the great but the seemingly unknown and weak, owing to the secret life in creation inserted by God into the Drama. Beren the outlawed mortal and Lúthien a mere maiden (even if of royalty) succeeded where all armies and warriors had failed; they recovered one of the Silmarilli, which led to the first marriage of mortal and immortal.

Tolkien said that this story, a heroic-fairy-romance, could stand by itself with only a vague knowledge of the background. However, it was a fundamental link in the cycle. The capture of a Silmaril led to disaster, provoking the oaths of the sons of Fëanor and the end of all Elven kingdoms.

Other stories were almost equal in treatment, likewise independent yet linked to the general history. The Children of Húrin covered the tragic tale of Túrin Turambar and his sister Níniel. There was The Fall of Gondolin, the chief Elvish stronghold. There was the tale of Earendil the Wanderer, who brought the Silmarillion to an end and provided in his offspring the links to persons and tales of later Ages. He functioned as an ambassador of both Elves and Men to the gods, to rescue the world from the Enemy. His wife Elwing, possessing a Silmaril, fled from the sons of Fëanor and brought it to Earendil. This is the key that allowed them to pass into Valinor and accomplish their errand, yet at the cost of never returning to Middle-earth. The gods came, destroyed the stronghold of the Enemy, and cast him into the Void. The last two Silmarils were taken from the enemy but stolen by the last two sons of Fëanor, who destroyed them in the sea and pits of the earth. Earendil and his ship, adorned with the last Silmaril, became the brightest star in heaven. Thus ended The Silmarillion and the First Age.

Summary of the Second Age

The next cycle dealt with the Second Age, a dark age on Earth and not very much of its history needed telling. We learn that the Exiled Elves were sternly counseled to return to the West, to be at peace but not in Valinor. They were to dwell in the Lonely Isle of Eressëa within sight of the Blessed Realm. The Men of the Three Houses were rewarded with a western "Atlantis" called Númenóre.[notes 1] The gods could not abrogate the doom or gift of mortality, but the Númenóreans had a great lifespan. The Men that sailed to Númenor established a great kingdom within furthest sight of Eressëa (but not Valinor). Most High Elves departed for the West. Other elves and men dwelt in Middle-earth. Some Exiles who stayed delayed their return although the way west was ever open to immortals. The Orcs and other monsters bred by the First Enemy were not wholly destroyed.

Then there was Sauron, chief captain and servant of the Enemy. He repented in fear, but avoided the judgement of the gods. Lingering in Middle-earth, he started with fair motives to reorganise and rehabilitate the ruin of Middle-earth, "neglected by the gods", but became the reincarnation of Evil, lusting for complete Power. All through the Second Age the Shadow grew in the East over more and more Men, who multiplied as the Elves faded. There were three themes: Delaying Elves in Middle-earth, Sauron's growth, and Númenor/Atlantis. The Second Age was revealed through annals and two Tales: The Rings of Power and the Downfall of Númenor, both essential background for The Hobbit and its sequel.

The Rings of Power told of a second Elvish fall, or at least error. The lingering Elves wanted the peace, bliss, and perfect memory of the West while remaining on the ordinary earth. They wanted to have the prestige of being the highest people, above lesser Elves, Men, and Dwarves, rather than the bottommost position of the hierarchy of Valinor. They became obsessed with "fading", sad, and their arts turned to a kind of embalming, although they retained the old motive of adorning the earth and healing its hurts. Lingering kingdoms remain: The remnant of the old lands of The Silmarillion under Gilgalad, Imladris under Elrond, and Eregion adjacent to Moria. In this third kingdom arose a friendship between the Elves and Dwarves, and smithcraft reached its highest development. But many Elves listened to Sauron, still fair, and still partly in alignment with the Elves, seeking the healing of desolate lands. Actually Sauron exploited the Elves' weak spot. Helping one another they could make Western Middle-earth as beautiful as Valinor, he claimed, but really it was a veiled attack on the gods. Gilgalad and Elrond repulsed his overtures, but in Eregion the Elves came nearest to succumbing to "magic" and machinery. Together with Sauron they made the Rings of Power.

The chief power of all the rings was the prevention or slowing of decay (change viewed as negative); an Elvish motive. But they also enhanced the natural powers of the possessor, approaching "magic" and leading to a lust for domination. And they had other powers, such as invisibility and making the invisible world visible. The Three Rings of the Elves were beautiful and powerful, directed to preserving beauty and did not confer invisibility. But in secret Sauron made the One Ring, the Ruling Ring that contained all the others' powers and controlled them, making their owners' thoughts known, governing what they did, and eventually enslaving them. But the Elves became aware of his plan and hid the Three Rings, and tried to destroy the others.

Middle-earth was further ruined in the resulting war. Eregion was destroyed, Sauron seized many Rings of Power, and gave them to those greedy or ambitious enough to accept them (to their enslavement). Sauron was then almost supreme in Middle-earth. Gilgalad clung to the edge of western lands and Elrond kept Imladris as a sanctuary, but Sauron dominated the hordes of Men that had no contact with the Elves. He ruled a growing empire from Barad-dûr in Mordor.

To achieve the dominion he had, Sauron was obliged to lodge much of his own inherent power into the One Ring.[notes 2] On his finger it enhanced his power. But even unworn that power existed, remained aligned with him, and he could not be diminished, unless another seized it and became possessed by it. A new possessor could, if sufficient strong and heroic, challenge Sauron, overthrow him, and usurp his place. This essential weakness he introduced into his situation in his largely unsuccessful effort to enslave the Elves, and to control the minds and wills of his servants. Another weakness was that if the One Ring was actually unmade its power would dissolve, and Sauron would be reduced to a shadow, a mere memory of malicious will. However, he never contemplated nor feared that outcome, for the Ring was unbreakable by any less than him, and indissoluble save in the undying subterranean fire in the unapproachable Mordor. Also any possessor would be mastered by a lust for the Ring, such that that person could not injure it, cast it away, or neglect it.

Meanwhile, Númenor had grown powerful under a line of great kings, descended from Elros, Elrond's brother. The Downfall of Númenor, the Second Fall of Men, was the catastrophic end of the Second Age and the Old World (flat and bounded). The Third Age was a Twilight Age and the first of the broken world; the last of the lingering, fully incarnate Elves, and the last in which Evil had a single dominant incarnate shape. The Downfall was partly due to an inner weakness in Men, where in reward on earth is more dangerous for men than punishment. The Fall was achieved by Sauron's cunning in exploiting this weakness whose central theme is a Ban or Prohibition.

The Númenóreans dwelt within far sight of Eressëa and communicated with Elves from the island or from Gilgalad's kingdom. They became hardly distinguishable from the Elves except in their mortality. They had been rewarded with a triple lifespan and that reward was their undoing, for while aiding their achievements it also bred a possessive attitude and a desire for more time for their enjoyment. Foreseeing this the gods laid a Ban on the Númenóreans to never travel westward out of sight of their own land, lest they became enamoured of immortality forbidden and unendurable to their nature.

At first the Númenóreans acquiesced freely and willingly. Then they obeyed unwillingly for long, murmuring more and more against the Ban. Lastly they rebelled, with most backing the King and only a few remaining faithful in a persecuted minority.

In the first stage their courage was devoted to sea-voyages, becoming the supreme mariners sailing everywhere but the West. Coming to Middle-earth they assisted Elves and Men against Sauron and incurred his hatred. The Wild Men looked upon the Númenóreans as almost divine benefactors from out of the sunset.

In the second stage, the grudging of the Ban, the Númenóreans sought wealth rather than bliss. The desire to escape death produced a cult of the dead, with wealth and art lavished on tombs. Settlements on the west-shores became strongholds and factories for the seeking of riches. They began the forging of arms.

The third phase began with the ascent of the thirteenth[notes 3] king, Tar-Calion. Hearing that Sauron had taken the title of King of Kings and Lord of the World he led an armada to put down the "pretender". His power was so vast that Sauron's servants fled, Sauron humbled himself, and he was taken prisoner. He quickly gained sway over the king and seduced him and most people with his lies. He denied the existence of God, calling it an invention of the jealous Valar. The chief of the gods dwelt in the Void, who would conquer in the end and make endless realms there for his servants. The Ban was only to restrain the Kings of Men from seizing everlasting life.

A new religion arose under Sauron. The Faithful were persecuted and sacrificed. The evil traveled to Middle-earth where the Númenóreans became cruel and wicked lords of necromancy. This did not happen in the North West due to the Elves where only the Faithful, the Elf-friends went.

Sauron's plot came to fulfillment when Tar-Calion grew old and felt death approaching. Listening to Sauron he built the greatest of armadas and sailed into the West, breaking the Ban, and sought with war to wrest immortality from the gods. Facing this appalling folly and blasphemy and real peril (since Sauron-directed Númenóreans could have devastated Valinor) the Valar appealed to God. The old world was broken and changed. A chasm opened in the sea swallowed Tar-calion, his armada, and Númenor. Valinor and Eressëa were removed. Men may now sail west but will only circle the now-round earth for the Blessed Realm was removed. Only the lingering Elves may sail the "straight way" to the ancient True West.

But the Second Age was not quite concluded. The survivors, Elendil, chief of the Faithful, and his sons Isildur and Anárion escaped in ships that were kept manned and furnished off the east coast of Númenor. As exiles they came to Middle-earth and established the Númenórean kingdoms of Arnor in the north near Gilgalad and Gondor in the south near the mouth of the Anduin. Sauron, being immortal, also escaped to Mordor and after a while he challenged the exiles. A last alliance of Elves and Men besieged Mordor. Sauron was overthrown, but at great cost and with a disastrous mistake. Gilgalad and Elendil were slain in the act of slaying Sauron. Isildur cut the ring from Sauron's hand and his spirit fled into the shadows. But the evil began to work and Isildur claimed the Ring as his own, refusing to cast it into the Fire nearby. He left but drowned in the Great River and the Ring was lost. But it was not unmade and the Dark Tower still stood.

Summary of the Third Age

The Third Age was concerned with the Ring. The Dark Lord was dethroned but his monsters still existed, and the slaves of the Rings endured as shadows among the shadows. Mordor was empty and a watch was kept. The Elves still had hidden refuges. Arnor was ruled by descendants of Isildur while Gondor was ruled by kings of the line of Anárion. To the East and South were wild or evil men, alike only in hatred of the West, derived from Sauron. The Ring was lost, so the Three Rings of the Elves, wielded by secret guardians, preserved the memory of the beauty of old in enchanted enclaves of peace where time seemed to stand still.

But Arnor dwindled, was broken into petty princedoms, and vanished. The remaining Númenóreans became a hidden wandering folk. The true line of Isildur's heirs never failed but that was only known in the House of Elrond. Gondor rose to a peak of power, recalling Númenor, but fading to a decayed Middle Age, like an impotent Byzantium. The watch upon Mordor relaxed, the pressure from East and South increased. The line of kings failed and the last city of Gondor, Minas Tirith was ruled by hereditary Stewards. The Riders of Rohan became permanent allies and lived in the unpeopled northern part of Gondor. Greenwood the Great, east of the upper Anduin, acquired a shadow and became Mirkwood; deep within the forest is a sorcerer called the Necromancer.

At this point Hobbits appeared. Their origin was unknown for they escaped the notice of the great and those who kept records (they kept none themselves). In a side note Tolkien explained that they were really a branch of the human race and thus could easily dwell together at Bree. They were small (half human stature) and exhibited the smallness or pettiness of man, yet retained the amazing and unexpected heroism of ordinary men "at a pinch".

The Hobbits set up their Shire during the fading of the Kingdom of Arnor. By the time of Bilbo the King has long vanished. The Hobbit was set in the year 2941 of the Third Age when Bilbo started on his "adventure". In that story the hobbit-situation was not explained but taken for granted; what little was revealed was in the form of casual allusion. The whole "world-history" outlined above is in mind and alluded to occasionally. Elrond was an important character but little revealed. There were allusions to the history of the Elves, the fall of Gondolin, and so on. The shadows and evil of Mirkwood, in diminished "fairy-story" mode, were major parts of the adventure. The only point where "world-politics" appeared was when Gandalf the Wizard was called away on high business, an attempt to deal with the Necromancer. This left the Hobbit without his help or advice, forcing him to stand on his own and become heroic.

Tolkien explained to Waldman that the place or nature of "Wizards" was never made explicit. Their name was related to "Wise" and distinguished them from sorcerer or magician. Finally it appears that they were equivalent to guardian Angels. They were meant to encourage the enemies of evil.

The generally different tone and style of The Hobbit, said Tolkien, was due to its genesis as a "fairy-story" for children (but even on that basis a mistake). But he did not wish to change much. In effect it is a study of a simple ordinary man - not artistic, noble, or heroic - but capable of such things. As a critic had noted, the tone and style changed from fairy-tale to noble and high and back to fairy-tale upon Bilbo's return.

The Quest of the Dragon-gold, while the main theme of The Hobbit, was but peripheral to the general cycle. But along the way the Hobbit, by seeming "accident", acquired a "magic ring". Its only immediately obvious power was invisibility. Though accidental and not part of the plan for the quest, the ring proved essential to success. The Hobbit returned with enlarged vision and wisdom and kept the ring as a personal secret.

The sequel, The Lord of the Rings, was the largest and hopefully the best story of the entire cycle. It included and wound up all the preceding elements and motives: elves, dwarves, the Kings of Men, heroic horsemen, orcs, demons, Ring-servants, and the vast horror of the Dark Throne. It ranged from the colloquialism and vulgarity of Hobbits to poetry and the highest style of prose. The last incarnation of Evil was overthrown with the unmaking of the Ring, the final departure of the Elves occurred, and the true King returned in majesty. He took over the Dominion of Men, inherited all that could be transmitted of Elfdom, as well as the heritage of Númenor.

The earliest tales, concerning myth and legend, were seen through Elvish eyes. This last tale is seen through Hobbit eyes, anthropocentric. But not through Men because of the recurrent theme: the place in "world-politics" of the unforeseen acts of will and virtue of the small, ungreat, and forgotten. Without the high and noble the simple and vulgar is utterly mean; without the simple and ordinary the noble and heroic is meaningless.

Describing The Lord of the Rings was impossible in a paragraph or two. Begun in 1936[notes 4] it had been rewritten many times and all parts had been laboriously pondered (which was perhaps not a recommendation). The point was that Tolkien said he could not substantially alter it, it must stand or fall practically as it was.

At this point in the letter a summary of The Lord of the Rings was written with no comments.

Although long, the summary of The Lord of the Rings was a bald resumé. He had not mentioned the Ents. Love-stories were in the tale, wholly absent from The Hobbit. But the highest love-story, of Aragorn and Arwen was only alluded to. The "rustic" love of Sam and his Rosie is absolutely essential to the study of the chief hero's character, and to the relationship of ordinary life to quests, sacrifice, and causes.

But, said Tolkien, he would say no more. Not much could be done to make The Lord of the Rings publishable if it was not so now. The Hobbit had been revised to clarify Gollum's character and relationship to the Ring, which enabled Tolkien to shorten "The Shadow of the Past". If material from The Silmarillion were published then background explanation, such as in "The Council of Elrond" could be cut.

As a last note Tolkien wondered if Waldman would ever read this letter.

Publication history

In The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, the part summarizing The Lord of the Rings has been omitted. This part was published and commented upon in Scull and Hammond's The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion, pages 742-749. The letter as published originally, summarizing The Silmarillion, is also reprinted in the second edition of the book, pages x-xxix.


  1. Tolkien said that C.S. Lewis derived his Numinor from him (and could not be restrained from using it).
  2. A frequent significant motive in myth and fairy-story, said Tolkien.
  3. Later changed to the twenty-fifth.
  4. Christopher Tolkien said that other letters showed that his father began writing the story in December, 1937.