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Letter 15

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The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Letter 15
RecipientAllen & Unwin
Date31 August 1937
Subject(s)The Hobbit

Letter 15 is a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien and published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Summary

Tolkien enclosed the last of his coloured illustrations for the American edition of The Hobbit (The Hill: Hobbiton-across-the-Water, intended as the frontispiece). He asked Allen & Unwin to forward it to Houghton Mifflin, if found acceptable, and also to "make it finally clear to them" that the first three illustrations he sent were samples not intended for publication. Tolkien, who was having difficulties financially due to medical expenses[note 1], brought up the question of remuneration for his work as illustrator. He pointed out that while Allen & Unwin have been very accommodating and so he was happy to do illustrations for them gratis, Houghton Mifflin "have given a lot of unnecessary trouble" and would have to pay American illustrators if they chose to take that route. Such was his situation that "even a very small fee would be a blessing", but Tolkien was hopeful that the publication of The Hobbit would prove successful enough to rescue him – he had recently received testimonials from Professors George Gordon and R.W. Chambers and the editor of Oxford Magazine which "promise moderately well".

In a lengthy postscript Tolkien offered 'commentary' on the biographical words Allen & Unwin had placed on The Hobbit's jacket flap. While recognising it was only of minor concern, he nevertheless felt compelled to correct some factual errors, and hoped Allen & Unwin would take it with good humour. The passages in question are:

  • "The Hobbit ... was read aloud to them in nursery days"—Tolkien felt this implies the book is aimed at a younger age than it is. He said that while at thirteen his eldest boy enjoyed it, the younger children did not.
  • "The manuscript ... was lent to friends in Oxford and read to their children"—Tolkien explained that only one child had read the manuscript before Unwin, none had had it read to them and that "strictly it was forced on the friends by me" rather than lent.
  • "The birth of The Hobbit recalls very strongly that of Alice in Wonderland. Here again a professor of an abstruse subject is at play."—while conceding that Philology may be considered as 'abstruse' as mathematics (the subject of Alice in Wonderland's author Lewis Carroll/Charles Dodgson), Tolkien argued Old English literature was far more relevant. In any case he thought that neither subject was substantially present in The Hobbit. Philology was only referenced in the one passage in Chapter 12:
    To say that Bilbo's breath was taken away is no description at all. There are no words left to express his staggerment, since Men changed the language that they learned of elves in the days when all the world was wonderful.
    J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, "Inside Information"
    This was apparently a reference to the Barfield's Poetic Diction (1928), a work of linguistic philosophy linking the development of language to mythology. Icelandic and Old English, Tolkien explained, are slightly more present (in the use of Anglo-Saxon runes and the names of Thorin's company being taken from the Norse Poetic Edda) but these were only reluctantly substituted "for the genuine alphabets and names of the mythology into which Mr Baggins intrudes". He explained how utilising his "unpublished inventions" was intended to give the narrative of The Hobbit "reality" and a "northern atmosphere", but warned against the jacket flap text implying these elements come from real mythology and "old books".
  • "...a professor of an abstruse subject us at play"—finally Tolkien joked "a professor at play rather suggests an elephant in its bath". He suggested the word 'student' instead.

Notes

  1. At the time Britain's National Health Service was still a decade away and the preceding system under the National Insurance Act 1911 had no provision for persons in Tolkien's income bracket.