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Letter 199

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The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Letter 199
RecipientCaroline Everett
Date24 June 1957
Subject(s)Some biographical details, writing The Lord of the Rings

Letter 199 is a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien and published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

[edit] Summary

Tolkien was both complemented and sorry to be the subject of Everett's thesis. He was disinclined to offer any biographical details since he doubted its relevance to criticism. The only valid biography would be one complete in both interior and exterior details, which only he could write and which he did not intend to do.

His chief biographical fact was the completion of The Lord of the Rings. He was astonished that he finished it since he was notoriously a beginner and non-finisher. He supposed that the only way he managed was because the narrative had visions of most things he most loved or hated.

Tolkien did not go to any residential "public" school; he attended a great "grammar school" so his experience had nothing in common with that of C.S. Lewis. He ended up a perfectly respectable and tolerably successful senior. He had not disliked games but he found cricket a bore because he was not good at it.

Tolkien had not published any other short story but Leaf by Niggle, which had arisen suddenly and had been written almost in one sitting. Besides tree-love (its original title was The Tree) he had written it when preoccupied by The Lord of the Rings, which would either be finished in great detail or not at all.

Tolkien had read the works of E.R. Eddison and once met him. He found Eddison's works enjoyable for sheer literary merit. However, he disliked his characters (except Lord Gro). Eddison thought what Tolkien admired was "soft" (a complete comdemnation). Tolkien believed that Eddison was corrupted by an evil and silly "philosophy" which led him to admire arrogance and cruelty. Tolkien called his nomenclature slipshod and inept, yet he still thought of Eddison as the greatest and most convincing writer of "invented worlds"—but he was certainly not an "influence".

The general idea of The Lord of the Rings was in mind from the 1930s. He made rough sketches or synopses that were seldom much use; the story unfolded itself as he wrote. He had kept a calendar with dates and brief statements of what all major actors or groups were doing each day. The last volume was the most difficult; having many "narrative debts" and awkward problems of drawing together separate threads. A chief problem was how to bring up Aragorn to raise the Siege yet explain what he had been doing. Putting it in the proper place would have destroyed the action. Putting it in retrospect made it out of date and slowed the action later. The imperfect solution was to shrink the whole episode and tell it briefly in the pause after the Battle of the Pelennor.

Tolkien had been longest held up at the point of the last words of Book III[notes 1]. After that Chapter 1 of Book V[notes 2] long remained a mere opening. Chapter 2 did not exist; Chapter 3[notes 3] got no further than the arrival at Harrowdale. He only had written Sam's opening words for Chapter 1 of Book IV.[notes 4] Some parts of Frodo and Sam's adventures near and in Mordor had been written but eventually were abandoned.

  1. The Two Towers, "The Palantír"
  2. The Return of the King, "Minas Tirith"
  3. The Return of the King, "The Muster of Rohan"
  4. The Two Towers, "The Taming of Sméagol"