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Letter 96

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The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Letter 96
RecipientChristopher Tolkien
DateJanuary 30, 1945
Subject(s)Winter troubles, Eden, standards in The Lord of the Rings, interest in Christopher’s news, horrors of war

Letter 96 is a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien and published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Summary

Tolkien claimed that a minor imp of Slubgob's[notes 1] brood, assigned to keep C.S. Lewis and himself from meeting, had caused the scullery tap to leak and the sink to block up at the same time. Still, he managed to meet Lewis at the Mitre for warmth and beer, where he received a telephone call informing him that Professor H.C. Wyld[notes 2] had died. This left Tolkien with many troubles, such as thinking about who would succeed him.

That night it had snowed and Tolkien had to dig things out before going to lecture. He had arrived late attired like a Skegness fisherman and said he had been catching sardines, and told his son that his apology had been better received that the lecture. In the afternoon he had dealt with indescribable ice and slush and had been drenched in fountains of filthy squelch. However later he could settle down with Christopher's delightful letters.

Considering Eden, Tolkien thought that most Christians (except for the very simple and uneducated) had tucked Genesis into a lumber-room of their mind as not very fashionable furniture. What had been forgotten was the beauty of the matter "as a story". Lewis had written an essay about the great value of the story as mental nourishment. It was a defense of the fainthearted that loses faith but clings to the beauty of "the story" as having permanent value. Lewis' point was that they still get some nourishment and are not wholly cut off from the sap of life. A believer is meant to draw nourishment from the beauty as well as the truth. Tolkien said that he was not ashamed or dubious on the Eden "myth". While without the historicity of the New Testament there certainly had been an Eden on this unhappy earth. Christopher's horror of the stupid murder of a hawk and his memory of home in an idyllic hour derived from Eden. Tolkien believed that there would be a "millennium", the thousand-year rule of the Saints, those who had never bowed to the world or the evil spirit (which in modern terms included mechanism, "scientific" materialism, and Socialism).

Tolkien was happy that his son felt that "the Ring" was keeping up its standard. The difficult thing in a long tale was to maintain a difference of quality and atmosphere in events that might have become "samey". Tolkien was most moved by Sam's disquisition of the seamless web of story, Frodo's sleeping on his breast, and Gollum's tragic almost-repentance. The emotion that moved him supremely (and that he found easy to evoke) was the heart-racking sense of the vanished past. The more “ordinary” emotions – triumph, pathos, tragedy – he was learning to write as he got to know his people. There were not so near to his heart and were forced on him by the literary dilemma.

All the details of Christopher's life were interesting to Tolkien, all that he saw and did and suffered. In the last category was Jive and Boogie-Woogie, vulgar music corrupted by the mechanism, echoing in dreary unnourished heads. But his son would remember the other things – storms, the dry veld, and even the smells of camp.

The just-received news that the Russians were 60 miles from Berlin made it look as if something decisive would happen soon. Tolkien mourned the appalling destruction and misery, the destroying of the common wealth of Europe. People were gloating to hear of endless line of miserable refugees, dying on the way. There seemed to be no mercy or compassion left. Why gloat? Germany's destruction, even if 100 times merited, was a world-catastrophe. The first War of the Machines seemed to be ending with the victors being the Machines. What would be their next move?

Notes

  1. In C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, Slubgob was the head of the Training College for tempter devils in hell.
  2. The Oxford Professor for English Language and Literature