“Christmas cards in general and the whole vast commercial drive called ‘Xmas’ are one of my pet abominations: I wish they could die away and leave the Christian feast unentangled. Not of course that even secular festivities are, on their own level, an evil: but the laboured and organised jollity of this – the spurious childlikeness – the half-hearted and sometimes rather profane attempts to keep us some superficial connection with the Nativity – are disgusting.”
Collected Letters, Volume III, page 686
21 Nov 63
Dear Philip Thompson,
To begin with, may I congratulate you on writing such a remarkably good letter; I certainly could not have written it at your age. And to go on with, thank you for telling me that you like my books, a thing an author is always pleased to hear. It is a funny thing that all the children who have written to me see at once who Aslan is, and grown ups never do!
I have’nt (sic) myself read the Puffin reprint you refer to, so of course missed the fault; but I will call the publisher’s attention to it.
Please tell your father and mother how glad I am to hear that they find my serious books of some value.
With all best wishes to you and to them,
Jack died at around 5:34pm the day after this letter was written: Friday, 22nd November 1963. Warnie’s remembrance of the day, “... at five-thirty I heard a crash and ran in, to find him lying unconscious at the foot of the bed. He ceased to breathe some three or four minutes later.”
Collected Letters – Volume III : “Narnia, Cambridge and Joy 1950-1963” page 1483/4 (Harper Collins – Published this month)*
* Walter Hooper’s Preface is dated 13 September 2006
“What a state we have got into when we can’t say ‘I’ll be happy when God calls me’ without being afraid one will be thought ‘morbid’... if we really believe that our real home is elsewhere... why should we not look forward to the arrival?”
(Letters to an American Lady, 7th June 1959)
He heard afar their hurrying feet,
he snuffed an odour strange and sweet;
he smelled their coming long before____________4200
they marked the waiting threat at door.
His limbs he stretched and shook off sleep,
then stood at gaze. With sudden leap
upon them as they sped he sprang,
and his howling in the arches rang.____________4205
Too swift for thought his onset came,
too swift for any spell to tame;
and Beren desperate then aside
thrust Lúthien, and forth did stride
unarmed, defenceless to defend________________4210
Tinúviel until the end.
With left he caught at hairy throat,
with right hand at the eyes he smote
- his right, from which the radiance welled
of the holy Silmaril he held.__________________4215
As gleam of swords in fire there flashed
the fangs of Carcharoth, and crashed
together like a trap, that tore
the hand about the wrist, and shore
through brittle bone and sinew nesh,___________4220
devouring the frail mortal flesh;
and in that cruel mouth unclean
engulfed the jewel's holy sheen.
Lines 4,198 to 4,223 of the "The Lay of Leithian”
Among Tolkien's papers five more lines were found:
Against the wall then Beren reeled
but still with his left he sought to shield
fair Lúthien, who cried aloud
to see his pain, and down she bowed
in anguish sinking to the ground.
However, JRRT did finish the story. See "The Silmarillion", Chapter 19.
A sudden music to her came,
As she stood there gleaming
With free hair in the morning's flame
On her shoulders streaming.
Flutes there were, and harps were rung,
And there was sound of singing,
Like wind-voices keen and young
And far bells ringing.
JRRT - The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (Unwin 1990)
Many of those familiar with J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, or the films based on them, have been surprised to discover that the name of the headmaster of Hogwarts School also occurs in Tolkien's writings. (They might be even more surprised to find it in Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge.) The word is recorded by the OED as a dialect name for the bumblebee (and certain other insects), with quotations dating back to 1787. Tolkien used it in some versions of his poem "Errantry", in which the 'merry passenger', we are told, "battled with the Dumbledores" (History of Middle Earth VII. 86, 88).
He battled with the Dumbledores,
the Bumbles, and the Honeybees,
and won the Golden Honeycomb;
and running home on sunny seas
in ship of leaves and gossamer
with blossom for a canopy,
he polished up, and furbished up,
and burnished up his panoply.
The Ring of Words - Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary (OUP - 2006)
Do grown-ups have any business reading The Hobbit? A book about dwarves (Tolkien insisted on this plural), elves, and a race of small people with furry feet, called hobbits, not to mention a wizard, a dragon, and a magic ring - surely these are cliches of fantastic fiction, which adults need not take seriously. What's more, unlike Tolkien's masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, which was clearly intended for adults, he wrote the original version of The Hobbit for reading aloud to his own children. (No he didn't - ed.)
I would beg to differ. The story of a comfort-loving hobbit who finds himself recruited as a burglar by 13 dwarves keen to avenge the deaths of their forefathers and to recover their ancestral treasure from a dragon has a great deal to tell us about courage - a virtue as important today as it was in the Anglo-Saxon times that Tolkien studied professionally.
Bilbo Baggins is far from being an ancient heroic warrior like Beowulf, though it would have been easy for Tolkien to create a cowardly character who soon leaves behind any sensation of fear and is transformed into a great hero of the old mode. Not not only does Bilbo not kill the dragon: he spends much of the climactic Battle of Five Armies knocked unconscious. On the other hand, only Bilbo has the courage to confront the dragon in his lair, and the humanity to try to stop the fighting.
Tolkien's most perceptive critic to date, Tom Shippey, argues that the hobbits are a bridge between our modern world of safe domesticity and pocket-handkerchiefs (Bilbo discovers he hasn't got any when he runs out of his house to join the dwarves in their adventure), and the frightening but exciting world of heroism, myth, and legend.
Professor Shippey writes: "Much of The Hobbit is about the clash of styles, attitudes, and behaviour patterns [between these two worlds] - though in the end one might conclude that they are not as far apart as they first seemed; that Bilbo has just as much right to the archaic world and its treasures as Thorin or Bard [the heroic warriors]" (J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the century, HarperCollins, 2001).
But there is more to The Hobbit than an exploration of courage. In Tolkien's essay "On fairy stories", written soon after the publication of The Hobbit, he argued that such stories offer, in addition to the benefits of all good literature, special values that he called "Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation, all things of which children have, as a rule, less need than older people", adding wryly: "Most of them are nowadays very commonly considered to be bad for anybody" (Tree and Leaf, George Allen & Unwin, 1964).
'Fantasy' is not a word with high status in contemporary Western culture. Indeed, so impoverished is our view of the imagination that popular entertainment prefers the contrivances of reality TV to made-up stories, and some serious writers can add gravitas to their work only by transcribing the actual words of people caught up in historic events. But, for Tolkien, the imagination was one of our most distinctively human attributes: a key element of the divine image in human beings.
He called the creation of an imaginatively consistent secondary world 'sub-creation', and wrote in a poem that he gave to C. S. Lewis (and which was a significant factor in Lewis's conversion to Christianity) "we make still by the law in which we are made" (quoted in Tree and Leaf).
By 'Recovery', Tolkien meant a rediscovery of the freshness and vitality of the world, especially the natural world and humanity's pre-industrial artefacts, such as bread and wine. Fairy stories help to free us from the drabness and triteness of our contemporary view of the world, where the enormous material wealth many of us have has blurred our vision and narrowed our focus to 'getting and spending', as William Wordsworth put it.
In praising 'Escape', Tolkien knew he was moving on to controversial ground, but, as he said, the people who are most against anyone's escaping are jailers. "Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?"
'Consolation' was only one of Tolkien's names for what he regarded as the highest value of the fairy tale. By it, he meant that all true and complete fairy stories must have a happy ending, which he also called 'eucatastrophe', "a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur". He saw this as "a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief".
Unperceptive critics of Tolkien often accuse him of writing sentimental happy endings. In fact, Tolkien viewed life with a robust honesty, not denying that the world is full of suffering (both his parents had died by the time he was 12, and he fought in the First World War), and yet insisting that salvation can come when it is least expected.
Perhaps the most striking example of this in The Hobbit is when, at the climax of the Battle of Five Armies, Bilbo cries out: "The Eagles are coming!" There may be an implicit reference here to Christian iconography, but, more importantly, it underlines the fact that, no matter how hard we strive, we have no power, of ourselves, to save ourselves.
(A fiction writer, a member of the Oxford C. S. Lewis Society, and has taught courses on the Inklings).
The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien is published by HarperCollins.
Published in the Church Times - 3rd November 2006
Yale Review, Vol. 91 No. 4 (October 2003), pp. 64–80