. Alas, not me: November 2022

28 November 2022

Tolkien between two publishers, feeling like a fool

14 April 1950

Dear Unwin,

It was odd that our letters crossed. I might have waited a day longer; but the matter is for me becoming urgent. Weeks have become precious. I want a decision yes, or no: to the proposal I made, and not to any imagined possibilities.

Letters  no. 127


17 April 1950

[Sir Stanley Unwin to Tolkien:]

.... As you demand an immediate "yes" or "no" the answer is "no"; but it might well have been yes given adequate time and the sight of the complete typescript.

Quoted in note on Letters 128

I've recently been working on an article in which I argue that Tolkien's famous letter 131, so often cited and quoted, actually plays a large role in shaping the subsequent course of his writings on Middle-earth. For in this letter he is attempting to persuade Milton Waldman and Collins publishing to bring out The Lord of the Rings and 'The Silmarillion' together, and in order to do so he has to step back himself and come up with an explanation of how it all fits together, from the Ainulindalë to the tale of Beren One-hand and the Great Jewel, to the tale of Nine-fingered Frodo and the Ring of Doom. In the Waldman letter Tolkien undertakes for his legendarium what he accomplished for Beowulf in his essay Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics and for fantasy in On Fairy-stories. The Beowulf essay directly precedes the writing of The Lord of the Rings; On Fairy-stories was written and re-written while he wrote The Lord of the Rings; and the Waldman letter follows immediately after its completion and marks a turning point towards the more philosophically and metaphysically focused writings on the 1950s -- works such as Laws and Customs among the Eldar and the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth. Together these three -- the Beowulf essay, On Fairy-stories, and the Waldman letter are indispensable for understanding the shape of The Lord of the Rings, most immediately, and the legendarium as a whole. 

But I digress. 

As I was looking through the Letters the other night and thinking about Tolkien's struggle, first with Allen and Unwin, and then with Collins, to get someone to publish his work as he thought it should be published, I spotted some details that were both very funny and very interesting. In the first place, there is the humor innate in Tolkien, whose writing process could not unfairly be called asymptotic, demanding an immediate 'yes' or 'no' answer to whether Allen and Unwin would publish both The Lord of the Rings (12 years in the writing and only just 'completed') and 'The Silmarillion' (over 30 years in the writing and not even close to finished, then or later).

What struck me as very funny, however, was the transition from his addressing Sir Stanley Unwin as 'Dear Unwin' in Letter 127 to his addressing Milton Waldman in Letter 131 far more personally as 'My dear Milton'. Tolkien had been in correspondence with Sir Stanley Unwin for more than a dozen years by this time. For at least the first four and a half years Tolkien had addressed his letters to 'Dear Mister Unwin'. Somewhere between February of 1942 (Letters no. 47) and March of 1945 (Letters no. 98), Tolkien became more familiar, dropping 'Mister' and beginning, as we saw above, with 'Dear Unwin'. By the time Tolkien wrote Letter 105 in the summer of 1946 Unwin had been knighted, and so Tolkien, as was proper, addressed him as 'Dear Sir Stanley.' Within a year, however, Sir Stanley suggested that they dispense with titles such as 'Sir' and 'Professor' altogether, to which Tolkien agreed and resumed addressing him as 'Dear Unwin' (Letters no 109).

Now many these days might find 'Dear Unwin' and 'Dear Tolkien' to be a little distant still, perhaps even frosty, but it was not so. For in Beleriand in those days using someone's first name was a privilege reserved for family and maybe very close friends. Tolkien and Lewis were for a long time extremely close, but even they did not call each other by their first names. Lewis called him Tollers or Tolkien. Tolkien called him Lewis or Jack (which was not of course Lewis's name at all). To illustrate this custom, no better or more appropriate authority can be cited than Tolkien's own letter from December 1965 to Rayner Unwin, son of Sir Stanley:

Very Best Wishes for Christmas and the New Year. Do you think you could mark the New Year by dropping the Professor? I belong to a generation which did not use Christian names outside the family, but like the dwarves kept them private, and for even their intimates used surnames (or perversions of them), or nicknames, or (occasionally) Christian names that did not belong to them. Even C. S. Lewis never called me by a Christian name (or I him). So I will be content with a surname. I wish I could be rid of the 'professor' altogether, at any rate when not writing technical matter. It gives a false impression of 'learning', especially in 'folklore' and all that. It also gives a probably truer impression of pedantry; but it is a pity to have my pedantry advertised and underlined, so that people sniff it even when it is not there.

(Letters no. 281)

So it is remarkable to see Tolkien in late 1951 addressing Waldman, whom he had met only in in the autumn of 1949, and whom he was addressing as 'Dear Waldman' in March 1950 (Letters no. 126), as 'My dear Milton'. It stands out even more when we notice that about a year and a half passed between Sir Stanley's rejection of Tolkien's ultimatum, which freed Tolkien to make a deal with Waldman and Collins, and Tolkien's 'My dear Milton,' a year and a half in which Tolkien found himself unexpectedly encountering resistance to his hopes and requests that The Lord of the Rings itself be cut. By late 1951 Tolkien's prospects for publication at Collins were fading, so much so that Waldman himself suggested that Tolkien write a letter to convince Waldman's associates at Collins that the two books must be published together. In this context, 'My dear Milton' has the ring of 'Help me, Obi Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope.'

At about the same time Tolkien was composing his 10,000+ word letter to Waldman, in late November 1951, called upon Tolkien at home in Oxford, but did not see him since Tolkien was unwell (Scull and Hammond, C&G 1.401). He followed up with a letter, in which among other things he asked Tolkien if he could see 'The Silmarillion', but Tolkien did not reply. By the time Rayner Unwin wrote again in June of 1952 Tolkien's relations with Collins had completely failed, in a manner not unlike his negotiations with Sir Stanley two years earlier, ultimatum, rejection, and all. The failure was catastrophically disheartening and embarrassing for Tolkien, and you can hear it in his response to Rayner Unwin:

When I have a moment to turn round I will collect the Silmarillion fragments in process of completion – or rather the original outline which is more or less complete, and you can read it. My difficulty is, of course, that owing to the expense of typing and the lack of time to do my own (I typed nearly all of The Lord of the Rings) I have no spare copies to let out. But what about The Lord of the Rings? Can anything be done about that, to unlock gates I slammed myself?

(Letters no. 133)

The Salutation? 

Wait for it. 

'My dear Rayner'.

And if 'My dear Milton' makes me think of Princess Leia begging for Obi Wan's help, 'My dear Rayner' reminds me of Frodo's plea to Gandalf: 'O Gandalf, best of friends, what am I to do?' (FR 1.ii.59).

As we know, Tolkien and Allen & Unwin were able to work out their differences, and Tolkien never finished 'The Silmarillion'. 

It may be worth noting that Tolkien's Letters preserve only two further letters addressed to Stanley Unwin. Both come more than ten years after Tolkien's return to Allen & Unwin. In the only one of the two to preserve the salutation, Tolkien reverts to the more formal 'Dear Sir Stanley' (Letters nos. 241 and 248). Rayner Unwin, however, records an amusing and entirely predictable moment, the last time his father and Tolkien ever met, in 1967, which is quoted in Scull and Hammond (C&G III 1369):

"'It was at the Garrick [Club in London]. They were both rather deaf. My father talked about the balance sheet, which Tolkien didn't understand, and he talked about The Silmarillion, which my father didn't understand. But they were full of goodwill. They knew they owed each other a lot -- but they weren't sure for what.'"

Finally, for all Sir Stanley's attention to the balance sheet, in fairness to him we should remember that when Rayner told him in the autumn of 1952 that The Lord of the Rings could lose £1,000, which was a lot of money at the time, Sir Stanley replied:

'If you believe it is a work of genius, then you may lose a thousand pounds.'


According the Scull and Hammond's Companion and Guide, the last paragraph of Tolkien's Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin was written on a page torn from September in a 1951 planner. Since Tolkien must have begun writing his massive letter to Waldman soon afterwards, I wonder if this is why Tolkien stopped writing the much loved and much longed for story of Tuor. As John Garth has rightly pointed out to me, Tolkien had a lot of other work to do in the fall of 1951 and was also not well, so the Waldman letter may not be solely to blame for Tolkien's ceasing work on Tuor. Even if the Waldman letter should be the reason, however, for Tolkien's stopping, it would not be the reason why he never resumed this marvelous regrettably unfinished tale. Unless, perhaps, we consider the disappointment he felt at the failure of the Waldman letter to secure the simultaneous publication of 'The Silmarillion' and The Lord of the Rings. That surely stung, as did the fact that his experience with Collins had played out similarly to the his experience with Allen & Unwin had done. When Tolkien did return to work on 'The Silmarillion' a couple of years later, his concerns were more philosophical and theological as I mentioned at the beginning of this post. That is, I believe, a result of the overview of his legendarium which the Waldman letter necessitated. But I will argue this in much greater detail elsewhere. 

(Kudos if you got the joke in the title of this post.)

There's a lot more that could be said here. For the moment, I'll just give you the sources. In addition to Letters, there is Scull and Hammond's Companion and Guide for the relevant dates and people, Carpenter's biography of Tolkien, and Rayner Unwin's George Allen and Unwin: A Remembrancer.

20 November 2022

Hobbits and the Shire: The strength of the hills is theirs also.

Yesterday, a friend sent me something he was working on about The Lord of the Rings, and what he had to say about Hobbits and the Shire in it immediately made me think of the passage I have quoted below. I couldn't remember where I had read these comments before, though. I was pretty sure it wasn't in anything Tolkien wrote, and I thought it was in Lewis. As it turned out, I was right. It just took me a while to track it down. So to prevent me from forgetting the location of the comments again, I am sharing it with all of you.

The allusion to the 95th psalm in the penultimate sentence just makes me think of Tom Bombadil himself as well as old Tom's assessment of Farmer Maggot: ‘There’s earth under his old feet, and clay on his fingers; wisdom in his bones, and both his eyes are open' (FR 1.vii.132). Remember, too, that the Shire has a power of its own (FR 2.i.222) and it was in the Shire (faced with the redoubtable Gaffer and Farmer Maggot) that 'the hunters before whom all have fled or fallen' faltered (FR 2.ii.260. And am I the only one who hears an echo of T. S. Eliot in 'We are synthetic men, uprooted'?

Tolkien once remarked to me that the feeling about home must have been quite different in the days when a family had fed on the produce of the same few miles of country for six generations, and that perhaps this was why they saw nymphs in the fountains and dryads in the wood-they were not mistaken for there was in a sense a real (not metaphorical) connection between them and the countryside. What had been earth and air & later corn, and later still bread, really was in them. We of course who live on a standardised international diet (you may have had Canadian flour, English meat, Scotch oatmeal, African oranges, & Australian wine to day) are really artificial beings and have no connection (save in sentiment) with any place on earth. We are synthetic men, uprooted. The strength of the hills is not ours. My pen has run away with me on this subject.

C. S. Lewis, Letter to Arthur Greaves, 22 June 1930

17 November 2022

Not to find them, not to bind them -- Elrond and the Ring verse

'Yet no oath or bond is laid on you to go farther than you will.'

(FR 2.iii.280)

As I was listening to Corey Olsen on episode 226 of Exploring the Lord of the Rings say that Elrond refuses to 'bind' the members of the Company to the Quest, the word 'bind' suddenly leaped out at me. For obvious reasons (though they were obscure before the moment). The most prominent and important use of the word 'bind' in The Lord of the Rings comes of course in the Ring verse:

One Ring to rule them all, One ring to find them
One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.(FR 2.ii.254)

And as soon as I thought of this verse in this connection, my mind then leapt to a statement Elrond made at the start of the council:

‘That is the purpose for which you are called hither. Called, I say, though I have not called you to me, strangers from distant lands. You have come and are here met, in this very nick of time, by chance as it may seem. Yet it is not so. Believe rather that it is so ordered that we, who sit here, and none others, must now find counsel for the peril of the world.

(FR 2.ii.242)

Elrond's entire approach (not to mention Gandalf's) rejects the kind of control and domination Sauron seeks and the Ring was created to impose, and embraces 'chance as it may seem' and hope. 

12 November 2022

A Random Thought about Bill the Pony

I was listening to episode 221 of Corey Olsen's Exploring The Lord of the Rings podcast today (I am about 20 episodes behind -- hey, when I retired I no longer had an hour of driving a day. So my podcast consumption plummeted like a sheep in Monty Python), and the subject of why Bill the pony is so called. Everybody not unreasonably assumes that Sam named Bill after his previous owner, the hateful Bill Ferny. There is some evidence to support that Tolkien saw it this way at least in passing, since in one of the drafts he says Sam called the pony 'Ferny' (Treason 173). So between the inference and the evidence, it may well be true that Sam named Bill after his cruel former owner whom Sam had hit in the nose with a thrown apple (FR 1.xi.180), and whom the pony had kicked the first chance it got.

Bill Ferny flinched and shuffled to the gate and unlocked it. ‘Give me the key!’ said Merry. But the ruffian flung it at his head and then darted out into the darkness. As he passed the ponies one of them let fly with his heels and just caught him as he ran. He went off with a yelp into the night and was never heard of again. 

‘Neat work, Bill,’ said Sam, meaning the pony.

(RK 6.viii.999)

Given Sam's love for the pony and loathing of Ferny, it's hard to see why Sam would have given it the name of a villain who had cruelly mistreated it. As a joke? Perhaps, but to me at least that doesn't seem a joke Sam was likely to make. It would seem hurtful to Bill and too good for Ferny. I just don't see it as in his character. Contrast this with the humor we hear of in The Grey Havens, where we learn that the renewed Bagshot Row came to be known as Sharkey's End, a 'purely Bywater joke' for the place where the Saruman met his end (RK 6.ix.1021-22). But Sam was not from Bywater and Saruman was hated. The bitterness of the joke was founded on a very real sense of Saruman's deserts.

Now to be honest I can only admit that my incredulity proves nothing. It's not much of an argument. Yet who else could Bill the pony be named after? Is there any other alternative? There is, though I concede it's not the strongest or most direct. I just like it better.

What if Bill the pony is named after Bilbo? After all Sam loved the old hobbit, whom he met again in Rivendell after many years, and as far as we can tell it was in Rivendell that Sam first began using the name for the pony. It is there in any event that our attention is drawn to this fact. The text, moreover, supplies us with a parallel for a hobbit naming a pony after a beloved friend. In Minas Tirith Frodo gets a pony which he will ride all the way home. He named the pony 'Strider' and the only time its name is mentioned is in conjunction with Bill (RK 6.ix.1027): 

On September the twenty-first they set out together, Frodo on the pony that had borne him all the way from Minas Tirith, and was now called Strider; and Sam on his beloved Bill.

11 November 2022

The unforgiving, unforgotten minute.

It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace – all in a flash of thought which was quickly driven from his mind. For just as Mablung stepped towards the fallen body, there was a new noise....

(TT 4.iv.661)

The moment is as transient in itself as it is enduring in its significance. If only these moments could persist on our memory as it did in this man's, or Sam's, or Tolkien's, to be recalled later in reflection. Part of the tragedy of our species is that with the passing of the individual all these flashes of thought, all the leaps of pity in the dark, all the instants of transcendent beauty glimmering above the things we call good and evil here below -- all these moments are lost. 

We forget (and want to forget) the horrors which we have inflicted on each other and which we have suffered at each other's hands. And forgetting them all, we suffer and inflict them all again, in a thousand other Sommes, a thousand other Treblinkas, a thousand other Hiroshimas, a thousand other Potato Famines, a thousand other Trails of Tears, a thousand other Middle Passages. 


01 November 2022

Another Allusion to Macbeth?

Tolkien quite famously supplanted Shakespeare's humdrum imagining of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane with the march of the Ents upon Isengard. Even better known thanks to Peter Jackson's film of The Return of the King is Éowyn's clarification for the Witch-king of just how tricky a thing prophecy can be.* I have also long believed that the hobbits' vision, prompted by Bombadil, in which 'strode shapes of Men, tall and grim with bright swords, and last came one with a star on his brow' (FR 1.viii.146) owes something to the vision given to Macbeth by the witches of Banquo's Stuart progeny (Macbeth 4.i).**

This morning, even before coffee, I believe I found another allusion to Macbeth. In The Taming of Sméagol, as Frodo and Sam are trying in vain to find a way down from the heights of the Emyn Muil, Frodo decides they have done enough search for one day:

‘Well,’ he said, at last withdrawing his eyes, ‘we cannot stay here all night, fix or no fix. We must find a more sheltered spot, and camp once more; and perhaps another day will show us a path.’ 

‘Or another and another and another,’ muttered Sam. ‘Or maybe no day. We’ve come the wrong way.’

(TT 4.i.604)

Did you catch the cadence of Sam's answer about tomorrow? The iambic meter of Sam's 'another and another and another' and Macbeth's 'tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow' match perfectly (Macbeth 5.v). Each repeats a three syllable word with the stress on the second syllable, and punctuates the tedium of its creeping pace from day to day with the stress it places on the repeated 'and' which binds them. 'And', as Patrick Stewart says in the clip below, quoting Ian McKellen's advice to him, is 'the important word' in that speech. It carries the burden of what the speaker is feeling, whether it's Macbeth or Sam. 

When I catch things like this, I swear, for a moment I can hear the Inklings laughing.



* As I noted back in 2016, the prophecy about the Witch-king comes true, not in one, but three unexpected ways. Éowyn is no man; Merry is no Man; and the smith who had forged the blade long ago is no living Man. One thing I am going to have to do, I have just realized, is to look beyond Tolkien's reinterpretation of the misinterpreted prophecy to the equivalence of the Witch-king and Macbeth.

** In keeping with Tolkien's belief that Shakespeare was best studied on the page as a concomitant to its being viewed on the stage, I did not make the connection between the vision of Banquo and his  descendants and of Aragorn and his ancestors until I was watching Kenneth Branagh's staging of the play some years ago. Banquo's descendants appeared and strode off across the stage much as the hobbits saw the 'sons of forgotten kings' do in their vision.