Tolkien Collector's Guide
Sign In
Tolkien Collector's Guide
Important links:

Guide to Tolkien's Letters
Winner of the 2019 Tolkien Society award for Best Website

Letters Back to results
Next Previous

TCG Letter #532 / Carpenter Letter #183

J.R.R. Tolkien
Notes on W. H. Auden’s review of The Return of the King
?Late January 1956
Autograph Note
Middle-earth was not an imaginary world, stated Tolkien. It was a modernized form of the 13th century midden-erd, the abiding place of Men and their objectively real world, specifically opposed to imaginary worlds (as Fairyland) or unseen worlds (as Heaven or Hell). The setting of his story was here, in northwest Europe; it was the historical period that was imaginary.

Men have gone and still do go on journeys and quests without acting out allegories of life. It was untrue of any period that "only the rich or those on vacation can take journeys" (as Auden had asserted).

Auden saw most men as rooted in one place and usually predictable. Tolkien said that men have innate characters but also had change possible in their modes of behaviour. A seed had vitality and heredity plus a capacity to grow and develop. Some persons were or seemed more calculable than others, but that was due to fortune rather than nature. In such a context the use of the term "political" seemed false. Frodo's duty was “humane” and not political. Denethor was a mere politician who therefore mistrusted Faramir and ultimately failed. His prime motive was to preserve the polity of Gondor. At the Council of Elrond, Frodo realized the nature of the quest and accepted the burden of his mission.

Tolkien said that Auerbach's use of "political" seemed more justifiable but not really admissible. Feats of arms in Arthurian Romance do not need to "fit into a politically purposive pattern". Real life causes are not clear cut because human tyrants are seldom utterly corrupted into pure evil will.

Tolkien spoke not of individuals. The rightness of a cause will not justify the actions of its supporters who are morally wicked. His story did not deal with Absolute Evil, said Tolkien, doubting that there is such a thing. No rational being is wholly evil. Sauron was as near an approach to the wholly evil will as is possible. Yet he had begun well, at least on the level of desiring to order all things according to his own wisdom.

Sauron desired to be a God-King. He was thrice involved in treachery: First, admiring strength, he had followed Morgoth and become his chief agent in Middle-earth. Second, when Morgoth fell he forsook his allegiance, but from fear only and remained in Middle-earth. Third, seeing how his knowledge was greatly admired and how easy it was to influence other rational creatures, he re-assumed the position of Morgoth's representative in the Second Age.
Thus the fiddle-faddle in reviews, said Tolkien, as to whether his "good people" were kind and merciful and gave quarter (which they did) was beside the point.


A note on this text: These notes from Tolkien were intended for his own use and satisfaction and strictly speaking are not a letter meant for correspondence. Humphrey Carpenter in his commentary on the entry says that - "A comment, apparently written for Tolkien’s own satisfaction and not sent or shown to anyone else, on ‘At the End of the Quest, Victory’, a review of The Return of the King by W. H. Auden in the New York Times Book Review, 22 January 1956. The text given here is a rewriting at some later date of an earlier version, now lost, which was in all probability written in 1956."
Craig A. Boyd, "Nolo Heroizari: Tolkien and Aquinas on the Humble Journey of Master Samwise" in Christianity & Literature 2019, Vol. 68(4), p. 608

Next Previous
Jump to Last
All original content ©2024 by the submitting authors. Terms of Use | Privacy Policy | Cookie Policy | Contact Us