9 Nov, 2023 (edited)
2023-11-9 12:00:51 AM UTC
2023-11-9 12:00:51 AM UTC
Please note that the Guide to Tolkien's Letters has been updated to include the new and revised letters contained within The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien: Revised and Expanded Edition (2023).
Review by onthetrail, Mr. Underhill, Urulókë and Trotter
Published in 1981, and edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien has remained the only volume dedicated solely to the letters written by J.R.R. Tolkien. In the years since, some have found their way into print in journals, articles, auction catalogues, and books published on J.R.R. Tolkien, with one work deserving special mention, The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide from Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond which mentions and quotes from more letters than any other print publication.See https://www.tolkienguide.com/guide/letters/ which is an ongoing project to gather all known letters from, to, and about J.R.R. Tolkien. Originally published in 2006, and again in 2017 as an expanded 3-volume boxset, it contains a myriad of details from J.R.R. Tolkien's letters as well as details of every area of his life.
42 years after Humphrey Carpenter presented his volume to J.R.R. Tolkien readers, we again have a volume which contains nothing but J.R.R. Tolkien's letters. But all is not as it seems. This is not a new volume of brand new letters. And this is because for more than 40 years, another version of this book has been tucked away, waiting for its chance to be published.
When Humphrey Carpenter delivered his volume to Rayner Unwin (George Allen & Unwin) in late 1979, the publisher became concerned that the book was too long,This was not isolated to GA&U or Rayner Unwin, book length was a serious consideration to publishers and the biggest names in publishing could have their books edited down by many hundreds of pages. The most famous of these from the late 1970s is perhaps Stephen King's seminal work The Stand which was drastically reduced to meet print demands and was later restored to its original length. so Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien dedicated the next month reducing the text to a more manageable size, eliminating around 50,000 words. Chris Smith (of HarperCollins) in his foreword to this new edition says that Humphrey Carpenter made hardly a mention of this reduction, and very few people knew of this larger version. Before his passing, Christopher Tolkien commented that he still had the original edition and on November 9, 2023 we see the version that Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien originally intended.
- Readers will find that Humphey's original numbering system has been retained, and newly included correspondence has been indicated by appending to the number a small letter, e.g. '15a' for Carpenter's Letter #15a (J.R.R. Tolkien to Stanley Unwin, 17 September 1937), which follows that of Carpenter's Letter #15 (J.R.R. Tolkien to C.A. Furth (Allen & Unwin), 31 August 1937) in the layout of the book. Since its publication in 1981, The Letters of J.R.R Tolkien has become an invaluable work of reference, with its content frequently cited by letter-number; by preserving this original system, the value of Letters will continue - Chris Smith (Foreword to the Revised and Expanded edition)Please note that two of the Letters have had their numbers changed, Carpenter's Letter #219 (J.R.R. Tolkien to Naomi Mitchison, 15 October 1959) and Carpenter's Letter #220 (J.R.R. Tolkien to Allen & Unwin, 16 October 1959)
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien: Revised and Expanded edition
Edited and selected by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien
- 354 letters in original edition
- 508 total letters in this new edition
- 154 new letters added to book (22 new letters were already in the Guide to Tolkien's Letters)
- 45 letters updated/revised in the book
This edition will give fans of J.R.R. Tolkien a greater understanding of his family life, his work, and his secondary world.
We see the first change come in the June, 1925 letterCarpenter #7: Letter from J.R.R. Tolkien to [University of Oxford Electors] • 27 June 1925 (#7) to the "Electors of the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professorship of Anglo-Saxon, University of Oxford" but it is not until January, 1934, in a letter to his son John, at that time a 16 year old pupil of the Oratory School in Berkshire, that we see the first new letter.Carpenter's Letter #8a (J.R.R. Tolkien to John Tolkien, 21 January 1934)
We notice very quickly that early letters are sadly not found here and Humphrey Carpenter in his introduction to the original edition says that "among the omissions is the very large body of letters he wrote between 1913 and 1918 to Edith Bratt, who was his fiancee and then his wife; these are highly personal in character, and from them I have chosen only a few passages which refer to writings in which Tolkien was engaged at the time" so omitting those early, private letters shouldn't be too surprising, and that attitude still holds.
This new edition allows us to see the editorship of Humphrey Carpenter, with Christopher Tolkien's assistance, in a brand new light. Originally,As in the version delivered to Rayner Unwin that he decided to be too long to publish at that time. the book was far more general, and generous with the inclusion of many excerpts which show J.R.R. Tolkien's love and concern toward his sons who were either engaged in battle or training to be during WW2. With enlightening passages to Christopher Tolkien, we witness J.R.R. Tolkien talking openly about the horrors of war, and the impact on those involved. The published edition was cut down, as said already, but only with this new edition do we see how Humphrey Carpenter did not simply reduce it for size, but also for thematic purposes. If the original edition is a letters volume which focuses mostly on J.R.R. Tolkien's imagined writing, this new edition gives us the filling, it shows us the backdrop to it all and offers more on J.R.R. Tolkien's routines around his working and home life. We see J.R.R. Tolkien exchanging with his sons now at school and what comes across is more of the concerned father, it exemplifies (if one needed any such confirmation) the relationship he shared with his boys and the concern for their education, life choices, financial matters, and love. With open and honest assessments of the relationships his sons were beginning to experience, J.R.R. Tolkien's role as a father is brought into sharper focus.
The more astute reader among us will read some newly published excerpts and know that they have read portions or all of the quotes previously in The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, and this is true, not every new passage found here is truly new, but they are reunited with topically connected letters and offer us yet more glimpses into J.R.R. Tolkien's life. There are of course still treasures to be found among the details found in The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, and readers should use the two books side-by-side to explore further.
We learn more of the work that J.R.R. Tolkien put into The Hobbit through his letters to his publisher and being able to read what J.R.R. Tolkien was sending to George Allen & Unwin. But we also see some stories about his family life, and how his children were very much his children. For example, you will learnCarpenter's Letter #17 (J.R.R. Tolkien to Stanley Unwin, 15 October 1937) that Priscilla Tolkien could "take any amount of dragon, and a reasonable dose of goblin; but we recently had to change all the handles on the chest-of-drawers in her room, because the former handles 'grinned at her', even in the dark."
In November 1937 we get the first bulky new letter, sent to his friend E. V. Gordon.Carpenter's Letter #18a (J.R.R. Tolkien to E.V. Gordon, 22 November 1937) We learn more about Gordon's Pearl and Tolkien's role in the creation of this book, which would not be published until long after E.V. Gordon's untimely death.E. V. Gordon died in 1938 and it was his widow, Ida, who brought his volume to print in 1953.
The revisions and additions in this new edition gives a greater insight into J.R.R. Tolkien's life and allows us to find out more about the mind and thinking of the Professor. These letters are of great use to general readers and J.R.R. Tolkien researchers when looking for answers in J.R.R. Tolkien's works.Urulókë, Trotter, Mr. Underhill and onthetrail are engaged in the 'Guide to Tolkien's Letters' in an effort to bring all of J.R.R. Tolkien's letters into one place for readers and researchers to use to guide them to many letters including hundred of unpublished examples.
During the late 1930s and through the war years of the early to mid 1940s, Tolkien wrote to his sons a lot, and this volume has a healthy group of excerpts, mostly to Christopher Tolkien and we witness the closeness of the two. That Christopher Tolkien became his father's literary executor is no accident. These letters demonstrate further how essential Christopher Tolkien was to his father's creative endeavours.
Our first glimpse of 1951 is where the new edition really pays off. J.R.R. Tolkien's famous letter to Milton Waldman (of Collins)Carpenter's Letter #131 (J.R.R. Tolkien to Milton Waldman, 1951 (late)) has always been a favourite among readers, but now, we see just how potent this letter is. The original was always known to be longer, and the portion which dealt with The Lord of the Rings was wisely not included, but it has been published, namely in two places. in La Feuille de la Compagnie 2 and in The Lord of the Rings: A Readers Companion. Now the two pieces are reunited, as we now know was Humphrey Carpenter's original intent. But there is more! A portion which we do not believe to have been known is included at the conclusion and it is J.R.R. Tolkien's "proposed for publication" list which is a wonderful gift to those interested in how Tolkien saw his writing, and what he believed was important for publication.
After that we learn more on proofs of The Lord of the Rings, the artwork for it and the pressures of Tolkien's life at that time. Still a busy academic, he now faced increased demands from those interested in adapting his work and the new selections provided highlight that fact further.
For the next decade of his life, J.R.R. Tolkien would spend his time on revisions, dealing with piracy and how he will enlist fans' help in informing people of its harm to his financial welfare,Ace Books published an unauthorized edition of the Lord of the Rings in the U.S.A. adaptations, translated editions of his work, academia, and all manner of other responsibilities which would keep him from completing his epic work on The Silmarillion.Finally published posthumously by his son and literary executor, Christopher Tolkien in 1977 with the assistance of Guy Gavriel Kay. We can understand through these letters more than ever just how much J.R.R. Tolkien had on his plate. But also we can deduce that J.R.R. Tolkien would flit from one project to another. He would decide that Sir Gawain must be dealt with, only for him to delay it to complete the Silmarillion. J.R.R. Tolkien was nothing if not an expert excuse maker and those who love his excuses need not worry, there are plenty of new additions here to keep fans happy.
And this carries us through the book to its end. It gives us new details on a myriad of subjects. We learn more about J.R.R. Tolkien's professional relationships and his family, his losses, and his achievements which make him a house-hold name. This edition shows more keenly the shifting of time and with it we see both his and Edith Tolkien's health decline far more closely than in the original edition.
The Index at the back of the book, compiled and revised for this edition by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, is comprehensive and does allow for easy retrieval of a letter based on subject. I do not expect that Wayne and Christina ever expected to be adding a category for "Sex" to the index of a Tolkien book, but that is included in this new edition.
You can also use the search facility in the eBook and you can search the Letters on the Guide to Tolkien's Letters.
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien: Revised and Expanded edition is a welcome addition to Tolkien studies, for both readers and researchers and it is to Humphrey Carpenter's credit that this volume can stand on its own as a monumental work, but it also makes the original a more impressive read because we can now see how the editor shaped and crafted it into an absorbing work.
A volume like this can be a curse and a wonderful gift all at the same time, and it delivers both in equal measure, especially for those who hold J.R.R. Tolkien, Edith Tolkien, and their family in their hearts. We meet these people again through this expanded selection of letters, and it is brought home to this reader that they have all passed into the West and we are given these new memories to remember them by.
The new book is an essential addition to your Tolkien library, as it supercedes the earlier edition.
From Urulókë - A few samples of the fascinating turn of phrase Tolkien used even in quick notes to his children.
Carpenter's Letter #8c (J.R.R. Tolkien to Michael Tolkien, 21 October 1936) - "just now there are no apples on the father-tree"
Carpenter's Letter #49a (J.R.R. Tolkien to Christopher Tolkien, 28 July 1943) - "Not more than about 60 miles away as the bee flies are you?"
Carpenter's Letter #17 (J.R.R. Tolkien to Stanley Unwin, 15 October 1937) - "Curiously enough chests-of-drawers have also given me trouble. I still think them rather ominous. My daughter, aged 8, has long distinguished between literary and actual terrors. She can take any amount of dragon, and a reasonable dose of goblin; but we recently had to change all the handles on the chest-of-drawers in her room, because the former handles ‘grinned at her’, even in the dark."
From Mr. Underhill
Carpenter's Letter #42a (J.R.R. Tolkien to Christopher Tolkien, 26 January 1941) - "Very few men, but practically all women set great store by dates and anniversaries. It does not follow that the men are wholly in the right about it...A man can avoid a lot of trouble for himself, and avoid giving much pain to others, by noting it – especially in the case of wives, mothers, sweethearts and sisters. Verb. sap.! No great harm done, this time. But I had no father to point this out, and have learned the lesson I now pass on, only by troublesome experience."
Carpenter's Letter #148a (J.R.R. Tolkien to Katharine Farrer, 18 August 1954) - "There was quite a long and appreciative notice in the Oxford Times of last Friday, I discover. The writer, bless him/her, had evidently enjoyed it, and was not too sophisticated as to try and pretend that he had not."
Carpenter's Letter #166a (J.R.R. Tolkien to Rayner Unwin, 27 July 1955) - "I am not personally in favour of the establishment of an annual Tolkien award. My work has been slow to make its way in the United States, and as you well know, I have not in fact yet received any great financial reward for its increasing popularity. You can perhaps explain why a Tolkien award should be considered twice as deserving as the living author."
Carpenter's Letter #347a (J.R.R. Tolkien to Miss T.R.C., Not dated (January 1973)) - "I have disliked intensely the dissection, source-hunting, interpretation, and biographical tunnelling and scavenging which are supposed (too often disingenuously) to assist in the dissection interpretation and ‘understanding’ of literary works."
We have a simple summary overview of all the letters that were updated or added to the new edition available for download here:
William Morrow will be publishing the US edition on November 14th, a few days after the UK edition. Content-wise it should be identical (at least as far as these reviewers have had a chance to compare at this time). It is printed in the USA, so the paper and binding are different materials from the UK sibling. Obvious differences are of course the publisher's logo and print information, but also of note there is no ribbon bookmark. If you compare the spines of the book itself, you will note that a slightly different version of Tolkien's signature is reproduced on the US edition, and (not pictured) there is a "WM" blind stamp on the front board. The volume is much larger than the original US hardcover (708 pp. vs 463 pp.) but it manages to be a bit lighter nonetheless, and is easy to hold and read.
The UK Kindle version contains the same contents as the book, but in addition is fully searchable and has links to every Letter in the Contents, if you are interested in quoting from Letters, then I would suggest that you buy both the physical version of the book and the eBook, to make your life easier.
- The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter, George Allen & Unwin, 1981.
- The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien: Revised and Expanded, ed. Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien, HarperCollins, 2023.
- The J.R.R. Companion and Guide, Wayne G. Hammond, Christina Scull, HarperCollins, 2017.
Livestream 10th November
Thanks and Acknowledgements
Thanks to HarperCollins and The Tolkien Estate for producing this book and sending Trotter and Urulókë review copies. Special thanks to Chris Smith, Emilie Chambeyron and David Brawn.
1 See https://www.tolkienguide.com/guide/letters/ which is an ongoing project to gather all known letters from, to, and about J.R.R. Tolkien. ↩
2 This was not isolated to GA&U or Rayner Unwin, book length was a serious consideration to publishers and the biggest names in publishing could have their books edited down by many hundreds of pages. The most famous of these from the late 1970s is perhaps Stephen King's seminal work The Stand which was drastically reduced to meet print demands and was later restored to its original length. ↩
3 Please note that two of the Letters have had their numbers changed, Carpenter's Letter #219 (J.R.R. Tolkien to Naomi Mitchison, 15 October 1959) and Carpenter's Letter #220 (J.R.R. Tolkien to Allen & Unwin, 16 October 1959) ↩
6 As in the version delivered to Rayner Unwin that he decided to be too long to publish at that time. ↩
9 E. V. Gordon died in 1938 and it was his widow, Ida, who brought his volume to print in 1953. ↩
10 Urulókë, Trotter, Mr. Underhill and onthetrail are engaged in the 'Guide to Tolkien's Letters' in an effort to bring all of J.R.R. Tolkien's letters into one place for readers and researchers to use to guide them to many letters including hundred of unpublished examples. ↩
12 Ace Books published an unauthorized edition of the Lord of the Rings in the U.S.A. ↩
13 Finally published posthumously by his son and literary executor, Christopher Tolkien in 1977 with the assistance of Guy Gavriel Kay. ↩