First published in 1981 and now expanded with more than 150 new letters, excerpts and additional notes, this new edition of the oft-cited book, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, gives fans and scholars a deeper insight into the man behind The Lord of the Rings.
Get the new updated edition at your favourite bookstore or online (Amazon).
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, first edited by Humphrey Carpenter with assistance from Christopher Tolkien, is the definitive source of Tolkien’s personal writings. If you have ever seen a quotation cited from “Letter 131” it’s a reference to the numbering of this book. Some call it a biblical bibliography of Tolkien. In this new edition the numbering remains the same, with additional content added in context via a “203a… 203b…” system. Several letters have expanded, with the 8+ page Letter 131 now 40% longer from its originally edited form.
We learned on the podcast this week how these letters continue to be discovered, with some fetching over $100,000 at auction in recent years. Tolkien was prolific in his communications to fans and family over his lifetime. In one series of letters, he talks about the wonderful quality of storyboards presented in a film pitch meeting – drawings by Ron Cobb who went on to design Star Wars, Alien and Back to the Future.
From The Tolkien Collector’s Guide Review
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 letter 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.
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, 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 learn 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. 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.
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.
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 endeavors.
Our first glimpse of 1951 is where the new edition really pays off. J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous letter #131 to Milton Waldman (of Collins) has always been a favorite 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. 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, 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. 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.
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 supersedes the earlier edition.
Read the entire collector-focused review over at the Tolkien Guide.
More Context and Perspectives
TolkienGuide.com joined TORn Tuesday show for a 2-hour deep dive on the biggest changes and most enlightening additions to the book.