Sunday, July 27, 2014

Tolkien Letters (WRITING Magazing)

So, a few weeks back I learned (from Janice, who'd seen it on Andrew Higgins' blog*) that the most recent issue of WRITING magazine includes an article that quotes some previously unpublished Tolkien letters. Seeing them on-line was great, but I thought it'd be even better to have them in print (there's only so much enlarging I can do on-screen), so I ordered a copy of the magazine, which has now arrived.

The article in question is called "Tolkien on Writing . . . and Me", by Paula Coston, who I'd not heard of before but who has apparently just written her first novel, ON THE FAR SIDE, THERE'S A BOY. though she seems to be more famous for her 'Otherhood movement', which focuses on childless women (though whether childless by choice or not is not entirely clear from my quick skim of their online material).

Here's the link to her book

And here's to one about her 'Otherhood' movement

She also has a blog, in which she briefly recounts her friendship with Tolkien

As for the article, it's charming to hear how Tolkien dealt with letters from a precocious eleven-year-old would-be author (then Paula Iley), her grandparents being next-door neighbors (or, should I say, neighbours) of the Tolkiens at Sandfield Road. Tolkien seems to have taken her poems very seriously, and his comments on them reveal his overriding concern with metre and word-choice. Tolkien was gifted in his ability to write in demanding metres (such as the Pearl-stanza), in which he was dramatically at odds with the literary movements of his lifetime. To young Paula he uses analogy that writing a particular verse form is like playing a game with demanding rules: the true demonstration of skill is to know the rules and yet still deliver a telling blow (or, in his words, "hit the ball with force"). Or, to put it another way, "all verse-writers (who write in regular metres or patterns) . . . know that their imagination may be stirred by the actual struggle to find a rhyme or a word that will fill the place, and they may end by thinking and saying something better than they first intended".

Sometimes there are more personal revealing bits, as when Tolkien writes "I feel sympathy with [her poems], because you seem to be moved by colour, and by day's ending, twilight, evening".  It's rather sad to hear JRRT's account in a January 1969 letter of leaving Oxford: "I have fled from Oxford not wishing to witness any more of its destruction, and being also obliged to escape, to an unknown destination, from the every-day persecution of the press etc." Lamenting the chaos caused by his move,** he writes "My work is delayed and disturbed".

Also of interest is that he repeats the 'green great dragon' story in much the same way as we've seen it before, but with a somewhat different moral: "It was quite a shock, and I have always remembered it, because it was my first introduction to the fact that English (without which I could have said nothing) was not 'mine', and had its own ways".

All in all, a pleasant little addition to our store of knowledge; it was good of Iley/Coston to share them with us (having refused to share them with Carpenter back when he was writing his biography).

--John R.

current reading: Heinlein's GLORY ROAD (ugh), TOLKIEN'S BEOWULF (resumed, again)


**although he does not go into the distressing details here, apparently he fell down the stairs at Sandfield Road and hurt his leg badly, which meant he was in the hospital when the actual move occurred. Which in turn means that he didn't supervise the actual packing of all his papers; this was done by somebody else. With the result that upon arriving at his new house he had no idea where anything was among all those boxes of manuscript and typescript, and seems to have spent the first year or two at Bournemouth simply sorting things out. I personally think any chance JRRT had of finishing THE SILMARILLION vanished when he fell down those stairs in October 1968, though he himself didn't realize it for another two or three years.


Trotter said...

Probably worth pointing out that you can get the magazine from the following link

Dimitra Fimi said...

Great post, John.

I blogged about these letters too a couple of days ago: