294 Charlotte and Denis Plimmer Plimmer
[ The Plimmers had recently interviewed Tolkien for the Daily Telegraph Magazine, and had now sent him a draft of their article, the finished version of which was published in the issue of 22 March 1968.]
8 February 1967 76 Sandfield Road, Headington, Oxford Dear Mr.and Mrs Plimmer,
Thank you for your courtesy in sending me a copy of the preliminary draft of your article. It is evident that I presented some difficulties to you during the interview: by my swift speech (which is congenital and incurable), my discourtesy in walking about, and my use of a pipe. No discourtesy was intended. I suffer from arthritis and my knees give me pain if I sit for long. It is one alleviation of being interviewed if I can stand. I should forgo smoking a on these occasions, but I have found being interviewed increasingly distasteful and distracting, and need some sedative.
The copy came to this address the day before I returned hoping to get on with my proper work; I have now found time to consider it. There are one or two points which I should prefer to see altered, and some inaccuracies and misunderstandings that have, no doubt partly by my own fault, crept into the text. Among my characteristics that you have not mentioned is the fact that I am a pedant devoted to accuracy, even in what may appear to others unimportant matters. I have not had time to state these points clearly and legibly, and I hope that the revision and cutting of your article can still wait a day or two. I will try to send them off to reach you by Friday.
In one point I fear that I shall disappoint you. I am informed that the Weekend Telegraph wishes to have your article illustrated by a series of pictures taken of me at work and at home. In no circumstances will I agree to being photographed again for such a purpose. I regard all such intrusions into my privacy as an impertinence, and I can no longer afford the time for it. The irritation it causes me spreads its influence over a far greater time than the actual intrusion occupies. My work needs concentration and peace of mind.
Yours sincerely J. R. R. Tolkien.
[The following are extracts from Tolkiens commentary, sent to Charlotte and Denis Plimmer, on the draft text of their interview with him. The passages in italics are quotations from their draft.]
The cramped garage that he uses as a study
May I say that it is not a study, except in domestic slang: in happier days I had one. It was a hastily contrived necessity, when I was obliged to relinquish my room in college and provide a store for what I could preserve of my library. Most of the books of value have since been removed, and the most important contents are the rows of orderly files kept by my part-time secretary. She is the only regular user of the room. I have never written any literary matter in it .....
My present house and its location were forced on me by necessity; few even of its furnishings afford me any pleasure. I am caught here in acute discomfort; but the dislocation of a removal and the rearrangement of my effects cannot be contemplated, until I have completed my contracted work. When and if I do so, if I am still in health, I hope to go far away to an address that will appear in no directory or reference book.
If you wonder why I received you, two courteous and charming people, in such a hole, may I say that my house has no reception room but my wifes sitting-room, filled with her personal belongings. This was contemptuously described in the New Yorker (by a visitor),1 and we both suffered ridicule (and worse: commiseration) when this was quoted in the London papers. Since then she has refused to admit anybody but personal friends to the room. I myself do not intend to admit anyone (certainly no photographer) to the bedsitter where, in the company of the books that I really use and the files of unpublished material, I spend most of my days at home, and do such writing as I am allowed time for.Tolkien, tall and strongly built
I am not in fact tall, or strongly built. I now measure 5 ft 8 1/2, and am very slightly built, with notably small hands. For most of my life I have been very thin and underweight. Since my early sixties I have become tubby. Not unusual in men who took their exercise in games and swimming, when the opportunities for these things cease.
Tolkien let a few of his Oxford friends read The Hobbit. One, the Mother Superior of a girls hostel, lent it to a student, Susan Dagnall....
The Rev. Mother was superior of a convent (of the order of the Holy Child) at Cherwell Edge, which among other functions kept a hostel for women undergraduates. But as I know it the story runs so: Miss M. F. Griffiths (now one of the senior members of the English Faculty) was beginning her work as a tutor in English Language; she had been a pupil of mine, and was a friend of my family. I lent her the typescript of The Hobbit. She lent it to Susan Dagnall, a pupil of hers, who lived in the hostel.2 Susan lent it to the Rev. Mother to amuse her during convalescence from influenza. Whether it amused her or not, I never heard, so she is a side-track in the journey of the MS. Neither of the loans, to Susan or to the Rev. Mother, were authorized by me3 - I did not think the MS. important - but they proved the foundation of my good fortune in connecting me with Allen and Unwin. I have always been undeservedly lucky at major points. It is sad that Miss Dagnall, to whom in the event I owe so much, was, I believe, killed in a car-accident not long after her marriage.
[The Silmarillion) was turned down [by Allen & Unwin] as being too dark and Celtic.
A & Us readers were quite right in turning it down; not
(I hope) because it was, as they said too dark and Celtic for modern
Anglo-Saxons, since it retains the character thus misdescribed, as does
much of The Lord of the Rings; but because it needed re-writing and more
thought. Most of it was very early work, going back to 1916 and in inception
Middle-earth grew out of Tolkiens predilection for creating languages....
This reference to invention of Language has become, I think, confused. My fault, in introducing too casually complex matters and personal theories, better not touched on unless at greater length than would be suitable (or interesting) in such an article. For the matter is not really pertinent: the amusement of making up languages is very common among children (I once wrote a paper on it, called A Secret Vice), so that I am not peculiar in that respect. The process sometimes continues into adult life, but then is usually kept a secret; though I have heard of cases where a language of this sort* has been used by a group (e.g. in a pseudo-religious ritual).
In your paragraph there is a missing link, more important (I think) for
*That is, one in which inventing a language for pleasure was the main motive. I am not concerned with slangs, cants, thieves argot, Notwelsch, and things of that sort.
the purpose than what I said, or should have said, about invention. Namely: how did linguistic invention lead to imaginary history? So that I think the passage would be more intelligible if it ran more or less so: The imaginary histories grew out of Tolkiens predilection for inventing languages. He discovered, as others have who carry out such inventions to any degree of completion, that a language requires a suitable habitation, and a history in which it can develop.
When you invent a language,'he said, 'you more or less catch it out of the air. You say boo-hoo and that means something.'
I have of course no precise memory of just what I said, but what is here written seems to me odd, since I think it unlikely that I should intentionally have said things contrary to my considered opinions. I do not think that an inventor catches noises out of the air. If said it was a conversational bit of short-talk, possibly intelligible at the moment, but not in cold print - meaning that he utters an articulate sound-group at random (so far as he is aware); but it comes of course out of his linguistic equipment and has innumerable threads of connexion with other similar-sounding words in his own language and any others that he may know. Even so, if he said boo-hoo it would not mean anything. No vocal noises mean anything in themselves. Meaning has to be attributed to them by a human mind.* This may be done casually, often by accidental (non-linguistic) associations; or because of a feeling for phonetic fitness and/or because of preferences in the individual for certain phonetic elements or combinations. The latter is naturally most evident in private invented languages, since it is one of their main objects, recognized or unconscious, to give effect to these likings. It is these preferences, reflecting an individuals innate linguistic taste, that I called his native language; though native linguistic potential would have been more accurate, since it seldom comes to effect, even in modifying his first-learnt language, that of his parents and country.Middle-earth .... corresponds spiritually to Nordic Europe
Not Nordic, please! A word I personally dislike; it is associated, though of French origin, with racialist theories. Geographically Northern is usually better. But examination will show that even this is inapplicable (geographically or spiritually) to Middle-earth. This is an
*My hobbit is a case. Showing how peculiar to an individual this attribution may be (often obscure to the perpetrator of the noise and not discoverable by others). If I attributed meaning to boo-boo I should not in this case be influenced by the words containing bú in many other European languages, but by a story by Lord Dunsany (read many years ago) about two idols enshrined in the same temple: Chu-Bu and Sheemish. If I used boo-boo at all it would be as the name of some ridiculous, fat, self-important character, mythological or human.
old word, not invented by me, as reference to a dictionary such as the Shorter Oxford will show. It meant the habitable lands of our world, set amid the surrounding Ocean. The action of the story takes place in the North-west of Middle-earth, equivalent in latitude to the coastlands of Europe and the north shores of the Mediterranean. But this is not a purely Nordic area in any sense. If Hobbiton and Rivendell are taken (as intended) to be at about the latitude of Oxford, then Minas Tirith, 600 miles south, is at about the latitude of Florence. The Mouths of Anduin and the ancient city of Pelargir are at about the latitude of ancient Troy.
Auden has asserted that for me the North is a sacred direction. That is not true. The North-west of Europe, where I (and most of my ancestors) have lived, has my affection, as a mans home should. I love its atmosphere, and know more of its histories and languages than I do of other parts; but it is not sacred, nor does it exhaust my affections. I have, for instance, a particular love for the Latin language, and among its descendants for Spanish. That it is untrue for my story, a mere reading of the synopses should show. The North was the seat of the fortresses of the Devil. The progress of the tale ends in what is far more like the re-establishment of an effective Holy Roman Empire with its seat in Rome than anything that would be devised by a Nordic.
[Of C. S. Lewiss comments on The Lord of the Rings:] When be would say, "You can do better than that. Better, Tolkien, please!" I would try. I'd sit down and write the section over and over. That happened with the scene I think is the best in the book, the confrontation between Gandalf and his rival wizard, Saruman, in the ravaged city of Isengard.'
I do not think the Saruman passage the best in the book. It is much better than the first draft, that is all. I mentioned the passage because it is in fact one of the very few places where in the event I found Ls detailed criticisms useful and just. I cut out some passages of light-hearted hobbit conversation which he found tiresome, thinking that if he did most other readers (if any) would feel the same. I do not think the event has proved him right. To tell the truth he never really liked hobbits very much, least of all Merry and Pippin. But a great number of readers do, and would like more than they have got. (If it is of interest, the passages that now move me most - written so long ago that I read them now as if they had been written by someone else - are the end of the chapter Lothi6rien (I 365-7), and the horns of the Rohirrim at cockcrow.)
His taste for Nordic languages stems from the fact that he bad German ancestors who migrated to England two centuries ago.
This is the reverse of the truth. Not Nordic: this is not a linguistic term. Germanic is the received term for what appears to be meant. But my taste for Germanic languages has no traceable connexion with the history of my surname. After 150 years (now 200) my father and his immediate kin were extremely British. Neither among them nor others of the name whom I have since met have I found any who showed any linguistic interests, or any knowledge of even modern German. My interest in languages was derived solely from my mother, a Suffield (a family coming from Evesham in Worcestershire). She knew German, and gave me my first lessons in it. She was also interested in etymology, and aroused my interest in this; and also in alphabets and handwriting. My father died in South Africa in 1896. She died in 1904. Two years before her death I had with her sole tuition* gained a scholarship to King Edward VI School in Birmingham.
Dante.....doesnt attract me. Hes full of spite and malice. I don't care for his petty relations with petty people in petty cities.
My reference to Dante was outrageous. I do not seriously dream of being measured against Dante, a supreme poet. At one time Lewis and I used to read him to one another. I was for a while a member of the Oxford Dante Society (I think at the proposal of Lewis, who over- estimated greatly my scholarship in Dante or Italian generally). It remains true that I found the pettiness that I spoke of a sad blemish in places.
I dont read much now, except for fairy-stories.
For except read not even. I read quite a lot - or more truly, try to read many books (notably so-called Science Fiction and Fantasy). But I seldom find any modern books that hold my attentions I suppose because I am under inner pressure to complete my own work - and because of the reason stated [in the interview]: I am looking for something I cant find.
*except in geometry which I was taught by her sister. That was the aunt whose last years I cheered and amused by composing and selecting The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, and consulting her about the book, which she had asked for. She died in her 92nd year soon after it was published .4
+ There are exceptions. I have read all that E. R. Eddison wrote, in spite of his peculiarly bad nomenclature and personal philosophy. I was greatly taken by the book that was (I believe) the runner-up when The L. R. was given the Fantasy Award:5 Death of Grass.6 I enjoy the S.F. of Isaac Azimov. Above these, I was recently deeply engaged in the books of Mary Renault; especially the two about Theseus, The King Must Die, and The Bull from the Sea. A few days ago I actually received a card of appreciation from her; perhaps the piece of Fan-mail that gives me most pleasure.
Ive always looking for something I cant find..... Something like what I wrote myself. Tberes nothing like being vain, is there?
An apology for seeming to speak out of vanity. Actually this arose in humility, my own and Lewiss. The humility of amateurs in a world of great writers. L. said to me one day: Tollers, there is too little of what we really like in stories. I am afraid we shall have to try and write some ourselves. We agreed that he should try space-travel, and I should try time-travel. His result is well known. My effort, after a few promising chapters, ran dry: it was too long a way round to what I really wanted to make, a new version of the Atlantis legend. The final scene survives as The Downfall of Númenenor.7 This attracted Lewis greatly (as heard read), and reference to it occurs in several places in his works: e.g. The Last of the Wine, in his poems (Poems, 1964, p. 40). We neither of us expected much success as amateurs, and actually Lewis had some difficulty in getting Out of the Silent Planet published. And after all that has happened since, the most lasting pleasure and reward for both of us has been that we provided one another with stories to hear or read that we really liked - in large parts. Naturally neither of us liked all that we found in the other's fiction.
Tolkien ... is among the principal collaborators of the newly-translated Jerusalem Bible.
Naming me among the principal collaborators was an undeserved courtesy on the part of the editor of the Jerusalern Bible. I was consulted on one or two points of style, and criticized some contributions of others. I was originally assigned a large amount of text to translate, but after doing some necessary preliminary work I was obliged to resign owing to pressure of other work, and only completed Jonah, one of the shortest books.