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Episode 13: "I am in Fact a Hobbit (In all But Size)" - Letter 213


Pull up a cozy chair and join us as we chat about the works and Catholic faith of J.R.R. Tolkien as well as how we can carry Middle-Earth into our own daily lives.

I’ve wanted to begin discussing some of Tolkien’s letters every so often and so today I thought we’d talk about Letter 213.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about or why these letters have numbers, it’s because they’ve been compiled and published in this really lovely and insightful book called The Letters of JRR Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter. I’ll link to it in the show description, I highly highly recommend it.

So this letter was written to Deborah Webster in October of 1958. Deborah Webster Rogers wrote her doctoral dissertation on Tolkien and Lewis at the University of Wisconsin entitled  The Fictitious Characters of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, as well as JRR Tolkien: A Critical Biography. This letter was first published in her dissertation.

It’s a very short letter so we’ll go through it together one paragraph at a time!

So he begins with a response to what I’m assuming is her request for facts about himself, saying he is quite opposed to this sort of thing.

“I do not like giving 'facts' about myself other than 'dry' ones (which anyway are quite as relevant to my books as any other more Juicy details). Not simply for personal reasons; but also because I object to the contemporary trend in criticism, with its excessive interest in the details of the lives of authors and artists. They only distract attention from an author's works (if the works are in fact worthy of attention), and end, as one now often sees, in becoming the main interest.”

But only one's guardian Angel, or indeed God Himself, could unravel the real relationship between personal facts and an author's works. Not the author himself (though he knows more than any investigator), and certainly not so-called 'psychologists'.

But, of course, there is a scale of significance in 'facts' of this sort. There are insignificant facts (those particularly dear to analysts and writers about writers): such as drunkenness, wife-beating, and suchlike disorders. I do not happen to be guilty of these particular sins. But if I were, I should not suppose that artistic work proceeded from the weaknesses that produced them, but from other and still uncorrupted regions of my being.

Modern 'researchers' inform me that Beethoven cheated his publishers, and abominably ill-treated his nephew; but I do not believe that has anything to do with his music.

Then there are more significant facts, which have some relation to an author's works; though knowledge of them does not really explain the works, even if examined at length. For instance I dislike French, and prefer Spanish to Italian – but the relation of these facts to my taste in languages (which is obviously a large ingredient in The Lord of the Rings) would take a long time to unravel, and leave you liking (or disliking) the names and bits of language in my books, just as before.”

So here we are seeing a distinction being made by Tolkien between insignificant facts and significant ones and I think that’s quite important in light of the modern obsession over insignificant facts, as Tolkien had mentioned in the beginning of his letter.

He then lists of what he feels are the really significant facts about himself.

“And there are a few basic facts, which however drily expressed, are really significant. For instance I was born in 1892 and lived for my early years in 'the Shire' in a pre-mechanical age.

Or more important, I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories), and in fact a Roman Catholic. The latter 'fact' perhaps cannot be deduced; though one critic (by letter) asserted that the invocations of Elbereth, and the character of Galadriel as directly described (or through the words of Gimli and Sam) were clearly related to Catholic devotion to Mary. Another saw in waybread (lembas)= viaticum and the reference to its feeding the will (vol. III, p. 213) and being more potent when fasting, a derivation from the Eucharist.

“(That is: far greater things may colour the mind in dealing with the lesser things of a fairy-story.)”

This is one of my favorite lines from this letter, so I’ll read it again:

“(That is: far greater things may colour the mind in dealing with the lesser things of a fairy-story.)”

He then goes on to write,

“I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size). I like gardens, trees and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humour (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much. I love Wales (what is left of it, when mines, and the even more ghastly sea-side reasons, have done their worst), and especially the Welsh language. But I have not in fact been in W. for a long time (except for crossing it on the way to Ireland). I go frequently to Ireland (Eire: Southern Ireland) being fond of it and of (most of) its people; but the Irish language I find wholly unattractive. I hope that is enough to go on with.

This letter is a great place to start within Tolkien’s letters or if you’re just beginning to learn a bit more about him because he’s just listing off the facts and influences he feels are important or significant to know when reading his works.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this letter! Tweet me, email etc.

If you’d like to become a patron you can learn more about all the benefits and such that come with supporting Tea with Tolkien in this way at patreon.com/teawithtolkien.

And mark your calendars for Tolkien Reading Day on March 25th, I’ll have a special bonus episode to celebrate and if you don’t know what Tolkien Reading Day is, it’s a tradition begun by The Tolkien Society and if encourages fans to take time every March 25th to read and share their favorite Tolkien passages and just celebrate his life and works so I’ll be sharing my five favorites and I’d love to hear what yours are as well!

I’ll also be hosting a giveaway on Instagram so be sure to follow me over there if you’d like to enter, it will be up on March 25th as well, and I’m also working on another surprise for you all so all in all it will be a very exciting week in the Tea with Tolkien community.

I hope you have a beautiful week and I’ll talk to you soon!

Tolkien Reading Day (Bonus Episode: My Favorite Tolkien Passages)

Tolkien Reading Day (Bonus Episode: My Favorite Tolkien Passages)

Episode 12: A Hobbit's Guide to Lent