Top Banner Image

To W.H. Auden on writing

All I remember about the start of The Hobbit is sitting correcting School Certificate papers in the everlasting weariness of that annual task forced on impecunious academics with children. On a blank leaf I scrawled: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ I did not and do not know why. I did nothing about it, for a long time, and for some years I got no further than the production of Thror’s Map. But it became The Hobbit in the early 1930s, and was eventually published not because of my own children’s enthusiasm (though they liked it well enough**), but because I lent it to the then Rev. Mother of Cherwell Edge when she had flu, and it was seen by a former student who was at that time in the office of [publisher] Allen and Unwin. It was I believe tried out on Rayner Unwin; but for whom when grown up I think I should never have got the Trilogy published.

Since The Hobbit was a success, a sequel was called for; and the remote Elvish Legends were turned down. A publisher’s reader said they were too full of the kind of Celtic beauty that maddened Anglo-Saxons in a large dose. Very likely quite right. Anyway I myself saw the value of Hobbits, in putting earth under the feet of ‘romance’, and in providing subjects for ‘ennoblement’ and heroes more praiseworthy than the professionals: nolo heroizari is of course as good a start for a hero, as nolo episcopari for a bishop. Not that I am a ‘democrat’ in any of its current uses; except that I suppose, to speak in literary terms, we are all equal before the Great Author, qui deposuit potentes de sede et exaltavit humiles.

All the same, I was not prepared to write a ‘sequel’, in the sense of another children’s story. I had been thinking about ‘Fairy Stories’ and their relation to children – some of the results I put into a lecture at St Andrews and eventually enlarged and published in an Essay (among those listed in the O.U.P. [Oxford University Press] as Essays Presented to Charles Williams and now most scurvily allowed to go out of print). As I had expressed the view that the connexion in the modern mind between children and ‘fairy stories’ is false and accidental, and spoils the stories in themselves and for children, I wanted to try and write one that was not addressed to children at all (as such); also I wanted a large canvas.

A lot of labour was naturally involved, since I had to make a linkage with The Hobbit; but still more with the background mythology. That had to be re-written as well. The Lord of the Rings is only the end pan of a work nearly twice as long which I worked at between 1936 and 53. (I wanted to get it all published in chronological order, but that proved impossible.) And the languages had to be attended to ! If I had considered my own pleasure more than the stomachs of a possible audience, there would have been a great deal more Elvish in the book. But even the snatches that there are required, if they were to have a meaning, two organized phonologies and grammars and a large number of words.



RECENT COLUMNS

Archives