C. S. Lewis’s Letter to Tolkien upon First Reading The Lord of the Rings

J. R. R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings over a long interval that began well before World War II and ended a few years after. Both Tolkien and his adult son Christopher regularly attended meetings of the Inklings, a literary group of which C. S. Lewis was the guiding star, and the two Tolkiens took turns reading The Lord of the Rings as it came together. Lewis had therefore heard most of The Lord of the Rings before receiving the typescript of the finished novel in October 1949. After reading it he wrote this letter to Tolkien.

My dear Tollers—

Uton herian holbytlas indeed. I have drained the rich cup and satisfied a long thirst. Once it really gets under weigh the steady upward slope of grandeur and terror (not unrelieved by green dells, without which it would indeed be intolerable) is almost unequalled in the whole range of narrative art known to me. In two virtues I think it excels: sheer sub-creation—Bombadil, Barrow Wights, Elves, Ents—as if from inexhaustible resources, and construction—the construction Tasso aimed at (but did not equally achieve) which was to combine the variety of Ariosto with the unity of Virgil. Also, in gravitas. No romance can repell [sic] the charge of ‘escapism’ with such confidence. If it errs, it errs precisely in the opposite direction: the sickness of hope deferred and the merciless piling up of odds against the heroes are near to being too painful. And the long coda after the eucatastrophe, whether you intended  it or no, has the effect of reminding us that victory is as transitory as conflict, that (as Byron says) ‘There’s no sterner moralist than pleasure’ and so leaving a final impression of profound melancholy.

No doubt this is increased for me by the circumstances in which I heard most of it for the first time: when there was great danger around us but, in me at any rate, a happier heart than now. But that only accounts for a small part of my total impression. I am sure it is in itself a great and hard and bitter book which, though I love it, I shall never open without a certain shrinking. It will rank, along with the Aeneid as one of what I call my ‘immediately sub-religious’ books.

Indeed (unexpectedly) the general aroma seems to me more like the Aeneid than anything else, in spite of your Northernness. This is partly because both (a.) Are so often sylvan (b.) Have strategy, as distinct from mere combat, (c.) Suggest an enormous past behind the action.

All the alliterative verse I liked.

Of course this is not the whole story. There are many passages I could wish you had written otherwise or omitted altogether. If I include more of my adverse criticism in this letter that is because you heard and rejected most of them already (rejected is perhaps too mild a word for your reaction on  to least one occasion!) and even if I now convinced you on any point, the conviction would, I take it, be too late to bear fruit. And even if all my objections were just (which is of course unlikely) the faults I think I find could only delay and impair appreciation: the substantial splendour of the tale can carry them all. Ubi plura nitent in carmine non ego paucis offendo maculis.

I congratulate you. All the long years you have spent on it are justified. Morris and Eddison, in so far as they are comparable, are now mere ‘precursors’.

The mappemound [sic: mappemundo=”map of the world”] is, as you warn me, now inaccurate. But on a rather different point—do you mean the Shire to be so large?

I miss you very much

Yours

Jack Lewis

The friendship between Lewis and Tolkien laid the foundation for the fantasy genre as we know it today in film, games, television, and books, so it’s interesting to see Lewis’s immediate reaction to Tolkien’s magnum opus. As usual Lewis clearly expresses what the rest of us sense dimly. But what I really sense upon reading this letter is how impoverished we’ve become as a culture, how uneducated even the most educated modern person is. Can you imagine today finding a community of artists and thinkers—even a small cadre like the Inklings—who could not only read the ancient languages but compose in them, had the skill both to dazzle the imagination with flights of fantasy and to chasten the mind with analysis and logic, and had not only read, but enjoyed and profited by, literature from Greece to modern times? How many of us now could comprehend a letter like this, much less write one? The Inklings were, I suppose, rare enough in their day. Are there any left now?