Auctions | February 11, 2014

Unpublished Tolkien Letter on <i>Lord of the Rings</i> for Sale at Bonhams

An unpublished letter from J.R.R. Tolkien to his publishers about the difficulties of completing The Return of the King, the third and final part of The Lord of the Rings, is to be offered at Bonhams sale of Books, Maps, Manuscripts and Historical Photographs in London on 19 March. It is estimated at £6,000-8,000.

The letter, dated 12 May 1955, was addressed to Rayner Unwin, at the publishing company, Unwins. At the age of 10, Rayner had famously persuaded his father, Stanley, to publish The Hobbit and years later, after he joined the family firm, to publish The Lord of the Rings.

Many of Tolkien’s concerns are to do with the problems he faced in preparing the appendices to the work. These contain extra, detailed material on the background to the story, the characters and their culture. He wrote, for example, “I have I expect in the end kept too much. If anything has to be rejected then please do not let it be the Runes and the Table I have painfully arranged (to fit the space I hope and avoid the sad fate of the Feanorian Letters which now look very scrappy!).”

Tolkien had shown the galley proofs of the appendices to the poet W. H. Auden, an admirer of the novels, who, he reports, had largely approved.  Auden had, however, questioned the inclusion of the love story—‘The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen’—much to Tolkien’s dismay since, as he wrote to Unwin, “I still find it poignant: an allegory of naked hope’.  

The Lord of the Rings had some high profile devotees in addition to Auden. In a postscript to the letter, Tolkien mentions that he had received a fan letter from the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University and also from Sir Peter Medawar—“Professor Medawar, the physiologist, is bullying me—but he says he’s afraid there’s going to be a ‘happy ending’. Would you call it a happy ending?”

He also notes that, “among the so-intelligentsia it is odd that most who bother to write are non-literary and largely scientists”—Auden being a notable exception to this observation.

Head of Bonhams Book Department in the UK, Matthew Haley said, “This letter, which has never been published before, sheds a fascinating light on Tolkien’s working methods and the devotion to detail which he lavished on the imaginary worlds of his books. Those worlds clearly felt very real to him and he wanted readers to share that feeling.”

The sale also includes a first edition of The Hobbit estimated at £10,000-15,000 and second edition of The Lord of the Rings in three volumes signed by the author on the title page of each book (£3,000-4,000).