Edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien
Originally published 1981 George Allen & Unwin (Publishers) Ltd.
This edition: UK edition (HarperCollins): paperback, 1999
£9.99 ISBN: 0-261-10265-6
Houghton Mifflin, Boston: first paperback edition 2000
$15.00 ISBN 0-618-05699-8
There is a US hardback still available at $24.95 ISBN 0395315557. This is listed as the 1981 edition so do not expect to find it with the new index.
Includes new, expanded index.
This index-specific review of The Letters first appeared right here.
The Letters of JRR Tolkien is the largest block of information (most of it in his own words) about the real JRR Tolkien available to his readers. It represents a substantial part of the material that Humphrey Carpenter used in writing his readable JRR Tolkien: A Biography and it is the source of many of the facts and rumours (often the result of dodgy memory on the part of the readers) that are batted around the web. It repays reading, although this is sometimes hard work in the heavier sections. In between are many gems. Tolkien could write the hind leg off any number of usenet users - it's perhaps a good thing he lived in the pre-Internet age, or he might never have completed any of his great works. Also, this is not an expensive volume, and now that it includes Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond's all-new and vastly expanded index, it has become not only an important reference book but one that Tolkien readers of all persuasions can actually look stuff up in.
While by no means poorly selected, the original index was a scant 10 pages and concentrated almost exclusively on the names of people and places (within and without the fictional works), only diversifying into subject areas under certain selected headings. The new index is around 50 pages. Better yet, there has been no messing with the pagination, so that the new index can equally well be used with older editions, and the old index, for those who know it well, with the new (paperback) volumes. This is not as daft as it sounds, as the print quality of the new paperbacks is not the match of the older hardback editions (or the earlier paperback ones) and besides - how often have you run out of thumbs while tracking down several related comments in a reference book?
The new index has around 3 pages on entries from The Lord of the Rings, in contrast to the old index's single column. The entries from the fiction and from the life are now in a single index, not separated as previously. (This decision indirectly makes the point that readers who have an interest in Tolkien's life can hardly separate it from his writings, and those who come this far with an interest in his work should allow themselves to become interested in his life also.)
To take as examples the first few entries:
A.S. Napier, 1853-1916 (Ker) 406-6 (book title and author: new)
Abercrombie, Lascelles 56, 437 (new reference added)
Abnegation 246 (subject: new)
About the House (Auden) (title and author: only referenced under Auden previously)
Ace Books 355, 356, 358, 364, 367 (two new references)
Ackerman, Forrest J. 270-7; 260, 261, 267, 447 (two new references)
Adunaic 175; Númenórean 279, 347 (previously not referenced at all)
The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (poem) . . . (title: given its own heading, with many more page references plus subject references.)
The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book . . . (book title: many more references and subjects)
Ælfwine (The Lost Road) 347 (Previously not referenced, although a purely linguistic reference to the same name in a different context was included.)
Aeneid (Vergil) (Title: previously not referenced)
Africa 30, 82 (previously not referenced)
Aglarond 282, 407 (previously not referenced)
Agnew, Lady 321, 450 (previously not referenced)
Ainur 146, 259-60; Authorities 193; Gods 146, 147, 148 (etc. with many page references and subjects) (Previously only two page entries.)
And so on.
It can be seen that the referencing of people and places from the writings has been greatly extended, existing headings have been broken down into many more subjects, subject headings have been added and literary works have been dragged out from under their authors and given their own headings.
One broad field that is not indexed is words in other languages, real or Tolkienish, but there are extensive references under (for example) Elvish Languages, with separate sub-headings for Quenya and Sindarin. The compilers wisely stay away from elvish words other than names. They refer us to Taum Santoski's index of elvish references in the Letters in Vinyar Tengwar November 1991. I cannily attempted to find a reference by looking up 'star'. No entry. Language detectives must go back to the multi-thumb method. This is after all a 50-page index, not a 500-page one. 'Gothic', 'Old Norse' and 'Anglo-Saxon' now get their own headings instead of being lumped under "character and interests".
Users must use the normal cunning required when stalking encyclopedias, business 'phone directories and indexes everywhere. If you want to know why Asfaloth has a bridle in the first edition of LotR, and a headstall in the second edition, you will find no assistance under "bridle", "horse" and only indirectly under "Asfaloth", but will find the whole story under "Glorfindel". And the compilers have netted the missing third reference to "Balrogs".
There's a good deal of information to be had just flipping through the Index - "hatred of war in the air 105" "every tree has its enemy 321" ""Owes faith to his mother 54, 172, 340, 353-4, 473" "need to supplement income by examining 24, 26 (etc.)" "not a trilogy 184, 221" "need to know how to stew a rabbit ...74" and so on.
The rumour that "Valar: see Ainur" had been excised against the will of the indexers for lack of room is no rumour at all - no reference to 'Valar' appears, although there is a good half page free at the end of the book. This kind of thing happens all too often when pages are being made up. Perhaps - if the publishers have wisely kept the typesetting under lock and key (what chance?) - in the next edition Wayne and Christina will be allowed to fill the empty space. I have no doubt at all that they will be able to put it to good use.
JRR Tolkien Ed. Alan Bliss
HarperCollinsPublishers 2nd edition paperback 1998
180 + xii pages £7.99 (UK)
Review by Andrew Wells
This review first appeared in Amon Hen
Finn and Hengest is unlike most other books by Tolkien currently available. It is neither a work of original fiction, like The Lord of the Rings or Roverandom; nor is it a collection of drafts edited by his son, like Unfinished Tales or The History of Middle-earth series. Instead, it contains Tolkien's thoughts on two works of Anglo-Saxon literature, both of which deal with a fight between two heroes, Finn and Hengest.
The first of these works is a fragment of a poem or lay, usually referred to as The Fight at Finnesburg. Unfortunately, the original is now lost, and the text is only available in a printed version of 1705. The second work is a section of Beowulf, dealing (in abbreviated form) with the events converted in the fragment (and, we assume the rest of the poem). Both texts concern a fight between Finn and Hengest, two Northern European heroes of the fifth century; Hengest is usually identified with one of the two brothers Hengest and Horsa, who led the Anglo-Saxon invasion of England in or around 449 AD.
The main part of the book is an edited version of Professor Tolkien's papers dealing with the texts, chiefly his notes for lectures he gave at Oxford throughout his professorial career there. All too typically, these papers were somewhat disordered, and not immediately publishable. The editor makes it clear that, in this section, he has used as light a hand as possible, and it appears that both the words and the sentiments are very largely Tolkien's own. The editor's voice is more loudly heard in a Preface and an Introduction, in a translation of the Fragment, and in an Appendix on "The Nationality of Hengest".
The book makes interesting reading - both, as the blurb says,
how Tolkien handled a story which he did not invent, and for the light
that Professor Tolkien is able to shed on Northern European history from a
close reading of the texts. However, it is also demanding reading. Throughout
the book - most especially in Tolkien's sections - a considerable knowledge
of Old English, and of scholarly thinking on that language, its literature
and the history of the period, is called for. It is disappointing that Alan
Bliss, in his editorial work, did not do a little more to make the work more
accessible to other readers. However, this would have been difficult to do,
especially while retaining Tolkien's original material. It might also have
been useful if more comment had been made on recent thinking, and the list
of references been brought up to date; Tolkien's papers were completed by
1962, and the first edition of this book was published in 1982.
So it is difficult to know who will buy or read this book. Tolkien completists? Certainly. Students and scholars, whether formal or informal, of Anglo-Saxon? I would have thought so, but the book's glossy cover, with an (effective) illustration by John Howe - as well as the slightly outdated text - might seem to imply otherwise. The average reader of Tolkien's fiction, who might have read his The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth or Gawain and the Green Knight but none of his scholarly papers? Probably not; which is unfortunate, as the subject is interesting; and it would be a shame if Tolkien's thoughts on the topic were thus prevented from being brought before a wider audience.
All material on this page is copyright of the authors and of The Tolkien Society. Please do not copy material from this page for use elsewhere.