[The original version of this article appeared in Portuguese on the Tolkien Brasil website.]
About eighteen years ago, when I first began reading J.R.R. Tolkien, I could never imagine that I would be one of the many enthusiasts spread around the world with serious objectives of analysing the Professor’s works, not only as entertainment but as a key to our modern culture.
The experience of a secondary world was something very relevant in my life. If I had not known the works of Tolkien, I would have neither developed the taste for reading nor would I have become a lawyer in Minas Gerais (a Brazilian state). I believe many Brazilians have had a similar experience, especially during these last two decades.
This feeling of gratitude (amongst other motivations) was the seed for the creation of the Tolkien Brasil website, which has the objective of being a perpetual reminder of how important his works were and are to everybody.
We are always striving to increase the amount of Tolkien-related material available in Portuguese. It has demanded a lot of effort, and we have invested a lot of time and money on the matter. It is a particular concern to everyone who follows the website. As a non-profit, all the expenses are covered by me and my dear friend Sérgio (also an administrator).
Given what it takes to maintain the website, we have gone through times of difficulty and even despair. But there are also those moments that fill us with happiness and satisfaction. One of these moments was the recent receipt of a letter from Priscilla Tolkien, daughter of Professor Tolkien.
Priscilla Tolkien’s message
Among Tolkien’s children, only one was a girl. His youngest child, Priscilla Tolkien is now 80 years old, and so we are especially grateful that she took time out to answer our questions.
When discussing the projects we are working on, in the middle of a long letter sent to her last year, I asked Priscilla Tolkien to write a short message to our Brazilian readers to put on our website.
I never imagined that she would accept this audacious request, given the thousands of websites and groups dedicated to her father. But, to our great surprise, she replied. Here is the message written by Priscilla Tolkien to all Brazilians who admire her father:
Greetings to all admirers of my father, J.R.R. Tolkien’s works. I am delighted that there are so many people in Brazil who love and enjoy his stories. It is a remarkable tribute to his gifts as writer and illustrator that his work has touched so many people’s lives throughout the world.
The letter is dated 22 December, 2014, a day on which her father used to write the Father Christmas Letters.
Although the message does not come from Tolkien himself, it is nonetheless an honour for us Brazilians to receive a message from someone who collaborated in the development of the works and was so close to our dear Professor J. R. R. Tolkien.
The complete content of the letter cannot be published yet because it deals with our future projects still in development. But we hope to disclose it all later this year – a year that will be full of good news!
Tolkien and Brazil
The only reference to Brazil from Tolkien is in his essay “On Fairy Stories”, published in Tree and Leaf (1964). The essay was originally written in 1938, but in 1943 it was revised and expanded. In this revision, Tolkien included a brief paragraph with a footnote, as follows:
It seems to become fashionable soon after the great voyages had begun to make the world seem too narrow to hold both men and elves; when the magic land of Hy Breasail in the West had become the mere Brazils, the land of red-dye-wood. (N. 2: For the probability that the Irish Hy Breasail played a part in the naming of Brazil see Nansen, In Northern Mists, ii, 223-30).
Tree and Leaf (Árvore e Folha) was translated into Portuguese by Tolkien scholar Ronald Kyrmse and published in 2013.
The paragraph highlights the change in thinking engendered by increased travel from Europe to the rest of the world, especially the great voyages which set out from Portugal and the associated legends of a magic land called “Hy Breasail” which lent its name to “Pau Brasil” and later the country itself. It is basically a critique of the advance of rationalism at that time, making the legends of magic around the unknown world obsolete. Some scholars believe in the relation between the name Brasil and Hy Breasail (a magic island from the legends of Ireland, whose name comes from Old Irish: Í “island” and Bres “beautiful, big, wonderful”).
In the footnote, Tolkien cites this possible relation from the book In Northern Mists: Arctic Exploration in Early Times by Nansen, published in 1911. Tolkien had in his private library copies of the two volumes of this edition. The author of the book Fridtjof Wedeljarlsberg Nansen (1861-1930) was a Norwegian explorer and the first one to cross the Arctic Ocean, and also rector of St Andrews University.
In Tolkien On Fairy-Stories, the editors Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson make the following comments on Hy Breasail:
The Irish myth of Hy Breasail, or Bresail,= the island out in the Atlantic (cf. Vol. I, p. 357), is evidently very ancient; the island is one of the many happy lands like “Tir Tairngiri” (the promised land). In the opinion of Moltke Moe and Alf Torp the name may come from the Irish ” bress ” (good fortune, prosperity), and would thus be absolutely the same as the Insulas Fortunatae. The Italians may easily have become acquainted with this myth through the Irish monasteries in North Italy, unless, indeed, they had it through their sailors, and in this way the island came upon the map. The form ” brazil ” may have arisen through the cartographer connecting the name with the valuable brazil-wood, used for dyeing. The channel dividing the island of Brazil on the maps may be the river which in the legend of Brandan ran through the island called “Terra Repromissionis,” and which Brandan (in the “Navigatio”) was not able to cross. It is probably the river of death (Styx), and possibly the same that became the river at Hop in the Icelandic saga of Wineland (see Vol. I, p. 359). We thus find here again a possible connection, and this strengthens the probability that Brazil was the Promised Land of the Irish, which, on the other hand, helped to form Wineland.
We cannot expect Tolkien to have written much more about Brazil. First of all, because he did not have any relation with Brazilians. The first translation of his books in Brazil appeared only a year after his death with the first edition of The Lord of the Rings by Artenova publishing house. The long wait before the publication of the first Brazilian editions is a result of many factors, such like the economy after the Second World War and the fact that Brazil was a dictatorship during the years of popularity of The Lord of the Rings as a global success in the 1960s.
However, this brief quotation demonstrates the depth of the Professor’s knowledge about History and Norse Mythology.