There are a pair of rather spectacular early letters of Tolkien. By which I mean (in part) that more than with others, I get the very distinct sense of being a spectator observing Tolkien performing in these letters.
In Letter 30, Tolkien refuses to make any declarations of aryan extraction for a potential German publisher of The Hobbit. (He declared in a letter to his British publisher that he “should object strongly to any such declaration appearing in print …. and should regret giving any colour to the notion that I subscribed to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine.”) (Letter #29) In Letter 30, Tolkien’s academic background is on full display as he mocks the term “arisch“, pointing out that (at least based on an Indo-European language tree), he would have to declare himself Indo-iranian, or descended from speakers of “Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects.” He later points out to the publisher that “if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.” Letters of Note approvingly headlines this letter “I have no ancestors of that gifted people” [that is: jewish]
Meanwhile in Letter 43, addressed to his son Michael, Tolkien addresses relations between the sexes, and (again drawing on his academic background) specifically points out that many attitudes towards women are historically contingent:
There is in our Western culture the romantic chivalric tradition still strong, though as a product of Christendom (yet by no means the same as Christian ethics) the times are inimical to it. It idealizes ‘love’ – and as far as it goes can be very good, since it takes in far more than physical pleasure, and enjoins if not purity at least fidelity, and so self-denial, ‘service’, courtesy, honour, and courage. It’s weakness is, of course, that it began as an artificial courtly game … it still tends to make the Lady a kind of guiding star or divinity … This is, of course, false, and at best make-believe”
That’s right, Tolkien specifically cautioned his son against embracing chivalry, identified that it came out of a particular cultural context, and warned specifically that putting idealized women on pillars to be adored was false.
The rest of the letter, of course, is full of cautions that men are brutes ruled by physical lust while women “can in fact often achieve very remarkable insight and understanding, even of things otherwise outside their natural range: for it is their gift to be receptive, stimulated, fertilized (in many other matters than the physical) by the male. ”
It’s pretty boring (but worth saying) to note that Tolkien was both sexist and racist. By which I mean he believed that women and men were fundamentally different and that women’s natural role was one of subservience. Similarly, he believed (and was steeped in) an ideology that said skin color and the language your ancestors spoke could tell you fundamentally important things about the content of one’s character, and that some people were just better than others. (I’m not really satisfied with either of these definitions, but it does seem to me that Tolkien’s attitudes were not generally about personal animus, but equally that he would not only consent to racist and sexist power structures, but also thought that they reflected, rather than shaped, reality).
Really, it shouldn’t be controversial to say that the guy who wrote about the struggles between the Baggins and Tookish halves in a book without women was racist and sexist, but since it seems to be, let’s be very clear that he was.
I’m still wrestling with what I want to do with that knowledge, since the racism and sexism are integral parts of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but more about that when I get further into the books. What fascinates me about these two letters is Tolkien’s ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in his head at once. Notions about men’s and women’s roles are historically contingent, but also women have “the servient, helpmeet instinct” (yes, there’s a lot here about Christianity and I’m skipping over what Tolkien probably thought was the meat of the letter, but still: women’s roles are historically contingent and also they are naturally inclined to behave exactly that way). Similarly, the “race-doctrine” is entirely unscientific, but he has “no ancestors of that gifted people” and also his refutation is based on his linguistic scholarship – race is a real thing and one in which he claims expertise.
Also (and here capitalism rears it’s ugly head) – we have Letter 30 available because Tolkien did not send this brave denunciation to the potential German publisher. “You are primarily concerned and I cannot jeopardize the chance of German publication without your approval. So I submit two drafts of possible answers.” he wrote to his publisher in Letter 29. The note for Letter 30 tells us “This is the only one preserved in the Allen & Unwin files, and it seems therefore very probable that the English publishers sent the other one to Germany.”
Let’s find another elder statesman to go out on, shall we?