Tolkien: "Sales are not very great"


J.R.R. Tolkien changed some of the language in The Hobbit and referred to sales being slow in a letter to a fellow author, held in Leeds' archives.

The letter was sent from Tolkien to Leeds author Arthur Ransome in 1937, shortly after The Hobbit was published. It is part of a collection of Tolkien’s writing held at the University of Leeds, where Tolkien taught for five years.

At the time, Ransome was the better-known writer and he had suggested several stylistic tweaks to The Hobbit mainly concerning Tolkien’s use of the word ‘man’. Tolkien, who was known for taking umbrage over his publisher’s edits, cheerfully agreed to several of Ransome’s suggestions. He promised to send Ransome a revised copy of the book “if there is a reprint” and added “sales are not very great”.

Tolkien also created a pretence of writing to Ransome as though The Hobbit was a historical document. He told Ransome: “To be fancied by you, that is more than any hobbit could have expected”. He justified the character Thorin’s use of ‘man’ by claiming it was “the language in those days”.

Dr Alaric Hall from the University of Leeds’ School of English said: “What this letter shows that Tolkien is thinking of himself as a translator of a lost text. He is slipping into a kind of fantasy as if he’s writing about a real world, as he loves doing. It’s part of his humour, and I guess he thought that Arthur Ransome was going to enjoy it and get his joke.”

Dr Hall said it was not unusual for Tolkien to create unintended inconsistencies in his fiction and then use his scholarly expertise to try to explain them. Tolkien, an authority on ancient English languages, made up several fictional languages in his books (including Elvish) using his knowledge of Old English, Middle English, Old Icelandic, and Medieval Welsh.

Dr Hall added: “Tolkien’s fiction was an opportunity for him to create an imaginary linguistic playground where he could think of the words and sounds that he was studying, but play with them in a way that was unfettered by reality and evidence.”

The Hobbit went on to sell an estimated 100 million copies and is currently number 25 in the BBC’s ‘Big Read’ poll of the UK’s favourite books (The Lord of the Rings is number one). The film remake by director Peter Jackson will be released in three parts, the first due in theatres in December.

Tolkien joined the University as Reader in 1920 aged 28, and was made a Professor several years later.

He was brought in to develop the linguistic side of the syllabus in the School of English. He was fascinated by the origins of the language and put major effort into translating Old Icelandic texts; by the time he left he had established the University as a UK leader in Old Icelandic language and literature.

Tolkien had fond memories of the North, writing after taking up a new post: “I was devoted to the University of Leeds, which was very good to me, and to the students, whom I left with regret.”

His portfolio is still taught in the School, including an edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight which he produced there; his seminal article on the Old English poem Beowulf; and Medieval Welsh, which he also introduced into the Leeds syllabus.

His passion for language and the myths of Northern Europe attracted ever more students to the School. He inspired the Viking Club, a student society formed to read Nordic verse and to sing Nordic songs.

Tolkien’s creative output while at Leeds included poetry for Leeds student magazine The Gryphon featuring elves and kings, and development of his first big work The Silmarillion, a pseudo-history about the creation of Middle-earth, published posthumously.

Dr Hall said: “The University of Leeds is where he was really able to develop a syllabus for himself, where he was able to develop his own vision of what you might call Medieval Studies: what it was and how it should be taught.”

On October 1, a blue plaque was unveiled in Tolkien’s honour at his former home in West Park, Leeds, in collaboration with Leeds Civic Trust and The Tolkien Society.

Dr Kersten Hall from the School of Philosophy, Religion and the History of Science, who unveiled the plaque, said: "The City of Leeds deserves to be proud that its local heritage is connected to a literary figure who is cherished not just here in the UK, but also across the world."

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