Novelists often acquire reputations for becoming, well, not the nicest people, but there are some who have both wisdom and class. A friend shared this with me today. German publishing house Rütten & Loening Verlag, in planning to release The Hobbit in 1938 Germany, sent Tolkien a letter inquiring whether his family was “of Aryan origin.”
Tolkien actually sent a different letter than this one — which remained unsent — but I have to applaud his first response:
If I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.
My great-great-grandfather came to England in the eighteenth century from Germany: the main part of my descent is therefore purely English, and I am an English subject—which should be sufficient.
I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to regard my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army.
I cannot, however, forbear to comment 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.
Presumably the letter he actually posted (which I have not read) was toned down. But I can understand his dismay and anger at the letter from his German publisher. It must have bothered him as a person, as a man of German descent, as a philologist (he was known to get quite irritated about Hitler’s appropriation of the linguistic term “Aryan”), and as a storyteller.
I believe, personally, that a novelist’s job is partly to open our eyes to other lives, to let us not only live more lives than just our own, but to live lives that are profoundly different from our own. It was for this reason that Percy Shelley suggested that imaginative storytelling was a source of empathy, because it can train us to “put ourselves in another’s shoes,” as it were. In An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis, Tolkien’s contemporary and (sometimes) friend, wrote:
But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.
Lewis goes on to wish that he could experience the world even more diversely — if only he could know what the world feels like to a bee or to a dog in all its olfactory wonder!
As this essay points out, stories can destroy (by making others’ lives invisible) or create and bond (by making others’ lives visible). That’s why — even though, as contemporary theorists have argued convincingly, the author as a monolithic authority on his/her own work is “dead” — the choices the author made still have serious impact and significance. I think Tolkien understood this deeply. When Merry and Pippin arrive in Fangorn Forest and meet the oldest living creature in the world, they react with some resignation when they find that this oldest living creature has no mention of their people in his “Lists” of all living and free creatures. (They hurry to suggest he add a few lines to the Lists.)
When Samwise Gamgee discovers a fallen warrior who was fighting on the other side, in a memorable scene in The Two Towers, he yearns to know the man’s story:
He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would rather have stayed there in peace.
To me, a paradox of storytelling is that, as a storyteller, I am simultaneously very free (I can invent anything) and yet I have a great responsibility. The stories we tell matter. The way we represent others who are not us, whether they are real or imagined — it matters. Our choices as to whether to allow or deny those others agency in our stories — that matters. It is partly in our stories that we battle out how our culture will react to and feel about women, Jews, black people, white people, men, Russians, Iraqis … how we will feel about everyone who is not “us” and how we will feel about ourselves.
Stant Litore is a novelist. He writes about gladiators on tyrannosaurback, Old Testament prophets battling the hungry dead, geneticists growing biological starships, time-traveling hijabi bisexual defenders of humanity from the future. Explore his fiction here. And here is one of his toolkits for writers, and here’s another book where he nerds out about ancient languages and biblical (mis)translation. Enjoy!
2 thoughts on “When J.R.R. Tolkien Was Asked if He Was Jewish”
Someone inquired about representation and tokenism, so a quick clarification:
I actually wasn’t thinking about tokenisms at all. That wasn’t what I had in mind. What I was pointing out is that even as we write what we want to write, I also believe in being aware of HOW, not just whether, our stories are representing their characters. There might be no women in the story. There might be only women in the story. The question is — do they have agency? How are we invited to see them and experience their lives? I think what’s important is that as storytellers, we not be naive. That we be aware of what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and what its implications are, and that we own those choices, whatever choices we make.
Which is generally how I feel about life. Make aware choices and own those choices.
An interesting topic of discussion and the ethical responsibility incurred in releasing our subcreations out into the wider world. I would need to look it up, but from what I recall the actual letter Tolkien sent is practically identical to the one quoted here. Though I seem to recall him more emphatically stating a sort of regret or hypothetical yearning to have Jewish heritage.