You can learn a lot about a person based on their letters. We don’t write many these days — preferring to post rather than use the post office — but in earlier days, letter-writing was the only way to stay in touch. And thank goodness for that — for letters give us thoughts, insights, and musings from some very thoughtful people, which we might not have otherwise.

One of those is John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. In a collection of over 350 of his letters, he offers a lot of background on his writings — but also some pointed insights. In a letter to his son Christopher in September 1994, he writes, “You can’t fight the Enemy with his own Ring without turning into an Enemy.”

More humorously, upon being notified that “one of the outstanding firms of American publishers” was interested in The Hobbit, and that his British publisher wanted Tolkien to submit more illustrations for that work, he wrote back: ‘It might be advisable, rather than lose the American interest, to let the Americans do what seems good to them – as long as it is possible (I should like to add) to veto anything from or influenced by the Disney studios (for all whose works I have a heartfelt loathing)” (letter to Allen & Unwin, May 13, 1937). 

I wonder what he would say about how Warner Brothers handled Lord of the Rings?

In another letter, he compares his life experience to his son Christopher, and writes to him: “Only in one way was I better off: wireless was not invented. I daresay it had some potential for good, but it has in fact in the main become a weapon for the fool, the savage, and the villain to afflict the minority with, and to destroy thought. Listening in has killed listening” (April 18, 1944).

If that’s what he though about the radio, what he would say about Twitter? If he appears a bit curmudgeonly, is it because our tendency is to lean the other direction — acceptance of every new piece of technology: in church, in our homes, and in our lives?

In the end, I believe that we do well to heed the words of teachers who are no longer with us, but still willing to teach if we’re willing to listen. For from them — and from their everyday letters — we just might find some everyday wisdom.


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