As I mentioned last week, I’ve been flipping through The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. It’s been funny and encouraging to see how much his life and letters look like the lives and emails of writers I know. He worries about money. He expresses fear of rejection and a lack of confidence. He apologizes to his publisher for delays (over and over) and makes excuses: “I am not so much pressed as oppressed (or depressed). Further troubles which I need not detail have occurred…” He writes about squeezing in his fiction-writing between academic responsibilities and the concerns of family life and such mundane matters as mowing the lawn, repairing his bicycle, and tending to chickens.
Tolkien’s letters aren’t as dull as all that, though. He could be opinionated about friends and rivals alike, and also about Disney: he said he was happy to trust his American publisher with illustrations for The Hobbit, “as long as it was possible (I should like to add) to veto anything from or influenced by the Disney studios (for all whose work I have a heartfelt loathing.”
Tolkien got especially salty when a German publisher asked if he was of Aryan origin:
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.
Your enquiry is doubtless made in order to comply with the laws of your own country, but that this should be held to apply to the subjects of another state would be improper, even if it had (as it has not) any bearing whatsoever on the merits of my work or its suitability for publication (p.37).
A letter that I’ve been pondering for a week or more one that Tolkien wrote to C.S. Lewis, apparently after he (Tolkien) had dished out some criticism that hurt Lewis’s feelings. The two friends often critiqued one another’s writing projects. Indeed, honest criticism is an important way that writer-friends show that they take one another’s work seriously. But honest criticism is a risk.
When Lewis wrote to Tolkien of his hurt, Tolkien wrote a long letter of apology. “I knew well enough that you would not allow pain to grow into resentment,” he wrote, “not even if (or still less because) that may be a tendency of your nature. Woe to him, though, by whom the temptations come. I regret causing pain, even if and in so far as I had the right; and I am very sorry indeed still for having caused it quite excessively and unnecessarily.” He continues:
I have been possessed on occasions (few, happily) with a sort of furor scribendi [furor of writing] in which the pen finds the words rather than head or heart; and this was one of them…I daresay under grace that [this pain] will do good rather than harm, but that is between you and God. It is one of the mysteries of pain that it is, for the sufferer, an opportunity for good, a path of ascent however hard. But it remains an ‘evil’, and it must dismay any conscience to have caused it carelessly, or in excess, let alone wilfully… There may have been one or two of my comments that were just or valid, but I should have limited myself to them, and expressed them differently. He is a savage physician who coats a not wholly unpalatable pill with a covering of gall! (p. 125)
This is excellent form for an apology. It’s humble, it’s heartfelt, it doesn’t stray into self-justification, but neither does it stray into self-flagellation. It affirms the other’s feelings and demonstrates that Tolkien values relationship more than he values being proven right.
Friendship is risky. It’s especially risky when you care enough about a friend’s good to offer the kind of constructive criticism that we all need. So we’d better get good at apologizing and forgiving.