“Impertinent and irrelevant inquiries”

The German publishing firm of Rutten & Loening contacted Allen & Unwin in 1938 (the publishers of The Hobbit) and wanted to negotiate with them for a German translation of the book. But first and foremost, they wanted to know if Tolkien was of “arisch” origin. (Aryan) Tolkien wrote a brief note to Stanley Unwin, saying that he wanted to refuse to give them an answer – He didn’t want to add to “the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine” by comfirming or denying. However – he didn’t want to ruin his chances of The Hobbit being read in Germany. He submitted to Mr. Unwin two drafts of letters to the German publishers, and left it up to Unwin to decide.

Here is one of the drafts:

25 July 1938
To Rutten & Loening Verlag
Dear Sirs,
Thank you for your letter … I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But 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 sustainability for publication, of which you appear to have satisfied yourselves without reference to my Abstammung.

I trust you will find this reply satisfactory, and remain yours faithfully

J.R.R. Tolkien

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9 Responses to “Impertinent and irrelevant inquiries”

  1. Emily says:


  2. red says:

    I know!! I love how he says he “regrets” that he is not Jewish, a member of the “gifted” people. Just twist that knife, Mr. Tolkien. twist it HARD!

  3. Dave J says:

    I’ve read that before, and I was so touched I practically cried. Put the lie to the idiots who invariably talk about “Tolkien was a racist,” etc.

  4. BSTommy says:

    That is absolutely hilarious.

  5. jfbranson says:

    It’s grand to know that a time when many of his fellow Englishmen were genuflecting to the New Order rising on the continent, Tolkien spoke truth to the Nazi swine. God bless his memory.

  6. Phil Jackson says:

    And everything was going well until jfbranson turned up to spoil things….

    It’s not so grand to know that there is still a mouthy minority of Americans who genuflect to the myths of anglophobia. Many Englishmen (sic) were fighting and dying against the Nazi swine when the America Firsters were still hiding under the tables. JFB, take the trouble to airbrush the Joe Kennedys, Theodore Driesers, Charles Lindberghs and other numerous US appeasers of Nazism from your country’s history before slandering mine.

  7. Ken Hall says:

    If you’re interested, you might profit by reading Tom Shippey’s J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. Professor Shippey devotes considerable attention to the moral underpinnings of Middle-Earth, relating that to Tolkien’s own background. The title, in the author’s words, is deliberately provocative. He adopted it at least in part as a response to the (primarily English) literati who cringe every time Lord of the Rings tops a reader poll of great books of the 20th century. I stumbled over it last spring in Target, of all places, and I’m on my third reading.

  8. Phil Jackson says:

    Red. JFB’s comment implied that Tolkien’s hostility towards Nazis and anti-Semitism was atypical of the English: it was not. ‘Many Englishmen’ did not ‘genuflect’ to any ‘New Order’: the only genuflecting was done by a small and nutty party called the British Union of Fascists. There was appeasement (or, more accurately, delusion) in all three of the principal democracies, but in Britain it lingered longest with mainstream Leftists and even their “pacifism” largely disappeared with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. The delusions lasted longer with some of the America First people who continued to propogate anti-British drivel, and did their best to frustrate FDR in his support of us, even as the war intensified over here. Yes, I know they were a small minority too, but their voices still echo……

    Ken. When the LoTR was voted the British public’s favourite book of the last century many intellectuals were disgusted, Germaine Greer famously – and fatuously – describing the result as her “nightmare”. It’s good to remember that a similar literary snootiness afflicted Dickens who, being applauded by ordinary folk, was despised by most literati throughout the latter C19th until his reputation was largely restored by G K Chesterton’s essays. By the way, I’ve also been recommended JRR Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth; Understanding Middle Earth (Bradley J Birzer and Joseph Pearce) which also deals with the strong religious themes within Tolkien’s vision – though I have not read it.

  9. red says:

    Phil –

    Mosley’s son, by the way, Nicholas Mosley, has written one of my favorite novels of all time – Hopeful Monsters. A sweeping panorama of the lead-up in Berlin to the Nazi take-over, and then two characters, one German, and one English, making it through WWII.

    I love what you say about the literary snootiness. It is the same reason that John Irving, a brilliant novelist, will never win a National Book Award. He’s too “popular” with the common folk.

    Oh, and I’m going to be posting something in a moment – a quote from Tolkien’s letters (yet another one!) having to do with the mythology Tolkien created, behind LOTR.

    Why are we even arguing? Seems dumb. This is an awesome quote.

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