The Undying Lands
Via The Grey Havens, Eriador
Dear Professor Tolkien,
I hope you’ll forgive the intrusion of this letter, but I feel a certain indebtedness and gratitude toward you. There’s a weight to these feelings that compels me to commit them to writing. Although I’ve felt them for some time, writing you about them seems like something that shouldn’t be put off. You see, back here in the mortal realm we’re experiencing a pandemic. Oh, I’m in good health, thankfully. But times like these make you realize that weighty feelings of indebtedness and gratitude shouldn’t be dawdled over.
Having said that, they are feelings that are difficult for me to fully express. Fortunately for me, writing is my best means for working things through. Unfortunately for you, this process rarely proves to be concise or tidy. I’m even having trouble figuring out where to start. I suppose I’d better go all the way back to the beginning.
The beginning is simple, really. It all starts with your stories, and my love of them. So yes, this is—in no small part—a fan letter. But as I hope you’ll come to see, it goes beyond fandom. I once wrote an essay that explains how my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Raymond, was responsible for my first reading The Hobbit, and then The Lord of the Rings, as well. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy reading fiction prior to that. But your works captured my imagination in a new and exciting way. My immersion as a boy into the story of Frodo and the One Ring, and world of Middle Earth, became central to my reading life. Which ended up making your work foundational to my adult life.
Much of how this transpired is due to the fact that The Lord of the Rings left me longing for more. Please forgive me as well for saying that works like The Smith of Wootton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham did absolutely nothing to satisfy that longing. You must remember, we’re talking about the early 1970’s, several years before the posthumous publication of The Silmarillion. I’ve often told the story of how my father, who understood my ardor, handed me a copy of Time Magazine with a consoling look. He’d folded it back to the page with your obituary. I recall the moment with such clarity. What I experienced wasn’t just sadness for the passing of an author an ocean away. It was a sort of deep grief for the loss of a creator who’d expanded my imagination as no one else had. It was enhanced by the shock of the realization that there would be no more—no new stories of Middle Earth (of course I had no way of knowing how wrong I would be about this).
It was in that moment, at the age of twelve, that I first resolved to become a storyteller. It wasn’t so much that I imagined I might further your unfinished tales of Middle Earth. I wasn’t the sort of kid with the confidence to think I’d become the next you. It’s probably more akin to the feeling you get when, after you’ve lost your father, and become a homeowner, the hot water heater invariably blows. You’ve got a wet basement, no hot water, and insufficient funds, and you realize you can’t call dad. It’s a shock. You’ve got to pull down the Readers Digest Home Repair book he gave you years before, and figure it out. That was the kind of resolve that hit me—sort of like, “Well, I guess if I want a lifetime of hot showers and leisurely baths, I’m going to have to figure this out for myself.” In those days, figuring out how to become a storyteller meant aspiring to write fiction. (I occasionally wish I’d been inspired to master the craft of plumbing instead, but that’s beside the point.)
I’m going to take a leap in time here. There was a period when my aspiration went dormant, during which I went to college, got married, and my wife and I built a successful business. But throughout this period of a little more than two decades, you and your stories, and the lessons they instill, stayed with me. They remained at my core—an element of my truest self.
Sorry, but I’m now going to touch on what I presume will be a thorny subject for you. One of the primary things that nudged my storytelling aspiration from its dormancy was the premiere of Peter Jackson’s movie versions of your stories. No, don’t worry, I’m not talking about the abomination that became The Hobbit movie trilogy (I’m probably more outraged by that debacle than you). But, flawed as they are, I think the original LOTR movies capture the essence of your storytelling. Which helped to wake that slumbering part of me. They arrived alongside a few other major life-changes, and I finally took the plunge. I went from being an aspiring storyteller to an actual one. Although it took me quite a while longer to claim the title.
Oh how often I thought of you through those early writing years. I read biographies, reread the books themselves, pondered what I loved about them, wondered what inspired you, and reread them again. Because of you (albeit indirectly), I began researching Goths and Romans. Because of you I wondered how different history would be if it had been written by the Goths rather than the Romans. Because of you I sought to build a story-world with the solidity, depth, and history of Middle Earth. Because of you I sought to define the makings of legend and to trace the origins of myth.
Because of you, my stories feature rings inscribed with oaths. Because of you I named swords, named horses, and made those swords and horses secondary heroes in my tales. Because of you I have written poems and songs and parables in the context of the history of my story-world. Because of you I have chosen names with meaning (mostly utilizing a dead language—in my case Gothic). Because of you I have always loved maps, and utilize them in my storytelling. Because of you I consider my series of stories, which is an expansive multigenerational tale set in the same world, to be my life’s work.
We’re quite different, you and I. As are our tales. I mean, there’s the obvious stuff. You’re English and I’m American. As a devout Catholic, I’m guessing you’d be less than approving of my Deism and mistrust of institutional religion. Also, I’m not particularly scholarly. Nor am I quite as much of a traditionalist as you. I never served in the armed forces, let alone during a world war.
But there are things that I see in myself that I share with you. An affinity for nature. An enormous attraction to trees. An intense curiosity about, and deeply felt connection to, history. An admiration of virtues that seem to have become quaint, like honor and duty, friendship and loyalty, and an earnest belief in a soul-mate—one with whom we’ll both spend some form of eternity. These things are imbued in our storytelling. But it’s because of you—your example and inspiration—that I ever attempted to capture such things in story.
Because of you I have found my calling. Because of you, it’s through my storytelling that I explore what it means to be human.
Because of you, here near the end of my sixth decade on earth, I have become not just a writer, but—in no small way—the man I am today.
This is the source of my debt to you. By way of repayment, I hope to one day find the sort of connection with others that you found with me—to pass this gift forward.
I will be forever grateful. Thank you.
Vaughn Roycroft, Storyteller
Hey WU—have you ever written to a literary hero? Living or deceased? If not, do you have anything you want or need to say? Do tell.