J.R.R. Tolkien Snubs a German Publisher Asking for Proof of His “Aryan Descent” (1938)

J R R Tolkien

As you’d expect from a man who had to cre­ate, in painstak­ing detail, all the races that pop­u­late Mid­dle-Earth, J.R.R. Tolkien had lit­tle time for sim­ple racism. He had espe­cial­ly lit­tle time for the high­est-pro­file sim­ple racism of his day, the wave of anti-Jew­ish sen­ti­ment on which Adolf Hitler and the Nazi par­ty rode straight into the Sec­ond World War. His first nov­el The Hob­bit, pre­de­ces­sor to the Lord of the Rings tril­o­gy, first appeared in 1937, a time when the sit­u­a­tion in Europe had turned omi­nous indeed, and would get far ugli­er still. It did­n’t take long after the book’s ini­tial suc­cess for Berlin pub­lish­er Rüt­ten & Loen­ing to express their inter­est in putting out a Ger­man edi­tion, but first — in obser­vance, no doubt, of the Third Reich’s dic­tates — they asked for proof of Tolkien’s “Aryan descent.” The author draft­ed two replies, the less civ­il of which reads as fol­lows:

25 July 1938
20 North­moor Road, Oxford 

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

I have in this war a burn­ing pri­vate grudge  against that rud­dy lit­tle igno­ra­mus Adolf Hitler,” Tolkien wrote to his son Michael three years lat­er, by which time the war had reached a new height. “Ruin­ing, per­vert­ing, mis­ap­ply­ing, and mak­ing for ever accursed, that noble north­ern spir­it, a supreme con­tri­bu­tion to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.

He had already faced Ger­man forces in com­bat dur­ing his ser­vice in World War I, and had almost became one of World War II’s code­break­ers after the British For­eign Office’s cryp­to­graph­ic depart­ment brought the pos­si­bil­i­ty to him in ear­ly 1939. He did not, in the event, par­tic­i­pate direct­ly in the con­flict, but he did leave behind an uncom­mon­ly elo­quent paper trail doc­u­ment­ing his stance of unam­bigu­ous antipa­thy for the Nazis and their ide­ol­o­gy.

For more such fas­ci­nat­ing per­spec­tives vouch­safed to his­to­ry through the mail, do have a look at Let­ters of Note: An Eclec­tic Col­lec­tion of Cor­re­spon­dence Deserv­ing of a Wider Audi­ence, the brand new book from the site of the same name. Tolkien’s let­ter above comes from it, as do many of the illu­mi­nat­ing mis­sives we’ve fea­tured here before — and, with­out a doubt, those we’ll con­tin­ue to fea­ture in the future.

Want to down­load a Tolkien audio book for free? Start a 30-day free tri­al with Audible.com and you can down­load one of his major works in unabridged for­mat. You can keep the book regard­less of whether you con­tin­ue with their great pro­gram or not. There are no strings attached.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

“The Tolkien Pro­fes­sor” Presents Three Free Cours­es on The Lord of the Rings

Dis­cov­er J.R.R. Tolkien’s Per­son­al Book Cov­er Designs for The Lord of the Rings Tril­o­gy

C.S. Lewis’ Pre­scient 1937 Review of The Hob­bit by J.R.R. Tolkien: It “May Well Prove a Clas­sic”

Dis­cov­er J.R.R. Tolkien’s Per­son­al Book Cov­er Designs for The Lord of the Rings Tril­o­gy

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (17)
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  • Tim says:

    A bril­liant reply from one of the most gift­ed writ­ers of the 20th C. Thanks for shar­ing it with us.

  • Cody says:

    I think this post was wast­ed. Tolkien was, of course, not racist and hat­ed the Nazis, but this was already well under­stood (even Wikipedia deals with this at length). What Tolkien’s posi­tion should show us is that his hatred of Nazism went beyond the cur­rent pop cul­ture-informed assump­tions. Tolkien knew, as we should, that the politi­cized, warped, Manichean “choice” between the con­stru­al of Ger­man­ness as GOOD because it is war-like and white suprema­cist (the Naz­i’s view) vs. the con­stru­al of Ger­man­ness as BAD because it is war-like and white suprema­cist (the Anglo-Amer­i­can view), is a false choice.
    Ger­man­ness and the con­no­ta­tions around it can­not and should not be so reduced. Tolkien saw that the issue is more com­pli­cat­ed and, while there is no rea­son what­so­ev­er to pro­mote any­thing Ger­man as being nat­u­ral­ly supe­ri­or, that which derives from a Ger­man­ic sen­si­bil­i­ty can be won­der­ful, but is seen today through a very dis­tort­ed lens (which makes it easy to hate or dis­miss). That is the impor­tant les­son here: we love derid­ing the Ger­mans, though cheap­ly and from mis­un­der­stand­ing. Tolkien was decent and sophis­ti­cat­ed enough to see, even though he was immersed life­long in the doc­trines of the British Empire, that our very cor­rect rejec­tion of the val­ues of Nazism should not then, wrong­head­ed­ly, extend to a rejec­tion of Ger­man­ness.

  • Doug says:

    le red­dit army is here!

  • RageMojo says:

    Cody, you are off base and out of con­text. This was before WW2, so it was before he would have been so staunch­ly anti Nazi. This is before any­one but ger­man jews were anti Nazi.

  • James says:

    Rage­mo­jo, I assure you, the Naz­i’s were not uni­form­ly well regard­ed before WWII either. The NSDAP (the Naz­i’s) were well under­stood to be both total­i­tar­i­an and expan­sion­is­tic. Tolkein’s pol­i­tics were large­ly formed dur­ing his expe­ri­ences dur­ing WWI. He was pro agrar­i­an­ism, anti indus­tri­al­iza­tion, anti-author­i­tar­i­an. He found the ten­den­cies the Naz­i’s exhib­it­ed in the 30’s to be wor­ry­ing and orc-like.

    But he was also care­ful with that com­par­i­son. He cer­tain­ly com­pared Orcs to Naz­i’s, he specif­i­cal­ly ruled out com­par­ing Orcs to Ger­mans (or any oth­er real race, for that mat­ter.)

  • Zorg says:

    I have always been (since I first read it in 1973 any­way) trou­bled by the evi­dent racism in Lord of the Rings.

    It real­ly shocks me to hear peo­ple say that Tolkien was not racist OF COURSE (I add empha­sis to the shock­ing part of course). Racism is not nec­es­sar­i­ly uttered or prac­ticed with the over-the-top rant­i­ngs of a Hitler. Utter­ances may well seem racist in one era or cul­ture that would seem tame in anoth­er.

    For exam­ple, Tolkien’s let­ter refers to the Jews as a gift­ed peo­ple. That strikes me as a racist remark. I don’t want to hold Jews high­er than any­one else any more than I want them to be treat­ed worse than any­one else.

    Through­out the Lord of the Rings it seems to me that a per­son or crea­ture’s alliance with good or evil is fre­quent­ly a mat­ter of race. Sauron’s dark-skinned south­ern allies with their giant beasts or the orcs for that mat­ter nev­er show any ten­der­ness. They are inca­pable of fin­er feel­ing because fin­er feel­ing is the birthright of the attrac­tive elves.

    Even the hob­bits seem to “know their place” and to rank them­selves as a peo­ple below the sta­tion of elves. How is this not racist?

    I could under­stand if you would say that there are signs that Tolkien is not racist, but to say OF COURSE is to dis­miss all the signs that he ranked peo­ple and crea­tures by race.

  • sheerahkahn says:

    per­haps you should back it up a bit, and real­ized that by the time Tolkien was con­front­ed with this request every­one knew the envi­ron­ment that Jew­’s were con­front­ed with in Ger­many. Tolkien was tak­ing that moment to poke the hor­nets nest by lift­ing up the Jew­ish race when the sub­ject of the inquiry was for him to dis­tant him­self from them.
    May­haps, and I only sug­gest this as some­thing to be considered…that you are pro­ject­ing your own inse­cu­ri­ties on Tolkien’s inten­tions.
    As for Tolkien’s writing…he made no such com­par­isons between real life peo­ples and LotR races…

    In his writ­ing’s Amer­i­cans could be Orc’s just as much as the Ger­mans could have been…he was anti-industry…which is what the Orc’s represented…progress through tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion. Not a race being re-imag­ined as foul and craven, no…but rep­re­sen­ta­tive of what he found to be wrong and destruc­tive.

    Sad­ly, too many peo­ple think like you do and ren­der Mr. Tolkien’s writ­ing lit­tle more than cud­gels to beat your own drum with.

  • Marianne Ross says:

    Great stuff! I love Tolkien’s unwa­ver­ing response.

    I’m not sure if you found the source there, but a very sim­i­lar post was pub­lished on the Bul­ly Pul­pit a few months ago with some fur­ther details…


  • Zork says:

    Zorg, the Jews are a gift­ed peo­ple. They con­sti­tute about .05 per­cent of human­i­ty and maybe 2 per­cent of Amer­i­cans, yet 20 per­cent of Nobel lau­re­ates are Jew­ish, about half of the chess grand­mas­ters, etc. etc. etc. It is not racist to say that because Jews are not a race, they are a reli­gio-eth­nic cul­ture which includes many (gift­ed) con­verts.

    (Google “Mark Twain on the Jews”.)

    Nonethe­less, Sheer­ahkah­n’s reply that Tolkien was tak­ing a stab at Nazi pride, is cor­rect.

  • Geo says:

    He should have signed it as J.R.R. Trollkien,it would be more appro­pri­ate :)

  • Purva Agarwala says:

    You know you can’t real­ly write a piece on one of the most gift­ed writ­ers, tag the arti­cle under Lit­er­a­ture and then draft a sen­tence with “had almost became” — It’s a sin.

  • Lazlov3048 says:

    Tolkien was anti-Ger­man and his reply is child­ish and a rant.

    The Ger­man pub­lish­er want­ed to pub­lish a Ger­man ver­sion of the Tolkien books. The Ger­man peo­ple loved this mytho­log­i­cal stuff.

    All the pub­lish­er did, in typ­i­cal Ger­man order­ly fash­ion, was to ask a legal require­ment which was nec­es­sary to ask to pub­lish books in Ger­many. If Tolkien was non-Aryan, it would pose a prob­lem to mass pub­lish this book for read­ing in Ger­many.

    Tolkien’s reply was a child­ish rant. He should have replied “Yes” and been more sen­si­ble and think of the Ger­man read­ers who would be denied his work.

    Of course he did­nt care because he despised Ger­mans are sub­hu­mans. Iron­i­cal­ly he was more racist than Nazis here.

  • Bayzent says:

    I don’t think he did think of the Ger­mans as sub­hu­mans, after all he did write:

    “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.”

    Like the huge major­i­ty of Britons and Amer­i­cans back in the day he did­n’t have much hatred for Ger­mans despite hav­ing a lot of rea­sons for despis­ing them. He seemed to have the same right­ful ire against Himm­ler’s attempts to rewrite Ger­man his­to­ry that most intel­lec­tu­als who knew one or two things about real his­to­ry had at the time, com­bined by his despise of Indus­tri­al­ism which, the Nazis tech­ni­cal­ly agreed with (Blut und Boden and all that trash), which did­n’t make him more hate­ful of the Ger­mans than it did of the British, French and even Amer­i­cans.

    As for racism I can­not say, he was South African after all and in a time where even the Amer­i­cans did­n’t let blacks use the same ser­vices whites did, so he prob­a­bly did­n’t have many pro­gres­sive views on race rela­tions com­pared to nowa­days, that said with the Hob­bit and oth­er books he seemed to believe strong­ly on Herzt’s Zion­ist ideas, so at least we know he was­n’t as anti­semite as most of his con­tem­po­ra­nies.

  • Corsair_Caruso says:

    Lazlov, your state­ment is not reflect­ing of an accu­rate under­stand­ing of Tolkien’s life, his­to­ry, and pro­fes­sion­al work. Tolkien was proud of his Ger­man­ic her­itage, keep­ing his Ger­man sur­name in a time when many Eng­lish peo­ple of Ger­man descent were alter­ing their sur­names. He adored Ger­man­ic lit­er­a­ture, myths, and lan­guages, work­ing near­ly exclu­sive­ly with them in his research and schol­ar­ly pub­li­ca­tions. His fan­ta­sy lit­er­a­ture drew heav­i­ly from the Ger­man­ic mythos, espe­cial­ly “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Sil­mar­il­lion.” Though he fought against Ger­man sol­diers in WWI, he had no spe­cial hatred of Ger­mans. He hat­ed Hitler and the bel­li­cose and racist poli­cies of the Third Reich, but that hatred did not extend to the Ger­man gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion or cul­ture. Your state­ment of 12/6/14 is sim­ply incor­rect.

  • HawkFest says:

    We’re not talk­ing about your own eth­no­cen­tric and wish­ful thoughts in the mat­ter, but about Tolkien’s. What you’re say­ing is already a pre­con­ceived evi­dence for most if not all of us. There was a con­text for the ger­man peo­ple to become, quite under­stand­ably, high­ly sen­si­ble psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly, hence “intel­lec­tu­al­ly mal­leable”. More gen­er­al­ly and as for many oth­er coun­tries in the World, espe­cial­ly today in our so-called (cor­rupt­ed) democ­ra­cies, the acts of some idiots at the Helm don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly reflect the under­ly­ing poten­tial and real­i­ty as a Peo­ple.

    Get over it. Please don’t project your own fears and eth­no­cen­tric para­noia on such dis­cus­sion, it’s use­less and it looks like some bait-and-switch throw­ing away the top­ic (rude). In short, you’re say­ing «It’s more com­pli­cat­ed»… Of course it is when one’s iden­ti­ty is involved! Like a mix of emo­tions and con­tra­dic­tions one needs to ratio­nal­ize in some way.. My sug­ges­tion: don’t try, let it be in the past. We can ana­lyze how those meth­ods to con­di­tion the mass­es were put at work, make par­al­lels with today for that sole mat­ter, but for the rest it’s part of our human expe­ri­ences now: anoth­er proof that we’re the sole specie engaged into a some­what “Extra-Bio­log­i­cal” Evo­lu­tion, involv­ing our brain (rel­a­tive­ly huge which is quite unique among oth­er liv­ing species).

  • HawkFest says:

    That last reply was to Cody…

  • Tim says:

    You’re a god damn idiot.

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