This week marks the 130th birthday of J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings writer, academic, and pranking enthusiast—and today we’re revisiting a time Tolkien stood up for his beliefs against his best business interests.
In 1938, Tolkien was in negotiations with Berlin publisher Rütten & Loening about creating a German-language edition of The Hobbit; that is, until they asked for proof of Tolkien’s “Aryan descent,” due to Goebbels’ regulations on Jews’ participation n German cultural activities. Tolkien objected, writing to his British publisher Stanley Unwin:
I must say the enclosed letter from Rütten & Loening is a bit stiff. Do I suffer this impertinence because of the possession of a German name, or do their lunatic laws require a certificate of arisch origin from all persons of all countries?
Personally, I should be inclined to refuse to give any Bestätigung (although it happens that I can), and let a German translation go hang. In any case I should object strongly to any such declaration appearing in print. I do not regard the (probable) absence of all Jewish blood as necessarily honourable; and I have many Jewish friends, and should regret giving any colour to the notion that I subscribed to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine.
You are primarily concerned, and I cannot jeopardize the chance of a German publication without your approval. So I submit two drafts of possible answers.
The first of the “two drafts” Tolkien mentioned ignored the request, but the second eloquently chastised Rütten & Loening for asking:
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.
It’s unclear which letter was sent, but regardless, the deal didn’t go through. Three years later, Tolkien would express his disdain for the Nazis in a letter to his son Michael: “I have in this war a burning private grudge against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler. 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.” And The Hobbit wouldn’t be translated into German until 1957. During those interim years, it’s unclear if anyone accused him of “banning the German language.”