An Unexpected Discovery
By Katy Makin, on 23 November 2023
The folklorist Katharine Mary Briggs (1898-1980) shared her love of folk tales and storytelling through her many publications, community work and children’s groups. A former president of the Folklore Society, a small archive of her papers and correspondence is now owned by the Society and deposited with UCL Special Collections as part of the Folklore Society Archive.
Although Briggs’ papers in the Folklore Society Archive are currently uncatalogued, access can still be provided for researchers who have the patience to work methodically through her letters, notes, poems and photographs. The letters in particular are tricky to use as they are only roughly sorted into bundles that span several years. But patience can be rewarded; whilst checking the bundles of letters ahead of a researcher’s visit as part of our data protection procedures I came across an unpublished letter from the author JRR Tolkien to Katharine Briggs.
Two letters from Briggs to Tolkien are now part of the Tolkien archive held at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. In her first letter of October 11th 1954, Briggs describes being held in suspense, “reading and re-reading” The Fellowship of the Ring, and asks whether the second part of The Lord of the Rings will be published before Christmas. For her, the only flaw is the alteration of the Gollum incident from the way it had been told in The Hobbit and the nature of Bilbo’s finding of the One Ring, which had been her favourite part. In The Fellowship of the Ring, she says there is an implication that Bilbo thought of the Ring as a gift, which seems to her unlikely. On a minor point, she also found the description of Bilbo running away from Gollum with his hands in his pockets unconvincing: “You would never run away from a furious adversary with your hands in your pockets – try it and see. Particularly in a dark and narrow place”. [Letter from Katharine Briggs to JRR Tolkien, 11th October 1954, Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, Tolkien Family Archive (uncatalogued)]
Tolkien’s response came a few days later, on the 13th October. This is the letter now found in Briggs’ papers in the Folklore Society archives. He thanks Briggs for her appreciation of his work, and addresses some of her comments about the “Bilbo-Gollum business”. He confirms that Gollum would never willingly have gifted the Ring to Bilbo, but under the “evil pressure of the Ring and the cry of thief”, in one version of events Bilbo makes up the story of the Ring being a present.
Addressing her challenge, he says:
“Even in the abbreviated version of the ‘prologue’ Bilbo did not run away with his hands in his pockets. (I have not led an entirely sheltered life, and have no need to try it out). In the full version this is clearer.”
Tolkien ends his letter with good news: The Two Towers has gone to press and he hopes it will appear by November 1st (or not long after). In in the end, Briggs did not have much longer to wait as it was published on November 11th 1954.
Briggs was effusive in her thanks. “The news that The Two Towers is to come out in November is the best I have heard for some time. Then we shall be all clamouring for The Return of the King (I hope this is Aragorn); and when we get that we shall be undoubtedly happy for a good many years.” In the meantime, she had purchased a new edition of The Hobbit and agreed that the full account of the meeting with Gollum is much clearer here than in the summary given in The Fellowship of the Ring. [Letter from Katharine Briggs to JRR Tolkien, 21 Oct 1954, Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, Tolkien Family Archive (uncatalogued)]
Copies of Katharine Briggs’ many books can be found around UCL Libraries, including one of her earliest collections of stories: “The Personnel of Fairyland: A short account of the fairy people of Great Britain for those who tell stories to children” (Stores FLS 12 BRI ) which has the charming frontispiece pictured above. Based on an image of medieval folklore, it includes a witch, an enchanted castle, a Friar raising his imps, a Fairy Ring, and a “Witch rideing on the Devill through the Aire”.
Some of her other books popular with children are part of the IOE Library’s collections, including “Nine Lives: Cats in Folklore” (IOE Library FOLKTALES 398.2 BRI) and “Abbey Lubbers, Banshees and Boggarts: A Who’s Who of Fairies” (IOE Library FOLKTALES 398.24 BRI).
If you’re visiting the IOE Library you can also borrow a copy of JRR Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” at the same time (IOE Library FICTION TOL).
Other archive material of Katharine Briggs and her family, including her sister Elspeth, is held at Leeds University Special Collections (MS 1309).
With thanks to Catherine McIlwaine, Tolkien Archivist, Bodleian Libraries University of Oxford, for her assistance. The letters from Katharine Briggs to JRR Tolkien are part of the uncatalogued family archives and not currently available for research.