Everyone knows J.R.R. Tolkien was one of the greatest authors of the 20th century. But that apparently wasn’t enough for the denizens of Hitler’s Third Reich.
No, the German-based Rütten & Loening publishing house actually wrote to Tolkien’s publisher Stanley Unwin in 1938, demanding proof of Tolkien’s Aryan heritage before going ahead with a German translation of The Hobbit. Tolkien was none too pleased with the request, and wrote the following letter to his publisher:
“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.”
Tolkien drafted two letters – one that ignored their request entirely and the other chastising the publisher for adopting the Third Reich’s definition of the term “Aryan.” As iO9’s Cyriaque Lamar notes, it is unclear which version Unwin ultimately sent, but the more interesting one, dated July 25, 1938, reads as follows:
“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.”
So there you have it, folks. J.R.R. told the Nazis to kiss off way back when, and he did it only as Tolkien could have. In later years, Tolkien was understandably less eloquent about his opposition to the Nazis (as England was under German fire), telling his son in 1941 that Hitler was little more than a “ruddy little ignoramus.”