On September 21, 1937, J. R. R. Tolkien published The Hobbit through the George Allen and Unwin publishing house. Detailing the epic quest of Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit is full of characters from differing backgrounds and races. Tolkien’s pen wrote their stories as these characters became intertwined to fight heroic battles of good verses bad, of light verses darkness.
The imaginative fantasy novel received great reviews and it’s popularity was immediate. So much so that German publishing house Rütten & Loening expressed interest in securing the rights to translate the book into German. Adolf Hitler and the Nazis had already risen to power and enacted their various Aryan doctrines. In order for Rütten & Loening to released a German translation of The Hobbit, they needed proof that Tolkien was of Aryan descent according to these new anti-Jewish/pro-Aryan beliefs.
Tolkien was not about to simply lie down and roll over for the Third Reich. In a letter to his publisher Stanley Unwin on July 25, 1938, Tolkien’s frustration with having to prove his ancestry to Rütten & Loening is apparent:
I must say the enclosed letter from Rütten and 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 [confirmation] (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.
Tolkien was angry. Why should one’s race be weighed heavier than the talent of their pen? He knew he had to handle it diplomatically so not to anger his own publisher so he wrote two letters. These were then sent to his publishing house and Tolkien allowed them to choose which one to forward onto Rütten & Loening. One of the letters brushed off the request for proof while the other one (as seen below) acts as a window into Tolkien’s real feelings on the matter.
25 July 1938
20 Northmoor Road, Oxford
Thank you for your letter. …. I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch [Aryan]. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Flindustani, 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 son 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 suitability for publication, of which you appear to have satisfied yourselves without reference to my Abstammung [ancestry]. I trust you will find this reply satisfactory, and remain yours faithfully
J. R. R. Tolkien.
It is unknown which of the two letters was actually forwarded onto Rütten & Loening. What we do know is The Hobbit was not translated into German until 1957.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. New York: HarperCollins, 1981.
“Books by J.R.R.Tolkien – The Hobbit“, TolkienLibrary.com