Due to his obvious love of language, it’s unsurprising to me that J. R. R. Tolkien was an avid letter writer – almost as unsurprising as the moment I saw his artistic, near-calligraphic handwriting for the first time – but reading the following missive shines a light on something I wasn’t aware of: his reported love of, and fascination with, onomastics. It was written in 1967 to Lord of the Rings fan Elise Honeybourne and, after he reiterates his reasons for beginning the Lord of the Rings stories, sees Tolkien speculating on Miss Honeybourne’s name and its origins.
All in all, a charming letter.
If I dare say so a very hobbit-like kindness to send a present on your own birthday!
PROFESSOR J. R. R. TOLKIEN
76 SANDFIELD ROAD
Dear Miss Honeybourne,
Thank you very much indeed for your generous and delightful letter, one of the most warming and comforting that I have received.
As I said in the ‘Foreword’ to the American paper-back edition (Ballantine Books), I wrote The Lord of the Rings because I wished ‘to try my hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them.’ As a guide I had only my own feelings for what is appealing or moving; and it has been a great pleasure (and a surprise) to find that so many other people have similar feelings. But no one has written me a letter more warm, and few have come near it.
I am specially grateful for your pleasure in the names: I took a great deal of trouble with them.
Your own name is a delightful one, and brings to me a suggestion of Kinship. It must be derived (as so very many English surnames) from a village name, but the only ones of that name that I know of are the adjacent villages of Church H (Worcs) and Cow H (Glo). These are not far from Blackminster where my brother has a small fruit-farm, in lands where my maternal ancestors (Suffield) can be traced far back.
It is such a grand name that I must, in any future more complete map of the Shire (often asked for), find a place for it. It is one of the comparatively rare place-names that means what it says: a stream, of sweet waters and/or flowing through flowery meads.
Yours sincerely and gratefully
Incidentally: Cow seems to be a corruption of older Callow ‘bare’ prob. because the land was free from bushes