TOLKIEN WAS ALWAYS nervous about Tolkien fans:

"An enquirer asked what (The Lord of the Rings) was all about, and whether it was an 'allegory.' And I said it was an effort to create a situation in which a common greeting would be elen sila l,umenn' omentielmo, and that the phrase long antedated the book. I never heard any more."

The elvish greeting is "A star shines on our meeting," but Tolkien seldom felt such stars shone when he confronted a reader. He loved not hearing any more.

If Tolkien had persisted in such responses, he would have written many fewer letters and this selection of them might never have appeared. Before The Lord of the Rings was published, he wrote business letters to his publisher and commentary to his son Christopher, but mostly he was the private person he wanted to be, relaxing with C.S. Lewis and the Oxford Inklings, drawing his invented languages into myth and then story, insisting that teaching and other academic duties were annoyances that kept him from "serious work." By 1954, when the trilogy began to appear, Tolkien was already 60, but we are less than halfway through this volume.

Because of its huge success The Lord of the Rings drew him into being a public figure, into explaining. Sometimes he responded to letters with dogged and thorough politeness, sometimes with tense irritation, sometimes with open exasperation. But always he explained. He was a philologist, so he explained words. He was a mythologizer, so he explained his myths. But I wish he had bought a stack of postcards instead and had written elen sila l,umenn' omentielmo and his initials on each one.

Alas, he lacked such ironies. As a result he provided, in his letters, much fodder for a class of people he thought should not exist, "scholars" pursuing tenure and advanced degrees. Mere lovers of Tolkien will find little in his explaining. Those who "need" the last half of this volume are those who are altogether too eager to take the word for the deed, the explanation for the thing explained, the theology for the myth. One wishes they could have been denied such shortcuts.

The rest of us, though, are not entirely shut out here, mostly because of the letters to Christopher Tolkien when he was stationed in South Africa during the war. Christopher, along with Lewis, constituted Tolkien's instinctively admiring audience in the year when The Silmarillion took shape, The Hobbit was written, and its huge "sequel" was begun. Between 1943 and 1945 Tolkien wrote him often. These letters give us, as the later ones to fans cannot, glimpses of domestic life, offhand opinions, and many signs that this shy private man could be openly loving and affectionate to his children. More than that, the fact that these letters were being written itself prodded Tolkien into getting on with The Lord of the Rings at a time when the press of wartime and duties could have allowed him the procrastination he often practiced.

He was writing what became the heart of the work, the second half of The Two Towers. Foolishly, Tolkien always loved The Silmarillion, but he knew the trilogy was better, and knew that Frodo, Sam, and Sm,eagol were the best of the trilogy:

"For myself I was prob. most moved by Sam's disquisition on the seamless web of story, and by the scene when Frodo goes to sleep on his breast, and the tragedy of Gollum who at that moment came within a hair of repentance--but for one rough word from Sam."

Thinking of himself, always, as "sub-creator" rather than original, Tolkien was free to be moved by what he wrote.

This excellent comment then leads Tolkien to say what he really feels and wants:

"There are two quit diff. emotions: one that moves me supremely and I find small difficulty in evoking: the heart-racking sense of the vanished past. . . . A story must be told or there'll be no story, yet it is the untold stories that are most moving. I think you are moved by Celebrimbor because it conveys a sudden sense of endless untold stories: mountains seem far away, never to be climbed. . . ."

The great teller of stories did not want to be one. He was going public in The Lord of the Rings. Better the vanished past.

Which means we are faced with miracle, or with terribly lucky accident. The elfish languages, with their private pleasures, were what Tolkien wanted. He loved The Silmarillion but could not get it published as such, and so its partially told and dreary myths became, in effect, the "untold stories" that lie behind The Lord of the Rings. They clutter it up. The poems, almost everyone agrees, are bad. But their presence inspired Tolkien somehow, as he was telling Frodo's story, which had to be told or there'd be no story. Without them, no Ring. ROGER SALE is the author of Modern Heroism: Essays on D.H. Lawrence, William Empson and J.R.R. Tolkien and of Fairy Tales and After.